Thomas Paine, Christianity, and Modern Psychiatry

Beyond Common Sense, most Americans know little about Thomas Paine (1737-1809). Few know that at the end of Paine’s life, he had become a pariah in U.S. society, and for many years after his death, he was either ignored or excoriated—the price he paid for The Age of Reason and its disparagement of religious institutions, especially Christianity.

Early in The Age of Reason, Paine attacks the hypocrisy of religious professionals: “When a man has so far corrupted and prostituted the chastity of his mind, as to subscribe his professional belief to things he does not believe, he has prepared himself for the commission of every other crime. He takes up the trade of a priest for the sake of gain, and in order to qualify himself for that trade, he begins with a perjury.”

If alive today, Paine may well have been even rougher on psychiatrists. Paine revered science, and he would have been enraged by professionals who pretend to embrace science by using its jargon but in fact make pseudoscientific proclamations that purposely deceive suffering people. “To subscribe his professional belief to things he does not believe” is exactly what many modern psychiatrists are routinely guilty of—this by their own recent admissions. Before detailing this “perjury,” a little bit about Paine and his compulsion to confront all illegitimate authorities.

Beginning in 1776, both Common Sense and then The American Crisis made Thomas Paine a hero for insurgent American colonials. Following the successful American revolt against British rule, the globetrotting revolutionary Paine returned to England where his Rights of Man enraged William Pitt. Narrowly escaping arrest by Pitt’s goons, Paine fled to revolutionary France, where Paine then narrowly survived the disloyalty of his “friend” George Washington—a betrayal that kept Paine (a victim of the Jacobins-Girondins gang war) rotting in Luxembourg Prison. Only with great luck would Paine avoid Robespierre’s guillotine so as to return to the United States.

Bertrand Russell (the English philosopher, mathematician, historian, and social critic) observed that Paine “incurred the bitter hostility of three men not generally united: Pitt, Robespierre, and Washington. Of these, the first two sought his death, while the third carefully abstained from measures designed to save his life. Pitt and Washington hated him because he was a democrat; Robespierre, because he opposed the execution of the King and the Reign of Terror.”

No one could intimidate Paine into shutting up, but he could be marginalized. By the end of his life, owing to his The Age of Reason and its disparagement of Christianity, Paine was ostracized, even refused service by many innkeepers. Historian Eric Foner notes: “Paine slipped into obscurity. His final years were ones of lonely, private misery.” Moreover, for many years after his death, Paine was either ignored or attacked by the American political and cultural elite; as even in 1888, Theodore Roosevelt scored political points by calling Paine a “filthy little atheist.”

Paine, in truth, was not an atheist but a deist. He states at the beginning of The Age of Reason: “I believe in one God, and no more.” While it was Paine’s trashing of Christianity in The Age of Reason that made him an outcast, he also made clear in it that “all national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.”

Paine had respect for Jesus (noting that “He was a virtuous and an amiable man”); however, Paine had no respect for Christianity, for which Paine pulled no punches: “Of all the systems of religion that ever were invented, there is none more derogatory to the Almighty, more unedifying to man, more repugnant to reason, and more contradictory in itself, than this thing called Christianity. Too absurd for belief, too impossible to convince, and too inconsistent for practice, it renders the heart torpid, or produces only atheists and fanatics. As an engine of power it serves the purpose of despotism; and as a means of wealth, the avarice of priests; but so far as respects the good of man in general, it leads to nothing here or hereafter.”

As maddening as Christianity was for Paine, unlike psychiatry, Christianity didn’t pour salt into Paine’s wounds by pretending to embrace his beloved science. It is quite possible that Paine would be even more appalled by today’s psychiatrists who claim the authority of science but who, in reality, have debased it. Paine’s rebuke of clergy—“to subscribe his professional belief to things he does not believe”—perfectly fits psychiatrists with regard to both (1) their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (commonly known as the DSM), and (2) their doctrine that has the greatest effect on treatment, the “chemical-imbalance theory of mental illness.”

The DSM is a publication of the American Psychiatric Association (APA), which is psychiatry’s guild organization; and the DSM is often referred to as the “diagnostic bible” of psychiatry. The initial DSM (1952) has been followed by several “new testaments”: DSM-II (1968), DSM-III (1980), DSM-III-R (1987), DSM-IV (1994), DSM-5 (2013, foregoing Roman numerals).

Many mental health professionals have long recognized the lack of scientific validity of the DSM, and its pseudoscience has at times become so obvious so as to be a public embarrassment for psychiatry. Prior to 1973, owing clearly to prejudice and not science, homosexuality was a DSM mental illness. Since what enters and exits the DSM has nothing to do with science (the actual criteria for DSM “illness” being what behaviors make an APA committee uncomfortable enough), homosexuality could only be eliminated as a DSM illness by political activism, which occurred in the early 1970s; and homosexuality was omitted from the 1980 DSM-III.

In that same DSM-III, however, again owning to prejudice and not science, a new mental illness for kids was invented by psychiatry: “oppositional defiant disorder” (ODD), the so-called symptoms including “often argues with authority figures” and “often actively defies or refuses to comply with requests from authority figures or with rules.” ODD is categorized as a “disruptive disorder,” and today disruptive-disordered kids are being increasingly medicated.

Thomas Paine would have immediately seen the political/pseudoscientific nature of the DSM; and given how oppositional and defiant Paine was with illegitimate authorities, I think it’s safe to say that he would have mocked specifically ODD and generally the entire DSM, perhaps even more so than he derided the Bible and the New Testament.

What may have inflamed Paine even more than pseudoscientific DSM mental illness proclamations would be psychiatry’s perjury about it. “To subscribe his professional belief to things he does not believe” is exactly what has been the case for psychiatry with respect to the DSM. Psychiatrist Allen Frances had been the lead editor of DSM-IV, but in 2010 when the APA was in the process of creating DSM-5, Frances stated in an interview in Wired that “there is no definition of a mental disorder. It’s bullshit. I mean, you just can’t define it.” Frances, who lost his DSM-IV royalty share ($10,000 per year) once DSM-5 was available, published Saving Normal in 2014, a book trashing the new DSM-5.

With respect to treatment, even more influential than the DSM has been psychiatry’s “chemical imbalance theory of mental illness,” the doctrine which has convinced emotionally suffering patients that taking psychiatric drugs is as responsible as taking insulin for diabetes.

The lack of science behind the “chemical imbalance theory of mental illness” is no longer controversial. In 2014 in CounterPunch, I documented acknowledgements by establishment psychiatrists of this theory’s lack of scientific validity, including psychiatrist Ronald Pies, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of the Psychiatric Times who stated in 2011: “In truth, the ‘chemical imbalance’ notion was always a kind of urban legend—never a theory seriously propounded by well-informed psychiatrists.” In my 2014 article, I also reviewed how psychiatrists justified their promulgating this mythology by rationalizing that it would make it easier for patients to accept their emotional difficulties as illnesses and to take psychiatric medication. Leading psychiatrists actually confessed to pushing a theory that they don’t believe.

There is, however, something even worse than bullshitting about bullshit—that is attempting to bullshit us that that one has never bullshitted us about bullshit. The previously mentioned psychiatrist Ronald Pies, whose position makes him sort of a Cardinal Emeritus in psychiatry, is now telling us that his profession of psychiatry is not responsible for the fact that damn near everyone believes in an untrue chemical imbalance theory of mental illness.

On April 30, 2019, Pies told us in the Psychiatric Times that “anti-psychiatry groups are quite right in heaping scorn on the ‘chemical imbalance theory’ of mental illness, but not for the reasons they usually give.” Pies expects us to believe that “psychiatry as a profession and medical specialty never endorsed such a bogus ‘theory.’” For Pies, people wrongly believe in this theory because of drug companies’ mendacity and because psychiatry critics have falsely accused psychiatry of promoting it.

But there is a problem with Pies’s alibi for his profession—the truth. In 2001, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) president Richard Harding, writing for the general public in Family Circle, stated: “We now know that mental illnesses—such as depression or schizophrenia—are not ‘moral weaknesses’ or ‘imagined’ but real diseases caused by abnormalities of brain structure and imbalances of chemicals in the brain.”

Pies, undaunted by the facts, responded in his 2019 article: “Critics of my thesis are inordinately fond of citing a dozen or so statements by various psychiatric luminaries—yes, including two former APA presidents—that do, indeed, invoke the phrase, ‘chemical imbalance.’ By cherry-picking quotes of this nature, anti-psychiatry groups and bloggers believe they have demonstrated that ‘Psychiatry’ (with a capital ‘P’) has defended a bogus chemical imbalance theory. These critics are simply wrong.”

The reality is that the APA itself, even in recent years, has continued to promote the chemical imbalance theory. In Psychiatry Under the Influence, journalist Robert Whitaker and psychologist Lisa Cosgrove point out: “Even in the summer of 2014, the APA’s website, in a section titled ‘Let’s Talk Facts’ about depression, informed the public that ‘antidepressants may be prescribed to correct imbalances in the levels of chemicals in the brain.’”

Noting the obvious, Whitaker and Cosgrove point out: “The pharmaceutical companies couldn’t promote the chemical imbalance story without the tacit assent of the psychiatric profession, as our society sees academic doctors and professional organizations—and not the drug industry—as the trusted sources for information about medical maladies.”

In closing, an odd connection between psychiatry and Thomas Paine in the person of Dr. Benjamin Rush (1746-1813), who is well-known among psychiatrists as “the father of American psychiatry,” his image adorning the APA seal.

After Paine immigrated to Philadelphia in 1774, he and Rush became friends. At first somewhat protective of the audacious Paine, Rush cautioned Paine against his use of the then-taboo word independence in Common Sense, but Paine disregarded Rush using that word many times in it. Later on, after The Age of Reason made Paine an outcast, Rush refused to see Paine.

In addition to abandoning Paine, Rush attempted to gain favor with the new ruling class in the United States another way. In 1805, Rush diagnosed those rebelling against the newly centralized federal authority as having an “excess of the passion for liberty” that “constituted a species of insanity,” which he labeled as the disease of anarchia—this an earlier version of oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). In this and several other ways, Dr. Benjamin Rush is the perfect person to be the father of psychiatry.

Rush was a progressive of his era, but “liberal” in the same sense that Phil Ochs—nicknamed “Tom Paine with a guitar” —mocked hypocritical liberals. For example, Rush proclaimed himself a slave abolitionist, however, he had purchased a child slave named William Grubber in 1776, continued to own Grubber after he had joined the Pennsylvania Abolition Society a decade later, and would own Gruber until 1794 when he freed him for compensation. Rush’s “progressive” views on race also included his idea that blackness in skin color was caused by leprosy, and Rush advocated “curing” skin color, changing it from black to white. Rush believed he could abolish slavery by curing black people’s blackness.

Rush also invented some frightening treatments. Based on an earlier imbalance theory that improper flow of blood caused madness, Rush devised two mechanical devices to treat madness: a “tranquilizing chair” and a “gyrator,” not any fun for patients unless they enjoyed being strapped down, immobilized, and violently spun.

Rush considered himself as an expert not just on madness but on every illness, and for virtually all of them, Rush utilized bloodletting as his primary treatment, even at a time when bloodletting was falling out of favor. In “Benjamin Rush, MD: Assassin or Beloved Healer?” (2000), physician Robert L. North reports that in Rush’s era, “The majority of the medical community, especially the members of the College of Physicians, rejected Rush and his cures, using terms and phrases like ‘murderous.’”

William Cobbett, a journalist in Rush’s era, mocked Rush’s treatments (which also included mercury) as “one of those great discoveries which have contributed to the depopulation of the earth,” and Cobbett accused Rush of killing more patients than he had saved. (Cobbett is better known today for his ill-fated plan to provide Thomas Paine with a proper heroic reburial by moving Paine’s remains back to England.)

By the early twentieth century, medical historians were viewing Benjamin Rush as one of the most embarrassing figures in the history of American medicine. North quotes the 1929 History of the Medical Department of the United States Army on Rush’s disastrous impact: “Benjamin Rush had more influence upon American medicine and was more potent in propagation and long perpetuation of medical errors than any man of his day. To him, more than any other man in America, was due the great vogue of vomits, purging, and especially of bleeding, salivation and blistering, which blackened the record of medicine and afflicted the sick almost to the time of the Civil War.”

You would think that the American Psychiatric Association would not want such an historical embarrassment as their father figure. But perhaps the APA believes that the prestige of Rush being a signer of the Declaration of Independence trumps both his being a slave owner and his lethality as a physician.

Actually, Rush was not a complete loser, as he sued the journalist Cobbett for libel and won; and perhaps this legal triumph is inspirational for the APA and modern psychiatrists—providing them with hope that they too can triumph over truth tellers.


Bruce E. Levine, a practicing clinical psychologist, writes and speaks about how society, culture, politics and psychology intersect. His most recent book is Resisting Illegitimate Authority: A Thinking Person’s Guide to Being an Anti-Authoritarian―Strategies, Tools, and Models (AK Press). His Web site is