“Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon, than the word of God. It is a history of wickedness, that has served to corrupt and brutalize…” ~Thomas Paine
That Thomas Paine quote, one of my favorites, appeared in FFRF’s 2013 New York Times ad alongside quotes from five other founders. And now, thanks to FFRF, another Paine quote will permanently grace a brand new building at the University of Florida: “My Country is the world, and my religion is to do good.”
One of the perks of my job is enjoying long chats with pillars of the secular movement. At the Secular Coalition of America’s 2014 lobby days, I talked with Margaret Downey, whose secular accolades are too many to list (one of my favorites is her Friggatriskaidekaphobia treatment centers). We found a common love of Thomas Paine and began trading quotes.
Standing in the heart of Washington D.C., with memorials to the nation’s history and founders all around us, Margaret and I lamented Paine’s absence from that secular pantheon. There are few noteworthy monuments, plaques or namesakes honoring this courageous founding father. Despite his enormous contribution to the American Revolution, there is no mention of Paine’s legacy at all in Washington, D.C.. One can only assume that the act of Congress required to commemorate this amazing man is unlikely because of his anti-biblical, anti-religious views, such as the quote above and this gem: “It is from the Bible that man has learned cruelty, rapine, and murder; for the belief of a cruel God makes a cruel man.”
But Paine also wrote the American Crisis, a series of 16 pamphlets to help steel the resolve of the newly independent colonials and the Continental Army. Washington had the pamphlet read aloud to soldiers on December 23, 1776:
These are the times that try men’s souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like Hell, is not easily conquered…
That is Margaret’s favorite Paine quote. My favorite comes from his more famous pamphlet, Common Sense, which was a bestseller at the time: “…a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable cry in defense of custom.” For me, this sentiment encapsulates the secular movement.
Paine’s contribution and Washington D.C.’s refusal to acknowledge that contribution are why I was so pleased to work with the University of Florida to put Thomas Paine, the bible shredding founding father, on a building marred by a bible quote (see below).
In a perfect world, the bible quote should have come down. Actually, it never should have been there in the first place. It’s a clear endorsement of religion put there to honor a very rich, very religious donor. And had this been up in a public elementary or high school, or at a county courthouse, this would not have been a settlement we would have entertained. Even now, the university’s display excludes many of its students: Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, etc. The bible is, as Paine pointed out, a divisive, exclusionary book full of genocide, rape, and infinite torture for finite crimes. It should not be held up as a source of ethics, let alone displayed in a place of honor on a campus as diverse as the University of Florida. Perhaps UF did the math and decided that it’s better to offend minority students instead of a millionaire donor.
Though this is not the outcome we wanted, if nothing else we’re pleased to have helped memorialize this founder who is underappreciated simply because he was no friend to organized religion or the bible.