Monday, April 30, 2012

Thomas Paine, Environmentalist?

Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason is one of those books that you can’t stop thinking about, and one that I wish I’d read years ago.  The polymath’s rapier wit, beautiful language, and passionate defence of religion against Christianity make it a stirring read.

One question that arose for me after I put the book down was this: Was Thomas Paine an environmentalist?  Of course the answer is no, in the most basic sense.  I don’t think that environmentalism took its place among the world’s –isms until the second half of the twentieth century.  But it is a movement and a philosophy (or more accurately, perhaps, a collection of movements and philosophies) which had a variety of historical antecedents, and in some way I think you could use Paine’s treatise on religion as a point of departure for one particular way of thinking about people and their environments in a fashion that might today make one an environmentalist, or enable one to think of oneself as an environmentalist in a way that many current approaches to religion do not.

Paine was not an atheist.  In his chapter ‘The Author’s Profession of Faith’ he sets out where he stands:  “I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life.  I believe the equality of man, and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavouring to make our fellow-creatures happy”. 

Paine was a deist, and his religious belief in a creator was accompanied by a visceral contempt for the world’s various established churches.  “I do not”, he declared, “believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of.  My own mind”, he continued in perhaps one of the simplest and most elegant statements of humanism ever written, “is my own church”. 

In his repudiation of what he considered the lying, self-interested, and fundamentally dishonest machinations of Christian leaders,  Paine remarked, “I totally disbelieve that the Almighty ever did communicate any thing to man, by any mode of speech, in any language, or by any kind of vision, or appearance, or by any means which our senses are capable of receiving, other than by the universal display of himself in the works of the creation, and by that repugnance we feel in ourselves to bad actions, and disposition to good ones”.  Much of The Age of Reason is given over to a brutal, painstaking , and convincing dismantling of the Old and New Testaments, and Paine wrote acerbically, “I moreover believe, that any system of religion that has anything it in that shocks the mind of a child, cannot be a true system” (chapter XIII).

For Paine, the natural world was a far more telling and honest testament to the existence of a creator than any of the religious documents which he regarded as so many compilations of lies and forgeries (“The word of God is the Creation we behold”, chapter IX).  And in that world, he saw a clarion call beckoning humans to use their powers of reasoning and logic, to embrace scientific and moral inquiry, and to reserve to themselves, on the basis of reasoning, logic and rigorous inquiry, the right to determine what was true of the world and what was not.

There was nothing, Paine believed, so injurious as “mental lying”, whereby “a man has so far corrupted and prostituted the chastity of his mind, as to subscribe his professional belief to things he does not believed”.  In so doing, Paine believed, “[man] has prepared himself for the commission of every other crime” (chapter I).  In Paine’s view, no person should take the word of another person on matters of such fundamental importance as morality and spirituality, and Christianity, together with other religious systems, entraps people through a series of myths little different to those imagined by their Greek and Roman predecessors (except, he asserted with characteristic wit, in the total absence of literary merit or imagination that had characterised their ‘pagan’ predecessors). 

But to return to Paine’s view of the natural world...  This world, he believed, had been created especially to inform man of the workings of great natural forces, of universal laws, of principles of geometry, of natural hydraulics.  And as a text, unlike those of religious systems, it was democratic: “[creation] is an ever existing original, which every man can read.  It cannot be forged; it cannot be counterfeited; it cannot be lost; it cannot be altered; it cannot be suppressed.  It does not depend upon the will of man whether it shall be published or not; it publishes itself from one end of the earth to the we want to contemplate his power?  We see it in the immensity of the creation.  Do we want to contemplate his wisdom?  We see it in the unchangeable order by which the incomprehensible Whole is governed.  Do we want to contemplate his munificence?  We see it in the abundance with which he fills the earth...” (chapter IX).

Paine took on the Christian critique of science, and wondered at the temerity of Christian leadership in “[calling] the sciences ‘human inventions’ would be ignorance, or something worse, to say that the scientific principles, by the aid of which man is enabled to calculate and foreknow when an eclipse will take place, are an human invention.  Man cannot invent any thing that is eternal and immutable” (chapter XI). 

The attack of the Church on Galileo was a manifestation of its dishonesty, and attack on the “true theology”, that is, “the structure of the universe that has taught this knowledge to man”.  This structure, to Paine, was “an ever-existing exhibition of every principle upon which every part of mathematical science is founded” (chapter XI, XII), and to turn their back on it was a reprehensible display of malice and stupidity on the part of Christians. 

Paine described with awe the “immensity of worlds revolving in the oceans of space”.  Even here he saw the natural world as a kind of scripture.  “Of what use is it”, he wrote, “unless it be to teach man something, that his eye is endowed with the power beholding, to an incomprehensible distance, an immensity of worlds revolving in the oceans of space?  Or of what use is it that this immensity of worlds is visible to man?  What has man to do with the Pleiades, with Orion, with Sirius, with the star he calls the north star, with the moving orbs he has named Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus, and Mercury, if not uses are to follow from their being visible?  A less power of vision would have been sufficient for man, if the immensity he now possesses were given only to waste itself, as it were, on an immense desert of space glittering with shows.  It is only by contemplating what he calls the starry heavens, as the book and school of science, that he discovers any use in their being visible to him, or any advantage resulting from his immensity of vision.  But when he contemplates the subject in this light, he sees an additional motive for saying, that nothing was made in vain; for in vain would be this power of vision if it taught man nothing” (chapter XI).


I quote Paine, and describe some of his ideas about the significance of the natural world not because I agree with his philosophy, but because his is a strikingly different way of approaching our physical surroundings from a religious standpoint from that adopted by religious figures in the United States today.  Paine’s philosophy is not environmentalism, nor, I think, even a proto-environmentalism.  But it is a view of the world that would be easily reconciled with care for the planet and concern over its health.

On the one hand, some Christians in the U.S. today almost totally repudiate the applicability of science.  This has been a creeping occurrence, which started in a ferocious opposition to evolution (which Paine would likely view as simply one more manifestation of a creator’s hand, one which could hold many lessons for human society).  At Foothill High School, a public school, most of the biology teachers took it upon themselves to leave evolution out of the curriculum (and we wonder why our educational standards are debased when compared to those of other nations).  This opposition has been transformed, as the application of reason now questions relentless growth and consumption, into an opposition to their use in the fields of climate change and energy development.  It would be one thing for Christian hacks (I’d call them philosophers, but none of them today merit the descriptor) to engage with the moral questions scientific inquiry is raising, but by and large they answer the challenge with recourse to the “You can’t say that” formula, invoking a rigid, man-made doctrine two thousand years old.

But Christianity in some of its forms, through this bizarre rigidity, has not only begun to question science, but to position itself “against” the environment or, more specifically, against its protection.  Proponents of this logically bankrupt approach subscribe to the belief that because (and here they are with Paine) the world was created, and because it was created for human beings, those human beings have not only the right but the obligation to use its resources as carelessly, as greedily, and as unsustainably as possible, thereby fulfilling some hazily-articulated divine wish carried down over the years by that frailest of communicatory methods, word of mouth, in a kind of epic generational ‘telephone game’.

I think you can see where proponents of this view depart from Paine, who believed that the world comprises a series of “objects for gratitude and admiration” rather than waste and destruction (chapter VI).  This kind of wanton consumption, in Paine’s book, is a violation of the canvas which was painted as a kind of instruction manual to the world, to human society and morality, to life. 

When he penned his tract in 1793, Paine believed that humankind was entering into an Age of Reason, in which superstition would give way to logic and where the cheap immorality of the world’s religious systems would be usurped by the exercise of man’s own mind in the service of humankind’s needs.  Humanism may have been in the ascendancy then, but it has since encountered many obstacles, few more substantial than the calculatedly dishonest use of one religious creed or another to sanction the seemingly inexorable destruction of our planet’s resources.  Paine’s The Age of Reason provides one illustration of why there is no real reason other than human selfishness that science and religion need stand in opposition to one another, and for that reason alone, is worth reading and also thinking about.


  1. Have you read Ethan Allen's Reason: the Only Oracle of Man?

    1. No, but I'm adding it to my list. Thanks for the recommendation.