Thursday, January 31, 2008

(We're not in) The Age of Reason

Inspired by the previously mentioned biography, I recently finished reading Thomas Paine's Age of Reason, written partly 1792-3 and partly around 1802.

I loved it!

It is a juicy, incisive, cogent, persuasive argument against organized religion, especially Bible-based religion, in favor of Deism.

Paine's argument is roughly as follows:

1) There can be no such thing as a written "revealed" Word of God. Because

  • a) Human language intrinsically limits it -- E.g. If it is "revealed" in Hebrew, it loses something in the translation to English
  • b) Written records are prone to changes, intentional or accidental
  • c) Most importantly, short of the revelation being delivered personally to every individual, it must be treated as hearsay. And as hearsay, a believer would have to rely on the integrity of the message he or she receives. I.e. they would need to trust
    • i) The person to whom the Word of God was revealed
    • ii) The person who wrote down the revealed Word of God (which may or may not be the same as i)
    • iii) All the people in intervening generations who had to pass the Word of God down correctly and unaltered (and translation is a particularly sticky point here)

      If you lose faith at any of these points, you must call into question your faith in the Word.
  • d) And as a minor point, but one that I think was particularly insightful for a man of the 1700's: What about all the people who live on other planets or in other solar systems? Wouldn't the Word of God have to apply to them, too? But all of our candidate Words are pretty Earth-bound.
2) you still think there can be a written revealed Word of God. Sorry but the Bible ain't it. Let's look at 1c more closely
  • a) What reason do you have to trust the person to whom the Word of God was revealed? You can't possibly know him personally, nowadays. But trust him for whatever reason.
  • b) Notwithstanding your trust in the person to whom it was revealed, what reason do you have to trust the person who wrote down the word?
    • i) In most cases the person who wrote down the word was not the same as the person to whom the word was revealed. In some places this is openly acknowledged (as in the case of the Gospels), while in others Paine demonstrates that the purported authors cannot possibly be the actual authors, e.g. due to their referring to events that happened long after their death. He is particularly emphatic that Moses cannot be the author of the first 5 books of the old Testament that were attributed to him.
    • ii) Paine also demonstrates that large swaths of the Bible were written down hundreds of years after the events they record took place. Plenty of time to get the Word or the facts wrong, even if the authors weren't actively trying to put on a political spin. Which they were.
    • iii) If you accept that the Word of God must be literally true, then you must reject at very least portions of the Bible. It is absolutely full of logical and historical inconsistencies, so if you choose to believe one portion, you are obliged to accept that another portion is mistaken.
  • c) Use your brain. Does this stuff sound like something that a benevolent, omnipotent God would want you to think about Him?
    • i) Does Satan really have so much power that he can win over all humanity without God sacrificing a son? Doesn't that kind of make Satan more powerful than God?
    • ii) Does a benevolent God really condone (or demand) collective punishments? Like making all of us suffer for Eve's mistake? Or like the assorted glorified genocides that involve gruesomely wiping out whole populations, including innocent babies?
    • iii) Does an omnipotent God really need to resort to implausible devices (such as a virgin birth) that none of us can verify?
3) Ok, so you agree that the Bible isn't literally the Word of God, but you think it's divinely inspired, a good document to live by that sets a good moral example. I don't think so.
  • a) Yes there are some good moral precepts in there, but they're mostly common sense, and are certainly common to other non-Bible-based religions, as well as most human societies. But follow these, by all means.
  • b) There are some atrocious moral examples in there, too. Like the genocides mentioned above. It is simply more plausible to see these passages as after-the-fact self-aggrandizing historical revisionism written by the victors, than to continue to assert that they are divinely inspired and twist our notion of God to accept such injustice.
  • c) If you're after good documents to live by with good moral examples, there are plenty of them, starting with some that are older than many good parts of the Bible (certainly than the New Testament)
4) Science is the true road to God
  • a) If you want to know about God, don't rely on written words. Just look at natural law.
    • i) It doesn't suffer the limitations of language -- it doesn't get lost in translation, it can't be altered maliciously or accidentally by humans
    • ii) It is consistent with the notion of a benevolent God, and doesn't encourage us to commit genocide against each other
    • iii) It doesn't require us to believe in it "just because I said so" regardless of implausibility - it is patently true
  • b) It's much more awe inspiring to study nature than to take a load of nonsense "on faith".

This is a poor, deflated summary of the work. I couldn't possibly do justice to the sheer logic and entertaining presentation of the piece, not to mention the detailed analysis of Biblical events. I'm no Bible scholar, but the bits that I am familiar with jibe well with Paine's analysis, and I must say that I have generally felt the same horror and incredulity at the events described.

Paine's analysis had one extra point of interest for me. As a computer security nut, I noticed that many of his criticisms of the credibility of the Bible are precisely those we worry about in information security. How reliable is the information in your database? No more reliable than
  • The information that goes in, in the first place (the guy to whom the Word was revealed)
  • The people who manage to modify it (the guy who writes down the Word)
    • Legitimately, in the course of their duties (the guy who really believes it)
    • Maliciously, e.g. "crackers", disgruntled employees, etc. (the guy who puts a political spin on the Word)
  • The programs that manipulate it (translation, copying, etc.)

No comments: