They will tell us, doubtless, that the terrors which religion inspires are salutary terrors; that the dogma of another life is a bridle sufficiently powerful to prevent the commission of crimes and restrain men within the path of duty. To undeceive one's self of this maxim, so often thundered in our ears, and so generally adopted on the authority of the priests, we have only to open our eyes. Nevertheless, we see some Christians thoroughly persuaded of another life, who, notwithstanding, conduct themselves as if they had nothing to fear on the part of a God of vengeance, nor any thing to hope from a God of mercy. When any of these are engaged in some great project, at all times they are tempted by some strong passion or by some bad habit, they shut their eyes on another life, they see not the enraged judge, they suffer themselves to sin, and when it is committed, they comfort themselves by saying, that God is good. Besides, they console themselves by the same contradictory religion which shows them also this same God, whom it represents so susceptible of wrath, as full of mercy, bestowing his grace on all those who are sensible of their evils and repent. In a word, I see none whom the fears of hell will restrain when passion or interest solicit obedience. The very priests who make so many efforts to convince us of their dogmas too often evince more wickedness of conduct than we find in those who have never heard one word about another life. Those who from infancy have been taught these terrifying lessons are neither less debauched, nor less proud, nor less passionate, nor less unjust, nor less avaricious than others who have lived and died ignorant of Christian purgatory and Paradise. In fine, the dogma of another life has little or no influence on them; it annihilates none of their passions; it is a bridle merely with some few timid souls, who, without its knowledge, would never have the hardihood to be guilty of any great excesses. This dogma is very fit to disturb the quiet of some honest, timorous persons, and the credulous, whose imagination it inflames, without ever staying the hand of great rogues, without imposing on them more than the decency of civilization and a specious morality of life, restrained chiefly by the coercion of public laws.
In short, to sum all up in one thought, I behold a religion gloomy and formidable to make impressions very lively, very deep, and very dangerous on a mind such as yours, although it makes but very momentary impressions on the minds of such as are hardened in crime, or whose dissipation destroys constantly the effects of its threats. More lively affected than others by your principles, you have been but too often and too seriously occupied for your happiness by gloomy and harassing objects, which have powerfully affected your sensible imagination, though the same phantoms that have pursued you have been altogether banished from the mind of those who have had neither your virtues, your understanding, nor your sensibility.
According to his principles, a Christian must always live in fear; he can never know with certainty whether he pleases or displeases God; the least movement of pride or of covetousness, the least desire, will suffice to merit the divine anger, and lose in one moment the fruits of years of devotion. It is not surprising that, with these frightful principles before them, many Christians should endeavor to find in solitude employment for their lugubrious reflections, where they may avoid the occasions that solicit them to do wrong, and embrace such means as are most likely, according to their notions of the likelihood of the thing, to expiate the faults which they fancy might incur the eternal vengeance of God.
Thus the dark notions of a future life leave those only in peace who think slightly upon it; and they are very disconsolate to all those whose temperament determines them to contemplate it. They are but the atrocious ideas, however, which the priests study to give us of the Deity, and by which they have compelled so many worthy people to throw themselves into the arms of incredulity. If some libertines, incapable of reasoning, abjure a religion troublesome to their passions, or which abridges their pleasures, there are very many who have maturely examined it, that have been disgusted with it, because they could not consent to live in the fears it engendered, nor to nourish the despair it created. They have then abjured this religion, fit only to fill the soul with inquietudes, that they might find in the bosom of reason the repose which it insures to good sense.
Times of the greatest crimes are always times of the greatest ignorance. It is in these times, or usually so, that the greatest noise is made about religion. Men then follow mechanically, and without examination, the tenets which their priests impose on them, without ever diving to the bottom of their doctrines. In proportion as mankind become enlightened, great crimes become more rare, the manners of men are more polished, the sciences are cultivated, and the religion which they have coolly and carefully examined loses sensibly its credit. It is thus that we see so many incredulous people in the bosom of society become more agreeable and complacent now than formerly, when it depended on the caprice of a priest to involve them in troubles, and to invite the people to crimes in the hope of thereby meriting heaven.
Religion is consoling only to those who have no embarrassment about it; the indefinite and vague recompense which it promises, without giving ideas of it, is made to deceive those who make no reflections on the impatient, variable, false, and cruel character which this religion gives of its God. But how can it make any promises on the part of a God whom it represents as a tempter, a seducer—who appears, moreover, to take pleasure in laying the most dangerous snares for his weak creatures? How can it reckon on the favors of a God full of caprice, who it alternately informs us is replete with tenderness or with hatred? By what right does it hold out to us the rewards of a despotic and tyrannical God, who does or does not choose men for happiness, and who consults only his own fantasy to destine some of his creatures to bliss and others to perdition? Nothing, doubtless, but the blindest enthusiasm could induce mortals to place confidence in such a God as the priests have feigned; it is to folly alone we must attribute the love some well-meaning people profess to the God of the parsons; it is matchless extravagance alone that could prevail on men to reckon on the unknown rewards which are promised them by this religion, at the same time that it assures us that God is the author of grace, but that we have no right to expect any thing from him.
In a word, Madam, the notions of another life, far from consoling, are fit only to imbitter all the sweets of the present life. After the sad and gloomy ideas which Christianity, always at variance with itself, presents us with of its God, it then affirms, that we are much more likely to incur his terrible chastisements, than possessed of power by which we may merit ineffable rewards; and it proceeds to inform us, that God will give grace to whomsoever he pleases, yet it remains with themselves whether they escape damnation; and a life the most spotless cannot warrant them to presume that they are worthy of his favor. In good truth, would not total annihilation be preferable to such beings, rather than falling into the hands of a Deity so hard-hearted? Would not every man of sense prefer the idea of complete annihilation to that of a future existence, in order to be the sport of the eternal caprice of a Deity, so cruel as to damn and torment, without end, the unfortunate beings whom he created so weak, that he might punish them for faults inseparable from their nature? If God is good, as we are assured, notwithstanding the cruelties of which the priests suppose him capable, is it not more consonant to all our ideas of a being perfectly good, to believe that he did not create them to sport with them in a state of eternal damnation, which they had not the power of choosing, or of rejecting and shunning? Has not God treated the beasts of the field more favorably than he has treated man, since he has exempted them from sin, and by consequence has not exposed them to suffer an eternal unhappiness?
The dogma of the immortality of the soul, or of a future life, presents nothing consoling in the Christian religion. On the contrary, it is calculated expressly to fill the heart of the Christian, following out his principles, with bitterness and continual alarm. I appeal to yourself, Madam, whether these sublime notions have any thing consoling in them? Whenever this uncertain idea has presented itself to your mind, has it not filled you with a cold and secret horror? Has the consciousness of a life so virtuous and so spotless as yours, secured you against those fears which are inspired by the idea of a being jealous, severe, capricious, whose eternal disgrace the least fault is sure of incurring, and in whose eyes the smallest weakness, or freedom the most involuntary, is sufficient to cancel years of strict observance of all the rules of religion?
I know very well what you will advance to support yourself in your prejudices. The ministers of religion possess the secret of tempering the alarms which they have the art to excite. They strive to inspire confidence in those minds which they discover accessible to fear. They balance, thus, one passion against another. They hold in suspense the minds of their slaves, in the apprehension that too much confidence would only render them less pliable, or that despair would force them to throw off the yoke. To persons terribly frightened about their state after death, they speak only of the hopes which we may entertain of the goodness of God. To those who have too much confidence, they preach up the terrors of the Lord, and the judgments of a severe God. By this chicanery they contrive to subject or retain under their yoke all those who are weak enough to be led by the contradictory doctrines of these blind guides.
They tell you, besides, that the sentiment of the immortality of the soul is inherent in man; that the soul is consumed by boundless desires, and that since there is nothing on this earth capable of satisfying it, these are indubitable proofs that it is destined to subsist eternally. In a word, that as we naturally desire to exist always, we may naturally conclude that we shall always exist. But what think you, Madam, of such reasonings? To what do they lead? Do we desire the continuation of this existence, because it may be blessed and happy, or because we know not what may become of us? But we cannot desire a miserable existence, or, at least, one in which it is more than probable we may be miserable rather than happy. If, as the Christian religion so often repeats, the number of the elect is very small, and salvation very difficult, the number of the reprobate very great, and damnation very easily obtained, who is he who would desire to exist always with so evident a risk of being eternally damned? Would it not have been better for us not to have been born, than to have been compelled against our nature to play a game so fraught with peril? Does not annihilation itself present to us an idea preferable to that of an existence which may very easily lead us to eternal tortures? Suffer me, Madam, to appeal to yourself. If, before you had come into this world, you had had your choice of being born, or of not seeing the light of this fair sun, and you could have been made to comprehend, but for one moment, the hundred thousandth part of the risks you run to be eternally unhappy, would you not have determined never to enjoy life?
It is an easy matter, then, to perceive the proofs on which the priests pretend to found this dogma of the immortality of the soul and a future life. The desire which we might have of it could only be founded on the hope of enjoying eternal happiness. But does religion give us this assurance? Yes, say the clergy, if you submit faithfully to the rules it prescribes. But to conform one's self to these rules, is it not necessary to have grace from Heaven? And, are we then sure we shall obtain that grace, or if we do, merit Heaven? Do the priests not repeat to us, without ceasing, that God is the author of grace, and that he only gives it to a small number of the elect? Do they not daily tell us that, except one man, who rendered himself worthy of this eternal happiness, there are millions going the high road to damnation? This being admitted, every Christian, who reasons, would be a fool to desire a future existence which he has so many motives to fear, or to reckon on a happiness which every thing conspires to show him is as uncertain, as difficult to be obtained, as it is unequivocally dependent on the fantasies of a capricious Deity, who sports with the misfortunes of his creatures.
Under every point of view in which we regard the dogma of the soul's immortality, we are compelled to consider it as a chimera invented by men who have realized their wishes, or who have not been able to justify Providence from the transitory injustices of this world. This dogma was received with avidity, because it flattered the desires, and especially the vanity of man, who arrogated to himself a superiority above all the beings that enjoy existence, and which he would pass by and reduce to mere clay; who believed himself the favorite of God, without ever taxing his attention with this other fact—that God makes him every instant experience vicissitudes, calamities, and trials, as all sentient natures experience; that God made him, in fine, to undergo death, or dissolution, which is an invariable law that all that exists must find verified. This haughty creature, who fancies himself a privileged being, alone agreeable to his Maker, does not perceive that there are stages in his life when his existence is more uncertain and much more weak than that of the other animals, or even of some inanimate things. Man is unwilling to admit that he possesses not the strength of the lion, nor the swiftness of the stag, nor the durability of an oak, nor the solidity of marble or metal. He believes himself the greatest favorite, the most sublime, the most noble; he believes himself superior to all other animals because he possesses the faculties of thinking, judging, and reasoning. But his thoughts only render him more wretched than all the animals whom he supposes deprived of this faculty, or who, at least, he believes, do not enjoy it in the same degree with himself. Do not the faculties of thinking, of remembering, of foresight, too often render him unhappy by the very idea of the past, the present, and the future? Do not his passions drive him to excesses unknown to the other animals? Are his judgments always reasonable and wise? Is reason so largely developed in the great mass of men that the priests should interdict its use as dangerous? Are mankind sufficiently advanced in knowledge to be able to overcome the prejudices and chimeras which render them unhappy during the greatest part of their lives? In fine, have the beasts some species of religious impressions, which inspire continual terrors in their breast, making them look upon some awful event, which imbitters their softest pleasures, which enjoins them to torment themselves, and which threatens them with eternal damnation? No!
In truth, Madam, if you weigh in an equitable balance the pretended advantages of man above the other animals, you will soon see how evanescent is this fictitious superiority which he has arrogated to himself. We find that all the productions of nature are submitted to the same laws; that all beings are only born to die; they produce their like to destroy themselves; that all sentient beings are compelled to undergo pleasures and pains; they appear and they disappear; they are and they cease to be; they evince under one form that they will quit it to produce another. Such are the continual vicissitudes to which every thing that exists is evidently subjected, and from which man is not exempt, any more than the other beings and productions that he appropriates to his use as lord of the creation. Even our globe itself undergoes change; the seas change their place; the mountains are gathered in heaps or levelled into plains; every thing that breathes is destroyed at last, and man alone pretends to an eternal duration.
It is unnecessary to tell me that we degrade man when we compare him with the beasts, deprived of souls and intelligence; this is no levelling doctrine, but one which places him exactly where nature places him, but from which his puerile vanity has unfortunately driven him. All beings are equals; under various and different forms they act differently; they are governed in their appetites and passions by laws which are invariably the same for all of the same species; every thing which is composed of parts will be dissolved; every thing which has life must part with it at death; all men are equally compelled to submit to this fate; they are equal at death, although during life their power, their talents, and especially their virtues, establish a marked difference, which, though real, is only momentary. What will they be after death? They will be exactly what they were ten years before they were born.
Banish, then, Eugenia, from your mind forever the terrors which death has hitherto filled you with. It is for the wretched a safe haven against the misfortunes of this life. If it appears a cruel alternative to those who enjoy the good things of this world, why do they not console themselves with the idea of what they do actually enjoy? Let them call reason to their aid; it will calm the inquietudes of their imagination, but too greatly alarmed; it will disperse the clouds which religion spreads over their minds; it will teach them that this death, so terrible in apprehension, is really nothing, and that it will neither be accompanied with remembrance of past pleasures nor of sorrow now no more.
Live, then, happy and tranquil, amiable Eugenia! Preserve carefully an existence so interesting and so necessary to all those with whom you live. Allow not your health to be injured, nor trouble your quiet with melancholy ideas. Without being teased by the prospect of an event which has no right to disturb your repose, cultivate virtue, which has always been your favorite, so necessary to your internal peace, and which has rendered you so dear to all those who have the happiness of being your friends. Let your rank, your credit, your riches, your talents be employed to make others happy, to support the oppressed, to succor the unfortunate, to dry up the tears of those whom you may have an opportunity of comforting! Let your mind be occupied about such agreeable and profitable employments as are likely to please you! Call in the aid of your reason to dissipate the phantoms which alarm you, to efface the prejudices which you have imbibed in early life! In a word, comfort yourself, and remember that in practising virtue, as you do, you cannot become an object of hatred to God, who, if he has reserved in eternity rigorous punishments for the social virtues, will be the strangest, the most cruel, and the most insensible of beings!
You demand of me, perhaps, "In destroying the idea of another world, what is to become of the remorse, those chastisements so useful to mankind, and so well calculated to restrain them within the bounds of propriety?" I reply, that remorse will always subsist as long as we shall be capable of feeling its pangs, even when we cease to fear the distant and uncertain vengeance of the Divinity. In the commission of crimes, in allowing one's self to be the sport of passion, in injuring our species, in refusing to do them good, in stifling pity, every man whose reason is not totally deranged perceives clearly that he will render himself odious to others, that he ought to fear their enmity. He will blush, then, if he thinks he has rendered himself hateful and detestable in their eyes. He knows the continual need he has of their esteem and assistance. Experience proves to him that vices the most concealed are injurious to himself. He lives in perpetual fear lest some mishap should unfold his weaknesses and secret faults. It is from all these ideas that we are to look for regret and remorse, even in those who do not believe in the chimeras of another world. With regard to those whose reason is deranged, those who are enervated by their passions, or perhaps linked to vice by the chains of habit, even with the prospect of hell open before them, they will neither live less vicious nor less wicked. An avenging God will never inflict on any man such a total want of reason as may make him regardless of public opinion, trample decency under foot, brave the laws, and expose himself to derision and human chastisements. Every man of sense easily understands that in this world the esteem and affection of others are necessary for his happiness, and that life is but a burden to those who by their vices injure themselves, and render themselves reprehensible in the eyes of society.
The true means, Madam, of living happy in this world is to do good to your fellow-creatures; to labor for the happiness of your species is to have virtue, and with virtue we can peaceably and without remorse approach the term which nature has fixed equally for all beings—a term that your youth causes you now to see only at a distance—a term that you ought not to accelerate by your fears—a term, in fine, that the cares and desires of all those who know you will seek to put off till, full of days and contented with the part you have played in the scene of the world, you shall yourself desire to gently reenter the bosom of nature.
I am, &c.
Of the Mysteries, Sacraments, and Religious Ceremonies of Christianity.
The reflections, Madam, which I have already offered you in these letters ought, I conceive, to have sufficed to undeceive you, in a great measure, of the lugubrious and afflicting notions with which you have been inspired by religious prejudices. However, to fulfil the task which you have imposed on me, and to assist you in freeing yourself from the unfavorable ideas you may have imbibed from a system replete with irrelevancies and contradictions, I shall continue to examine the strange mysteries with which Christianity is garnished. They are founded on ideas so odd and so contrary to reason, that if from infancy we had not been familiarized with them, we should blush at our species in having for one instant believed and adopted them.
The Christians, scarcely content with the crowd of enigmas with which the books of the Jews are filled, have besides fancied they must add to them a great many incomprehensible mysteries, for which they have the most profound veneration. Their impenetrable obscurity appears to be a sufficient motive among them for adding these. Their priests, encouraged by their credulity, which nothing can outdo, seem to be studious to multiply the articles of their faith, and the number of inconceivable objects which they have said must be received with submission, and adored even if not understood.
The first of these mysteries is the Trinity, which supposes that one God, self-existent, who is a pure spirit, is, nevertheless, composed of three Divinities, which have obtained the names of persons. These three Gods, who are designated under the respective names of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, are, nevertheless, but one God only. These three persons are equal in power, in wisdom, in perfections; yet the second is subordinate to the first, in consequence of which he was compelled to become a man, and be the victim of the wrath of his Father. This is what the priests call the mystery of the incarnation. Notwithstanding his innocence, his perfection, his purity, the Son of God became the object of the vengeance of a just God, who is the same as the Son in question, but who would not consent to appease himself but by the death of his own Son, who is a portion of himself. The Son of God, not content with becoming man, died without having sinned, for the salvation of men who had sinned. God preferred to the punishment of imperfect beings, whom he did not choose to amend, the punishment of his only Son, full of divine perfections. The death of God became necessary to reclaim the human kind from the slavery of Satan, who without that would not have quitted his prey, and who has been found sufficiently powerful against the Omnipotent to oblige him to sacrifice his Son. This is what the priests designate by the name of the mystery of redemption.
It is assuredly sufficient to expose such opinions to demonstrate their absurdity. It is evident, if there exists only a single God, there cannot be three. We may, it is true, contemplate the Deity after the manner of Plato, who, before the birth of Christianity, exhibited him under three different points of view, that is to say, as all-wise, as all-powerful, as full of reason, and as infinite in goodness; but it was verily the excess of delirium to personify these three divine qualities, or transform them into real beings. We can readily imagine these moral attributes to be united in the same God, but it is egregious folly to fashion them into three different Gods; nor will it remedy this metaphysical polytheism to assert that these three are one. Besides, this revery never entered the head of the Hebrew legislator. The Eternal, in revealing himself to Moses, did not announce himself as triple. There is not one syllable in the Old Testament about this Trinity, although a notion so bizarre, so marvellous, and so little consonant with our ideas of a divine being, deserved to have been formally announced, especially as it is the foundation and corner stone of the Christian religion, which was from all eternity an object of the divine solicitude, and on the establishment of which, if we may credit our sapient priests, God seems to have entertained serious thoughts long before the creation of the world.
Nevertheless, the second person, or the second God of the Trinity, is revealed in flesh; the Son of God is made man. But how could the pure Spirit who presides over the universe beget a son? How could this son, who before his incarnation was only a pure spirit, combine that ethereal essence with a material body, and envelop himself with it? How could the divine nature amalgamate itself with the imperfect nature of man, and how could an immense and infinite being, as the Deity is represented, be formed in the womb of a virgin? After what manner could a pure spirit fecundate this favorite virgin? Did the Son of God enjoy in the womb of his mother the faculties of omnipotence, or was he like other children during his infancy,—weak, liable to infirmities, sickness, and intellectual imbecility, so conspicuous in the years of childhood; and if so, what, during this period, became of the divine wisdom and power? In fine, how could God suffer and die? How could a just God consent that a God exempt from all sin should endure the chastisements which are due to sinners? Why did he not appease himself without immolating a victim so precious and so innocent? What would you think of that sovereign who, in the event of his subjects rebelling against him, should forgive them all, or a select number of them, by putting to death his only and beloved son, who had not rebelled?
The priests tell us that it was out of tenderness for the human kind that God wished to accomplish this sacrifice. But I still ask if it would not have been more simple, more conformable to all our ideas of Deity, for God to pardon the iniquities of the human race, or to have prevented them committing transgressions, by placing them in a condition in which, by their own will, they should never have sinned? According to the entire system of the Christian religion, it is evident that God did only create the world to have an opportunity of immolating his Son for the rebellious beings he might have formed and preserved immaculate. The fall of the rebellious angels had no visible end to serve but to effect and hasten the fall of Adam. It appears from this system that God permitted the first man to sin that he might have the pleasure of showing his goodness in sacrificing his "only begotten Son" to reclaim men from the thraldom of Satan. He intrusted to Satan as much power as might enable him to work the ruin of our race, with the view of afterwards changing the projects of the great mass of mankind, by making one God to die, and thereby destroy the power of the Devil on the earth.
But has God succeeded in these projects to the end he proposed? Are men entirely rescued from the dominion of Satan? Are they not still the slaves of sin? Do they find themselves in the happy impossibility of kindling the divine wrath? Has the blood of the Son of God washed away the sins of the whole world? Do those who are reclaimed, those to whom he has made himself known, those who believe, offend not against heaven? Has the Deity, who ought, without doubt, to be perfectly satisfied with so memorable a sacrifice, remitted to them the punishment of sin? Is it not necessary to do something more for them? And since the death of his Son, do we find the Christians exempt from disease and from death? Nothing of all this has happened. The measures taken from all eternity by the wisdom and prescience of a God who should find against his plans no obstacles have been overthrown. The death of God himself has been of no utility to the world. All the divine projects have militated against the free-will of man, but they have not destroyed the power of Satan. Man continues to sin and to die; the Devil keeps possession of the field of battle; and it is for a very small number of the elect that the Deity consented to die.
You do indeed smile, Madam, at my being obliged seriously to combat such chimeras. If they have something of the marvellous in them, it is quite adapted to the heads of children, not of men, and ought not to be admitted by reasonable beings. All the notions we can form of those things must be mysterious; yet there is no subject more demonstrable, according to those whose interest it is to have it believed, though they are as incapable as ourselves to comprehend the matter. For the priests to say that they believe such absurdities, is to be guilty of manifest falsehood; because a proposition to be believed must necessarily be understood. To believe what they do not comprehend is to adhere sottishly to the absurdities of others; to believe things which are not comprehended by those who gossip about them is the height of folly; to believe blindly the mysteries of the Christian religion is to admit contradictions of which they who declare them are not convinced. In fine, is it necessary to abandon one's reason among absurdities that have been received without examination from ancient priests, who were either the dupes of more knowing men, or themselves the impostors who fabricated the tales in question?
If you ask of me how men have not long ago been shocked by such absurd and unintelligible reveries, I shall proceed, in my turn, to explain to you this secret of the church, this mystery of our priests. It is not necessary, in doing this, to pay any attention to those general dispositions of man, especially when he is ignorant and incapable of reasoning. All men are curious, inquisitive; their curiosity spurs them on to inquiry, and their imagination busies itself to clothe with mystery every thing the fancy conjures up as important to happiness. The vulgar mistake even what they have the means of knowing, or, which is the same thing, what they are least practised in they are dazzled with; they proclaim it, accordingly, marvellous, prodigious, extraordinary; it is a phenomenon. They neither admire nor respect much what is always visible to their eyes; but whatever strikes their imagination, whatever gives scope to the mind, becomes itself the fruitful source of other ideas far more extravagant. The priests have had the art to prevail on the people to believe in their secret correspondence with the Deity; they have been thence much respected, and in all countries their professed intercourse with an unseen Divinity has given room for their announcement of things the most marvellous and mysterious.
Besides, the Divinity being a being whose impenetrable essence is veiled from mortal sight, it has been commonly admitted by the ignorant, that what could not be seen by mortal eye must necessarily be divine. Hence sacred, mysterious, and divine, are synonymous terms; and these imposing words have sufficed to place the human race on their knees to adore what seeks not their inflated devotion.
The three mysteries which I have examined are received unanimously by all sects of Christians; but there are others on which the theologians are not agreed. In fine, we see men, who, after they have admitted, without repugnance, a certain number of absurdities, stop all of a sudden in the way, and refuse to admit more. The Christian Protestants are in this case. They reject, with disdain, the mysteries for which the Church of Rome shows the greatest respect; and yet, in the matter of mysteries, it is indeed difficult to designate the point where the mind ought to stop.
Seeing, then, that our doctors, better advised, undoubtedly, than those of the Protestants, have adroitly multiplied mysteries, one is naturally led to conclude, they despaired of governing the mind of man, if there was any thing in their religion that was clear, intelligible, and natural. More mysterious than the priests of Egypt itself, they have found means to change every thing into mystery; the very movements of the body, usages the most indifferent, ceremonies the most frivolous, have become, in the powerful hands of the priests, sublime and divine mysteries. In the Roman religion all is magic, all is prodigy, all is supernatural. In the decisions of our theologians, the side which they espouse is almost always that which is the most abhorrent to reason, the most calculated to confound and overthrow common sense. In consequence, our priests are by far the most rich, powerful, and considerable. The continual want which we have of their aid to obtain from Heaven that grace which it is their province to bring down for us, places us in continual dependence on those marvellous men who have received their commission to treat with the Deity, and become the ambassadors between Heaven and us.
Each of our sacraments envelops a great mystery. They are ceremonies to which the Divinity, they say, attaches some secret virtue, by unseen views, of which we can form no ideas. In baptism, without which no man can be saved, the water sprinkled on the head of the child washes his spiritual soul, and carries away the defilement which is a consequence of the sin committed in the person of Adam, who sinned for all men. By the mysterious virtue of this water, and of some words equally unintelligible, the infant finds itself reconciled to God, as his first father had made him guilty without his knowledge and consent. In all this, Madam, you cannot, by possibility, comprehend the complication of these mysteries, with which no Christian can dispense, though, assuredly, there is not one believer who knows what the virtue of the marvellous water consists in, which is necessary for his regeneration. Nor can you conceive how the supreme and equitable Governor of the universe could impute faults to those who have never been guilty of transgressions. Nor can you comprehend how a wise Deity can attach his favor to a futile ceremony, which, without changing the nature of the being who has derived an existence it neither commenced nor was consulted in, must, if administered in winter, be attended with serious consequences to the health of the child.
In Confirmation, a sacrament or ceremony, which, to have any value, ought to be administered by a bishop, the laying of the hands on the head of the young confirmant makes the Holy Spirit descend upon him, and procures the grace of God to uphold him in the faith. You see, Madam, that the efficacy of this sacrament is unfortunately lost in my person; for, although in my youth I had been duly confirmed, I have not been preserved against smiling at this faith, nor have I been kept invulnerable in the credence of my priests and forefathers.
In the sacrament of Penitence, or confession, a ceremony which consists in putting a priest in possession of all one's faults, public or private, you will discover mysteries equally marvellous. In favor of this submission, to which every good Catholic is necessarily obliged to submit, a priest, himself a sinner, charged with full powers by the Deity, pardons and remits, in His name, the sins against which God is enraged. God reconciles himself with every man who humbles himself before the priest, and in accordance with the orders of the latter, he opens heaven to the wretch whom he had before determined to exclude. If this sacrament doth not always procure grace, very distinguishing to those who use it, it has, at all events, the advantage of rendering them pliable to the clergy, who, by its means, find an easy sway in their spiritual empire over the human mind, an empire that enables them, not unfrequently, to disturb society, and more often the repose of families, and the very conscience of the person confessing.
There is among the Catholics another sacrament, which contains the most strange mysteries. It is that of the Eucharist. Our teachers, under pain of being damned, enjoin us to believe that the Son of God is compelled by a priest to quit the abodes of glory, and to come and mask himself under the appearance of bread! This bread becomes forthwith the body of God—this God multiplies himself in all places, and at all times, when and where the priests, scattered over the face of the earth, find it necessary to command his presence in the shape of bread—yet we see only one and the same God, who receives the homage and adoration of all those good people who find it very ridiculous in the Egyptians to adore lupines and onions. But the Catholics are not simply content with worshipping a bit of bread, which they consider by the conjurations of a priest as divine; they eat this bread, and then persuade themselves that they are nourished by the body or substance of God himself. The Protestants, it is true, do not admit a mystery so very odd, and regard those who do as real idolaters. What then? This marvellous dogma is, without doubt, of the greatest utility to the priests. In the eyes of those who admit it, they become very important gentlemen, who have the power of disposing of the Deity, whom they make to descend between their hands; and thus a Catholic priest is, in fact, the creator of his God!
There is, also, Extreme Unction, a sacrament which consists in anointing with oil those sick persons who are about to depart into the other world, and which not only soothes their bodily pains, but also takes away the sins of their souls. If it produces these good effects, it is an invisible and mysterious method of manifesting obvious results; for we frequently behold sick persons have their fears of death allayed, though the operation may but too often accelerate their dissolution. But our priests are so full of charity, and they interest themselves so greatly in the salvation of souls, that they like rather to risk their own health beside the sick bed of persons afflicted with the most contagious diseases, than lose the opportunity of administering their salutary ointment.
Ordination is another very mysterious ceremony, by which the Deity secretly bestows his invisible grace on those whom he has selected to fill the office of the holy priesthood. According to the Catholic religion, God gives to the priests the power of making God himself, as we have shown above; a privilege which without doubt cannot be sufficiently admired. With respect to the sensible effects of this sacrament, and of the visible grace which it confers, they are enabled, by the help of some words and certain ceremonies, to change a profane man into one that is sacred; that is to say, who is not profane any longer. By this spiritual metamorphosis, this man becomes capable of enjoying considerable revenues without being obliged to do any thing useful for society. On the contrary, heaven itself confers on him the right of deceiving, of annoying, and of pillaging the profane citizens, who labor for his ease and luxury.
Finally, Marriage is a sacrament that confers mysterious and invisible graces, of which we in truth have no very precise ideas. Protestants and Infidels, who look upon marriage as a civil contract, and not as a sacrament, receive neither more nor less of its visible grace than the good Catholics. The former see not that those who are married enjoy by this sacrament any secret virtue, whence they may become more constant and faithful to the engagements they have contracted. And I believe both you and I, Madam, have known many people on whom it has only conferred the grace of cordially detesting each other.
I will not now enter upon the consideration of a multitude of other magic ceremonies, admitted by some Christian sectaries and rejected by others, but to which the devotees who embrace them, attach the most lofty ideas, in the firm persuasion, that God will, on that account, visit them with his invisible grace. All these ceremonies, doubtless, contain great mysteries, and the method of handling or speaking of them is exceedingly mysterious. It is thus that the water on which a priest has pronounced a few words, contained in his conjuring book, acquires the invisible virtue of chasing away wicked spirits, who are invisible by their nature. It is thus that the oil, on which a bishop has muttered some certain formula, becomes capable of communicating to men, and even to some inanimate substances, such as wood, stone, metals, and walls, those invisible virtues which they did not previously possess. In fine, in all the ceremonies of the church, we discover mysteries, and the vulgar, who comprehend nothing of them, are not the less disposed to admire, to be fascinated with, and to respect with a blind devotion. But soon would they cease to have this veneration for these fooleries, if they comprehended the design and end the priests have in view by enforcing their observance.
The priests of all nations have begun by being charlatans, castle builders, divines, and sorcerers. We find men of these characters in nations the most ignorant and savage, where they live by the ignorance and credulity of others. They are regarded by their ignorant countrymen as superior beings, endowed with supernatural gifts, favorites of the very Gods, because the uninquiring multitude see them perform things which they take to be mighty marvellous, or which the ignorant have always considered marvellous. In nations the most polished, the people are always the same; persons the most sensible are not often of the same ideas, especially on the subject of religion; and the priests, authorized by the ancient folly of the multitude, continue their old tricks, and receive universal applause.
You are not, then, to be surprised, Madam, if you still behold our pontiffs and our priests exercise their magical rites, or rear castles before the eyes of people prejudiced in favor of their ancient illusions, and who attach to these mysteries a degree of consequence, seeing they are not in a condition to comprehend the motives of the fabricators. Every thing that is mysterious has charms for the ignorant; the marvellous captivates all men; persons the most enlightened find it difficult to defend themselves against these illusions. Hence you may discover that the priests are always opinionatively attached to these rites and ceremonies of their worship; and it has never been without some violent revolution that they have been diminished or abrogated. The annihilation of a trifling ceremony has often caused rivers of blood to flow. The people have believed themselves lost and undone when one bolder than the rest wished to innovate in matters of religion; they have fancied that they were to be deprived of inestimable advantages and invisible but saving grace, which they have supposed to be attached by the Divinity himself to some movements of the body. Priests the most adroit have overcharged religion with ceremonies, and practices, and mysteries. They fancied that all these were so many cords to bind the people to their interest, to allure them by enthusiasm, and render them necessary to their idle and luxurious existence, which is not spent without much money extracted from the hard earnings of the people, and much of that respect which is but the homage of slaves to spiritual tyrants.
You cannot any longer, I persuade myself, Madam, be made the dupe of these holy jugglers, who impose on the vulgar by their marvellous tales. You must now be convinced that the things which I have touched upon as mysteries are profound absurdities, of which their inventors can render no reasonable account either to themselves or to others. You must now be certified that the movements of the body and other religious ceremonies must be matters perfectly indifferent to the wise Being whom they describe to us as the great mover of all things. You conclude, then, that all these marvellous rites, in which our priests announce so much mystery, and in which the people are taught to consider the whole of religion as consisting, are nothing more than puerilities, to which people of understanding ought never to submit. That they are usages calculated principally to alarm the minds of the weak, and keep in bondage those who have not the courage to throw off the yoke of priests. I am, &c.
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 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 fetes 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 fetes 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.
Of Evangelical Virtues and Christian Perfection.
If we believe the priests, we shall be persuaded, that the Christian religion, by the beauty of its morals, excels philosophy and all the other religious systems in the world. According to them, the unassisted reason of the human mind could never have conceived sounder doctrines of morality, more heroical virtues, or precepts more beneficial to society. But this is not all; the virtues known or practised among the heathens are considered as false virtues; far from deserving our esteem, and the favor of the Almighty, they are entitled to nothing but contempt; and, indeed, are flagrant sins in the sight of God. In short, the priests labor to convince us, that the Christian ethics are purely divine, and the lessons inculcated so sublime, that they could proceed from nothing less than the Deity.
If, indeed, we call that divine which men can neither conceive nor perform; if by divine virtues we are to understand virtues to which the mind of man cannot possibly attach the least idea of utility; if by divine perfections are meant those qualities which are not only foreign to the nature of man, but which are irreconcilably repugnant to it,—then, indeed, we shall be compelled to acknowledge that the morals of Christianity are divine; at least we shall be assured that they have nothing in common with that system of morality which arises out of the nature and relations of men, but on the contrary, that they, in many instances, confound the best conceptions we are able to form of virtue.
Guided by the light of reason, we comprehend under the name of virtue those habitual dispositions of the heart which tend to the happiness and the real advantage of those with whom we associate, and by the exercise of which our fellow-creatures are induced to feel a reciprocal interest in our welfare. Under the Christian system the name of virtues is bestowed upon dispositions which it is impossible to possess without supernatural grace; and which, when possessed, are useless, if not injurious, both to ourselves and others. The morality of Christians is, in good truth, the morality of another world. Like the philosopher of antiquity, they keep their eyes fixed upon the stars till they fall into a well, unperceived, at their feet. The only object which their scheme of morals proposes to itself is, to disgust their minds with the things of this world, in order that they may place their entire affections upon things above, of which they have no knowledge whatever; their happiness here below forms no part of their consideration; this life, in the view of a Christian, is nothing but a pilgrimage, leading to another existence, infinitely more interesting to his hopes, because infinitely beyond the reach of his understanding. Besides, before we can deserve to be happy in the world which we do not know, we are informed that we must be miserable in the world which we do know; and, above all things, in order to secure to ourselves happiness hereafter, it is especially necessary that we altogether resign the use of our own reason; that is to say, we must seal up our eyes in utter darkness, and surrender ourselves to the guidance of our priests. These are the principles upon which the fabric of Christian morals is evidently constructed.
Let us now proceed, Madam, to a more detailed examination of the virtues upon which the Christian religion is built. These virtues are Evangelical, &c. If destitute of them, we are assured that it is in vain for us to seek the favor of the Deity.
Of these virtues the first is FAITH. According to the doctrine of the church, faith is the gift of God, a supernatural virtue, by means of which we are inspired with a firm belief in God, and in all that he has vouchsafed to reveal to man, although our reason is utterly unable to comprehend it. Faith is, says the church, founded upon the word of God, who can neither deceive nor be deceived. Thus faith supposes, that God has spoken to man—but what evidence have we that God has spoken to man? The Holy Scriptures. Who is it that assures us the Holy Scriptures contain the word of God? It is the church. But who is it that assures us the church cannot and will not deceive us? The Holy Scriptures. Thus the Scriptures bear witness to the infallibility of the church—and the church, in return, testifies the truth of the Scriptures. From this statement of the case, you must perceive, that faith is nothing more than an implicit belief in the priests, whose assurances we adopt as the foundation of opinions in themselves incomprehensible. It is true, that as a confirmation of the truth of Scripture, we are referred to miracles—but it is these identical Scriptures which report to us and testify of those very miracles. Of the absolute impossibility of any miracles, I flatter myself that I have already convinced you.
Besides, I cannot but think, Madam, that you must be, by this time, thoroughly satisfied how absurd it is to say that the understanding is convinced of any thing which it does not comprehend; the insight I have given you into the books which the Christians call sacred, must have left upon your mind a firm persuasion, that they never could have proceeded from a wise, a good, an omniscient, a just, and all-powerful God. If, then, we cannot yield them a real belief, what we call faith can be nothing more than a blind and irrational adherence to a system devised by priests, whose crafty selfishness has made them careful from the earliest infancy to fill our tender minds with prepossessions in favor of doctrines which they judged favorable to their own interests. Interested, however, as they are in the opinions which they endeavor to force upon us as truth, is it possible for these priests to believe them themselves? Unquestionably not—the thing is out of nature. They are men like ourselves, furnished with the same faculties, and neither they nor we can be convinced of any thing which lies equally beyond the scope of us all. If they possessed an additional sense, we should perhaps allow that they might comprehend what is unintelligible to us; but as we clearly see that they have no intellectual privileges above the rest of the species, we are compelled to conclude, that their faith, like the faith of other Christians, is a blind acquiescence in opinions derived, without examination, from their predecessors; and that they must be hypocrites when they pretend to believe in doctrines of the truth of which they cannot be convinced, since these doctrines have been shown to be destitute of that degree of evidence which is necessary to impress the mind with a feeling of their probability, much less of their certainty.
It will be said that faith, or the faculty of believing things incredible, is the gift of God, and can only be known to those upon whom God has bestowed the favor. My answer is, that, if that be the case, we have no alternative but to wait till the grace of God shall be shed upon us—and that in the mean time we may be allowed to doubt whether credulity, stupidity, and the perversion of reason can proceed, as favors, from a rational Deity who has endowed us with the power of thinking. If God be infinitely wise, how can folly and imbecility be pleasing to him? If there were such a thing as faith, proceeding from grace, it would be the privilege of seeing things otherwise than as God has made them; and if that were so, it follows, that the whole creation would be a mere cheat. No man can believe the Bible to be the production of God without doing violence to every consistent notion that he is able to form of Deity! No man can believe that one God is three Gods, and that those three Gods are one God, without renouncing all pretension to common sense, and persuading himself that there is no such thing as certainty in the world.
Thus, Madam, we are bound to suspect that what the church calls a gift from above, a supernatural grace, is, in fact, a perfect blindness, an irrational credulity, a brutish submission, a vague uncertainty, a stupid ignorance, by which we are led to acquiesce, without investigation, in every dogma that our priests think fit to impose upon us—by which we are led to adopt, without knowing why, the pretended opinions of men who can have no better means of arriving at the truth than we have. In short, we are authorized in suspecting that no motive but that of blinding us, in order more effectually to deceive us, can actuate those men who are eternally preaching to us about a virtue which, if it could exist, would throw into utter confusion the simplest and clearest perceptions of the human mind.
This supposition is amply confirmed by the conduct of our ecclesiastics—forgetting what they have told us, that grace is the gratuitous present of God, bestowed or withheld at his sovereign pleasure, they nevertheless indulge their wrath against all those who have not received the gift of faith; they keep up one incessant anathema against all unbelievers, and nothing less than absolute extermination of heresy can appease their anger wherever they have the strength to accomplish it. So that heretics and unbelievers are made accountable for the grace of God, although they never received it; they are punished in this world for those advantages which God has not been pleased to extend to them in their journey to the next. In the estimation of priests and devotees, the want of faith is the most unpardonable of all offences—it is precisely that offence which, in the cruelty of their absurd injustice, they visit with the last rigors of punishment, for you cannot be ignorant, Madam, that in all countries where the clergy possess sufficient influence, the flames of priestly charity are lighted up to consume all those who are deficient in the prescribed allowance of faith.
When we inquire the motive for their unjust and senseless proceedings, we are told that faith is the most necessary of all things, that faith is of the most essential service to morals, that without faith a man is a dangerous and wicked wretch, a pest to society. And, after all, is it our own choice to have faith? Can we believe just what we please? Does it depend upon ourselves not to think a proposition absurd which our understanding shows us to be absurd? How could we avoid receiving, in our infancy, whatever impressions and opinions our teachers and relations chose to implant in us? And where is the man who can boast that he has faith—that he is fully convinced of mysteries which he cannot conceive, and wonders which he cannot comprehend?