Upon this topic consult what Bayle says, Continuation des Pensees diverses sur la Comete, Sections 124, 125, tome iv., Rousseau de Geneve, in his Contrat Social, l. 4, ch. 8. See also the Lettres ecrites de la Montague, letter first, pp. 45 to 54, edit. 8vo. The author discusses the same matter, and confirms his opinions by new reasonings, which particularly deserve perusal.—Note of the Editor, (NAIGEON.)
We may therefore legitimately conclude that the Christian religion is not fitted for this world; that it is not calculated to insure the happiness either of societies or individuals; that the precepts and counsels of its God are impracticable, and more adapted to discourage the human race, and to plunge men into despair and apathy, than to render them happy, active, and virtuous. A Christian is compelled to make an abstraction of the maxims of his religion if he wishes to live in the world; he is no longer a Christian when he devotes his cares to his earthly good; and, in a word, a real Christian is a man of another world, and is not adapted for this.
Thus we see that Christians, to humanize themselves, are constantly obliged to depart from their supernatural and divine speculations. Their passions are not repressed, but on the contrary are often thus rendered more fierce and more calculated to disturb society. Masked under the veil of religion, they generally produce more terrible effects. It is then that ambition, vengeance, cruelty, anger, calumny, envy, and persecution, covered by the deceptive name of zeal, cause the greatest ravages, range without bounds, and even delude those who are transported by these dangerous passions. Religion does not annihilate these violent agitations of the mind in the hearts of its devotees, but often excites and justifies them; and experience proves that the most rigid Christians are very far from being the best of men, and that they have no right to reproach the incredulous either concerning the pretended consequences of their principles, or for the passions which are falsely alleged to spring from unbelief.
Indeed, the charity of the peaceful ministers of religion and of their pious adherents does not prevent their blackening their adversaries with a view of rendering them odious, and of drawing down upon their heads the malevolence of a superstitious community, and the persecution of tyrannical and oppressive laws; their zeal for God's glory permits them to employ indifferently all kinds of weapons; and calumny, especially, furnishes them always a most powerful aid. According to them, there are no irregularities of the heart which are not produced by incredulity; to renounce religion, say they, is to give a free course to unbridled passions, and he who does not believe surely indicates a corrupt heart, depraved manners, and frightful libertinism. In a word, they declare that every man who refuses to admit their reveries or their marvellous morality, has no motives to do good, and very powerful ones to commit evil.
It is thus that our charitable divines caricature and misrepresent the opponents of their supremacy, and describe them as dangerous brigands, whom society, for its own interest, ought to proscribe and destroy. It results from these imputations that those who renounce prejudices and consult reason are considered the most unreasonable of men; that they who condemn religion on account of the crimes it has produced upon the earth, and for which it has served as an eternal pretext, are regarded as bad citizens; that they who complain of the troubles that turbulent priests have so often excited, are set down as perturbators of the repose of nations; and that they who are shocked at the contemplation of the inhuman and unjust persecutions which have been excited by priestly ambition and rascality, are men who have no idea of justice, and in whose bosoms the sentiments of humanity are necessarily stifled. They who despise the false and deceitful motives by which, to the present time, it has been vainly attempted through the other world to make men virtuous, equitable, and beneficent, are denounced as having no real motives to practise the virtues necessary for their well-being here. In fine, the priests scandalize those who wish to destroy sacerdotal tyranny, and impostures dangerous alike to nations and people, as enemies of the state so dangerous that the laws ought to punish them.
But I believe, Madam, that you are now thoroughly convinced that the true friends of the human race and of governments cannot also be the friends of religion and of priests. Whatever may be the motives or the passions which determine men to incredulity, whatever may be the principles which flow from it, they cannot be so pernicious as those which emanate directly and necessarily from a religion so absurd and so atrocious as Christianity. Incredulity does not claim extraordinary privileges as flowing from a partial God; it pretends to no right of despotism over men's consciences; it has no pretexts for doing violence to the minds of mankind; and it does not hate and persecute for a difference of opinion. In a word, the incredulous have not an infinity of motives, interests, and pretexts to injure, with which the zealous partisans of religion are abundantly provided.
The unbeliever in Christianity, who reflects, perceives that without going out of this world there are pressing and real motives which invite to virtuous conduct; he feels the interest that he has in self-preservation, and of avoiding whatever is calculated to injure another; he sees himself united by physical and reciprocal wants with men who would despise him if he had vices, who would detest him if he was guilty of any action contrary to justice and virtue, and who would punish him if he committed any crimes, or if he outraged the laws. The idea of decency and order, the desire of meriting the approbation of his fellow-citizens, and the fear of being subjected to blame and punishment, are sufficient to govern the actions of every rational man. If, however, a citizen is in a sort of delirium, all the credulity in the world will not be able to restrain him. If he is powerful enough to have no fear of men on this earth, he will not regard the divine law more than the hatred and the disdain of the judges he has constantly before his eyes.
But the priests may perhaps tell us that the fear of an avenging God at least serves to repress a great number of latent crimes that would appear but for the influence of religion. Is it true, however, that religion itself prevents these latent crimes? Are not Christian nations full of knaves of all kinds, who secretly plot the ruin of their fellow-beings? Do not the most ostensibly credulous persons indulge in an infinity of vices for which they would blush if they were by chance brought to light? A man who is the most persuaded that God sees all his actions frequently does not blush to commit deeds in secret from which he would refrain if beheld by the meanest of human beings.
What, then, avails the powerful check on the passions which religion is said to interpose? If we could place any reliance on what is said by our priests, it would appear that neither public nor secret crimes could be committed in countries where their instructions are received; the priests would appear like a brotherhood of angels, and every religious man to be without faults. But men forget their religious speculations when they are under the dominion of violent passions, when they are bound by the ties of habit, or when they are blinded by great interests. Under such circumstances they do not reason. Whether a man is virtuous or vicious depends on temperament, habit, and education. An unbeliever may have strong passions, and may reason very justly on the subject of religion, and very erroneously in regard to his conduct. The religious dupe is a poor metaphysician, and if he also acts badly he is both imbecile and wicked.
It is true the priests deny that unbelievers ever reason correctly, and pretend they must always be in the wrong to prefer natural sense to their authority. But in this decision they occupy the place of both judges and parties, and the verdict should be rendered by disinterested persons. In the mean time the priests themselves seem to doubt the soundness of their own allegations; they call the secular arm to the aid of their arguments; they marshal on their side fines, imprisonment, confiscation of goods, boring and branding, with hot irons, and death at the stake, at this time in France, and in other and in most countries of Christendom; they use the scourge to drive men into paradise; they enlighten men by the blaze of the fagot; they inculcate faith by furious and bloody strokes of the sword; and they have the baseness to stand in dread of men who cannot announce themselves or openly promulgate their opinions without running the risk of punishment, and even death. This conduct does not manifest that the priests are strongly persuaded of the power of their arguments. If our clerical theologians acted in good faith, would they not rejoice to open a free course to thorough discussion? Would they not be gratified to allow doubters to propose difficulties, the solution of which, if Christianity is so plain and clear, would serve to render it more firm and solid? They find it answers their ends better to use their adversaries as the Mexicans do their slaves, whom they shackle before attacking, and then kill for daring to defend themselves.
It is very probable unbelievers may be found whose conduct is blamable, and this is because they in this respect follow the same line of reasoning as the devotee. The most fanatical partisans of religion are forced to confess that among their adherents a small number of the elect only are rendered virtuous. By what right, then, do they exact that incredulity, which pretends to nothing supernatural, should produce effects which, according to their own admissions, their pretended divine religion fails to accomplish? If all believers were invariably good men, the cause of religion would be provided with an adamantine bulwark, and especially if unbelievers were persons without morality or virtue. But whatever the priests may aver, the unbelievers are more virtuous than the devotees. A happy temperament, a judicious education, the desire of living a peaceable life, the dislike to attract hatred or blame, and the habit of fulfilling the moral duties, always furnish motives to abstain from vice and to practise virtue more powerful and more true than those presented by religion. Besides, the incredulous person has not an infinity of resources which Christianity bestows upon its superstitious followers. The Christian can at any time expiate his crimes by confession and penance, and can thus reconcile himself with God, and give repose to his conscience; the unbeliever, on the other hand, who has perpetrated a wrong, can reconcile himself neither with society, which he has outraged, nor with himself, whom he is compelled to hate. If he expects no reward in another life, he has no interest but to merit the homage that in all enlightened countries is rendered to virtue, to probity, and to a conduct constantly honest; he has no inducement but to avoid the penalties and the disdain that society decrees against those who trouble its well-being, and who refuse to contribute to its welfare.
It appears evident that every man who consults his understanding should be more reasonable than one who only consults his imagination. It is evident that he who consults his own nature and that of the beings who surround him, ought to have truer ideas of good and evil, of justice and injustice, and of honesty and dishonesty, than he who, to regulate his conduct, consults only the records of a concealed God, whom his priests picture as wicked, unjust, changeable, contradicting himself, and who has sometimes ordered actions the most contrary to morality and to all the ideas that we have of virtue. It is evident that he who regulates his conduct upon sacerdotal morality will only follow the caprice and passions of the priests, and will be a very dangerous man, while believing himself very virtuous. In fine, it is evident that while conforming himself to the precepts and counsels of religion, a man may be extremely pious without possessing the shadow of a virtue. Experience has proved that it is quite possible to adhere to all the unintelligible dogmas of the priests, to observe most scrupulously all the forms, and ceremonies, and services they recommend, and orally to profess all the Christian virtues, without having any of the qualities necessary to his own happiness, and to that of the beings with whom he lives. The saints, indeed, who are proposed to us as models, were useless members of society. We see them to have been either gloomy fanatics, who sacrificed themselves to the desolating ideas of their religion, or excited fanatics, who, under pretext of serving religion, have perpetually disturbed the repose of nations, or enthusiastic theologians, who from their own dreams have deduced systems exactly calculated to infuriate the brains of their adherents. A saint, when he is tranquil, proposes nothing whose accomplishment will benefit mankind, and only aims to keep himself safe and secluded in his retreat. A saint, when he is active, only appears to promulgate reveries dangerous to the world, and to uphold the interests of the church, that he confounds with the interest of God.
In a word, Madam, I cannot too often repeat it, every system of religion appears to be designed for the utility of the priests; the morality of Christianity has in view only the interests of the priesthood; all the virtues that it teaches have solely for an object the church and its ministers; and these ends are always to subject the people, to draw a profit from their toil, and to inspire them with a blind credulity. We ought, therefore, to practise morality and virtue without entering into these conspiracies. If the priests disapprove of those who do not agree with them, and refuse to award any probity to the thinkers who reject their injurious and useless notions, society, which needs for its own sustenance real and human virtues, will not adopt the sentiments nor espouse the quarrels of these men, visibly leagued together against it. If the ministers of religion require their dogmas, their mysteries, and their fanatical virtues to support their usurped empire, the civil government has a need of reasonable virtues, of an evident, and above all, of a pacific morality, in order to exercise its legitimate rights. In fine, the individuals, who compose every society, demand a morality which will render them happy in this world, without embarrassing themselves with what only pretends to secure their felicity in an imaginary sphere, of which they have no ideas except those received from the priests themselves.
The priests have had the art to unite their religious system with some moral tenets which are really good. This renders their mysteries more sacred, and lends authority to their ambiguous dogmas. By the aid of this artifice, they have given currency to the opinion that without religion there can be neither morality nor virtue. I hope, Madam, in my next letter, to complete the exposure of this prejudice, and to demonstrate, to whoever will reflect, how uncertain, abstract, and deceitful are the notions which religion has inspired. I shall clearly show, that they have often infected philosophers themselves; that up to the present time, they have retarded the progress of morality; and that they have transformed a science the most certain, plain, and sensible to every thinking man, into a system at once doubtful and enigmatical, and full of difficulties. I am, Madam, &c.
Of Human or Natural Morality.
By this time, Madam, you will have reflected on what I had the honor to address to you, and perceived how impossible it is to found a certain and invariable morality on a religion enthusiastic, ambiguous, mysterious, and contradictory, and which never agreed with itself. You know that the God who appears to have taken pleasure in rendering himself unintelligible, that the God who is partial and changeable, that the God whose precepts are at variance one with another, can never serve as the base on which to rear a morality that shall become practicable among the inhabitants of the earth. In short, how can we found justice and goodness on attributes that are unjust and evil; yet attributes of a Being who tempts man, whom he created, for the purpose of punishing him when tempted? How can we know when we do the will of a God who has said, Thou shalt not kill, and who yet allows his people to exterminate whole nations? What idea can we form of the morality of that God who declares himself pleased with the sanguinary conduct of Moses, of the rebel, the assassin, the adulterer, David? Is it possible to found the holy duties of humanity on a God whose favorites have been inhuman persecutors and cruel monsters? How can we deduce our duties from the lessons of the priests of a God of peace, who, nevertheless, breathes only sedition, vengeance, and carnage? How can we take as models for our conduct saints, who were useless enthusiasts, or turbulent fanatics, or seditious apostates; who, under the pretext of defending the cause of God, have stirred up the greatest ravages on the earth? What wholesome morality can we reap from the adoption of impracticable virtues, from their being supernatural, which are visibly useless to ourselves, to those among whom we live, and in their consequences often dangerous? How can we take as guides in our conduct priests, whose lessons are a tissue of unintelligible opinions, (for all religion is but opinion,) puerile and frivolous practices, which these gentlemen prefer to real virtues? In fine, how can we be taught the truth, conducted in an unerring path, by men of a changeable morality, calculated upon and actuated by their present interests, and who, although they pretend to preach good-will to men, humanity, and peace, have, as their text-book, a volume stained with the records of injustice, inhumanity, sedition, and perfidy?
You know, Madam, that it is impossible to found morality on notions that are so unfixed and so contrary to all our natural ideas of virtue. By virtue, we ought to understand the habitual dispositions to do whatever will procure us the happiness of ourselves and our species. By virtue, religion understands only that which may contribute to render us favorable to a hidden God, who attaches his favor to practices and opinions that are too often hurtful to ourselves, and little beneficial to others. The morality of the Christians is a mystic morality, which resembles the dogmas of their religion; it is obscure, unintelligible, uncertain, and subject to the interpretation of frail creatures. This morality is never fixed, because it is subordinate to a religion which varies incessantly its principles, and which is regulated according to the pleasure of a despotic divinity, and, more especially, according to the pleasure of priests, whose interests are changing daily, whose caprices are as variable as the hours of their existence, and who are, consequently, not always in agreement with one another. The writings which are the sources whence the Christians have drawn their morality, are not only an abyss of obscurity, but demand continual explications from their masters, the priests, who, in explaining, make them still more obscure, still more contradictory. If these oracles of heaven prescribe to us in one place the virtues truly useful, in another part they approve, or prescribe, actions entirely opposed to all the ideas that we have of virtue. The same God who orders us to be good, equitable, and beneficent, who forbids the revenging of injuries, who declares himself to be the God of clemency and of goodness, shows himself to be implacable in his rage; announces himself as bringing the sword, and not peace; tells us that he is come to set mankind at variance; and, finally, in order to revenge his wrongs, orders rapine, treason, usurpation, and carnage. In a word, it is impossible to find in the Scriptures any certain principles or sure rules of morality. You there see, in one part, a small number of precepts, useful and intelligible, and in another part maxims the most extravagant, and the most destructive to the good and happiness of all society.
It is in punctuality to fulfil the superstitious and frivolous duties, that the morality of the Jews in the Old Testament writings is chiefly conspicuous; legal observances, rites, ceremonies, are all that occupied the people of Israel. In recompense for their scrupulous exactness to fulfil these duties, they were permitted to commit the most frightful of crimes. The virtues recommended by the Son of God, in the New Testament, are not in reality the same as those which God the Father had made observable in the former case. The New Testament contradicts the Old. It announces that God is not pacified by sacrifices, nor by offerings, nor by frivolous rites. It substitutes in place of these, supernatural virtues, of which I believe I have sufficiently proved the inutility, the impossibility, and the incompatibility with the well-being of man living in society. The Son of God, by the writers of the New Testament, is set at variance with himself; for he destroys in one place what he establishes in another; and, moreover, the priests have appropriated to themselves all the principles of his mission. They are in unison only with God when the precepts of the Deity accord with their present interest. Is it their interest to persecute? They find that God ordains persecution. Are they themselves persecuted? They find that this pacific God forbids persecution, and views with abhorrence the persecution of his servants. Do they find that superstitious practices are lucrative to themselves? Notwithstanding the aversion of Jesus Christ from offerings, rites, and ceremonies, they impose them on the people, they surcharge them with mysterious rites: they respect these more than those duties which are of essential benefit to society. If Jesus has not wished that they should avenge themselves, they find that his Father has delighted in vengeance. If Jesus has declared that his kingdom is not of this world, and if he has shown contempt of riches, they nevertheless find in the Old Testament sufficient reasons for establishing a hierarchy for the governing of the world in a spiritual sense, as kings do in a political one,—for the disputing with kings about their power,—for exercising in this world an authority the most unlimited, a license the most terrific. In a word, if they have found in the Bible some precepts of a moral tendency and practical utility, they have also found others to justify crimes the most atrocious.
Thus, in the Christian religion, morality uniformly depends on the fanaticism of priests, their passions, their interests: its principles are never fixed; they vary according to circumstances: the God of whom they are the organs, and the interpreters, has not said any thing but what agrees best with their views, and what never contravenes their interest. Following their caprices, he changes his advice continually; he approves, and disapproves, of the same actions: he loves, or detests, the same conduct; he changes crime into virtue, and virtue into crime.
What is the result from all this? It is that the Christians have not sure principles in morality: it varies with the policy of the priests, who are in a situation to command the credulity of mankind, and who, by force of menaces and terrors, oblige men to shut their eyes on their contradictions, and minds the most honest to commit faults the greatest which can be committed against religion. It is thus that under a God who recommends the love of our neighbor, the Christians accustom themselves from infancy to detest an heretical neighbor, and are almost always in a disposition to overwhelm him by a crowd of arguments received from their priests. It is thus that, under a God who ordains we should love our enemies and forgive their offences, the Christians hate and destroy the enemies of their priests, and take vengeance, without measure, for injuries which they pretend to have received. It is thus, that under a just God, a God who never ceases to boast of his goodness, the Christians, at the signal of their spiritual guides, become unjust and cruel, and make a merit of having stifled the cries of nature, the voice of humanity, the counsels of wisdom, and of public interest.
In a word, all the ideas of justice and of injustice, of good and evil, of happiness and of misfortune, are necessarily confounded in the head of a Christian. His despotic priest commands him, in the name of God, to put no reliance on his reason, and the man who is compelled to abandon it for the guidance of a troubled imagination will be far more likely to consult and admit the most stupid fanaticism as the inspiration of the Most High. In his blindness, he casts at his feet duties the most sacred, and he believes himself virtuous in outraging every virtue. Has he remorse? his priest appeases it speedily, and points out some easy practices by which he may soon recommend himself to God. Has he committed injustice, violence, and rapine? he may repair all by giving to the church the goods of which he has despoiled worthy citizens; or by repaying by largesses, which will procure him the prayers of the priests and the favor of heaven. For the priests never reproach men, who give them of this world's goods, with the injustice, the cruelties, and the crimes they have been guilty, to support the church and befriend her ministers; the faults which have almost always been found the most unpardonable, have always been those of most disservice to the clergy. To question the faith and reject the authority of the priesthood, have always been the most frightful crimes; they are truly the sin against the Holy Ghost, which can never be forgiven either in this world or in that which is to come. To despise these objects which the priests have an interest in making to be respected, is sufficient to qualify one for the appellation of a blasphemer and an impious man. These vague words, void of sense, suffice to excite horror in the mind of the weak vulgar. The terrible word sacrilege designates an attempt on the person, the goods, and the rights of the clergy. The omission of some useless practice is exaggerated and represented as a crime more detestable than actions which injure society. In favor of fidelity to fulfil the duties of religion, the priest easily pardons his slave submitting to vices, criminal debaucheries, and excesses the most horrible. You perceive, then, Madam, that the Christian morality has really in view but the utility of the priests. Why, then, should you be surprised that they endeavor to make themselves arbitrary and sovereign; that they deem as faults, and as criminal, all the virtues which agree not with their marvellous systems? The Christian morality appears only to have been proposed to blind men, to disturb their reason, to render them abject and timid, to plunge them into vassalage, to make them lose sight of the earth which they inhabit, for visions of bliss in heaven. By the aid of this morality, the priests have become the true masters here below; they have imagined virtues and practices useful only to themselves; they have proscribed and interdicted those which were truly useful to society; they have made slaves of their disciples, who make virtue to consist in blind submission to their caprices.
To lay the foundations of a good morality, it is absolutely necessary to destroy the prejudices which the priests have inspired in us; it is necessary to begin by rendering the mind of man energetic, and freeing it from those vain terrors which have enthralled it; it is necessary to renounce those supernatural notions which have, till now, hindered men from consulting the volume of nature, which have subjected reason to the yoke of authority; it is necessary to encourage man, to undeceive him as to those prejudices which have enslaved him; to annihilate in his bosom those false theories which corrupt his nature, and which are, in fact, infidel guides, destructive of the real happiness of the species. It is necessary to undeceive him as to the idea of his loathing himself, and especially that other idea, that some of his fellow-creatures are not to labor with their hands for their support, but in spiritual matters for his happiness. In fine, it is necessary to influence him with self-love, that he may merit the esteem of the world, the benevolence and consideration of those with whom he is associated by the ties of nature or public economy.
The morality of religion appears calculated to confound society and replunge its members into the savage state. The Christian virtues tend evidently to isolate man, to detach him from those to whom nature has united him, and to unite him to the priests—to make him lose sight of a happiness the most solid, to occupy himself only with dangerous chimeras. We only live in society to procure the more easily those kindnesses, succors, and pleasures, which we could not obtain living by ourselves. If it had been destined that we should live miserably in this world, that we should detest ourselves, fly the esteem of others, voluntarily afflict ourselves, have no attachment for any one, society would have been one heap of confusion, the human kind savages and strangers to one another.
However, if it is true that God is the author of man, it is God who renders man sociable; it is God who wishes man to live in society where he can obtain the greatest good. If God is good, he cannot approve that men should leave society to become miserable; if God is the author of reason, he can only wish that men who are possessed of reason should employ this distinguishing gift to procure for themselves all the happiness its exercise can bring them. If God has revealed himself, it is not in some obscure way, but in a revelation the most evident and clear of all those supposed revelations, which are visibly contrary to all the notions we can form of the Divinity. We are not, however, obliged to dive into the marvellous to establish the duties man owes to man, since God has very plainly shown them in the wants of one and the good offices of another person. But it is only by consulting our reason that we can arrive at the means of contributing to the felicity of our species. It is then evident that in regarding man as the creature of God, God must have designed that man should consult his reason, that it might procure him the most solid happiness, and those principles of virtue which nature approves.
What, then, might not our opinions be were we to substitute the morality of reason for the morality of religion? In place of a partial and reserved morality for a small number of men, let us substitute a universal morality, intelligible to all the inhabitants of the earth, and of which all can find the principles in nature. Let us study this nature, its wants, and its desires; let us examine the means of satisfying it; let us consider what is the end of our existence in society; we shall see that all those who are thus associated are compelled by their natures to practise affection one to another, benevolence, esteem, and relief, if desired; we shall see what is that line of conduct which necessarily excites hatred, ill-will, and all those misfortunes which experience makes familiar to mankind; our reason will tell us what actions are the most calculated to excite real happiness and good will the most solid and extensive; let us weigh these with those that are founded on visionary theories; their difference will at once be perceptible; the advantages which are permanent we will not sacrifice for those that are momentary; we will employ all our faculties to augment the happiness of our species; we will labor with perseverance and courage to extirpate evil from the earth; we will assist as much as we can those who are without friends; we will seek to alleviate their distresses and their pains; we will merit their regard, and thus fulfil the end of our being on earth.
In conducting ourselves in this manner, our reason prescribes a morality agreeable to nature, reasonable to all, constant in its operation, effective in its exercise in benefiting all, in contributing to the happiness of society, collectively and individually, in distinction to the mysticism preached up by priests. We shall find in our reason and in our nature the surest guides, superior to the clergy, who only teach us to benefit themselves. We shall thus enjoy a morality as durable as the race of man. We shall have precepts founded on the necessity of things, that will punish those transgressing them, and rewarding those who obey them. Every man who shall prove himself to be just, useful, beneficent, will be an object of love to his fellow-citizens; every man who shall prove himself unjust, useless, and wicked will become an object of hatred to himself as well as to others; he will be forced to tremble at the violation of the laws; he will be compelled to do that which is good to gain the good will of mankind and preserve the regard of those who have the power of obliging him to be a useful member of the state.
Thus, Madam, if it should be demanded of you what you would substitute for the benefit of society, in place of visionary reveries, I reply, a sensible morality, a good education, profitable habits, self-evident principles of duty, wise laws, which even the wicked cannot misunderstand, but which may correct their evil purposes, and recompenses that may tend to the promotion of virtue. The education of the present day tends only to make youth the slaves of superstition; the virtues which it inculcates on them are only those of fanaticism, to render the mind subject to the priests for the remainder of life; the motives to duty are only fictitious and imaginary; the rewards and punishments which it exhibits in an obscure glimmering, produce no other effect than to make useless enthusiasts and dangerous fanatics. The principles on which enthusiasm establishes morality are changing and ruinous; those on which the morality of reason is established are fixed, and cannot be overturned. Seeing, then, that man, a reasonable being, should be chiefly occupied about his preservation and happiness—that he should love virtue—that he should be sensible of its advantages—that he should fear the consequences of crime—is it to be wondered I should insist so much on the practice of virtue as his chief good? Men ought to hate crime because it leads to misery. Society, to exist, must receive the united virtue of its members, obedience to good laws, the activity and intelligence of citizens to defend its privileges and its rights. Laws are good when they invite the members of society to labor for reciprocal good offices. Laws are just when they recompense or punish in proportion to the good or evil which is done to society. Laws supported by a visible authority should be founded on present motives; and thus they would have more force than those of religion, which are founded on uncertain motives, imaginary and removed from this world, and which experience proves cannot suffice to curb the passions of bad men, nor show them their duty by the fear of punishments after death.
If in place of stifling human reason, as is too much done, its perfectibility were studied; if in place of deluging the world with visionary notions, truth were inculcated; if in place of pleading a supernatural morality, a morality agreeable to humanity and resulting from experience were preached, we should no longer be the dupes of imaginary theories, nor of terrifying fables as the bases of virtue. Every one would then perceive that it is to the practice of virtue, to the faithful observation of the duties of morality, that the happiness of individuals and of society is to be traced. Is he a husband? He will perceive that his essential happiness is to show kindness, attachment, and tenderness to the companion of his life, destined by his own choice to share his pleasures and endure his misfortunes. And, on the other hand, she, by consulting her true interests, will perceive that they consist in rendering homage to her husband, in interdicting every thought that could alienate her affections, diminish her esteem and confidence in him. Fathers and mothers will perceive that their children are destined to be one day their consolation and support in old age, and that by consequence they have the greatest interest in inspiring them in early life with sentiments of which they may themselves reap the benefit when age or misfortune may require the fruits of those advantages that result from a good education. Their children early taught to reflect on these things, will find their interest to lie in meriting the kindness of their parents, and in giving them proofs that the virtues they are taught will be communicated to their posterity. The master will perceive that, to be served with affection, he owes good will, kindness, and indulgence to those at whose hands he would reap advantages, and by whose labor he would increase his prosperity; and servants will discover how much their happiness depends on fidelity, industry, and good temper in their situations. Friends will find the advantages of a kindred heart for friendship, and the reciprocity of good offices. The members of the same family will perceive the necessity of preserving that union which nature has established among them, to render mutual benefits in prosperity or in adversity. Societies, if they reflect on the end of their association, will perceive that to secure it they must observe good faith and punctuality in their engagements. The citizen, when he consults his reason, will perceive how much it is necessary, for the good of the nation to which he belongs, that he should exert himself to advance its prosperity, or, in its misfortunes, to retrieve its glory. By consequence every one in his sphere, and using his faculties for this great end, will find his own advantage in restraining the bad as dangerous, and opposing enemies to the state as enemies to himself.
In a word, every man who will reflect for himself will be compelled to acknowledge the necessity of virtue for the happiness of the world. It is so obvious that justice is the basis of all society; that good will and good offices necessarily procure for men affection and respect; that every man who respects himself ought to seek the esteem of others; that it is necessary to merit the good opinion of society; that he ought to be jealous of his reputation; that a weak being, who is every instant exposed to misfortunes, ought to know what are his duties, and how he should practise them for the benefit of himself and the assembly of which he is a member.
If we reflect for one moment on the effects of the passions, we shall perceive the necessity of repressing them, if we would spare ourselves vain regrets and useless sorrows, which certainly always afflict those who obey not the laws. Thus, a single reflection will suffice to show the impropriety of anger, the dreadful consequences of revenge, calumny, and backbiting. Every one must perceive that in giving a free course to unbridled desires, he becomes the enemy of society, and then it is the part of the laws to restrain him who renounces his reason and despises the motives that ought to guide him.
If it is objected that man is not a free agent, and therefore is unable to restrain his passions, and that consequently the law ought not to punish him, I reply that the community are impelled by the same necessity to hate what is injurious, and for their own conservation and happiness have the right to restrain an unhappily organized individual who is impelled to injure himself and others. The inevitable faults of men necessarily excite the hatred of those who suffer from them.
If the man who consults his reason has real and powerful motives for doing good to others and abstaining from injuring them, he has present motives equally urgent to restrain him from the commission of vice. Experience may suffice to show him that if he becomes sooner or later the victim of his excesses, he ceases to be the friend of virtue, and exists only to serve vice, which will infallibly punish him. This being allowed, prudence, or the desire of preserving one's self free from the contamination of evil, ought to inculcate to every man his path of duty; and, unless blinded by his passions, he must perceive how much moderation in his pleasures, temperance, chastity, contribute to happiness; that those who transgress in these respects are necessarily the victims of ill health, and too often pass a life both infirm and unfortunate, which terminates soon in death.
How is it possible, then, Madam, from visionary theories to arrive at these conclusions, and establish from supernatural phantasms the principles of private and public virtue? Shall we launch into unknown regions to ascertain our duty and to keep our station in society? Is it not sufficient if we wish to be happy that we should endeavor to preserve ourselves in those maxims which reason approves, and on which virtue is founded? Every man who would perish, who would render his existence miserable, whoever would sacrifice permanent happiness for present pleasure, is a fool, who reflects not on the interests that are dearest to him.
If there are any principles so clear as the morality of humanity has been and is still proved to be, they are such as men ought to observe. They are not obscure notions, mysticism, contradictions, which have made of a science the most obvious and best demonstrated, an unintelligible science, mysterious and uncertain to those for whom it is designed. In the hands of the priests, morality has become an enigma; they have founded our duties on the attributes of a Deity whom the mind of man cannot comprehend, in place of founding them on the character of man himself. They have thrown in among them the foundations of an edifice which is made for this earth. They have desired to regulate our manners agreeably to equivocal oracles which every instant contradict themselves, and which too often render their devotees useless to society and to themselves. They have pretended to render their morality more sacred by inviting us to look for recompenses and punishments removed beyond this life, but which they announce in the name of the Divinity. In fine, they have made man a being who may not even strive at perfection, by a preordination of some to bliss, and consequent damnation of others, whose insensibility is the result of this selection.
Need we not, then, wonder that this supernatural morality should be so contrary to the nature and the mind of man? It is in vain that it aims at the annihilation of human nature, which is so much stronger, so much more powerful, than imagination. In despite of all the subtile and marvellous speculations of the priests, man continues always to love himself, to desire his well being, and to flee misfortune and sorrow. He has then always been actuated by the same passions. When these passions have been moderate, and have tended to the public good, they are legitimate, and we approve those actions which are their effects. When these passions have been disordered, hurtful to society, or to the individual, he condemns them; they punish him; he is dissatisfied with his conduct which others cannot approve. Man always loves his pleasures, because in their enjoyment he fulfils the end of his existence; if he exceeds their just bounds he renders himself miserable.
The morality of the clergy, on the other hand, appears calculated to keep nature always at variance with herself, for it is almost always without effect even on the priesthood. Their chimeras serve but to torture weak minds, and to set the passions at war with nature and their dogmas. When this morality professes to restrain the wicked, to curb the passions of men, it operates in opposition to the established laws of natural religion; for by preserving all its rigor, it becomes impracticable; and it meets with real devotees only in some few fanatics who have renounced nature, and who would be singular, even if their oddities were injurious to society. This morality, adopted for the most part by devotees, without eradicating their habits or their natural defects, keeps them always in a state of opposition even with themselves. Their life is a round of faults and of scruples, of sins and remorse, of crimes and expiations, of pleasures which they enjoy, but for which they again reproach themselves for having tasted. In a word, the morality of superstition necessarily carries with it into the heart and the family of its devotees inward distress and affliction; it makes of enthusiasts and fanatics scrupulous devotees; it makes a great many insensible and miserable; it renders none perfect, few good; and those only tolerable whom nature, education, and habit had moulded for happiness.
It is our temperament which decides our condition; the acquisition of moderate passions, of honest habits, sensible opinions, laudable examples, and practical virtues, is a difficult task, but not impossible when undertaken with reason for one's guide. It is difficult to be virtuous and happy with a temperament so ardent as to sway the passions to its will. One must in calmness consult reason as to his duty. Nature, in giving us lively passions and a susceptible imagination, has made us capable of suffering the instant we transgress her bounds. She then renders us necessary to ourselves, and we cannot proceed to consult our real interest if we continue in indulgence that she forbids. The passions which reason cannot restrain are not to be bridled by religion. It is in vain that we hope to derive succors from religion if we despise and refuse what nature offers us. Religion leaves men just such as nature and habit have made them; and if it produce any changes on some few, I believe I have proved that those changes are not always for the better.
Congratulate yourself, then, Madam, on being born with good dispositions, of having received honest principles, which shall carry you through life in the practice of virtue, and in the love of a fine and exalted taste for the rational pleasures of our nature. Continue to be the happiness of your family, which esteems and honors you. Continue to diffuse around you the blessings you enjoy; continue to perform only those actions which are esteemed by all the world, and all men will respect you. Respect yourself, and others will respect you. These are the legitimate sentiments of virtue and of happiness. Labor for your own happiness, and you will promote that of your family, who will love you in proportion to the good you do it. Allow me to congratulate myself if, in all I have said, I have in any measure swept from your mind those clouds of fanaticism which obscure the reason; and to felicitate you on your having escaped from vague theories of imagination. Abjure superstition, which is calculated only to make you miserable; let the morality of humanity be your uniform religion; that your happiness may be constant, let reason be your guide; that virtue may be the idol of your soul, cultivate and love only what is virtuous and good in the world; and if there be a God who is interested in the happiness of his creatures, if there be a God full of justice and goodness, he will not be angry with you for having consulted your reason; if there be another life, your happiness in it cannot be doubtful, if God rewards every one according to the good done here.
I am, with respect, &c.
Of the small Consequence to be attached to Men's Speculations, and the Indulgence which should be extended to them.
Permit me, Madam, to felicitate you on the happy change which you say has taken place in your opinions. Convinced by reasons as simple as obvious, your mind has become sensible of the futility of those notions which have for a long time agitated it; and the inefficacy of those pretended succors which religious men boasted they could furnish, is now apparent to you. You perceive the evident dangers which result from a system that serves only to render men enemies to individual and general happiness. I see with pleasure that reason has not lost its authority over your mind, and that it is sufficient to show you the truth that you may embrace it. You may congratulate yourself on this, which proves the solidity of your judgment. For it is glorious to give one's self up to reason, and to be the votary of common sense. Prejudice so arms mankind that the world is full of people who slight their judgment; nay, who resist the most obvious pleas of their understanding. Their eyes, long shut to the light of truth, are unable to bear its rays; but they can endure the glimmerings of superstition, which plunges them in still darker obscurity.
I am not, however, astonished at the embarrassment you have hitherto felt, nor at your cautious examination of my opinions, which are better understood the more thoroughly they are examined and compared with those they oppose. It is impossible to annihilate at once deep-rooted prejudices. The mind of man appears to waver in a void when those ideas are attacked on which it has long rested. It finds itself in a new world, wherein all is unknown. Every system of opinion is but the effect of habit. The mind has as great difficulty to disengage itself from its custom of thinking, and reflect on new ideas, as the body has to remain quiescent after it has long been accustomed to exercise. Should you, for instance, propose to your friend to leave off snuff, as a practice neither healthful nor agreeable in company, he will not probably listen to you, or if he should, it will be with extreme pain that he can bring himself to renounce a habit long familiarized to him.
It is precisely the same with all our prejudices; those of religion have the most powerful hold of us. From infancy we have been familiarized with them; habit has made them a sort of want we cannot dispense with: our mode of thinking is formed, and familiar to us; our mind is accustomed to engage itself with certain classes of objects; and our imagination fancies that it wanders in chaos when it is not fed with those chimeras to which it had been long accustomed. Phantoms the most horrible are even clear to it; objects the most familiar to it, if viewed with the calm eye of reason, are disagreeable and revolting.
Religion, or rather its superstitions, in consequence of the marvellous and bizarre notions it engenders, gives the mind continual exercise; and its votaries fancy they are doomed to a dangerous inaction when they are suddenly deprived of the objects on which their imagination exerted its powers. Yet is this exercise so much the more necessary as the imagination is by far the most lively faculty of the mind. Hence, without doubt, it becomes necessary men should replace stale fooleries by those which are novel. This is, moreover, the true reason why devotion so often affords consolation in great disgraces, gives diversion for chagrin, and replaces the strongest passions, when they have been quenched by excess of pleasure and dissipation. The marvellous arguments, chimeras multiply as religion furnishes activity and occupation to the fancy; habit renders them familiar, and even necessary; terrors themselves even minister food to the imagination; and religion, the religion of priestcraft, is full of terrors. Active and unquiet spirits continually require this nourishment; the imagination requires to be alternately alarmed and consoled; and there are thousands who cannot accustom themselves to tranquillity and the sobriety of reason. Many persons also require phantoms to make them religious, and they find these succors in the dogmas of priestcraft.
These reflections will serve to explain to you the continual variations to which many persons are subject, especially on the subject of religion. Sensible, like barometers, you behold them wavering without ceasing; their imagination floats, and is never fixed; so often as you find them freely given up to the blackness of superstition, so often may you behold them the slaves of pernicious prejudices. Whenever they tremble at the feet of their priests, then are their necks under the yoke. Even people of spirit and understanding in other affairs are not altogether exempt from these variations of mental religious temperament; but their judgment is too frequently the dupe of the imagination. And others, again, timid and doubting, without spirit, are in perpetual torment.
What do I say? Man is not, and cannot always be, the same. His frame is exposed to revolutions and perpetual vicissitudes; the thoughts of his mind necessarily vary with the different degrees of changes to which his body is exposed. When the body is languid and fatigued, the mind has not usually much inclination to vigor and gayety. The debility of the nerves commonly annihilates the energies of the soul, although it be so remarkably distinguished from the body; persons of a bilious and melancholy temperament are rarely the subjects of joy; dissipation importunes some, gayety fatigues others. Exactly after the same fashion, there are some who love to nourish sombre ideas, and these religion supplies them. Devotion affects them like the vapors; superstition is an inveterate malady, for which there is no cure in medicine. And it is impossible to keep him free from superstition, whose breast, the slave of fear, was never sensible of courage; nay, soldiers and sailors, the bravest of men, have too often been the victims of superstition. It is education alone that operates in radically curing the human mind of its errors.
Those who think it sufficient, Madam, to render a reason for the variations which we so frequently remark in the ideas of men, acknowledge that there is a secret bent of the minds of religious persons to prejudices, from which we shall almost in vain endeavor to rescue their understandings. You perceive, at present, what you ought to think of those secret transitions which our priests would force on you, as the inspirations of heaven, as divine solicitations, the effects of grace; though they are, nevertheless, only the effects of those vicissitudes to which our constitution is liable, and which affect the robust, as well as the feeble; the man of health, as well as the valetudinarian.
If we might form a judgment of the correctness of those notions which our teachers boast of, in respect to our dissolution at death, we shall find reason to be satisfied, that there is little or no occasion that we should have our minds disturbed during our last moments. It is then, say they, that it is necessary to attend to the condition of man; it is then that man, undeceived as to the things of this life, acknowledges his errors. But there is, perhaps, no idea in the whole circle of theology more unreasonable than this, of which the credulous, in all ages, have been the dupes. Is it not at the time of a man's dissolution that he is the least capable of judging of his true interest? His bodily frame racked, it may be, with pain, his mind is necessarily weakened or chafed; or if he should be free from excruciating pain, the lassitude and yielding of nature to the irrevocable decrees of fate at death, unfit a man for reasoning and judging of the sophisms that are proposed as panaceas for all his errors. There are, without doubt, as strange notions as those of religion; but who knows that body and soul sink alike at death?
It is in the case of health that we can promise ourselves to reason with justness; it is then that the soul, neither troubled by fear, nor altered by disease, nor led astray by passion, can judge soundly of what is beneficial to man. The judgments of the dying can have no weight with men in good health; and they are the veriest impostors who lend them belief. The truth can alone be known, when both body and mind are in good health. No man, without evincing an insensible and ridiculous presumption, can answer for the ideas he is occupied with, when worn out with sickness and disease; yet have the inhuman priests the effrontery to persuade the credulous to take as their examples the words and actions of men necessarily deranged in intellect by the derangement of their corporeal frame. In short, since the ideas of men necessarily vary with the different variations of their bodies, the man who presumes to reason on his death bed with the man in health, arrogates what ought not to be conceded.
Do not, then, Madam, be discouraged nor surprised, if you should sometimes think of ancient prejudices reclaiming the rights they have for a long time exercised over your reason; attribute, then, these vacillations to some derangement in your frame—to some disordered movements of mind, which, for a time, suspend your reason. Think that there are few people who are constantly the same, and who see with the same eyes. Our frame being subject to continual variations, it necessarily follows that our modes of thinking will vary. We think one custom the result of pusillanimity, when the nerves are relaxed and our bodies fatigued. We think justly when our body is in health; that is to say, when all its parts are fulfilling their various functions. There is one mode of thinking, or one state of mind, which in health we call uncertainty, and which we rarely experience when our frame is in its ordinary condition. We do not then reason justly, when our frame is not in a condition to leave our mind subject to incredulity.
What, then, is to be done, when we would calm our mind, when we wish to reflect, even for an instant? Let reason be our guide, and we shall soon arrive at that mode of thinking which shall be advantageous to ourselves. In effect, Madam, how can a God who is just, good, and reasonable, be irritated by the manner in which we shall think, seeing that our thoughts are always involuntary, and that we cannot believe as we would, but as our convictions increase, or become weakened? Man is not, then, for one instant, the master of his ideas, which are every moment excited by objects over which he has no control, and causes which depend not on his will or exertions. St. Augustine himself bears testimony to this truth: "There is not," says he, "one man who is at all times master of that which presents itself to his spirit." Have we not, then, good reason to conclude, that our thoughts are entirely indifferent to God, seeing they are excited by objects over which we have no control, and, by consequence, that they cannot be offensive to the Deity?
If our teachers pique themselves on their principles, they ought to carry along with them this truth, that a just God cannot be offended by the changes which take place in the minds of his creatures. They ought to know that this God, if he is wise, has no occasion to be troubled with the ideas that enter the mind of man; that if they do not comprehend all his perfections, it is because their comprehension is limited. They ought to recollect, that if God is all-powerful, his glory and his power cannot be affected by the opinions and ideas of weak mortals, any more than the notions they form of him can alter his essential attributes. In fine, if our teachers had not made it a duty to renounce common sense, and to close with notions that carry in their consequences the contradictory evidence of their premises, they would not refuse to avow that God would be the most unjust, the most unreasonable, the most cruel of tyrants, if he should punish beings whom he himself created imperfect, and possessed of a deficiency of reason and common sense.
Let us reflect a little longer, and we shall find that the theologians have studied to make of the Divinity a ferocious master, unreasonable and changing, who exacts from his creatures qualities they have not, and services they cannot perform. The ideas they have formed of this unknown being are almost always borrowed from those of men of power, who, jealous of their power and respect from their subjects, pretend that it is the duty of these last to have for them sentiments of submission, and punish with rigor those who, by their conduct or their discourse, announce sentiments not sufficiently respectful to their superiors. Thus you see, Madam, that God has been fashioned by the clergy on the model of an uneasy despot, suspicious of his subjects, jealous of the opinions they may entertain of him, and who, to secure his power, cruelly chastises those who have not littleness of mind sufficient to flatter his vanity, nor courage enough to resist his power.
It is evident, that it is on ideas so ridiculous, and so contrary to those which nature offers us of the Divinity, that the absurd system of the priests is founded, which they persuade themselves is very sensible and agreeable to the opinions of mankind; and which is very seriously insulted, they say, if men think differently; and which will punish with severity those who abandon themselves to the guidance of reason, the glory of man. Nothing can be more pernicious to the human kind than this fatal madness, which deranges all our ideas of a just God—of a God, good, wise, all-powerful, and whose glory and power neither the devotion nor rebellion of his creatures can affect. In consequence of these impertinent suppositions of the priesthood, men have ever been afraid to form notions agreeable to the mysterious Sovereign of the universe, on whom they are dependent; their mind is put to the torture to divine his incomprehensible nature, and, in their fear of displeasing him, they have assigned to him human attributes, without perceiving that when they pretend to honor him, they dishonor Deity, and that being compelled to bestow on him qualities that are incompatible with Deity, they actually annihilate from their mind the pure representation of Deity, as witnessed in all nature. It is thus, that in almost all the religions on the face of the earth, under the pretext of making known the Divinity, and explaining his views towards mortals, the priests have rendered him incomprehensible, and have actually promulgated, under the garb of religion, nothing save absurdities, by which, if we admit them, we shall destroy those notions which nature gives us of Deity.
When we reflect on the Divinity, do we not see that mankind have plunged farther and farther into darkness, as they assimilated him to themselves; that their judgment is always disturbed when they would make their Deity the object of their meditations; that they cannot reason justly, because they never have any but obscure and absurd ideas; that they are almost always in uncertainty, and never agree with themselves, because their principles are replete with doubt; that they always tremble, because they imagine that it is very dangerous to be deceived; that they dispute without ceasing, because that it is impossible to be convinced of any thing, when they reason on objects of which they know nothing, and which the imaginations of men are forced to paint differently; in fine, that they cruelly torment one another about opinions equally uninteresting, though they attach to them the greatest importance, and because the vanity of the one party never allows it to subscribe to the reveries of the other?
It is thus that the Divinity has become to us a source of evil, division, and quarrels; it is thus that his name alone inspires terror; it is thus that religion has become the signal of so many combats, and has always been the true apple of discord among unquiet mortals, who always dispute with the greatest heat, on subjects of which they can never have any true ideas. They make it a duty to think and reason on his attributes; and they can never arrive at any just conclusions, because their mind is never in a condition to form true notions of what strikes their senses. In the impossibility of knowing the Deity by themselves, they have recourse to the opinion of others, whom they consider more adroit in theology, and who pretend to an intimate acquaintance with God, being inspired by him, and having secret intelligence of his purposes with regard to the human kind. Those privileged men teach nothing to the nations of the earth, except what their reveries have reduced to a system, without giving them ideas that are clear and definite. They paint God under characters the most agreeable to their own interests; they make of him a good monarch for those who blindly submit to their tenets, but terrible to those who refuse to blindly follow them.
Thus you perceive, Madam, what those men are who have obviously made of the Deity an object so bizarre as they announce him, and who, to render their opinions the more sacred, have pretended that he is grievously offended when we do not admit implicitly the ideas they promulgate of God. In the books of Moses God defines himself, I am that I am; yet does this inspired writer detail the history of this God as a tyrant who tempts men, and who punishes them for being tempted; who exterminated all the human kind by a deluge, except a few of one family, because one man had fallen; in a word, who, in all his conduct, behaves as a despot, whose power dispenses with all the rules of justice, reason, and goodness.
Have the successors of Moses transmitted to us ideas more clear, more sensible, more comprehensible of the Divinity? Has the Son of God made his Father perfectly known to us? Has the church, perpetually boasting of the light she diffuses among men, become more fixed and certain, to do away our uncertainty? Alas! in spite of all these supernatural succors, we know nothing in nature beyond the grave; the ideas which are communicated to us, the recitals of our infallible teachers, are calculated only to confound our judgment, and reduce our reason to silence. They make of God a pure spirit; that is to say, a being who has nothing in common with matter, and who, nevertheless, has created matter, which he has produced from his own fiat—his essence or substance. They have made him the mirror of the universe, and the soul of the universe. They have made him an infinite being, who fills all space by his immensity, although the material world occupies some part in space. They have made him a being all powerful, but whose projects are incessantly varying, who neither can nor will maintain man in good order, nor permit the freedom of action necessary for rational beings, and who is alternately pleased and displeased with the same beings and their actions. They make him an infinite good Father, but who avenges himself without measure. They make of him a monarch infinitely just, but who confounds the innocent with the guilty, who has mingled injustice and cruelty, in causing his own Son to be put to death to expiate the crimes of the human kind; though they are incessantly sinning and repenting for pardon. They make of him a being full of wisdom and foresight, yet insensible to the folly and shortsightedness of mortals. They make him a reasonable being who becomes angry at the thoughts of his creatures, though involuntary, and consequently necessary; thoughts which he himself puts into their heads; and who condemns them to eternal punishments if they believe not in reveries that are incompatible with the divine attributes, or who dare to doubt whether God can possess qualities that are not capable of being reconciled among themselves.
Is it, then, surprising that so many good people are shocked at the revolting ideas, so contradictory and so appalling, which hurl mortals into a state of uncertainty and doubt as to the existence of the Deity, or even to force them into absolute denial of the same? It is impossible to admit, in effect, the doctrine of the Deity of priestcraft, in which we constantly see infinite perfections, allied with imperfections the most striking; in which, when we reflect but momentarily, we shall find that it cannot produce but disorder in the imagination, and leaves it wandering among errors that reduce it to despair, or some impostors, who, to subjugate mankind, have wished to throw them into embarrassment, confound their reason, and fill them with terror. Such appear, in effect, to be the motives of those who have the arrogance to pretend to a secret knowledge, which they distribute among mankind, though they have no knowledge even of themselves. They always paint God under the traits of an inaccessible tyrant, who never shows himself but to his ministers and favorites, who please to veil him from the eyes of the vulgar; and who are violently irritated when they find any who oppose their pretensions, or when they refuse to believe the priests and their unintelligible farragoes.
If, as I have often said, it be impossible to believe what we cannot comprehend, or to be intimately convinced of that of which we can form no distinct and clear ideas, we may thence conclude that, when the Christians assure us they believe that God has announced himself in some secret and peculiar way to them that he has not done to other men, either they are themselves deceived, or they wish to deceive us. Their faith, or their belief in God, is merely an acceptance of what their priests have taught them of a Being whose existence they have rendered more than doubtful to those who would reason and meditate. The Deity cannot, assuredly, be the being whom the Christians admit on the word of their theologians. Is there, in good truth, a man in the world who can form any idea of a spirit? If we ask the priests what a spirit is, they will tell us that a spirit is an immaterial being who has none of the passions of which men are the subjects. But what is an immaterial spirit? It is a being that has none of the qualities which we can fathom; that has neither form, nor extension, nor color.
But how can we be assured of the existence of a being who has none of these qualities? It is by faith, say the priests, that we must be assured of his existence. But what is this faith? It is to adhere, without examination, to what the priests tell us. But what is it the priests tell us of God? They tell us of things which we can neither comprehend nor they reconcile among themselves. The existence, even of God, has, in their hands, become the most impenetrable mystery in religion. But do the priests themselves comprehend this ineffable God, whom they announce to other men? Have they just ideas of him? Are they themselves sincerely convinced of the existence of a being who unites incompatible qualities which reciprocally exclude the one or the other? We cannot admit it; and we are authorized to conclude, that when the priests profess to believe in God, either they know not what they say, or they wish to deceive us.
Do not then be surprised, Madam, if you should find that there are, in fact, people who have ventured to doubt of the existence of the Deity of the theologians, because, on meditating on the descriptions given of him, they have discovered them to be incomprehensible, or replete with contradiction. Do not be astonished if they never listen, in reasoning, to any arguments that oppose themselves to common sense, and seek, for the existence of the priests' Deity, other proofs than have yet been offered mankind. His existence cannot be demonstrated in revelations, which we discover, on examination, to be the work of imposture; revelations sap the foundations laid down for belief in a Divinity, which they would wish to establish. This existence cannot be founded on the qualities which our priests have assigned to the Divinity, seeing that, in the association of these qualities, there only results a God whom we cannot comprehend, and by consequence of whom we can form no certain ideas. This existence cannot be founded on the moral qualities which our priests attribute to the Divinity, seeing these are irreconcilable in the same subject, who cannot be at once good and evil, just and unjust, merciful and implacable, wise and the enemy of human reason.
On what, then, ought we to found the existence of God? The priests themselves tell us that it is on reason, the spectacle of nature, and on the marvellous order which appears in the universe. Those to whom these motives for believing in the existence of the Divinity do not appear convincing, find not, in any of the religions in the world, motives more persuasive; for all systems of theology, framed for the exercise of the imagination, plunge us into more uncertainty respecting their evidence, when they appeal to nature for proofs of what they advance.
What, then, are we to think of the God of the clergy? Can we think that he exists, without reasoning on that existence? And what shall we think of those who are ignorant of this God, or have no belief in his existence; who cannot discover him in the works of nature, either as good or evil; who behold only order and disorder succeeding alternately? What idea shall we form of those men who regard matter as eternal, as actuated on by laws, peculiar to itself; as sufficiently powerful to produce itself under all the forms we behold; as perpetually exerting itself in nourishing and destroying itself, in combining and dissolving itself; as incapable of love or of hatred; as deprived of the faculties of intelligence and sentiment known to belong to beings of our species, but capable of supporting those beings whose organization has made them intelligent, sensible, and reasonable?
What shall we say of those Freethinkers who find neither good nor evil, neither order nor disorder, in the universe; that all things are but relative to different conditions of beings, of which they have evidence; and that all that happens in the universe is necessary, and subjected to destiny? In a word, what shall we think of these men?
Shall we say that they have only a different manner of viewing things, or that they use different words in expressing themselves? They call that Nature which others call the Divinity; they call that Necessity which all others call the Divine decrees; they call that the Energy of Nature which others call the Author of Nature; they call that Destiny, or Fate, which others call God, whose laws are always going forward.
Have we, then, any right to hate and to exterminate them? No, without doubt; at least, we cannot admit that we have any reason that those should perish, who speak only the same language with ourselves, and who are reciprocally beneficial to us. Nevertheless, it is to this degree of extravagance that the baneful ideas of religion have carried the human mind. Harassed, and set on by their priests, men have hated and assassinated each other, because that in religious matters they agree not to one creed. Vanity has made some imagine that they are better than others, more intelligible, although they see that theology is a language which they neither understand, nor which they themselves could invent. The very name of Freethinker suffices to irritate them, and to arm the fury of others, who repeat, without ceasing, the name of God, without having any precise idea of the Deity. If, by chance, they imagine that they have any notions of him, they are only confused, contradictory, incompatible, and senseless notions, which have been inspired in their infancy by their priests, and those who, as we have seen, have painted God in all those traits which their imagination furnished, or those who appear more conformed to their passions and interests than to the well-being of their fellow-creatures.
The least reflection will, nevertheless, suffice to make any one perceive, that God, if he is just and good, cannot exist as a being known to some, but unknown to others. If Freethinkers are men void of reason, God would be unjust to punish them for being blind and insensible, or for having too little penetration and understanding to perceive the force of those natural proofs on which the existence of the Deity has been founded. A God full of equity cannot punish men for having been blind or devoid of reason. The Freethinkers, as foolish as they are supposed, are beings less insensible than those who make professions of believing in a God full of qualities that destroy one another; they are less dangerous than the adorers of a changeable Deity, who, they imagine, is pleased with the extermination of a large portion of mankind, on account of their opinions. Our speculations are indifferent to God, whose glory man cannot tarnish—whose power mortals cannot abridge. They may, however, be advantageous to ourselves; they may be perfectly indifferent to society, whose happiness they may not affect; or they may be the reverse of all this. For it is evident that the opinions of men do not influence the happiness of society.
Hence, Madam, let us leave men to think as they please, provided that they act in such a manner as promotes the general good of society. The thoughts of men injure not others; their actions may—their reveries never. Our ideas, our thoughts, our systems, depend not on us. He who is fully convinced on one point, is not satisfied on another. All men have not the same eyes, nor the same brains; all have not the same ideas, the same education, or the same opinions; they never agree wholly, when they have the temerity to reason on matters that are enveloped in the obscurity of imaginative fiction, and which cannot be subject to the usual evidence accompanying matters of report, or historic relation.
Men do not long dispute on objects that are cognizable to their senses, and which they can submit to the test of experience. The number of self-evident truths on which men agree is very small; and the fundamentals of morality are among this number. It is obvious to all men of sense, that beings, united in society, require to be regulated by justice, that they ought to respect the happiness of each other, that mutual succor is indispensable; in a word, that they are obliged to practise virtue, and to be useful to society, for personal happiness. It is evident to demonstration, that the interest of our preservation excites us to moderate our desires, and put a bridle on our passions; to renounce dangerous habits, and to abstain from vices which can only injure our fortune, and undermine our health. These truths are evident to every being whose passions have not dominion over his reason; they are totally independent of theological speculations, which have neither evidence nor demonstration, and which our mind can never verify; they have nothing in common with the religious opinions on which the imagination soars from earth to sky, nor with the fanaticism and credulity which are so frequently producing among mankind the most opposite principles to morality and the well-being of society.
They who are of the Freethinkers' opinions are not more dangerous than they who are of the priests' opinions. In short, Christianity has produced effects more appalling than heathenism. The speculative principles of the Freethinkers have done no injury to society; the contagious principles of fanaticism and enthusiasm have only served to spread disorder on the earth. If there are dangerous notions and fatal speculations in the world, they are those of the devotees, who obey a religion that divides men, and excites their passions, and who sacrifice the interests of society, of sovereigns, and their subjects, to their own ambition, their avarice, their vengeance and fury.
There is no question that the Freethinker has motives to be good, even though he admit not notions that bridle his passions. It is true that the Freethinker has no invisible motives, but he has motives, and a visible restraint, which, if he reflects, cannot fail to regulate his actions. If he doubts about religion, he does not question the laws of moral obligation; nor that it is his duty to moderate his passions, to labor for his happiness and that of others, to avoid hatred, disdain, and discord as crimes; and that he should shun vices which may injure his constitution, reputation, and fortune. Thus, relatively to his morality, the Freethinker has principles more sure than those of superstition and fanaticism. In fine, if nothing can restrain the Freethinker, a thousand forces united would not prevent the fanatic from the commission of crimes, and the violation of duties the most sacred.
Besides, I believe that I have already proved that the morality of superstition has no certain principles; that it varies with the interests of the priests, who explain the intentions of the Divinity, as they find these accordant or discordant to their views and interests; which, alas! are too often the result of cruel and wicked purposes. On the contrary, the Freethinker, who has no morality but what he draws from the nature and character of man, and the constant events which transpire in society, has a certain morality that is not founded either on the caprice of circumstances or the prejudices of mankind; a morality that tells him when he does evil, and blames him for the evil so done, and that is superior to the morality of the intolerant fanatic and persecutor.
You thus perceive, Madam, on which side the morality of the Freethinkers leans, what advantages it possesses over that inculcated on the superstitious devotee, who knows no other rule than the caprice of his priest, nor any other morality than what suits the interest of the clergy, nor any other virtues than such as make him the slave of their will, and which are too often in opposition to the great interests of mankind. Thus you perceive, that what is understood by the natural morality of the Freethinker, is much more constant and more sure than that of the superstitious, who believe they can render themselves agreeable to God by the intercession of priests. If the Freethinker is blind or corrupted, by not knowing his duties which nature prescribes to him, it is precisely in the same way as the superstitious, whose invisible motives and sacred guides prevent him not from going occasionally astray.
These reflections will serve to confirm what I have already said, to prove that morality has nothing in common with religion; and that religion is its own enemy, though it pretends to dispense with support from other sources. True morality is founded on the nature of man; the morality of religion is founded only on the chimeras of imagination, and on the caprice of those who speak of the Deity in a language too often contrary to nature and right reason.
Allow me, then, Madam, to repeat to you, that morality is the only natural religion for man; the only object worthy his notice on earth; the only worship which he is required to render to the Deity. It is uniform, and replete with obvious duties, which rest not on the dictation of priests, blabbing chit-chat they do not understand. If it be this morality which I have defined, that makes us what we are, ought we not to labor strenuously for the happiness of our race? If it be this morality that makes us reasonable; that enables us to distinguish good from evil, the useful from the hurtful; that makes us sociable, and enables us to live in society to receive and repay mutual benefits; we ought at least to respect all those who are its friends. If it be this morality which sets bounds to our temper, it is that which interdicts the commission in thought, word, or action, of what would injure another, or disturb the happiness of society. If it attach us to the preservation of all that is dear to us, it points out how by a certain line of conduct we may preserve ourselves; for its laws, clear and of easy practice, inflict on those who disobey them instant punishment, fear, and remorse; on the other hand, the observance of its duties is accompanied with immediate and real advantages, and notwithstanding the depravity which prevails on earth, vice always finds itself punished, and virtue is not always deprived of the satisfaction it yields, of the esteem of men, and the recompense of society; even if men are in other respects unjust, they will concede to the virtuous the due meed of praise.
Behold, Madam, to what the dogmas of natural religion reduce us: in meditating on it, and in practising its duties, we shall be truly religious, and filled with the spirit of the Divinity; we shall be admired and respected by men; we shall be in the right way to be loved by those who rule over us, and respected by those who serve us; we shall be truly happy in this world, and we shall have nothing to fear in the next.
These are laws so clear, so demonstrable, and whose infraction is so evidently punished, whose observance is so surely recompensed, that they constitute the code of nature of all living beings, sentient and reasoning; all acknowledge their authority; all find in them the evidence of Deity, and consider those as sceptics who doubt their efficacy. The Freethinker does not refuse to acknowledge as fundamental laws, those which are obviously founded on the God of Nature, and on the immutable and necessary circumstances of things cognizable to the faculties of sentient natures. The Indian, the Chinese, the savage, perceives these self-evident laws, whenever he is not carried headlong by his passions into crime and error. In fine, these laws, so true, and so evident, never can appear uncertain, obscure, or false, as are those superstitious chimeras of the imagination, which knaves have substituted for the truths of nature and the dicta of common sense; and those devotees who know no other laws than those of the caprices of their priests, necessarily obey a morality little calculated to produce personal or general happiness, but much calculated to lead to extravagance and inconvenient practices.
Hence, charming Eugenia, you will allow mankind to think as they please, and judge of them after their actions. Oppose reason to their systems, when they are pernicious to themselves or others; remove their prejudices if you can, that they may not become the victims of their caprices; show them the truth, which may always remove error; banish from their minds the phantoms which disturb them; advise them not to meditate on the mysteries of their priests; bid them renounce all those illusions they have substituted for morality; and advise them to turn their thoughts on that which conduces to their happiness. Meditate yourself on your own nature, and the duties which it imposes on you. Fear those chastisements which follow inattention to this law. Be ambitious to be approved by your own understanding, and you will rarely fail to receive the applauses of the human kind, as a good member of society.
If you wish to meditate, think with the greatest strength of your mind on your nature. Never abandon the torch of reason; cherish truth sincerely. When you are in uncertainty, pause, or follow what appears the most probable, always abandoning opinions that are destitute of foundation, or evidence of their truth and benefit to society. Then will you, in good truth, yield to the impulse of your heart when reason is your guide; then will you consult in the calmness of passion, and counsel yourself on the advantages of virtue, and the consequences of its want; and you may flatter yourself that you cannot be displeasing to a wise God, though you disbelieve absurdities, nor agreeable to a good God in doing things hurtful to yourself or to others.
Leaving you now to your own reflections, I shall terminate the series of Letters you have allowed me to address you. Bidding you an affectionate farewell,
I am truly yours.