Freethought Archives > Baron d'Holbach > Letters to Eugenia

Letter X.

Of the Advantages Religion confers on those who profess it.

I dare flatter myself, Madam, that I have clearly demonstrated to you, that the Christian religion, far from being the support of sovereign authority, is its greatest enemy; and of having plainly convinced you, that its ministers are, by the very nature of their functions, the rivals of kings, and adversaries the most to be feared by all who value or exercise temporal power. In a word, I think I have persuaded you, that society might, without damage, dispense with the services they render, or at least dispense with paying for them so extravagantly.

Let us now examine the advantages which this religion procures to individuals, who are most strongly convinced of its pretended truths, and who conform the most rigidly to its precepts. Let us see if it is calculated to render its disciples more contented, more happy, and more virtuous than they would be without the burden of its ministers.

To decide the question, it is sufficient to look around us, and to consider the effects that religion produces on minds really penetrated with its pretended truths. We shall generally find in those who the most sincerely profess and the most exactly practise them, a joyless and melancholy disposition, which announces no contentment, nor that interior peace of which they speak so incessantly, without ever exhibiting any undoubted manifestations of it. Whoever is in the enjoyment of peace within, shows some exterior marks of it; but the internal satisfaction of devotees is commonly so concealed, that we may well suspect it of being nothing but a mere chimera. Their interior peace, which they allege gives them a good conscience, is visible to others only by a bilious and petulant humor, that is not usually much applauded by those who come under its influence. If, however, there are occasionally some devotees who actually display the serene countenance of satisfaction and enjoyment, it is because the dismal ideas of religion are rendered inoperative by a happy temperament; or that such persons have not fully become impregnated with their system of faith, whose legitimate effect is to plunge its devotees into terrible inquietudes and sombre chagrins.

Thus, Madam, we are brought back to the contradictory discourses of those priests who, after having caused terror by their desolating dogmas, attempt to reassure us by vague hopes, and exhort us to place confidence in a God whom they have themselves so repulsively delineated. It is idle for them to tell us the yoke of Jesus Christ is light. It is insupportable to those who consider it properly. It is only light for those who bear it without reflection, or for those who assume it in order to impose it upon others, without intending to suffer its annoyances themselves.

Suffer me, Madam, to refer you to yourself. Were you happy, contented, or gay, when you made me the depository of the secret inquietudes inflicted upon you by prejudices, and which had commenced taking that fatal empire over your mind which I have endeavored to destroy? Was not your soul involved in woe in spite of your judgment? Were you not taking measures to wither all your happiness? In favor of religion, were you not ready to renounce the world, and disregard all you owe to society? If I was afflicted, I was not surprised. The Christian religion inevitably destroys the happiness and repose of those who are subjected by it; alarms and terrors are the objects of its pleasures; it cannot make those happy who fully receive it. It would certainly have plunged you into distress. All your faculties would have been injured, and your too susceptible imagination would have been carried to such dangerous extremes, that many others would have grieved at the result. A gentle and beneficent spirit, like yours, could never receive peace from Christianity. The evils of religion are sure, while its consolations are contradictory and vague. They cannot give that temper and tranquillity to the mind which is necessary to enable men to labor for their own happiness and that of others.

In effect, as I have already observed, it is very difficult for an individual to occupy himself with the happiness of another when he is himself miserable. The devotee, who imposes penances on his own head, who is suspicious of every thing, who is full of self-reproaches, and who is heated by visionary meditation, by fasting and seclusion, must naturally be irritated against all those who do not believe it their duty to make such absurd sacrifices. He can scarcely avoid being enraged at those audacious persons who neglect practices or duties that are claimed as the exactions of God. He will desire to be with those only who view things as he does himself; he will keep himself apart from all others, and will end by hating them. He believes himself obliged to make a loud and public parade of his mode of thinking, and he signalizes his zeal even at the risk of appearing ridiculous. If he showed indulgence, he would doubtless fear he should render himself an accomplice in a neglect of his God. He would reprehend such sinners, and it would be with acrimony, because his own soul was filled with it. In fine, if zealous, he would always be under the dominion of anger, and would only be indulgent in proportion as he was not bigoted.

Religious devotion tends to arouse fierce sentiments, that sooner or later manifest themselves in a manner disagreeable for others. The mystical devotees clearly illustrate this. They are vexed with the world, and it could not exist if the extravagances required by religion were altogether carried out. The world cannot be united to Jesus Christ. God demands our entire heart, and nothing is allowed to remain for his weak creatures. To produce the little zeal for heaven which Christians have, it is requisite to torment them, and thus lead them to the practice of those marvellous virtues in which they imagine is placed all their safety. A strange religion, which, practised in all its rigor, would drag society to ruin! The sincere devotee proposes impossible attainments, of which human nature is not capable; and as, in spite of all his endeavors, he is unable to succeed in their acquisition, he is always discontented with himself. He regards himself as the object of God's anger; he reproaches himself with all that he does; he suffers remorse for all the pleasures he experiences, and fears that they may occasion a fall from grace. For his greater security, he often avoids society which may at any moment turn him from his pretended duties, excite him to sin, and render him the witness or accomplice of what is offensive to zealots. In fine, if the devotee is very zealous, he cannot prevent himself from avoiding or detesting beings, who, according to his gloomy notions of religion, are perpetually occupied in irritating God. On the other hand, you know, Madam, that it is chagrin and melancholy that lead to devotion. It is usually not till the world abandons and displeases men that they have recourse to heaven; it is in the arms of religion that the ambitious seek to console themselves for their disgraces and disappointed projects; dissolute and loose women turn devotees when the world discards them, and they offer to God hearts wasted, and charms that are no longer in repute. The ruin of their attractions admonishes them that their empire is no longer of this world; filled with vexation, consumed with chagrin, and irritated against a society where they were deprived of enacting an agreeable part, they yield themselves up to devotion, and distinguish themselves by religious follies, after having run the race of fashionable vices, and been engaged in worldly scandals. With rancor in their hearts, they offer a gloomy adoration to a God who indemnifies them most miserably for their ascetic worship. In a word, it is passion, affliction, and despair to which most conversions must be attributed; and they are persons of such character who deliver themselves to the priests, and these mental aberrations and physical afflictions are the marvellous strokes of grace of which God makes use to lead men to himself.

It is not, then, surprising if we see persons subject to this devotion most commonly ruled by sorrow and passion. These mental moods are perpetually aggravated by religion, which is exactly calculated to imbitter more and more the souls thus filled with vexations. The conversation of a spiritual director is a weak consolation for the loss of a lover; the remote and flattering hopes of another world rarely make up for the realities of this; nor do the fictitious occupations of religion suffice to satisfy souls accustomed to intrigues, dissipation, and scandalous pleasures.

Thus, Madam, we see that the effects of these brilliant conversions, so well adapted to give pleasure to the Omnipotent and to his court, present nothing advantageous for the inhabitants of this lower world. If the changes produced by grace do not render those more happy upon whom they are operated, they cannot cause much admiration on the part of those who witness them. Indeed, what advantages does society reap from the greater part of conversions? Do the persons so touched by grace become better? Do they make amends for the evil they have done, or are they heartily and generously engaged in doing good to those by whom they are surrounded? A mistress, for example, who has been arrogant and proud,—does conversion render her humble and gentle? Does the unjust and cruel man recompense those to whom he has done evil? Does the robber return to society the property of which he has plundered it? Does the dissipated and licentious woman repair by her vigilant cares the wrongs that her disorders and dissipations have occasioned? No, far from it. These persons so touched and converted by God ordinarily content themselves with praying, fasting, religious offerings, frequenting churches, clamoring in favor of their priests, intriguing to sustain a sect, decrying all who disagree with their particular spiritual director, and exhibiting an ardent and ridiculous zeal for questions that they do not understand. In this manner they imagine they get absolution from God, and give indemnification to men; but society gains nothing from their miraculous conversion. On the other hand, devotion often exalts, infuriates, and strengthens the passions which formerly animated the converts. It turns these passions to new objects, and religion justifies the intolerant and cruel excesses into which they rush for the interest of their sect. It is thus that an ambitious personage becomes a proud and turbulent fanatic, and believes himself justified by his zeal; it is thus that a disgraced courtier cabals in the name of heaven against his own enemies; and it is thus that a malignant and vindictive man, under the pretext of avenging God, seeks the means of avenging himself. Thus, also, it happens that a woman, to indemnify herself for having quitted rouge, considers she has the right to outrage with her acrid humor a husband whom she had previously, in a different manner, outraged many times. She piously denounces those who allow themselves the indulgence of the most innocent pleasures; in the belief of manifesting religious earnestness, she exhales downright passion, envy, jealousy, and spite; and in lending herself warmly to the interests of heaven she shows an excess of ignorance, insanity, and credulity.

But is it necessary, Madam, to insist upon this? You live in a country where you see many devotees, and few virtuous people among them. If you will but slightly examine the matter, you will find that among these persons so persuaded of their religion, so convinced of its importance and utility, who speak incessantly of its consolations, its sweets, and its virtues,—you will find that among these persons there are very few who are rendered happier, and yet fewer who are rendered better. Are they vividly penetrated with the sentiments of their afflicting and terrible religion? You will find them atrabilious, disobliging, and fierce. Are they more lightly affected by their creed? You will then find them less bigoted, more beneficent, social, and kind. The religion of the court, as you know, is a continual mixture of devotion and pleasure, a circle of the exercises of piety and dissipation, of momentary fervor and continuous irregularities. This religion connects Jesus Christ with the pomps of Satan. We there see sumptuous display, pride, ambition, intrigue, vengeance, envy, and libertinism all amalgamated with a religion whose maxims are austere. Pious casuists, interested for the great, approve this alliance, and give the lie to their own religion in order to derive advantage from circumstances and from the passions and vices of men. If these court divines were too rigid, they would affright their fashionable disciples seeking to reach heaven on "flowery beds of ease," and who embrace religion with the understanding that they are to be allowed no inconsiderable latitude. This is doubtless the reason why Jansenism, which wished to renew the austere principles of primitive Christianity, obtained no general influence at the Parisian court. The monkish precepts of early Christianity could only suit men of the temper of those who first embraced it. They were adapted for persons who were abject, bilious, and discontented, who, deprived of luxury, power, and honors, became the enemies of grandeurs from which they were excluded. The devotees had the art of making a merit of their aversion and disdain for what they could not obtain.

Nevertheless, a Christian, in consonance with his principles, should "take no thought for the morrow;" should have no individual possessions; should flee from the world and its pomps; should give his coat to the thief who stole his cloak; and, if smitten on one cheek, should turn the other to the aggressor. It is upon Stoicism that religious fanatics built their gloomy philosophy. The so-called perfections which Christianity proposes place man in a perpetual war with himself, and must render him miserable. The true Christian is an enemy both of himself and the human race, and for his own consistency should live secluded in darkness, like an owl. His religion renders him essentially unsocial, and as useless to himself as he is disagreeable to others. What advantage can society receive from a man who trembles without cessation, who is in a state of superstitious penance, who prays, and who indulges in solitude? Or what better is the devotee who flies from the world and deprives himself even of innocent pleasures, in the fear that God might damn him for participation in them?

What results from these maxims of a moral fanaticism? It happens that laws so atrocious and cruel are enacted, that bigots alone are willing to execute them. Yes, Madam, blameless as you know my whole life to have been, consonant to integrity and honesty as you know my conduct to be, and free as I have ever been from intolerance, my existence would be endangered were these letters I am now writing to you to appear in print, or even be circulated in manuscript with my name attached to them as author. Yes, Christians have made laws, now dominant here in France, which would tie me to the stake, consume my body with fire, bore my tongue with a red hot iron, deprive me of sepulture, strip my family of my property, and for no other cause than for my opinions concerning Christianity and the Bible. Such is the horrid cruelty engendered by Christianity. It has sometimes been called in question whether a society of atheists could exist; but we might with more propriety ask if a society of fierce, impracticable, visionary, and fanatical Christians, in all the plenitude of their ridiculous system, could long subsist.[*] What would become of a nation all of whose inhabitants wished to attain perfection by delivering themselves over to fanatical contemplation, to ascetical penance, to monkish prayers, and to that state of things set forth in the Acts of the Apostles? What would be the condition of a nation where no one took any "thought for the morrow"?—where all were occupied solely with heaven, and all totally neglected whatever related to this transitory and passing life?—where all made a merit of celibacy, according to the precepts of St. Paul?—and where, in consequence of constant occupation in the ceremonials of piety, no one had leisure to devote to the well-being of men in their worldly and temporal concerns? It is evident that such a society could only exist in the Thebaid, and even there only for a limited time, as it must soon be annihilated. If some enthusiasts exhibit examples of this sort, we know that convents and nunneries are supported by that portion of society which they do not enclose. But who would provide for a country that abandoned every thing else for the purpose of heavenly contemplations?

We may therefore legitimately conclude that the Christian religion is not fitted for this world; that it is not calculated to insure the happiness either of societies or individuals; that the precepts and counsels of its God are impracticable, and more adapted to discourage the human race, and to plunge men into despair and apathy, than to render them happy, active, and virtuous. A Christian is compelled to make an abstraction of the maxims of his religion if he wishes to live in the world; he is no longer a Christian when he devotes his cares to his earthly good; and, in a word, a real Christian is a man of another world, and is not adapted for this.

Thus we see that Christians, to humanize themselves, are constantly obliged to depart from their supernatural and divine speculations. Their passions are not repressed, but on the contrary are often thus rendered more fierce and more calculated to disturb society. Masked under the veil of religion, they generally produce more terrible effects. It is then that ambition, vengeance, cruelty, anger, calumny, envy, and persecution, covered by the deceptive name of zeal, cause the greatest ravages, range without bounds, and even delude those who are transported by these dangerous passions. Religion does not annihilate these violent agitations of the mind in the hearts of its devotees, but often excites and justifies them; and experience proves that the most rigid Christians are very far from being the best of men, and that they have no right to reproach the incredulous either concerning the pretended consequences of their principles, or for the passions which are falsely alleged to spring from unbelief.

Indeed, the charity of the peaceful ministers of religion and of their pious adherents does not prevent their blackening their adversaries with a view of rendering them odious, and of drawing down upon their heads the malevolence of a superstitious community, and the persecution of tyrannical and oppressive laws; their zeal for God's glory permits them to employ indifferently all kinds of weapons; and calumny, especially, furnishes them always a most powerful aid. According to them, there are no irregularities of the heart which are not produced by incredulity; to renounce religion, say they, is to give a free course to unbridled passions, and he who does not believe surely indicates a corrupt heart, depraved manners, and frightful libertinism. In a word, they declare that every man who refuses to admit their reveries or their marvellous morality, has no motives to do good, and very powerful ones to commit evil.

It is thus that our charitable divines caricature and misrepresent the opponents of their supremacy, and describe them as dangerous brigands, whom society, for its own interest, ought to proscribe and destroy. It results from these imputations that those who renounce prejudices and consult reason are considered the most unreasonable of men; that they who condemn religion on account of the crimes it has produced upon the earth, and for which it has served as an eternal pretext, are regarded as bad citizens; that they who complain of the troubles that turbulent priests have so often excited, are set down as perturbators of the repose of nations; and that they who are shocked at the contemplation of the inhuman and unjust persecutions which have been excited by priestly ambition and rascality, are men who have no idea of justice, and in whose bosoms the sentiments of humanity are necessarily stifled. They who despise the false and deceitful motives by which, to the present time, it has been vainly attempted through the other world to make men virtuous, equitable, and beneficent, are denounced as having no real motives to practise the virtues necessary for their well-being here. In fine, the priests scandalize those who wish to destroy sacerdotal tyranny, and impostures dangerous alike to nations and people, as enemies of the state so dangerous that the laws ought to punish them.

But I believe, Madam, that you are now thoroughly convinced that the true friends of the human race and of governments cannot also be the friends of religion and of priests. Whatever may be the motives or the passions which determine men to incredulity, whatever may be the principles which flow from it, they cannot be so pernicious as those which emanate directly and necessarily from a religion so absurd and so atrocious as Christianity. Incredulity does not claim extraordinary privileges as flowing from a partial God; it pretends to no right of despotism over men's consciences; it has no pretexts for doing violence to the minds of mankind; and it does not hate and persecute for a difference of opinion. In a word, the incredulous have not an infinity of motives, interests, and pretexts to injure, with which the zealous partisans of religion are abundantly provided.

The unbeliever in Christianity, who reflects, perceives that without going out of this world there are pressing and real motives which invite to virtuous conduct; he feels the interest that he has in self-preservation, and of avoiding whatever is calculated to injure another; he sees himself united by physical and reciprocal wants with men who would despise him if he had vices, who would detest him if he was guilty of any action contrary to justice and virtue, and who would punish him if he committed any crimes, or if he outraged the laws. The idea of decency and order, the desire of meriting the approbation of his fellow-citizens, and the fear of being subjected to blame and punishment, are sufficient to govern the actions of every rational man. If, however, a citizen is in a sort of delirium, all the credulity in the world will not be able to restrain him. If he is powerful enough to have no fear of men on this earth, he will not regard the divine law more than the hatred and the disdain of the judges he has constantly before his eyes.

But the priests may perhaps tell us that the fear of an avenging God at least serves to repress a great number of latent crimes that would appear but for the influence of religion. Is it true, however, that religion itself prevents these latent crimes? Are not Christian nations full of knaves of all kinds, who secretly plot the ruin of their fellow-beings? Do not the most ostensibly credulous persons indulge in an infinity of vices for which they would blush if they were by chance brought to light? A man who is the most persuaded that God sees all his actions frequently does not blush to commit deeds in secret from which he would refrain if beheld by the meanest of human beings.

What, then, avails the powerful check on the passions which religion is said to interpose? If we could place any reliance on what is said by our priests, it would appear that neither public nor secret crimes could be committed in countries where their instructions are received; the priests would appear like a brotherhood of angels, and every religious man to be without faults. But men forget their religious speculations when they are under the dominion of violent passions, when they are bound by the ties of habit, or when they are blinded by great interests. Under such circumstances they do not reason. Whether a man is virtuous or vicious depends on temperament, habit, and education. An unbeliever may have strong passions, and may reason very justly on the subject of religion, and very erroneously in regard to his conduct. The religious dupe is a poor metaphysician, and if he also acts badly he is both imbecile and wicked.

It is true the priests deny that unbelievers ever reason correctly, and pretend they must always be in the wrong to prefer natural sense to their authority. But in this decision they occupy the place of both judges and parties, and the verdict should be rendered by disinterested persons. In the mean time the priests themselves seem to doubt the soundness of their own allegations; they call the secular arm to the aid of their arguments; they marshal on their side fines, imprisonment, confiscation of goods, boring and branding, with hot irons, and death at the stake, at this time in France, and in other and in most countries of Christendom; they use the scourge to drive men into paradise; they enlighten men by the blaze of the fagot; they inculcate faith by furious and bloody strokes of the sword; and they have the baseness to stand in dread of men who cannot announce themselves or openly promulgate their opinions without running the risk of punishment, and even death. This conduct does not manifest that the priests are strongly persuaded of the power of their arguments. If our clerical theologians acted in good faith, would they not rejoice to open a free course to thorough discussion? Would they not be gratified to allow doubters to propose difficulties, the solution of which, if Christianity is so plain and clear, would serve to render it more firm and solid? They find it answers their ends better to use their adversaries as the Mexicans do their slaves, whom they shackle before attacking, and then kill for daring to defend themselves.

It is very probable unbelievers may be found whose conduct is blamable, and this is because they in this respect follow the same line of reasoning as the devotee. The most fanatical partisans of religion are forced to confess that among their adherents a small number of the elect only are rendered virtuous. By what right, then, do they exact that incredulity, which pretends to nothing supernatural, should produce effects which, according to their own admissions, their pretended divine religion fails to accomplish? If all believers were invariably good men, the cause of religion would be provided with an adamantine bulwark, and especially if unbelievers were persons without morality or virtue. But whatever the priests may aver, the unbelievers are more virtuous than the devotees. A happy temperament, a judicious education, the desire of living a peaceable life, the dislike to attract hatred or blame, and the habit of fulfilling the moral duties, always furnish motives to abstain from vice and to practise virtue more powerful and more true than those presented by religion. Besides, the incredulous person has not an infinity of resources which Christianity bestows upon its superstitious followers. The Christian can at any time expiate his crimes by confession and penance, and can thus reconcile himself with God, and give repose to his conscience; the unbeliever, on the other hand, who has perpetrated a wrong, can reconcile himself neither with society, which he has outraged, nor with himself, whom he is compelled to hate. If he expects no reward in another life, he has no interest but to merit the homage that in all enlightened countries is rendered to virtue, to probity, and to a conduct constantly honest; he has no inducement but to avoid the penalties and the disdain that society decrees against those who trouble its well-being, and who refuse to contribute to its welfare.

It appears evident that every man who consults his understanding should be more reasonable than one who only consults his imagination. It is evident that he who consults his own nature and that of the beings who surround him, ought to have truer ideas of good and evil, of justice and injustice, and of honesty and dishonesty, than he who, to regulate his conduct, consults only the records of a concealed God, whom his priests picture as wicked, unjust, changeable, contradicting himself, and who has sometimes ordered actions the most contrary to morality and to all the ideas that we have of virtue. It is evident that he who regulates his conduct upon sacerdotal morality will only follow the caprice and passions of the priests, and will be a very dangerous man, while believing himself very virtuous. In fine, it is evident that while conforming himself to the precepts and counsels of religion, a man may be extremely pious without possessing the shadow of a virtue. Experience has proved that it is quite possible to adhere to all the unintelligible dogmas of the priests, to observe most scrupulously all the forms, and ceremonies, and services they recommend, and orally to profess all the Christian virtues, without having any of the qualities necessary to his own happiness, and to that of the beings with whom he lives. The saints, indeed, who are proposed to us as models, were useless members of society. We see them to have been either gloomy fanatics, who sacrificed themselves to the desolating ideas of their religion, or excited fanatics, who, under pretext of serving religion, have perpetually disturbed the repose of nations, or enthusiastic theologians, who from their own dreams have deduced systems exactly calculated to infuriate the brains of their adherents. A saint, when he is tranquil, proposes nothing whose accomplishment will benefit mankind, and only aims to keep himself safe and secluded in his retreat. A saint, when he is active, only appears to promulgate reveries dangerous to the world, and to uphold the interests of the church, that he confounds with the interest of God.

In a word, Madam, I cannot too often repeat it, every system of religion appears to be designed for the utility of the priests; the morality of Christianity has in view only the interests of the priesthood; all the virtues that it teaches have solely for an object the church and its ministers; and these ends are always to subject the people, to draw a profit from their toil, and to inspire them with a blind credulity. We ought, therefore, to practise morality and virtue without entering into these conspiracies. If the priests disapprove of those who do not agree with them, and refuse to award any probity to the thinkers who reject their injurious and useless notions, society, which needs for its own sustenance real and human virtues, will not adopt the sentiments nor espouse the quarrels of these men, visibly leagued together against it. If the ministers of religion require their dogmas, their mysteries, and their fanatical virtues to support their usurped empire, the civil government has a need of reasonable virtues, of an evident, and above all, of a pacific morality, in order to exercise its legitimate rights. In fine, the individuals, who compose every society, demand a morality which will render them happy in this world, without embarrassing themselves with what only pretends to secure their felicity in an imaginary sphere, of which they have no ideas except those received from the priests themselves.

The priests have had the art to unite their religious system with some moral tenets which are really good. This renders their mysteries more sacred, and lends authority to their ambiguous dogmas. By the aid of this artifice, they have given currency to the opinion that without religion there can be neither morality nor virtue. I hope, Madam, in my next letter, to complete the exposure of this prejudice, and to demonstrate, to whoever will reflect, how uncertain, abstract, and deceitful are the notions which religion has inspired. I shall clearly show, that they have often infected philosophers themselves; that up to the present time, they have retarded the progress of morality; and that they have transformed a science the most certain, plain, and sensible to every thinking man, into a system at once doubtful and enigmatical, and full of difficulties. I am, Madam, &c.

[*] Upon this topic consult what Bayle says, Continuation des Pensées diverses sur la Comète, Sections 124, 125, tome iv., Rousseau de Genève, in his Contrat Social, l. 4, ch. 8. See also the Lettres écrites de la Montague, letter first, pp. 45 to 54, edit. 8vo. The author discusses the same matter, and confirms his opinions by new reasonings, which particularly deserve perusal.—Note of the Editor, (Naigeon.)

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