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Thomas Paine and Intelligent Design

In Paine's version of 'intelligent design,' science and religion are inextricably linked; in the Kansas school board's definition, they are adversaries.
 
 
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The Kansas school board might find it instructive to read Thomas Paine's 210-year-old argument in support of intelligent design. They may be interested to learn how his belief in intelligent design led him to reject organized religions.

Why read Thomas Paine? Because, it is widely agreed, without him there would have been no United States. Indeed, it was Paine who first used the phrase, "the United States of America."

For those unfamiliar with American history, a brief review may be in order.

In September 1774, Thomas Paine met Benjamin Franklin in London. Captivated by Paine's passion for democracy, Franklin urged him to emigrate to the New World and sent him off with a flattering letter of recommendation. Franklin may also have been attracted to Paine's passion for science. Like Franklin, Paine was a scientist. He invented the single-span iron bridge and the smokeless candle, and helped to improve the steam engine.

Paine arrived in the colonies in mid-1775. In January 1776, he published his first pamphlet, "Common Sense," a powerful and accessible argument for political independence. As many as half a million copies of the pamphlet circulated. As much as 50 percent of the population of the colonies would eventually either read it, or have it read to them.

Within six months, the Continental Congress issued the Declaration of Independence. Future president John Adams announced, "History is to ascribe the American Revolution to Thomas Paine."

And when British victories and a devastating lack of provisions sapped our fighting spirit, Paine rallied the troops by publishing another remarkable essay, "The Crisis." George Washington ordered "The Crisis" read aloud to the troops. More than 200 years later, the essay's opening lines remain familiar:

"These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph."

Almost 20 years to the day after the publication of "Common Sense," in January 1796, another fiery Paine pamphlet appeared. "The Age of Reason" offered a devastating critique of organized religion. But whereas Paine's attack on British tyranny and his advocacy for political self-determination had made him a national hero, his attack on the tyranny of organized religion and his advocacy for religious self-determination made him a national and international pariah.

Even some of Paine's most vigorous critics expressed astonishment at how quickly and overwhelmingly Paine's peers turned on him. Wrote Reverend Gilbert Wakefield,

"And how transcendently extraordinary...will it be estimated by candid and reasonable minds, that a writer whose object was a melioration of condition to the common people, and their deliverance from oppression, poverty, wretchedness, to the numberless blessings of upright and equal government, should be reviled, persecuted, and burned in effigy, with every circumstance of insult and execration, by these very objects of his benevolent intentions, in every corner of the kingdom?"

Paine died in 1809. The New York Citizen wrote a terse and widely reprinted obituary. "He had lived long, did some good and much harm." Only six mourners attended his funeral.

What had Paine written in "The Age of Reason" that relegated him to the dustbin of history? His attack on organized religion was widely interpreted as an argument in favor of atheism. But a plain reading of the 85-page pamphlet makes clear that Paine firmly believed in God. Indeed, he begins by making clear the two basic tenets of his theology.

"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 endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy."

Here's where the Kansas school board comes in.

Paine not only believed in God; he believed in intelligent design. But Paine's version of "intelligent design" inextricably linked science and religion, while the Kansas school board's definition inevitably makes adversaries out of science and religion.

Paine believed that an intelligent force created the universe. "The Word of God is the creation we behold."

For Paine, we honor God by studying the heavens he created, and using our God-given intelligence to understand the natural principles the heavens are displaying for us.

"The Almighty lecturer, by displaying the principles of science in the structure of the universe, has invited man to study and to imitation. It is as if he had said to the inhabitants of this globe that we call ours, 'I have made an earth for man to dwell upon and I have rendered the starry heavens visible, to teach him science and the arts. He can now provide for his own comfort, and learn from my munificence to all, to be kind to each other...

All the knowledge man has of science and of machinery, by the aid of which his existence is rendered comfortable upon earth, and without which he would be scarcely distinguishable in appearance and condition from a common animal, comes from the great machine and structure of the universe. The constant and unwearied observations of our ancestors upon the movements and revolutions of the heavenly bodies, in what are supposed to have been the early ages of the world, have brought this knowledge upon earth..."

God gave us the heavens, and by studying their movement, we learned science, and from science, we learned to make life comfortable and even munificent. Organized religion, on the other hand, separates God from nature, substitutes faith for science and belittles God's gift of human intelligence by promoting ignorance.

More than 200 years later, "The Age of Reason" has much to contribute to the debate about science and faith. Read it for yourself; it's only 85 pages long. Make up your own minds. That's what Thomas Paine's writings and works always advocated.

David Morris is co-founder and vice president of the Institute for Local Self Reliance in Minneapolis, Minnnesota and director of its New Rules project.