Thomas Paine was a man of greater intellect and character than any of the fictional people found in the Bible, especially God. Want proof? ‘Cause I’ve got it.
Here’s something Paine wrote in 1791, in the opening pages of his Rights of Man:
There never did, there never will, and there never can exist a parliament, or any description of men, or any generation of men, in any country, possessed of the right or the power of binding and controlling posterity to the “end of time,” or of commanding for ever how the world shall be governed, or who shall govern it . . .
Those who have quitted the world, and those who are not yet arrived at it, are as remote from each other as the utmost stretch of mortal imagination can conceive. What possible obligation then can exist between them, what rule or principle can be laid down that two non-entities, the one out of existence, and the other not in, and who never can meet in this world, that the one should control the other to the end of time?
Compare that to what God says to the people of Israel in Exodus 20:3-5 (King James Version):
3Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
4Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
5Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me[.]
Paine says it is unjust to hold the present generation to the laws of the past generation, that the dead have no power over the living; God threatens to punish children for the sins of their parents. Whose philosophy sounds more humane and moral to you? I know which one I prefer. By now most of you know which one Pat Robertson prefers, too:
Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III, or whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, we will serve you if you’ll get us free from the French. True story. And so, the devil said, okay it’s a deal. . . . Ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other.
So that settles it. We can argue over why bad things happen to good people as a general sort of thing if we want, but as far as Haiti goes, the mystery is solved. This earthquake, and every other tragedy that has befallen the country in the last 200-some-odd years, is the result of a group of long dead Haitians contracting Satan to aid them in the struggle for independence. That tens of thousands of people have been killed or had their lives devastated by this earthquake is not only morally permissible from God’s perspective, but positively just. Their ancestors did make a pact with the devil, afterall. If that’s not putting another god before You-Know-Who, I don’t know what is.
But seriously, let us remember that Pat Robertson spoke those words on national television, to an audience of millions of people who found no fault whatsoever with what he said. Let us also remember that, according to the most recent estimate, at least 50,000 people have been killed, with many, many more left injured or homeless, as a result of the Haiti earthquake. None of them were alive at the time this momentous deal with the devil was supposedly struck. Yet, according to Pat Robertson — more importantly, according to the God of the Bible to whom a billion people look as the source of morality — they got only as much as was coming to them. (To be fair, Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network has apparently dispatched relief supplies to Haiti. Good on them for that, if for nothing else.)
I can’t express how depraved I find this worldview. But what really fucks with me is the fact that most people who agree with Robertson’s analysis of the Haiti earthquake, and who believe that God is in the habit of occasionally inflicting curses on people totally innocent of the original offense, also have no argument with Thomas Paine’s assertion that one generation cannot govern another. “Of course the people have the right to change any law or replace any government they find to be unjust,” I imagine most of them saying, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world. “Why, it’s one of the founding principles of the United States!”
So it is. And why? Because people claim the right to constitute their own government and make their own laws rather than live in perpetuity under the laws made by their ancestors. The present generation is not bound by the past generation, the dead cannot command the living — however you want to say it, it’s an essential tenet of any free and democratic society. The same standard tells us that it’s wrong to hold an innocent person responsible for someone else’s crimes. Imagine a man sentenced to serve a lengthy prison term who dies before his time is up. Is the state justified in imprisoning that man’s daughter for the remainder of his sentence? Of course not. It’s not only immoral, it’s nonsensical. We throw people in prison as a means of punishing crime and protecting society. Locking up the innocent child of a criminal serves neither of those, nor any other just purpose I can conceive of.
If punishing the innocent for the crimes of the guilty is wrong when we do it, how is it not wrong when God does it? And if God truly inflicted (or allowed someone or something else to inflict) the horrific suffering of the last two days on the people of Haiti because of a bargain between Satan and a group of 19th century Haitians, how can he possibly deserve the love, loyalty and worship which he is constantly demanding in the Bible?
This is all just an intellectual exercise — and in the face of the Haiti tragedy, a rather meaningless one, at that. God is not punishing the people of Haiti for something their ancestors did 200 years ago, or for anything else. God has no part to play in anything that happens anywhere in the universe. He’s not responsible for the 50,000+ who were killed in the quake, and he’s not responsible for delivering the untold number who survived. God deserves no blame, and no credit. There is no evidence God even exists — and if he does, he is either nothing like any of the world’s major religions describe him, or insane, or unfathomably evil.
Things don’t happen because God wants them to. Those people in Haiti aren’t dead, injured, displaced because of anything they did, or their great-grandparents did, or anyone else ever did. No one summoned the quake. Things just happen. It may not be comforting, but unlike the Biblically-backed explanation offered by Pat Robertson, it does make sense.