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(Un)Civil Religion? Thomas Paine, John Locke, and the Role of the Churches in Liberal Society
Unformatted Document Text:  28 shares the liberal presuppositions about human beings. Although liberals can point to the success of much of their project as proof that theirs in an accurate picture of human nature, this evidence is not decisive: the pervasive dissatisfaction with modern liberalism, as evidenced by the myriad reactions against it (from both within and without the liberal world) suggest that liberalism has not satisfied the longings of all human beings. The persistent revival of religious orthodoxy in the U.S., in particular, suggests that revealed religion still offers men something that liberal society does not provide, and that religion is unlikely to wither away in the light of human reason. Paine, however, is as eager to accomplish a revolution in thought as he is a revolution in government. As a faithful promoter of liberal principles, Paine argues against the revealed religions more openly than most of his liberal brethren. While they reveal themselves to be radically skeptical of the Abrahamic religions and seek to construct a society on un-Biblical ground, they nonetheless suggest that most men will not—or cannot—understand themselves as essentially irreligious. This creates a certain tension in liberal thought: it is a tension that Thomas Paine problematically seeks to dissolve in the Age of Reason. His openness in the Age of Reason seems rooted in a desire for intellectual probity, which, although it obviously harmed his literary career, contributes mightily to his moral authority as a radical liberal critic of Lockean liberalism. In what easily could be a critique of Locke’s religious doubletalk, Paine comments that “it is impossible to calculate the moral mischief…that mental lying has produced in society. When a man has so far corrupted and prostituted the chastity of his mind, as to subscribe his professional belief to things he does not believe, he has prepared

Authors: Parsons, William.
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28
shares the liberal presuppositions about human beings. Although liberals can point to the
success of much of their project as proof that theirs in an accurate picture of human
nature, this evidence is not decisive: the pervasive dissatisfaction with modern liberalism,
as evidenced by the myriad reactions against it (from both within and without the liberal
world) suggest that liberalism has not satisfied the longings of all human beings. The
persistent revival of religious orthodoxy in the U.S., in particular, suggests that revealed
religion still offers men something that liberal society does not provide, and that religion
is unlikely to wither away in the light of human reason.
Paine, however, is as eager to accomplish a revolution in thought as he is a
revolution in government. As a faithful promoter of liberal principles, Paine argues
against the revealed religions more openly than most of his liberal brethren. While they
reveal themselves to be radically skeptical of the Abrahamic religions and seek to
construct a society on un-Biblical ground, they nonetheless suggest that most men will
not—or cannot—understand themselves as essentially irreligious. This creates a certain
tension in liberal thought: it is a tension that Thomas Paine problematically seeks to
dissolve in the Age of Reason. His openness in the Age of Reason seems rooted in a
desire for intellectual probity, which, although it obviously harmed his literary career,
contributes mightily to his moral authority as a radical liberal critic of Lockean
liberalism. In what easily could be a critique of Locke’s religious doubletalk, Paine
comments that “it is impossible to calculate the moral mischief…that mental lying has
produced in society. When a man has so far corrupted and prostituted the chastity of his
mind, as to subscribe his professional belief to things he does not believe, he has prepared


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