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CHAP. XIII.

OF THE PRACTICE AND DUTIES OF THE CHRISTIAN RELIGION.

IF the Christian virtues be destitute or solidity, and produce no effect which reason can approve, we shall find nothing more estimable in a multitude of incommodious, useless, and often dangerous practices, which Christians consider as their sacred duties, and by means of which they are confident of obtaining the pardon and favours of God, and an eternal abode with him in unspeakable glory and felicity.

The first and most essential duty of Christians is prayer. To continual prayer their religion attaches its felicity. Their God, whom they suppose to be overflowing with bounty, refuses to bestow his blessings unsolicited. He grants them only to importunity. Sensible to flattery, like the kings of the earth, he exacts an etiquette, and bears no petitions unless they are presented in a certain form. What should we say of a father who, knowing the wants of his children, should refuse to give them necessary food, until wearied out with fervent supplications? But in another view, does it imply mistrust of the wisdom of God to prescribe rules for his conduct? Does it not imply a doubt of his immutability, to believe he can be prevailed on by his creatures to alter his designs? If he knows all things, what need is there of continually informing him what are the dispositions and desires of his subjects? If he is almighty, how can he be flattered with the submissions, adorations, and formalities with which Christians prostrate themselves before him?

In one word, prayer supposes a capricious God, deficient in memory, voracious of praise, fond of seeing his creatures abased in the dust, and anxious to receive at every instant the most abject marks of their submission.

Can these ideas, borrowed from earthly princes, be with propriety applied to an omnipotent Being, who created the universe for man, and desires only that he should be happy? Can it be supposed that such a Being, without equal and without rival, should be jealous of his glory? Can the prayers of man and glory to a Being beyond comparison superior to all others? Cannot Christians see, that, in endeavouring to honour and exalt their God, they only degrade and debase him?

Is also the opinion of Christians, that the prayers of one man may be serviceable to others. Partial to his favourites, God bears petitions only from their lips. He listens not to his people, unless their prayers be offered up to him through his ministers. He becomes a sultan, accessible only to his ministers, visirs, eunuchs, and the women of his Seraglio. Hence the millions of priests and cenobites, who have no business on earth, but to raise their idle hands to heaven, and pray night and day for its blessings to society. Nations pay dearly for these important services, and these pious impostors live in splendour and ease, while real merit, labour, and industry languish in misery.

Under the pretence of devoting himself to prayer and other ceremonies of his worship, the Christian, particularly in some of the more superstitious sects, is obliged to remain idle, and stand with arms across during a great part of the year. He is persuaded that he honours God by his inutility. Feasts and fasts, multiplied by the interests of priests and the credulity of the people, often suspended for long intervals the labours necessary to the subsistence of society. Men fly to temples to pray when they should stay at home and cultivate their fields. There their eyes are fed with childish ceremonies, and their ears are filled with fables and doctrines, of which they can comprehend nothing. This tyrannical religion makes it a crime for the poor labourer to endeavour, during consecrated days, to procure subsistence for a numerous and indigent family. And civil authority, in concert with religion, punishes those who have the audacity to earn bread instead of praying or being idle.

Can reason subscribe to the ridiculous obligation of abstaining from certain aliments and meals which is imposed by some sects of Christians? In consequence of these laws, people, who live by their labour, are forced to content themselves, during long intervals, with dear and unwholesome provisions, more proper to generate disease than repair strength.

What abject and ridiculous ideas must they entertain of God, who believe he can be offended by the quality of the food that enters into the stomachs of his creatures! Heaven, however, for a certain sum of money becomes sometimes more accommodating. Priests have been continually busied in straitening the path of their sectaries, that they might transgress more frequently; and that the revenue arising from their transgressions might thus become more ample. All things, even sin itself, among Christians, contribute to the profit of the priests.

No religion ever placed its sectaries in more complete and continual dependance on priests, than the Christian. Those harpies never lose sight of their prey. They take infallible measures for subjecting mankind, and making all contribute to their power, riches, and dominion. Having assumed the office of mediator between the heavenly monarch and his subjects, these priests were looked upon as courtiers in favour, ministers commissioned to exercise power in his name, and favourites to whom he could refuse nothing. Thus they became absolute masters of the destiny of the Christians. They gained establishments and rendered themselves necessary by the introduction of innumerable practices and duties, which, though puerile and ridiculous, they had the address to make their flocks look upon as indispensibly necessary to their salvation. They represented the omission of these pretended duties as a crime infinitely greater than an open violation of all the laws of morality and reason.

Let us not then be surprized, that, in the most zealous, that is to say the most superstitious sects, we see mankind perpetually infested with priests. Scarce are they born, when, under the pretext of washing away original sin, their priests impose on them a mercenary baptism, and pretend to reconcile them with a God whom they have as yet been unable to offend. By means of a few words and magical ceremonies they are thus snatched from the dominion of Satan. From the tenderest infancy their education is frequently entrusted to priests, whose principal care is to instil into them early the prejudices as necessary to the views of the church. Terrors are now introduced into their minds which increase during their whole lives. They are instructed in the fables, absurd doctrines, and incomprehensible mysteries of a marvellous religion. In one word, they are formed into superstitious Christians, and rendered incapable of being useful citizens or enlightened men. Only one thing is represented to them as necessary, which is to be in all things devoutly submissive to his religion. "Be devout," say his teachers, "be blind, despise thy reason, attend to heaven, and neglect earth; this is all thy God demands to conduct thee to eternal felicity."

To maintain the abject and fanatic ideas with which the priest has filled his pupils in their childhood, he commands them to come frequently, and deposit in his bosom their hidden faults, their most secret actions and thoughts. He obliges them to humiliate themselves at his feet, and render homage to his power. He frightens the criminals, and afterwards, if they are judged worthy, he reconciles them to God, who on the command of his ministers remits their sins. The Christian sects that admit this practice, boast of it as extremely useful in regulating the manners and restraining the passions of men; but experience proves, that the countries in which this usage is most faithfully observed, are distinguished rather for the dissolution than the purity of their manners. By such easy expiations they are only emboldened in vice. The lives of Christians are circles of successive offences and confessions. The priesthood reap the profit of this practice by means of which they exercise an absolute dominion over the consciences of mankind. How great must be the power of an order of men, who possess all the secrets of families, can kindle at pleasure the destructive flame of fanaticism, and open or sbut the gates of heaven!

Without the consent of his priests, the Christian cannot participate the knowledge of the mysteries or his religion, from which they have a right to exclude him entirely. This privation, however, he has no great reason to lament. But the anathemas or excommunications of the priests generally do a real mischief to mankind. These spiritual punishments produce temporal effects, and every citizen who incurs the disgrace of the church is in danger of that of the government, and becomes odious to his fellow-citizens.

We have already remarked that priests have taken upon themselves the management of marriages. Without their consent, a Christian cannot become a father. He must first submit to the capricious formalities of his religion, without which his children must be excluded from the rank of citizens.

During all his life, the Christian is obliged to assist in the ceremonies of worship under the direction of his priests. When he has performed this important duty, he esteems himself the favourite of God, and persuades himself that he no longer owes any thing to society. Thus frivolous practices take place of morality, which is always rendered subordinate to religion.

When death approaches, the Christian, stretched in agony on his bed, is still assailed in those distressful moments by priests. In some sects religion seems to have been invented to render the bitter death of man ten thousand times more bitter. A malicious priest comes to the couch of the dying man, and holds before him the spectacle of his approaching end, arrayed in more than all its terrors. Although this custom is destructive to citizens, it is extremely profitable to the priesthood, [76:1] who owe much of their riches to legacies procured by it. Morality is not quite so highly advantaged by it. Experience proves, that most Christians live in security and postpone till death their reconciliation with God. By means of a late repentance, and largesses to the priesthood, their faults are expiated, and they are permitted to hope that heaven will forget the accumulated crimes of a long and wicked life.

Death itself does not terminate the empire of the priesthood in certain sects, which finds means to make money even out of the dead bodies of their followers. These, for a sufficient sum, are permitted to be deposited in temples, where they have the privilege of spreading infection and disease. The sacerdotal power extends still further. The prayers of the church are purchased at a dear rate, to deliver the souls of the dead from their pretended torments in the other world, inflicted for their purification. Happy they who are rich, in a religion whose priests, being favourites with God, can be hired to prevail on him to remit the punishments which his immutable justice had intended to inflict.

Such are the principal ditties recommended by the Christians; and upon the observation of these they believe their salvation to depend. Such are the arbitrary, ridiculous, and hurtful practices substituted for the real duties of morality. We shall not combat the different superstitious practices, admitted by some sects and rejected by others; such as the honours rendered to the memory of those pious fanatics and obscure contemplators whom Roman pontiffs have ranked among the saints. We say nothing of those pilgrimages which superstition has so often produced, nor those indulgences by means of which sins are remitted. We shall only observe, that these things are commonly more respected where they are admitted, than the duties of morality, which in those places frequently are wholly unknown. Mankind find their natural propensities much less thwarted by such rites, ceremonies, and practices than by being virtuous. A good Christian is a man who conforms forms exactly to all that his priests exact from him; these substitute blindness and submission in the place of all virtues.


[76:1] In Catholic countries.


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