The Age of Reason Background

The Age of Reason Background

The Age of Reason was published in two parts by Thomas Paine, the first in 1794 and the follow-up in 1796. Part of the reason for The Age of Reason existing in two separate parts is the reception the original publication received. Essentially, the heroic pamphleteer of the American Revolutionary War—a man every bit as deserving, if not more so, of being called the Father of His Country as George Washington—became persona non grata. Paine became an outcast; ostracized not just by the very community that had once held him in heroic esteem, but by the community that shared many of the views expressed and outlined in The Age of Reason. That community differed from Paine in one very important way: the views which Paine made public they themselves held only in private.

The centerpiece of the publicly expressed opinions which transformed Paine from a leading light of the Revolution into a blasphemous villain can be effective summed up: Paine let it be known that any and all revelations from God to a human which subsequently constructed religious belief was nothing more nor less than legal hearsay. Revelation from God is doctrinal necessity for all organized Western religions and Paine uses The Age of Reason to suggest that religion is not just built on hearsay, but that such hearsay is manipulated and exploited by religion for the purpose of oppression and slavery of those who disagree.

The Age of Reason was greeted as blasphemous by those who missed the other vital point which Part II tries more clearly to express. Paine does not—as his misguided critics suggest—launch an attack against God, but merely religion. Part I establishes that the two are necessarily synonymous. Part II reminds the reader that the author is not only taking pain—pardon the pun—not to attack God, but is actually insisting that an atheistic ideologically is equally unsound. The message of this volume is not just that belief in God can exist without subservience to an organized religion, but also that a democracy cannot exist without God. The result of such a government would be the equivalence of moral anarchy as well as political anarchy and anarchy is anathema to the entire proposition of democratic ideals.

Thus, The Age of Reason established an ethical foundation for the new nation. Paine argued that the only way to allow a democracy to thrive was to allow individuals the right to have their own beliefs and opinions and to be able to express them freely. He argued that it was essential to protect the rights of all citizens, regardless of their religious beliefs. He also argued that government should not impose any particular religion on its citizens, instead allowing them to freely exercise their right to choose their own religious beliefs. Furthermore, he argued that government should not be allowed to interfere with individual religious beliefs or practices. In this way, The Age of Reason provided a crucial ethical framework for the new nation, one that still shapes our ideas of democracy today.

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