“Celebrate Paine’s Age Of Reason” by Joseph and Patricia King (March 1995)

Today, January 29, we celebrate the birthday of Thomas Paine [1737-1809] whose publication, “Common Sense” mobilized public opinion in favor of the American revolution and who holds the honor of naming our country the “United States of America.”

More importantly, Paine advocated the use of reason. As he wrote,

“The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is reason. I have never used any other, and I trust I never shall.”

His works, The Age of Reason and The Rights of Man, are classics.

Today we find ourselves in an “Age of Myth and Superstition” instead of one of Reason. Each day, religious rather than rational arguments gain importance in the public debate. Shortly after being elected president Clinton declared that “what we don’t need is freedom from religion.” And now with Newt Gringrich and the new Republican majority in Congress, religious arguments are being used increasingly to justify national policies. The assumptions of these arguments are, of course, never challenged.

Yet challenge is precisely what is needed now to reveal the fundamental flaw in such unreasoned babble. As Paine said,

“It is an affront to treat falsehood with complaisance.”

He pointed out that “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom.”

This is largely what fuels the challenge that freethinkers face today. We are confronted by a long history of complaisance toward such things as school prayers at graduation ceremonies, prayers by our public officials and religious symbols on public property. This complaisance has gained from such practices the superficial appearance of being right and fed the public outcry in their defense against those of us who challenge them.

Despite such resistance to the truth, we must continue to tell it and to challenge these falsehoods. As Paine warned, “Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must . . . undergo the fatigue of supporting it.”

We must criticize severely the use of religious arguments in the determination of our public policy. Such arguments have, by definition, no rational basis. Religious belief is based on faith, not reason. As such, one cannot discuss it rationally and it leads to division rather than consensus. Instead, such debate should be limited to arguments rationally-based which can be debated openly. Otherwise, our so-called “public” policy becomes “religious” policy set by whichever religion is in the majority at the time.

This is precisely why we need Freedom from Religion in our government–to ensure freedom of religion in our private lives.

We need to remind people that this country is different from all others on earth. We have enjoyed a personal liberty that has never been permitted by a religious government. It might mean that things are a little messier but it is solidly American. We need to remind people how good the strict separation of church and state is for religion. Religion is more active and alive in America than in any other country with a religious government.

So long as we celebrate the great American spirit that Thomas Paine helped birth, we keep hope alive that one day we truly will enter an age of reason and realize our potential as a people One Nation Indivisible.

Patricia King earned her Ph.D. in ecology at the University of Georgia. She has taught high-school biology and served in the Peace Corps in Zaire. Pat will be graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison law school this spring.

Joe King received a Ph.D. in Genetics from the University of Georgia. He works as a Product Manager and computer programmer for a genetics research company. The couple moved from Waunakee to Madison, Wisconsin, following religious harassment after they filed suit to remove a Christian nativity scene from a public park.

Freedom From Religion Foundation