9 May 2006

Age of Reason

Age of Reason, Thomas Payne

For a work titled "Age of Reason", I was somewhat disappointed at how much spleen it showed. Payne's tone made me expect one of those rock-solid philosophical treatises that edifies an impenetrable structure out of pure logic. I'm not sure if I can remember the books I am talking about, but they turn up every once in a while in philosophy, or math, or in a newspaper column, and we all recognise them by their comforting foundation and incontrovertible attention to detail. While Payne starts out this way, he does not follow up, and it's too bad, because his topic merits the care.

I will give one example of a disappointing premise. Near the end of the work, Payne declares that "[The religion of Deism] must have been the first, and will probably be the last, that man believes." By Deism, Payne means the belief in a single god, whose only manifestation to human beings is the world in which we live: no scripture, no apparitions, no communion, or so on. It certainly sounds reasonable to state that this type of religion "must have been the first" that man believed, but the point is very debatable. Personally, I doubt it, and I doubt it because of the excellent and precise survey of religions published by James Fraser in The Golden Bough, which establishes that all humans throughout evolution have tended to supernatural beliefs before settling on the natural. Besides which, Fraser found that humans more naturally believed in a multiplicity of anthropomorphic gods than in a single superhuman entity. Isn't it easier to think that "people like us" are causing thunderstorms than in thinking that simple physical principles guide the particles that produce all phenomena we experience?

Whatever the truth, I find Payne's failure to treat certain such obvious questions as a weakness considering the argument he put forth.

Nevertheless, there is a good deal of the edifying in here. For example, and for this I am truly grateful, this is the first time I have ever seen anyone clearly question and examine what the Bible really is. Never before have I heard anyone trace the claims about the Bible to their logical sources. Payne defines the boundary we have if we want to consider the Bible logically. Besides which, he is the first I've ever read to show that "revelation", that is, the communication of god to man, is entirely unremarkable, because as soon as it is written down, or spoken out loud, it becomes hearsay.

Needless to say, the argument bodes poorly for the Bible. I am very curious how the churches have responded to these observations.

So in the end, I like this text for the very basic, fundamental questions it poses, questions so fundamental that I'm ashamed not to have thought of them. I also like the fun literary exercise that it goes through of undermining the Bible's authority by using only the Bible text. On that note, I think my recommendation is pretty obvious: don't read, unless you're into secular Bible theory.