Of the Sources of Credulity, and of the Motives which should lead to an Examination of Religion.
I am unable, Madam, to express the grievous sentiments that the perusal of your letter produced in my bosom. Did not a rigorous duty retain me where I am, you would see me flying to your succor. Is it, then, true that Eugenia is miserable? Is even she tormented with chagrin, scruples, and inquietudes? In the midst of opulence and grandeur; assured of the tenderness and esteem of a husband who adores you; enjoying at court the advantage, so rare, of being sincerely beloved by every one; surrounded by friends who render sincere homage to your talents, your knowledge, and your tastes,—how can you suffer the pains of melancholy and sorrow? Your pure and virtuous soul can surely know neither shame nor remorse. Always so far removed from the weaknesses of your sex, on what account can you blush? Agreeably occupied with your duties, refreshed with useful reading and entertaining conversation, and having within your reach every diversity of virtuous pleasures, how happens it that fears, distastes, and cares come to assail a heart for which every thing should procure contentment and peace? Alas! even if your letter had not confirmed it but too much, from the trouble which agitates you I should have recognized without difficulty the work of superstition. This fiend alone possesses the power of disturbing honest souls, without calming the passions of the corrupt; and when once she gains possession of a heart, she has the ability to annihilate its repose forever.
Yes, Madam, for a long time I have known the dangerous effects of religious prejudices. I was myself formerly troubled with them. Like you I have trembled under the yoke of religion; and if a careful and deliberate examination had not fully undeceived me, instead of now being in a state to console you and to reassure you against yourself, you would see me at the present moment partaking your inquietudes, and augmenting in your mind the lugubrious ideas with which I perceive you to be tormented. Thanks to Reason and Philosophy, an unruffled serenity long ago irradiated my understanding, and banished the terrors with which I was formerly agitated. What happiness for me if the peace which I enjoy should put it in my power to break the charm which yet binds you with the chains of prejudice?
Nevertheless, without your express orders, I should never have dared to point out to you a mode of thinking widely different from your own, nor to combat the dangerous opinions to which you have been persuaded your happiness is attached. But for your request I should have continued to enclose in my own breast opinions odious to the most part of men accustomed to see nothing except by the eyes of judges visibly interested in deceiving them. Now, however, a sacred duty obliges me to speak. Eugenia, unquiet and alarmed, wishes me to explore her heart; she needs assistance; she wishes to fix her ideas upon an object which interests her repose and her felicity. I owe her the truth. It would be a crime longer to preserve silence. Although my attachment for her did not impose the necessity of responding to her confidence, the love of truth would oblige me to make efforts to dissipate the chimeras which render her unhappy.
I shall proceed then, Madam, to address you with the most complete frankness. Perhaps at the first glance my ideas may appear strange; but on examining them with still further care and attention, they will cease to shock you. Reason, good faith, and truth cannot do otherwise than exert great influence over such an intellect as yours. I appeal, therefore, from your alarmed imagination to your more tranquil judgment; I appeal from custom and prejudice to reflection and reason. Nature has given you a gentle and sensible soul, and has imparted an exquisitely lively imagination, and a certain admixture of melancholy which disposes to despondent revery. It is from this peculiar mental constitution that arise the woes that now afflict you. Your goodness, candor, and sincerity preclude your suspecting in others either fraud or malignity. The gentleness of your character prevents your contradicting notions that would appear revolting if you deigned to examine them. You have chosen rather to defer to the judgment of others, and to subscribe to their ideas, than to consult your own reason and rely upon your own understanding. The vivacity of your imagination causes you to embrace with avidity the dismal delineations which are presented to you; certain men, interested in agitating your mind, abuse your sensibility in order to produce alarm; they cause you to shudder at the terrible words, death, judgment, hell, punishment, and eternity; they lead you to turn pale at the very name of an inflexible judge, whose absolute decrees nothing can change; you fancy that you see around you those demons whom he has made the ministers of his vengeance upon his weak creatures; thus is your heart filled with affright; you fear that at every instant you may offend, without being aware of it, a capricious God, always threatening and always enraged. In consequence of such a state of mind, all those moments of your life which should only be productive of contentment and peace, are constantly poisoned by inquietudes, scruples, and panic terrors, from which a soul as pure as yours ought to be forever exempt. The agitation into which you are thrown by these fatal ideas suspends the exercise of your faculties; your reason is misled by a bewildered imagination, and you are afflicted with perplexities, with despondency, and with suspicion of yourself. In this manner you become the dupe of those men who, addressing the imagination and stifling reason, long since subjugated the universe, and have actually persuaded reasonable beings that their reason is either useless or dangerous.
Such is, Madam, the constant language of the apostles of superstition, whose design has always been, and will always continue to be, to destroy human reason in order to exercise their power with impunity over mankind. Throughout the globe the perfidious ministers of religion have been either the concealed or the declared enemies of reason, because they always see reason opposed to their views. Every where do they decry it, because they truly fear that it will destroy their empire by discovering their conspiracies and the futility of their fables. Every where upon its ruins they struggle to erect the empire of fanaticism and imagination. To attain this end with more certainty, they have unceasingly terrified mortals with hideous paintings, have astonished and seduced them by marvels and mysteries, embarrassed them by enigmas and uncertainties, surcharged them with observances and ceremonies, filled their minds with terrors and scruples, and fixed their eyes upon a future, which, far from rendering them more virtuous and happy here below, has only turned them from the path of true happiness, and destroyed it completely and forever in their bosoms.
Such are the artifices which the ministers of religion every where employ to enslave the earth and to retain it under the yoke. The human race, in all countries, has become the prey of the priests. The priests have given the name of religion to systems invented by them to subjugate men, whose imagination they had seduced, whose understanding they had confounded, and whose reason they had endeavored to extinguish.
It is especially in infancy that the human mind is disposed to receive whatever impression is made upon it. Thus our priests have prudently seized upon the youth to inspire them with ideas that they could never impose upon adults. It is during the most tender and susceptible age of men that the priests have familiarized the understanding of our race with monstrous fables, with extravagant and disjointed fancies, and with ridiculous chimeras, which, by degrees, become objects that are respected and that are feared during life.
We need only open our eyes to see the unworthy means employed by sacerdotal policy to stifle the dawning reason of men. During their infancy they are taught tales which are ridiculous, impertinent, contradictory, and criminal, and to these they are enjoined to pay respect. They are gradually impregnated with inconceivable mysteries that are announced as sacred truths, and they are accustomed to contemplate phantoms before which they habitually tremble. In a word, measures are taken which are the best calculated to render those blind who do not consult their reason, and to render those base who constantly shudder whenever they recall the ideas with which their priests infected their minds at an age when they were unable to guard against such snares.
Recall to mind, Madam, the dangerous cares which were taken in the convent where you were educated, to sow in your mind the germs of those inquietudes that now afflict you. It was there that they began to speak to you of fables, prodigies, mysteries, and doctrines that you actually revere, while, if these things were announced to-day for the first time, you would regard them as ridiculous, and as entirely unworthy of attention. I have often witnessed your laughter at the simplicity with which you formerly credited those tales of sorcerers and ghosts, that, during your childhood, were related by the nuns who had charge of your education. When you entered society where for a long time such chimeras have been disbelieved, you were insensibly undeceived, and at present you blush at your former credulity. Why have you not the courage to laugh, in a similar manner, at an infinity of other chimeras with no better foundation, which torment you even yet, and which only appear more respectable, because you have not dared to examine them with your own eyes, or because you see them respected by a public who have never explored them? If my Eugenia is enlightened and reasonable upon all other topics, why does she renounce her understanding and her judgment whenever religion is in question? In the mean time, at this redoubtable word her soul is disturbed, her strength abandons her, her ordinary penetration is at fault, her imagination wanders, she only sees through a cloud, she is unquiet and afflicted. On the watch against reason, she dares not call that to her assistance. She persuades herself that the best course for her to take is to allow herself to follow the opinions of a multitude who never examine, and who always suffer themselves to be conducted by blind or deceitful guides.
To reëstablish peace in your mind, dear Madam, cease to despise yourself; entertain a just confidence in your own powers of mind, and feel no chagrin at finding yourself infected with a general and involuntary epidemic from which it did not depend on you to escape. The good Abbé de St. Pierre had reason when he said that devotion was the small pox of the soul. I will add that it is rare the disease does not leave its pits for life. Indeed, see how often the most enlightened persons persist forever in the prejudices of their infancy! These notions are so early inculcated, and so many precautions are continually taken to render them durable, that if any thing may reasonably surprise us, it is to see any one have the ability to rise superior to such influences. The most sublime geniuses are often the playthings of superstition. The heat of their imagination sometimes only serves to lead them the farther astray, and to attach them to opinions which would cause them to blush did they but consult their reason. Pascal constantly imagined that he saw hell yawning under his feet; Mallebranche was extravagantly credulous; Hobbes had a great terror of phantoms and demons;[*] and the immortal Newton wrote a ridiculous commentary on the vials and visions of the Apocalypse. In a word, every thing proves that there is nothing more difficult than to efface the notions with which we are imbued during our infancy. The most sensible persons, and those who reason with the most correctness upon every other matter, relapse into their infancy whenever religion is in question.
Thus, Madam, you need not blush for a weakness which you hold in common with almost all the world, and from which the greatest men are not always exempt. Let your courage then revive, and fear not to examine with perfect composure the phantoms which alarm you. In a matter which so greatly interests your repose, consult that enlightened reason which places you as much above the vulgar, as it elevates the human species above the other animals. Far from being suspicious of your own understanding and intellectual faculties, turn your just suspicion against those men, far less enlightened and honest than you, who, to vanquish you, only address themselves to your lively imagination; who have the cruelty to disturb the serenity of your soul; who, under the pretext of attaching you only to heaven, insist that you must sunder the most tender and endearing ties; and in fine, who oblige you to proscribe the use of that beneficent reason whose light guides your conduct so judiciously and so safely.
Leave inquietude and remorse to those corrupt women who have cause to reproach themselves, or who have crimes to expiate. Leave superstition to those silly and ignorant females whose narrow minds are incapable of reasoning or reflection. Abandon the futile and trivial ceremonies of an objectionable devotion to those idle and peevish women, for whom, as soon as the transient reign of their personal charms is finished, there remains no rational relaxation to fill the void of their days, and who seek by slander and treachery to console themselves for the loss of pleasures which they can no longer enjoy. Resist that inclination which seems to impel you to gloomy meditation, solitude, and melancholy. Devotion is only suited to inert and listless souls, while yours is formed for action. You should pursue the course I recommend for the sake of your husband, whose happiness depends upon you; you owe it to the children, who will soon, undoubtedly, need all your care and all your instructions for the guidance of their hearts and understandings; you owe it to the friends who honor you, and who will value your society when the beauty which now adorns your person and the voluptuousness which graces your figure have yielded to the inroads of time; you owe it to the circle in which you move, and to the world which has a right to your example, possessing as you do virtues that are far more rare to persons of your rank than devotion. In fine, you owe happiness to yourself; for, notwithstanding the promises of religion, you will never find happiness in those agitations into which I perceive you cast by the lurid ideas of superstition. In this path you will only encounter doleful chimeras, frightful phantoms, embarrassments without end, crushing uncertainties, inexplicable enigmas, and dangerous reveries, which are only calculated to disturb your repose, to deprive you of happiness, and to render you incapable of occupying yourself with that of others. It is very difficult to make those around us happy when we are ourselves miserable and deprived of peace.
If you will even slightly make observations upon those about you, you will find abundant proofs of what I advance. The most religious persons are rarely the most amiable or the most social. Even the most sincere devotion, by subjecting those who embrace it to wearisome and crippling ceremonies, by occupying their imaginations with lugubrious and afflicting objects, by exciting their zeal, is but little calculated to give to devotees that equality of temper, that sweetness of an indulgent disposition, and that amenity of character, which constitute the greatest charms of personal intercourse. A thousand examples might be adduced to convince you that devotees who are the most occupied in superstitious observances to please God are not those women who succeed best in pleasing those by whom they are surrounded. If there seems to be occasionally an exception to this rule, it is on the part of those who have not all the zeal and fervor which is exacted by their religion. Devotion is either a morose and melancholy passion, or it is a violent and obstinate enthusiasm. Religion imposes an exclusive and entire regard upon its slaves. All that an acceptable Christian gives to a fellow-creature is a robbery from the Creator. A soul filled with religious fervor fears to attach itself to things of the earth, lest it should lose sight of its jealous God, who wishes to engross constant attention, who lays it down as a duty to his creatures that they should sacrifice to him their most agreeable and most innocent inclinations, and who orders that they should render themselves miserable here below, under the idea of pleasing him. In accordance with such principles, we generally see devotees executing with much fidelity the duty of tormenting themselves and disturbing the repose of others. They actually believe they acquire great merit with the Sovereign of heaven by rendering themselves perfectly useless, or even a scourge to the inhabitants of the earth.
I am aware, Madam, that devotion in you does not produce effects injurious to others; but I fear that it is only more injurious to yourself. The goodness of your heart, the sweetness of your disposition, and the beneficence which displays itself in all your conduct, are all so great that even religion does not impel you to any dangerous excesses. Nevertheless, devotion often causes strange metamorphoses. Unquiet, agitated, miserable within yourself, it is to be feared that your temperament will change, that your disposition will become acrimonious, and that the vexatious ideas over which you have so long brooded will sooner or later produce a disastrous influence upon those who approach you. Does not experience constantly show us that religion effects changes of this kind? What are called conversions, what devotees regard as special acts of divine grace, are very often only lamentable revolutions by which real vices and odious qualities are substituted for amiable and useful characteristics. By a deplorable consequence of these pretended miracles of grace we frequently see sorrow succeed to enjoyment, a gloomy and unhappy state to one of innocent gayety, lassitude and chagrin to activity and hilarity, and slander, intolerance, and zeal to indulgence and gentleness; nay, what do I say? cruelty itself to humanity. In a word, superstition is a dangerous leaven, that is fitted to corrupt even the most honest hearts.
Do you not see, in fact, the excesses to which fanaticism and zeal drive the wisest and best meaning men? Princes, magistrates, and judges become inhuman and pitiless as soon as there is a question of the interests of religion. Men of the gentlest disposition, the most indulgent, and the most equitable, upon every other matter, religion transforms to ferocious beasts. The most feeling and compassionate persons believe themselves in conscience obliged to harden their hearts, to do violence to their better instincts, and to stifle nature, in order to show themselves cruel to those who are denounced as enemies to their own manner of thinking. Recall to your mind, Madam, the cruelties of nations and governments in alternate persecutions of Catholics or Protestants, as either happened to be in the ascendant. Can you find reason, equity, or humanity in the vexations, imprisonments, and exiles that in our days are inflicted upon the Jansenists? And these last, if ever they should attain in their turn the power requisite for persecution, would not probably treat their adversaries with more moderation or justice. Do you not daily see individuals who pique themselves upon their sensibility unblushingly express the joy they would feel at the extermination of persons to whom they believe they owe neither benevolence nor indulgence, and whose only crime is a disdain for prejudices that the vulgar regard as sacred, or that an erroneous and false policy considers useful to the state? Superstition has so greatly stifled all sense of humanity in many persons otherwise truly estimable, that they have no compunctions at sacrificing the most enlightened men of the nation because they could not be the most credulous or the most submissive to the authority of the priests.
In a word, devotion is only calculated to fill the heart with a bitter rancor, that banishes peace and harmony from society. In the matter of religion, every one believes himself obliged to show more or less ardor and zeal. Have I not often seen you uncertain yourself whether you ought to sigh or smile at the self-depreciation of devotees ridiculously inflamed by that religious vanity which grows out of sectarian conventionalities? You also see them participating in theological quarrels, in which, without comprehending their nature or purport, they believe themselves conscientiously obliged to mingle. I have a hundred times seen you astounded with their clamors, indignant at their animosity, scandalized at their cabals, and filled with disdain at their obstinate ignorance. Yet nothing is more natural than these outbreaks; ignorance has always been the mother of devotion. To be a devotee has always been synonymous to having an imbecile confidence in priests. It is to receive all impulsions from them; it is to think and act only according to them; it is blindly to adopt their passions and prejudices; it is faithfully to fulfil practices which their caprice imposes.
Eugenia is not formed to follow such guides. They would terminate by leading her widely astray, by dazzling her vivid imagination, by infecting her gentle and amiable disposition with a deadly poison. To master with more certainty her understanding, they would render her austere, intolerant, and vindictive. In a word, by the magical power of superstition and supernatural notions, they would succeed, perhaps, in transforming to vices those happy dispositions that nature has given you. Believe me, Madam, you would gain nothing by such a metamorphosis. Rather be what you really are. Extricate yourself as soon as possible from that state of incertitude and languor, from that alternative of despondency and trouble, in which you are immersed. If you will only take your reason and virtue for guides, you will soon break the fetters whose dangerous effects you have begun to feel.
Assume the courage, then, I repeat it, to examine for yourself this religion, which, far from procuring you the happiness it promised, will only prove an inexhaustible source of inquietudes and alarms, and which will deprive you, sooner or later, of those rare qualities which render you so dear to society. Your interest exacts that you should render peace to your mind. It is your duty carefully to preserve that sweetness of temper, that indulgence, and that cheerfulness, by which you are so much endeared to all those who approach you. You owe happiness to yourself, and you owe it to those who surround you. Do not, then, abandon yourself to superstitious reveries, but collect all the strength of your judgment to combat the chimeras which torment your imagination. They will disappear as soon as you have considered them with your ordinary sagacity.
Do not tell me, Madam, that your understanding is too weak to sound the depths of theology. Do not tell me, in the language of our priests, that the truths of religion are mysteries that we must adopt without comprehending them, and that it is necessary to adore in silence. By expressing themselves in this manner, do you not see they really proscribe and condemn the very religion to which they are so solicitous you should adhere? Whatever is supernatural is unsuited to man, and whatever is beyond his comprehension ought not to occupy his attention. To adore what we are not able to know, is to adore nothing. To believe in what we cannot conceive, is to believe in nothing. To admit without examination every thing we are directed to admit, is to be basely and stupidly credulous. To say that religion is above reason, is to recognize the fact that it was not made for reasonable beings; it is to avow that those who teach it have no more ability to fathom its depths than ourselves; it is to confess that our reverend doctors do not themselves understand the marvels with which they daily entertain us.
If the truths of religion were, as they assure us, necessary to all men, they would be clear and intelligible to all men. If the dogmas which this religion teaches were as important as it is asserted, they would not only be within the comprehension of the doctors who preach them, but of all those who hear their lessons. Is it not strange that the very persons whose profession it is to furnish themselves with religions knowledge, in order to impart it to others, should recognize their own dogmas as beyond their own understanding, and that they should obstinately inculcate to the people what they acknowledge they do not comprehend themselves? Should we have much confidence in a physician, who, after confessing that he was utterly ignorant of his art, should nevertheless boast of the excellence of his remedies? This, however, is the constant practice of our spiritual quacks. By a strange fatality, the most sensible people consent to be the dupes of these empirics who are perpetually obliged to avow their own profound ignorance.
But if the mysteries of religion are incomprehensible for even those who inculcate it,—if among those who profess it there is no one who knows precisely what he believes, or who can give an account of either his conduct or belief,—this is not so in regard to the difficulties with which we oppose this religion. These objections are simple, within the comprehension of all persons of ordinary ability, and capable of convincing every man who, renouncing the prejudices of his infancy, will deign to consult the good sense that nature has bestowed upon all beings of the human race.
For a long period of time, subtle theologians have, without relaxation, been occupied in warding off the attacks of the incredulous, and in repairing the breaches made in the ruinous edifice of religion by adversaries who combated under the flag of reason. In all times there have been people who felt the futility of the titles upon which the priests have arrogated the right of enslaving the understandings of men, and of subjugating and despoiling nations. Notwithstanding all the efforts of the interested and frequently hypocritical men who have taken up the defence of religion, from which they and their confederates alone are profited, these apologists have never been able to vindicate successfully their divine system against the attacks of incredulity. Without cessation they have replied to the objections which have been made, but never have they refuted or annihilated them. Almost in every instance the defenders of Christianity have been sustained by oppressive laws on the part of the government; and it has only been by injuries, by declamations, by punishments and persecutions, that they have replied to the allegations of reason. It is in this manner that they have apparently remained masters of the field of battle which their adversaries could not openly contest. Yet, in spite of the disadvantages of a combat so unequal, and although the partisans of religion were accoutred with every possible weapon, and could show themselves openly, in accordance with law, while their adversaries had no arms but those of reason, and could not appear personally but at the peril of fines, imprisonment, torture, and death, and were restricted from bringing all their arsenal into service, yet they have inflicted profound, immedicable, and incurable wounds upon superstition. Still, if we believe the mercenaries of religion, the excellence of their system makes it absolutely invulnerable to every blow which can be inflicted upon it; and they pretend they have a thousand times in a victorious manner answered the objections which are continually renewed against them. In spite of this great security, we see them excessively alarmed every time a new combatant presents himself, and the latter may well and successfully use the most common objections, and those which have most frequently been urged, since it is evident that up to the present moment the arguments have never been obviated or opposed with satisfactory replies. To convince you, Madam, of what I here advance, you need only compare the most simple and ordinary difficulties which good sense opposes to religion, with the pretended solutions that have been given. You will perceive that the difficulties, evident even to the capacities of a child, have never been removed by divines the most practised in dialectics. You will find in their replies only subtle distinctions, metaphysical subterfuges, unintelligible verbiage, which can never be the language of truth, and which demonstrates the embarrassment, the impotence, and the bad faith of those who are interested by their position in sustaining a desperate cause. In a word, the difficulties which have been urged against religion are clear, and within the comprehension of every one, while the answers which have been given are obscure, entangled, and far from satisfactory, even to persons most versed in such jargon, and plainly indicating that the authors of these replies do not themselves understand what they say.
If you consult the clergy, they will not fail to set forth the antiquity of their doctrine, which has always maintained itself, notwithstanding the continual attacks of the Heretics, the Mecreans, and the Impious generally, and also in spite of the persecutions of the Pagans. You have, Madam, too much good sense not to perceive at once that the antiquity of an opinion proves nothing in its favor. If antiquity was a proof of truth, Christianity must yield to Judaism, and that in its turn to the religion of the Egyptians and Chaldeans, or, in other words, to the idolatry which was greatly anterior to Moses. For thousands of years it was universally believed that the sun revolved round the earth, which remained immovable; and yet it is not the less true that the sun is fixed, and the earth moves around that. Besides, it is evident that the Christianity of to-day is not what it formerly was. The continual attacks that this religion has suffered from heretics, commencing with its earliest history, proves that there never could have existed any harmony between the partisans of a pretended divine system, which offended all rules of consistency and logic in its very first principles. Some parts of this celestial system were always denied by devotees who admitted other parts. If infidels have often attacked religion without apparent effect, it is because the best reasons become useless against the blindness of a superstition sustained by the public authority, or against the torrent of opinion and custom which sways the minds of most men. With regard to the persecutions which the church suffered on the part of the pagans, he is but slightly acquainted with the effects of fanaticism and religious obstinacy who does not perceive that tyranny is calculated to excite and extend what it persecutes most violently.
You are not formed to be the dupe of names and authorities. The defenders of the popular superstition will endeavor to overwhelm you by the multiplied testimony of many illustrious and learned men, who not only admitted the Christian religion, but who were also its most zealous supporters. They will adduce holy divines, great philosophers, powerful reasoners, fathers of the church, and learned interpreters, who have successively advocated the system. I will not contest the understanding of the learned men who are cited, which, however, was often faulty, but will content myself with repeating that frequently the greatest geniuses are not more clear sighted in matters of religion than the people themselves. They did not examine the religious opinions they taught; it may be because they regarded them as sacred, or it may be because they never went back to first principles, which they would have found altogether unsound, if they had considered them without prejudice. It may also have happened because they were interested in defending a cause with which their own position was allied. Thus their testimony is exceptionable, and their authority carries no great weight.
With regard to the interpreters and commentators, who for so many ages have painfully toiled to elucidate the divine laws, to explain the sacred books, and to fix the dogmas of Christianity, their very labors ought to inspire us with suspicion concerning a religion which is founded upon such books and which preaches such dogmas. They prove that works emanating from the Supreme Being are obscure, unintelligible, and need human assistance in order to be understood by those to whom the Divinity wished to reveal his will. The laws of a wise God would be simple and clear. Defective laws alone need interpreters.
It is not, then, Madam, upon these interpreters that you should rely; it is upon yourself; it is your own reason that you should consult. It is your happiness, it is your repose, that is in question; and these objects are too serious to allow their decision to be delegated to any others than yourself. If religion is as important as we are assured, it undoubtedly merits the greatest attention. If it is upon this religion that depends the happiness of men both in this world and in another, there is no subject which interests us so strongly, and which consequently demands a more thorough, careful, and considerate examination. Can there be any thing, then, more strange than the conduct of the great majority of men? Entirely convinced of the necessity and importance of religion, they still never give themselves the trouble to examine it thoroughly; they follow it in a spirit of routine and from habit; they never give any reason for its dogmas; they revere it, they submit to it, and they groan under its weight, without ever inquiring wherefore. In fine, they rely upon others to examine it; and they whose judgment they so blindly receive are precisely those persons upon whose opinions they should look with the most suspicion. The priests arrogate the possession of judging exclusively and without appeal of a system evidently invented for their own utility. And what is the language of these priests? Visibly interested in maintaining the received opinions, they exhibit them as necessary to the public good, as useful and consoling for us all, as intimately connected with morality, as indispensable to society, and, in a word, as of the very greatest importance. After having thus prepossessed our minds, they next prohibit our examining the things so important to be known. What must be thought of such conduct? You can only conclude that they desire to deceive you, that they fear examination only because religion cannot sustain it, and that they dread reason because it is able to unveil the incalculably dangerous projects of the priesthood against the human race.
For these reasons, Madam, as I cannot too often repeat, examine for yourself; make use of your own understanding; seek the truth in the sincerity of your heart; reduce prejudice to silence; throw off the base servitude of custom; be suspicious of imagination; and with these precautions, in good faith with yourself, you can weigh with an impartial hand the various opinions concerning religion. From whatever source an opinion may come, acquiesce only in that which shall be convincing to your understanding, satisfactory to your heart, conformable to a healthy morality, and approved by virtue. Reject with disdain whatever shocks your reason, and repulse with horror those notions so criminal and injurious to morality which religion endeavors to palm off for supernatural and divine virtues.
What do I say? Amiable and wise Eugenia, examine rigorously the ideas that, by your own desire, I shall hereafter present you. Let not your confidence in me, or your deference to my weak understanding, blind you in regard to my opinions. I submit them to your judgment. Discuss them, combat them, and never give them your assent until you are convinced that in them you recognize the truth. My sentiments are neither divine oracles nor theological opinions which it is not permitted to canvass. If what I say is true, adopt my ideas. If I am deceived, point out my errors, and I am ready to recognize them and to subscribe my own condemnation. It will be very pleasant, Madam, to learn truths of you which, up to the present time, I have vainly sought in the writings of our divines. If I have at this moment any advantage over you, it is due entirely to that tranquillity which I enjoy, and of which at present you are unhappily deprived. The agitations of your mind, the inquietudes of your body, and the attacks of an exacting and ceremonious devotion, with which your soul is perplexed, prevent you, for the moment, from seeing things coolly, and hinder you from making use of your own understanding; but I have no doubt that soon your intellect, strengthened by reason against vain chimeras, will regain its natural vigor and the superiority which belongs to it. In awaiting this moment that I foresee and so much desire, I shall esteem myself extremely happy if my reflections shall contribute to render you that tranquillity of spirit so necessary to judge wisely of things, and without which there can be no true happiness.
I perceive, Madam, though rather tardily, the length of this letter; but I hope you will pardon it, as well as my frankness. They will at least prove the lively interest I take in your painful situation, the sincere desire I feel to bring it to a termination, and the strong inclination which actuates me to restore you to your accustomed serenity. Less pressing motives would never have been sufficient to make me break silence. Your own positive orders were necessary to lead me to speak of objects which, once thoroughly examined, give no uneasiness to a healthy mind. It has been a law with me never to explain myself upon the subject of religion. Experience has often convinced me that the most useless of enterprises is to seek to undeceive a prejudiced mind. I was very far from believing that I ought ever to write upon these subjects. You alone, Madam, had the power to conquer my indolence, and to impel me to change my resolution. Eugenia afflicted, tormented with scruples, and ready to plunge herself into gloomy austerities and superstitions, calculated to render her unamiable to others, without contributing happiness to herself, honored me with her confidence, and requested counsel of her friend. She exacted that I should speak. "It is enough," I said; "let me write for Eugenia; let me endeavor to restore the repose she has lost; let me labor with ardor for her upon whose happiness that of so many others is dependent."
Such, Madam, are the motives which induce me to take my pen in hand. In looking forward to the time when you will be undeceived, I shall dare at least to flatter myself that you will not regard me with the same eyes with which priests and devotees look upon every one who has the temerity to contradict their ideas. To believe them, every man who declares himself against religion is a bad citizen, a madman armed to justify his passions, a perturbator of the public repose, and an enemy of his fellow-citizens, that cannot be punished with too much rigor. My conduct is known to you; and the confidence with which you honor me is sufficient for my apology. It is for you alone that I write. It is to dissipate the clouds that obscure your mental horizon that I communicate reflections which, but for reasons so pressing, I should have always enclosed in my own bosom. If by chance they shall hereafter fall into other hands than yours, and be found of some utility, I shall felicitate myself for having contributed to the establishment of happiness by leading back to reason minds which had wandered from it, by making truth to be felt and known, and by unmasking impostures which have caused so many misfortunes upon the earth.
In a word, I submit my reasoning to your judgment, I confide fully in your discretion, and I allow myself to conclude that my ideas, after you are disabused of the vain terrors with which you are now oppressed, will fully convince you that this religion, which is exhibited to men as a concern the most important, the most true, the most interesting, and the most useful, is only a tissue of absurdities, is calculated to confound reason, to disturb the understanding, and can be advantageous to none save those who make use of it to govern the human race. I shall acknowledge myself in the wrong if I do not prove, in the clearest manner, that religion is false, useless, and dangerous, and that morality, in its stead, should occupy the spirits and animate the souls of all men.
I shall enter more particularly into the subject in my next letter. I shall go back to first principles, and in the course of this correspondence I flatter myself I shall completely demonstrate that these objects, which theology endeavors to render intricate, and to envelop with clouds, in order to make them more respectable and sacred, are not only entirely susceptible of being understood by you, but that they are likewise within the comprehension of every one who possesses even an ordinary share of good sense. If my frankness shall appear too undisguised, I beg you to consider, Madam, that it is necessary I should address you explicitly and clearly. I now consider it my duty to administer an energetic and prompt remedy for the malady with which I perceive you to be attacked. Besides, I venture to hope that in a short time you will feel gratified that I have shown you the truth in all its integrity and brilliancy. You will pardon me for having dissipated the unreal and yet harassing phantoms which infested your mind. But let my success be what it may, my efforts to confer tranquillity upon you will at least be evidences of the interest I take in your happiness, of my zeal to serve you, and of the respect with which I am your sincere and attached friend.
[*] On this subject see Bayle's Dict. Crit., art. Hobbes, Rem. N.