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The Most Blasphemous Book Ever Written

by VorJack
February 9, 2010

Alright, the title is a bit hard to justify. How do you measure blasphemy, by volume? But if you were to measure the blasphemy of a book by the dubious means of counting the number of blasphemy convictions it produced, one book would stand above all others: Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason.

Ironically, it’s a work that Paine wrote to shore up religion in France following the revolution. But as John Adams once pointed out, Paine was better at tearing down than building up, and his attacks on Christianity got more attention than his advocacy of deism. Paine got labeled an atheist and was refused burial even in Quaker cemeteries. But his writings continued to influence people well after his death.

Paine’s Legacy

“Persecution is not an original feature in any religion; but it is always the strongly marked feature of all religions established by law. Take away the law-establishment, and every religion re-assumes its original benignity.”
Rights of Man – Thomas Paine

Paine’s writings inspired some fervent disciples. One of them, William Cobbett, went so far as to dig up Paine’s remains from the farmer’s field where they were buried with the intention of building a shrine once the Revolution had come to England. It never came, the shrine never got built, and Paine’s bones are now, as the saying goes, “lost to history.” Check your basement.

Slightly less fervent, or perhaps slightly more sane, was Richard Carlisle. Carlisle ran a small shop on Fleet street in London where he printed and sold his own radical paper, The Republican, as well as a number of other politically radical publications. He was particularly fond of Thomas Paine, and would sell copies of his works at low cost.

Things got hot when when Carlisle began to publish attacks on the government following the Peterloo Massacre in 1819. Carlisle was arrested, tried and convicted of blasphemous libel for selling Age of Reason. This takes some explaining.

The British authorities had found that juries were reluctant to convict on the simple charges of sedition or libel. On the other hand, blasphemous libel was more successful and carried a stronger punch. It became the authorities’ preferred way of silencing dissent, and they used it to good effect to silence Carlisle and shut down his shop.

Well, that was the idea. Things went wrong for the government when Richard’s pregnant wife, Jane Carlisle, stepped in to run the shop. Arresting the wife would be bad optics, but Richard was somehow getting writings to her, and unflattering transcripts of his trial were being publish in The Republican. Jane was arrested, and would go on to give birth in prison.

The couple named their new son Thomas Paine Carlisle.

The War of the Shopmen

Pullquote: As to religion, I hold it to be the indispensable duty of all government to protect all conscientious professors thereof, and I know of no other business which government hath to do therewith.
Age of Reason

For the government, things started to go from bad to downright weird. As soon as Jane was arrested, Richard’s sister Mary Anne stepped in. She was arrested. She was promptly followed by a group of volunteers who continued to run Carlisle’s store, now called the “Temple of Reason.” They were arrested, but more volunteers arrived. And more. And more.

Some volunteers lasted no more than a day before being arrested, but there was always someone else. All told, somewhere around 150 people went to prison on the reliable charge of blasphemous libel. So many went to Newgate prison that they started writing a paper: Newgate Monthly Journal, available for purchase at the “Temple of Reason.”

As things heated up, there were some leaps of ingenuity. Realizing that spies were coming into the shop and later identifying the bookseller, they invented “Carlile’s invisible shopman.” A device was installed in the shop with a dial listing all the more controversial contents of the store. The customer simply turned the dial to the pamphlet of their choice, and the pamphlet was dispensed from a slot.

Sources differ on whether there was a man behind the dial or whether it was completely clockwork. I’d love to know for certain. If the first automated vending machine was created to dispense blasphemy … well, that would be too perfect.

And then … it stopped. It’s charmingly British, really. There was no great American show trial or battle on the Senate floor. In 1824, the last group of volunteers was tried and sentenced, and then authorities seemed to give up. Carlisle was released in 1825, and most of the volunteers were freed by 1826. The government had won nearly every case, but each victory had proven to be pyhrric.

Carlisle’s shop was not only operating but thriving, with people sometime paying three times the asked for price to support the effort. Paine’s works had now sold thousands of copies and diffused throughout the country, with more selling after every arrest. Carlisle had won, using only the methods of a publisher and bookseller. And the British government had finally developed a level of … * ahem* Paine tolerance.

So let’s remember men like Carlisle, who outsold, outwrote, and outlasted the government. And let’s raise a glass to old Tom Paine today, February 9th, one of the contested dates for his birthday. Tom, wherever your scattered body lies, you were the most scandalous pamphleteer and the greatest blasphemer of all time. We give you the only kind of afterlife an atheist can offer: we will remember you.

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