Freethought Archives > Baron d'Holbach > Letters to Eugenia

Letter VII.

Of the pious Rites, Prayers, and Austerities of Christianity.

You now know, Madam, what you ought to attach to the mysteries and ceremonies of that religion you propose to meditate on, and adore in silence. I proceed now to examine some of those practices to which the priests tell us the Deity attaches his complaisance and his favors. In consequence of the false, sinister, contradictory, and incompatible ideas, which all revealed religions give us of the Deity, the priests have invented a crowd of unreasonable usages, but which are conformable to these erroneous notions that they have framed of this Being. God is always regarded as a man full of passion, sensible to presents, to flatteries, and marks of submission; or rather as a fantastic and punctilious sovereign, who is very seriously angry when we neglect to show him that respect and obeisance which the vanity of earthly potentates exacts from their vassals.

It is after these notions so little agreeable to the Deity, that the priests have conjured up a crowd of practices and strange inventions, ridiculous, inconvenient, and often cruel; but by which they inform us we shall merit the good favor of God, or disarm the wrath of the Universal Lord. With some, all consists in prayers, offerings, and sacrifices, with which they fancy God is well pleased. They forget that a God who is good, who knows all things, has no need to be solicited; that a God who is the author of all things has no need to be presented with any part of his workmanship; that a God who knows his power has no need of either flatteries or submissions, to remind him of his grandeur, his power, or his rights; that a God who is Lord of all has no need of offerings which belong to himself; that a God who has no need of any thing cannot be won by presents, nor grudge to his creatures the goods which they have received from his divine bounty.

For the want of making these reflections, simple as they are, all the religions in the world are filled with an infinite number of frivolous practices, by which men have long strove to render themselves acceptable to the Deity. The priests who are always declared to be the ministers, the favorites, the interpreters of God's will, have discovered how they might most easily profit by the errors of mankind, and the presents which they offer to the Deity. They are thence interested to enter into the false ideas of the people, and even to redouble the darkness of their minds. They have invented means to please unknown powers who dispose of their fate—to excite their devotion and their zeal for those invisible beings of whom they were themselves the visible representatives. These priests soon perceived that in laboring for the Gods they labored for themselves, and that they could appropriate the major part of the presents, sacrifices, and offerings, which were made to beings who never showed themselves in order to claim what their devotees intended for them.

You thus perceive, Madam, how the priests have made common cause with the Divinity. Their policy thence obliged them to favor and increase the errors of the human kind. They talk of this ineffable Being as of an interested monarch, jealous, full of vanity, who gives that it may be restored to him again; who exacts continual signs of submission and respect; who desires, without ceasing, that men may reiterate their marks of respect for him; who wishes to be solicited; who bestows no grace unless it be accorded to importunity for the purpose of making it more valuable; and, above all, who allows himself to be appeased and propitiated by gifts from which his ministers derive the greatest advantage.

It is evident that it is upon these ideas borrowed from monarchical courts here below that are founded all the practices, ceremonies, and rites that we see established in all the religions of the earth. Each sect has endeavored to make its God a monarch the most redoubtable, the greatest, the most despotic, and the most selfish. The people [Pg 139] acquainted simply with human opinions, and full of debasement, have adopted without examination the inventions which the Deity has shown them as the fittest to obtain his favor and soften his wrath. The priests fail not to adapt these practices, which they have invented, to their own system of religion and personal interest; and the ignorant and vulgar have allowed themselves to be blindly led by these guides. Habit has familiarized them with things upon which they never reason, and they make a duty of the routine which has been transmitted to them from age to age, and from father to child.

The infant, as soon as it can be made to understand any thing, is taught mechanically to join its little hands in prayer. His tongue is forced to lisp a formula which it does not comprehend, addressed to a God which its understanding can never conceive. In the arms of its nurse it is carried into the temple or church, where its eyes are habituated to contemplate spectacles, ceremonies, and pretended mysteries, of which, even when it shall have arrived at mature age, it will still understand nothing. If at this latter period any one should ask the reason of his conduct, or desire to know why he made this conduct a sacred and important duty, he could give no explanation, except that he was instructed in his tender years to respectfully observe certain usages, which he must regard as sacred, as they were unintelligible to him. If an attempt was made to undeceive him in regard to these habitual futilities, either he would not listen, or he would be irritated against whoever denied the notions rooted in his brain. Any man who wished to lead him to good sense, and who reasoned against the habits he had contracted, would be regarded by him as ridiculous and extravagant, or he would repulse him as an infidel and blasphemer, because his instructions lead him thus to designate every man who fails to pursue the same routine as himself, or who does not attach the same ideas as the devotee to things which the latter has never examined.

What horror does it not fill the Christian devotee with if you tell him that his priest is unnecessary! What would be his surprise if you were to prove to him, even on the principles of his religion, that the prayers which in his infancy he had been taught to consider as the most agreeable to his God, are unworthy and unnecessary to this Deity! For if God knows all, what need is there to remind him of the wants of his creatures whom he loves? If God is a father full of tenderness and goodness, is it necessary to ask him to "give us day by day our daily bread"? If this God, so good, foresaw the wants of his children, and knew much better than they what they could not know of themselves, whence is it he bids them importune him to grant them their requests? If this God is immutable and wise, how can his creatures change the fixed resolution of the Deity? If this God is just and good, how can he injure us, or place us in a situation to require the use of that prayer which entreats the Deity not to lead us into temptation?

You see by this, Madam, that there is but a very small portion of what the Christians pretend they understand and consider absolutely necessary that accords at all with what they tell us has been dictated by God himself. You see that the Lord's prayer itself contains many absurdities and ideas totally contrary to those which every Christian ought to have of his God. If you ask a Christian why he repeats without ceasing this vain formula, on which he never reflects, he can assign little other reason than that he was taught in his infancy to clasp his hands, repeat words the meaning of which his priest, not himself, is alone bound to understand. He may probably add that he has ever been taught to consider this formula requisite, as it was the most sacred and the most proper to merit the favor of Heaven.

We should, without doubt, form the same judgment of that multitude of prayers which our teachers recommend to us daily. And if we believe them, man, to please God, ought to pass a large portion of his existence in supplicating Heaven to pour down its blessings on him. But if God is good, if he cherishes his creatures, if he knows their wants, it seems superfluous to pray to him. If God changes not, he has never promised to alter his secret decrees, or, if he has, he is variable in his fancies, like man; to what purpose are all our petitions to him? If God is offended with us, will he not reject prayers which insult his goodness, his justice, and infinite wisdom?

What motives, then, have our priests to inculcate constantly the necessity of prayer? It is that they may thereby hold the minds of mankind in opinions more advantageous to themselves. They represent God to us under the traits of a monarch difficult of access, who cannot be easily pacified, but of whom they are the ministers, the favorites, and servants. They become intercessors between this invisible Sovereign and his subjects of this nether world. They sell to the ignorant their intercession with the All-powerful; they pray for the people, and by society they are recompensed with real advantages, with riches, honors, and ease. It is on the necessity of prayer that our priests, our monks, and all religious men establish their lazy existence; that they profess to win a place in heaven for their followers and paymasters, who, without this intercession, could neither obtain the favor of God, nor avert his chastisements and the calamities the world is so often visited with. The prayers of the priests are regarded as a universal remedy for all evils. All the misfortunes of nations are laid before these spiritual guides, who generally find public calamities a source of profit to themselves, as it is then they are amply paid for their supposed mediation between the Deity and his suffering creatures. They never teach the people that these things spring from the course of nature and of laws they cannot control. O, no. They make the world believe they are the judgments of an angry God. The evils for which they can find no remedy are pronounced marks of the divine wrath; they are supernatural, and the priests must be applied to. God, whom they call so good, appears sometimes obstinately deaf to their entreaties. Their common Parent, so tender, appears to derange the order of nature to manifest his anger. The God who is so just, sometimes punishes men who cannot divine the cause of his vengeance. Then, in their distress, they flee to the priests, who never fail to find motives for the divine wrath. They tell them that God has been offended; that he has been neglected; that he exacts prayers, offerings, and sacrifices; that he requires, in order to be appeased, that his ministers should receive more consideration, should be heard more attentively, and should be more enriched. Without this, they announce to the vulgar that their harvests will fail, that their fields will be inundated, that pestilence, famine, war, and contagion will visit the earth; and when these misfortunes have arrived, they declare they may be removed by means of prayers.

If fear and terror permitted men to reason, they would discover that all the evils, as well as the good things of this life, are necessary consequences of the order of nature. They would perceive that a wise God, immutable in his conduct, cannot allow any thing to transpire but according to those laws of which he is regarded as the author. They would discover that the calamities, sterility, maladies, contagions, and even death itself are effects as necessary as happiness, abundance, health, and life itself. They would find that wars, wants, and famine are often the effects of human imprudence; that they would submit to accidents which they could not prevent, and guard against those they could foresee; they would remedy by simple and natural means those against which they possessed resources; and they would undeceive themselves in regard to those supernatural means and those useless prayers of which the experience of so many ages ought to have disabused men, if they were capable of correcting their religious prejudices.

This would not, indeed, redound to the advantage of the priests, since they would become useless if men perceived the inefficacy of their prayers, the futility of their practices, and the absence of all rational foundation for those exercises of piety which place the human race upon their knees. They compel their votaries always to run down those who discredit their pretensions. They terrify the weak minded by frightful ideas which they hold out to them of the Deity. They forbid them to reason; they make them deaf to reason, by conforming them to ordinances the most out of the way, the most unreasonable, and the most contradictory to the very principles on which they pretend to establish them. They change practices, arbitrary in themselves, or, at most, indifferent and useless, into important duties, which they proclaim the most essential of all duties, and the most sacred and moral. They know that man ceases to reason in proportion as he suffers or is wretched. Hence, if he experiences real misfortunes, the priests make sure of him; if he is not unfortunate they menace him; they create imaginary fears and troubles.

In fine, Madam, when you wish to examine with your own eyes, and not by the help of the pretensions set up and imposed on you by the ministers of religion, you will be compelled to acknowledge the things we have been considering as useful to the priests alone; they are useless to the Deity, and to society they are often very obviously pernicious. Of what utility can it be in any family to behold an excess of devotion in the mother of that family? One would suppose it is not necessary for a lady to pass all her time in prayers and in meditations, to the neglect of other duties. Much less is it the part of a Catholic mother to be closeted in mystic conversation with her priest. Will her husband, her children, and her friends applaud her who loses most of her time in prayers, and meditations, and practices, which can tend only to render her sour, unhappy, and discontented? Would it not be much better that a father or a mother of a family should be occupied with what belonged to their domestic affairs than to spend their time in masses, in hearing sermons, in meditating on mysterious and unintelligible dogmas, or boasting about exercises of piety that tend to nothing?

Madam, do you not find in the country you inhabit a great many devotees who are sunk in debt, whose fortune is squandered away on priests, and who are incapable of retrieving it? Content to put their conscience to rights on religious matters, they neither trouble themselves about the education of their children, nor the arrangement of their fortune, nor the discharge of their debts. Such men as would be thrown into despair did they omit one mass, will consent to leave their creditors without their money, ruined by their negligence as much as by their principles. In truth, Madam, on what side soever you survey this religion, you will find it good for nothing.

What shall we say of those fêtes which are so multiplied amongst us? Are they not evidently pernicious to society? Are not all days the same to the Eternal? Are there gala days in heaven? Can God be honored by the business of an artisan or a merchant, who, in place of earning bread on which his family may subsist, squanders away his time in the church, and afterwards goes to spend his money in the public house? It is necessary, the priests will tell you, for man to have repose. But will he not seek repose when he is fatigued by the labor of his hands? Is it not more necessary that every man should labor in his vocation than go to a temple to chant over a service which benefits only the priests, or hear a sermon of which he can understand nothing? And do not such as find great scruple in doing a necessary labor on Sunday frequently sit down and get drunk on that day, consuming in a few hours the receipts of their week's labor? But it is for the interest of the clergy that all other shops should be shut when theirs are open. We may thence easily discover why fêtes are necessary.

Is it not contrary to all the notions which we can form of the goodness and wisdom of the Divinity, that religion should form into duties both abstinence and privations, or that penitences and austerities should be the sole proofs of virtue? What should be said of a father who should place his children at a table loaded with the fruits of the earth, but who, nevertheless, should debar them from touching certain of them, though both nature and reason dictated their use and nutriment? Can we, then, suppose that a Deity wise and good interdicts to his creatures the enjoyment of innocent pleasures, which may contribute to render life agreeable, or that a God who has created all things, every object the most desirable to the nourishment and health of man, should nevertheless forbid him their use? The Christian religion appears to doom its votaries to the punishment of Tantalus. The most part of the superstitions in the world have made of God a capricious and jealous sovereign, who amuses himself by tempting the passions and exciting the desires of his slaves, without permitting them the gratification of the one or the enjoyment of the other. We see among all sects the portraiture of a chagrined Deity, the enemy of innocent amusements, and offended at the well being of his creatures. We see in all countries many men so foolish as to imagine they will merit heaven by fighting against their nature, refusing the goods of fortune, and tormenting themselves under an idea that they will thereby render themselves agreeable to God. Especially do they believe that they will by these means disarm the fury of God, and prevent the inflictions of his chastisements, if they immolate themselves to a being who always requires victims.

We find these atrocious, fanatical, and senseless ideas in the Christian religion, which supposes its God as cruel to exact sufferings from men as death from his only Son. If a God exempt from all sin is himself also the sufferer for the sins of all, which is the doctrine of those who maintain universal redemption, it is not surprising to see men that are sinners making it a duty to assemble in large meetings, and invent the means of rendering themselves miserable. These gloomy notions have banished men to the desert. They have fanatically renounced society and the pleasures of life, to be buried alive, believing they would merit heaven if they afflicted themselves with stripes and passed their existence in mummical ceremonies, as injurious to their health as useless to their country. And these are the false ideas by which the Divinity is transformed into a tyrant as barbarous as insensible, who, agreeably to priestcraft, has prescribed how both men and women might live in ennui, penitence, sorrow, and tears; for the perfection of monastic institutions consists in the ingenious art of self-torture. But sacerdotal pride finds its account in these austerities. Rigid monks glory in barbarous rules, the observance of which attracts the respect of the credulous, who imagine that men who torment themselves are indeed the favorites of heaven. But these monks, who follow these austere rules, are fanatics, who sacrifice themselves to the pride of the clergy who live in luxury and in wealth, although their duped, imbecile brethren have been known to make it a point of honor to die of famine.

How often, Madam, has your attention not been aroused when you recalled to mind the fate of the poor religious men of the desert, whom an unnecessary vow has condemned, as it were voluntarily, to a life as rigorous as if spent in a prison! Seduced by the enthusiasm of youth, or forced by the orders of inhuman parents, they have been obliged to carry to the tomb the chains of their captivity. They have been obliged to submit without appeal to a stern superior, who finds no consolation in the discharge of his slavish task but in making his empire more hard to those beneath him. You have seen unfortunate young ladies obliged to renounce their rank in society, the innocent pleasures of youth, the joys of their sex, to groan forever under a rigorous despotism, to which indiscreet vows had bound them. All monasteries present to us an odious group of fanatics, who have separated themselves from society to pass the remainder of their lives in unhappiness. The society of these devotees is calculated solely to render their lives mutually more unsupportable. But it seems strange that men should expect to merit heaven by suffering the torments of hell on earth; yet so it is, and reason has too often proved insufficient to convince them of the contrary.

If this religion does not call all Christians to these sublime perfections, it nevertheless enjoins on all its votaries suffering and mortifying of the body. The church prescribes privations to all her children, and abstinences and fasts; these things they practise among us as duties; and the devotees imagine they render themselves very agreeable to the Divinity when they have scrupulously fulfilled those minute and puerile practices, by which they tell us that the priests have proof whether their patience and obedience be such as are dictated by and acceptable to Heaven. What a ridiculous idea is it, for example, to make of the Deity a trio of persons; to teach the faithful that this Deity takes notice of what kinds of food his people eat; that he is displeased if they eat beef or mutton, but that he is delighted if they eat beans and fish! In good sooth, Madam, our priests, who sometimes give us very lofty ideas of God, please themselves but too often with making him strangely contemptible!

The life of a good Christian or of a devotee is crowded with a host of useless practices, which would be at least pardonable if they procured any good for society. But it is not for that purpose that our priests make so much ado about them; they only wish to have submissive slaves, sufficiently blind to respect their caprices as the orders of a wise God; sufficiently stupid to regard all their practices as divine duties, and they who scrupulously observe them as the real favorites of the Omnipotent. What good can there result to the world from the abstinence of meats, so much enjoined on some Christians, especially when other Christians judge this injunction a very ridiculous law, and contrary to reason and the order of things established in nature? It is not difficult to perceive amongst us that this injunction, openly violated by the rich, is an oppression on the poor, who are compelled to pay dearly for an indifferent, often an unwholesome diet, that injures rather than repairs the natural strength of their constitution. Besides, do not the priests sell this permission to the rich, to transgress an injunction the poor must not violate with impunity? In fine, they seem to have multiplied our practices, our duties, and our tortures, to have the advantage of multiplying our faults, and making a good bargain out of our pretended crimes.

The more we examine religion the more reason shall we have to be convinced that it is beneficial to the priests alone. Every part of this religion conspires to render us submissive to the fantasies of our spiritual guides, to labor for their grandeur, to contribute to their riches. They appoint us to perform disadvantageous duties; they prescribe impossible perfections, purposely that we may transgress; they have thereby engendered in pious minds scruples and difficulties which they condescendingly appease for money. A devotee is obliged to observe, without ceasing, the useless and frivolous rules of his priest, and even then he is subject to continual reproaches; he is perpetually in want of his priest to expiate his pretended faults with which he charges himself, and the omission of duties that he regards as the most important acts of his life, but which are rarely such as interest society or benefit it by their performance. By a train of religious prejudices with which the priests infect the mind of their weak devotees, these believe themselves infinitely more culpable when they have omitted some useless practice, than if they had committed some great injustice or atrocious sin against humanity. It is commonly sufficient for the devotees to be on good terms with God, whether they be consistent in their actions with man, or in the practice of those duties they owe to their fellow beings.

Besides, Madam, what real advantage does society derive from repeated prayers, abstinences, privations, seclusions, meditations, and austerities, to which religion attaches so much value? Do all the mysterious practices of the priests produce any real good? Are they capable of calming the passions, of correcting vices, and of giving virtue to those who most scrupulously observe them? Do we not daily see persons who believe themselves damned if they forget a mass, if they eat a fowl on Friday, if they neglect a confession, though they are guilty at the same time of great dereliction to society? Do they not hold the conduct of those very unjust, and very cruel, who happen to have the misfortune of not thinking and doing as they think and act? These practices, out of which a great number of men have created essential duties, but too commonly absorb all moral duties; for if the devotees are over-religious, it is rare to find them virtuous. Content with doing what religion requires, they trouble themselves very little about other matters. They believe themselves the favored of God, and that it is a proof of this if they are detested by men, whose good opinion they are seldom anxious to deserve. The whole life of a devotee is spent in fulfilling, with scrupulous exactitude, duties indifferent to God, unnecessary to himself, and useless to others. He fancies he is virtuous when he has performed the rites which his religion prescribes; when he has meditated on mysteries of which he understands nothing; when he has struggled with sadness to do things in which a man of sense can perceive no advantage; in fine, when he has endeavored to practise, as much as in him lies, the Evangelical or Christian virtues, in which he thinks all morality essentially consists.

I shall proceed in my next letter to examine these virtues, and to prove to you that they are contrary to the ideas we ought to form of God, useless to ourselves, and often dangerous to others. In the mean time, I am, &c.

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