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26 May 2010

What Happened to the Age of Reason?

I’ve been re- reading Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason. Dare I say, for a Founding Father he was a rather enlightened fellow. He was not an atheist, but he was not a Christian either. He got into a bit of trouble for criticizing the Christian religion, ended up informally banished to France, and then promptly got into trouble there because he failed to support the execution of Louis XVI. During his imprisonment he wrote the first part of Age of Reason. This quote sums up his views on the Bible:
“They will now find that I have furnished myself with a Bible and Testament; and I can say also that I have found them to be much worse books than I had conceived. If I have erred in anything in the former part of the Age of Reason, it has been by speaking better of some parts of those books than they have deserved.” Age of Reason Preface to Part II
 Every school child is introduced to Common Sense by Thomas Paine, but for some reason American school children never hear about Age of Reason unless their parents give it to them (or in the case of curious children find it and read it for themselves). Common Sense sets forth the justification for American independence from the United Kingdom and was widely distributed as pro- independence propaganda. Thomas Paine produced the document anonymously, possibly to avoid being arrested and hanged for treason. He wrote Common Sense much like a Church sermon and even included Biblical references to shore up his points.

Why did Paine use quotes from the Bible to support his position in Common Sense and then attack the Bible in Age of Reason describing it as “much worse” than he originally thought it to be?

In my opinion, Paine resorted to the fallacy of appeal to emotions when he wrote Common Sense. An appeal to emotions is a logical fallacy designed to manipulate the reader’s emotions. This method works well to influence those who make decisions based on how they feel about an issue rather than facts and logic. Paine, and all the Founding Fathers, were learned men, well acquainted with logical argument and reason, as well as political theories. They knew that in order to stand a chance of success against the United Kingdom, the Colonies would have to be united in purpose against a common enemy. How better to unite diverse people with economic and familial ties to the United Kingdom than to invoke Divine Providence?

We in America are currently in an age where the appeal to emotions and other logical fallacies have far greater impact than any logical, rational, and well reasoned argument. Daily we are bombarded with messages from the Right Wing politicians, political pundits, and fundamentalist Christian groups, warning of doom and gloom that will result unless the left wing elitists are thrown out of office. We, who like to think that we are rational people, are accused of being anti- American and involved in a grand conspiracy to destroy America. These messages are completely unfounded with no basis in fact, and utterly ridiculous. Yet, they are effective to stir up the emotions of those to the right of center. And we to the left of center continue to press on with our logic, our reason, and our facts to no avail. What we must understand is that emotion is more powerful than reason. The heart will win over the brain every time. The gut will tell the mind what is right. Facts and logic be damned.

While Paine’s illogical appeal to emotions was wildly popular, his well reasoned and logical approach to religion in Age of Reason was not well received. When Thomas Paine returned to the United States from France in 1802 he discovered that his contribution to the Revolution was nearly erased from the brief history of America. He was publicly ridiculed and all of his friends turned their backs on him. He found himself alone and essentially unwelcome in the land he helped to create. Thomas Paine could have remained a hero but he chose the path that led to intellectual and philosophical integrity. This is the fickle nature of the American Christian Right: a hero today; a scoundrel tomorrow. It all depends on which views one chooses to publicly express.

Contemporary examples of the fickle nature of the American Christian Right are the cases of Bart Stupak, Scott Brown and Barack Obama. Bart Stupak, a Democrat, was embraced by the Christian Right for his staunch pro- life position. After he voted in favor of health care reform, following an assurance from President Obama that federal moneys would not be used to fund abortions, he was rejected, ridiculed, and even received a few telephone death threats. He recently announced his retirement from public office.

Scott Brown, a Republican, courted the Tea Party Patriots; took their money to support his campaign for the Senate seat left vacant when the great Senator Kennedy passed away; and now seeks to distance himself from the Tea Party and become more mainstream. Senator Brown declined an invitation to speak at a Tea Party function that also headlined Sarah Palin. Brown has aligned himself with “the enemy” of the Right by supporting President Obama’s plan for financial reform. The Tea Party’s response has been We put you in, and we’ll take you out in 2012. This is not something we will forget.

President Obama appealed to the emotions of the progressives and the Left Wing with words of freedom, equality and justice. He stirred the emotions of those on the Left, while simultaneously sparking the ire of the Right. While much of President Obama’s campaign included reiteration of facts and logical argument, it is the appeal to emotion in his stirring speeches that most people will remember. One of the most hotly contested issues during Obama’s campaign was not his view on financial reform, health care reform, or the role of government in regulation of private business, but whether he is a Christian.

Both Stupak and Brown used appeal to emotion to gain the support necessary to achieve their initial goals, but eventually their true political and ideological colors were shown. Stupak supported government health care reform generally. Brown supports government regulation of the financial institutions. Being true to their own nature and beliefs has won them no praise from their former supporters on the right.
right wing
The fact that people like Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Rand Paul are prominently displayed night after night on the news, their words repeated ad nauseum, should give the objective observer some insight into what works in the American political system.

Thomas Paine wrote about things like a world peace organization and social security for the poor and elderly. He was strongly against slavery and in favor of equality for all people. If Thomas Paine is remembered at all, he is remembered for his appeal to emotions that helped inspire farmers to take up arms against an empire, not for his logic and certainly not for the Age of Reason.
left wing conspiracy

All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.” Thomas Paine Age of Reason (1794)

They’re all crazy. They’re all crazy except you and me. Sometimes I have my doubts about you.” Charles K. Gerrard as Martin in Dracula (1931)

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