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Material for Parts I, II, & III comes from the translation by Joseph McCabe of selected essays by Voltaire entitled: "A Treatise on Toleration and Other Essays."


Such is the weakness, such the perversity, of the human race that it is better, no doubt, for it to be subject to all conceivable superstitions, provided they be not murderous, than to live without religion. Man has always needed a curb; and, although it was ridiculous to sacrifice to fauns or naiads, it was much more reasonable and useful to worship these fantastic images of the deity than to sink into atheism. A violent atheist would be as great a plague as a violent superstitious man.

{Ed: We can only wonder what Voltaire today would make of the violent scenes around the world where monotheism associates with violence much more strongly than does atheism. Of course he would have to come up to speed on the hard sciences of evolution and genetics, and what the social and clinical psychologists have discovered about human behavior irrespective of religion.}

When men have not sound ideas of the divinity, false ideas will take their place; just as, in ages of impoverishment, when there is not sound money, people use bad coin. The pagan feared to commit a crime lest he should be punished by his false gods; the Asiatic fears the chastisement of his pagoda. Religion is necessary where ever there is a settled society. The laws take care of known crimes; religion watches secret crime.

But once man have come to embrace a pure and holy religion, superstition becomes not merely useless, but dangerous. We must not feed on acorns those to whom God offers bread.

Superstition is to religion what astrology is to astronomy--the mad daughter of a wise mother. These daughters have too long dominated the earth.

When, in our ages of barbarism, there were scarcely two feudal lords who had a New Testament in their homes, it might be pardonable to press fables on the vulgar; that is to say, on these feudal lords, their weak-minded wives, and their brutal vassals. They were led to believe that St. Christopher had carried the infant Jesus across a river; they were fed with stories of sorcery and diabolical possession; they readily believed that St. Genou healed gout, and St. Claire sore eyes. The children believed in the werewolf, and their parents in the girdle of St. Francis. The number of relics was incalculable.

{Ed: In fact many relics persist to this day. Voltaire can be excused for not foreseeing that science would revolutionize life and what is and is not believable. Still Voltaire was some centuries ahead of his time. He is one of the giants among philosophers. He accepted the science of his day and would doubtless do the same were he alive today. See below:}

The sediment of these superstitions remained among the people even when religion had been purified. We know that when M. de Noailles, Bishop of Chalons, removed and threw in the fire the pretended relic of the sacred navel of Jesus Christ, the town of Chalons took proceedings against him. But his courage was equal to his piety, and he succeeded in convincing the people that they could worship Jesus Christ in spirit and truth without having his navel in their church.

The Jansenists contributed not a little gradually to root out from the mind of the nation the false ideas that dishonoured the Christian religion. People ceased to believe that it sufficed to pray for thirty days to the Virgin to obtain all that they wished, and sin with impunity.

In the end the citizens began to suspect that it was not really St. Genevieve who gave or withheld rain, but God himself who disposed of the elements. The monks were astonished to see that their saints no longer worked miracles. If the writers of the life of St. Francis Xavier returned to this world, they would not dare to say that the saint raised nine people from the dead, that he was in two places at the same time, and that, when his crucifix fell into the sea, a crab restored it to him.

It is the same with excommunication. Historians tell us that when King Robert had been excommunicated by Pope Gregory V., for marrying his godmother, the Princess Bertha, his servants threw out of the window the meat served up to the king, and Queen Bertha was delivered of a goose, in punishment of the incestuous marriage. I doubt if in our time the waiters of the king of France would, if he were excommunicated, throw his dinner out of the window, and whether the queen would give birth to a gosling.

There remain, it is true, a few bigoted fanatics in the suburbs; but the disease, like vermin, attacks only the lowest of the populace. Every day reason penetrates farther into France, into the shops of merchants as well as the mansions of lords. We must cultivate the fruits of reason, the more willingly since it is now impossible to prevent them from developing. France, enlightened by Pascal, Nicole, Maraud, Bossuet, Descartes, Gassendi, Bayle, Fonntenelle, etc., cannot be ruled as it was ruled in earlier times.

If the masters of error-the grand masters-so long paid and honoured for brutalizing the human species, ordered us today to believe that the seed must die in order to germinate; that the earth stands motionless on its foundations-that it does not travel round the sun; that the tides are not a natural effect of gravitation; that the rainbow is not due to the refraction and reflection of light, etc., and based their decrees on ill-understood passages of Scripture, we know how they would be regarded by educated men. Would it be too much to call them fools? And if these masters employed force and persecution to secure the ascendancy of their insolent ignorance, would it be improper to speak of them as wild beasts?

The more the superstitions of the monks are despised, the more the bishops and priests are respected; while they do good, the monkish superstitions from Rome do nothing but evil. And of all these superstitions, is not the most dangerous that of hating one's neighbour on account of his opinions? And is it not evident that it would be even more reasonable to worship the sacred navel, the sacred prepuce, and the milk and dress of the Virgin Mary, than to detest and persecute one's brother?


The less we have of dogma, the less dispute; the less we have of dispute, the less misery. If that is not true, I am wrong.

Religion was instituted to make us happy in this world and the next. What must we do to be happy in the next world? Be just. [It may be useful to recall that, as earlier pages show, Voltaire did not believe in the "next world." Much of the phrasing of this part is, when it is not ironical, merely an argumentum ad kominem.-- J. M.] What must we do to be happy in this world, as far as the misery of our nature allows? Be indulgent.

It would be the height of folly to pretend to bring all men to have the same thoughts in metaphysics. It would be easier to subdue the whole universe by arms than to subdue all the minds in a single city.

{Ed: Of course. But the trap is the word "subdue." Socrates, Aristotle, and other Greek thinkers left an indelible imprint on all world societies; simply by logical deductions and methods of inquiry they foreshadowed all that was to come. Every society today employs their axioms, their theorems, and their methods. We dare say the world is more peaceful in more places than it was in their days. It is our belief that in spite of the nuclear and other dangers to modern society, ways out of our dangerous times will be found and followed.}

Euclid easily persuaded all men of the truths of geometry. How? Because every single one of them is a corollary of the axiom, "Two and two make four" It is not exactly the same in the mixture of metaphysics and theology.

When Bishop Alexander and the priest Arius began [in the fourth century] to dispute as to the way in which the Logos emanated from the Father, the Emperor Constantine at first wrote to them as follows: "You are great fools to dispute things you do not understand."

If the two parties had been wise enough to perceive that the emperor was right, the Christian world would not have been stained with blood for three hundred years.

What, indeed, can be more stupid and more horrible than to say to men: "My friends, it is not enough to be loyal subjects, submissive children, tender fathers, just neighbours, and to practice every virtue, cultivate friendship, avoid ingratitude, and worship Christ in peace; you must, in addition, know how one is engendered from all eternity, and how to distinguish the homoousion in the hypostasis, or we shall condemn you to be burned for ever, and will meantime put you to death"?

Had such a proposition been made to Archimedes, or Poseidonius, or Varro, or Cato, or Cicero, what would he have said?

Constantine did not persevere in his resolution to impose silence on the contending parties. He might have invited the leaders of the pious frenzy to his palace and asked them what authority they had to disturb the world: "Have you the title-deeds of the divine family? What does it matter to you whether the Logos was made or engendered, provided men are loyal to him, preach a sound morality, and practice it as far as they can? I have done many wrong things in my time" and so have you. You are ambitious, so am I. The empire has cost me much knavery and cruelty; I have murdered nearly all my relatives. I repent, and would expiate my crimes by restoring peace to the Roman Empire. Do not prevent me from doing the only good that can efface my earlier barbarity. Help me to end my days in peace." Possibly he would have, had no influence on the disputants; possibly he would have been flattered to find himself in long red robe, his head covered with jewels, presiding at a council.

Yet this it was that opened the gate to all the plagues that came from Asia upon the West. From every disputed verse of Scripture there issued a fury armed, with sophism and a sword, that goaded men to madness and cruelty. The marauding Huns and Goths and Vandals did infinitely less harm; and the greatest harm they did was to join themselves in these fatal disputes.


One does not need great art and skilful eloquence to prove that Christians ought to tolerate each other--nay, even to regard all men as brothers. Why, you say, is the Turk, the Chinese, or the Jew my brother? Assuredly; are we not all children of the same father, creatures of the same God?

But these people despise us and treat us as idolaters. Very well; I will tell them that they are quite wrong. It seems to me that I might astonish, at least, the stubborn pride of a Mohammedan, or a Buddhist priest if I spoke to them somewhat as follows:--

This little globe, which is but a point, travels in space like, many other globes; we are lost in the immensity. Man, about five feet high, is certainly a small thing in the universe. One of these imperceptible beings says to some of his neighbours, in Arabia or South Africa: "Listen to me, for the God of all these worlds has enlightened me. There are nine hundred million little ants like us on the earth, but my ant-hole alone is dear to God. All of the others are eternally reprobated by him. Mine alone will be happy."

They would then interrupt me, and ask who was the fool that talked all this nonsense. I should be obliged to tell them that it was themselves. I would then try to appease them, which would be difficult.

I would next address myself to the Christians, and would venture to say to, for instance, a Dominican friar--an inquisitor of the faith: "Brother, you are aware that each province in Italy has its own dialect, and that people do not speak at Venice and Bergamo as they do at Florence. The Academy of La Crusca has fixed the language. Its dictionary is a rule that has to be followed, and the grammar of Matei is an infallible guide. But do you think that the consul of the Academy, or Matei in his absence, could in conscience cut out the tongues of all the Venetians and the Bergamese who persisted in speaking their own dialect?"

The inquisitor replies: "The two cases are very different. In our case it is a question of your eternal salvation. It is for your good that the heads of the inquisition direct that you shall be seized on the information of any one person, however infamous or criminal; that you shall have no advocate to defend you; that the name of your accuser shall not be made known to you; that the inquisitor shall promise you pardon and then condemn you; and that you shall then be subjected to five kinds of torture, and afterwards either flogged or sent to the galleys or ceremoniously burned. On this Father Ivonet, Doctor Chucalon, Zanchinus, Campegius, Royas, Telinus, Gomarus, Diabarus, and Gemelinus are explicit, and this pious practice admits of no exception." [See that excellent work, The Manual of the Inquisition.]

I would take the liberty of replying: "Brother, possibly you are right. I am convinced that you wish to do me good. But could I not be saved without all that?"

It is true that these absurd horrors do not stain the face of the earth every day; but they have often done so, and the record of them would make up a volume much longer than the gospels which condemn them. Not only is it cruel to persecute, in this brief life, those who differ from us, but I am not sure if it is not too bold to declare that they are damned eternally. It seems to me that it is not the place of the atoms of a moment, such as we are, thus to anticipate the decrees of the Creator. Far be it from me to question the principle, "out of the Church there is no salvation." I respect it and all it teaches; but do we really know all the ways of God, and the full range of his mercies? May we not hope in him as much as fear him.? Is it not enough to be loyal to the Church? Must each individual usurp the rights of the Deity, and decide, before he does, the eternal lot of all men?

When we wear mourning for a king of Sweden, Denmark, England, or Prussia, do we say that we wear mourning for one who burns eternally in hell? There are in Europe forty million people who are not of the Church of Rome. Shall we say to each of them: "Sir, seeing that you are infallibly damned, I will neither eat, nor deal, nor speak with you?

What ambassador of France, presented in audience to the Sultan, would say in the depths of his heart: "His Highness will undoubtedly burn for all eternity because he has been circumcised"? If he really believed that the Sultan is the mortal enemy of God, the object of his vengeance, could he speak to him? Ought he to be sent to him? With whom could we have intercourse? What duty of civil life could we ever fulfil if we were really convinced that we were dealing with damned souls?

Followers of a merciful God, if you were cruel of heart; if, in worshipping him whose whole law consisted in loving one's neighbour as oneself, you have burdened this pure and holy law with sophistry and unintelligible disputes; if you had lit the fires of discord for the sake of a new word or a single letter of the alphabet; if you had attached eternal torment to the omission of a few words or ceremonies that other peoples could not know, I should say to you:-

"Transport yourselves with me to the day on which all men will be judged, when God will deal with each according to his works. I see all the dead of former ages and, of our own stand in his presence. Are you sure that our Creator and Father will say to the wise and virtuous Confucius, to the lawgiver Solon, to Pythagoras, to Zaleucus, to Socrates, to Plato, to the divine Antonines to the good Trajan, to Titus, the delight of the human race, to Epictetus, and to so many other model men: 'Go, monsters, go and submit to a chastisement infinite in its intensity and duration; your torment shall be as eternal as I. And you, my beloved, Jean Chatel, Ravaillac, Damiens, Cartouche, etc. [assassins in the cause of the Church], who have died with the prescribed formulae, come and share my empire and felicity for ever.'" [This horrible doctrine must not wholly be relegated to the eighteenth century and the Middle Ages. It is still solemn Catholic doctrine, defined by the Vatican Council in 1870, that no atheist or agnostic, whether in good or bad faith, can be saved. J. M.] You shrink with horror from such sentiments; and, now that they have escaped me, I have no more to say to you.


Although these pages from Voltaire's works were posted earlier today, the question has arisen already whether Voltaire was an atheist. Some commentators think so, given his sharp critiques of the Bible and rejections of allegories that seem not to serve their implied purposes.

Our take is much more guarded. He clearly believed that religion is necessary in all cultures to avoid violence and chaos. At the same time he clearly believed religion is needed and created by humankind as a moral directive. He also seemed to sense the psychological needs most people have for a purpose and existence beyond life.

Given these interpretations, it seems most likely to us that while he believed in God, his God was not the Christian God. That is to say he seemed to reject the concept of an anthropomorphic God while accepting Newton's concept of an ultimate prime mover. Newton himself abandoned pursuit of a career in theology when he discovered that the concept of the Trinity was a late addition to translations of earlier biblical writing.

Neither Voltaire nor Newton rejected the idea of God out of hand. Neither was an atheist by that definition. Many, perhaps most, evangelicals might believe otherwise.

Wherever the truth lies, Voltaire, like Newton, was an original and penetrating thinker. He cared a lot about society; he stood up for justice.

Editor -- RTP

Posted by RoadToPeace on Saturday, May 17, 2008 at 10:52:00

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