Thomas Paine on Religion


IF we permit ourselves to conceive right ideas of things, we must necessarily affix the idea, not only of unchangeableness, but of the utter impossibility of any change taking place, by any means of accident whatever, in that which we would honour with the name of the word of God; and therefore the word of God cannot exist in any written or human language.

The continually progressive change to which the meaning of words is subject, the want of a universal language, which renders translation necessary, the errors to which translations are again subject, the mistakes of copyists and printers, together with the possibility of wilful alteration, are of themselves evidences that human language, whether in speech or in print, cannot be the vehicle of the word of God. The word of God exists in something else.

It has been the practice of all Christian commentators on the Bible, and of all Christian priests and preachers, to impose the Bible on the world as a mass of truth, and as the word of God; they have disputed and wrangled, and have anathematised each other about the supposable meaning of particular parts and passages therein; one has said and insisted that such a passage meant such a thing; another, that it meant directly the contrary; and a third, that it meant neither the one nor the other, but something different from both; and this they have called understanding the Bible.

I, therefore, pass on to an examination of the Books called the Old and the New Testament. The case historically appears to be as follows.

WHEN the Church mythologists established their system, they collected all the writings they could find and managed them as they pleased. It is a matter altogether of uncertainty to us whether such of the writings as now appear under the name of the Old and the New Testament are in the same state in which these collectors say they found them; or whether they added, altered, abridged, or dressed them up.

Be this as it may, they decided by vote which of the books out of the collection they had made should be the word of God, and which should not. They rejected several; they voted others to be doubtful, such as the books called the Apocrypha; and those books which had a majority of votes they voted to be the word of God. Had they voted otherwise, all the people since, calling themselves Christians, had believed otherwise; for the belief of the one comes from the vote of the other. Who the people were that did all this we know nothing of; save that they called themselves by the general name of the Church.

There are matters in the Bible, said to be done by the express command of God, that are as shocking to humanity and to every idea we have of moral justice as anything done by Robespierre, by Carrier, by Joseph le Bon, in France; by the English government in the East Indies; or by any other assassin in modern times. Are we sure that the Creator of man commissioned these things to be done ? Are we sure that the books that tell us so were written by His authority ? To read the Bible without horror we must undo everything that is tender, sympathising and benevolent in the heart of man. Speaking for myself, if I had no other evidence that the Bible is fabulous than the sacrifice I must make to believe it to be true, that alone would be sufficient to determine my choice.

BUT it can be shown by internal evidence that the Bible is not entitled to credit as the word of God. It can readily be proved that the first five books of the Bible, attributed to Moses, were not written by him nor in his time, but several hundred years afterwards. Moses could not have described his own death, nor mentioned that he was buried in a valley in the land of Moab. Similarly, the book of Joshua was not written by Joshua; it is manifest that Joshua could not write that Israel served the Lord not only in his days, but in the days of the elders that over-lived him. The book of Judges is anonymous on the face of it. The books of Samuel were not written by Samuel, for they relate many things that did not happen till after his death.

The history in the two books of Kings, which is little more than a history of assassinations, treachery and war, sometimes contradicts itself; and several of the most extraordinary matters related in Kings are not mentioned in the companion books of Chronicles. The book of Job has no internal evidence of being a Hebrew book; it appears to have been translated from another language.

I now go on to the book called the New Testament. Had it been the object of Jesus Christ to establish a new religion, He would undoubtedly have written the system Himself, or procured it to be written in His lifetime. But there is no publication extant authenticated with His name. All the books called the New Testament were written after His death. He was a Jew by birth and profession, and He was the son of God in like manner that every other person is; for the Creator is the Father of all.

The first four books--Matthew, Mark, Luke and John--are altogether anecdotal. They relate events after they had taken place; and in several instances they relate the same event differently. Revelation, therefore, is out of the question with respect to these books. The presumption, moreover, is that they were written by other persons than those whose names they bear.

The book of Acts of the Apostles belongs also to the anecdotal part. All the rest of the New Testament, except the book of enigmas called the Revelation, is a collection of letters under the name of epistles, and the forgery of letters under the name of epistles. One thing, however, is certain, which is that out of the matters contained in these books, together with the assistance of some old stories, the Church has set up a system of religion very contradictory to the character of the Person whose name it bears. It has set up a religion of pomp and reverence in pretended imitation of a Person whose life was humility and poverty.


I PROCEED to speak of the three principal means that have been employed in all ages and perhaps in all countries to impose upon mankind.

These three means are mystery, miracle and prophecy. The two first are incompatible with religion, and the third ought always to be suspected. With respect to mystery, everything we behold is, in one sense, a mystery to us. Our own existence is a mystery, the whole vegetable world is a mystery. We know not how it is that the seed we sow unfolds and multiplies itself. The fact, however, as distinct from the operating cause, is not a mystery, because we see it; and we know also the means we are to use, which is no other than putting the seed in the ground. We know, therefore, as much as is necessary for us to know; and that part of the operation that we do not know, and which if we did, we could not perform, the Creator takes upon Himself and performs it for us.

But though every created thing is in this sense a mystery, the word mystery cannot be applied to moral truth, any more than obscurity can be applied to light. The God in whom we believe is a God of moral truth, and not of mystery. Mystery is the antagonist of truth. It is a fog of human invention that obscures truth, and represents it in distortion.

Religion, therefore, being the belief of a God, and the practice of moral truth, cannot have connexion with mystery. The belief of a God, so far from having anything of mystery in it, is of all beliefs the most easy, because it arises to us out of necessity. And the practice of moral truth, or, in other words, a practical imitation of the goodness of God, is no other than our acting towards each other as He acts benignly towards all.

When men, whether from policy or pious fraud, set up systems of religion incompatible with the word or works of God in the creation, they were under the necessity of inventing or adopting a word that should serve as a bar to all inquiries and speculations. The word 'mystery' answered this purpose, and thus religion, which in itself is without mystery, has been corrupted into a fog of mysteries.

AS mystery answered all general purposes, 'miracle' followed as an occasional auxiliary. Of all the modes of evidence that ever were invented to obtain belief for any system, or opinion to which the name of religion has been given, that of miracles is the most inconsistent. For, in the first place, whenever recourse is had to miracles, for the purpose of procuring belief, it implies a lameness or weakness in the doctrine that is preached. And, in the second place, it is degrading the Almighty into the character of a showman, playing tricks to amuse and make the people stare and wonder. It is also the most equivocal sort of evidence that can be set up; for the belief is not to depend upon the thing called a miracle, but upon the credit of the reporter who says that he saw it; and therefore the thing, were it true, would have no better chance of being believed than if it were a lie.

As mystery and miracle took charge of the past and the present, prophecy took charge of the future, and rounded the tenses of faith. The original meaning of the words 'prophet' and 'prophesying' has been changed; the Old Testament prophets were simply poets and musicians. It is owing to this change in the meaning of the words that the flights and metaphors of the Jewish poets, and phrases and expressions now rendered obscure by our not being acquainted with the local circumstances to which they applied at the time they were used, have been erected into prophecies, and made to bend to explanations at the will and conceits of sectaries, expounders and commentators. Everything unintelligible was prophetical.


FROM the time I was capable of conceiving an idea, and acting upon it by reflection, I either doubted the truth of the Christian system or thought it to be a strange affair. It seems as if parents of the Christian profession were ashamed to tell their children anything about the principles of their religion. They sometimes instruct them in morals, and talk to them of the goodness of what they call Providence. But the Christian story of what they call God the Father putting His Son to death, or employing people to do it--for that is the plain language of the story--cannot be told by a parent to a child; and to tell him it was done to make mankind happier and better is making the story still worse; and to tell him that all this is a mystery is only making an excuse for its incredibility.

How different is this from the pure and simple profession of deism ! The true deist has but one Deity, and his religion consists in contemplating the power, wisdom and benignity of the Deity in His works, and in endeavouring to imitate Him in everything moral, scientific and mechanical.

The religion that approaches the nearest of all others to true deism, in the moral and benign part thereof, is that professed by the Quakers; but they have contracted themselves too much by leaving the works of God out of their system. Though I reverence their philanthrophy, I cannot help smiling at the conceit that, if the taste of the Quaker could have been consulted at the creation, what a silent and drabcoloured creation it would have been ! Not a flower would have blossomed, not a bird been permitted to sing.

Quitting these reflections, I proceed to other matters. Our ideas, not only of the almightiness of the Creator, but of His wisdom and His beneficence, become enlarged as we contemplate the extent and structure of the universe. The solitary idea of a solitary world rolling or at rest in the immense ocean of space gives place to the cheerful idea of a society of worlds, so happily contrived as to administer, even by their own motion, instruction to man. We see our own earth filled with abundance, but we forget to consider how much of that abundance is owing to the scientific knowledge the vast machinery of the universe has unfolded.

But what are we to think of the Christian system of faith that forms itself upon the idea of only one world ? Alas ! what is this to the mighty ocean of space and the almighty power of the Creator ? From whence, then, could arise the solitary and strange conceit that the Almighty, who had millions of worlds equally dependent on His protection, should quit the care of all the rest and come to die in our world because they say one man and one woman had eaten an apple ?

It has been by rejecting the evidence that the word, or works, of God in the creation affords to our senses, and the action of our reason upon that evidence, that so many wild and whimsical systems of faith, and of religion, have been fabricated and set up. There may be many systems of religion that so far from being morally bad are in many respects morally good; but there can be but one that is true, and that one necessarily must, as it ever will, be in all things consistent with the ever-existing word of God that we behold in His works.

I shall close by giving a summary of the deistic belief.

First, that the creation we behold is the real word of God, in which we cannot be deceived. It proclaims His power, it demonstrates His wisdom, it manifests His goodness and beneficence.

Secondly, that the moral duty of man consists in imitating the moral goodness and beneficence of God manifested in the creation towards all His creatures. That seeing, as we daily do, the goodness of God to all men, it is an example calling upon all men to practise the same towards each other, and consequently that everything of persecution and revenge between man and man, and everything of cruelty to animals, is a violation of moral duty.

It is certain that, in one point, all nations of the earth and all religions agree. All believe in a God. The things in which they disagree are the redundancies annexed to that belief; and, therefore, if ever a universal religion should prevail, it will not be in believing anything new, but in getting rid of redundancies and believing as man believed at first. But in the meantime let every man follow, as he has a right to do, the religion and the worship he prefers.

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