§101. Although it is impossible
for men to form the least idea of the soul, or the pretended
spirit, which animates them; yet they persuade themselves that this
unknown soul is exempt from death. Every thing proves to them, that
they feel, that they think, that they acquire ideas, that they
enjoy and suffer, only by means of the senses, or material organs
of the body. Admitting even the existence of this soul, they cannot
help acknowledging, that it depends entirely upon the body, and
undergoes, all its vicissitudes; and yet it is imagined, that this
soul has nothing, in its nature, similar to the body; that it can
act and feel without the assistance of the body; in a word, that
this soul, freed from the body, and disengaged from its senses, can
live, enjoy, suffer, experience happiness, or feel excruciating
torments. Upon such a tissue of absurdities is built the marvellous
opinion of the immortality of the soul. If I ask, what are
the motives for believing the soul immortal, they immediately
answer, that it is because man naturally desires to be immortal:
but, because you desire a thing ardently, can you infer that your
desire will be fulfilled? By what strange logic can we dare affirm,
that a thing cannot fail to happen, because we ardently desire it?
Are desires, begotten by the imagination, the measure of reality?
The impious, you say, deprived of the flattering hope of another
life, wish to be annihilated. Very well: may they not then as
justly conclude, from their desire, that they shall be
annihilated, as you may conclude from your desire, that you
shall exist for ever.
§102. Man dies, and the human body
after death is no longer anything but a mass incapable of producing
those motions, of which the sum total constituted life. We see,
that it has no longer circulation, respiration, digestion, speech,
or thought. It is pretended, that the soul is then separated from
the body; but to say, that this soul, with which we are
unacquainted, is the principle of life, is to say nothing, unless
that an unknown power is the hidden principle of imperceptible
movements. Nothing is more natural and simple, than to believe,
that the dead man no longer lives: nothing is more extravagant,
than to believe, that the dead man is still alive. We laugh at the
simplicity of some nations, whose custom is to bury provision with
the dead, under an idea that it will be useful and necessary to
them in the other life. Is it then more ridiculous or absurd to
suppose, that men will eat after death, than to imagine, that they
will think, that they will be actuated by agreeable or disagreeable
ideas, that they will enjoy or suffer, and that they will
experience repentance or delight, after the organs, adapted to
produce sensations or ideas, are once dissolved. To say that the
souls of men will be happy or unhappy after death, is in other
words to say, that men will see without eyes, hear without ears,
taste without palates, smell without noses, and touch without
hands. And persons, who consider themselves very reasonable, adopt
§103. The dogma of the immortality of the soul supposes the soul to be a simple substance; in a word, a spirit. But I ask again, what is a spirit? "It is," say you, "a substance void of extension, incorruptible, having nothing common with matter." If so, how is your soul born, and how does it grow, how does it strengthen or weaken itself, how does it get disordered and grow old, in the same progression as your body?
To all these questions you answer, that these are mysteries. If
so, you cannot understand them. If you cannot understand them, why
do you decide about a thing, of which you are unable to form the
least idea? To believe or affirm any thing, it is necessary, at
least, to know in what it consists. To believe in the existence of
your immaterial soul, is to say, that you are persuaded of the
existence of a thing, of which it is impossible for you to form any
true notion; it is to believe in words without meaning. To affirm
that the thing is as you say, is the height of folly or vanity.
§104. Are not theologians strange reasoners? Whenever they cannot divine the natural causes of things, they invent what they call supernatural; such as spirits, occult causes, inexplicable agents, or rather words, much more obscure than the things they endeavour to explain. Let us remain in nature, when we wish to account for the phenomena of nature; let us be content to remain ignorant of causes too delicate for our organs; and let us be persuaded, that, by going beyond nature, we shall never solve the problems which nature presents.
Even upon the hypothesis of theology, (that is, supposing an
all-powerful mover of matter) by what right would theologians deny,
that their God has power to give this matter the faculty of
thought? Was it then more difficult for him to create combinations
of matter, from which thought might result, than spirits who could
think? At least, by supposing matter, which thinks, we should have
some notions of the subject of thought, or of what thinks in us;
whereas, by attributing thought to an immaterial being, it is
impossible to form the least idea of it.
§105. It is objected against us, that materialism makes man a mere machine, which is said to be very dishonourable. But, will it be much more honourable for man, if we should say, that he acts by the secret impulses of a spirit, or by a certain I know not what, that animates him in a manner totally inexplicable.
It is easy to perceive, that the supposed superiority of
spirit over matter, or of the soul over the body, has no
other foundation than men's ignorance of this soul, while they are
more familiarized with matter, with which they imagine they
are acquainted, and of which they think they can discern the
origin. But the most simple movements of our bodies are to every
man, who studies them, as inexplicable as thought.
§106. The high value, which so
many people set upon spiritual substance, has no other motive than
their absolute inability to define it intelligibly. The contempt
shewn for matter by our metaphysicians, arises only from the
circumstance, that familiarity begets contempt. When they tell us,
that the soul is more excellent and noble than the body,
they say what they know not.
§107. The dogma of another life is
incessantly extolled, as useful. It is maintained, that even though
it should be only a fiction, it is advantageous, because it
deceives men, and conducts them to virtue. But is it true, that
this dogma makes men wiser and more virtuous? Are the nations, who
believe this fiction, remarkable for purity of morals? Has not the
visible world ever the advantage over the invisible? If those, who
are trusted with the instruction and government of men, had
knowledge and virtue themselves, they would govern them much better
by realities, than by fictions. But crafty, ambitious and corrupt
legislators, have every where found it better to amuse with fables,
than to teach them truths, to unfold their reason, to excite them
to virtue by sensible and real motives, in fine, to govern them in
a rational manner. Priests undoubtedly had reasons for making the
soul immaterial; they wanted souls to people the imaginary regions,
which they have discovered in the other life. Material souls would,
like all bodies, have been subject to dissolution. Now, if men
should believe, that all must perish with the body, the geographers
of the other world would evidently lose the right of guiding men's
souls towards that unknown abode; they would reap no profits from
the hope with which they feed them, and the terrors with which they
oppress them. If futurity is of no real utility to mankind, it is,
at least, of the greatest utility to those, who have assumed the
office of conducting them thither.
§108. "But," it will be said, "is not the dogma of the immortality of the soul comforting to beings, who are often very unhappy here below? Though it should be an error, is it not pleasing? Is it not a blessing to man to believe, that he shall be able to enjoy hereafter a happiness, which is denied him upon earth?" Thus, poor mortals! you make your wishes the measure of truth; because you desire to live for ever, and to be happier, you at once conclude, that you shall live for ever, and that you shall be more fortunate in an unknown world, than in this known world, where you often find nothing but affliction! Consent therefore to leave, without regret, this world which gives the greater part of you much more torment than pleasure. Submit to the order of nature, which demands that you, as well as all other beings, should not endure for ever.
We are incessantly told, that religion has infinite consolations for the unfortunate, that the idea of the soul's immortality, and of a happier life, is very proper to elevate man, and to support him under adversity, which awaits him upon earth. It is said, on the contrary, that materialism is an afflicting system, calculated to degrade man; then it puts him upon a level with the brutes, breaks his courage, and shows him no other prospect than frightful annihilation, capable of driving him to despair and suicide, whenever he is unhappy. The great art of theologians is to blow hot and cold, to afflict and console, to frighten and encourage.
It appears by theological fictions, that the regions of the other life are happy and unhappy. Nothing is more difficult than to become worthy of the abode of felicity; nothing more easy than to obtain a place in the abode of torment, which God is preparing for the unfortunate victims of eternal fury. Have those then, who think the other life so pleasant and flattering, forgotten, that according to them, that life is to be attended with torments to the greater part of mortals? Is not the idea of total annihilation infinitely preferable to the idea of an eternal existence, attended with anguish and gnashing of teeth? Is the fear of an end more afflicting, than that of having had a beginning! The fear of ceasing to exist is a real evil only to the imagination, which alone begat the dogma of another life.
Christian ministers say that the idea of a happier life is
joyous. Admitted. Every person would desire a more agreeable
existence than that he enjoys here. But, if paradise is inviting,
you will grant, that hell is frightful. Heaven is very difficult,
and hell very easy to be merited. Do you not say, that a
narrow way leads to the happy regions, and a broad
way to the regions of misery? Do you not often say, that the
number of the elect is very small, and that of the reprobate very
large? Is not Grace, which your God grants but to a very few,
necessary to salvation? Now, I assure you, that these ideas are by
no means consoling; that I had rather be annihilated, once for all,
than to burn for ever; that the fate of beasts is to me more
desirable than that of the damned; that the opinion which relieves
me from afflicting fears in this world, appears to me more joyous,
than the uncertainty arising from the opinion of a God, who, master
of his grace, grants it to none but his favourites, and permits all
others to become worthy of eternal torment. Nothing but enthusiasm
or folly can induce a man to prefer improbable conjectures,
attended with uncertainty and insupportable fears.
§109. All religious principles are the work of pure imagination, in which experience and reason have no share. It is extremely difficult to combat them, because the imagination, once prepossessed by chimeras, which astonish or disturb it, is incapable of reasoning. To combat religion and its phantoms with the arms of reason, is like using a sword to kill gnats; as soon as the blow is struck, the gnats and chimeras come hovering round again, and resume in the mind the place, from which they were thought to have been for ever banished.
When we reject, as too weak, the proofs given of the existence of a God, they instantly oppose to the arguments, which destroy that existence, an inward sense, a deep persuasion, an invincible inclination, born in every man, which holds up to his mind, in spite of himself, the idea of an almighty being, whom he cannot entirely expel from his mind, and whom he is compelled to acknowledge, in spite of the strongest reasons that can be urged. But whoever will analyse this inward sense, upon which such stress is laid, will perceive, that it is only the effect of a rooted habit, which, shutting their eyes against the most demonstrative proofs, subjects the greater part of men, and often even the most enlightened, to the prejudices of childhood. What avails this inward sense, or this deep persuasion, against the evidence, which demonstrates, that whatever implies a contradiction cannot exist?
We are gravely assured, that the non-existence of God is not
demonstrated. Yet, by all that men have hitherto said of him,
nothing is better demonstrated, than that this God is a chimera,
whose existence is totally impossible; since nothing is more
evident, than that a being cannot possess qualities so unlike, so
contradictory, so irreconcilable, as those, which every religion
upon earth attributes to the Divinity. Is not the theologian's God,
as well as that of the deist, a cause incompatible with the effects
attributed to it? Let them do what they will, it is necessary
either to invent another God, or to grant, that he, who, for so
many ages, has been held up to the terror of mortals, is at the
same time very good and very bad, very powerful and very weak,
unchangeable and fickle, perfectly intelligent and perfectly void
of reason, of order and permitting disorder, very just and most
unjust, very skilful and unskilful. In short, are we not forced to
confess, that it is impossible to reconcile the discordant
attributes, heaped upon a being, of whom we cannot speak without
the most palpable contradictions? Let any one attribute a single
quality to the Divinity, and it is universally contradicted by the
effects, ascribed to this cause.
§110. Theology might justly be
defined the science of contradictions. Every religion is
only a system, invented to reconcile irreconcilable notions. By the
aid of habit and terror, man becomes obstinate in the greatest
absurdities, even after they are exposed in the clearest manner.
All religions are easily combated, but with difficulty extirpated.
Reason avails nothing against custom, which becomes, says the
proverb, a second nature. Many persons, in other respects
sensible, even after having examined the rotten foundation of their
belief, adhere to it in contempt of the most striking arguments.
Whenever we complain of religion, its shocking absurdities, and
impossibilities, we are told that we are not made to understand the
truths of religion; that reason goes astray, and is capable of
leading us to perdition; and moreover, that what is folly in the
eyes of man, is wisdom in the eyes of God, to whom nothing is
impossible. In short, to surmount, by a single word, the most
insurmountable difficulties, presented on all sides by theology,
they get rid of them by saying, these are mysteries!
§111. What is a mystery? By examining the thing closely, I soon perceive, that a mystery is nothing but a contradiction, a palpable absurdity, a manifest impossibility, over which theologians would oblige men humbly to shut their eyes. In a word, a mystery is whatever our spiritual guides cannot explain.
It is profitable to the ministers of religion, that people understand nothing of what they teach. It is impossible to examine what we do not comprehend; when we do not see, we must suffer ourselves to be led. If religion were clear, priests would find less business.
Without mysteries there can be no religion; mystery is essential
to it; a religion void of mysteries, would be a contradiction in
terms. The God, who serves as the foundation of natural
religion, or deism, is himself the greatest of
§112. Every revealed religion is filled with mysterious dogmas, unintelligible principles, incredible wonders, astonishing recitals, which appear to have been invented solely to confound reason. Every religion announces a hidden God, whose essence is a mystery; consequently, the conduct, ascribed to him, is no less inconceivable than his essence. The Deity has never spoken only in an enigmatical and mysterious manner, in the various religions, which have been founded in different regions of our globe; he has everywhere revealed himself only to announce mysteries; that is, to inform mortals, that he intended they should believe contradictions, impossibilities, and things to which they were incapable of affixing any clear ideas.
The more mysterious and incredible a religion is, the more power it has to please the imagination of men. The darker a religion is, the more it appears divine, that is, conformable to the nature of a hidden being, of whom they have no ideas. Ignorance prefers the unknown, the hidden, the fabulous, the marvellous, the incredible, or even the terrible, to what is clear, simple, and true. Truth does not operate upon the imagination in so lively a manner as fiction, which, in other respects, everyone is able to arrange in his own way. The vulgar like to listen to fables. Priests and legislators, by inventing religions and forging mysteries have served the vulgar people well. They have thereby gained enthusiasts, women and fools. Beings of this stamp are easily satisfied with things, which they are incapable of examining. The love of simplicity and truth is to be found only among the few, whose imagination is regulated by study and reflection.
The inhabitants of a village are never better pleased with their
parson, than when he introduces Latin into his sermon. The ignorant
always imagine, that he, who speaks to them of things they do not
understand, is a learned man. Such is the true principle of the
credulity of the people, and of the authority of those, who pretend
to guide nations.
§113. To announce mysteries to men, is to give and withhold; it is to talk in order not to be understood. He, who speaks only obscurely, either seeks to amuse himself by the embarrassment, which he causes, or finds his interest in not explaining himself too clearly. All secrecy indicates distrust, impotence, and fear. Princes and their ministers make a mystery of their projects, for fear their enemies should discover and render them abortive. Can a good God amuse himself by perplexing his creatures? What interest then could he have in commanding his ministers to announce riddles and mysteries?
It is said, that man, by the weakness of his nature, is totally
incapable of understanding the divine dispensations, which can be
to him only a series of mysteries; God cannot disclose to him
secrets, necessarily above his reach. If so, I answer again, that
man is not made to attend to the divine dispensations; that these
dispensations are to him by no means interesting; that he has no
need of mysteries, which he cannot understand; and consequently,
that a mysterious religion is no more fit for him, than an eloquent
discourse is for a flock of sheep.
§114. The Deity has revealed himself with so little uniformity in the different countries of our globe, that in point of religion, men regard one another with hatred and contempt. The partisans of the different sects think each other very ridiculous and foolish. Mysteries, most revered in one religion, are objects of derision to another. God, in revealing himself to mankind, ought at least, to have spoken the same language to all, and saved their feeble minds the perplexity of inquiring which religion really emanated from him, or what form of worship is most acceptable in his sight.
A universal God ought to have revealed a universal religion. By
what fatality then are there so many different religions upon
earth? Which is really right, among the great number of those, each
of which exclusively pretends to be the true one? There is great
reason to believe, that no religion enjoys this advantage. Division
and disputes upon opinions are indubitable signs of the uncertainty
and obscurity of the principles, upon which they build.
§115. If religion were necessary at all, it ought to be intelligible to all. If this religion were the most important concern of men, the goodness of God would seem to demand, that it should be to them of all things the most clear, evident, and demonstrative. Is it not then astonishing, that this thing so essential to the happiness of mortals, is precisely that, which they understand least, and about which, for so many ages, their teachers have most disputed? Priests have never agreed upon the manner of understanding the will of a God, who has revealed himself.
The world, may be compared to a public fair, in which are several empirics, each of whom endeavours to attract the passengers by decrying the remedies sold by his brothers. Each shop has its customers, who are persuaded, that their quacks possess the only true remedies; and notwithstanding a continual use of them, they perceive not the inefficacy of these remedies, or that they are as infirm as those, who run after the quacks of a different shop.
Devotion is a disorder of the imagination contracted in infancy.
The devout man is a hypochondriac, who only augments his malady by
the application of remedies. The wise man abstains from them
entirely; he pays attention to his diet, and in other respects
leaves nature to her course.
§116. To a man of sense, nothing
appears more ridiculous, than the opinions, which the partisans of
the different religions with equal folly entertain of each other. A
Christian regards the Koran, that is, the divine revelation
announced by Mahomet, as nothing but a tissue of impertinent
reveries, and impostures insulting to the divinity. The Mahometan,
on the other hand, treats the Christian as an idolater and a
dog. He sees nothing but absurdities in his religion. He
imagines he has a right to subdue the Christian, and to force him,
sword in hand, to receive the religion of his divine prophet.
Finally, he believes, that nothing is more impious and
unreasonable, than to worship a man, or to believe in the Trinity.
The protestant Christian who without scruple worships a man,
and firmly believes the inconceivable mystery of the
trinity, ridicules the catholic Christian for
believing in the mystery of transubstantiation; he considers
him mad, impious, and idolatrous, because he kneels to worship some
bread, in which he thinks he sees God. Christians of every sect
regard, as silly stories, the incarnations of Vishnu, the
God of the Indies; they maintain, that the only true
incarnation is that of Jesus, son of a carpenter. The
deist, who calls himself the follower of a religion, which he
supposes to be that of nature, content with admitting a God, of
whom he has no idea, makes a jest of all the mysteries, taught by
the various religions in the world.
§117. Is there any thing more
contradictory, impossible, or mysterious, than the creation of
matter by an immaterial being, who, though immutable, operates
continual changes in the world? Is any thing more incompatible with
every notion of common sense, than to believe, that a supremely
good, wise, equitable and powerful being presides over nature, and
by himself directs the movements of a world, full of folly, misery,
crimes and disorders, which by a single word, he could have
prevented or removed? In fine, whenever we admit a being as
contradictory as the God of theology, how can we reject the most
improbable fables, astonishing miracles, and profound
§118. The Deist exclaims: "Abstain from worshipping the cruel and capricious God of theology; mine is a being infinitely wise and good; he is the father of men, the mildest of sovereigns; it is he who fills the universe with his benefits." But do you not see that every thing in this world contradicts the good qualities, which you ascribe to your God? In the numerous family of this tender father, almost all are unhappy. Under the government of this just sovereign, vice is triumphant, and virtue in distress. Among those blessings you extol, and which only enthusiasm can see, I behold a multitude of evils, against which you obstinately shut your eyes. Forced to acknowledge, that your beneficent God, in contradiction with himself, distributes good and evil with the same hand, for his justification you must, like the priest, refer me to the regions of another life. Invent, therefore, another God; for yours is no less contradictory than that of theologians.
A good God, who does evil, or consents to the commission of evil; a God full of equity, and in whose empire innocence is often oppressed; a perfect God, who produces none but imperfect and miserable works; are not such a God and his conduct as great mysteries, as that of the incarnation?
You blush for your fellow-citizens, who allow themselves to be persuaded, that the God of the universe could change himself into a man, and die upon a cross in a corner of Asia. The mystery of the incarnation appears to you very absurd. You think nothing more ridiculous, than a God, who transforms himself into bread, and causes himself daily to be eaten in a thousand different places. But are all these mysteries more contradictory to reason than a God, the avenger and rewarder of the actions of men? Is man, according to you, free, or not free? In either case, your God, if he has the shadow of equity, can neither punish nor reward him. If man is free, it is God, who has made him free; therefore God is the primitive cause of all his actions; in punishing him for his faults, he would punish him for having executed what he had given him liberty to do. If man is not free to act otherwise than he does, would not God be most unjust, in punishing man for faults, which he could not help committing.
The minor, or secondary, absurdities, with which all religions
abound, are to many people truly striking; but they have not the
courage to trace the source of these absurdities. They see not,
that a God full of contradictions, caprices and inconsistent
qualities, has only served to disorder men's imaginations, and to
produce an endless succession of chimeras.
§119. The theologian would shut the mouths of those who deny the existence of God, by saying, that all men, in all ages and countries, have acknowledged some divinity or other; that every people have believed in an invisible and powerful being, who has been the object of their worship and veneration; in short, that there is no nation, however savage, who are not persuaded of the existence of some intelligence superior to human nature. But, can an error be changed into truth by the belief of all men? The great philosopher Bayle has justly observed, that "general tradition, or the unanimous consent of mankind, is no criterion of truth."
There was a time, when all men believed that the sun moved round
the earth, but this error was detected. There was a time, when
nobody believed the existence of the antipodes, and when every one
was persecuted, who had temerity enough to maintain it. At present,
every informed man firmly believes it. All nations, with the
exception of a few men who are less credulous than the rest, still
believe in ghosts and spirits. No sensible man now adopts such
nonsense. But the most sensible people consider it their duty to
believe in a universal spirit!
§120. All the gods, adored by men, are of savage origin. They have evidently been imagined by stupid people, or presented, by ambitious and crafty legislators, to ignorant and uncivilized nations, who had neither capacity nor courage to examine the objects, which through terror they were made to worship.
By closely examining God, we are forced to acknowledge, that he evidently bears marks of a savage nature. To be savage is to acknowledge no right but force; it is to be cruel beyond measure; to follow only one's own caprice; to want foresight, prudence, and reason. Ye nations, who call yourselves civilized! Do you not discern, in this hideous character, the God, on whom you lavish your incense? Are not the descriptions given you of the divinity, visibly borrowed from the implacable, jealous, revengeful, sanguinary, capricious inconsiderate humour of man, who has not cultivated his reason? O men! You adore only a great savage, whom you regard, however, as a model to imitate, as an amiable master, as a sovereign full of perfection.
Religious opinions are ancient monuments of ignorance, credulity, cowardice, and barbarism of their ancestors. Every savage is a child fond of the marvellous, who believes every thing, and examines nothing. Ignorant of nature, he attributes to spirits, enchantments, and to magic, whatever appears to him extraordinary. His priests appear to him sorcerers, in whom he supposes a power purely divine, before whom his confounded reason humbles itself, whose oracles are to him infallible decrees which it would be dangerous to contradict.
In religion, men have, for the most part, remained in their
primitive barbarity. Modern religions are only ancient follies
revived, or presented under some new form. If the savages of
antiquity adored mountains, rivers, serpents, trees, and idols of
every kind; if the Egyptians paid homage to
crocodiles, rats, and onions, do we not see nations, who think
themselves wiser than they, worship bread, into which they imagine,
that through the enchantments of their priests, the divinity has
descended. Is not the Bread-God the idol of many Christian nations,
who, in this respect, are as irrational, as the most savage?
§121. The ferocity, stupidity, and folly of uncivilized man have ever disclosed themselves in religious practices, either cruel or extravagant. A spirit of barbarity still survives, and penetrates the religions even of the most polished nations. Do we not still see human victims offered to the divinity? To appease the anger of a God, who is always supposed as ferocious, jealous and vindictive, as a savage, do not those, whose manner of thinking is supposed to displease him, expire under studied torments, by the command of sanguinary laws? Modern nations, at the instigation of their priests, have perhaps improved upon the atrocious folly of barbarous nations; at least, we find, that it has ever entered the heads of savages to torment for opinions, to search the thoughts, to molest men for the invisible movements of their brains?
When we see learned nations, such as the English, French,
German, etc., continue, notwithstanding their knowledge, to kneel
before the barbarous God of the Jews; when we see these enlightened
nations divide into sects, defame, hate, and despise one another
for their equally ridiculous opinions concerning the conduct and
intentions of this unreasonable God; when we see men of ability
foolishly devote their time to meditate the will of this God, who
is full of caprice and folly, we are tempted to cry out: O men, you
are still savage!!!
§122. Whoever has formed true ideas of the ignorance, credulity, negligence, and stupidity of the vulgar, will suspect opinions the more, as he finds them generally established. Men, for the most part, examine nothing: they blindly submit to custom and authority. Their religious opinions, above all others, are those which they have the least courage and capacity to examine: as they comprehend nothing about them, they are forced to be silent, or at least are soon destitute of arguments. Ask any man, whether he believes in a God? He will be much surprised that you can doubt it. Ask him again, what he understands by the word God. You throw him into the greatest embarrassment; you will perceive immediately, that he is incapable of affixing any real idea to this word, he incessantly repeats. He will tell you, that God is God. He knows neither what he thinks of it, nor his motives for believing in it.
All nations speak of a God; but do they agree upon this God? By no means. But division upon an opinion proves not its evidence; it is rather a sign of uncertainty and obscurity. Does the same man always agree with himself in the notions he forms of his God? No. His idea varies with the changes, which he experiences; -- another sign of uncertainty. Men always agree in demonstrative truths. In any situation, except that of insanity, every one knows that two and two make four, that the sun shines, that the whole is greater than its part; that benevolence is necessary to merit the affection of men; that injustice and cruelty are incompatible with goodness. Are they thus agreed when they speak of God? Whatever they think, or say of him, is immediately destroyed by the effects they attribute to him.
Ask several painters to represent a chimera, and each will paint
it in a different manner. You will find no resemblance between the
features, each has given it a portrait, that has no original. All
theologians, in giving us a picture of God, give us one of a great
chimera, in whose features they never agree, whom each arranges in
his own way, and who exists only in their imaginations. There are
not two individuals, who have, or can have, the same ideas of their
§123. It might be said with more truth, that men are either skeptics or atheists, than that they are convinced of the existence of God. How can we be assured of the existence of a being, whom we could never examine, and of whom it is impossible to conceive any permanent idea? How can we convince ourselves of the existence of a being, to whom we are every moment forced to attribute conduct, opposed to the ideas, we had endeavoured to form of him? Is it then possible to believe what we cannot conceive? Is not such a belief the opinions of others without having any of our own? Priests govern by faith; but do not priests themselves acknowledge that God is to them incomprehensible? Confess then, that a full and entire conviction of the existence of God is not so general, as is imagined.
Scepticism arises from a want of motives sufficient to form a judgment. Upon examining the proofs which seem to establish, and the arguments which combat, the existence of God, some persons have doubted and withheld their assent. But this uncertainty arises from not having sufficiently examined. Is it possible to doubt any thing evident? Sensible people ridicule an absolute scepticism, and think it even impossible. A man, who doubted his own existence, or that of the sun, would appear ridiculous. Is this more extravagant than to doubt the non-existence of an evidently impossible being? Is it more absurd to doubt one's own existence, than to hesitate upon the impossibility of a being, whose qualities reciprocally destroy one another? Do we find greater probability for believing the existence of a spiritual being, than the existence of a stick without two ends? Is the notion of an infinitely good and powerful being, who causes or permits an infinity of evils, less absurd or impossible, than that of a square triangle? Let us conclude then, that religious scepticism can result only from a superficial examination of theological principles, which are in perpetual contradiction with the most clear and demonstrative principles.
To doubt, is to deliberate. Scepticism is only a state of indetermination, resulting from an insufficient examination of things. Is it possible for any one to be sceptical in matters of religion, who will deign to revert to its principles, and closely examine the notion of God, who serves as its basis? Doubt generally arises either from indolence, weakness, indifference, or incapacity. With many people, to doubt is to fear the trouble of examining things, which are thought uninteresting. But religion being presented to men as their most important concern in this and the future world, scepticism and doubt on this subject must occasion perpetual anxiety and must really constitute a bed of thorns. Every man who has not courage to contemplate, without prejudice, the God upon whom all religion is founded, can never know for what religion to decide: he knows not what he should believe or not believe, admit or reject, hope or fear.
Indifference upon religion must not be confounded with
scepticism. This indifference is founded upon the absolute
assurance, or at any rate upon the probable belief, that religion
is not interesting. A persuasion that a thing which is pretended to
be important is not so, or is only indifferent, supposes a
sufficient examination of the thing, without which it would be
impossible to have this persuasion. Those who call themselves
sceptics in the fundamental points of religion, are commonly either
indolent or incapable of examining.
§124. In every country, we are assured, that a God has revealed himself. What has he taught men? Has he proved evidently that he exists? Has he informed them where he resides? Has he taught them what he is, or in what his essence consists? Has he clearly explained to them his intentions and plan? Does what he says of this plan correspond with the effects, which we see? No. He informs them solely, that he is what he is; that he is a hidden God; that his ways are unspeakable; that he is exasperated against all who have the temerity to fathom his decrees, or to consult reason in judging him or his works.
Does the revealed conduct of God answer the magnificent ideas which theologians would give us of his wisdom, goodness, justice, and omnipotence? By no means. In every revelation, this conduct announces a partial and capricious being, the protector of favourite people, and the enemy of all others. If he deigns to appear to some men, he takes care to keep all others in an invincible ignorance of his divine intentions. Every private revelation evidently announces in God, injustice, partiality and malignity.
Do the commands, revealed by any God, astonish us by their
sublime reason or wisdom? Do they evidently tend to promote the
happiness of the people, to whom the Divinity discloses them? Upon
examining the divine commands, one sees in every country, nothing
but strange ordinances, ridiculous precepts, impertinent
ceremonies, puerile customs, oblations, sacrifices, and expiations,
useful indeed to the ministers of God, but very burthensome to the
rest of the citizens. I see likewise, that these laws often tend to
make men unsociable, disdainful, intolerant, quarrelsome, unjust,
and inhuman, to those who have not received the same revelations,
the same ordinances, or the same favours from heaven.
§125. Are the precepts of morality, announced by the Deity, really divine, or superior to those which every reasonable man might imagine? They are divine solely because it is impossible for the human mind to discover their utility. They make virtue consist in a total renunciation of nature, in a voluntary forgetfulness of reason, a holy hatred of ourselves. Finally, these sublime precepts often exhibit perfection in a conduct, cruel to ourselves, and perfectly useless to others.
Has a God appeared? Has he himself promulgated his laws? Has he
spoken to men with his own mouth? I am told, that God has not
appeared to a whole people; but that he has always manifested
himself through the medium of some favourite personages, who have
been intrusted with the care of announcing and explaining his
intentions. The people have never been permitted to enter the
sanctuary; the ministers of the gods have alone had the right to
relate what passes there.
§126. If in every system of divine revelation, I complain of not seeing either the wisdom, goodness, or equity of God; if I suspect knavery, ambition, or interest; it is replied, that God has confirmed by miracles the mission of those, who speak in his name. But was it not more simple for him to appear in person, to explain his nature and will? Again, if I have the curiosity to examine these miracles, I find, that they are improbable tales, related by suspected people, who had the greatest interest in giving out that they were the messengers of the Most High.
What witnesses are appealed to in order to induce us to believe
incredible miracles? Weak people, who existed thousands of years
ago, and who, even though they could attest these miracles, may be
suspected of being duped by their own imagination, and imposed upon
by the tricks of dexterous impostors. But, you will say, these
miracles are written in books, which by tradition have been
transmitted to us. By whom were these books written? Who are the
men who have transmitted them? They are either the founders of
religions themselves, or their adherents and assigns. Thus, in
religion, the evidence of interested parties becomes irrefragable
§127. God has spoken differently to every people. The Indian believes not a word of what He has revealed to the Chinese; the Mahometan considers as fables what He has said to the Christian; the Jew regards both the Mahometan and Christian as sacrilegious corrupters of the sacred law, which his God had given to his fathers. The Christian, proud of his more modern revelation, indiscriminately damns the Indian, Chinese, Mahometan, and even the Jew, from whom he receives his sacred books. Who is wrong or right? Each exclaims, I am in the right! Each adduces the same proofs: each mentions his miracles, diviners, prophets, and martyrs. The man of sense tells them, they are all delirious; that God has not spoken, if it is true that he is a spirit, and can have neither mouth nor tongue; that without borrowing the organ of mortals, God could inspire his creatures with what he would have them learn; and that, as they are all equally ignorant what to think of God, it is evident that it has not been the will of God to inform them on the subject.
The followers of different forms of worship which are
established, accuse one another of superstition and impiety.
Christians look with abhorrence upon the Pagan, Chinese, and
Mahometan superstition. Roman Catholics treat, as impious,
Protestant Christians; and the latter incessantly declaim against
the superstition of the Catholics. They are all right. To be
impious, is to have opinions offensive to the God adored; to be
superstitious, is to have of him false ideas. In accusing one
another of superstition, the different religionists resemble
humpbacks, who reproach one another with their deformity.
§128. Are the oracles, which the
Divinity has revealed by his different messengers, remarkable for
clearness? Alas! no two men interpret them alike. Those who explain
them to others are not agreed among themselves. To elucidate them,
they have recourse to interpretations, to commentaries, to
allegories, to explanations: they discover mystical sense
very different from the literal sense. Men are every where
wanted to explain the commands of a God, who could not, or would
not, announce himself clearly to those, whom he wished to
§129. The founders of religion, have generally proved their missions by miracles. But what is a miracle? It is an operation directly opposite to the laws of nature. But who, according to you, made those laws? God. Thus, your God, who, according to you, foresaw every thing, counteracts the laws, which his wisdom prescribed to nature! These laws were then defective, or at least in certain circumstances they did not accord with the views of the same God, since you inform us that he judged it necessary to suspend or counteract them.
It is said, that a few men, favoured by the Most High, have
received power to perform miracles. But to perform a miracle, it is
necessary to have ability to create new causes capable of producing
effects contrary to those of common causes. Is it easy to conceive,
that God can give men the inconceivable power of creating causes
out of nothing? Is it credible, that an immutable God can
communicate to men power to change or rectify his plan, a power,
which by his essence an immutable being cannot save himself?
Miracles, far from doing much honour to God, far from proving the
divinity of a religion, evidently annihilate the God idea. How can
a theologian tell us, that God, who must have embraced the whole of
his plan, who could have made none but perfect laws, and who cannot
alter them, is forced to employ miracles to accomplish his
projects, or can grant his creatures the power of working prodigies
to execute his divine will? An omnipotent being, whose will is
always fulfilled, who holds in his hand his creatures, has only to
will, to make them believe whatever he desires.
§130. What shall we say of religions that prove their divinity by miracles? How can we credit miracles recorded in the sacred books of the Christians, where God boasts of hardening the hearts and blinding those whom he wishes to destroy; where he permits malicious spirits and magicians to work miracles as great as those of his servants; where it is predicted, that Antichrist shall have power to perform prodigies capable of shaking the faith even of the elect? In this case, by what signs shall we know whether God means to instruct or ensnare us? How shall we distinguish whether the wonders, we behold, come from God or devil? To remove our perplexity, Pascal gravely tells us, that it is necessary to judge the doctrine by the miracles, and the miracles by the doctrine; that the doctrine proves the miracles, and the miracles the doctrine. If there exist a vicious and ridiculous circle, it is undoubtedly in this splendid reasoning of one of the greatest defenders of Christianity. Where is the religion, that does not boast of the most admirable doctrine, and which does not produce numerous miracles for its support?
Is a miracle capable of annihilating the evidence of a
demonstrated truth? Although a man should have the secret of
healing all the sick, of making all the lame to walk, of raising in
all the dead of a city, of ascending into the air, of stopping the
course of the sun and moon, can he thereby convince me, that two
and two do not make four, that one makes three, and that three make
only one; that a God, whose immensity fills the universe, could
have been contained in the body of a Jew; that the Eternal can die like a man; that
a God, who is said to be immutable, provident, and sensible, could
have changed his mind upon his religion, and reformed his own work
by a new revelation?
§131. According to the very principles either of natural or revealed theology, every new revelation should be regarded as false; every change in a religion emanated from the Deity should be reputed an impiety and blasphemy. Does not all reform suppose, that, in his first effort, God could not give his religion the solidity and perfection required? To say, that God, in giving a first law, conformed to the rude ideas of the people whom he wished to enlighten, is to pretend that God was neither able nor willing to render the people, whom he was enlightening, so reasonable as was necessary in order to please him.
Christianity is an impiety, if it is true that Judaism is a
religion which has really emanated from a holy, immutable,
omnipotent, and foreseeing God. The religion of Christ supposes
either defects in the law which God himself had given by Moses, or
impotence or malice in the same God, who was either unable or
unwilling to render the Jews such as they ought to have been in
order to please him. Every new religion, or reform of ancient
religions, is evidently founded upon the impotence, inconstancy,
imprudence, or malice of the Divinity.
§132. If history informs me, that the first apostles, the founders or reformers of religions, wrought great miracles; history also informs me, that these reformers and their adherents were commonly buffeted, persecuted, and put to death, as disturbers of the peace of nations. I am therefore tempted to believe, that they did not perform the miracles ascribed to them; indeed, such miracles must have gained them numerous partisans among the eye-witnesses, who ought to have protected the operators from abuse. My incredulity redoubles, when I am told, that the workers of miracles were cruelly tormented, or ignominiously executed. How is it possible to believe, that missionaries, protected by God, invested with his divine power, and enjoying the gift of miracles, could not have wrought such a simple miracle, as to escape the cruelty of their persecutors?
Priests have the art of drawing from the persecutions
themselves, a convincing proof in favour of the religion of the
persecuted. But a religion, which boasts of having cost the lives
of many martyrs, and informs us, that its founders, in order to
extend it, have suffered punishments, cannot be the religion of a
beneficent, equitable and omnipotent God. A good God would not
permit men, intrusted with announcing his commands, to be
ill-treated. An all-powerful God, wishing to found a religion,
would proceed in a manner more simple and less fatal to the most
faithful of his servants. To say that God would have his religion
sealed with blood, is to say that he is weak, unjust, ungrateful,
and sanguinary; and that he is cruel enough to sacrifice his
messengers to the views of his ambition.
§133. To die for religion proves not that the religion is true, or divine; it proves, at most, that it is supposed to be such. An enthusiast proves nothing by his death, unless that religious fanaticism is often stronger than the love of life. An impostor may sometimes die with courage; he then makes, in the language of the proverb, a virtue of necessity.
People are often surprised and affected at sight of the generous courage and disinterested zeal, which has prompted missionaries to preach their doctrine, even at the risk of suffering the most rigorous treatment. From this ardour for the salvation of men, are drawn inferences favourable to the religion they have announced. But in reality, this disinterestedness is only apparent. He, who ventures nothing should gain nothing. A missionary seeks to make his fortune by his doctrine. He knows that, if he is fortunate enough to sell his commodity, he will become absolute master of those who receive him for their guide; he is sure of becoming the object of their attention, respect, and veneration. Such are the true motives, which kindle the zeal and charity of so many preachers and missionaries.
To die for an opinion, proves the truth or goodness of that opinion no more than to die in battle proves the justice of a cause, in which thousands have the folly to devote their lives. The courage of a martyr, elated with the idea of paradise, is not more supernatural, than the courage of a soldier, intoxicated with the idea of glory, or impelled by the fear of disgrace. What is the difference between an Iroquois, who sings while he is burning by inches, and the martyr St. Laurence, who upon the gridiron insults his tyrant?
The preachers of a new doctrine fail, because they are the
weakest; apostles generally practise a perilous trade. Their
courageous death proves neither the truth of their principles nor
their own sincerity, any more than the violent death of the
ambitious man, or of the robber, proves, that they were right in
disturbing society, or that they thought themselves authorised in
so doing. The trade of a missionary was always flattering to
ambition, and formed a convenient method of living at the expense
of the vulgar. These advantages have often been enough to efface
every idea of danger.
§134. You tell us, theologians!
that what is folly in the eyes of men, is wisdom before God, who
delights to confound the wisdom of the wise. But do you not
say, that human wisdom is a gift of heaven? In saying this wisdom
displeases God, is but folly in his sight, and that he is pleased
to confound it, you declare that your God is the friend only of
ignorant people, and that he makes sensible people a fatal present
for which this perfidious tyrant promises to punish them cruelly at
some future day. Is it not strange, that one can be the friend of
your God, only by declaring one's self the enemy of reason and good
§135. According to the divines, faith is an assent without evidence. Whence it follows, that religion requires us firmly to believe inevident things, and propositions often improbable or contrary to reason. But when we reject reason as a judge of faith, do we not confess, that reason is incompatible with faith? As the ministers of religion have resolved to banish reason, they must have felt the impossibility of reconciling it with faith, which is visibly only a blind submission to priests, whose authority seems to many persons more weighty than evidence itself, and preferable to the testimony of the senses.
"Sacrifice your reason; renounce experience; mistrust the testimony of your senses; submit without enquiry to what we announce to you in the name of heaven." Such is the uniform language of priests throughout the world; they agree upon no point, except upon the necessity of never reasoning upon the principles which they present to us as most important to our felicity!
I will not sacrifice my reason; because this reason alone enables me to distinguish good from evil, truth from falsehood. If, as you say, my reason comes from God, I shall never believe that a God, whom you call good, has given me reason, as a snare, to lead me to perdition. Priests! do you not see, that, by decrying reason, you calumniate your God, from whom you declare it to be a gift.
I will not renounce experience; because it is a guide much more sure than the imagination or authority of spiritual guides. Experience teaches me, that enthusiasm and interest may blind and lead them astray themselves; and that the authority of experience ought to have much more influence upon my mind, than the suspicious testimony of many men, who I know are either very liable to be deceived themselves, or otherwise are very much interested in deceiving others.
I will mistrust my senses; because I am sensible they sometimes mislead me. But, on the other hand, I know that they will not always deceive me. I well know, that the eye shews me the sun much smaller than it really is; but experience, which is only the repeated application of the senses, informs me, that objects always appear to diminish, as their distance increases; thus I attain to a certainty, that the sun is much larger than the earth; thus my senses suffice to rectify the hasty judgments, which they themselves had caused.
In warning us to mistrust the testimony of our senses, the
priests annihilate the proofs of all religion. If men may be dupes
of their imagination; if their senses are deceitful, how shall we
believe the miracles, which struck the treacherous senses of our
ancestors? If my senses are unfaithful guides, I ought not to
credit even the miracles wrought before my eyes.
§136. You incessantly repeat that the truths of religion are above reason. If so, do you not perceive, that these truths are not adapted to reasonable beings? To pretend that reason can deceive us, is to say, that truth can be false; that the useful can be hurtful. Is reason any thing but a knowledge of the useful and true? Besides, as our reason and senses are our only guides in this life, to say they are unfaithful, is to say, that our errors are necessary, our ignorance invincible, and that, without the extreme of injustice, God cannot punish us for following the only guides it was his supreme will to give.
To say, we are obliged to believe things above our reason, is
ridiculous. To assure us, that upon some objects we are not allowed
to consult reason, is to say, that, in the most interesting matter,
we must consult only imagination, or act only at random. Our
divines say, we must sacrifice our reason to God. But what motives
can we have to sacrifice our reason to a being, who makes us only
useless presents, which he does not intend us to use? What
confidence can we put in a God, who, according to our divines
themselves, is malicious enough to harden the heart, to strike with
blindness, to lay snares for us, to lead us into temptation?
In fine, what confidence can we put in the ministers of this God,
who, to guide us more conveniently, commands us to shut our
§137. Men are persuaded, that religion is to them of all things the most serious, while it is precisely what they least examine for themselves. In pursuit of an office, a piece of land, a house, a place of profit; in any transaction or contract whatever, every one carefully examines all, takes the greatest precaution, weighs every word of a writing, is guarded against every surprise. Not so in religion; every one receives it at a venture, and believes it upon the word of others, without ever taking the trouble to examine.
Two causes concur to foster the negligence and carelessness of
men, with regard to their religious opinions. The first is the
despair of overcoming the obscurity, in which all religion is
necessarily enveloped. Their first principles are only adapted to
disgust lazy minds, who regard them as a chaos impossible to be
understood. The second cause is, that every one is averse to being
too much bound by severe precepts, which all admire in theory, but
very few care to practice with rigour. The religion of many people
is like old family ties, which they have never taken pains to
examine, but which they deposit in their archives to have recourse
to them occasionally.
§138. The disciples of Pythagoras paid implicit faith to the doctrine of their master; he has said it, was to them the solution of every problem. The generality of men are not more rational. In matters of religion, a curate, a priest, an ignorant monk becomes master of the thoughts. Faith relieves the weakness of the human mind, to which application is commonly painful; it is much more convenient to depend upon others, than to examine for one's self. Inquiry, being slow and difficult, equally, displeases the stupidity of the ignorant, and the ardour of the enlightened. Such is undoubtedly the reason why Faith has so many partisans.
The more men are deficient in knowledge and reason, the more
zealous they are in religion. In theological quarrels, the
populace, like ferocious beasts, fall upon all those, against whom
their priest is desirous of exciting them. A profound ignorance,
boundless credulity, weak intellect, and warm imagination, are the
materials, of which are made bigots, zealots, fanatics, and saints.
How can the voice of reason be heard by them who make it a
principle never to examine for themselves, but to submit blindly to
the guidance of others? The saints and the populace are, in the
hands of their directors, automatons, moved at pleasure.
§139. Religion is an affair of custom and fashion. We must do as others do. But, among the numerous religions in the world, which should men choose? This inquiry would be too painful and long. They must therefore adhere to the religion of their fathers, to that of their country, which, having force on its side, must be the best.
If we judge of the intentions of Providence by the events and revolutions of this world, we are compelled to believe, that He is very indifferent about the various religions upon earth. For thousands of years, paganism, polytheism, idolatry, were the prevailing religions. We are now assured, that the most flourishing nations had not the least idea of God; an idea, regarded as so essential to the happiness of man. Christians say, all mankind lived in the grossest ignorance of their duties towards God, and had no notions of him, but what were insulting to his Divine Majesty. Christianity, growing out of Judaism, very humble in its obscure origin, became powerful and cruel under the Christian emperors, who, prompted by holy zeal, rapidly spread it in their empire by means of fire and sword, and established it upon the ruins of paganism. Mahomet and his successors, seconded by Providence or their victorious arms, in a short time banished the Christian religion from a part of Asia, Africa, and even Europe; and the gospel was then forced to yield to the Koran.
In all the factions or sects, which, for many ages have distracted Christianity, the best argument has been always that of the strongest party; arms have decided which doctrine is most conducive to the happiness of nations. May we not hence infer, either that the Deity feels little interested in the religion of men, or that he always declares in favour of the opinions, which best suit the interest of earthly powers; in fine, that he changes his plan to accommodate their fancy?
Rulers infallibly decide the religion of the people. The true religion is always the religion of the prince; the true God is the God, whom the prince desires his people to adore; the will of the priests, who govern the prince, always becomes the will of God. A wit justly observed, that the true religion is always that, on whose side are the prince and the hangman. Emperors and hangmen long supported the gods of Rome against the God of Christians; the latter, having gained to his interest the emperors, their soldiers, and their hangmen, succeeded in destroying the worship of the Roman gods. The God of Mahomet has dispossessed the God of Christians of a great part of the dominions, which he formerly occupied.
In the eastern part of Asia, is a vast, flourishing, fertile, populous country, governed by such wise laws, that the fiercest conquerors have adopted them with respect. I mean China. Excepting Christianity, which was banished as dangerous, the people there follow such superstitions as they please, while the mandarins, or magistrates, having long known the errors of the popular religion, are vigilant to prevent the bonzes or priests from using it as an instrument of discord. Yet we see not, that Providence refuses his blessing to a nation, whose chiefs are so indifferent about the worship that is rendered to him. On the contrary, the Chinese enjoy a happiness and repose worthy to be envied, by the many nations whom religion divides, and often devastates.
We cannot reasonably propose to divest the people of their
follies; but we may perhaps cure the follies of those who govern
the people, and who will then prevent the follies of the people
from becoming dangerous. Superstition is to be feared only when
princes and soldiers rally round her standard; then she becomes
cruel and sanguinary. Every sovereign, who is the protector of one
sect or religious faction, is commonly the tyrant of others, and
becomes himself the most cruel disturber of the peace of his
§140. It is incessantly repeated, and many sensible persons are induced to believe, that religion is a restraint necessary to men; that without it, there would no longer exist the least check for the vulgar; and that morality and religion are intimately connected with it. "The fear of the Lord," cries the priest, "is the beginning of wisdom. The terrors of another life are salutary, and are proper to curb the passions of men."
To perceive the inutility of religious notions, we have only to
open our eyes and contemplate the morals of those nations, who are
the most under the dominion of religion. We there find proud
tyrants, oppressive ministers, perfidious courtiers, shameless
extortioners, corrupt magistrates, knaves, adulterers, debauchees,
prostitutes, thieves, and rogues of every kind, who have never
doubted either the existence of an avenging and rewarding God, the
torments of hell, or the joys of paradise. Without the least
utility to the greater part of mankind, the ministers of religion
have studied to render death terrible to the eyes of their
followers. If devout Christians could but be consistent, they would
pass their whole life in tears, and die under the most dreadful
apprehensions. What can be more terrible than death, to the
unfortunate who are told, that it is horrible to fall into the
hands of the living God; that we must work out our salvation with
fear and trembling! Yet we are assured, that the death of the
Christian is attended with infinite consolations, of which the
unbeliever is deprived. The good Christian, it is said, dies in the
firm hope of an eternal happiness which he has strived to merit.
But is not this firm assurance itself a presumption punishable in
the eyes of a severe God? Ought not the greatest saints to be
ignorant whether they are worthy of love or hatred? Ye
Priests! while consoling us with the hope of the joys of paradise;
have you then had the advantage to see your names and ours
inscribed in the book of life?
§141. To oppose the passions and present interests of men the obscure notions of a metaphysical, inconceivable God, -- the incredible punishments of another life, -- or the pleasures of the heaven, of which nobody has the least idea, -- is not this combating realities with fictions? Men have never any but confused ideas of their God: they see him only in clouds. They never think of him when they are desirous to do evil: whenever ambition, fortune, or pleasure allures them, God's threatenings and promises are forgotten. In the things of this life, there is a degree of certainty, which the most lively faith cannot give to the things of another life.
Every religion was originally a curb invented by legislators,
who wished to establish their authority over the minds of rude
nations. Like nurses who frighten children to oblige them to be
quiet, the ambitious used the name of the gods to frighten savages;
and had recourse to terror in order to make them support quietly
the yoke they wished to impose. Are then the bugbears of infancy
made for riper age? At the age of maturity, no man longer believes
them, or if he does, they excite little emotion in him, and never
alter his conduct.
§142. Almost every man fears what he sees much more than what he does not see; he fears the judgments of men of which he feels the effects, more than the judgments of God of whom he has only fluctuating ideas. The desire of pleasing the world, the force of custom, the fear of ridicule, and of censure, have more force than all religious opinions. Does not the soldier, through fear of disgrace, daily expose his life in battle, even at the risk of incurring eternal damnation?
The most religious persons have often more respect for a varlet,
than for God. A man who firmly believes, that God sees every thing,
and that he is omniscient and omnipresent, will be guilty, when
alone, of actions, which he would never do in presence of the
meanest of mortals. Those, who pretend to be the most fully
convinced of the existence of God, every moment act as if they
believed the contrary.
§143. "Let us, at least," it will be said, "cherish the idea of a God, which alone may serve as a barrier to the passions of kings." But, can we sincerely admire the wonderful effects, which the fear of this God generally produces upon the minds of princes, who are called his images? What idea shall we form of the original, if we judge of it by the copies!
Sovereigns, it is true, call themselves the representatives of God, his vicegerents upon earth. But does the fear of a master, more powerful than they are, incline them seriously to study the welfare of the nations, whom Providence has intrusted to their care? Does the pretended terror, which ought to be inspired into them by the idea of an invisible judge, to whom alone they acknowledge themselves accountable for their actions, render them more equitable, more compassionate, more sparing of blood and treasure of their subjects, more temperate in their pleasures, more attentive to their duties? In fine, does this God, by whose authority kings reign, deter them from inflicting a thousand evils upon the people to whom they ought to act as guides, protectors, and fathers? Alas! If we survey the whole earth, we shall see men almost every where governed by tyrants, who use religion merely as an instrument to render more stupid the slaves, whom they overwhelm under the weight of their vices, or whom they sacrifice without mercy to their extravagancies.
Far from being a check upon the passions of kings, Religion, by its very principles, frees them from all restraint. It transforms them into divinities, whose caprice the people are never permitted to resist. While it gives up the reins to princes, and on their part breaks the bonds of the social compact, it endeavours to chain the minds and hands of their oppressed subjects. Is it then surprising, that the gods of the earth imagine every thing lawful for them, and regard their subjects only as instruments of their caprice or ambition?
In every country, Religion has represented the Monarch of nature
as a cruel, fantastical, partial tyrant, whose caprice is law; the
Monarch God, is but too faithfully imitated by his representatives
upon earth. Religion seems every where invented solely to lull the
people in the lap of slavery, in order that their masters may
easily oppress them, or render them wretched with impunity.
§144. To guard against the enterprises of a haughty pontiff who wished to reign over kings, to shelter their persons from the attempts of credulous nations excited by the priests, several European princes have pretended to hold their crowns and rights from God alone, and to be accountable only to him for their actions. After a long contest between the civil and spiritual power, the former at length triumphed; and the priests, forced to yield, acknowledged the divine right of kings and preached them to the people, reserving the liberty of changing their minds and of preaching revolt, whenever the divine rights of kings clashed with the divine rights of the clergy. It was always at the expense of nations, that peace was concluded between kings and priests; but the latter, in spite of treaties, always preserved their pretensions.
Tyrants and wicked princes, whose consciences continually reproach them with negligence or perversity, far from fearing their God, had rather deal with this invisible judge who never opposes any thing, or with his priests who are always condescending to the rulers of the earth, than with their own subjects. The people, reduced to despair, might probably appeal from the divine right of their chiefs. Men when oppressed to the last degree, sometimes become turbulent; and the divine rights of the tyrant are then forced to yield to the natural rights of the subjects.
It is cheaper dealing with gods than men. Kings are accountable for their actions to God alone; priests are accountable only to themselves. There is much reason to believe, that both are more confident of the indulgence of heaven, than of that of earth. It is much easier to escape the vengeance of gods who may be cheaply appeased, than the vengeance of men whose patience is exhausted.
"If you remove the fear of an invisible power, what restraint will you impose upon the passions of sovereigns?" Let them learn to reign; let them learn to be just; to respect the rights if the people; and to acknowledge the kindness of the nations, from whom they hold their greatness and power. Let them learn to fear men, and to submit to the laws of equity. Let nobody transgress these laws with impunity; and let them be equally binding upon the powerful and the weak, the great and the small, the sovereign and the subjects.
The fear of gods, Religion, and the terrors of another life, are
the metaphysical and supernatural bulwarks, opposed to the
impetuous passions of princes! Are these bulwarks effectual? Let
experience resolve the question. To oppose Religion to the
wickedness of tyrants, is to wish, that vague, uncertain,
unintelligible speculations may be stronger than propensities which
every thing conspires daily to strengthen.
§145. The immense service of religion to politics is incessantly boasted; but, a little reflection will convince us, that religious opinions equally blind both sovereigns and people, and never enlighten them upon their true duties or interests. Religion but too often forms licentious, immoral despots, obeyed by slaves, whom every thing obliges to conform to their views.
For want of having studied or known the true principles of administration, the objects and rights of social life, the real interests of men and their reciprocal duties, princes, in almost every country, have become licentious, absolute, and perverse; and their subjects abject, wicked, and unhappy. It was to avoid the trouble of studying these important objects, that recourse was had to chimeras, which, far from remedying any thing, have hitherto only multiplied the evils of mankind, and diverted them from whatever is most essential to their happiness.
Does not the unjust and cruel manner in which so many nations
are governed, manifestly furnish one of the strongest proofs, not
only of the small effect produced by the fear of another life, but
also of the non-existence of a Providence, busied with the fate of
the human race? If there existed a good God, should we not be
forced to admit, that in this life he strangely neglects the
greater part of mankind? It would seem, that this God has created
nations only to be the sport of the passions and follies of his
representatives upon earth.
§146. By reading history with attention, we shall perceive that Christianity, at first weak and servile, established itself among the savage and free nations of Europe only intimating to their chiefs, that its religious principles favoured despotism and rendered them absolute. Consequently, we see barbarous princes suddenly converted; that is, we see them adopt, without examination, a system so favourable to their ambition, and use every art to induce their subjects to embrace it. If the ministers of this religion have since often derogated from their favourite principles, it is because the theory influences the conduct of the ministers of the Lord, only when it suits their temporal interests.
Christianity boasts of procuring men a happiness unknown to preceding ages. It is true, the Greeks knew not the divine rights of tyrants or of the usurpers of the rights of their country. Under paganism, it never entered the head of any man to suppose, that it was against the will of heaven for a nation to defend themselves against a ferocious beast, who had the audacity to lay waste their possessions. The religion of the Christians was the first that screened tyrants from danger, by laying down as a principle that the people must renounce the legitimate defence of themselves. Thus Christian nations are deprived of the first law of nature, which orders man to resist evil, and to disarm whoever is preparing to destroy him! If the ministers of the church have often permitted the people to revolt for the interest of heaven, they have never permitted them to revolt for their own deliverance from real evils or known violences.
From heaven came the chains, that were used for fettering the minds of mortals. Why is the Mahometan every where a slave? Because his prophet enslaved him in the name of the Deity, as Moses had before subdued the Jews. In all parts of the earth, we see, that the first legislators were the first sovereigns and the first priests of the savages, to whom they gave laws.
Religion seems invented solely to exalt princes above their
nations, and rivet the fetters of slavery. As soon as the people
are too unhappy here below, priests are ready to silence them by
threatening them with the anger of God. They are made to fix their
eyes upon heaven, lest they should perceive the true causes of
their misfortunes, and apply the remedies which nature
§147. By dint of repeating to men, that the earth is not their true country; that the present life is only a passage; that they are not made to be happy in this world; that their sovereigns hold their authority from God alone, and are accountable only to him for the abuse of it; that it is not lawful to resist them, etc., priests have eternized the misgovernment of kings and the misery of the people; the interests of nations have been basely sacrificed to their chiefs. The more we consider the dogmas and principles of religion, the more we shall be convinced, that their sole object is the advantage of tyrants and priests, without regard to that of societies.
To mask the impotence of its deaf gods, religion has persuaded mortals, that iniquities always kindle the wrath of heaven. People impute to themselves alone the disasters that daily befal them. If nations sometimes feel the strokes of convulsed nature, their bad governments are but too often the immediate and permanent causes, from whence proceed the continual calamities which they are forced to endure. Are not the ambition, negligence, vices, and oppressions of kings and nobles, generally the causes of scarcity, beggary, wars, pestilences, corrupt morals, and all the multiplied scourges which desolate the earth?
In fixing men's eyes continually upon heaven; in persuading them, that all their misfortunes are effects of divine anger; in providing none but ineffectual and futile means to put an end to their sufferings, we might justly conclude, that the only object of priests was to divert nations from thinking about the true sources of their misery, and thus to render it eternal. The ministers of religion conduct themselves almost like those indigent mothers, who, for want of bread, sing their starved children to sleep, or give them playthings to divert their thoughts from afflicting hunger.
Blinded by error from their very infancy, restrained by the invisible bonds of opinion, overcome by panic terrors, their faculties blunted by ignorance, how should the people know the true causes of their wretchedness? They imagine that they can avert it by invoking the gods. Alas! do they not see, that it is, in the name of these gods, that they are ordered to present their throats to the sword of their merciless tyrants, in whom they might find the obvious cause of the evils under which they groan, and for whom they cease not to implore, in vain, the assistance of heaven?
Ye credulous people! In your misfortunes, redouble your prayers,
offerings, and sacrifices; throng to your temples; fast in
sack-cloth and ashes; bathe yourselves in your own tears; and above
all, completely ruin yourselves to enrich your gods! You will only
enrich their priests. The gods of heaven will be propitious, only
when the gods of the earth shall acknowledge themselves, men, like
you, and shall devote to your welfare the attention you
§148. Negligent, ambitious, and perverse Princes are the real causes of public misfortunes. Useless, unjust Wars depopulate the earth. Encroaching and despotic Governments absorb the benefits of nature. The rapacity of Courts discourages agriculture, extinguishes industry, produces want, pestilence and misery. Heaven is neither cruel nor propitious to the prayers of the people; it is their proud chiefs, who have almost always hearts of stone.
It is destructive to the morals of princes, to persuade them that they have God alone to fear, when they injure their subjects, or neglect their happiness. Sovereigns! It is not the gods, but your people, that you offend, when you do evil. It is your people and yourselves that you injure, when you govern unjustly.
In history, nothing is more common than to see Religious
Tyrants; nothing more rare than to find equitable, vigilant,
enlightened princes. A monarch may be pious, punctual in a servile
discharge of the duties of his religion, very submissive and
liberal to his priests, and yet at the same time be destitute of
every virtue and talent necessary for governing. To princes,
Religion is only an instrument destined to keep the people more
completely under the yoke. By the excellent principles of religious
morality, a tyrant who, during a long reign, has done nothing but
oppress his subjects, wresting, from them the fruits of their
labour, sacrificing them without mercy to his insatiable ambition,
-- a conqueror, who has usurped the provinces of others,
slaughtered whole nations, and who, during his whole life, has been
a scourge to mankind, -- imagines his conscience may rest, when, to
expiate so many crimes, he has wept at the feet of a priest, who
generally has the base complaisance to console and encourage a
robber, whom the most hideous despair would too lightly punish for
the misery he has caused upon earth.
§149. A sovereign, sincerely devout, is commonly dangerous to the state. Credulity always supposes a contracted mind; devotion generally absorbs the attention, which a prince should pay to the government of his people. Obsequious to the suggestions of his priests, he becomes the sport of their caprices, the favourer of their quarrels, and the instrument and accomplice of their follies, which he imagines to be of the greatest importance. Among the most fatal presents, which religion has made the world, ought to be reckoned those devout and zealous monarchs, who, under an idea of working for the welfare of their subjects, have made it a sacred duty to torment, persecute, and destroy those, who thought differently from themselves. A bigot, at the head of an empire, is one of the greatest scourges. A single fanatical or knavish priest, listened to by a credulous and powerful prince, suffices to put a state in disorder.
In almost all countries, priests and pious persons are intrusted
with forming the minds and hearts of young princes, destined to
govern nations. What qualifications have instructors of this stamp!
By what interests can they be animated? Full of prejudices
themselves, they will teach their pupil to regard superstition, as
most important and sacred; its chimerical duties, as most
indispensable, intolerance and persecution, as the true foundation
of his future authority. They will endeavour to make him a party
leader, a turbulent fanatic, a tyrant; they will early stifle his
reason, and forewarn him against the use of it; they will prevent
truth from reaching his ears; they will exasperate him against true
talents, and prejudice him in favour of contemptible ones; in
short, they will make him a weak devotee, who will have no idea
either of justice or injustice, nor of true glory, nor of true
greatness, and who will be destitute of the knowledge and virtues
necessary to the government of a great nation. Such is the plan of
the education of a child, destined one day to create the happiness
or misery of millions of men!
§150. Priests have ever shewn themselves the friends of despotism, and the enemies of public liberty: their trade requires abject and submissive slaves, who have never the audacity to reason. In an absolute government, who ever gains an ascendancy over the mind of a weak and stupid prince, becomes master of the state. Instead of conducting the people to salvation, priests have always conducted them to servitude.
In consideration of the supernatural titles, which religion has forged for the worst of princes, the latter have commonly united with priests, who, sure of governing by opinion the sovereign himself, have undertaken to bind the hands of the people and to hold them under the yoke. But the tyrant, covered with the shield of religion, in vain flatters himself that he is secure from every stroke of fate; opinion is a weak rampart against the despair of the people. Besides, the priest is a friend of the tyrant only while he finds his account in tyranny; he preaches sedition, and demolishes the idol he has made, when he finds it no longer sufficiently conformable to the interest of God, whom he makes to speak at his will, and who never speaks except according to his interests.
It will no doubt be said, that sovereigns, knowing all the
advantages which religion procures them, are truly interested in
supporting it with all their strength. If religious opinions are
useful to tyrants, it is very evident, that they are useful to
those, who govern by the laws of reason and equity. Is there then
any advantage in exercising tyranny? Are princes truly interested
in being tyrants? Does not tyranny deprive them of true power, of
the love of the people, and of all safety? Ought not every
reasonable prince to perceive, that the despot is a madman, and an
enemy to himself? Should not every enlightened prince beware of
flatterers, whose object is to lull him to sleep upon the brink of
the precipice which they form beneath him?
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