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(Un)Civil Religion? Thomas Paine, John Locke, and the Role of the Churches in Liberal Society
Unformatted Document Text:  17 disbelief of the major religions: he is radically skeptical of revelation. While Paine acknowledges that an omnipotent God conceivably could communicate with man, he limits the power of this sort of communication: …admitting, for the sake of a case, that something has been revealed to a certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is revelation to that person only. When he tells it to a second person, a second to a third, a third to a fourth, and so on, it ceases to be a revelation to all those persons…and, consequently, they are not obliged to believe it. 50 On the basis of this argument, Paine rejects the claims of the three major Biblical faiths. He characterizes prophecy as either hearsay, or, in the case of New Testament— since Jesus did not write His own account—as “hearsay upon hearsay.” 51 Miracles, of which Paine is (unsurprisingly) skeptical, do not escape this argument: he insists that unless one personally receives revelation or witnesses a verifiable miracle, one is not obligated to believe. In Paine’s argument, religion must meet the standards of modern science: its truth must be demonstrable. Locke steers clear of this brazen critique of revelation and miracles. As demonstrated above, he prefers to misinterpret the Bible willfully rather than deny its claim of truth plainly. 52 While the Letter suggests that belief in particular articles of faith varies widely, Locke never denies their truth. Yet while Paine departs from Locke by openly denying the persuasiveness of revelation, his approach resembles that of an earlier, and perhaps more seminal, liberal thinker: Thomas Hobbes. 50 Age of Reason 9-10. 51 Age of Reason 11. 52 For the purposes of this paper, I refer the reaer to Locke’s intentional misreading of Christian charity as equivalent to toleration in the Letter. Nonetheless, this technique of Biblical misinterpretation is common to all of Locke’s works.

Authors: Parsons, William.
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17
disbelief of the major religions: he is radically skeptical of revelation. While Paine
acknowledges that an omnipotent God conceivably could communicate with man, he
limits the power of this sort of communication:
…admitting, for the sake of a case, that something has been revealed to a
certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is revelation to that
person only. When he tells it to a second person, a second to a third, a
third to a fourth, and so on, it ceases to be a revelation to all those
persons…and, consequently, they are not obliged to believe it.
50
On the basis of this argument, Paine rejects the claims of the three major Biblical
faiths. He characterizes prophecy as either hearsay, or, in the case of New Testament—
since Jesus did not write His own account—as “hearsay upon hearsay.”
51
Miracles, of
which Paine is (unsurprisingly) skeptical, do not escape this argument: he insists that
unless one personally receives revelation or witnesses a verifiable miracle, one is not
obligated to believe. In Paine’s argument, religion must meet the standards of modern
science: its truth must be demonstrable.
Locke steers clear of this brazen critique of revelation and miracles. As
demonstrated above, he prefers to misinterpret the Bible willfully rather than deny its
claim of truth plainly.
52
While the Letter suggests that belief in particular articles of faith
varies widely, Locke never denies their truth. Yet while Paine departs from Locke by
openly denying the persuasiveness of revelation, his approach resembles that of an
earlier, and perhaps more seminal, liberal thinker: Thomas Hobbes.
50
Age of Reason 9-10.
51
Age of Reason 11.
52
For the purposes of this paper, I refer the reaer to Locke’s intentional misreading of Christian charity as
equivalent to toleration in the Letter. Nonetheless, this technique of Biblical misinterpretation is common
to all of Locke’s works.


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