The Island of Doubt

The argument that atheists should try hard not to offend people of faith, lest we further polarize the two factions, assumes that the meek will inherit the earth, not the rhetorically courageous. But what historical evidence is there for this assumption? Or does history make the opposite case? Christopher Hitchens suggests the latter.


Towards the end of his new dismissal of religion, God is not Great, Hitchens points to the example of the American revolutionary Thomas Paine:

“Paine’s Age of Reason marks almost the first time that frank contempt for organized religion was openly expressed. It had a tremendous worldwide effect. His American friends and contemporaries, partly inspired by him to declare independence from the Hanoverian usurpers and their private Anglican Church, meanwhile achieved an extraordinary and unprecedented thing: the writing of a democratic and republican constitution that made no mention of god and that mentioned religion only when guaranteeing that it would always be separated from the state.”

Paine may indeed have been one of the first to take on religion with open contempt. But with the possible exception of Bertrand Russell, he was one of the last. Until, that is, the new breed of so-called New Atheists (Harris, Hitchens, Dawkins and Dennett) came along. In the meantime, polite and meek haven’t seem to accomplished all that much, now have they? Confidence in science, scientific literacy and numeracy, belief in evolution — all have been sliding backwards in America, and have gotten nowhere in Islam. Europe seems to fared better, but even there signs of retrograde motion are apparent.

Paine wasn’t an atheist. His nebulous deism, however, did not weaken his disgust for religion as it was practiced in the 18th century. This is a man who wrote of a “Christian Church, sprung out of the tail of the heathen mythology” and who described the story of that particular religion’s founder as a “wretched contrivance.”

Compare such language to that of the New Atheists. Today we hear much gnashing of teeth that this approach will only drive the faithful further away from a new age of reason. And yet, it is hard to deny Hitchens’ argument that Paine’s publications were enormously influential. Could it be that the masses today are so much less open to reasoned debate than they were two centuries ago that passioned and literate argument will only fall on deaf ears? If so, there really will be no escape for the princess this time.

Comments

  1. #1 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    August 23, 2007

    Robert G. Ingersoll?

  2. #2 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    August 23, 2007

    Wow, that’s some impressive time-reversed causality. The U.S. constitution was written during the constitutional convention of 1787, ratified in all 13 states by 1790, and the Bill of Rights was drafted in 1789 and ratified in 1791. The three parts of Paine’s Age of Reason were not published until 1794, 1795 and 1807.

  3. #3 dogscratcher
    August 23, 2007

    Twain?

    Mencken?

  4. #4 Fastlane
    August 23, 2007

    I would definitely add Mark Twain to the list of early skeptic writers.

    Tegumai, I’m not sure there’s any reversed causality implied either in the post, or in the quote by Hitchens. Paine certainly had an influence on several, if not many, of the more influential framers of the US COnstitution. Just because he didn’t actually piblush some of his more famous writings until later does not lessen that influence.

    I am not a historian, though, so maybe there’s something I’m missing in your post.

  5. #5 Blake Stacey
    August 23, 2007

    “I am prejudiced against religion because I know the history of religion, and it is the history of human misery and black times.”

    — Isaac Asimov, written in 1991, published in 1994

  6. #6 Caledonian
    August 23, 2007

    Quite a few people having been working to convince hoi polloi that science and religion can be compatible, and in a sense this is true: one is changing to become compatible with the other.

    Unfortunately for advocates of reason and rationality, religion isn’t adjusting to become more scientific, but science is being debased in such a way that it is made compatible with religion.

  7. #7 J. J. Ramsey
    August 24, 2007

    Fastlane: “Tegumai, I’m not sure there’s any reversed causality implied either in the post, or in the quote by Hitchens. Paine certainly had an influence on several, if not many, of the more influential framers of the US COnstitution. Just because he didn’t actually piblush some of his more famous writings until later does not lessen that influence.”

    The kind of separation of church and state was born of the problems that state churches caused–especially after the advent of Protestantism–and had precedent in both the church-state separation of Roger Williams’ Rhode Island in the 1640s, and IIRC, in narrower religious tolerance policies of other states. I’d say that it’s a stretch to credit Paine for the secular quality of the Constitution, and certainly crediting Age of Reason for that is time-reversal causality. Given Hitchens’ inaccuracies elsewhere regarding the Founding Fathers, I’d be leery of giving him much credence here.

  8. #8 Russell Blackford
    August 25, 2007

    Damn! When I saw the heading, I was looking forward to an interesting discussion of Epicurus.

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