Tuesday, June 14, 2011

History as a Prop, Ctd: David Barton, Thomas Paine, and Creationism

While I was working on my previous post on Palin and Paul Revere, I came across an article which quoted David Barton, the right's favorite faux "historian," claiming that the Founders had rejected the idea of evolution:

As far as the Founding Fathers were concerned, they'd already had the entire debate over creation and evolution, and you get Thomas Paine, who is the least religious Founding Father, saying you've got to teach Creation science in the classroom. Scientific method demands that!

Now, this didn't sound quite right to me, so I did some digging (unlike the article, which simply snarkily dismissed the idea that Paine, who died in 1809, could have rejected the ideas of Darwin, who was born in 1809).

My previous experience of Barton's claims led me to believe that he must have some basis for this statement, so I went to his website, Wallbuilders, to see what it was.  Sure enough, there was a page entitled "Thomas Paine Criticizes the Current Public School Science Curriculum."  And there, in a speech given in 1797 in France, Paine is in fact critical of what he calls "the error of the schools in having taught those subjects [science] as accomplishments only, and thereby separated the study of them from the Being who is the author of them."

So far, so good.  Paine does say that the study of science should include reference to "the Creator" just as one studying art should "think of the extensive genius and talents of the artist."  Modern-day proponents of "creation science" certainly would find some kinship with Paine there.

But I knew there was still something wrong.  As Barton, in his introduction, is at pains to point out, "Thomas Paine was one of the very least religious of our Founders."  So what gives?

Editing.  Barton has posted only an excerpt from Paine's speech.  So I did what any real historian would do, what David Barton does not want anyone to do: I found the complete speech.

The first thing a curious reader (i.e., someone sincerely looking to understand Paine's purpose, rather than trying to make a political point about "Current Public School Science Curriculum") finds is that education is not his subject.  Paine is actually talking about proofs of God's existence. Such proof is not found in books of theology, he says, but in creation, in "the universe, the true Bible,—the inimitable work of God."

Barton distorts Paine's meaning, first, by editing out the introduction that shows Paine's purpose, and then by omitting the following passage which should be found in the midst of his excerpt:

The study of theology in books of opinions has often produced fanaticism, rancour, and cruelty of temper; and from hence have proceeded the numerous persecutions, the fanatical quarrels, the religious burnings and massacres, that have desolated Europe.

This is the Paine real historians know--the one who was appalled by the way religion had been used as an excuse for oppression.  The scientific approach, Paine argued, leads to a different result:

we are by necessity forced into the rational comformable belief of the existence of a cause superior to matter, and that cause man calls GOD.

This is not Barton's Christian God.  It is the Deist God, the original "cause."

Someone truly interested in what Paine actually thought of Christian education need not look far.  In The Age of Reason, Paine had this to say about Europe's recent history:

the advocates of the Christian system of faith, could not but foresee that the continually progressive knowledge that man would gain by the aid of science, of the power and wisdom of God, manifested in the structure of the universe, and in all the works of creation, would militate against, and call into question, the truth of their system of faith; and therefore it became necessary to their purpose to cut learning down to a size less dangerous to their project ...

And what did Paine think of the creation story in the Bible?

it is certain that what is called the christian system of faith, including in it the whimsical account of the creation—the strange story of Eve, the snake, and the apple—the amphibious idea of a man-god—the corporeal idea of the death of a god—the mythological idea of a family of gods, and the christian system of arithmetic, that three are one, and one is three, are all irreconcilable, not only to the divine gift of reason, that God has given to man, but to the knowledge that man gains of the power and wisdom of God by the aid of the sciences, and by studying the structure of the universe that God has made.

In short, Paine is not even remotely making the point Barton says he is. Paine (not surprisingly) says not a word about evolution.  His emphasis on "creation" is not the "creation science" of Barton's uninformed acolytes. It is the Deist's substitution of science for traditional theology, not an attempt to infuse theology into science.

Through science, Paine believed it was possible to come to a more unifying understanding of God: "the pure, unmixed, comfortable, and rational belief of a God, as manifested to us in the universe."   Such an understanding, he believed, arrived at through the scientific study of creation, would unify all people and lead to the end of all religious sects, including Christianity.

As Barton and his followers show, however, Paine was too optimistic. Barton's project amounts to the creation of a false counter-history for religious/political purposes.  The attempt to replace evolution with "creation science" reveals that far too many people today are just as hostile to scientific inquiry as those persecutors of Galileo whom Paine condemned for having "held it to be irreligious to study and contemplate the structure of the universe that God had made."

No, Mr. Barton, Thomas Paine didn't reject (or endorse) evolution.  He did, however, disdain "the supporters or partizans of the christian system," because they, "as if dreading the result, incessantly opposed" honest scientific inquiry "and not only rejected the sciences, but persecuted the professors."

If I had to guess (and unlike Barton I actually admit that it is a guess), I suspect that Paine would prefer Darwin to Barton, in whom he would likely see the modern version of those who find it "necessary to their purpose to cut learning down to a size less dangerous to their project."

(In my next post, I'll discuss how Barton's "methodology"--really the lack thereof--makes him the foremost practitioner today of "history as a prop.")


  1. Hi Mark;

    Great article! I really appreciate your effort to expose Barton for what he really is.

    I'm researching the GOP presidential hopefuls, and I'm appalled that so many are "talking the talk" of Christian Nation theology/Seven Mountains. Several have explicitly stated their discipleship to Barton and/or Jim Garlow.

    I shudder to think that someone like Bachmann, Santorum, or Pawlenty might have any chance of becoming President. They already occupy positions that afford them the power to really damage our democracy.


  2. Thanks, John. If you liked this, you should really like the next post.