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Many essays from Voltaire’s hand were published anonymously. This is one of them where he writes on the role of a society president who leads the prayer and preaches the sermon. For brevity, we excerpt and paraphrase:

    “My brethren, religion is the secret voice of God speaking to men. It ought to unite men, not divide them; hence every religion that belongs to one people only is false.”

    ...Religion must conform to morality, and, like it, be universal; hence every religion whose dogmas offend against morality is certainly false.”

These bold statements, and others just as bold and accurate, drew the ire of religious leaders throughout Europe. He was twice put in prison for such outrages, yet his stature seemed only to enlarge so great was his “logical authority.”

Voltaire makes three points in his sermon.

First Point

Voltaire’s first point reviews some of the content in Zapata in a similar questioning style and new format. He begins:

    "You know my brethren, what horror fell on us when we read together the writings of the Hebrews, confining our attention to those features which offend against purity, charity, good faith, justice and reason--features which unhappily, one finds consecrated in them."

Was Voltaire projecting his world-view here? It would seem so. He moves on the experiences of the Jews in Egypt. One passage in particular rang true in our times.

    “If God had wished to give them [the Jews] a good country, he might have given them Egypt. He does not, however, he leads them into a desert. They might have fled by the shortest route, yet they go far out of their way to cross the Red Sea dry-foot. After this fine miracle, Moses’ own brother makes them another god and this god is a calf. To punish his brother Moses commands certain priests to kill their sons, brothers and fathers; and they kill twenty-three thousand Jews, who let themselves be slain like cattle."

Accounts of the genocide in Rwanda followed the last part: The Presidential Guards played the roles of the priests Moses commanded. They had a lot of help, including real priests and nuns. In like manner, many of the Tutsi being slaughtered, “let themselves be slain like cattle.” Insane, yes. but it did happen. Humanity is as bloody today as it was in Moses’ time. Voltaire continued with his history:

    “Listen to this fine story

    A Levite, with his wife, arrives on his ass at Gibeah, in the tribe of Benjamin. Some of the Benjamites who are bent on committing the sin of sodomy with the Levite, turn their brutality upon the woman, who dies in the violence. Were the culprits punished? Not at all. The eleven tribes slaughtered the whole tribe of Benjamin; only six hundred men escape. But the eleven tribes are afterwards sorry to see a tribe perish, and, to restore it, they exterminate the inhabitants of one of their towns in order to take from it six hundred girls, whom they give to the six hundred Benjamites who survive to perpetuate the splendid race.

    "How many crimes committed in the name of Lord! We will give only that of the man of God (Ehud). [Ehud] asks permission to speak in private with the king on the part of God. The king does not fail to grant the audience. Ehud assassinates him, and his example has been used many times by Christians to betray, destroy, or massacre so many sovereigns.

    "At length this chosen nation, which had thus been directed by God himself, desires to have a king; which greatly displeases the priest Samuel. ...It is said that Saul takes prisoner a king of the country, named Agog. He did not kill his prisoner; he acted as is usual humane and civilized nations. What happened? The Lord is angry, and Samuel, Priest of the Lord, says to Saul: ‘You are reprobate for having spared a king who surrendered to you.’ And the priestly butcher at once cuts Agog into pieces. ...”

    "What will you say of the holy King David, the king who found favor in the eyes of the God of the Jews, and merited to be an ancestor of the messiah? This good king is at first a brigand, capturing and pillaging all he finds. Among others, he despoils a rich man named Nabal, marries his wife, and flies to King Achish. During the night, he descends upon the villages of King Achish, his benefactor, with fire and sword. He slaughters me, women, and children, says he sacred text, lest there be anyone to take the news. When he is made king, he ravishes the wife of Uriah and has the husband put to death; and it is from this adulterous homicide that the Messiah--God himself--descends. What blasphemy!"

The Bible at least provides a record of human violence and venality. It does something more: it is a predictor of human behavior in our times, not just the Rwandan genocide. It is full of examples of the conflict between church and state, it exemplifies certain features we see today, where extremists, or brigands if you will, hijack religions and governments alike and make war upon each other. And, like biblical times, the obedient and conventional Authoritarian Personalities, comprising most of us, go along with them in their need for hierarchy to keep them in power.

Will humanity ever understand itself?

Second Point

In this section, Voltaire replays most of what is in “The questions of Zapata” regarding the Old Testament. He does make some new points. One of them follows:

    “King Ahaz, besieged in Jerusalem by Shalmaneser, who had taken Samaria, demanded of the soothayer a prophecy and a sign. Isaiah said to him: This is the sign:

      "'A girl will conceive, and will bear a child who shall be called Emmanuel. He shall eat butter and honey until the day when he shall reject evil and choose good; and before this child is of age, the land which thou detestest shall be forsaken by its two kings; and the Lord shall hiss for the flies that are on the banks of the streams of Egypt and Assyria; and the Lord will take a razor, and shave the King of Assyria; he shall shave his head and the hair of his feet.’"

      "After this splendid prophecy, recorded by Isaiah, but of which there is not a word in Kings, the prophet orders him first to write on a large roll, which they hasten to seal. He urges th king to press to the plunder of his enemies, and then ensures the birth of the predicted child. Instead of calling it Emmanuel, however, he gives it the name of Maher Salabas. This my brethren, is the passage which Christians have distorted in favor of their Christ; his is the prophecy that set up Christianity. The girl to whom the prophet ascribes a child is incontestably the virgin Mary. [In a footnote here, the translator, Joseph McCabe, wrote: As is well known, the word “virgin” is a willful mistranslation of the text of Isaiah. “Girl is the correct translation.] Maher Salabas is Jesus Christ. As to the butter and honey, I am unaware of what it means. Each soothsayer promises the Jews deliverance when they are captive; and this deliverance is, according to the Christians, the heavenly Jerusalem, and the Church of our time. Prophecy is everything with the Jews; with the Christians miracle is everything, and all the prophecies are figures of Jesus Christ."

    Voltaire’s first point showed that the Old Testament is best viewed as allegory; his second point questioned the very origin of Christianity by showing that Isaiah’s prophecy was hardly a prophecy. There is more as Voltaire moves on to the new Testament. He begins with a bang. We bring it all to you.

    Third Point

      “Vain was it that the Jews were little more enlightened in the time of Augustus than in the barbaric ages of which we have spoken. Vainly did the Jews begin to recognize immortality of the soul, a dogma unknown to Moses, and the idea of God rewarding the just after death and punishing the wicked, a dogma equally unknown to Moses. Reason none the less penetrated this miserable people, from whom issued the Christian religion, which has proved the source of so many divisions, civil wars, and crimes; which has caused so much blood to flow; and which is broken into so many sects in the corner of the earth where it rules.

      There were at all times among the Jews people of the lowest order, who made prophecies in order to distinguish themselves from the populace. We deal with the one who has become best known, and who has been turned into a god; we give a brief account of his career, as it was described in the books called the gospels. We need not seek to determine when these books were written’ it is evident that they were written after the fall of Jerusalem. You know how absurdly the four authors contradict each other. It is a demonstrative proof that they are wrong. We do not, however, need many proofs to demolish this miserable structure. We will be content with a short and faithful account.

      In the first place, Jesus is described as a descendant of Abraham and David, and the writer Matthew counts forty-two generations in two thousand years. In his list however, we find only forty-one, and the genealogical tree which he borrows from Kings he blunders clumsily in making Josiah the father of Jechoniah.

      Luke also gives a genealogy, be he assigns forty-nine generations after Abraham, and they are entirely different generations. To complete the absurdity, these generations belong to Joseph, and the evangelists assure us that Jesus was not the son of Joseph. Would one be received in a German chapter on such proofs of nobility? Yet there is question here of the son of God, and God himself is the author of the book!

    All three accounts, taken literally, are absurd for another reason. Each requires generations of between 40 and 49 years, menopausal for women, vigor declining in both women and men, not to mention in an era when life expectancy was more like 25 years. Ed

      Matthew says that when Jesus, King of the Jews, was born in a stable in the town of Bethlehem, three magi or kings saw his star in the East, and followed it, until it halted over Bethlehem; and that king Herod, hearing these things, caused all the children under two years of age to be put to death. Could any horror be more ridiculous? Matthew adds that the father and mother took the child into Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. Luke says precisely the contrary; he observes that Joseph and Mary remained peacefully at Bethlehem for six weeks, then went to Jerusalem, and from there to Nazareth; and that they went every year to Jerusalem.

      The evangelists contradict each other in regard to the time of the life of Jesus, his miracles, the night of the supper, and the day of his death--in a word, in regard to nearly all the facts. There were forty-nine gospels composed by the Christians of the first few centuries, and these were still more flagrant in their contradictions. In the end, the four which we have were selected. Even if they were in harmony, what folly, what misery, what puerile and odious things they contain!

      The first adventure of Jesus, son of God, is to be taken up by the devil; the devil who makes no appearance in the books of Moses, plays a great part in the Gospels. The devil, then, takes God up a mountain in the desert. From there he shows him all the kingdoms of the earth. Where is his mountain from which one can see so many lands? We do not know.

      John records that Jesus goes to a marriage-feast, and changes water into wine; and that he drives from the precincts of the temple those who were selling the animals of the sacrifices ordered by Jewish law.

      All diseases were at that time regarded as possession by the devil, and Jesus makes it the mission of his apostles to expel the Jews. As he goes along, he delivers one who was dispossessed by a legion of devils, and he makes these devils into a herd of swine, which cast themselves into the sea of Tiberias. We may suppose that the owners of the swine, who were not Jews apparently, were not pleased with this comedy. He heals a blind man, and the blind man sees men as if they were trees. He wishes to eat figs in winter and not finding any on a tree, he curses the tree and causes it to wither; the text prudently adds: ‘for it was not the season of figs.’

      He is transformed during the night, and causes Moses and Elias to appear. Do these stories of romancers even approach these absurdities? At length, after being constantly insulting of the Pharisee, calling them ‘races of vipers,’ ‘whitened sepulchres,’ etc., he is handed over by them to justice, and executed with two thieves; and the historians are bold enough to tell us that at his death the earth was darkened at midday, and at a time of full moon. As if every writer of the time would not have mentioned so strange a miracle.

      After that iot is small matter go make him rise from the dead and predict the end of the world; which, however, has not happened,

      The sect of Jesus lingers in concealment; fanaticism increases. At first they dare not make a God of this man, but they soon take courage. Some Platonic metaphysic amalgamates with the Nazarean sect, and Jesus becomes the logos, the word of God, then consubstantial with God the father. The Trinity is invented; and, in order to have it accepted, the first gospels are falsified.

      A passage is added to this truth, and the historian Josephus is falsified and made to speak of Jesus, though Josephus is too serious an historian to mention such a man. They go so far as to forge sybilline books. In a word, there is no kind of trickery, fraud, and imposture that the Nazaraeans do not adopt. At the end of three years they succeeded in having Jesus recognized as a god. Not content with this extravagance, they go so far as to locate there god is a bit of paste. While their god is eaten by mice and digested, they hold that there is no such things as bread in the host; that God has, at the word of man, put himself in the place of the bread. All kinds of superstitions flood the Church; plunder is predominant in it; indulgences, benefices, and all kinds of spiritual things are put up for sale.

      The sect splits into a multitude of sects; age after age they fight and slaughter each other. At every dispute kings and princes are massacred.

      Such, my dear brethren, is the fruit of the tree of the cross, the power that has been declared divine.

      For his they have dared to bring God upon the earth; to commit Europe for ages to murder and brigandage. it is true that our fathers have in part shaken off this frightful yoke, and rid themselves of some errors and superstitions. But how imperfect the have left the work! Everything tells us that the idol of which we have as yet broken only a finger or two. Numbers of theologians have already embraced Socinianism (Unitarianism), which comes near to the worship of one God, freed of superstition. England, Germany, and the provinces of France are full of wise doctors, who ask only the opportunity to break away. There are great numbers in other countries. Why persist in teaching what we do not believe, and make ourselves guilty before God of this great sin?

      We are told that the people need mysteries, and must be deceived. My brethren, dare any one commit this outrage on humanity? Have not our fathers already taken from them their transubstantiation, auricular confession, indulgences, exorcisms, false miracles, and ridiculous statues. Are not the people accustomed to the deprivation of this food of superstition? We must have the courage to go a few steps farther. The people are not so weak of mind as is thought; they will easily admit a wise and simple cult of one God, such as is professed, it is said by Abraham and Noah and all the sages of antiquity, and as is found among the educated people of China. We seek not to despoil the clergy of what the liberality of their followers has given them; we wish them, since most of them secretly laugh at the untruths they teach, to join us in preaching the truth. Let them observe that, while they now offend and dishonour the deity, they would, if they follow us, glorify him. What incalculable good would be done by that happy change? Princes and magistrates wold be better obeyed, the people would be tranquil, the spirit of division and hatred would be dispelled. They would offer to god, in peace, the first fruits of their works. There would assuredly be more righteousness on the earth, for many weak-minded folk who hear contempt expressed daily for the Christian superstition and know it is ridiculed by the priests themselves, thoughtlessly imagine that there is no such thing as religion, and abandon themselves to excesses. But when they learn that the ‘Christian sect is really only a perversion of natural religion; when reason, freed from its chains, teaches the people that there is but one god; that this God is the common parent of all men, who are brothers; that as brothers, they must be good and just to each other, and practice every virtue; that God, being good and just, must reward virtue and punish crime; then assuredly, my brethren, men will gain in righteousness as they lose in superstition.

      We begin by giving this example in secret, and we trust that it will be followed in pubic.

      May the great God who hears me--a God who certainly could not be born of a girl, nor die on a gibbet, nor be eaten in a morsel of paste, nor have inspired this book with its contradictions, follies and horrors--may this God, creator of all worlds, have pity on the sect of the Christians who blaspheme him. May he bring them to holy and natural religion, and shower his blessing on the efforts we make to have him worshipped. Amen."

    Isaac Newton, like Voltaire, was disenchanted by the Trinity which made an appearance in the King James version of the Bible--it was not there in its Latin antecedents! Newton renounced his goal of joining the clergy, opting instead for research, teaching and public service as master of the mint, serving nobly in all three.

    In minor writing Voltaire wrote:

    There are two monsters which desolate
    the earth in the midst of peace;
    one is calumny, and the other intolerance.

    In a certain real sense, Voltaire was an extremist who worshiped truth, provable, logical, truth. He was an activist in spreading truth born of logic and experiment, as so many before and since him have been. He was a giant ahead of his times; his words are as close to eternal as it is possible for a human being to get. We hope we can do justice to his legacy.

    Voltaire’s concept of God as the creator of the universe is still logically valid. It is the anthropomorphic God, the God full of all the virtues and vices, the loves and hates, the wisdom and ignorance, and all the violence men projected upon the deity that troubled Voltaire. We used the word men, because men in fact are more prone to the violence that makes the Bible a valuable resource for those who would better understand violence in our times.

    Three centuries have elapsed since Voltaire held forth. Yet religion remains as strongly associated with violence as it ever was.


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