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Irreligion Made Easy: The Reaction to Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason

  • Patrick W. Hughes

Abstract

Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason, published in two parts (1794 and 1795), was certainly not the first attack by a deist on revealed religion, the Bible, and Christianity. For nearly a hundred years, the fortress of Christianity had been assailed by a cadre of deists who argued that religious truths must conform to reason, and that divine revelation was either unreliable or dangerous superstition.1 The defenders of Christianity in Europe and America did not sit idly by as the basis of their faith was questioned, and for a hundred years they had met the deist threat squarely, and, in their opinion, with triumph.2 As many of Paine’s detractors were only too happy to point out, there was very little “new” in The Age of Reason, and Paine was frequently charged with being little more than a plagiaristic imitator of previous British and French deists. American minister G. W. Snyder, for example, called The Age of Reason “nothing but a jumble of sentences, which the author borrowed from … deistical writers” such as Thomas Hobbes, John Toland, Anthony Collins, Thomas Chubb, Matthew Tindal, David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the arch-infidel Voltaire.3 A pseudonymous Scottish author even slyly suggested that perhaps The Age of Reason would be more aptly named “The Age of Plagiarism.”4

Keywords

French Revolution Intended Audience Christian Religion Christian Doctrine Common Reader 
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Notes

  1. 2.
    On earlier deist controversies, see James A. Herrick, Radical Rhetoric of the English Deists: The Discourse of Skepticism, 1680–1750 (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1997).Google Scholar
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    Francis Place, The Autobiography of Francis Place (1771–1854), ed. Mary Thale (Cambridge University Press, 1972), 159. Place’s partner in this publishing venture, Thomas Williams, would spend a year in jail for blasphemy for printing this cheap edition of The Age of Reason. See “Proceedings against Thomas Williams for publishing Paine’s ‘Age of Reason,’” in A Complete Collection of State Trials, ed. T. B. Howell (London: T.C. Hansard, 1819), 653–720.Google Scholar
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  56. 70.
    Ibid., vi. Ironically, at the same time that he criticized Paine for his unoriginality, Gahan borrowed quite freely (and without attribution) from fellow-Irishman William Jackson’s 1795 prison-cell tract Observations in Answer to Mr. Thomas Paine’s “Age of Reason” (Dublin: G. Folingsby, 1795).Google Scholar
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© Patrick W. Hughes 2016

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  • Patrick W. Hughes

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