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After Paine, Why Did American Secularism Fail?

The Church of Saint Thomas Paine: A Religious History of American Secularism

by Leigh Eric Schmidt

Princeton University Press, 272 pp., $27.95

Long before New Atheists stalked the earth, the cause of secularism possessed a peculiar missionary zeal. In part, this was thanks to the broader mood of social uplift that accompanied the rise of modern skepticism: Loosing the surly bonds of superstition and myth was, by the lights of rationalist dogma, all but certain to deliver humanity into a golden age of liberty, equality, and sober self-improvement. With this sort of serene confidence propelling the great cause of secularism, it’s little wonder that its apostles cribbed a pronounced millennial fervor and evangelical certitude from their Christian foes.

But as historian Leigh Eric Schmidt shows in his lively tour through the expansionist heyday of the secular creed, the longed-for golden age never really got off the ground. The initial cohort of secularists overestimated their own world-transforming powers, while also dismissing the endurance of believers. And more pressingly, as Schmidt observes, the brave new rationalists didn’t produce very much in the way of coherent doctrine or ritual observance. “Even in the hands of its most illustrious proponents,” he writes, “the religion of humanity was often little more than pleasant bromides, refined in tone and short on detail.” Take, for example, the secular movement’s most widely quoted (and misquoted) maxim, Thomas Paine’s signature aphorism that “the world is my country, and my religion is to do good.” Global citizenship and universal goodwill are far easier to proclaim in the abstract than to pin down in the world; there’s a reason, after all, that the freethinking Paine himself died far from his English homeland, a thinker widely (and unfairly) dismissed as a naïve-at-best adherent of the most rigid and Olympian brand of Enlightenment rationalism.

With its Sunday School lesson plan so short on specifics, the religion of humanity was wide open to entrepreneurial innovators. The doomed labors of its prophets furnish Schmidt’s narrative. It all starts, fittingly enough, with the legacy of Paine himself—and more precisely, his mortal remains. The never-resolved quest to find the exhumed contents of Paine’s casket marked the secular cause’s first major movement toward something like cultic observance.

The saga of Paine’s missing bones began when William Cobbett, the cantankerous agrarian radical, hatched a plan to repatriate Paine’s remains from America to England. Formerly a fierce Tory detractor of Paine’s, Cobbett had started to see Paine as a freethinking saint; he robbed Paine’s grave in 1819 and contrived to ship his bones back to England for erection as shrine to the triumph of reason and radical self-determination. “Every hair of that head, from which started the idea of American Independence, would be a treasure to the possessor; and this hair is my possession,” Cobbett proclaimed in a manner that wasn’t entirely becoming to the cause of universalist, cosmopolitan reason. But he also forecast that Paine’s English tomb would touch off its own millennial-style revival of the religion of humanity: “These bones will effect the reformation of England in Church and State.”

Instead, Cobbett’s crusade was greeted with torrents of public ridicule, castigating him as “the political radical turned resurrection man.” So before long, the chastened Paineite quietly shelved his ambitious scheme for a reformation of reason, and Paine’s remains vanished, destined to have their own quasi-spiritual half-life as the fodder for centuries of gossip, speculation, and conspiratorial lore. To this day, no one can account for their whereabouts, though one particularly dogged secular Paineite, Moncure Conway, unearthed and proudly exhibited what appeared to be a certified segment of Paine’s brain. Conway arranged an exhibition for the relic in London in 1905 before ferrying it back to Paine’s original burial site on the former grounds of Paine’s farm in New Rochelle, New York. He even ascribed healing properties to this relic, noting that two formerly orthodox ministers who’d come across it had since succumbed to humanist skepticism.

Read entire article at The New Republic