Thomas Paine and the “Nothing in Particulars”

by Richard Holme

The religious makeup of America is changing. The Pew Research Center found that the American Christian population has fallen “12 percentage points over the past decade” to 65% (“In U.S.”). The Pew Research Center also found that “the religiously unaffiliated share of the population” has grown to 26% which is “up from 17% in 2009” (“In U.S.”). This group of religiously unaffiliated Americans includes atheists, agnostics, and the fastest growing subgroup, “nothing in particular” (“In U.S.”). Lexico gives the definition of atheist as “a person who disbelieves or lacks belief in the existence of God or gods” and agnostic as “a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God or of anything beyond material phenomena; a person who claims neither faith nor disbelief in God.” However, the definition of “nothing in particular” is a little harder to track down. Fortunately, because the “nothing in particulars” do not self-identify as atheist, or agnostic, or as being a member of any traditional organized religious group, a definition for the “nothing in particulars” can be found using the process of elimination: a person who may believe in God or higher power but has no affiliation with organized religion. So, this is a completely new, unique, and exciting movement going on in America, right? Well, like most things in life, it has all been done before. In fact, the foundation for the “nothing in particulars” was actually laid shortly after the American Revolution by the famed journalist and political activist Thomas Paine in his work the “Age of Reason.”

In the “Age of Reason”, Thomas Paine claimed he was a theist. Paine said, “I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life” (696). Paine also spoke of God when he described what he claimed was the “true theology:” a “natural philosophy, embracing the whole circle of science… [which] is the study of the works of God, and of the power and wisdom of God in His works” (699). David Hoffman wrote in his article “’The Creation we Behold’: Thomas Paine’s the Age of Reason and the Tradition of Physico-Theology” that “Thomas Paine was a ‘scientific deist’ who believed that the omnipotence and benevolence of God are evident in the structure of the universe” (281). According to Hoffman, Paine “criticizes scripture for not furnishing as good a proof of God’s existence as Creation” (296-297). The term scientific deist is just a fancy way of saying that science can help prove the “existence of a supreme being” (“Deism”). It was Paine’s argument that nature and science in and of themselves provided all the evidence necessary to prove that God exists. To simplify things further, if the theological terms theist and scientific deist are removed from the equation above, the picture being painted is that of a man who endorses the idea of a Creator. However unorthodox for his time, Paine accepted that something greater than himself exists.

Even though Paine believed in God, he certainly did not believe in Christianity or any other organized religion. Paine said that “I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of” (696). He was also quite outspoken as to why he felt this way: “[a]ll national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit” (Paine 696). Paine had a deep-seated mistrust of organized religion. On top of this, he was also skeptical about the origins of organized religion. Paine said that “[e]ach of those churches show certain books, which they call revelation, or the word of God” (697). However, Paine believed that if “something has been revealed to a certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is revelation to that person only” (697). In short, if Paine did not see it, he did not believe it. Even though Paine’s ideas were widely unaccepted by 18th century America, he was unafraid to openly reject organized religion.

            Now, fast forward a few hundred years and Thomas Paine, except for those well-versed in American history, is relatively unknown to the average American. I had certainly never heard of him. However, his ideas sound strangely familiar to my modern ears. After stripping away the details, the fundamentals of Paine’s beliefs are this: some kind of God or higher power exists, but this God or higher power does not exist within the confines of organized religion. Bernie Sanders, a 2020 Democratic Presidential front runner, is quoted by CNN saying, “I am not actively involved in organized religion” (qtd. in Burke). According to the Washington Post, “Sanders said he believes in God, though not necessarily in a traditional manner” (Frances and Wagner). Sanders also said, “I would not be running for president of the United States if I did not have very strong religious and spiritual feelings” (qtd. in Burke). So, Sanders claims to be spiritual and believe in God, but he is not attached to any traditional organized religious group. Does the Bern keep a copy of the “Age of Reason” in his back pocket during interviews? Probably not, but this where a connection is beginning to form. The beliefs of Sanders qualify him to be a member of the “nothing in particulars.” It is my exposure to the beliefs of the “nothing in particulars” that made the rhetoric of Thomas Paine’s the “Age of Reason” resemble that of a long-lost friend.

            Nearly one in five modern Americans self-identify as “nothing in particular” (“In U.S.”).  Most “nothing in particulars” claim to believe in God or a higher power. Corinna Nicolaou, in her article “Spiritual but not religious” writes, “[w]e may believe in a higher being, though we might call it ‘the universe’ or ‘the divine intelligence that created all this.’ Most of us have reverence for a power greater than ourselves and crave a deeper understanding of its significance.” The Rev. Lillian Daniel wrote an essay for The Huffington Post where she spoke about a hypothetical conversation with a “nothing in particular” in which her companion was “telling me that he finds God in the sunsets” (qtd. in Oppenheimer). Nicolaou’s use of the phrase “the divine intelligence that created all this” and Daniel’s hypothetical companion who sees divinity in nature is a reference to the idea of intelligent design. Intelligent design is a close relative to what Hoffman described as Paine’s “scientific deism.” In the words of Paine himself, the summation of these two relatives is “the study and contemplation of the works of creation, and of the power and wisdom of God revealed and manifested in those works” and was his greatest argument for the existence of God (699). Then Joseph Mirra, a self-described None whose beliefs are more accurately defined as “nothing in particular,” in his short poem said that only a “numskull” would believe that “Almighty God did not per se exist.” While Mirra’s tone was a little snarky here, a comment from Paine reveals that he carried a similar sentiment: “[n]o one [can] deny or dispute the power of the Almighty” (697). Whether the “nothing in particulars” refer to God as Him, or Her, or the Sun, or my dog Spot, they certainly believe in God, or at least, they believe in something greater than themselves.

            Though the similarities between Paine and the “nothing in particulars” do not stop here. While it is common for the “nothing in particulars” to believe in God or a higher power, another key piece of their identity is that they are unaffiliated with organized religion. Rev. Daniel continues in her essay about the hypothetical “nothing in particular” saying, “I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is ‘spiritual but not religious.’ Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo” (qtd. in Oppenheimer). Nicolaou, who was simply raised ignorant to religion and is not marching in the boots of a rebel said, “[t]he number of religious services I attended growing up could fit on one hand, with enough fingers left over for a peace sign. I hardly know a Catholic from a Protestant, let alone the belief systems of other world religions.” Nicolaou also explained how her views on sexuality caused her to question traditional organized religion: “I can’t wrap my head around a God who is more concerned with our private parts than with the content of our hearts.” Nicolaou’s preference for personal judgement over doctrine and her willingness to openly reject what she does not believe was shared by Paine when he said, “[m]y mind is my own church” and “it is necessary to the happiness of man that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe” (696). Continuing with Mirra’s poem, after breaking from organized religion Mirra continued the practice of prayer and used his newly open Sunday schedule to reflect on the “bad things religion’s done”; a reflection shared by Paine when he spoke of the many “mischiefs that the Christian system has done to the world” (699). While the reasons the “nothing in particulars” give for not participating in organized religion are not as “fist shaking in the air” as Paine’s, the “nothing in particulars” stand in unison with Paine when it comes to rejecting organized religion.

            So, what does all this religious jargon boil down to? When I read Thomas Paine’s “The Age of Reason” I was struck with how familiar his ideas felt to me. I instinctively knew I had heard something like this before. Paine said that he “saw the exceeding probability that a revolution in the system of government would be followed by a revolution in the system of religion” (696). While I do not believe this “revolution” has occurred in America’s systems of religion, I do believe there has been a “revolution” in the minds of the American people. When Thomas Paine released the “Age of Reason” into the American ethos, over the centuries it gestated and formed the now prominent and recognizable demographic called the “nothing in particulars.”

 

Works Cited

“Agnostic.” Lexico, https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/agnostic.

“Atheist.” Lexico, https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/atheist.

Burke, Daniel. “The Book of Bernie: What is Sanders’ Religion?” CNN Wire Service, 14 Apr. 2016, ProQuest, https://login.proxy189.nclive.org/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1780820280?accountid=15152.

“Deism.” Lexico, https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/deism.

Frances, Stead S., and John Wagner. “Why Bernie Sanders Doesn’t Participate in Organized Religion (Posted 2016-01-27 02:25:00): The Democratic Hopeful Said He Believes in God, Though Not Necessarily in a Traditional Manner.” The Washington Post, 27 Jan. 2016. ProQuest, https://login.proxy189.nclive.org/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1761036634?accountid=15152.

Hoffman, David C. “’The Creation we Behold’: Thomas Paine’s the Age of Reason and the Tradition of Physico-Theology.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 157, no. 3, Sep. 2013, pp. 281-303. ProQuest, https://login.proxy189.nclive.org/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1628237740?accountid=15152.

“In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace.” Pew Research Center, 17 Oct. 2019, https://www.pewforum.org/2019/10/17/in-u-s-decline-of-christianity-continues-at-rapid-pace/.

Mirra, Joseph. “NONES ON SUNDAY.” First Things, no. 287, Nov. 2018, pp. 1. ProQuest, https://login.proxy189.nclive.org/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/2207932412?accountid=15152.

Nicolaou, Corinna. “Spiritual but not religious.” Los Angeles Times, 28 Dec. 2012. ProQuest, https://login.proxy189.nclive.org/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1256132856?accountid=15152.

Oppenheimer, Mark. “Examining the Growth of the ‘Spiritual but Not Religious’: [National Desk].” New York Times, 19 Jul. 2014. ProQuest, https://login.proxy189.nclive.org/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1545954934?accountid=15152.

Paine, Thomas. “The Age of Reason.” The Norton Anthology American Literature: Beginnings to 1820, edited by Robert S. Levine and Sandra M. Gustafson, 9th ed., W.W. Norton & Company, 2017, pp. 695-702.