Some time ago, a person on G+ challenged me with the claim that the Founding Fathers were Christians, that the US was a Christian nation, and various other unsavory and surprisingly anti-Christian sentiments… mostly involving my untimely demise and a pit of lava or some such.
Me, being the kind of person I am, went and found those writings. One of the most interesting was the work of Thomas Paine.
When one thinks of the Founding Fathers, Thomas Paine is rarely mentioned. That’s probably due to the rather poor (and boring) history education in the US. My college allowed military history to fulfill a history requirement, so I took that and learned all about the various tactics of US generals (Sherman’s Deep Strike, Inchon, use of paratroops in D-Day, etc).
Sadly, this left out a large part of my education in the political history of the US. While the military history class has given me some truly great wins in various games, these days, I find myself arguing politics… something I detest and am not that skilled with.
Arguably, Thomas Paine is the Father of the American Revolution. His two pamphlets, Common Sense and The American Crisis (both published in 1776), were the foundation of a break from Britain and independence for the colonies.
Many people have heard the phrase “These are the times that try men’s souls”. That came from The American Crisis.
He was also a very early (if not the first) Humanist. He argued for the ending of slavery. He accepted science and social progress. He was unafraid to consider new ideas, looking at how the Iroquois could live in nature and have democracy.
His collected writings are online here. There’s a lot of reading there. But I was primarily searching for the Paine’s views on religion and I found several passages that were useful, but none, I think more than this one.
But the belief of a God is so weakened by being mixed with the strange fable of the Christian creed, and with the wild adventures related in the Bible, and the obscurity and obscene nonsense of the Testament, that the mind of man is bewildered as in a fog. Viewing all these things in a confused mass, he confounds fact with fable; and as he cannot believe all, he feels a disposition to reject all. But the belief of a God is a belief distinct from all other things, and ought not to be confounded with any. The notion of a Trinity of Gods has enfeebled the belief of one God. A multiplication of beliefs acts as a division of belief; and in proportion as anything is divided, it is weakened.
Religion, by such means, becomes a thing of form instead of fact; of notion instead of principle: morality is banished to make room for an imaginary thing called faith, and this faith has its origin in a supposed debauchery; a man is preached instead of a God; an execution is an object for gratitude; the preachers daub themselves with the blood, like a troop of assassins, and pretend to admire the brilliancy it gives them; they preach a humdrum sermon on the merits of the execution; then praise Jesus Christ for being executed, and condemn the Jews for doing it.
A man, by hearing all this nonsense lumped and preached together, confounds the God of the Creation with the imagined God of the Christians, and lives as if there were none.
Of all the systems of religion that ever were invented,  there is none more derogatory to the Almighty, more unedifying to man, more repugnant to reason, and more contradictory in itself, than this thing called Christianity. Too absurd for belief, too impossible to convince, and too inconsistent for practice, it renders the heart torpid, or produces only atheists and fanatics. As an engine of power, it serves the purpose of despotism; and as a means of wealth, the avarice of priests; but so far as respects the good of man in general, it leads to nothing here or hereafter.
-edit note: Direct link to this passage is here.
I’ve included a lot here, so this cannot be claimed to be taken out of context.
There are quite a few good lines in there, but the upshot is that it appears Thomas Paine believes in a god. This would make him a deist.
Look at how he describes Christianity; “strange fable”, “the notion of a Trinity of Gods has enfeebled the belief of one God”, “notion instead of principle”, “all this nonsense”, “there is none more derogatory to the Almighty, more unedifying to man, more repugnant to reason, and more contradictory in itself, than this thing called Christianity”.
And note the last bit of that last paragraph, where Paine describes what Christianity really is. It’s an engine of power, of control. It takes wealth from the people and gives to the church leaders and gives nothing in return.
Thomas Paine could have been writing about Joel Osteen, the Pope, or L. Ron Hubbard for that matter. All of these (and more like them) have more control, power, and wealth than their position and their religion requires.
Some might say that religion provides a useful service. That there are benefits to being religious. And maybe there are social and emotional benefits for being in a religion. But those same benefits can be found in almost any small group of good people. To give an example, there’s a small group of non-believers here at Skeptic Ink. I’m not best friends with any of them, but I wasn’t best friends with anyone in my old church either. But if I need some help, advice, or anything else, they are all willing to pitch in and give me a hand. Not because they are my best friends, not because they are required to because of the site’s requirements, but because they are good people.
However, the leaders of the various religions, even before there was Christianity, have taken advantage of that need for group identity and made a profit from it. Just like Thomas Paine describes and still continues to this day.
Thomas Paine, one of our Founding Fathers, was not a Christian. His god was not the god of the Bible. It’s time to quit pretending it was.
 Thomas Paine, The Writings of Thomas Paine, Collected and Edited by Moncure Daniel Conway (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1894). Vol. 4. 12/11/2014.
 My old joke is good description of a best friend. A friend helps you move. A best friend helps you move bodies.