This is an edited version of a paper originally given at Freethought in the Long Nineteenth Century: New Perspectives, a conference at Queen Mary University of London, on 9 September 2022.

Thomas Paine (1737-1809) and Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011). Images: National Portrait Gallery and Ari Armstrong via Wikimedia Commons.

Among the freethinkers of the long nineteenth century, the name of Thomas Paine stands as one of the earliest and most prominent. Although he was in fact a deist, he was reviled as an atheist for the critique of religion in his three-part The Age of Reason (1794, 1795, and 1807). Since then, he has continued to inspire freethinkers into the twenty-first century. Most notably, Christopher Hitchens, one of the ‘Four Horsemen of New Atheism’, described himself as a political ‘Paine-ite’. Hitchens drew on Paine in his atheist bestseller God Is Not Great (2007) and wrote a book about him in 2006 (Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man: A Biography), where he devoted a chapter to Paine’s views on religion. In God Is Not Great, Hitchens wrote that The Age of Reason ‘marks almost the first time that frank contempt for organised religion was openly expressed.’

As the journalist George Packer once recounted of Hitchens:

‘[F]or all his radicalism, he was old-fashioned. He once said to me, “I’m a Paine-ite,” meaning Thomas Paine. That sounded right. Christopher was born a couple of centuries too late. He was a figure of the Enlightenment, a coffee-house pamphleteer, a ready duellist, an unreasonable fighter for reason, an émigré from England come to the New World to tell us what the universal words of our Declaration meant, and hold us to them.’

Hitchens, however, differed from Paine in one essential aspect: he did not believe in any kind of god. In his book on Paine, perhaps echoing Richard Dawkins’s view that the case for atheism was incomplete before Darwin, Hitchens wrote that ‘The Age of Reason belongs to the prehistory of the argument, as indeed does deism.’

And then again, here is Hitchens in a 2008 debate with his conservative Christian brother, Peter:

‘You may wish to be a deist, as my heroes Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine were, and you may not wish to abandon the idea that there must be some sort of first or proximate cause or prime mover…but even if you can get yourself to that position…all your work is still ahead of you. To go from being a deist to a theist, in other words, someone who says god cares about you, knows who you are, minds what you do, answers your prayers, cares which bits of your penis or clitoris you saw away or have sawn away for you, minds who you go to bed with and in what way, minds what holy days you observe, minds what you eat, minds what positions you use for pleasure—all your work is still ahead of you, and lots of luck.’

Here, he expresses his debt to deist heroes of the past, while almost seeming to claim deism on the atheist side. Deism is one thing, he seems to say, but theism is an entirely different, and much more ludicrous, proposition.

This article will look more deeply into some of these connections between two of the most renowned freethinkers of their time. I hope to show that, while the deist/atheist difference is a significant one, the similarities between the two men, ideologically and stylistically, are much more important and interesting.

First, some context. In Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic (2014), Matthew Stewart argues that the U.S. was built by radical, godless (or nearly godless) men and that its founding ideals were inspired by ‘ancient, pagan, and continental ideas’ more than anything else.

In Stewart’s view,

‘[ D]eism is in fact functionally indistinguishable from what we would now call ‘pantheism’; and pantheism is really just a pretty word for atheism. While deism could often be associated with moderation in politics, it served principally to advance a system of thought that was revolutionary in its essence and effects. This essentially atheistic and revolutionary aspect of deism…is central to any credible explanation of the revolutionary dimension of the American Revolution. In a word, America’s founders were philosophical radicals.’

This provocative view explains my contention that the difference between deism and atheism is relatively unimportant when comparing Hitchens and Paine. It also explains why Hitchens could seemingly dismiss Paine’s deism as belonging to ‘the prehistory of the argument’ while frequently citing him as a freethinking hero.

With this context in mind, I shall now consider the most interesting affinities between the writing and thinking of Hitchens and Paine.

First, at the deepest level, both men saw religion and politics as intertwined. For Hitchens, god was not just a failed hypothesis, but the very essence of the totalitarian. This is why he often called himself an ‘anti-theist’ rather than an atheist. As he wrote in Letters to a Young Contrarian (2001), ‘I am not even so much an atheist as an antitheist…[I do not wish] to live…under a cradle-to-grave divine supervision.’ He almost seems to abandon the title of ‘atheist’ entirely to differentiate himself from those non-believers who wished there was a god.

Or, as he put it in the debate with his brother:

‘[Religion] is a totalitarian belief. It is the wish to be a slave. It is the desire that there be an unalterable, unchallengeable, tyrannical authority who can convict you of thought crime while you are asleep, who can…subject you to a total surveillance around the clock, every waking and sleeping minute of your life. I say “of your life”—before you’re born and, even worse and where the real fun begins, after you’re dead. A celestial North Korea. Who wants this to be true? Who but a slave desires such a ghastly fate? … But at least you can fucking die and leave North Korea!’

Paine also believed in the existence of a connection between the political and the religious. In a letter to the mayor of Philadelphia in 1806, he wrote that his political project had been ‘to rescue man from tyranny and false systems and false principles of government, and enable him to be free.’ In his works on religion, he wrote, he had always desired ‘to impress on [people] the great principles of divine morality, justice, mercy, and a benevolent disposition to all men and to all creatures; and to excite in him a spirit of trust, confidence, and consolation in his creator, unshackled by the fable and fiction of books, by whatever invented name they may be called.’

Paine’s interest in religion was thus as earthly as his interest in politics: in both spheres, he wanted to see tyranny overthrown and reason, justice, and freedom established. As he put it in Rights of Man (1791), his defence of the French Revolution and revolution in general, ‘my country is the world, and my religion is to do good.’ For both Paine and Hitchens, freedom in religion and freedom in politics are aspects of the same principle.

Second, Paine and Hitchens gloried in the wonders of science. In a (more or less) godless universe, they believed that the beauty of scientific discovery was far superior to anything to be found in primitive mythology. Out with the Bible and in with Hubble, you might say. Indeed, Hitchens did pretty much say this, in a debate with Pastor Douglas Wilson. This little speech was once put to epic music and intercut with pictures by an enthusiastic YouTuber:

‘If you want to be awe-inspired, ladies and gentlemen, let me say, let me just tell you, that those of us who do not believe that we are divinely created, let alone divinely supervised, are not immune to the idea of awe and beauty and the transcendent. Let me invite you to look for a moment at the pictures taken by the Hubble telescope, some of you may have done it… if you haven’t done it now…do it soon. The extraordinary revelations of swirling yet somehow beautiful new galaxies in colour and depth and majesty, like nothing I think the human eye has ever seen. Turn away from that if you wish and gaze at a burning bush in an illiterate desert part of the Middle East and say that’s where revelation comes from. I don’t believe you’d be able to do it.’

In The Age of Reason, Paine wrote that

‘natural philosophy, mathematical and mechanical science, are a continual source of tranquil pleasure, and in spite of the gloomy dogmas of priests and of superstition, the study of these things is the true theology; it teaches man to know and admire the Creator, for the principles of science are in the creation, and are unchangeable and of divine origin.’

Admittedly, Paine invokes the divine principle. Nevertheless, the high rhetoric and the evocation of the exaltedness of science, especially as set against the dogmas of organised religion, are quite striking in their similarity to Hitchens’s tone in the previous extract.

Third, both Paine and Hitchens use a similar method in their anti-religion works: close reading. Several chapters in God Is Not Great are given over to close analysis of religious texts. In that book, Hitchens even argues, citing Paine, that close reading was one of the ways in which, before Darwin and Einstein and all the other discoveries of modern science, ordinary people could see through the lies of religion:

‘Long before modern inquiry and painstaking translation and excavation had helped enlighten us, it was well within the compass of a thinking person to see that the “revelation” at Sinai and the rest of the Pentateuch was an ill-carpentered fiction, bolted into place well after the non-events that it fails to describe convincingly or even plausibly. Intelligent schoolchildren have been upsetting their teachers with innocent but unanswerable questions ever since Bible study was instituted. The self-taught Thomas Paine has never been refuted since he wrote, while suffering dire persecution by French Jacobin anti-religionists, “…to show that these books are spurious, and that Moses is not the author of them; and still further, that they were not written in the time of Moses, nor till several hundred years afterwards, that they are an attempted history of the life of Moses, and of the times in which he is said to have lived; and also of the times prior thereto, written by some very ignorant and stupid pretenders several hundred years after the death of Moses; as men now write histories of things that happened, or are supposed to have happened, several hundred or several thousand years ago.”’

Indeed, The Age of Reason employs close reading extensively, for instance when Paine scrutinises the Book of Joshua to conclude that it was written by later authors, not Joshua himself. Is it too much to speculate that Paine’s close readings of the Old and New Testaments one after the other in The Age of Reason are the direct ancestors of Hitchens’ similar structure in God Is Not Great? This could be so even though Hitchens’ aim is much wider: he goes on to critique Islam, Mormonism, and Buddhism.

There is also a similarity in the language employed by Hitchens and Paine on religion – and on everything else. They were both plain-spoken, fearlessly rude men of considerable rhetorical prowess. References to the true deity and revulsion at atheism aside, this passage from The Age of Reason sounds positively Hitchensian:

‘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.’

The reference to Christianity producing atheists is an interesting aspect of Paine’s theology: he sought to defend what he saw as the true faith from anti-religious radicals. Indeed, The Age of Reason was written in part against what he saw as the depraved violence and persecution of the secular Jacobins. Still, and in line with Matthew Stewart, I would place Paine closer to atheism than he would have been comfortable with. Both he and Hitchens were, in any case, viscerally opposed to what they saw as the pernicious political, social and moral effects of organised religion. Perhaps we can follow Hitchens and dispense with the deism-atheism taxonomy by focusing on anti-theism instead; I think Paine could certainly be counted under this heading.

Finally, it is worth noting that both Hitchens and Paine adored America. For Hitchens, as he wrote in his biography of Thomas Jefferson, the American Revolution was the only one that could still inspire. In the introduction to his last collection of essays, Arguably (2011), he wrote that the American example of ‘the secular republic with the separation of powers is still the approximate model, whether acknowledged or not, of several democratic revolutions that are in progress or impending.’ Similarly, in his famous pamphlet calling for revolution against the British, Paine wrote that ‘the cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind.’

For Paine, the founding of the US represented a world-historical shift away from theocratic tyranny toward secular democracy. Hitchens believed this too. Indeed, this is one of the central reasons he supported the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars: he saw them as instances of America’s exporting radical, secular revolutionary democracy around the world, echoing Paine’s desire for the emergence of a revolutionary axis to overthrow the ancien régime in all nations in the 18th century.

Incidentally, or not so incidentally, Hitchens dedicated his book on Paine to Jalal Talabani, ‘first elected president of the Republic of Iraq; sworn foe of fascism and theocracy; leader of a national revolution and a people’s army. In the hope that his long struggle will be successful, and will inspire emulation.’ This may be a nod to Paine’s dedication of Part One of Rights of Man to George Washington:

‘I present you a small treatise in defence of those principles of freedom which your exemplary virtue hath so eminently contributed to establish. That the Rights of Man may become as universal as your benevolence can wish, and that you may enjoy the happiness of seeing the New World regenerate the Old…’

The above survey is only an introduction to the many resemblances between Paine and Hitchens. However, it raises some further questions.

First, is Hitchens’ dismissal of Paine-ite deism to ‘the prehistory of the argument’ fair? Is it even consistent with many of his own anti-religion arguments? To what extent is New Atheism prefigured in the pro-science, anti-religion arguments of Paine? Does the deism/atheism divide matter more than I have suggested, both in general and regarding Hitchens and Paine in particular? Is this style of anti-religion popular in 2022? To go even further: if Paineite anti-religion is a founding idea of modernity, is atheism redundant?

These questions deserve further consideration. One thing, however, is clear: while Paine is certainly not, and indeed is very far from, the only influence on contemporary non-believers in general and Hitchens in particular, his life and work stand as a singularly powerful testament to freethinking. Paine is very much a living symbol of secular resistance to religion.

As Paine’s political enemy John Adams, the second US President, proposed – not meaning it kindly – the era of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment revolutions could appropriately be labelled ‘the Age of Paine.’ Like the French Revolution, perhaps it is ‘too early to say’ what the consequences of the Age of Paine will be. This is certainly true, at least, when it comes to contemporary unbelief – and who knows what influence Hitchens himself will go on to exert?

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