Freethought Archives > Baron d'Holbach > Letters to Eugenia

Letter IV.

Of the fundamental Dogmas of the Christian Religion.

You are aware, Madam, that our theological doctors pretend these revealed books, which I summarily examined in my preceding letter, do not include a single word that was not inspired by the Spirit of God. What I have already said to you is sufficient to show that in setting out with this supposition, the Divinity has formed a work the most shapeless, imperfect, contradictory, and unintelligible which ever existed; a work, in a word, of which any man of sense would blush with shame to be the author. If any prophecy hath verified itself for the Christians, it is that of Isaiah, which saith, "Hearing ye shall hear, but shall not understand." But in this case we reply that it was sufficiently useless to speak not to be comprehended; to reveal that which cannot be comprehended is to reveal nothing.

We need not, then, be surprised if the Christians, notwithstanding the revelation of which they assure us they have been the favorites, have no precise ideas either of the Divinity, or of his will, or the way in which his oracles are to be interpreted. The book from which they should be able to do so serves only to confound the simplest notions, to throw them into the greatest incertitude, and create eternal disputations. If it was the project of the Divinity, it would, without doubt, be attended with perfect success. The teachers of Christianity never agree on the manner in which they are to understand the truths that God has given himself the trouble to reveal; all the efforts which they have employed to this time have not yet been capable of making any thing clear, and the dogmas which they have successively invented have been insufficient to justify to the understanding of one man of good sense the conduct of an infinitely perfect Being.

Hence, many among them, perceiving the inconveniences which would result from the reading of the holy books, have carefully kept them out of the hands of the vulgar and illiterate; for they plainly foresaw that if they were read by such they would necessarily bring on themselves reproach, since it would never fail that every honest man of good sense would discover in those books only a crowd of absurdities. Thus the oracles of God are not even made for those for whom they are addressed; it is requisite to be initiated in the mysteries of a priesthood, to have the privilege of discerning in the holy writings the light which the Divinity destined to all his dear children. But are the theologians themselves able to make plain the difficulties which the sacred books present in every page? By meditating on the mysteries which they contain, have they given us ideas more plain of the intentions of the Divinity? No; without doubt they explain one mystery by citing another; they scatter new obscurities on previous obscurities; rarely do they agree among themselves; and when by chance their opinions coincide, we are not more enlightened, nor is our judgment more convinced; on the other hand, our reason is the more confounded.

If they do agree on some point, it is only to tell us that human reason, of which God is the author, is depraved; but what is the purport of this coincidence in their opinions, if it be not to tax the Deity with imbecility, injustice, and malignity? For why should God, in creating a reasonable being, not have given him an understanding which nothing could corrupt? They reply to us by saying "that the reason of man is necessarily limited; that perfection could not be the portion of a creature; that the designs of God are not like those of man." But, in this case, why should the Divinity be offended by the necessary imperfections which he discovers in his creatures? How can a just God require that our mind must admit what it was not made to comprehend? Can he who is above our reason be understood by us, whose reason is so limited? If God be infinite, how can a finite creature reason respecting him? If the mysteries and hidden designs of the Divinity are of such a nature as not to be comprehended by man, what good can we derive from their investigation? Had God designed that we should occupy our thoughts with his purposes, would he not have given us an understanding proportionate to the things he wished us to penetrate?

You see, then, Madam, that in depressing our reason, in supposing it corrupted, our priests, at the same time, annihilate even the necessity of religion, which cannot be either useful or important to us, if above our comprehension. They do more in supposing human reason depraved; they accuse God of injustice, in requiring that our reason should conceive what cannot be conceived. They accuse him of imbecility in not rendering this reason more perfect. In a word, in degrading man they degrade God, and rob him of those attributes which compose his essence. Would you call him a just and good parent, who, wishing that his children should walk by an obscure route, filled with difficulties, would only give them for their conduct a light too weak to find their way, and to avoid the continual dangers by which they are surrounded? Should you consider that the father had adequately provided for their security by giving them in writing unintelligible instructions, which they could not decipher by the weak light he had given them?

Our spiritual directors will not fail to tell us that the corruption of reason and the weakness of the human understanding are the consequences of sin. But why has man become sinful? How has the good God permitted his dear children, for whom he created the universe, and of whom he exacts obedience, to offend him, and thereby extinguish, or, at least, weaken the light he had given them? On the other hand, the reason of Adam ought to be, without doubt, completely perfect before his fall. In this case, why did it not prevent that fall and its consequences? Was the reason of Adam corrupted even beforehand by incurring the wrath of his God? Was it depraved before he had done any thing to deprave it?

To justify this strange conduct of Providence, to clear him from passing as the author of sin, to save him the ridicule of being the cause or the accomplice of offences which he did against himself, the theologians have imagined a being subordinate to the divine power. It is the secondary being they make the author of all the evil which is committed in the universe. In the impossibility of reconciling the continual disorders of which the world is the theatre with the purposes of a Deity replete with goodness, the Creator and Preserver of the universe, who delights in order, and who seeks only the happiness of his creatures, they have trumped up a destructive genius, imbued with wickedness, who conspires to render men miserable, and to overthrow the beneficent views of the Eternal. This bad and perverse being they call Satan, the Devil, the Evil One; and we see him play a great game in all the religions of the world, the founders of which have found in the impotence of Deity the sources of both good and evil. By the aid of this imaginary being they have been enabled to resolve all their difficulties; yet they could not foresee that this invention, which went to annihilate or abridge the power of Deity, was a system filled with palpable contradictions, and that if the Devil were really the author of sin, it would be he, in all justice, who ought to undergo all its punishment.

If God is the author of all, it is he who created the Devil; if the Devil is wicked, if he strives to counteract the projects of the Divinity, it is the Divinity who has allowed the overthrow of his projects, or who has not had sufficient authority to prevent the Devil from exercising his power. If God had wished that the Devil should not have existed, the Devil would not have existed. God could annihilate him at one word, or, at least, God could change his disposition if injurious to us, and contrary to the projects of a beneficent Providence. Since, then, the Devil does exist, and does such marvellous things as are attributed to him, we are compelled to conclude that the Divinity has found it good that he should exist and agitate, as he does, all his works by a perpetual interruption and perversion of his designs.

Thus, Madam, the invention of the Devil does not remedy the evil; on the contrary, it but entangles the priests more and more. By placing to Satan's account all the evil which he commits in the world, they exculpate the Deity of nothing; all the power with which they have supposed the Devil invested is taken from that assigned to the Divinity; and you know very well that according to the notions of the Christian religion, the Devil has more adherents than God himself; they are always stirring their fellow-creatures up to revolt against God; without ceasing, in despite of God, Satan leads them into perdition, except one man only, who refused to follow him, and who found grace in the eyes of the Lord. You are not ignorant that the millions that follow the standard of Beelzebub are to be plunged with him into eternal misery.

But then has Satan himself incurred the disgrace of the All-powerful? By what forfeit has he merited becoming the eternal object of the anger of that God who created him? The Christian religion will explain all. It informs us that the Devil was in his origin an angel; that is to say, a pure spirit, full of perfections, created by the Divinity to occupy a distinguishing situation in the celestial court, destined, like the other ministers of the Eternal, to receive his orders, and to enjoy perpetual blessedness. But he lost himself through ambition; his pride blinded him, and he dared to revolt against his Creator; he engaged other spirits, as pure as himself, in the same senseless enterprise; in consequence of his rashness, he was hurled headlong out of heaven, his miserable adherents were involved in his fall, and, having been hardened by the divine pleasure in their foolish dispositions, they have no other occupation assigned them in the universe than to tempt mankind, and endeavor to augment the number of the enemies of God, and the victims of his wrath.

It is by the assistance of this fable that the Christian doctors perceive the fall of Adam, prepared by the Almighty himself anterior to the creation of the world. Was it necessary that the Divinity should entertain a great desire that man might sin, since he would thereby have an opportunity of providing the means of making him sinful? In effect, it was the Devil who, in process of time, covered with the skin of a serpent, solicited the mother of the human race to disobey God, and involve her husband in her rebellion. But the difficulty is not removed by these inventions. If Satan, in the time he was an angel, lived in innocence, and merited the good will of his Maker, how came God to suffer him to entertain ideas of pride, ambition, and rebellion? How came this angel of light so blind as not to see the folly of such an enterprise? Did he not know that his Creator was all-powerful? Who was it that tempted Satan? What reason had the Divinity for selecting him to be the object of his fury, the destroyer of his projects, the enemy of his power? If pride be a sin, if the idea itself of rebellion is the greatest of crimes, sin was, then, anterior to sin, and Lucifer offended God, even in his state of purity; for, in fine, a being pure, innocent, agreeable to his God, who had all the perfections of which a creature could be susceptible, ought to be exempt from ambition, pride, and folly. We ought, also, to say as much for our first parent, who, notwithstanding his wisdom, his innocence, and the knowledge infused into him by God himself, could not prevent himself from falling into the temptation of a demon.

Hence, in every shift, the priests invariably make God the author of sin. It was God who tempted Lucifer before the creation of the world; Lucifer, in his turn, became the tempter of man and the cause of all the evil our race suffers. It appears, therefore, that God created both angels and men to give them an opportunity of sinning.

It is easy to perceive the absurdity of this system, to save which the theologians have invented another still more absurd, that it might become the foundation of all their religious revelations, and by means of which they idly imagine they can fully justify the divine providence. The system of truth supposes the free will of man—that he is his own master, capable of doing good or ill, and of directing his own plans. At the words free will, I already perceive, Madam, that you tremble, and doubtless anticipate a metaphysical dissertation. Rest assured of the contrary; for I flatter myself that the question will be simplified and rendered clear, I shall not merely say for you, but for all your sex who are not resolved to be wilfully blind.

To say that man is a free agent is to detract from the power of the Supreme Being; it is to pretend that God is not the master of his own will; it is to advance that a weak creature can, when it pleases him, revolt against his Creator, derange his projects, disturb the order which he loves, render his labors useless, afflict him with chagrin, cause him sorrow, act with effect against him, and arouse his anger and his passions. Thus, at the first glance, you perceive that this principle gives rise to a crowd of absurdities. If God is the friend of order, every thing performed by his creatures would necessarily conduce to the maintenance of this order, because otherwise the divine will would fail to have its effect. If God has plans, they must of necessity be always executed; if man can afflict his God, man is the master of this God's happiness, and the league he has formed with the Devil is potent enough to thwart the plans of the Divinity. In a word, if man is free to sin, God is no longer Omnipotent.

In reply, we are told that God, without detriment to his Omnipotence, might make man a free agent, and that this liberty is a benefit by which God places man in a situation where he may merit the heavenly bounty; but, on the other hand, this liberty likewise exposes him to encounter God's hatred, to offend him, and to be overwhelmed by infinite sufferings. From this I conclude that this liberty is not a benefit, and that it evidently is inconsistent with divine goodness. This goodness would be more real if men had always sufficient resolution to do what is pleasing to God, conformably to order, and conducive to the happiness of their fellow-creatures. If men, in virtue of their liberty, do things contrary to the will of God, God, who is supposed to have the prescience of foreseeing all, ought to have taken measures to prevent men from abusing their liberty; if he foresaw they would sin, he ought to have given them the means of avoiding it; if he could not prevent them from doing ill, he has consented to the ill they have done; if he has consented, he should not be offended; if he is offended, or if he punish them for the evil they have done with his permission, he is unjust and cruel; if he suffer them to rush on to their destruction, he is bound afterwards to take them to himself; and he cannot with reason find fault with them for the abuse of their liberty, in being deceived or seduced by the objects which he himself had placed in their way to seduce them, to tempt them, and to determine their wills to do evil.[*] they occasioned him? Would it not be to himself that we should ascribe the sottishness and wickedness of his children?

You see, then, the points of view under which this system of men's free will shows us the Deity. This free will becomes a present the most dangerous, since it puts man in the condition of doing evil that is truly frightful. We may thence conclude that this system, far from justifying God, makes him capable of malice, imprudence, and injustice. But this is to overturn all our ideas of a being perfectly, nay, infinitely wise and good, consenting to punish his creatures for sins which he gave them the power of committing, or, which is the same, suffering the Devil to inspire them with evil. All the subtilties of theology have really only a tendency to destroy the very notions itself inculcates concerning the Divinity. This theology is evidently the tub of the Danaides.

It is a fact, however, that our theologians have imagined expedients to support their ruinous suppositions. You have often heard mention made of predestination and grace—terrible words, which constantly excite disputes among us, for which reason would be forced to blush if Christians did not make it a duty to renounce reason, and which contests are attended with consequences very dangerous to society. But let not this surprise you; these false and obscure principles have even among the theologians produced dissensions; and their quarrels would be indifferent if they did not attach more importance to them than they really deserve.

But to proceed. The system of predestination supposes that God, in his eternal secrets, has resolved that some men should be elected, and, being thus his favorites, receive special grace. By this grace they are supposed to be made agreeable to God, and meet for eternal happiness. But then an infinite number of others are destined to perdition, and receive not the grace necessary to eternal salvation. These contradictory and opposite propositions make it pretty evident that the system is absurd. It makes God, a being infinitely perfect and good, a partial tyrant, who has created a vast number of human beings to be the sport of his caprice and the victims of his vengeance. It supposes that God will punish his creatures for not having received that grace which he did not deign to give them; it presents this God to us under traits so revolting that the theologians are forced to avow that the whole is a profound mystery, into which the human mind cannot penetrate. But if man is not made to lift his inquisitive eye on this frightful mystery, that is to say, on this astonishing absurdity, which our teachers have idly endeavored to square to their views of Deity, or to reconcile the atrocious injustice of their God with his infinite goodness, by what right do they wish us to adore this mystery which they would compel us to believe, and to subscribe to an opinion that saps the divine goodness to its very foundation? How do they reason upon a dogma, and quarrel with acrimony about a system of which even themselves can comprehend nothing?

The more you examine religion, the more occasion you will have to be convinced that those things which our divines call mysteries are nothing else but the difficulties with which they are themselves embarrassed, when they are unable to avoid the absurdities into which their own false principles necessarily involve them. Nevertheless, this word is not enough to impose upon us; the reverend doctors do not themselves understand the things about which they incessantly speak. They invent words from an inability to explain things, and they give the name of mysteries to what they comprehend no better than ourselves.

All the religions in the world are founded upon predestination, and all the pretended revelations among men, as has been already pointed out to you, inculcate this odious dogma, which makes Providence an unjust mother-in-law, who shows a blind preference for some of her children to the prejudice of all the others. They make God a tyrant, who punishes the inevitable faults to which he has impelled them, or into which he has allowed them to be seduced. This dogma, which served as the foundation of Paganism, is now the grand pivot of the Christian religion, whose God should excite no less hatred than the most wicked divinities of idolatrous people. With such notions, is it not astonishing that this God should appear, to those who meditate on his attributes, an object sufficiently terrible to agitate the imagination, and to lead some to indulge in dangerous follies?

The dogma of another life serves also to exculpate the Deity from these apparent injustices or aberrations, with which he might naturally be accused. It is pretended that it has pleased him to distinguish his friends on earth, seeing he has amply provided for their future happiness in an abode prepared for their souls. But, as I believe I have already hinted, these proofs that God makes some good, and leaves others wicked, either evince injustice on his part, at least temporary, or they contradict his omnipotence. If God can do all things, if he is privy to all the thoughts and actions of men, what need has he of any proofs? If he has resolved to give them grace necessary to save them, has he not assured them they will not perish? If he is unjust and cruel, this God is not immutable, and belies his character; at least for a time he derogates from the perfections which we should expect to find in him. What would you think of a king, who, during a particular time, would discover to his favorites traits the most frightful, in order that they might incur his disgrace, and who should afterwards insist on their believing him a very good and amiable man, to obtain his favor again? Would not such a prince be pronounced wicked, fanciful, and tyrannical? Nevertheless, this supposed prince might be pardoned by some, if for his own interest, and the better to assure himself of the attachment of his friends, he might give them some smiles of his favor. It is not so God, who knows all, who can do all, who has nothing to fear from the dispositions of his creatures. From all these reasonings, we may see that the Deity, whom the priests have conjured up, plays a great game, very ridiculous, very unjust, on the supposition that he tries his servants, and that he allows them to suffer in this world, to prepare them for another. The theologians have not failed to discover motives in this conduct of God which they can as readily justify; but these pretended motives are borrowed from the omnipotence of this being, by his absolute power over his creatures, to whom he is not obliged to render an account of his actions; but especially in this theology, which professes to justify God, do we not see it make him a despot and tyrant more hateful than any of his creatures?

I am, &c.

[*] See what Bayle says, Dict. Crit., art. Origène, Rem. E., art. Pauliciens, Rem. E., F., M., and tom. iii. of the Réponses aux Questions d'un Provincial.

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