Of Evangelical Virtues and Christian Perfection.
If we believe the priests, we shall be persuaded, that the Christian religion, by the beauty of its morals, excels philosophy and all the other religious systems in the world. According to them, the unassisted reason of the human mind could never have conceived sounder doctrines of morality, more heroical virtues, or precepts more beneficial to society. But this is not all; the virtues known or practised among the heathens are considered as false virtues; far from deserving our esteem, and the favor of the Almighty, they are entitled to nothing but contempt; and, indeed, are flagrant sins in the sight of God. In short, the priests labor to convince us, that the Christian ethics are purely divine, and the lessons inculcated so sublime, that they could proceed from nothing less than the Deity.
If, indeed, we call that divine which men can neither conceive nor perform; if by divine virtues we are to understand virtues to which the mind of man cannot possibly attach the least idea of utility; if by divine perfections are meant those qualities which are not only foreign to the nature of man, but which are irreconcilably repugnant to it,—then, indeed, we shall be compelled to acknowledge that the morals of Christianity are divine; at least we shall be assured that they have nothing in common with that system of morality which arises out of the nature and relations of men, but on the contrary, that they, in many instances, confound the best conceptions we are able to form of virtue.
Guided by the light of reason, we comprehend under the name of virtue those habitual dispositions of the heart which tend to the happiness and the real advantage of those with whom we associate, and by the exercise of which our fellow-creatures are induced to feel a reciprocal interest in our welfare. Under the Christian system the name of virtues is bestowed upon dispositions which it is impossible to possess without supernatural grace; and which, when possessed, are useless, if not injurious, both to ourselves and others. The morality of Christians is, in good truth, the morality of another world. Like the philosopher of antiquity, they keep their eyes fixed upon the stars till they fall into a well, unperceived, at their feet. The only object which their scheme of morals proposes to itself is, to disgust their minds with the things of this world, in order that they may place their entire affections upon things above, of which they have no knowledge whatever; their happiness here below forms no part of their consideration; this life, in the view of a Christian, is nothing but a pilgrimage, leading to another existence, infinitely more interesting to his hopes, because infinitely beyond the reach of his understanding. Besides, before we can deserve to be happy in the world which we do not know, we are informed that we must be miserable in the world which we do know; and, above all things, in order to secure to ourselves happiness hereafter, it is especially necessary that we altogether resign the use of our own reason; that is to say, we must seal up our eyes in utter darkness, and surrender ourselves to the guidance of our priests. These are the principles upon which the fabric of Christian morals is evidently constructed.
Let us now proceed, Madam, to a more detailed examination of the virtues upon which the Christian religion is built. These virtues are Evangelical, &c. If destitute of them, we are assured that it is in vain for us to seek the favor of the Deity.
Of these virtues the first is Faith. According to the doctrine of the church, faith is the gift of God, a supernatural virtue, by means of which we are inspired with a firm belief in God, and in all that he has vouchsafed to reveal to man, although our reason is utterly unable to comprehend it. Faith is, says the church, founded upon the word of God, who can neither deceive nor be deceived. Thus faith supposes, that God has spoken to man—but what evidence have we that God has spoken to man? The Holy Scriptures. Who is it that assures us the Holy Scriptures contain the word of God? It is the church. But who is it that assures us the church cannot and will not deceive us? The Holy Scriptures. Thus the Scriptures bear witness to the infallibility of the church—and the church, in return, testifies the truth of the Scriptures. From this statement of the case, you must perceive, that faith is nothing more than an implicit belief in the priests, whose assurances we adopt as the foundation of opinions in themselves incomprehensible. It is true, that as a confirmation of the truth of Scripture, we are referred to miracles—but it is these identical Scriptures which report to us and testify of those very miracles. Of the absolute impossibility of any miracles, I flatter myself that I have already convinced you.
Besides, I cannot but think, Madam, that you must be, by this time, thoroughly satisfied how absurd it is to say that the understanding is convinced of any thing which it does not comprehend; the insight I have given you into the books which the Christians call sacred, must have left upon your mind a firm persuasion, that they never could have proceeded from a wise, a good, an omniscient, a just, and all-powerful God. If, then, we cannot yield them a real belief, what we call faith can be nothing more than a blind and irrational adherence to a system devised by priests, whose crafty selfishness has made them careful from the earliest infancy to fill our tender minds with prepossessions in favor of doctrines which they judged favorable to their own interests. Interested, however, as they are in the opinions which they endeavor to force upon us as truth, is it possible for these priests to believe them themselves? Unquestionably not—the thing is out of nature. They are men like ourselves, furnished with the same faculties, and neither they nor we can be convinced of any thing which lies equally beyond the scope of us all. If they possessed an additional sense, we should perhaps allow that they might comprehend what is unintelligible to us; but as we clearly see that they have no intellectual privileges above the rest of the species, we are compelled to conclude, that their faith, like the faith of other Christians, is a blind acquiescence in opinions derived, without examination, from their predecessors; and that they must be hypocrites when they pretend to believe in doctrines of the truth of which they cannot be convinced, since these doctrines have been shown to be destitute of that degree of evidence which is necessary to impress the mind with a feeling of their probability, much less of their certainty.
It will be said that faith, or the faculty of believing things incredible, is the gift of God, and can only be known to those upon whom God has bestowed the favor. My answer is, that, if that be the case, we have no alternative but to wait till the grace of God shall be shed upon us—and that in the mean time we may be allowed to doubt whether credulity, stupidity, and the perversion of reason can proceed, as favors, from a rational Deity who has endowed us with the power of thinking. If God be infinitely wise, how can folly and imbecility be pleasing to him? If there were such a thing as faith, proceeding from grace, it would be the privilege of seeing things otherwise than as God has made them; and if that were so, it follows, that the whole creation would be a mere cheat. No man can believe the Bible to be the production of God without doing violence to every consistent notion that he is able to form of Deity! No man can believe that one God is three Gods, and that those three Gods are one God, without renouncing all pretension to common sense, and persuading himself that there is no such thing as certainty in the world.
Thus, Madam, we are bound to suspect that what the church calls a gift from above, a supernatural grace, is, in fact, a perfect blindness, an irrational credulity, a brutish submission, a vague uncertainty, a stupid ignorance, by which we are led to acquiesce, without investigation, in every dogma that our priests think fit to impose upon us—by which we are led to adopt, without knowing why, the pretended opinions of men who can have no better means of arriving at the truth than we have. In short, we are authorized in suspecting that no motive but that of blinding us, in order more effectually to deceive us, can actuate those men who are eternally preaching to us about a virtue which, if it could exist, would throw into utter confusion the simplest and clearest perceptions of the human mind.
This supposition is amply confirmed by the conduct of our ecclesiastics—forgetting what they have told us, that grace is the gratuitous present of God, bestowed or withheld at his sovereign pleasure, they nevertheless indulge their wrath against all those who have not received the gift of faith; they keep up one incessant anathema against all unbelievers, and nothing less than absolute extermination of heresy can appease their anger wherever they have the strength to accomplish it. So that heretics and unbelievers are made accountable for the grace of God, although they never received it; they are punished in this world for those advantages which God has not been pleased to extend to them in their journey to the next. In the estimation of priests and devotees, the want of faith is the most unpardonable of all offences—it is precisely that offence which, in the cruelty of their absurd injustice, they visit with the last rigors of punishment, for you cannot be ignorant, Madam, that in all countries where the clergy possess sufficient influence, the flames of priestly charity are lighted up to consume all those who are deficient in the prescribed allowance of faith.
When we inquire the motive for their unjust and senseless proceedings, we are told that faith is the most necessary of all things, that faith is of the most essential service to morals, that without faith a man is a dangerous and wicked wretch, a pest to society. And, after all, is it our own choice to have faith? Can we believe just what we please? Does it depend upon ourselves not to think a proposition absurd which our understanding shows us to be absurd? How could we avoid receiving, in our infancy, whatever impressions and opinions our teachers and relations chose to implant in us? And where is the man who can boast that he has faith—that he is fully convinced of mysteries which he cannot conceive, and wonders which he cannot comprehend?
Under these circumstances how can faith be serviceable to morals? If no one can have faith but upon the assurance of another, and consequently cannot entertain a real conviction, what becomes of the social virtues? Admitting that faith were possible, what connection can exist between such occult speculations and the manifest duties of mankind, duties which are palpable to every one who, in the least, consults his reason, his interest, or the welfare of the society to which he belongs? Before I can be satisfied of the advantages of justice, temperance, and benevolence, must I first believe in the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Eucharist, and all the fables of the Old Testament? If I believe in all the atrocious murders attributed by the Bible to that God whom I am bound to consider as the fountain of justice, wisdom, and goodness, is it not likely that I shall feel encouraged to the commission of crimes when I find them sanctioned by such an example? Although unable to discover the value of so many mysteries which I cannot understand, or of so many fanciful and cumbersome ceremonies prescribed by the church, am I, on that account, to be denounced as a more dangerous citizen than those who persecute, torment, and destroy every one of their fellow-creatures who does not think and act at their dictation? The evident result of all these considerations must be, that he who has a lively faith and a blind zeal for opinions contradictory to common sense, is more irrational, and consequently more wicked than the man whose mind is untainted by such detestable doctrines; for when once the priests have gained their fatal ascendency over his mind, and have persuaded him that, by committing all sorts of enormities, he is doing the work of the Lord, there can be no doubt that he will make greater havoc in the happiness of the world, than the man whose reason tells him that such excesses cannot be acceptable in the sight of God.
The advocates of the church will here interrupt me, by alleging that if divested of those sentiments which religion inspires, men would no longer live under the influence of motives strong enough to induce an abstinence from vice, or to urge them on in the career of virtue when obstructed by painful sacrifices. In a word, it will be affirmed that unless men are convinced of the existence of an avenging and remunerating God, they are released from every motive to fulfil their duties to each other in the present life.
You are, doubtless, Madam, quite sensible of the futility of such pretences, put forth by priests who, in order to render themselves more necessary, are indefatigable in endeavoring to persuade us that their system is indispensable to the maintenance of social order. To annihilate their sophistries it is sufficient to reflect upon the nature of man, his true interests, and the end for which society is formed. Man is a feeble being, whose necessities render him constantly dependent upon the support of others, whether it be for the preservation or the pleasure of his existence; he has no means of interesting others in his welfare except by his manner of conducting himself towards them; that conduct which renders him an object of affection to others is called virtue—whatever is pernicious to society is called crime—and where the consequences are injurious only to the individual himself, it is called vice. Thus every man must immediately perceive that he consults his own happiness by advancing that of others—that vices, however cautiously disguised from public observation, are, nevertheless, fraught with ruin to him who practises them—and that crimes are sure to render the perpetrator odious or contemptible in the eyes of his associates, who are necessary to his own happiness. In short, education, public opinion, and the laws point out to us our mutual duties much more clearly than the chimeras of an incomprehensible religion.
Every man on consulting with himself will feel indubitably that he desires his own conservation; experience will teach him both what he ought to do and what to avoid to arrive at this end; in consequence he will shrink from those excesses which endanger his being; he will debar himself from those gratifications which in their course would render his existence miserable; and he would make sacrifices, if it was necessary, in the view of procuring himself advantages more real than those of which he momentarily deprived himself. Thus he would know what he owes to himself and what he owes to others.
Here, Madam, you have a short but perfect summary of all morals, derived, as they must be, from the nature of man, the uniform experience and the universal reason of mankind. These precepts are compulsory upon our minds, for they show us that the consequences of our conduct flow from our actions with as natural and inevitable a certainty as the return of a stone to the earth after the impetus is exhausted which detained it in the air. It is natural and inevitable that the man who employs himself in doing good must be preferred to the man who does mischief. Every thinking being must be penetrated with the truth of this incontrovertible maxim, and all the ponderous volumes of theology that ever were composed can add nothing to the force of his conviction; every thinking being will, therefore, avoid a conduct calculated to injure either himself or others; he will feel himself under the necessity of doing good to others, as the only method of obtaining solid happiness for himself, and of conciliating to himself those sentiments on the part of others, without which he could derive no charms from society.
You perceive, then, Madam, that faith cannot in any manner contribute to the correction of social conduct, and you will feel that the popular supernatural notions cannot add any thing to the obligations that our nature imposes upon us. In fact, the more mysterious and incomprehensible are the dogmas of the church, the more likely are they to draw us aside from the plain dictates of Nature and the straight-forward directions of Reason, whose voice is incapable of misleading us. A candid survey of the causes which produce an infinity of evils that afflict society will quickly point out the speculative tenets of theology as their most fruitful source. The intoxication of enthusiasm and the frenzy of fanaticism concur in overpowering reason, and by rendering men blind and unreflecting, convert them into enemies both of themselves and the rest of the world. It is impossible for the worshippers of a tyrannical, partial, and cruel God to practise the duties of justice and philanthropy. As soon as the priests have succeeded in stifling within us the commands of Reason, they have already converted us into slaves, in whom they can kindle whatever passions it may please them to inspire us with.
Their interest, indeed, requires that we should be slaves. They exact from us the surrender of our reason, because our reason contradicts their impostures, and would ruin their plans of aggrandizement. Faith is the instrument by which they enslave us and make us subservient to their own ambition. Hence arises their zeal for the propagation of the faith; hence arises their implacable hostility to science, and to all those who refuse submission to their yoke; hence arises their incessant endeavor to establish the dominion of Faith, (that is to say, their own dominion,) even by fire and sword, the only arguments they condescend to employ.
It must be confessed that society derives but little advantage from this supernatural faith which the church has exalted into the first of virtues. As it regards God, it is perfectly useless to him, since if he wishes mankind to be convinced, it is sufficient that he wills them to be so. It is utterly unworthy of the supreme wisdom of God, who cannot exhibit himself to mortals in a manner contradictory to the reason with which he has endowed them. It is unworthy of the divine justice, which cannot require from mankind to be convinced of that which they cannot understand. It denies the very existence of God himself, by inculcating a belief totally subversive of the only rational idea we are able to form of the Divinity.
As it regards morality, faith is also useless. Faith cannot render it either more sacred or more necessary than it already is by its own inherent essence, and by the nature of man. Faith is not only useless, but injurious to society, since, under the plea of its pretended necessity, it frequently fills the world with deplorable troubles and horrid crimes. In short, faith is self-contradictory, since by it we are required to believe in things inconsistent with each other, and even incompatible with the principles laid down in the books which we have already investigated, and which contain what we are commanded to believe.
To whom, then, is faith found to be advantageous? To a few men, only, who, availing themselves of its influence to degrade the human mind, contrive to render the labor of the whole world tributary to their own luxury, splendor, and power. Are the nations of the earth any happier for their faith, or their blind reliance on priests? Certainly not. We do not there find more morality, more virtue, more industry, or more happiness; but, on the contrary, wherever the priests are powerful, there the people are sure to be found abject in their minds and squalid in their condition.
But Hope—Hope, the second in order of the Christian perfections, is ever at hand to console us for the evils inflicted by Faith. We are commanded to be firmly convinced that those who have faith, that is to say, those who believe in priests, shall be amply rewarded in the other world for their meritorious submission in this. Thus hope is founded on faith, in the same manner as faith is established upon hope; faith enjoins us to entertain a devout hope that our faith will be rewarded. And what is it we are told to hope for? For unspeakable benefits; that is, benefits for which language contains no expression. So that, after all, we know not what it is we are to hope for. And how can we feel a hope or even a wish for any object that is undefinable? How can priests incessantly speak to us of things of which they, at the same time, acknowledge it is impossible for us to form any ideas?
It thus appears that hope and faith have one common foundation; the same blow which overturns the one necessarily levels the other with the ground. But let us pause a moment, and endeavor to discover the advantages of Christian hope amongst men. It encourages to the practice of virtue; it supports the unfortunate under the stroke of affliction; and consoles the believer in the hour of adversity. But what encouragement, what support, what consolation can be imparted to the mind from these undefined and undefinable shadows? No one, indeed, will deny that hope is sufficiently useful to the priests, who never fail to call in its assistance for the vindication of Providence, whenever any of the elect have occasion to complain of the unmerited hardship or the transient injustice of his dispensations. Besides, these priests, notwithstanding their beautiful systems, find themselves unable to fulfil the high-sounding promises they so liberally make to all the faithful, and are frequently at a loss to explain the evils which they bring upon their flocks by means of the quarrels they engage in, and the false notions of religion they entertain; on these occasions the priests have a standing appeal to hope, telling their dupes that man was not created for this world, that heaven is his home, and that his sufferings here will be counterbalanced by indescribable bliss hereafter. Thus, like quacks, whose nostrums have ruined the health of their patients, they have still left to themselves the advantage of selling hopes to those whom they know themselves unable to cure. Our priests resemble some of our physicians, who begin by frightening us into our complaints, in order that they may make us customers for the hopes which they afterwards sell to us for their weight in gold. This traffic constitutes, in reality, all that is called religion.
The third of the Christian virtues is Charity; that is, to love God above all things, and our neighbors as ourselves. But before we are required to love God above all things, it seems reasonable that religion should condescend to represent him as worthy of our love. In good faith, Madam, is it possible to feel that the God of the Christians is entitled to our love? Is it possible to feel any other sentiments than those of aversion towards a partial, capricious, cruel, revengeful, jealous, and sanguinary tyrant? How can we sincerely love the most terrible of beings,—the living God, into whose hands it is dreadful to think of falling,—the God who can consign to eternal damnation those very creatures who, without his own consent, would never have existed? Are our theologians aware of what they say, when they tell us that the fear of God is the fear of a child for its parent, which is mingled with love? Are we not bound to hate, can we by any means avoid detesting, a barbarous father, whose injustice is so boundless as to punish the whole human race, though innocent, in order to revenge himself upon two individuals for the sin of the apple, which sin he himself might have prevented if he had thought proper? In short, Madam, it is a physical impossibility to love above all things a God whose whole conduct, as described in the Bible, fills us with a freezing horror. If, therefore, the love of God, as the Jansenists assert, is indispensable to salvation, we cannot wonder to find that the elect are so few. Indeed, there are not many persons who can restrain themselves from hating this God; and the doctrine of the Jesuits is, that to abstain from hating him is sufficient for salvation. The power of loving a God whom religion paints as the most detestable of beings would, doubtless, be a proof of the most supernatural grace, that is, a grace the most contrary to nature; to love that which we do not know, is, assuredly, sufficiently difficult; to love that which we fear, is still more difficult; but to love that which is exhibited to us in the most repulsive colors, is manifestly impossible.
We must, after all this, be thoroughly convinced that, except by means of an invisible grace never communicated to the profane, no Christian in his sober senses can love his God; even those devotees who pretend to that happiness are apt to deceive themselves; their conduct resembles that of hypocritical flatterers, who, in order to ingratiate themselves with an odious tyrant, or to escape his resentment, make every profession of attachment, whilst, at the bottom of their hearts, they execrate him; or, on the other hand, they must be condemned as enthusiasts, who, by means of a heated imagination, become the dupes of their own illusions, and only view the favorable side of a God declared to be the fountain of all good, yet, nevertheless, constantly delineated to us with every feature of wickedness. Devotees, when sincere, are like women given up to the infatuation of a blind passion by which they are enamoured with lovers rejected by the rest of the sex as unworthy of their affection. It was said by Madame de Sévigné that she loved God as a perfectly well-bred gentleman, with whom she had never been acquainted. But can the God of the Christians be esteemed a well-bred gentleman? Unless her head was turned, one would think that she must have been cured of her passion by the slightest reference to her imaginary lover's portrait as drawn in the Bible, or as it is spread upon the canvas of our theological artists.
With regard to the love of our neighbor, where was the necessity of religion to teach us our duty, which as men we cannot but feel, of cherishing sentiments of good will towards each other? It is only by showing in our conduct an affectionate disposition to others that we can produce in them correspondent feelings towards ourselves. The simple circumstance of being men is quite sufficient to give us a claim upon the heart of every man who is susceptible of the sweet sensibilities of our nature. Who is better acquainted than yourself, Madam, with this truth? Does not your compassionate soul experience at every moment the delightful satisfaction of solacing the unhappy? Setting aside the superfluous precepts of religion, think you that you could by any efforts steel your heart against the tears of the unfortunate? Is it not by rendering our fellow-creatures happy that we establish an empire in their hearts? Enjoy, then, Madam, this delightful sovereignty; continue to bless with your beneficence all that surround you; the consciousness of being the dispenser of so much good will always sustain your mind with the most gratifying self-applause; those who have received your kindness will reward you with their blessings, and afford you the tribute of affection which mankind are ever eager to lay at the feet of their benefactors.
Christianity, not satisfied with recommending the love of our neighbor, superadds the injunction of loving our enemies. This precept, attributed to the Son of God himself, forms the ground on which our divines claim for their religion a superiority of moral doctrine over all that the philosophers of antiquity were known to teach. Let us, therefore, examine how far this precept admits of being reduced to practice. True, an elevated mind may easily place itself above a sense of injuries; a noble spirit retains no resentful recollections; a great soul revenges itself by a generous clemency; but it is an absurd contradiction to require that a man shall entertain feelings of tenderness and regard for those whom he knows to be bent on his destruction; this love of our enemies, which Christianity is so vain of having promulgated, turns out, then, to be an impracticable commandment, belied and denied by every Christian at every moment of his life. How preposterous to talk of loving that which annoys us!—of cherishing an attachment for that which gives us pain!—of receiving an outrage with joy!—of loving those who subject us to misery and suffering! No; in the midst of these trials our firmness may perhaps be strengthened by the hope of a reward hereafter; but it is a mere fallacy to talk of our entertaining a sincere love for those whom we deem the authors of our afflictions; the least that we can do is to avoid them, which will not be looked upon as a very strong indication of our love.
Notwithstanding the solemn formality with which the Christian religion obtrudes upon us these vaunted precepts of love of our neighbor, love of our enemies, and forgiveness of injuries, it cannot escape the observation of the weakest among us, that those very men who are the loudest in praising are also the first and most constant in violating them. Our priests especially seem to consider themselves exempt from the troublesome necessity of adopting for their own conduct a too literal interpretation of this divine law. They have invented a most convenient salvo, since they affect to exclude all those who do not profess to think as they dictate, not only from the kindness of neighbors, but even from the rights of fellow-creatures. On this principle they defame, persecute, and destroy every one who displeases them. When do you see a priest forgive? When revenge is out of his reach! But it is never their own injuries they punish; it is never their own enemies they seek to exterminate. Their disinterested indignation burns with resentment against the enemies of the Most High, who, without their assistance, would be incapable of adjusting his own quarrels! By an unaccountable coincidence, however, it is sure to happen that the enemies of the church are the enemies of the Most High, who never fails to make common cause with the ministers of the faith, and who would take it extremely ill if his ministers should relax in the measure of punishment due to their common enemy. Thus our priests are cruel and revengeful from pure zeal; they would ardently wish to forgive their own enemies, but how could they justify themselves to the God of Mercies if they extended the least indulgence to his enemies?
A true Christian loves the Creator above all things, and consequently he must love him in preference to the creature. We feel a lively interest in every thing that concerns the object of our love; from all which, it follows that we must evince our zeal, and even, when necessary, we must not hesitate to exterminate our neighbor, if he says or does what is displeasing or injurious to God. In such a case, indifference would be criminal; a sincere love of God breaks out into a holy ardor in his cause, and our merit rises in proportion to our violence.
These notions, absurd as they are, have been sufficient in every age to produce in the world a multitude of crimes, extravagances, and follies, the legitimate offspring of a religious zeal. Infatuated fanatics, exasperated by priests against each other, have been driven into mutual hatred, persecution, and destruction; they have thought themselves called upon to avenge the Almighty; they have carried their insane delusions so far as to persuade themselves that the God of clemency and goodness could look on with pleasure while they murdered their brethren; in the astonishing blindness of their stupidity, they have imagined that in defending the temporalities of the church, they were defending God himself. In pursuance of these errors, contradicted even by the description which they themselves give us of the Divinity, the priests of every age have found means to introduce confusion into the peaceful habitations of men, and to destroy all who dared to resist their tyranny. Under the laughable idea of revenging the all-powerful Creator, these priests have discovered the secret of revenging themselves, and that, too, without drawing down upon themselves the hatred and execration so justly due to their vindictive fury and unfeeling selfishness. In the name of the God of nature, they stifled the voice of nature in the breasts of men; in the name of the God of goodness, they incited men to the fury of wild beasts; in the name of the God of mercies, they prohibited all forgiveness!
It is thus, Madam, that the earth has never ceased to groan with the ravages committed by maniacs under the influence of that zeal which springs from the Christian doctrine of the love of God. The God of the Christians, like the Janus of Roman mythology, has two faces; sometimes he is represented with the benign features of mercy and goodness; sometimes murder, revenge, and fury issue from his nostrils. And what is the consequence of this double aspect but that the Christians are much more easily terrified at his frightful lineaments than they are recovered from their fears by his aspect of mercy! Having been taught to view him as a capricious being, they are naturally mistrustful of him, and imagine that the safest part they can act for themselves is to set about the work of vengeance with great zeal; they conclude that a cruel master cannot find fault with cruel imitators, and that his servants cannot render themselves more acceptable than by extirpating all his enemies.
The preceding remarks show very clearly, Madam, the highly pernicious consequences which result from the zeal engendered by the love of God. If this love is a virtue, its benefits are confined to the priests, who arrogate to themselves the exclusive privilege of declaring when God is offended; who absorb all the offerings and monopolize all the homage of the devout; who decide upon the opinions that please or displease him; who undertake to inform mankind of the duties this virtue requires from them, and of the proper time and manner of performing them; who are interested in rendering those duties cruel and intimidating in order to frighten mankind into a profitable subjection; who convert it into the instrument of gratifying their own malignant passions, by inspiring men with a spirit of headlong and raging intolerance, which, in its furious course of indiscriminate destruction, holds nothing sacred, and which has inflicted incredible ravages upon all Christian countries.
In conformity with such abominable principles, a Christian is bound to detest and destroy all whom the church may point out as the enemies of God. Having admitted the paramount duty of yielding their entire affections to a rigorous master, quick to resent, and offended even with the involuntary thoughts and opinions of his creatures, they of course feel themselves bound, by entering with zeal into his quarrels, to obtain for him a vengeance worthy of a God—that is to say, a vengeance that knows no bounds. A conduct like this is the natural offspring of those revolting ideas which our priests give us of the Deity. A good Christian is therefore necessarily intolerant. It is true that Christianity in the pulpit preaches nothing but mildness, meekness, toleration, peace, and concord; but Christianity in the world is a stranger to all these virtues; nor does she ever exercise them except when she is deficient in the necessary power to give effect to her destructive zeal. The real truth of the matter is, that Christians think themselves absolved from every tie of humanity except with those who think as they do, who profess to believe the same creed; they have a repugnance, more or less decided, against all those who disagree with their priests in theological speculation. How common it is to see persons of the mildest character and most benevolent disposition regard with aversion the adherents of a different sect from their own! The reigning religion—that is, the religion of the sovereign, or of the priests in whose favor the sovereign declares himself—crushes all rival sects, or, at least, makes them fully sensible of its superiority and its hatred, in a manner extremely insulting, and calculated to raise their indignation. By these means it frequently happens that the deference of the prince to the wishes of the priests has the effect of alienating the hearts of his most faithful subjects, and brings him that execration which ought in justice to be heaped exclusively upon his sanctimonious instigators.
In short, Madam, the private rights of conscience are nowhere sincerely respected; the leaders of the various religious sects begin, in the very cradle, to teach all Christians to hate and despise each other about some theological point which nobody can understand. The clergy, when vested with power, never preach toleration; on the contrary, they consider every man as an enemy who is a friend to religious freedom, accusing him of lukewarmness, infidelity, and secret hostility; in short, he is denominated a false brother. The Sorbonne declared, in the sixteenth century, that it was heretical to say that heretics ought not to be burned. The ferocious St. Austin preached toleration at one period, but it was before he was duly initiated in the mysteries of the sacerdotal policy, which is ever repugnant to toleration. Persecution is necessary to our priests, to deter mankind from opposing themselves to their avarice, their ambition, their vanity, and their obstinacy. The sole principle which holds the church together is that of a sleepless watchfulness on the part of all its members to extend its power, to increase the multitude of its slaves, to fix odium on all who hesitate to bend their necks to its yoke, or who refuse their assent to its arbitrary decisions.
Our divines have, therefore, you see, very good reasons for raising humility into the rank of virtue. An amiable modesty, a diffident mildness of demeanor, are unquestionably calculated to promote the pleasures and the advantages of society; it is equally certain that insolence and arrogance are disgusting, that they wound our self-love and excite our aversion by their repulsive conduct; but that amiable modesty which charms all who come within its influence is a far different quality from that which is designated humility in the vocabulary of Christians. A truly humble Christian despises his own unworthiness, avoids the esteem of others, mistrusts his own understanding, submits with docility to the unerring guidance of his spiritual masters, and piously resigns to his priest the clearest and most irrefutable conclusions of reason.
But to what advantage can this pretended virtue lead its followers? How can a man of sense and integrity despise himself? Is not public opinion the guardian of private virtue? If you deprive men of the love of glory, and the desire of deserving the approbation of their fellow-citizens, are you not divesting them of the noblest and most powerful incitements by which they can be impelled to benefit their country? What recompense will remain to the benefactors of mankind, if, first of all, we are unjust enough to refuse them the praise they merit, and afterwards debar them from the satisfaction of self-applause, and the happiness they would feel in the consciousness of having done good to an ungrateful world? What infatuation, what amazing infatuation, to require a man of upright character, of talents, intelligence, and learning, to think himself on a level with a selfish priest, or a stupid fanatic, who deal out their absurd fables and incoherent dreams!
Our priests are never weary of telling their flocks that pride leads on to infidelity, and that a humble and submissive spirit is alone fitted to receive the truths of the gospel. In good earnest, should we not be utterly bereft of every claim to the name of rational beings, if we consent to surrender our judgment and our knowledge at the command of a hierarchy, who have nothing to give us in exchange but the most palpable absurdities? With what face can a reverend Doctor of Nonsense dare to exact from my understanding a humble acquiescence in a bundle of mysterious opinions, for which he is unable to offer me a single solid reason? Is it, then, presumptuous to think one's self superior to a class of pretenders, whose systems are a mass of falsities, absurdities, and inconsistencies, of which they contrive to make mankind at once the dupes and the victims? Can pride or vanity be, with justice, imputed to you, Madam, if you see reason to prefer the dictates of your own understanding to the authoritative decrees of Mrs. D——, whose senseless malignity is obvious to all her acquaintance?
If Christian humility is a virtue at all, it can be one only in the cloister; society can derive no sort of benefit from it; it enervates the mind; it benefits nobody but priests, who, under the pretext of rendering men humble, seek, in reality, only to degrade them, to stifle in their souls every spark of science and of courage, that they may the more easily impose the yoke of faith, that is to say, their own yoke. Conclude, then, with me, that the Christian virtues are chimerical, always useless, and sometimes pernicious to men, and attended with advantage to none but priests. Conclude that this religion, with all the boasted beauty of its morality, recommends to us a set of virtues, and enjoins a line of conduct, at variance with good sense. Conclude that, in order to be moral and virtuous, it is far from necessary to adopt the unintelligible creed of the priests, or to pride ourselves upon the empty virtues they preach, and still less to annihilate all sense of dignity in ourselves, by a degrading subjection to the duties they require. Conclude, in short, that the friend of virtue is not, of necessity, the friend of priestcraft, and that a man may be adorned with every human perfection, without possessing one of the Christian virtues.
All who examine this matter with a candid and intelligent eye, cannot fail to see that true morality—that is to say, a morality really serviceable to mankind—is absolutely incompatible with the Christian religion, or any other professed revelation. Whoever imagines himself the favored object of the Creator's love, must look down with disdain upon his less fortunate fellow-creatures, especially if he regards that Creator as partial, choleric, revengeful, and fickle, easily incensed against us, even by our involuntary thoughts, or our most innocent words and actions; such a man naturally conducts himself with contempt and pride, with harshness and barbarity towards all others whom he may deem obnoxious to the resentment of his Heavenly King. Those men, whose folly leads them to view the Deity in the light of a capricious, irritable, and unappeasable despot, can be nothing but gloomy and trembling slaves, ever eager to anticipate the vengeance of God upon all whose conduct or opinions they may conceive likely to provoke the celestial wrath. As soon as the priests have succeeded in reducing men to a state of stupidity gross enough to make them believe that their ghostly fathers are the faithful organs of the divine will, they naturally commit every species of crime, which their spiritual teachers may please to tell them is calculated to pacify the anger of their offended God. Men, silly enough to accept a system of morals from guides thus hollow in reasoning, and thus discordant in opinion, must necessarily be unstable in their principles, and subject to every variation that the interest of their guides may suggest. In short, it is impossible to construct a solid morality, if we take for our foundation the attributes of a deity so unjust, so capricious, and so changeable as the God of the Bible, whom we are commanded to imitate and adore.
Persevere, then, my dear Madam, in the practice of those virtues which your own unsophisticated heart approves; they will insure you a rich harvest of happiness in the present existence; they will insure you a rich return of gratitude, respect, and love from all who enjoy their benign influence; they will insure you the solid satisfaction of a well-founded self-esteem, and thus provide you with that unfailing source of inward gratification which arises from the consciousness of having contributed to the welfare of the human race. I am, &c.