Freethought Archives > Baron d'Holbach > Letters to Eugenia

Letter II.

Of the Ideas which Religion gives us of the Divinity.

Every religion is a system of opinions and conduct founded upon the notions, true or false, that we entertain of the Divinity. To judge of the truth of any system, it is requisite to examine its principles, to see if they accord, and to satisfy ourselves whether all its parts lend a mutual support to each other. A religion, to be true, should give us true ideas of God; and it is by our reason alone that we are able to decide whether what theology asserts concerning this being and his attributes is true or otherwise. Truth for men is only conformity to reason; and thus the same reason which the clergy proscribe is, in the last resort, our only means of judging the system that religion proposes for our assent. That God can only be the true God who is most conformable to our reason, and the true worship can be no other than that which reason approves.

Religion is only important in accordance with the advantages it bestows upon mankind. The best religion must be that which procures its disciples the most real, the most extensive, and the most durable advantages. A false religion must necessarily bestow upon those who practise it only a false, chimerical, and transient utility. Reason must be the judge whether the benefits derived are real or imaginary. Thus, as we constantly see, it belongs to reason to decide whether a religion, a mode of worship, or a system of conduct is advantageous or injurious to the human race.

It is in accordance with these incontestable principles that I shall examine the religion of the Christians. I shall commence by analyzing the ideas which their system gives us of the Divinity, which it boasts of presenting to us in a more perfect manner than all other religions in the world. I shall examine whether these ideas accord with each other, whether the dogmas taught by this religion are conformable to those fundamental principles which are every where acknowledged, whether they are consonant with them, and whether the conduct which Christianity prescribes answers to the notions which itself gives us of the Divinity. I shall conclude the inquiry by investigating the advantages that the Christian religion procures the human race—advantages, according to its partisans, that infinitely surpass those which result from all the other religions of the earth.

The Christian religion, as the basis of its belief, sets forth an only God, which it defines as a pure spirit, as an eternal intelligence, as independent and immutable, who has infinite power, who is the cause of all things, who foresees all things, who fills immensity, who created from nothing the world and all it encloses, and who preserves and governs it according to the laws of his infinite wisdom, and the perfections of his infinite goodness and justice, which are all so evident in his works.

Such are the ideas that Christianity gives us of the Divinity. Let us now see whether they accord with the other notions presented to us by this religious system, and which it pretends were revealed by God himself; or, in other words, that these truths were received directly from the Deity, who concealed them from the remainder of mankind, and deprived them of a knowledge of his essence. Thus the Christian religion is founded upon a special revelation. And to whom was the revelation made? At first to Abraham, and then to his posterity. The God of the universe, then, the Father of all men, was only willing to be known to the descendants of a Chaldean, who for a long series of years were the exclusive possessors of the knowledge of the true God. By an effect of his special kindness, the Jewish people was for a long time the only race favored with a revelation equally necessary for all men. This was the only people which understood the relations between man and the Supreme Being. All other nations wandered in darkness, or possessed no ideas of the Sovereign of nature but such as were crude, ridiculous, or criminal.

Thus, at the very first step, do we not see that Christianity impairs the goodness and justice of its God? A revelation to a particular people only announces a partial God, who favors a portion of his children, to the prejudice of all the others; who consults only his caprice, and not real merit; who, incapable of conferring happiness upon all men, shows his tenderness solely to some individuals, who have, however, no titles upon his consideration not possessed by the others. What would you say of a father who, placed at the head of a numerous family, had no eyes but for a single one of his children, and who never allowed himself to be seen by any of them except that favored one? What would you say if he was displeased with the rest for not being acquainted with his features, notwithstanding he would never allow them to approach his person? Would you not accuse such a father of caprice, cruelty, folly, and a want of reason, if he visited with his anger the children whom he had himself excluded from his presence? Would you not impute to him an injustice of which none but the most brutal of our species could be guilty if he actually punished them for not having executed orders which he was never pleased to give them?

Conclude, then, with me, Madam, that the revelation of a religion to only a single tribe or nation sets forth a God neither good, impartial, nor equitable, but an unjust and capricious tyrant, who, though he may show kindness and preference to some of his creatures, at any rate acts with the greatest cruelty towards all the others. This admitted, revelation does not prove the goodness, but the caprice and partiality of the God that religion represents to us as full of sagacity, benevolence, and equity, and that it describes as the common father of all the inhabitants of the earth. If the interest and self-love of those whom he favors makes them admire the profound views of a God because he has loaded them with benefits to the prejudice of their brethren, he must appear very unjust, on the other hand, to all those who are the victims of his partiality. A hateful pride alone could induce a few persons to believe that they were, to the exclusion of all others, the cherished children of Providence. Blinded by their vanity, they do not perceive that it is to give the lie to universal and infinite goodness to suppose that God was capable of favoring with his preference some men or nations, to the exclusion of others. All ought to be equal in his eyes if it is true they are all equally the work of his hands.

It is, nevertheless, upon partial revelations that are founded all the religions of the world. In the same manner that every individual believes himself the most important being in the universe, every nation entertains the idea that it ought to enjoy the peculiar tenderness of the Sovereign of nature, to the exclusion of all the others. If the inhabitants of Hindostan imagine that it was for them alone that Brama spoke, the Jews and the Christians have persuaded themselves that it was only for them that the world was created, and that it is solely for them that God was revealed.

But let us suppose for a moment that God has really made himself known. How could a pure spirit render himself sensible? What form did he take? Of what material organs did he make use in order to speak? How can an infinite Being communicate with those which are finite? I may be assured that, to accommodate himself to the weakness of his creatures, he made use of the agency of some chosen men to announce his wishes to all the rest, and that he filled these agents with his spirit, and spoke by their mouths. But can we possibly conceive that an infinite Being could unite himself with the finite nature of man? How can I be certain that he who professes to be inspired by the Divinity does not promulgate his own reveries or impostures as the oracles of heaven? What means have I of recognizing whether God really speaks by his voice? The immediate reply will be, that God, to give weight to the declarations of those whom he has chosen to be his interpreters, endowed them with a portion of his own omnipotence, and that they wrought miracles to prove their divine mission.

I therefore inquire, What is a miracle? I am told that it is an operation contrary to the laws of nature, which God himself has fixed; to which I reply, that, according to the ideas I have formed of the divine wisdom, it appears to me impossible that an immutable God can change the wise laws which he himself has established. I thence conclude that miracles are impossible, seeing they are incompatible with our ideas of the wisdom and immutability of the Creator of the universe. Besides, these miracles would be useless to God. If he be omnipotent, can he not modify the minds of his creatures according to his own will?

To convince and to persuade them, he has only to will that they shall be convinced and persuaded. He has only to tell them things that are clear and sensible, things that may be demonstrated; and to evidence of such a kind they will not fail to give their assent. To do this, he will have no need either of miracles or interpreters; truth alone is sufficient to win mankind.

Supposing, nevertheless, the utility and possibility of these miracles, how shall I ascertain whether the wonderful operation which I see performed by the interpreter of the Deity be conformable or contrary to the laws of nature? Am I acquainted with all these laws? May not he who speaks to me in the name of the Lord execute by natural means, though to me unknown, those works which appear altogether extraordinary? How shall I assure myself that he does not deceive me? Does not my ignorance of the secrets and shifts of his art expose me to be the dupe of an able impostor, who might make use of the name of God to inspire me with respect, and to screen his deception? Thus his pretended miracles ought to make me suspect him, even though I were a witness of them; but how would the case stand, were these miracles said to have been performed some thousands of years before my existence? I shall be told that they were attested by a multitude of witnesses; but if I cannot trust to myself when a miracle is performing, how shall I have confidence in others, who may be either more ignorant or more stupid than myself, or who perhaps thought themselves interested in supporting by their testimony tales entirely destitute of reality?

If, on the contrary, I admit these miracles, what do they prove to me? Will they furnish me with a belief that God has made use of his omnipotence to convince me of things which are in direct opposition to the ideas I have formed of his essence, his nature, and his divine perfections? If I be persuaded that God is immutable, a miracle will not force me to believe that he is subject to change. If I be convinced that God is just and good, a miracle will never be sufficient to persuade me that he is unjust and wicked. If I possess an idea of his wisdom, all the miracles in the world would not persuade me that God would act like a madman. Shall I be told that he would consent to perform miracles that destroy his divinity, or that are proper only to erase from the minds of men the ideas which they ought to entertain of his infinite perfections? This, however, is what would happen were God himself to perform, or to grant the power of performing, miracles in favor of a particular revelation. He would, in that case, derange the course of nature, to teach the world that he is capricious, partial, unjust, and cruel; he would make use of his omnipotence purposely to convince us that his goodness was insufficient for the welfare of his creatures; he would make a vain parade of his power, to hide his inability to convince mankind by a single act of his will. In short, he would interfere with the eternal and immutable laws of nature, to show us that he is subject to change, and to announce to mankind some important news, which they had hitherto been destitute of, notwithstanding all his goodness.

Thus, under whatever point of view we regard revelation, by whatever miracles we may suppose it attested, it will always be in contradiction to the ideas we have of the Deity. They will show us that he acts in an unjust and an arbitrary manner, consulting only his own whims in the favors he bestows, and continually changing his conduct; that he was unable to communicate all at once to mankind the knowledge necessary to their existence, and to give them that degree of perfection of which their natures were susceptible. Hence, Madam, you may see that the supposition of a revelation can never be reconciled with the infinite goodness, justice, omnipotence, and immutability of the Sovereign of the universe.

They will not fail to tell you that the Creator of all things, the independent Monarch of nature is the master of his favors; that he owes nothing to his creatures; that he can dispose of them as he pleases, without any injustice, and without their having any right of complaint; that man is incapable of sounding the profundity of his decrees; and that his justice is not the justice of men. But all these answers, which divines have continually in their mouths, serve only to accelerate the destruction of those sublime ideas which they have given us of the Deity. The result appears to be, that God conducts himself according to the maxims of a fantastic sovereign, who, satisfied in having rewarded some of his favorites, thinks himself justified in neglecting the rest of his subjects, and to leave them groaning in the most deplorable misery.

You must acknowledge, Madam, it is not on such a model that we can form a powerful, equitable, and beneficent God, whose omnipotence ought to enable him to procure happiness to all his subjects, without fear of exhausting the treasures of his goodness.

If we are told that divine justice bears no resemblance to the justice of men, I reply, that in this case we are not authorized to say that God is just; seeing that by justice it is not possible for us to conceive any thing except a similar quality to that called justice by the beings of our own species. If divine justice bears no resemblance to human justice,—if, on the contrary, this justice resembles what we call injustice,—then all our ideas confound themselves, and we know not either what we mean or what we say when we affirm that God is just. According to human ideas, (which are, however, the only ones that men are possessed of,) justice will always exclude caprice and partiality; and never can we prevent ourselves from regarding as iniquitous and vicious a sovereign who, being both able and willing to occupy himself with the happiness of his subjects, should plunge the greatest number of them into misfortune, and reserve his kindness for those to whom his whims have given the preference.

With respect to telling us that God owes nothing to his creatures, such an atrocious principle is destructive of every idea of justice and goodness, and tends visibly to sap the foundation of all religion. A God that is just and good owes happiness to every being to whom he has given existence; he ceases to be just and good if he produce them only to render them miserable; and he would be destitute of both wisdom and reason were he to give them birth only to be the victims of his caprice. What should we think of a father bringing children into the world for the sole purpose of putting their eyes out and tormenting them at his ease?

On the other hand, all religions are entirely founded upon the reciprocal engagements which are supposed to exist between God and his creatures. If God owes nothing to the latter, if he is not under an obligation to fulfil his engagements to them when they have fulfilled theirs to him, of what use is religion? What motives can men have to offer their homage and worship to the Divinity? Why should they feel much desire to love or serve a master who can absolve himself of all duty towards those who entered his service with an expectation of the recompense promised under such circumstances?

It is easy to see that the destructive ideas of divine justice which are inculcated are only founded upon a fatal prejudice prevalent among the generality of men, leading them to suppose that unlimited power must inevitably exempt its possessor from an accordance with the laws of equity; that force can confer the right of committing bad actions; and that no one could properly demand an account of his conduct of a man sufficiently powerful to carry out all his caprices. These ideas are evidently borrowed from the conduct of tyrants, who no sooner find themselves possessed of absolute power than they cease to recognize any other rules than their own fantasies, and imagine that justice has no claims upon potentates like them.

It is upon this frightful model that theologians have formed that God whom they, notwithstanding, assert to be a just being, while, if the conduct they attribute to him was true, we should be constrained to regard him as the most unjust of tyrants, as the most partial of fathers, as the most fantastic of princes, and, in a word, as a being the most to be feared and the least worthy of love that the imagination could devise. We are informed that the God who created all men has been unwilling to be known except to a very small number of them, and that while this favored portion exclusively enjoyed the benefits of his kindness, all the others were objects of his anger, and were only created by him to be left in blindness for the very purpose of punishing them in the most cruel manner. We see these pernicious characteristics of the Divinity penetrating the entire economy of the Christian religion; we find them in the books which are pretended to be inspired, and we discover them in the dogmas of predestination and grace. In a word, every thing in religion announces a despotic God, whom his disciples vainly attempt to represent to us as just, while all that they declare of him only proves his injustice, his tyrannical caprices, his extravagances, so frequently cruel, and his partiality, so pernicious to the greater portion of the human race. When we exclaim against conduct which, in the eyes of all reasonable men, must appear so excessively capricious, it is expected that our mouths will be closed by the assertion that God is omnipotent, that it is for him to determine how he will bestow benefits, and that he is under no obligations to any of his creatures. His apologists end by endeavoring to intimidate us with the frightful and iniquitous punishments that he reserves for those who are so audacious as to murmur.

It is easy to perceive the futility of these arguments. Power, I do contend, can never confer the right of violating equity. Let a sovereign be as powerful as he may, he is not on that account less blamable when in rewards and punishments he follows only his caprice. It is true, we may fear him, we may flatter him, we may pay him servile homage; but never shall we love him sincerely; never shall we serve him faithfully; never shall we look up to him as the model of justice and goodness. If those who receive his kindness believe him to be just and good, those who are the objects of his folly and rigor cannot prevent themselves from detesting his monstrous iniquity in their hearts.

If we be told that we are only as worms of earth relatively to God, or that we are only like a vase in the hands of a potter, I reply in this case, that there can neither be connection nor moral duty between the creature and his Creator; and I shall hence conclude that religion is useless, seeing that a worm of earth can owe nothing to a man who crushes it, and that the vase can owe nothing to the potter that has formed it. In the supposition that man is only a worm or an earthen vessel in the eyes of the Deity, he would be incapable either of serving him, glorifying him, honoring him, or offending him. We are, however, continually told that man is capable of merit and demerit in the sight of his God, whom he is ordered to love, serve, and worship. We are likewise assured that it was man alone whom the Deity had in view in all his works; that it is for him alone the universe was created; for him alone that the course of nature was so often deranged; and, in short, it was with a view of being honored, cherished, and glorified by man that God has revealed himself to us. According to the principles of the Christian religion, God does not cease, for a single instant, his occupations for man, this worm of earth, this earthen vessel, which he has formed. Nay, more: man is sufficiently powerful to influence the honor, the felicity, and the glory of his God; it rests with man to please him or to irritate him, to deserve his favor or his hatred, to appease him or to kindle his wrath.

Do you not perceive, Madam, the striking contradictions of those principles which, nevertheless, form the basis of all revealed religions? Indeed, we cannot find one of them that is not erected on the reciprocal influence between God and man, and between man and God. Our own species, which are annihilated (if I may use the expression) every time that it becomes necessary to whitewash the Deity from some reproachful stain of injustice and partiality,—these miserable beings, to whom it is pretended that God owes nothing, and who, we are assured, are unnecessary to him for his own felicity,—the human race, which is nothing in his eyes, becomes all at once the principal performer on the stage of nature. We find that mankind are necessary to support the glory of their Creator; we see them become the sole objects of his care; we behold in them the power to gladden or afflict him; we see them meriting his favor and provoking his wrath. According to these contradictory notions concerning the God of the universe, the source of all felicity, is he not really the most wretched of beings? We behold him perpetually exposed to the insults of men, who offend him by their thoughts, their words, their actions, and their neglect of duty. They incommode him, they irritate him, by the capriciousness of their minds, by their actions, their desires, and even by their ignorance. If we admit those Christian principles which suppose that the greater portion of the human race excites the fury of the Eternal, and that very few of them live in a manner conformable to his views, will it not necessarily result therefrom, that in the immense crowd of beings whom God has created for his glory, only a very small number of them glorify and please him; while all the rest are occupied in vexing him, exciting his wrath, troubling his felicity, deranging the order that he loves, frustrating his designs, and forcing him to change his immutable intentions?

You are, undoubtedly, surprised at the contradictions to be encountered at the very first step we take in examining this religion; and I take upon myself to predict that your embarrassment will increase as you proceed therein. If you coolly examine the ideas presented to us in the revelation common both to Jews and Christians, and contained in the books which they tell us are sacred, you will find that the Deity who speaks is always in contradiction with himself; that he becomes his own destroyer, and is perpetually occupied in undoing what he has just done, and in repairing his own workmanship, to which, in the first instance, he was incapable of giving that degree of perfection he wished it to possess. He is never satisfied with his own works, and cannot, in spite of his omnipotence, bring the human race to the point of perfection he intended. The books containing the revelation, on which Christianity is founded, every where display to us a God of goodness in the commission of wickedness; an omnipotent God, whose projects unceasingly miscarry; an immutable God, changing his maxims and his conduct; an omniscient God, continually deceived unawares; a resolute God, yet repenting of his most important actions; a God of wisdom, whose arrangements never attain success. He is a great God, who occupies himself with the most puerile trifles; an all-sufficient God, yet subject to jealousy; a powerful God, yet suspicious, vindictive, and cruel; and a just God, yet permitting and prescribing the most atrocious iniquities. In a word, he is a perfect God, yet displaying at the same time such imperfections and vices that the most despicable of men would blush to resemble him.

Behold, Madam, the God whom this religion orders you to adore in spirit and in truth. I reserve for another letter an analysis of the holy books which you are taught to respect as the oracles of heaven. I now perceive for the first time that I have perhaps made too long a dissertation; and I doubt not you have already perceived that a system built on a basis possessing so little solidity as that of the God whom his devotees raise with one hand and destroy with the other, can have no stability attached to it, and can only be regarded as a long tissue of errors and contradictions.

I am, &c.


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