Under these circumstances how can faith be serviceable to morals? If no one can have faith but upon the assurance of another, and consequently cannot entertain a real conviction, what becomes of the social virtues? Admitting that faith were possible, what connection can exist between such occult speculations and the manifest duties of mankind, duties which are palpable to every one who, in the least, consults his reason, his interest, or the welfare of the society to which he belongs? Before I can be satisfied of the advantages of justice, temperance, and benevolence, must I first believe in the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Eucharist, and all the fables of the Old Testament? If I believe in all the atrocious murders attributed by the Bible to that God whom I am bound to consider as the fountain of justice, wisdom, and goodness, is it not likely that I shall feel encouraged to the commission of crimes when I find them sanctioned by such an example? Although unable to discover the value of so many mysteries which I cannot understand, or of so many fanciful and cumbersome ceremonies prescribed by the church, am I, on that account, to be denounced as a more dangerous citizen than those who persecute, torment, and destroy every one of their fellow-creatures who does not think and act at their dictation? The evident result of all these considerations must be, that he who has a lively faith and a blind zeal for opinions contradictory to common sense, is more irrational, and consequently more wicked than the man whose mind is untainted by such detestable doctrines; for when once the priests have gained their fatal ascendency over his mind, and have persuaded him that, by committing all sorts of enormities, he is doing the work of the Lord, there can be no doubt that he will make greater havoc in the happiness of the world, than the man whose reason tells him that such excesses cannot be acceptable in the sight of God.
The advocates of the church will here interrupt me, by alleging that if divested of those sentiments which religion inspires, men would no longer live under the influence of motives strong enough to induce an abstinence from vice, or to urge them on in the career of virtue when obstructed by painful sacrifices. In a word, it will be affirmed that unless men are convinced of the existence of an avenging and remunerating God, they are released from every motive to fulfil their duties to each other in the present life.
You are, doubtless, Madam, quite sensible of the futility of such pretences, put forth by priests who, in order to render themselves more necessary, are indefatigable in endeavoring to persuade us that their system is indispensable to the maintenance of social order. To annihilate their sophistries it is sufficient to reflect upon the nature of man, his true interests, and the end for which society is formed. Man is a feeble being, whose necessities render him constantly dependent upon the support of others, whether it be for the preservation or the pleasure of his existence; he has no means of interesting others in his welfare except by his manner of conducting himself towards them; that conduct which renders him an object of affection to others is called virtue—whatever is pernicious to society is called crime—and where the consequences are injurious only to the individual himself, it is called vice. Thus every man must immediately perceive that he consults his own happiness by advancing that of others—that vices, however cautiously disguised from public observation, are, nevertheless, fraught with ruin to him who practises them—and that crimes are sure to render the perpetrator odious or contemptible in the eyes of his associates, who are necessary to his own happiness. In short, education, public opinion, and the laws point out to us our mutual duties much more clearly than the chimeras of an incomprehensible religion.
Every man on consulting with himself will feel indubitably that he desires his own conservation; experience will teach him both what he ought to do and what to avoid to arrive at this end; in consequence he will shrink from those excesses which endanger his being; he will debar himself from those gratifications which in their course would render his existence miserable; and he would make sacrifices, if it was necessary, in the view of procuring himself advantages more real than those of which he momentarily deprived himself. Thus he would know what he owes to himself and what he owes to others.
Here, Madam, you have a short but perfect summary of all morals, derived, as they must be, from the nature of man, the uniform experience and the universal reason of mankind. These precepts are compulsory upon our minds, for they show us that the consequences of our conduct flow from our actions with as natural and inevitable a certainty as the return of a stone to the earth after the impetus is exhausted which detained it in the air. It is natural and inevitable that the man who employs himself in doing good must be preferred to the man who does mischief. Every thinking being must be penetrated with the truth of this incontrovertible maxim, and all the ponderous volumes of theology that ever were composed can add nothing to the force of his conviction; every thinking being will, therefore, avoid a conduct calculated to injure either himself or others; he will feel himself under the necessity of doing good to others, as the only method of obtaining solid happiness for himself, and of conciliating to himself those sentiments on the part of others, without which he could derive no charms from society.
You perceive, then, Madam, that faith cannot in any manner contribute to the correction of social conduct, and you will feel that the popular supernatural notions cannot add any thing to the obligations that our nature imposes upon us. In fact, the more mysterious and incomprehensible are the dogmas of the church, the more likely are they to draw us aside from the plain dictates of Nature and the straight-forward directions of Reason, whose voice is incapable of misleading us. A candid survey of the causes which produce an infinity of evils that afflict society will quickly point out the speculative tenets of theology as their most fruitful source. The intoxication of enthusiasm and the frenzy of fanaticism concur in overpowering reason, and by rendering men blind and unreflecting, convert them into enemies both of themselves and the rest of the world. It is impossible for the worshippers of a tyrannical, partial, and cruel God to practise the duties of justice and philanthropy. As soon as the priests have succeeded in stifling within us the commands of Reason, they have already converted us into slaves, in whom they can kindle whatever passions it may please them to inspire us with.
Their interest, indeed, requires that we should be slaves. They exact from us the surrender of our reason, because our reason contradicts their impostures, and would ruin their plans of aggrandizement. Faith is the instrument by which they enslave us and make us subservient to their own ambition. Hence arises their zeal for the propagation of the faith; hence arises their implacable hostility to science, and to all those who refuse submission to their yoke; hence arises their incessant endeavor to establish the dominion of Faith, (that is to say, their own dominion,) even by fire and sword, the only arguments they condescend to employ.
It must be confessed that society derives but little advantage from this supernatural faith which the church has exalted into the first of virtues. As it regards God, it is perfectly useless to him, since if he wishes mankind to be convinced, it is sufficient that he wills them to be so. It is utterly unworthy of the supreme wisdom of God, who cannot exhibit himself to mortals in a manner contradictory to the reason with which he has endowed them. It is unworthy of the divine justice, which cannot require from mankind to be convinced of that which they cannot understand. It denies the very existence of God himself, by inculcating a belief totally subversive of the only rational idea we are able to form of the Divinity.
As it regards morality, faith is also useless. Faith cannot render it either more sacred or more necessary than it already is by its own inherent essence, and by the nature of man. Faith is not only useless, but injurious to society, since, under the plea of its pretended necessity, it frequently fills the world with deplorable troubles and horrid crimes. In short, faith is self-contradictory, since by it we are required to believe in things inconsistent with each other, and even incompatible with the principles laid down in the books which we have already investigated, and which contain what we are commanded to believe.
To whom, then, is faith found to be advantageous? To a few men, only, who, availing themselves of its influence to degrade the human mind, contrive to render the labor of the whole world tributary to their own luxury, splendor, and power. Are the nations of the earth any happier for their faith, or their blind reliance on priests? Certainly not. We do not there find more morality, more virtue, more industry, or more happiness; but, on the contrary, wherever the priests are powerful, there the people are sure to be found abject in their minds and squalid in their condition.
But Hope—Hope, the second in order of the Christian perfections, is ever at hand to console us for the evils inflicted by Faith. We are commanded to be firmly convinced that those who have faith, that is to say, those who believe in priests, shall be amply rewarded in the other world for their meritorious submission in this. Thus hope is founded on faith, in the same manner as faith is established upon hope; faith enjoins us to entertain a devout hope that our faith will be rewarded. And what is it we are told to hope for? For unspeakable benefits; that is, benefits for which language contains no expression. So that, after all, we know not what it is we are to hope for. And how can we feel a hope or even a wish for any object that is undefinable? How can priests incessantly speak to us of things of which they, at the same time, acknowledge it is impossible for us to form any ideas?
It thus appears that hope and faith have one common foundation; the same blow which overturns the one necessarily levels the other with the ground. But let us pause a moment, and endeavor to discover the advantages of Christian hope amongst men. It encourages to the practice of virtue; it supports the unfortunate under the stroke of affliction; and consoles the believer in the hour of adversity. But what encouragement, what support, what consolation can be imparted to the mind from these undefined and undefinable shadows? No one, indeed, will deny that hope is sufficiently useful to the priests, who never fail to call in its assistance for the vindication of Providence, whenever any of the elect have occasion to complain of the unmerited hardship or the transient injustice of his dispensations. Besides, these priests, notwithstanding their beautiful systems, find themselves unable to fulfil the high-sounding promises they so liberally make to all the faithful, and are frequently at a loss to explain the evils which they bring upon their flocks by means of the quarrels they engage in, and the false notions of religion they entertain; on these occasions the priests have a standing appeal to hope, telling their dupes that man was not created for this world, that heaven is his home, and that his sufferings here will be counterbalanced by indescribable bliss hereafter. Thus, like quacks, whose nostrums have ruined the health of their patients, they have still left to themselves the advantage of selling hopes to those whom they know themselves unable to cure. Our priests resemble some of our physicians, who begin by frightening us into our complaints, in order that they may make us customers for the hopes which they afterwards sell to us for their weight in gold. This traffic constitutes, in reality, all that is called religion.
The third of the Christian virtues is Charity; that is, to love God above all things, and our neighbors as ourselves. But before we are required to love God above all things, it seems reasonable that religion should condescend to represent him as worthy of our love. In good faith, Madam, is it possible to feel that the God of the Christians is entitled to our love? Is it possible to feel any other sentiments than those of aversion towards a partial, capricious, cruel, revengeful, jealous, and sanguinary tyrant? How can we sincerely love the most terrible of beings,—the living God, into whose hands it is dreadful to think of falling,—the God who can consign to eternal damnation those very creatures who, without his own consent, would never have existed? Are our theologians aware of what they say, when they tell us that the fear of God is the fear of a child for its parent, which is mingled with love? Are we not bound to hate, can we by any means avoid detesting, a barbarous father, whose injustice is so boundless as to punish the whole human race, though innocent, in order to revenge himself upon two individuals for the sin of the apple, which sin he himself might have prevented if he had thought proper? In short, Madam, it is a physical impossibility to love above all things a God whose whole conduct, as described in the Bible, fills us with a freezing horror. If, therefore, the love of God, as the Jansenists assert, is indispensable to salvation, we cannot wonder to find that the elect are so few. Indeed, there are not many persons who can restrain themselves from hating this God; and the doctrine of the Jesuits is, that to abstain from hating him is sufficient for salvation. The power of loving a God whom religion paints as the most detestable of beings would, doubtless, be a proof of the most supernatural grace, that is, a grace the most contrary to nature; to love that which we do not know, is, assuredly, sufficiently difficult; to love that which we fear, is still more difficult; but to love that which is exhibited to us in the most repulsive colors, is manifestly impossible.
We must, after all this, be thoroughly convinced that, except by means of an invisible grace never communicated to the profane, no Christian in his sober senses can love his God; even those devotees who pretend to that happiness are apt to deceive themselves; their conduct resembles that of hypocritical flatterers, who, in order to ingratiate themselves with an odious tyrant, or to escape his resentment, make every profession of attachment, whilst, at the bottom of their hearts, they execrate him; or, on the other hand, they must be condemned as enthusiasts, who, by means of a heated imagination, become the dupes of their own illusions, and only view the favorable side of a God declared to be the fountain of all good, yet, nevertheless, constantly delineated to us with every feature of wickedness. Devotees, when sincere, are like women given up to the infatuation of a blind passion by which they are enamoured with lovers rejected by the rest of the sex as unworthy of their affection. It was said by Madame de Sevigne that she loved God as a perfectly well-bred gentleman, with whom she had never been acquainted. But can the God of the Christians be esteemed a well-bred gentleman? Unless her head was turned, one would think that she must have been cured of her passion by the slightest reference to her imaginary lover's portrait as drawn in the Bible, or as it is spread upon the canvas of our theological artists.
With regard to the love of our neighbor, where was the necessity of religion to teach us our duty, which as men we cannot but feel, of cherishing sentiments of good will towards each other? It is only by showing in our conduct an affectionate disposition to others that we can produce in them correspondent feelings towards ourselves. The simple circumstance of being men is quite sufficient to give us a claim upon the heart of every man who is susceptible of the sweet sensibilities of our nature. Who is better acquainted than yourself, Madam, with this truth? Does not your compassionate soul experience at every moment the delightful satisfaction of solacing the unhappy? Setting aside the superfluous precepts of religion, think you that you could by any efforts steel your heart against the tears of the unfortunate? Is it not by rendering our fellow-creatures happy that we establish an empire in their hearts? Enjoy, then, Madam, this delightful sovereignty; continue to bless with your beneficence all that surround you; the consciousness of being the dispenser of so much good will always sustain your mind with the most gratifying self-applause; those who have received your kindness will reward you with their blessings, and afford you the tribute of affection which mankind are ever eager to lay at the feet of their benefactors.
Christianity, not satisfied with recommending the love of our neighbor, superadds the injunction of loving our enemies. This precept, attributed to the Son of God himself, forms the ground on which our divines claim for their religion a superiority of moral doctrine over all that the philosophers of antiquity were known to teach. Let us, therefore, examine how far this precept admits of being reduced to practice. True, an elevated mind may easily place itself above a sense of injuries; a noble spirit retains no resentful recollections; a great soul revenges itself by a generous clemency; but it is an absurd contradiction to require that a man shall entertain feelings of tenderness and regard for those whom he knows to be bent on his destruction; this love of our enemies, which Christianity is so vain of having promulgated, turns out, then, to be an impracticable commandment, belied and denied by every Christian at every moment of his life. How preposterous to talk of loving that which annoys us!—of cherishing an attachment for that which gives us pain!—of receiving an outrage with joy!—of loving those who subject us to misery and suffering! No; in the midst of these trials our firmness may perhaps be strengthened by the hope of a reward hereafter; but it is a mere fallacy to talk of our entertaining a sincere love for those whom we deem the authors of our afflictions; the least that we can do is to avoid them, which will not be looked upon as a very strong indication of our love.
Notwithstanding the solemn formality with which the Christian religion obtrudes upon us these vaunted precepts of love of our neighbor, love of our enemies, and forgiveness of injuries, it cannot escape the observation of the weakest among us, that those very men who are the loudest in praising are also the first and most constant in violating them. Our priests especially seem to consider themselves exempt from the troublesome necessity of adopting for their own conduct a too literal interpretation of this divine law. They have invented a most convenient salvo, since they affect to exclude all those who do not profess to think as they dictate, not only from the kindness of neighbors, but even from the rights of fellow-creatures. On this principle they defame, persecute, and destroy every one who displeases them. When do you see a priest forgive? When revenge is out of his reach! But it is never their own injuries they punish; it is never their own enemies they seek to exterminate. Their disinterested indignation burns with resentment against the enemies of the Most High, who, without their assistance, would be incapable of adjusting his own quarrels! By an unaccountable coincidence, however, it is sure to happen that the enemies of the church are the enemies of the Most High, who never fails to make common cause with the ministers of the faith, and who would take it extremely ill if his ministers should relax in the measure of punishment due to their common enemy. Thus our priests are cruel and revengeful from pure zeal; they would ardently wish to forgive their own enemies, but how could they justify themselves to the God of Mercies if they extended the least indulgence to his enemies?
A true Christian loves the Creator above all things, and consequently he must love him in preference to the creature. We feel a lively interest in every thing that concerns the object of our love; from all which, it follows that we must evince our zeal, and even, when necessary, we must not hesitate to exterminate our neighbor, if he says or does what is displeasing or injurious to God. In such a case, indifference would be criminal; a sincere love of God breaks out into a holy ardor in his cause, and our merit rises in proportion to our violence.
These notions, absurd as they are, have been sufficient in every age to produce in the world a multitude of crimes, extravagances, and follies, the legitimate offspring of a religious zeal. Infatuated fanatics, exasperated by priests against each other, have been driven into mutual hatred, persecution, and destruction; they have thought themselves called upon to avenge the Almighty; they have carried their insane delusions so far as to persuade themselves that the God of clemency and goodness could look on with pleasure while they murdered their brethren; in the astonishing blindness of their stupidity, they have imagined that in defending the temporalities of the church, they were defending God himself. In pursuance of these errors, contradicted even by the description which they themselves give us of the Divinity, the priests of every age have found means to introduce confusion into the peaceful habitations of men, and to destroy all who dared to resist their tyranny. Under the laughable idea of revenging the all-powerful Creator, these priests have discovered the secret of revenging themselves, and that, too, without drawing down upon themselves the hatred and execration so justly due to their vindictive fury and unfeeling selfishness. In the name of the God of nature, they stifled the voice of nature in the breasts of men; in the name of the God of goodness, they incited men to the fury of wild beasts; in the name of the God of mercies, they prohibited all forgiveness!
It is thus, Madam, that the earth has never ceased to groan with the ravages committed by maniacs under the influence of that zeal which springs from the Christian doctrine of the love of God. The God of the Christians, like the Janus of Roman mythology, has two faces; sometimes he is represented with the benign features of mercy and goodness; sometimes murder, revenge, and fury issue from his nostrils. And what is the consequence of this double aspect but that the Christians are much more easily terrified at his frightful lineaments than they are recovered from their fears by his aspect of mercy! Having been taught to view him as a capricious being, they are naturally mistrustful of him, and imagine that the safest part they can act for themselves is to set about the work of vengeance with great zeal; they conclude that a cruel master cannot find fault with cruel imitators, and that his servants cannot render themselves more acceptable than by extirpating all his enemies.
The preceding remarks show very clearly, Madam, the highly pernicious consequences which result from the zeal engendered by the love of God. If this love is a virtue, its benefits are confined to the priests, who arrogate to themselves the exclusive privilege of declaring when God is offended; who absorb all the offerings and monopolize all the homage of the devout; who decide upon the opinions that please or displease him; who undertake to inform mankind of the duties this virtue requires from them, and of the proper time and manner of performing them; who are interested in rendering those duties cruel and intimidating in order to frighten mankind into a profitable subjection; who convert it into the instrument of gratifying their own malignant passions, by inspiring men with a spirit of headlong and raging intolerance, which, in its furious course of indiscriminate destruction, holds nothing sacred, and which has inflicted incredible ravages upon all Christian countries.
In conformity with such abominable principles, a Christian is bound to detest and destroy all whom the church may point out as the enemies of God. Having admitted the paramount duty of yielding their entire affections to a rigorous master, quick to resent, and offended even with the involuntary thoughts and opinions of his creatures, they of course feel themselves bound, by entering with zeal into his quarrels, to obtain for him a vengeance worthy of a God—that is to say, a vengeance that knows no bounds. A conduct like this is the natural offspring of those revolting ideas which our priests give us of the Deity. A good Christian is therefore necessarily intolerant. It is true that Christianity in the pulpit preaches nothing but mildness, meekness, toleration, peace, and concord; but Christianity in the world is a stranger to all these virtues; nor does she ever exercise them except when she is deficient in the necessary power to give effect to her destructive zeal. The real truth of the matter is, that Christians think themselves absolved from every tie of humanity except with those who think as they do, who profess to believe the same creed; they have a repugnance, more or less decided, against all those who disagree with their priests in theological speculation. How common it is to see persons of the mildest character and most benevolent disposition regard with aversion the adherents of a different sect from their own! The reigning religion—that is, the religion of the sovereign, or of the priests in whose favor the sovereign declares himself—crushes all rival sects, or, at least, makes them fully sensible of its superiority and its hatred, in a manner extremely insulting, and calculated to raise their indignation. By these means it frequently happens that the deference of the prince to the wishes of the priests has the effect of alienating the hearts of his most faithful subjects, and brings him that execration which ought in justice to be heaped exclusively upon his sanctimonious instigators.
In short, Madam, the private rights of conscience are nowhere sincerely respected; the leaders of the various religious sects begin, in the very cradle, to teach all Christians to hate and despise each other about some theological point which nobody can understand. The clergy, when vested with power, never preach toleration; on the contrary, they consider every man as an enemy who is a friend to religious freedom, accusing him of lukewarmness, infidelity, and secret hostility; in short, he is denominated a false brother. The Sorbonne declared, in the sixteenth century, that it was heretical to say that heretics ought not to be burned. The ferocious St. Austin preached toleration at one period, but it was before he was duly initiated in the mysteries of the sacerdotal policy, which is ever repugnant to toleration. Persecution is necessary to our priests, to deter mankind from opposing themselves to their avarice, their ambition, their vanity, and their obstinacy. The sole principle which holds the church together is that of a sleepless watchfulness on the part of all its members to extend its power, to increase the multitude of its slaves, to fix odium on all who hesitate to bend their necks to its yoke, or who refuse their assent to its arbitrary decisions.
Our divines have, therefore, you see, very good reasons for raising humility into the rank of virtue. An amiable modesty, a diffident mildness of demeanor, are unquestionably calculated to promote the pleasures and the advantages of society; it is equally certain that insolence and arrogance are disgusting, that they wound our self-love and excite our aversion by their repulsive conduct; but that amiable modesty which charms all who come within its influence is a far different quality from that which is designated humility in the vocabulary of Christians. A truly humble Christian despises his own unworthiness, avoids the esteem of others, mistrusts his own understanding, submits with docility to the unerring guidance of his spiritual masters, and piously resigns to his priest the clearest and most irrefutable conclusions of reason.
But to what advantage can this pretended virtue lead its followers? How can a man of sense and integrity despise himself? Is not public opinion the guardian of private virtue? If you deprive men of the love of glory, and the desire of deserving the approbation of their fellow-citizens, are you not divesting them of the noblest and most powerful incitements by which they can be impelled to benefit their country? What recompense will remain to the benefactors of mankind, if, first of all, we are unjust enough to refuse them the praise they merit, and afterwards debar them from the satisfaction of self-applause, and the happiness they would feel in the consciousness of having done good to an ungrateful world? What infatuation, what amazing infatuation, to require a man of upright character, of talents, intelligence, and learning, to think himself on a level with a selfish priest, or a stupid fanatic, who deal out their absurd fables and incoherent dreams!
Our priests are never weary of telling their flocks that pride leads on to infidelity, and that a humble and submissive spirit is alone fitted to receive the truths of the gospel. In good earnest, should we not be utterly bereft of every claim to the name of rational beings, if we consent to surrender our judgment and our knowledge at the command of a hierarchy, who have nothing to give us in exchange but the most palpable absurdities? With what face can a reverend Doctor of Nonsense dare to exact from my understanding a humble acquiescence in a bundle of mysterious opinions, for which he is unable to offer me a single solid reason? Is it, then, presumptuous to think one's self superior to a class of pretenders, whose systems are a mass of falsities, absurdities, and inconsistencies, of which they contrive to make mankind at once the dupes and the victims? Can pride or vanity be, with justice, imputed to you, Madam, if you see reason to prefer the dictates of your own understanding to the authoritative decrees of Mrs. D——, whose senseless malignity is obvious to all her acquaintance?
If Christian humility is a virtue at all, it can be one only in the cloister; society can derive no sort of benefit from it; it enervates the mind; it benefits nobody but priests, who, under the pretext of rendering men humble, seek, in reality, only to degrade them, to stifle in their souls every spark of science and of courage, that they may the more easily impose the yoke of faith, that is to say, their own yoke. Conclude, then, with me, that the Christian virtues are chimerical, always useless, and sometimes pernicious to men, and attended with advantage to none but priests. Conclude that this religion, with all the boasted beauty of its morality, recommends to us a set of virtues, and enjoins a line of conduct, at variance with good sense. Conclude that, in order to be moral and virtuous, it is far from necessary to adopt the unintelligible creed of the priests, or to pride ourselves upon the empty virtues they preach, and still less to annihilate all sense of dignity in ourselves, by a degrading subjection to the duties they require. Conclude, in short, that the friend of virtue is not, of necessity, the friend of priestcraft, and that a man may be adorned with every human perfection, without possessing one of the Christian virtues.
All who examine this matter with a candid and intelligent eye, cannot fail to see that true morality—that is to say, a morality really serviceable to mankind—is absolutely incompatible with the Christian religion, or any other professed revelation. Whoever imagines himself the favored object of the Creator's love, must look down with disdain upon his less fortunate fellow-creatures, especially if he regards that Creator as partial, choleric, revengeful, and fickle, easily incensed against us, even by our involuntary thoughts, or our most innocent words and actions; such a man naturally conducts himself with contempt and pride, with harshness and barbarity towards all others whom he may deem obnoxious to the resentment of his Heavenly King. Those men, whose folly leads them to view the Deity in the light of a capricious, irritable, and unappeasable despot, can be nothing but gloomy and trembling slaves, ever eager to anticipate the vengeance of God upon all whose conduct or opinions they may conceive likely to provoke the celestial wrath. As soon as the priests have succeeded in reducing men to a state of stupidity gross enough to make them believe that their ghostly fathers are the faithful organs of the divine will, they naturally commit every species of crime, which their spiritual teachers may please to tell them is calculated to pacify the anger of their offended God. Men, silly enough to accept a system of morals from guides thus hollow in reasoning, and thus discordant in opinion, must necessarily be unstable in their principles, and subject to every variation that the interest of their guides may suggest. In short, it is impossible to construct a solid morality, if we take for our foundation the attributes of a deity so unjust, so capricious, and so changeable as the God of the Bible, whom we are commanded to imitate and adore.
Persevere, then, my dear Madam, in the practice of those virtues which your own unsophisticated heart approves; they will insure you a rich harvest of happiness in the present existence; they will insure you a rich return of gratitude, respect, and love from all who enjoy their benign influence; they will insure you the solid satisfaction of a well-founded self-esteem, and thus provide you with that unfailing source of inward gratification which arises from the consciousness of having contributed to the welfare of the human race. I am, &c.
Of the Advantages contributed to Government by Religion.
Having already shown you, Madam, the feebleness of those succors which religion furnishes to morals, I shall now proceed to examine whether it procure advantages in themselves really politic, and whether it be true, as has so often been urged by the priests, that it is absolutely necessary to the existence of every government. Were we disposed to shut our eyes, and deliver ourselves up to the language of our priests, we should believe that their opinions are necessary to the public tranquillity, and the repose and security of the State; that princes could not, without their aid, govern the people, and exert themselves for the prosperity of their empire. Nor is this all; our spiritual pilots approach the throne, and gaining the ear of the sovereign, make him also believe that he has the greatest interest in conforming to their caprices, in order to subject men to the divine yoke of royalty. These priests mingle in all important political quarrels, and they too often persuade the rulers of the earth that the enemies of the church are the enemies of all power, and that in sapping the foundations of the altar, the foundations of the throne are likewise necessarily overthrown.
We have, then, only to open our eyes and consult history, to be convinced of the falsity of these pretensions, and to appreciate the important services which the Christian priests have rendered to their sovereigns. Ever since the establishment of Christianity, we have seen, in all the countries in which this religion has gained ground, that two rival powers are perpetually at war one with the other. We find a government within the government; that is to say, we find the Church, a body of priests, continually opposed to the sovereign power, and in virtue of their pretended divine mission and sacred office, pretending to give laws to all the sovereigns of the earth. We find the clergy, puffed up and besotted with the titles they have given themselves, laboring to exact the obedience due to the sovereign, pretending to chimerical and dangerous prerogatives, which none are suffered to question, without risking the displeasure of the Almighty. And so well have the priesthood managed this matter, that in many countries we actually see the people more inclined to lean to the authority of the Vicars of Jesus Christ than to that of the civil government. The priesthood claim the right of commanding monarchs themselves, and sustained by their emissaries and the credulity of the people, their ridiculous pretensions have engaged princes in the most serious affairs, sown trouble and discord in kingdoms, and so shook thrones as to compel their occupants to make submission to an intolerant hierarchy.
Such are the important services which religion has a thousand times rendered to kings. The people, blinded by superstition, could hesitate but little between God and the princes of the earth. The priests, being the visible organs of an invisible monarch, have acquired an immense credit with prejudiced minds. The ignorance of the people places them, as well as their sovereigns, at the mercy of the priests. Nations have continually been dragged into their futile though bloody quarrels; princes, for a long series of years, have either had to dispute their authority with the clergy, or become their tools or dupes.
The continual attention which the princes of Europe have been forced to pay to the clergy has prevented them from occupying their thoughts about the welfare of their subjects, who, in many instances the dupes of the priesthood, have opposed even the good their rulers desired to procure them. In like manner, the heads of the people, their kings and governors, too weak to resist the torrent of opinions propagated by the clergy, have been forced to yield, to bow, nay, even to caress the priesthood, and to consent to grant it all its demands. Whenever they have wished to resist the encroachments of the clergy, they have encountered concealed snares or open opposition, as the holy power was either too weak to act in the face of day, or strong enough to contend in the sunshine. When princes have wished to be listened to by the clergy, these last have invariably contrived to make them cowardly, and to sacrifice the happiness and respect of their people. Often have the hands of parricides and rebels been armed, by a proud and vindictive priesthood, against sovereigns the most worthy of reigning. The priests, under pretext of avenging God, inflict their anger upon monarchs themselves, whenever the latter are found indisposed to bend under their yoke. In a word, in all countries we perceive that the ministers of religion have exercised in all ages the most unbridled license. We every where see empires torn by their dissensions; thrones overturned by their machinations; princes immolated to their power and revenge; subjects animated to revolt against the prince that ought to give them more happiness than they actually enjoyed; and when we take the retrospect of these, we find that the ambition, the cupidity, and vanity of the clergy have been the true causes and motives of all these outrages on the peace of the universe. And it is thus that their religion has so often produced anarchy, and overturned the very empires they pretended to support by its influence.
Sovereigns have never enjoyed peace but when, shamefully devoted to priests, they submitted to their caprices, became enslaved to their opinions, and allowed them to govern in place of themselves. Then was the sovereign power subordinate to the sacerdotal, and the prince was only the first servant of the church; she degraded him to such a degree as to make him her hangman; she obliged him to execute her sanguinary decrees; she forced him to dip his hands in the blood of his own subjects whom the clergy had proscribed; she made him the visible instrument of her vengeance, her fury, and her concealed passions. Instead of occupying himself with the happiness of his people, the sovereign has had the complaisance to torment, to persecute, and to immolate honest citizens, thus exciting the just hatred of a portion of his people, to whom he should have been a father, to gratify the ambition and the selfish malevolence of some priests, always aliens in the state which nourishes them, and who only style themselves members of the realm in order to domineer, to distract, to plunder, and to devour with impunity.
How little soever you are disposed to reflect, you will be convinced, Madam, that I do not exaggerate these things. Recent examples prove to you that even in this age, so ambitious of being considered enlightened, nations are not secure from the shocks that the priests have ever caused nations to suffer. You have a hundred times sighed at the sight of the sad follies which puerile questions have produced among us. You have shuddered at the frightful consequences which have resulted from the unreasonable squabbles of the clergy. You have trembled with all good citizens at the sight of the tragical effects which have been brought about by the furious wickedness of a fanaticism for which nothing is sacred. In fine, you have seen the sovereign authority compelled to struggle incessantly against rebellious subjects, who pretend that their conscience or the interests of religion have obliged them to resist opinions the most agreeable to common sense, and the most equitable.
Our fathers, more religious and less enlightened than ourselves, were witnesses of scenes yet more terrible. They saw civil wars, leagues openly formed against their sovereign, and the capital submerged in the blood of murdered citizens; two monarchs successively immolated to the fury of the clergy, who kindled in all parts the fire of sedition. They afterwards saw kings at war with their own subjects; a famous sovereign, Louis XIV., tarnishing all his glory by persecuting, contrary to the faith of treaties, subjects who would have lived tranquil, if they had only been allowed to enjoy in peace the liberty of conscience; and they saw, in fine, this same prince, the dupe of a false policy, dictated by intolerance, banish, along with the exiled Protestants, the industry of his states, and forcing the arts and manufactures of our nation to take refuge in the dominions of our most implacable enemies.
We see religion throughout Europe, without cessation, exerting a baleful influence upon temporal affairs; we see it direct the interests of princes; we see it divide and make Christian nations enemies of each other, because their spiritual guides do not all entertain the same opinions. Germany is divided into two religious parties whose interests are perpetually at variance. We every where perceive that Protestants are born the enemies of the Catholics, and are always in antagonism to them; while, on the other hand, the Catholics are leagued with their priests against all those whose mode of thinking is less abject and less servile than their own.
Behold, Madam, the signal advantages that nations derive from religion! But we are certain to be told that these terrible effects are due to the passions of men, and not to the Christian religion, which incessantly inculcates charity, concord, indulgence, and peace. If, however, we reflect even a moment on the principles of this religion, we should immediately perceive that they are incompatible with the fine maxims that have never been practised by the Christian priests, except when they lacked the power to persecute their enemies and inflict upon them the weight of their rage. The adorers of a jealous God, vindictive and sanguinary, as is obviously the character of the God of the Jews and Christians, could not evince in their conduct moderation, tranquillity, and humanity. The adorers of a God who takes offence at the opinions of his weak creatures, who reprobates and glories in the extermination of all who do not worship him in a particular way, for the which, by the by, he gives them neither the means nor the inclination, must necessarily be intolerant persecutors. The adorers of a God who has not thought fit to illuminate with an equal portion of light the minds of all his creatures, who reveals his favor and bestows his kindness on a few only of those creatures, who leaves the remainder in blindness and uncertainty to follow their passions, or adopt opinions against which the favored wage war, must of necessity be eternally at odds with the rest of the world, canting about their oracles and mysteries, supernatural precepts, invented purely to torment the human mind, to enthral it, and leave man answerable for what he could not obey, and punishable for what he was restrained from performing. We need not then be astonished if, since the origin of Christianity, our priests have never been a single moment without disputes. It appears that God only sent his Son upon earth that his marvellous doctrines might prove an apple of discord both for his priests and his adorers. The ministers of a church founded by Christ himself, who promised to send them his Holy Spirit to lead them into all the truth, have never been in unison with their dogmas. We have seen this infallible church for whole ages enveloped in error. You know, Madam, that in the fourth century, by the acknowledgment of the priests themselves, the great body of the church followed the opinions of the Arians, who disavowed even the divinity of Jesus Christ. The spirit of God must then have abandoned his church; else why did its ministers fall into this error, and dispute afterwards about so fundamental a dogma of the Christian religion?
Notwithstanding these continual quarrels, the church arrogates to itself the right of fixing the faith of the true believers, and in this it pretends to infallibility; and if the Protestant parsons have renounced the lofty and ridiculous pretensions of their Catholic brethren, they are not less certain in the infallibility of their decisions; for they talk with the authority of oracles, and send to hell and damnation all who do not yield submission to their dogmas. Thus on both sides of the cross they wish their assertions to be received by their adherents as if they came direct from heaven. The priests have always been at discord among themselves, and have perpetually cursed, anathematized, and doomed each other to hell. The vanity of each holy clique has caused it to adhere obstinately to its own peculiar opinions, and to treat its adversaries as heretics. Violence alone has generally decided the discussions, terminated the disputes, and fixed the standard of belief. Those pugnacious, brawling priests who were artful enough to enlist sovereigns on their side were orthodox, or, in other words, boasted that they were the exclusive possessors of the true doctrine. They made use of their credit to crush their adversaries, whom they always treated with the greatest barbarity.
But, after all, whatever the clergy may say, we shall find, even with a small share of attention, that it has ever been kings and emperors who, in the last resort, fixed the faith of the disputatious Christians. It has been by downright blows of the sword that those theological notions most pleasing to the Deity have been sustained in all countries. The true belief has invariably been that which had princes for its adherents. The faithful were those who had strength sufficient to exterminate their enemies, whom they never failed to treat as the enemies of God. In a word, princes have been truly infallible; we should regard them as the true founders of religious faith; they are the judges who have decided, in all ages, what doctrines should be admitted or rejected; and they are, in fine, the authorities which have always fixed the religion of their subjects.
Ever since Christianity has been adopted by some nations, have we not seen that religion has almost entirely occupied the attention of sovereigns? Either the princes, blinded by superstition, were devoted to the priests, or the rulers of nations believed that prudence exacted a concession on their part to the clergy, the true masters of their people, who considered nothing more sacred or more great than the ministers of their God. In neither case was the body politic ever consulted; it was cowardly sacrificed to the interests of the court, or the vanity and luxury of the priests. It is by a continuation of superstition on the part of the princes that we behold the church so richly endowed in times of ignorance; when men believed they would enrich Deity by putting all their wealth into the hands of the priests of a good God the declared enemy of riches. Savage warriors, destitute of the manners of men, flattered themselves that they could expiate all their sins by founding monasteries and giving immense wealth to a set of men who had made vows of poverty. It was believed that they would merit from the All-powerful a great advantage by recompensing laziness, which, in the priests, was regarded as a great good, and that the blessings procured by their prayers would be in proportion to the continual and pressing demands their poverty made on the wealthy. It is thus that by the superstition of princes, by that of the powerful classes, and of the people themselves, the clergy have become opulent and powerful; that monachism was honored, and citizens the most useless, the least submissive, and the most dangerous, were the best recompensed, the most considered, and the best paid. They were loaded with benefits, privileges, and immunities; they enjoyed independence, and they had that great power which flowed from so great license. Thus were priests placed above sovereigns themselves by the imprudent devotion of the latter, and the former were enabled to give the law and trouble the state with impunity.
The clergy, arrived at this elevation of power and grandeur, became redoubtable even to monarchs. They were obliged to bend under the yoke or be at way with clerical power. When the sovereigns yielded, they became mere slaves to the priests, the instruments of their passions, and the vile adorers of their power. When they refused to yield, the priests involved them in the most cruel embarrassments; they launched against them the anathemas of the church; the people were incited against them in the name of heaven; the nations divided themselves between the celestial and the terrestrial monarch, and the latter was reduced to great extremities to sustain a throne which the priests could shake or even destroy at pleasure. There was a time in Europe when both the welfare of the prince and the repose of his kingdom depended solely upon the caprice of a priest. In these times of ignorance, of devotion, and of commotions so favorable to the clergy, a weak and poor monarch, surrounded by a miserable nation, was at the mercy of a Roman pontiff, who could at any instant destroy his felicity, excite his subjects against him, and precipitate him into the abyss of misery.
In general, Madam, we find that in countries where religion holds dominion, the sovereign is necessarily dependent upon the priests; he has no power except by the consent of the clergy; that power disappears as soon as he displeases the self-styled vicegerents of God, who are very soon able to array his subjects against him. The people, in accordance with the principles of their religion, cannot hesitate between God and their sovereign. God never says any thing except what his priests say for him; and the ignorance and folly in which they are kept by their spiritual guides prevent them from inquiring whether God's ambassadors faithfully render his decrees.
Conclude, then, with me, that the interests of a sovereign who would rule equitably are unable to accord with those of the ministers of the Christian religion, who in all ages have been the most turbulent citizens, the most rebellious, the most difficult to render subservient to law and order, and whose resistance has extended to the very assassination of obnoxious rulers. We shall be told that Christianity is a firm support of government; that it regards magistrates as the images of the Deity; and that it teaches that all power comes from on high. These maxims of the clergy are, however, best calculated to lull kings on the couch of slumber; they are calculated to flatter those on whom the clergy can rely, and who will serve their ambition; and their flatterers can soon change their tone when the princes have the temerity to question the pernicious tendency of priestly influence, or when they do not blindly lend themselves to all their views. Then the sovereign is an impious wretch, a heretic; his destruction is laudable; heaven rejoices in his overthrow. And all this is the religion of the Bible!
You know, Madam, that these odious maxims have been a thousand times enforced by the priests, who say the prince has encroached upon the authority of the church; and the people respond that it is better to obey God than man. The priests are only devoted to the princes when the princes are blindly led by the priests. These last preach arrogantly that the former ought to be exterminated, when they refuse to obey the church, that is to say, the priests; yet, how terrible soever may be these maxims, how dangerous soever their practice to the security of the sovereign and the tranquillity of the state, they are the immediate consequences drawn from Judaism and Christianity. We find in the Old Testament that the regicide is applauded; that treason and rebellion are approved. As soon as it is supposed that God is offended with the thoughts of men,—as soon as it is supposed that heretics are displeasing to him,—it is very natural to conclude that an impious and heretical sovereign, that is to say, one who does not obey a clerical body that set themselves up as the directors of his belief, who opposes the sacred views of an infallible church, and who might occasion the loss and apostasy of a large part of the nation,—it is natural that the priests should conclude it to be legitimate for subjects to attack such a prince, alleging their religion to be the most important thing in the world, and dearer than life itself. Actuated by such principles, it is impossible that a Christian zealot should not think he rendered a service to heaven by punishing its enemy, and a service to his country by disembarrassing it of a chief who might interpose an obstacle to his eternal happiness.
The obedience of the clergy is never otherwise than conditional. The priests submit to a prince, they flatter his power, and they sustain his authority, provided he submits to their orders, makes no obstacles to their projects, touches none of their interests, and changes none of the dogmas upon which the ministers of the church have founded their own grandeur. In fine, provided a government recognizes, as divine, clerical privileges that are plainly opposed to popular rights, and tend to subvert them, the hierarchy will submit to it.
These considerations prove how dangerous are the priesthood, since the end they purpose by all their projects is dominion over the mind of mankind, and by subjugating it to enslave their persons, and render them the creatures of despotism and tyranny. And we shall find, upon examination, that, with one or two exceptions, the pious have been the enemies of the progress of science and the development of the human understanding; for by brutalizing mankind they have invariably striven to bind them to their yoke. Their avarice, their thirst of power and wealth, have led them to plunge their fellow-citizens in ignorance, in misery, and unhappiness. They discourage the cultivation of the earth by their system of tithes, their extortions, and their secret projects; they annihilate activity, talents, and industry; their pride is to reign on the ruin of the rest of their species. The finest countries in Europe have, when blindly submissive to the priest, been the worst cultivated, the thinnest peopled, and the most wretched. The Inquisition in Spain, Italy, and Portugal has only tended to impoverish those countries, to debase the mind, and render their subjects the veriest slaves of superstition. And in countries where we see heaven showering down abundance, the people are poor and famished, while the priests and monks are opulent and bloated. Their kings are without power and without glory; their subjects languish in indigence and wretchedness.
The priests boast of the utility of their office. Independently of their prayers, from which the world has for so many ages derived neither instruction nor peace, prosperity nor happiness, their pretensions to teach the rising generations are often frivolous, and sometimes arrogant, since we have found others equally well calculated to the discharge of those functions, who have been good citizens, that have not drawn from the pockets of their neighbors the tenth of their earnings. Thus, in what light soever we view them, the pretensions of the priests are reduced to a nonentity, compared to the disservice they render the community by their exactions and dissolute lives.
In what consists, in effect, the education that our spiritual guides have, unhappily for society, assumed the vocation of imparting to youth? Does it tend to make reasonable, courageous, and virtuous citizens? No; it is incontestable that it creates ignoble men, whose entire lives are tormented with imaginary terrors; it creates superstitious slaves, who only possess monastic virtues, and who, if they follow faithfully the instructions of their masters, must be perfectly useless to society; it forms intolerant devotees, ready to detest all those who do not think like themselves; and it makes fanatics, who are ready to rebel against any government as soon as they are persuaded it is rebellious to the church. What do the priests teach their pupils? They cause them to lose much precious time in reciting prayers, in mechanically repeating theological dogmas, of which, even in mature life, they comprehend nothing. They teach them the dead languages, which, at the best, only serve for entertainment, being by no means necessary in the present form of society. They terminate these fine studies by a philosophy which, in clerical hands, has become a mere play of words, a jargon void of sense, and which is exactly calculated to fit them for the unintelligible science called theology. But is this theology itself useful to nations? Are the interminable disputes which arise between profound metaphysicians of such a character as to be interesting to the people who do not comprehend them? Are the people of Paris and the provinces much advanced in heavenly knowledge when the priests dispute among themselves about what should really be thought of grace?
In regard to the instruction imparted by the clergy, it is indeed necessary to have faith in order to discover its utility. Their boasted instruction consists in teaching ineffable mysteries, marvellous dogmas, narrations and fables perfectly ridiculous, panic terrors, fanatical and lugubrious predictions, frightful menaces, and above all, systems so profound that they who announce are not able to comprehend them. In truth, Madam, in all this I can see nothing useful. Should nations feel any extraordinary obligations to teachers who concoct doctrines that must always remain impenetrable for the whole human race? It must be confessed that our priests, who so painfully occupy themselves in arranging a pure creed for us, must signally lose all their labor. At any rate, the people are not much in the situation to profit by such sublime toils. Very frequently the pulpit becomes the theatre of discord; the sacred disclaimers launch injuries at each other, infusing their own passions into the bosoms of their Christian auditors, kindling their zeal against the enemies of the church, and becoming themselves the trumpets of party spirit, fury, and sedition. If these preachers teach morality, it is a kind of supernatural morality, little adapted to the nature of man. If they inculcate virtue, it is that theological virtue whose inutility we have sufficiently shown. If by chance some one among them allows himself to preach that morality and virtue which is practical, human, and social, you know, Madam, that he is proscribed by his confederates, and becomes an object of their acrimonious criticisms and their deadly hatred. He is also disdained by devotees who are attached to evangelical virtues that they cannot comprehend, and who consider nothing as more important than mysterious forms and ceremonies, in which zealots make morality to consist.
See, then, in what limits are entertained the important services that the ministers of the Lord have for so many centuries rendered to nations! They are not worth, in all conscience, the excessive price which is paid for them. On the contrary, if priests were treated according to their real merit, if their functions were appreciated at their just value, it would, perhaps, be found that they did not merit a larger salary than those empirics who, at the corners of the streets, vend remedies more dangerous than the evils they promise to cure.
It is by subjecting the immense revenues, lands, abbeys, and estates, which clerical bodies have levied upon the credulity of men, to just and equal taxation, as with other property; it is by rendering the church and state entirely distinct; it is by stripping the hierarchy of immunities not possessed by other citizens, and of privileges both chimerical and injurious; it is by rigorously exacting the same civil obedience alike from priests and people,—that government can be rightly administered, that justice can be impartially rendered, and that the nation, as a whole, can be trained to courage, activity, industry, intelligence, tranquillity, and patriotism. So long as there are two powers in a state, they will necessarily be at variance, and the one which arrogates the favor of the Almighty will have immense advantages over that which claims no authority above the earth. If both pretend to emanate from the same source, the people would not know which to believe; they would range themselves on each side; the combat would be furious, and the power of the government would be unable to maintain itself against the many heads of the ecclesiastical hydra. The magicians of Pharaoh yielded to the Jewish priests, and in conflicts between the church and state, the immunities of the priests,
"Like Aaron's serpent, swallowed all the rest."
If such is the case, you will inquire, Madam, how can an enlightened civil power ever make obedient citizens of rebellious priests, who have so long possessed the confidence of the people, and who can with impunity render themselves formidable to any government? I reply, that in spite of the vigilant cares and the redoubled efforts of the priesthood, the people have begun to be more enlightened; they are becoming weary of the heavy yoke, which they would not have borne so long had they not believed it was imposed upon them by the Most High, and that it was necessary to their happiness. It is impossible for error to be eternal; it must give way to the power of truth. The priests, who think, know this well, and the whole ecclesiastical body continually declaim against all those who wish to enlighten the human race and unveil the conspiracies of their spiritual guides. They fear the piercing eyes of philosophy; they fear the reign of reason, which will never be that of tyranny or anarchy. Governments, then, ought not to share the fears of the clergy, nor render themselves the executors of their vengeance; they injure themselves when they sustain the cause of their turbulent rivals, who have ever been the enemies of civil polity and perturbers of the public repose. The magistrates of a state league themselves with their enemies when they form an alliance with the priesthood, or prevent the people from recognizing their errors.
Governments are more interested than individuals in the destruction of errors that often lead to confusion, anarchy, and rebellion. If men had not become gradually enlightened, nations would now, as formerly, be under the yoke of the Roman pontiff, who could occasion revolution in their midst, overturn the laws, and subvert the government. But for the insensible progress of reason, states would now be filled with a tumultuous crowd of devotees, ready to revolt at the signal of an unquiet priest or a seditious monk.
You perceive, then, Madam, that men who think, and who teach others to think, are more useful to governments than those who wish to stifle reason and to proscribe forever the liberty of thought. You see that the true friends of a stable government are those who seek most sedulously to enlighten, educate, and elevate the people. You feel that by banishing knowledge and persecuting philosophy, government sacrifices its dearest interests to a seditious clergy, whose ambition and avarice push them to usurp boundless authority, and whose pride always makes them indignant at being in subjection to a power which they contend should be subordinate to themselves.
There is no priest who does not consider himself superior to the highest ruler of any country. We have often seen the priesthood avow pretensions of this character. The clergy are always enraged when an attempt is made to subject them to the secular power. Such an attempt they regard as profane, and they denounce it as tyranny whenever it is sought to be enforced. They pretend that in all times the priesthood has been sacred, that its rights come from God himself, and that no government can, without sacrilege, or without outraging the Divinity, touch the property, the privileges, or the immunities which have been snatched from ignorance and credulity. Whenever the civil authority would touch the objects considered inviolable and sacred in the hands of the priests, their clamors cannot be appeased; they make efforts to excite the people against the government; they denounce all authority as tyrannical when it has the temerity to think of subjecting them to the laws, of reforming their abuses, and neutralizing their power to injure. But they consider authority legitimate when it crushes their enemies, though it appears insupportable as soon as it is reasonable and favorable to the people.
The priests are essentially the most wicked of men, and the worst citizens of a state. A miracle would be necessary to render them otherwise. In all countries they are the spoiled children of nations. They are proud and haughty, since they pretend it is from God himself they received their mission and their power. They are ingrates, since they assume to owe only to God benefits which they visibly hold from the generosity of governments and the people. They are audacious, because for many ages they have enjoyed supremacy with impunity. They are unquiet and turbulent, because they are never without the desire of playing a great part. They are quarrelsome and factious, because they are never able to find out a method of enabling men to understand the pretended truths they teach. They are suspicious, defiant, and cruel, because they sensibly feel that they may well dread the discovery of their impostures. They are the spontaneous enemies of truth, because they justly apprehend it will annihilate their pretensions. They are implacable in their vengeance, because it would be dangerous to pardon those who wish to crush their doctrines, whose weakness they know. They are hypocrites, because most of them possess too much sense to believe the reveries they retail to others. They are obstinate in their ideas, because they are inflated with vanity, and because they could not consistently deviate from a method of thinking of which they pretend God is the author. We often see them unbridled and licentious in their manners, because it is impossible that idleness, effeminacy, and luxury should not corrupt the heart. We sometimes see them austere and rigid in their conduct in order to impose on the people and accomplish their ambitious views. If they are hypocrites and rogues, they are extremely dangerous; and if they are fanatical in good faith, or imbecile, they are not less to be feared. In fine, we almost always see them rebellious and seditious, because an authority derived from God is not disposed to bend to authority derived from men.
You have here, Madam, a faithful portrait of the members of a powerful body, in whose favor governments, for a long time, have believed it their duty to sacrifice the other interests of the state. You here see the citizens whom prejudice most richly recompenses, whom princes honor in the eyes of the people, to whom they give their confidence, whom they regard as the support of their power, and whom they consider as necessary to the happiness and security of their kingdoms. You can judge yourself whether the likeness delineated is correct. You are in a position to discover their intrigues, their underplots, their conduct, and their discourse, and you will always find that their constant object is to flatter princes for the purpose of governing them and keeping nations in slavery.
It is to please citizens so dangerous that sovereigns mingle in theological questions, take the part of those who succeed in seducing them, persecute all those who do not submit, proscribe with fury the friends of reason, and by repressing knowledge injure their own power. Because the priests, who urge princes to sacrilege when they combat for them, are indignant against the same princes when they refuse to destroy the enemies of their own particular clerical body. They likewise denounce sovereigns as impious if the latter treat theological disputes with the indifference they merit.
When hereafter, reclaimed from their prejudices, princes wish to govern for the good of all, let them cease to hear the interested and often sanguinary councils of these pretended divine men, who, regarding themselves as the centre of all things, wish to have sacrificed for this object the happiness, the repose, the riches, and the honors of the state. Let the sovereign never enter into their dissensions, let him never persecute for religious opinions, which, among sectaries, are commonly on both sides equally ridiculous and destitute of foundation. They would never involve the government if the sovereign had not the weakness to mingle in them. Let him give unlimited freedom to the course of thinking, while he directs by just laws the course of acting on the part of his subjects. Let him permit every one to dream or speculate as he pleases, provided he conducts himself otherwise as an honest man and a good citizen. At least let the prince not oppose the progress of knowledge, which alone is capable of extricating his people from ignorance, barbarity, and superstition, which have made victims of so many Christian rulers. Let him be assured that enlightened and instructed citizens are more law-abiding, industrious, and peaceable than stupid slaves without knowledge and without reason, who will always be ready to take all the passions with which a fanatic wishes to inspire them.
Let the sovereign especially occupy himself with the education of his subjects, nor leave the clergy unobstructedly to impregnate his people with mystic notions, foolish reveries, and superstitious practices, which are only proper for fanatics. Let him at least counterbalance the inculcation of these follies by teaching a morality conformable to the good of the state, useful to the happiness of its members, and social and reasonable. This morality would inform a man what he owed to himself, to society, to his fellow-citizens, and to the magistrates who administered the laws. This morality would not form men who would hate each other for speculative opinions, nor dangerous enthusiasts, nor devotees blindly submissive to the priests. It would create a tranquil, intelligent, and industrious community; a body of inhabitants submissive to reason and obedient to just and legitimate authority. In a word, from such morality would spring virtuous men and good citizens, and it would be the surest antidote against superstition and fanaticism.
In this manner the empire of the clergy would be diminished, and the sovereign would have a less portentous rival; he would, without opposition, be assured of all rational and enlightened citizens; the riches of the clergy would in part reenter society, and be of use in benefiting the people; institutions now useless would be put to advantageous uses; a portion of the possessions of the church, originally destined for the poor, and so long appropriated by avaricious priests, would come into the hands of the suffering and the indigent, their legitimate proprietors. Supported by a nation who were sensible of the advantages he had procured them, the prince would no longer fear the cries of fanaticism, and they would soon be no longer heard. The priests, the lazy monks, and turbulent persons living in forced celibacy, could no longer calculate on the future, and, aliens in the state which nourished them, they would visibly diminish. The government, more rich and powerful, would be in a better situation to diffuse its benefits; and enlightened, virtuous, and beneficent men would constitute the support, the glory, and the grandeur of the state.
Such, Madam, are the ends which all governments would propose who opened their eyes to their own true interests. I flatter myself that these designs will not appear to you either impossible or chimerical. Knowledge and science, which begin to be generally diffused, are already advancing these results; they are giving an impulse to the march of the human mind, and in time, governments and people, without tumult or revolution, will be freed from the yoke which has oppressed them so long.
Do we see any thing useful in the pious endowments of our ancestors? We find them to consist of institutions invented to continue a lazy, monastic life; costly temples elevated and enriched by indigent people to augment the pride of the priests, and to erect altars and palaces. From the foundation of Christianity the whole object of religion has been to aggrandize the priesthood on the ruins of nations and governments. A jealous religion has exclusively seized on the minds of men, and persuaded them that they live upon earth merely to occupy themselves with their future happiness in the unknown regions of the empyrean. It is time that this prestige should cease; it is time that the human race should occupy itself with its own true interests. The interests of the people will always be incompatible with those of the guides who believe they have acquired an imprescriptible right to lead men astray. The more you examine the Christian religion, the more will you be convinced that it can be advantageous only to those whose object it is easily to guide mankind after having plunged them into darkness. I am, &c.
Of the Advantages Religion confers on those who profess it.
I dare flatter myself, Madam, that I have clearly demonstrated to you, that the Christian religion, far from being the support of sovereign authority, is its greatest enemy; and of having plainly convinced you, that its ministers are, by the very nature of their functions, the rivals of kings, and adversaries the most to be feared by all who value or exercise temporal power. In a word, I think I have persuaded you, that society might, without damage, dispense with the services they render, or at least dispense with paying for them so extravagantly.
Let us now examine the advantages which this religion procures to individuals, who are most strongly convinced of its pretended truths, and who conform the most rigidly to its precepts. Let us see if it is calculated to render its disciples more contented, more happy, and more virtuous than they would be without the burden of its ministers.
To decide the question, it is sufficient to look around us, and to consider the effects that religion produces on minds really penetrated with its pretended truths. We shall generally find in those who the most sincerely profess and the most exactly practise them, a joyless and melancholy disposition, which announces no contentment, nor that interior peace of which they speak so incessantly, without ever exhibiting any undoubted manifestations of it. Whoever is in the enjoyment of peace within, shows some exterior marks of it; but the internal satisfaction of devotees is commonly so concealed, that we may well suspect it of being nothing but a mere chimera. Their interior peace, which they allege gives them a good conscience, is visible to others only by a bilious and petulant humor, that is not usually much applauded by those who come under its influence. If, however, there are occasionally some devotees who actually display the serene countenance of satisfaction and enjoyment, it is because the dismal ideas of religion are rendered inoperative by a happy temperament; or that such persons have not fully become impregnated with their system of faith, whose legitimate effect is to plunge its devotees into terrible inquietudes and sombre chagrins.
Thus, Madam, we are brought back to the contradictory discourses of those priests who, after having caused terror by their desolating dogmas, attempt to reassure us by vague hopes, and exhort us to place confidence in a God whom they have themselves so repulsively delineated. It is idle for them to tell us the yoke of Jesus Christ is light. It is insupportable to those who consider it properly. It is only light for those who bear it without reflection, or for those who assume it in order to impose it upon others, without intending to suffer its annoyances themselves.
Suffer me, Madam, to refer you to yourself. Were you happy, contented, or gay, when you made me the depository of the secret inquietudes inflicted upon you by prejudices, and which had commenced taking that fatal empire over your mind which I have endeavored to destroy? Was not your soul involved in woe in spite of your judgment? Were you not taking measures to wither all your happiness? In favor of religion, were you not ready to renounce the world, and disregard all you owe to society? If I was afflicted, I was not surprised. The Christian religion inevitably destroys the happiness and repose of those who are subjected by it; alarms and terrors are the objects of its pleasures; it cannot make those happy who fully receive it. It would certainly have plunged you into distress. All your faculties would have been injured, and your too susceptible imagination would have been carried to such dangerous extremes, that many others would have grieved at the result. A gentle and beneficent spirit, like yours, could never receive peace from Christianity. The evils of religion are sure, while its consolations are contradictory and vague. They cannot give that temper and tranquillity to the mind which is necessary to enable men to labor for their own happiness and that of others.
In effect, as I have already observed, it is very difficult for an individual to occupy himself with the happiness of another when he is himself miserable. The devotee, who imposes penances on his own head, who is suspicious of every thing, who is full of self-reproaches, and who is heated by visionary meditation, by fasting and seclusion, must naturally be irritated against all those who do not believe it their duty to make such absurd sacrifices. He can scarcely avoid being enraged at those audacious persons who neglect practices or duties that are claimed as the exactions of God. He will desire to be with those only who view things as he does himself; he will keep himself apart from all others, and will end by hating them. He believes himself obliged to make a loud and public parade of his mode of thinking, and he signalizes his zeal even at the risk of appearing ridiculous. If he showed indulgence, he would doubtless fear he should render himself an accomplice in a neglect of his God. He would reprehend such sinners, and it would be with acrimony, because his own soul was filled with it. In fine, if zealous, he would always be under the dominion of anger, and would only be indulgent in proportion as he was not bigoted.
Religious devotion tends to arouse fierce sentiments, that sooner or later manifest themselves in a manner disagreeable for others. The mystical devotees clearly illustrate this. They are vexed with the world, and it could not exist if the extravagances required by religion were altogether carried out. The world cannot be united to Jesus Christ. God demands our entire heart, and nothing is allowed to remain for his weak creatures. To produce the little zeal for heaven which Christians have, it is requisite to torment them, and thus lead them to the practice of those marvellous virtues in which they imagine is placed all their safety. A strange religion, which, practised in all its rigor, would drag society to ruin! The sincere devotee proposes impossible attainments, of which human nature is not capable; and as, in spite of all his endeavors, he is unable to succeed in their acquisition, he is always discontented with himself. He regards himself as the object of God's anger; he reproaches himself with all that he does; he suffers remorse for all the pleasures he experiences, and fears that they may occasion a fall from grace. For his greater security, he often avoids society which may at any moment turn him from his pretended duties, excite him to sin, and render him the witness or accomplice of what is offensive to zealots. In fine, if the devotee is very zealous, he cannot prevent himself from avoiding or detesting beings, who, according to his gloomy notions of religion, are perpetually occupied in irritating God. On the other hand, you know, Madam, that it is chagrin and melancholy that lead to devotion. It is usually not till the world abandons and displeases men that they have recourse to heaven; it is in the arms of religion that the ambitious seek to console themselves for their disgraces and disappointed projects; dissolute and loose women turn devotees when the world discards them, and they offer to God hearts wasted, and charms that are no longer in repute. The ruin of their attractions admonishes them that their empire is no longer of this world; filled with vexation, consumed with chagrin, and irritated against a society where they were deprived of enacting an agreeable part, they yield themselves up to devotion, and distinguish themselves by religious follies, after having run the race of fashionable vices, and been engaged in worldly scandals. With rancor in their hearts, they offer a gloomy adoration to a God who indemnifies them most miserably for their ascetic worship. In a word, it is passion, affliction, and despair to which most conversions must be attributed; and they are persons of such character who deliver themselves to the priests, and these mental aberrations and physical afflictions are the marvellous strokes of grace of which God makes use to lead men to himself.
It is not, then, surprising if we see persons subject to this devotion most commonly ruled by sorrow and passion. These mental moods are perpetually aggravated by religion, which is exactly calculated to imbitter more and more the souls thus filled with vexations. The conversation of a spiritual director is a weak consolation for the loss of a lover; the remote and flattering hopes of another world rarely make up for the realities of this; nor do the fictitious occupations of religion suffice to satisfy souls accustomed to intrigues, dissipation, and scandalous pleasures.
Thus, Madam, we see that the effects of these brilliant conversions, so well adapted to give pleasure to the Omnipotent and to his court, present nothing advantageous for the inhabitants of this lower world. If the changes produced by grace do not render those more happy upon whom they are operated, they cannot cause much admiration on the part of those who witness them. Indeed, what advantages does society reap from the greater part of conversions? Do the persons so touched by grace become better? Do they make amends for the evil they have done, or are they heartily and generously engaged in doing good to those by whom they are surrounded? A mistress, for example, who has been arrogant and proud,—does conversion render her humble and gentle? Does the unjust and cruel man recompense those to whom he has done evil? Does the robber return to society the property of which he has plundered it? Does the dissipated and licentious woman repair by her vigilant cares the wrongs that her disorders and dissipations have occasioned? No, far from it. These persons so touched and converted by God ordinarily content themselves with praying, fasting, religious offerings, frequenting churches, clamoring in favor of their priests, intriguing to sustain a sect, decrying all who disagree with their particular spiritual director, and exhibiting an ardent and ridiculous zeal for questions that they do not understand. In this manner they imagine they get absolution from God, and give indemnification to men; but society gains nothing from their miraculous conversion. On the other hand, devotion often exalts, infuriates, and strengthens the passions which formerly animated the converts. It turns these passions to new objects, and religion justifies the intolerant and cruel excesses into which they rush for the interest of their sect. It is thus that an ambitious personage becomes a proud and turbulent fanatic, and believes himself justified by his zeal; it is thus that a disgraced courtier cabals in the name of heaven against his own enemies; and it is thus that a malignant and vindictive man, under the pretext of avenging God, seeks the means of avenging himself. Thus, also, it happens that a woman, to indemnify herself for having quitted rouge, considers she has the right to outrage with her acrid humor a husband whom she had previously, in a different manner, outraged many times. She piously denounces those who allow themselves the indulgence of the most innocent pleasures; in the belief of manifesting religious earnestness, she exhales downright passion, envy, jealousy, and spite; and in lending herself warmly to the interests of heaven she shows an excess of ignorance, insanity, and credulity.
But is it necessary, Madam, to insist upon this? You live in a country where you see many devotees, and few virtuous people among them. If you will but slightly examine the matter, you will find that among these persons so persuaded of their religion, so convinced of its importance and utility, who speak incessantly of its consolations, its sweets, and its virtues,—you will find that among these persons there are very few who are rendered happier, and yet fewer who are rendered better. Are they vividly penetrated with the sentiments of their afflicting and terrible religion? You will find them atrabilious, disobliging, and fierce. Are they more lightly affected by their creed? You will then find them less bigoted, more beneficent, social, and kind. The religion of the court, as you know, is a continual mixture of devotion and pleasure, a circle of the exercises of piety and dissipation, of momentary fervor and continuous irregularities. This religion connects Jesus Christ with the pomps of Satan. We there see sumptuous display, pride, ambition, intrigue, vengeance, envy, and libertinism all amalgamated with a religion whose maxims are austere. Pious casuists, interested for the great, approve this alliance, and give the lie to their own religion in order to derive advantage from circumstances and from the passions and vices of men. If these court divines were too rigid, they would affright their fashionable disciples seeking to reach heaven on "flowery beds of ease," and who embrace religion with the understanding that they are to be allowed no inconsiderable latitude. This is doubtless the reason why Jansenism, which wished to renew the austere principles of primitive Christianity, obtained no general influence at the Parisian court. The monkish precepts of early Christianity could only suit men of the temper of those who first embraced it. They were adapted for persons who were abject, bilious, and discontented, who, deprived of luxury, power, and honors, became the enemies of grandeurs from which they were excluded. The devotees had the art of making a merit of their aversion and disdain for what they could not obtain.
Nevertheless, a Christian, in consonance with his principles, should "take no thought for the morrow;" should have no individual possessions; should flee from the world and its pomps; should give his coat to the thief who stole his cloak; and, if smitten on one cheek, should turn the other to the aggressor. It is upon Stoicism that religious fanatics built their gloomy philosophy. The so-called perfections which Christianity proposes place man in a perpetual war with himself, and must render him miserable. The true Christian is an enemy both of himself and the human race, and for his own consistency should live secluded in darkness, like an owl. His religion renders him essentially unsocial, and as useless to himself as he is disagreeable to others. What advantage can society receive from a man who trembles without cessation, who is in a state of superstitious penance, who prays, and who indulges in solitude? Or what better is the devotee who flies from the world and deprives himself even of innocent pleasures, in the fear that God might damn him for participation in them?
What results from these maxims of a moral fanaticism? It happens that laws so atrocious and cruel are enacted, that bigots alone are willing to execute them. Yes, Madam, blameless as you know my whole life to have been, consonant to integrity and honesty as you know my conduct to be, and free as I have ever been from intolerance, my existence would be endangered were these letters I am now writing to you to appear in print, or even be circulated in manuscript with my name attached to them as author. Yes, Christians have made laws, now dominant here in France, which would tie me to the stake, consume my body with fire, bore my tongue with a red hot iron, deprive me of sepulture, strip my family of my property, and for no other cause than for my opinions concerning Christianity and the Bible. Such is the horrid cruelty engendered by Christianity. It has sometimes been called in question whether a society of atheists could exist; but we might with more propriety ask if a society of fierce, impracticable, visionary, and fanatical Christians, in all the plenitude of their ridiculous system, could long subsist. What would become of a nation all of whose inhabitants wished to attain perfection by delivering themselves over to fanatical contemplation, to ascetical penance, to monkish prayers, and to that state of things set forth in the Acts of the Apostles? What would be the condition of a nation where no one took any "thought for the morrow"?—where all were occupied solely with heaven, and all totally neglected whatever related to this transitory and passing life?—where all made a merit of celibacy, according to the precepts of St. Paul?—and where, in consequence of constant occupation in the ceremonials of piety, no one had leisure to devote to the well-being of men in their worldly and temporal concerns? It is evident that such a society could only exist in the Thebaid, and even there only for a limited time, as it must soon be annihilated. If some enthusiasts exhibit examples of this sort, we know that convents and nunneries are supported by that portion of society which they do not enclose. But who would provide for a country that abandoned every thing else for the purpose of heavenly contemplations?