Freethought Archives > Baron d'Holbach > Letters to Eugenia

Letter VI.

Of the Mysteries, Sacraments, and Religious Ceremonies of Christianity.

The reflections, Madam, which I have already offered you in these letters ought, I conceive, to have sufficed to undeceive you, in a great measure, of the lugubrious and afflicting notions with which you have been inspired by religious prejudices. However, to fulfil the task which you have imposed on me, and to assist you in freeing yourself from the unfavorable ideas you may have imbibed from a system replete with irrelevancies and contradictions, I shall continue to examine the strange mysteries with which Christianity is garnished. They are founded on ideas so odd and so contrary to reason, that if from infancy we had not been familiarized with them, we should blush at our species in having for one instant believed and adopted them.

The Christians, scarcely content with the crowd of enigmas with which the books of the Jews are filled, have besides fancied they must add to them a great many incomprehensible mysteries, for which they have the most profound veneration. Their impenetrable obscurity appears to be a sufficient motive among them for adding these. Their priests, encouraged by their credulity, which nothing can outdo, seem to be studious to multiply the articles of their faith, and the number of inconceivable objects which they have said must be received with submission, and adored even if not understood.

The first of these mysteries is the Trinity, which supposes that one God, self-existent, who is a pure spirit, is, nevertheless, composed of three Divinities, which have obtained the names of persons. These three Gods, who are designated under the respective names of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, are, nevertheless, but one God only. These three persons are equal in power, in wisdom, in perfections; yet the second is subordinate to the first, in consequence of which he was compelled to become a man, and be the victim of the wrath of his Father. This is what the priests call the mystery of the incarnation. Notwithstanding his innocence, his perfection, his purity, the Son of God became the object of the vengeance of a just God, who is the same as the Son in question, but who would not consent to appease himself but by the death of his own Son, who is a portion of himself. The Son of God, not content with becoming man, died without having sinned, for the salvation of men who had sinned. God preferred to the punishment of imperfect beings, whom he did not choose to amend, the punishment of his only Son, full of divine perfections. The death of God became necessary to reclaim the human kind from the slavery of Satan, who without that would not have quitted his prey, and who has been found sufficiently powerful against the Omnipotent to oblige him to sacrifice his Son. This is what the priests designate by the name of the mystery of redemption.

It is assuredly sufficient to expose such opinions to demonstrate their absurdity. It is evident, if there exists only a single God, there cannot be three. We may, it is true, contemplate the Deity after the manner of Plato, who, before the birth of Christianity, exhibited him under three different points of view, that is to say, as all-wise, as all-powerful, as full of reason, and as infinite in goodness; but it was verily the excess of delirium to personify these three divine qualities, or transform them into real beings. We can readily imagine these moral attributes to be united in the same God, but it is egregious folly to fashion them into three different Gods; nor will it remedy this metaphysical polytheism to assert that these three are one. Besides, this revery never entered the head of the Hebrew legislator. The Eternal, in revealing himself to Moses, did not announce himself as triple. There is not one syllable in the Old Testament about this Trinity, although a notion so bizarre, so marvellous, and so little consonant with our ideas of a divine being, deserved to have been formally announced, especially as it is the foundation and corner stone of the Christian religion, which was from all eternity an object of the divine solicitude, and on the establishment of which, if we may credit our sapient priests, God seems to have entertained serious thoughts long before the creation of the world.

Nevertheless, the second person, or the second God of the Trinity, is revealed in flesh; the Son of God is made man. But how could the pure Spirit who presides over the universe beget a son? How could this son, who before his incarnation was only a pure spirit, combine that ethereal essence with a material body, and envelop himself with it? How could the divine nature amalgamate itself with the imperfect nature of man, and how could an immense and infinite being, as the Deity is represented, be formed in the womb of a virgin? After what manner could a pure spirit fecundate this favorite virgin? Did the Son of God enjoy in the womb of his mother the faculties of omnipotence, or was he like other children during his infancy,—weak, liable to infirmities, sickness, and intellectual imbecility, so conspicuous in the years of childhood; and if so, what, during this period, became of the divine wisdom and power? In fine, how could God suffer and die? How could a just God consent that a God exempt from all sin should endure the chastisements which are due to sinners? Why did he not appease himself without immolating a victim so precious and so innocent? What would you think of that sovereign who, in the event of his subjects rebelling against him, should forgive them all, or a select number of them, by putting to death his only and beloved son, who had not rebelled?

The priests tell us that it was out of tenderness for the human kind that God wished to accomplish this sacrifice. But I still ask if it would not have been more simple, more conformable to all our ideas of Deity, for God to pardon the iniquities of the human race, or to have prevented them committing transgressions, by placing them in a condition in which, by their own will, they should never have sinned? According to the entire system of the Christian religion, it is evident that God did only create the world to have an opportunity of immolating his Son for the rebellious beings he might have formed and preserved immaculate. The fall of the rebellious angels had no visible end to serve but to effect and hasten the fall of Adam. It appears from this system that God permitted the first man to sin that he might have the pleasure of showing his goodness in sacrificing his "only begotten Son" to reclaim men from the thraldom of Satan. He intrusted to Satan as much power as might enable him to work the ruin of our race, with the view of afterwards changing the projects of the great mass of mankind, by making one God to die, and thereby destroy the power of the Devil on the earth.

But has God succeeded in these projects to the end he proposed? Are men entirely rescued from the dominion of Satan? Are they not still the slaves of sin? Do they find themselves in the happy impossibility of kindling the divine wrath? Has the blood of the Son of God washed away the sins of the whole world? Do those who are reclaimed, those to whom he has made himself known, those who believe, offend not against heaven? Has the Deity, who ought, without doubt, to be perfectly satisfied with so memorable a sacrifice, remitted to them the punishment of sin? Is it not necessary to do something more for them? And since the death of his Son, do we find the Christians exempt from disease and from death? Nothing of all this has happened. The measures taken from all eternity by the wisdom and prescience of a God who should find against his plans no obstacles have been overthrown. The death of God himself has been of no utility to the world. All the divine projects have militated against the free-will of man, but they have not destroyed the power of Satan. Man continues to sin and to die; the Devil keeps possession of the field of battle; and it is for a very small number of the elect that the Deity consented to die.

You do indeed smile, Madam, at my being obliged seriously to combat such chimeras. If they have something of the marvellous in them, it is quite adapted to the heads of children, not of men, and ought not to be admitted by reasonable beings. All the notions we can form of those things must be mysterious; yet there is no subject more demonstrable, according to those whose interest it is to have it believed, though they are as incapable as ourselves to comprehend the matter. For the priests to say that they believe such absurdities, is to be guilty of manifest falsehood; because a proposition to be believed must necessarily be understood. To believe what they do not comprehend is to adhere sottishly to the absurdities of others; to believe things which are not comprehended by those who gossip about them is the height of folly; to believe blindly the mysteries of the Christian religion is to admit contradictions of which they who declare them are not convinced. In fine, is it necessary to abandon one's reason among absurdities that have been received without examination from ancient priests, who were either the dupes of more knowing men, or themselves the impostors who fabricated the tales in question?

If you ask of me how men have not long ago been shocked by such absurd and unintelligible reveries, I shall proceed, in my turn, to explain to you this secret of the church, this mystery of our priests. It is not necessary, in doing this, to pay any attention to those general dispositions of man, especially when he is ignorant and incapable of reasoning. All men are curious, inquisitive; their curiosity spurs them on to inquiry, and their imagination busies itself to clothe with mystery every thing the fancy conjures up as important to happiness. The vulgar mistake even what they have the means of knowing, or, which is the same thing, what they are least practised in they are dazzled with; they proclaim it, accordingly, marvellous, prodigious, extraordinary; it is a phenomenon. They neither admire nor respect much what is always visible to their eyes; but whatever strikes their imagination, whatever gives scope to the mind, becomes itself the fruitful source of other ideas far more extravagant. The priests have had the art to prevail on the people to believe in their secret correspondence with the Deity; they have been thence much respected, and in all countries their professed intercourse with an unseen Divinity has given room for their announcement of things the most marvellous and mysterious.

Besides, the Divinity being a being whose impenetrable essence is veiled from mortal sight, it has been commonly admitted by the ignorant, that what could not be seen by mortal eye must necessarily be divine. Hence sacred, mysterious, and divine, are synonymous terms; and these imposing words have sufficed to place the human race on their knees to adore what seeks not their inflated devotion.

The three mysteries which I have examined are received unanimously by all sects of Christians; but there are others on which the theologians are not agreed. In fine, we see men, who, after they have admitted, without repugnance, a certain number of absurdities, stop all of a sudden in the way, and refuse to admit more. The Christian Protestants are in this case. They reject, with disdain, the mysteries for which the Church of Rome shows the greatest respect; and yet, in the matter of mysteries, it is indeed difficult to designate the point where the mind ought to stop.

Seeing, then, that our doctors, better advised, undoubtedly, than those of the Protestants, have adroitly multiplied mysteries, one is naturally led to conclude, they despaired of governing the mind of man, if there was any thing in their religion that was clear, intelligible, and natural. More mysterious than the priests of Egypt itself, they have found means to change every thing into mystery; the very movements of the body, usages the most indifferent, ceremonies the most frivolous, have become, in the powerful hands of the priests, sublime and divine mysteries. In the Roman religion all is magic, all is prodigy, all is supernatural. In the decisions of our theologians, the side which they espouse is almost always that which is the most abhorrent to reason, the most calculated to confound and overthrow common sense. In consequence, our priests are by far the most rich, powerful, and considerable. The continual want which we have of their aid to obtain from Heaven that grace which it is their province to bring down for us, places us in continual dependence on those marvellous men who have received their commission to treat with the Deity, and become the ambassadors between Heaven and us.

Each of our sacraments envelops a great mystery. They are ceremonies to which the Divinity, they say, attaches some secret virtue, by unseen views, of which we can form no ideas. In baptism, without which no man can be saved, the water sprinkled on the head of the child washes his spiritual soul, and carries away the defilement which is a consequence of the sin committed in the person of Adam, who sinned for all men. By the mysterious virtue of this water, and of some words equally unintelligible, the infant finds itself reconciled to God, as his first father had made him guilty without his knowledge and consent. In all this, Madam, you cannot, by possibility, comprehend the complication of these mysteries, with which no Christian can dispense, though, assuredly, there is not one believer who knows what the virtue of the marvellous water consists in, which is necessary for his regeneration. Nor can you conceive how the supreme and equitable Governor of the universe could impute faults to those who have never been guilty of transgressions. Nor can you comprehend how a wise Deity can attach his favor to a futile ceremony, which, without changing the nature of the being who has derived an existence it neither commenced nor was consulted in, must, if administered in winter, be attended with serious consequences to the health of the child.

In Confirmation, a sacrament or ceremony, which, to have any value, ought to be administered by a bishop, the laying of the hands on the head of the young confirmant makes the Holy Spirit descend upon him, and procures the grace of God to uphold him in the faith. You see, Madam, that the efficacy of this sacrament is unfortunately lost in my person; for, although in my youth I had been duly confirmed, I have not been preserved against smiling at this faith, nor have I been kept invulnerable in the credence of my priests and forefathers.

In the sacrament of Penitence, or confession, a ceremony which consists in putting a priest in possession of all one's faults, public or private, you will discover mysteries equally marvellous. In favor of this submission, to which every good Catholic is necessarily obliged to submit, a priest, himself a sinner, charged with full powers by the Deity, pardons and remits, in His name, the sins against which God is enraged. God reconciles himself with every man who humbles himself before the priest, and in accordance with the orders of the latter, he opens heaven to the wretch whom he had before determined to exclude. If this sacrament doth not always procure grace, very distinguishing to those who use it, it has, at all events, the advantage of rendering them pliable to the clergy, who, by its means, find an easy sway in their spiritual empire over the human mind, an empire that enables them, not unfrequently, to disturb society, and more often the repose of families, and the very conscience of the person confessing.

There is among the Catholics another sacrament, which contains the most strange mysteries. It is that of the Eucharist. Our teachers, under pain of being damned, enjoin us to believe that the Son of God is compelled by a priest to quit the abodes of glory, and to come and mask himself under the appearance of bread! This bread becomes forthwith the body of God—this God multiplies himself in all places, and at all times, when and where the priests, scattered over the face of the earth, find it necessary to command his presence in the shape of bread—yet we see only one and the same God, who receives the homage and adoration of all those good people who find it very ridiculous in the Egyptians to adore lupines and onions. But the Catholics are not simply content with worshipping a bit of bread, which they consider by the conjurations of a priest as divine; they eat this bread, and then persuade themselves that they are nourished by the body or substance of God himself. The Protestants, it is true, do not admit a mystery so very odd, and regard those who do as real idolaters. What then? This marvellous dogma is, without doubt, of the greatest utility to the priests. In the eyes of those who admit it, they become very important gentlemen, who have the power of disposing of the Deity, whom they make to descend between their hands; and thus a Catholic priest is, in fact, the creator of his God!

There is, also, Extreme Unction, a sacrament which consists in anointing with oil those sick persons who are about to depart into the other world, and which not only soothes their bodily pains, but also takes away the sins of their souls. If it produces these good effects, it is an invisible and mysterious method of manifesting obvious results; for we frequently behold sick persons have their fears of death allayed, though the operation may but too often accelerate their dissolution. But our priests are so full of charity, and they interest themselves so greatly in the salvation of souls, that they like rather to risk their own health beside the sick bed of persons afflicted with the most contagious diseases, than lose the opportunity of administering their salutary ointment.

Ordination is another very mysterious ceremony, by which the Deity secretly bestows his invisible grace on those whom he has selected to fill the office of the holy priesthood. According to the Catholic religion, God gives to the priests the power of making God himself, as we have shown above; a privilege which without doubt cannot be sufficiently admired. With respect to the sensible effects of this sacrament, and of the visible grace which it confers, they are enabled, by the help of some words and certain ceremonies, to change a profane man into one that is sacred; that is to say, who is not profane any longer. By this spiritual metamorphosis, this man becomes capable of enjoying considerable revenues without being obliged to do any thing useful for society. On the contrary, heaven itself confers on him the right of deceiving, of annoying, and of pillaging the profane citizens, who labor for his ease and luxury.

Finally, Marriage is a sacrament that confers mysterious and invisible graces, of which we in truth have no very precise ideas. Protestants and Infidels, who look upon marriage as a civil contract, and not as a sacrament, receive neither more nor less of its visible grace than the good Catholics. The former see not that those who are married enjoy by this sacrament any secret virtue, whence they may become more constant and faithful to the engagements they have contracted. And I believe both you and I, Madam, have known many people on whom it has only conferred the grace of cordially detesting each other.

I will not now enter upon the consideration of a multitude of other magic ceremonies, admitted by some Christian sectaries and rejected by others, but to which the devotees who embrace them, attach the most lofty ideas, in the firm persuasion, that God will, on that account, visit them with his invisible grace. All these ceremonies, doubtless, contain great mysteries, and the method of handling or speaking of them is exceedingly mysterious. It is thus that the water on which a priest has pronounced a few words, contained in his conjuring book, acquires the invisible virtue of chasing away wicked spirits, who are invisible by their nature. It is thus that the oil, on which a bishop has muttered some certain formula, becomes capable of communicating to men, and even to some inanimate substances, such as wood, stone, metals, and walls, those invisible virtues which they did not previously possess. In fine, in all the ceremonies of the church, we discover mysteries, and the vulgar, who comprehend nothing of them, are not the less disposed to admire, to be fascinated with, and to respect with a blind devotion. But soon would they cease to have this veneration for these fooleries, if they comprehended the design and end the priests have in view by enforcing their observance.

The priests of all nations have begun by being charlatans, castle builders, divines, and sorcerers. We find men of these characters in nations the most ignorant and savage, where they live by the ignorance and credulity of others. They are regarded by their ignorant countrymen as superior beings, endowed with supernatural gifts, favorites of the very Gods, because the uninquiring multitude see them perform things which they take to be mighty marvellous, or which the ignorant have always considered marvellous. In nations the most polished, the people are always the same; persons the most sensible are not often of the same ideas, especially on the subject of religion; and the priests, authorized by the ancient folly of the multitude, continue their old tricks, and receive universal applause.

You are not, then, to be surprised, Madam, if you still behold our pontiffs and our priests exercise their magical rites, or rear castles before the eyes of people prejudiced in favor of their ancient illusions, and who attach to these mysteries a degree of consequence, seeing they are not in a condition to comprehend the motives of the fabricators. Every thing that is mysterious has charms for the ignorant; the marvellous captivates all men; persons the most enlightened find it difficult to defend themselves against these illusions. Hence you may discover that the priests are always opinionatively attached to these rites and ceremonies of their worship; and it has never been without some violent revolution that they have been diminished or abrogated. The annihilation of a trifling ceremony has often caused rivers of blood to flow. The people have believed themselves lost and undone when one bolder than the rest wished to innovate in matters of religion; they have fancied that they were to be deprived of inestimable advantages and invisible but saving grace, which they have supposed to be attached by the Divinity himself to some movements of the body. Priests the most adroit have overcharged religion with ceremonies, and practices, and mysteries. They fancied that all these were so many cords to bind the people to their interest, to allure them by enthusiasm, and render them necessary to their idle and luxurious existence, which is not spent without much money extracted from the hard earnings of the people, and much of that respect which is but the homage of slaves to spiritual tyrants.

You cannot any longer, I persuade myself, Madam, be made the dupe of these holy jugglers, who impose on the vulgar by their marvellous tales. You must now be convinced that the things which I have touched upon as mysteries are profound absurdities, of which their inventors can render no reasonable account either to themselves or to others. You must now be certified that the movements of the body and other religious ceremonies must be matters perfectly indifferent to the wise Being whom they describe to us as the great mover of all things. You conclude, then, that all these marvellous rites, in which our priests announce so much mystery, and in which the people are taught to consider the whole of religion as consisting, are nothing more than puerilities, to which people of understanding ought never to submit. That they are usages calculated principally to alarm the minds of the weak, and keep in bondage those who have not the courage to throw off the yoke of priests. I am, &c.


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