Franklin’s Defense of Religion

I’m not a religious person, but I am interested in history and especially in how ideas play out in history.

I came across this today. In it, Benjamin Franklin responds to one of Thomas Paine’s essays against there being any sort of providence.

It’s well-known that many of the founding fathers were deists and were skeptical of religion. Jefferson, for instance, edited his own bible. Paine took the idea of questioning to its logical extreme and advocated atheism.

Franklin was quite a character — he made a lot of money on preaching various forms of common sense morality but was also quite a bit of a party animal, especially when he got to France.

So it’s interesting to see folks from the age that founded my country discuss the role of religion in social affairs.


[Date uncertain.]


I have read your manuscript with some attention. By the argument it contains against a particular Providence, though you allow a general Providence, you strike at the foundations of all religion. For without the belief of a Providence, that takes cognizance of, guards, and guides, and may favor particular persons, there is no motive to worship a Deity, to fear his displeasure, or to pray for his protection. I will not enter into any discussion of your principles, though you seem to desire it. At present I shall only give you my opinion, that, though your reasonings are subtile and may prevail with some readers, you will not succeed so as to change the general sentiments of mankind on that subject, and the consequence of printing this piece will be, a great deal of odium drawn upon yourself, mischief to you, and no benefit to others. He that spits against the wind, spits in his own face.

But, were you to succeed, do you imagine any good would be done by it? You yourself may find it easy to live a virtuous life, without the assistance afforded by religion; you having a clear perception of the advantages of virtue, and the disadvantages of vice, and possessing a strength of resolution sufficient to enable you to resist common temptations. But think how great a portion of mankind consists of weak and ignorant men and women, and of inexperienced, inconsiderate youth of both sexes, who have need of the motives of religion to restrain them from vice, to support their virtue, and retain them in the practice of it till it becomes habitual, which is the great point for its security. And perhaps you are indebted to her originally, that is, to your religious education, for the habits of virtue upon which you now justly value yourself. You might easily display your excellent talents of reasoning upon a less hazardous subject, and thereby obtain a rank with our most distinguished authors. For among us it is not necessary, as among the Hottentots, that a youth, to be raised into the company of men, should prove his manhood by beating his mother.

I would advise you, therefore, not to attempt unchaining the tiger, but to burn this piece before it is seen by any other person; whereby you will save yourself a great deal of mortification by the enemies it may raise against you, and perhaps a good deal of regret and repentance. If men are so wicked with religion, what would they be if without it. I intend this letter itself as a proof of my friendship, and therefore add no professions to it; but subscribe simply yours,

B. Franklin

Paine, of course, went on to author The Age of Reason, which totally skewered religion. Then he went to France — which was fertile ground for the kind of meals Paine was dishing up. Franklin was known for his prominent role science in the colonies, the almanac, bifocals, the harmonica, the Franklin Stove, and so forth. The flamethrower, over-the-top rhetoric of Paine led to him personally attacking George Washington, conspiring with Napoleon on how to invade England, and widespread hatred from his fellow Americans when he returned home, just as Franklin had predicted.

The letter is a very interesting insight into how Franklin’s mind worked.

But still, perhaps Paine got the better end of the argument.

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