LETTERS TO EUGENIA;
A PRESERVATIVE AGAINST RELIGIOUS PREJUDICES.
BY BARON D'HOLBACH, AUTHOR OF THE SYSTEM OF NATURE, THE SOCIAL SYSTEM, GOOD SENSE, CHRISTIANITY UNVEILED, ECCE HOMO, UNIVERSAL MORALITY, RELIGIOUS CRUELTY, &c., &c., &c.
TRANSLATED FROM THE FRENCH, BY ANTHONY C. MIDDLETON, M. D.
... "Arctis Religionum animos nodis exsolvere pergo." LUCRETII De Rerum Natura, lib. iv. v. 6, 7.
BOSTON: PUBLISHED BY JOSIAH P. MENDUM, AT THE OFFICE OF THE BOSTON INVESTIGATOR. 1857.
For many years this work has been known under the title of Letters to Eugenia. The secretive character of those, however, into whose hands the manuscript at first fell; the singular and yet actual pleasure that is caused generally enough in the minds of all men by the exclusive possession of any object whatever; that kind of torpor, servitude, and terror in which the tyrannical power of the priests then held all minds—even those who by the superiority of their talents ought naturally to be the least disposed to bend under the odious yoke of the clergy,—all these circumstances united contributed so much to stifle in its birth, if I may so express myself, this important manuscript, that for a long time it was supposed to be lost; so much did those who possessed it keep it carefully concealed, and so constantly did they refuse to allow a copy to be taken. The manuscripts, indeed, were so scarce, even in the libraries of the curious, that the late M. De Boze, whose pleasure it was to collect the rarest works belonging to every species of literature, could never succeed in acquiring a copy of the Letters to Eugenia, and in his time there were only three in Paris; it may have been from design, propter metum Judaeorum; it may have been there were actually no more known.
 On account of fear of the Jews, or, in other words, the intolerant clergy of the despotic government.
It is not till within five or six years that MSS. of these letters have become more common; and there is reason to believe that they are now considerably multiplied, since the copy from which this edition is printed has been revised and corrected by collation with six others, that have been collected without any great difficulty. Unhappily, all these copies swarm with faults, which corrupt the sense, and comprehend many variations, but which also, to use the language of the Biblical critics, have served sometimes to discover and to fix the true reading! More often, however, they have rendered it more uncertain than it was before what one ought to be followed—a new proof of the multiplicity of copies, because the more numerous are the manuscripts of a work, the more they differ from each other, as any one may be fully convinced by consulting those of the Letter of Thrasybulus to Leucippus, and the various readings of the New Testament collected by the learned Mill, and which amount to more than thirty thousand.
However this may be, we have spared no pains to reestablish the text in all its purity; and we venture to say, that, with the exception of four or five passages, which we found corrupted in all the manuscripts that we had an opportunity to collate, and which we have amended to the best of our ability, the edition of these letters that we now offer to the reader will probably conform almost exactly with the original manuscript of the author.
With regard to the author's name and quality we can offer nothing but conjectures. The only particulars of his life upon which there is a general agreement are, that he lived upon terms of great intimacy with the Marquis de la Fare, the Abbe de Chaulieu, the Abbe Terrasson, Fontenelle, M. de Lassere, &c. The late MM. Du Marsais and Falconnet have often been heard to declare that these letters were composed by some one belonging to the school of Seaux. All that we can pronounce with certainty is the fact, that it is only necessary to read the work to be entirely convinced the author was a man of extensive knowledge, and one who had meditated profoundly concerning the matters upon which he has treated. His style is clear, simple, easy, and in which we may remark a certain urbanity, that leads us to be sure that he was not an obscure individual, nor one to whom good company and polished society were unfamiliar. But what especially distinguishes this work, and which should endear it to all good and virtuous people, is the signal honesty which pervades and characterizes it from the very beginning to the end. It is impossible to read it without conceiving the highest idea of the author's probity, whoever he may have been—without desiring to have had him for a friend, to have lived with him, and, in a word, without rendering justice to the rectitude of his intentions, even when we do not approve of his sentiments. The love of virtue, universal benevolence, respect to the laws, an inviolable attachment to the duties of morality, and, in fine, all that can contribute to render men better, is strongly recommended in these Letters. If, on the one hand, he completely overthrows the ruinous edifice of Christianity, it is to erect, on the other hand, the immovable foundations of a system of morality legitimately established upon the nature of man, upon his physical wants, and upon his social relations—a base infinitely better and more solid than that of religion, because sooner or later the lie is discovered, rejected, and necessarily drags with it what served to sustain it. On the contrary, the truth subsists eternally, and consolidates itself as it grows old: Opinionum commenta delet dies, naturae judicia confirmat.
 "Time effaces the comments of opinion, but it confirms the judgments of nature."—CICERO.
The motto affixed to many of the manuscript copies of these letters proves that the worthy man to whom we owe them did not desire to be known as their author, and that it was neither the love of reputation, nor the thirst of glory, nor the ambition of being distinguished by bold opinions, which the priests, and the satellites subjected to them by ignorance, denominate impieties, which guided his pen. It was only the desire of doing good to his fellow-beings by enlightening them, which actuated him, and the wish to uproot, so to speak, religion itself, as being the source of all the woes which have afflicted mankind for so many ages. This is the motto of which we spoke:—
"Si j'ai raison, qu'importe a qui je suis?" (If reason's mine, no matter who I am.)
It is a verse of Corneille, whose application is exceedingly appropriate, and which should be upon the frontispiece of all books of this nature.
We are unable to say any thing more certain concerning the person to whom our author has addressed his work. It appears, however, from many circumstances in these Letters, that she was not a supposititious marchioness, like her of the Worlds of M. de Fontenelle, and that they have really been written to a woman as distinguished by her rank as by her manners. Perhaps she was a lady of the school of the Temple, or of Seaux. But these details, in reality, as well as those which concern the name and the life of our author, the date of his birth, that of his death, &c., are of little importance, and could only serve to satisfy the vain curiosity of some idle readers, who avidiously collect these kind of anecdotes, who receive from them a kind of existence in the world, and who feel more satisfaction from being instructed in them than from the discovery of a truth. I know that they endeavor to justify their curiosity by saying that when a person reads a book which creates a public sensation, and with which he is himself much pleased, it is natural he should desire to know to whom a grateful homage should be addressed. In this case the desire is so much the more unreasonable because it cannot be satisfied; first, because when death and proscription is the penalty, there has never been and there never will be a man of letters so imprudent, and, to speak plainly, so strangely daring, as to publish, or during his life to allow a book to be printed, in which he tramples under foot temples, altars, and the statues of the gods, and where he attacks without any disguise the most consecrated religious opinions; secondly, because it is a matter of public notoriety that all the works of this character which have appeared for many years are the secret testaments of numbers of great men, obliged during their lives to conceal their light under a bushel, whose heads death has withdrawn from the fury of persecutors, and whose cold ashes, consequently, do not hear in the tomb either the importunate and denunciatory cries of the superstitious, or the just eulogiums of the friends of truth; thirdly and lastly, because this curiosity, so unfortunately entertained, may compromise in the most cruel manner the repose, the fortune, and the liberty of the relatives and friends of the authors of these bold books! This single consideration ought, then, to determine those hazarders of conjectures, if they have really good intentions, to wrap in the inmost folds of their hearts whatever suspicions they may entertain concerning the author, however true or false they may be, and to turn their inquiring spirits to a use more beneficial for both themselves and others.
In 1819 an anonymous translation of the LETTERS TO EUGENIA was published in London by Richard Carlile. This translation in some of its parts was sufficiently complete and correct, but in others it was at absolute variance with the original work; in other parts, also, it was interlarded with matter not written by d'Holbach; and in others, large portions of the original Letters were entirely omitted, as were likewise a number of notes and the whole of the preliminary observations, with which the volume was introduced to the public by Naigeon, so long the intimate friend of both d'Holbach and Diderot. In again presenting the work in an English dress, the London translation has been made the foundation of this, but the whole has been thoroughly revised and collated with the original. The omitted portions have been translated and inserted in their proper places, and though some passages of the London work, not entirely faithful to the original, have been allowed to stand, yet the book, as it now appears, is essentially a new one, and is the most accurate and complete translation of the LETTERS TO EUGENIA which has ever been made into the English language.
The work at first came anonymously from the press, and the mystery of its authorship was sedulously maintained in the introductory observations of Naigeon, in consequence of the danger which then attended the issue of Infidel productions, not only in France but throughout Christendom. The book was printed in Amsterdam, at d'Holbach's own expense, by Marc-Michael Rey, a noble printer, to whom the world is greatly indebted for the inestimable aid he rendered the philosophers. But bold as he was, and then living in a country the most free of any in the world, he dared not openly send these LETTERS from his own press. They were issued in 1768, in two duodecimo volumes, without any publisher's name, and with the imprint of London on the title page, in order to set those persecutors at bay who were prowling for victims, and who sought to burn author, printer, and book at the same pile. The prudence of the author and printer saved them from this fate; but the book had hardly reached France before its sale was forbidden under penalty of fines and imprisonment, and it was condemned by an act of Parliament to be burnt by the public executioner in the streets of Paris, all of which particulars will be narrated in the BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIR OF BARON D'HOLBACH, which I am now preparing for the press.
Of the excellence of the LETTERS TO EUGENIA, nothing need here be said. The work speaks for itself, and abounds in that eloquence peculiar to its author, and overflows with kindly sentiments of humanity, benevolence and virtue. Like d'Holbach's other works, it is distinguished by an ardent love of liberty, and an invincible hatred of despotism; by an unanswerable logic, by deep thought, and by profound ideas. The tyrant and the priest are both displayed in their true colors; but while the author shows himself inexorable as fate towards oppressive hierarchies and false ideas, he is tender as an infant to the unfortunate, to those overburdened with unreasonable impositions, to those who need consolation and guidance, and to those searching after truth. Addressed, as the LETTERS were, to a lady suffering from religious falsehoods and terrors, the object of the writer is set forth in the motto from Lucretius which he placed on the title page, and which may thus be expressed in English:—
"Reason's pure light I seek to give the mind, And from Religion's fetters free mankind."
A. C. M.
The name of the lady was designedly kept in secrecy, and was unknown, except to a very few, till some years after d'Holbach's death. We now know from the Feuilles Posthumes of Lequinio, who had it from Naigeon, that the Letters were written several years before their publication, for the instruction of a lady formerly distinguished at the French Court for her graces and virtues. They were addressed to the charming Marguerite, Marchioness de Vermandois. Her husband held the lucrative post of farmer-general to the king, and besides inherited large estates. He possessed excellent natural abilities, and his mind was strengthened and adorned by culture and letters. Had his modesty permitted him to appear as such, he would now be known as a poet of genius and merit, for he wrote some poems and plays that were much admired by all who were allowed to peruse them. He was married in 1763, on the day he completed his twenty-first year, to Marguerite Justine d'Estrades, then only nineteen years of age, and whom he saw for the first time in his life only six weeks before they became husband and wife. Like most of the matches then made among the higher classes in France, this was one of a purely mercenary character. The father of the Marquis de Vermandois, and the father of Marguerite, as a means of joining their estates, contracted their children without deigning to consult the wishes of the parties, and obedience or disinheritance was the only alternative. When the compact was concluded, Marguerite was taken from the convent where for five years she had lived as a boarder and scholar, and commenced her married life and her course in the fashionable world at the same time. The match was far more fortunate than such matches then generally proved to be. Marguerite's husband was passionately attached to her, and that attachment was returned. The Marquis was a friend of Baron d'Holbach, and soon after his marriage introduced his wife to him. Among all the beauties of Paris the Marchioness was one of the most lovely and fascinating. Her features were remarkably beautiful, and the bloom and clearness of her complexion were such as absolutely to render necessary the old comparison of the rose and the lily to do them justice. To these were added a voluptuous figure, agreeable manners, the graces and vivacity of wit, and the still more enduring attractions of good humor, purity, and benevolence. A female like her could not but be dear to all who enjoyed her intimacy, and a strong friendship sprang up between her and Baron d'Holbach. Greatly pleased with him at first, Marguerite was afterwards as greatly shocked. When their intercourse had become so familiar as to permit that frankness and freedom of conversation which prevails among intimate friends, she discovered that the Baron was an unbeliever in the Christian dogmas which she had learned at the convent, where, in consequence of her mother's death, she had been educated. She had been taught that an Infidel was a monster in all respects, and she was astounded to find unbelievers in men so agreeable in manners and person, and so profound in learning, as d'Holbach, Diderot, d'Alembert, and others. She could deny neither their goodness nor their intellectual qualities, and while she admired the individuals she shuddered at their incredulity. Especially did she mourn over Baron d'Holbach. He had a wife as charming as herself, formerly the lovely Mademoiselle d'Aine, whose beautiful features and seductive figure presented
"A combination, and a form, indeed, Where every god did seem to set his seal."
Nothing was more natural than that two such women should imbibe the deepest tenderness for each other. But alas! the Baron's wife was tainted with her husband's heresies; and yet in their home did the Marchioness see all the domestic virtues exemplified, and beheld that sweet harmony and unchangeable affection for which the d'Holbachs were eminently distinguished among their acquaintances, and which was remarkable from its striking contrast with the courtly and Christian habits of the day. At a loss what to do, the Marchioness consulted her confessor, and was advised to withdraw entirely from the society of the Baron and his wife, unless she was willing to sacrifice all her hopes of heaven, and to plunge headlong down to hell. Her natural good sense and love of her friends struggled with her monastic education and reverence for the priests. The conflict rendered her miserable; and unable to enjoy happiness, she brooded over her wishes and her terrors. In this state of mind she at length wrote a touching letter to the Baron, and laid open her situation, requesting him to comfort, console, and enlighten her. Such was the origin of the book now presented in an English dress to the reader. It accomplished its purpose with the Marchioness de Vermandois, and afterwards its author concluded to publish the work, in hopes it might be equally useful to others.
The Letters were written in 1764, when d'Holbach was in the forty-second year of his age. Twelve different works he had before written and published, and all without the affix of his name. Eleven were upon mineralogy, the arts and the sciences, and one only upon theology. That one had been secretly printed in 1761, at Nancy, with the imprint of London, and was honored with a parliamentary statute condemning its publication and forbidding its sale or circulation. Christian hatred bestowed upon it the additional honor of causing it to be burned in the streets of Paris by the public executioner. But the prudence of the author protected his life. He attributed the book to a dead man, who had been known to entertain sceptical views. It was entitled CHRISTIANITY UNVEILED, and bore on its title page the name of BOULANGER. This was d'Holbach's first contribution to Infidel literature, and the second similar work written by him was the LETTERS TO EUGENIA. These were the preludes to more than a quarter of a hundred different productions numbering among them such books as Good Sense, The System of Nature, Ecce Homo, Priests Unmasked, &c., &c., all printed anonymously or pseudonymously at his own expense, without a possibility of pecuniary advantage, and with such extraordinary secrecy as to show that he was actuated by no desire of literary fame. It was love of truth alone that impelled d'Holbach to write. Brilliant, profound, eloquent and excellent as were his writings, attracting notice as they did from the civil and religious powers, commented upon as they were by such men as Voltaire and Frederick the Great, admired as they were by that class who felt and combated the evils of tyranny as well as of religion, of kings as well as of priests,—that class who almost drew their life from the books of him and his compeers,—he was never seduced from the rule he originally laid down for his literary conduct.
A very few persons he was obliged to trust in order to get his writings printed, and but for that fact Baron d'Holbach would now only be known as a gentleman of great wealth, extensive benevolence, and uncommon liberality, as a man of profound learning and agreeable colloquial powers, as the bountiful friend of men of letters, as the soother of the distressed, as the protector of the miserable, and as the affectionate husband and father. So much of him we should have known; but that he was the author of those books which roused intolerant priests and corrupt magistrates, consistories and parliaments, monarchs and philosophers, the people and their oppressors,—that he was the Archimedes that thus moved the world,—would not have been known had he not employed another philosopher, by the name of Naigeon, to carry his manuscripts to Amsterdam, and to direct their printing by Marc-Michel Rey. It was Naigeon who carried the manuscript of the LETTERS TO EUGENIA to Holland, together with a number of others by the same author, which also appeared during the year 1768,—an eventful year in the history of Infidel progress. The Letters were carefully revised by d'Holbach before they were sent to press. All the passages of a purely personal character were omitted, some new matter was incorporated, and some sentences were added purposely to keep the author and the lady he addressed in impenetrable obscurity. To raise the veil from a man of so much worth and genius, as well as to carry out his idea of doing good, is one of the reasons which have led to the present preparation and publication of this book.
A. C. M.
Of the Sources of Credulity, and of the Motives which should lead to an Examination of Religion, Page 1
Of the Ideas which Religion gives us of the Divinity, 29
An Examination of the Holy Scriptures, of the Nature of the Christian Religion, and of the Proofs upon which Christianity is founded, 46
Of the fundamental Dogmas of the Christian Religion, 76
Of the Immortality of the Soul, and of the Dogma of another Life, 91
Of the Mysteries, Sacraments, and Religious Ceremonies of Christianity, 120
Of the pious Rites, Prayers, and Austerities of Christianity, 136
Of Evangelical Virtues and Christian Perfection, 154
Of the Advantages contributed to Government by Religion, 184
Of the Advantages Religion confers on those who profess it, 211
Of Human or Natural Morality, 233
Of the small Consequence to be attached to Men's Speculations, and the Indulgence which should be extended to them, 255
LETTERS TO EUGENIA.
Of the Sources of Credulity, and of the Motives which should lead to an Examination of Religion.
I am unable, Madam, to express the grievous sentiments that the perusal of your letter produced in my bosom. Did not a rigorous duty retain me where I am, you would see me flying to your succor. Is it, then, true that Eugenia is miserable? Is even she tormented with chagrin, scruples, and inquietudes? In the midst of opulence and grandeur; assured of the tenderness and esteem of a husband who adores you; enjoying at court the advantage, so rare, of being sincerely beloved by every one; surrounded by friends who render sincere homage to your talents, your knowledge, and your tastes,—how can you suffer the pains of melancholy and sorrow? Your pure and virtuous soul can surely know neither shame nor remorse. Always so far removed from the weaknesses of your sex, on what account can you blush? Agreeably occupied with your duties, refreshed with useful reading and entertaining conversation, and having within your reach every diversity of virtuous pleasures, how happens it that fears, distastes, and cares come to assail a heart for which every thing should procure contentment and peace? Alas! even if your letter had not confirmed it but too much, from the trouble which agitates you I should have recognized without difficulty the work of superstition. This fiend alone possesses the power of disturbing honest souls, without calming the passions of the corrupt; and when once she gains possession of a heart, she has the ability to annihilate its repose forever.
Yes, Madam, for a long time I have known the dangerous effects of religious prejudices. I was myself formerly troubled with them. Like you I have trembled under the yoke of religion; and if a careful and deliberate examination had not fully undeceived me, instead of now being in a state to console you and to reassure you against yourself, you would see me at the present moment partaking your inquietudes, and augmenting in your mind the lugubrious ideas with which I perceive you to be tormented. Thanks to Reason and Philosophy, an unruffled serenity long ago irradiated my understanding, and banished the terrors with which I was formerly agitated. What happiness for me if the peace which I enjoy should put it in my power to break the charm which yet binds you with the chains of prejudice?
Nevertheless, without your express orders, I should never have dared to point out to you a mode of thinking widely different from your own, nor to combat the dangerous opinions to which you have been persuaded your happiness is attached. But for your request I should have continued to enclose in my own breast opinions odious to the most part of men accustomed to see nothing except by the eyes of judges visibly interested in deceiving them. Now, however, a sacred duty obliges me to speak. Eugenia, unquiet and alarmed, wishes me to explore her heart; she needs assistance; she wishes to fix her ideas upon an object which interests her repose and her felicity. I owe her the truth. It would be a crime longer to preserve silence. Although my attachment for her did not impose the necessity of responding to her confidence, the love of truth would oblige me to make efforts to dissipate the chimeras which render her unhappy.
I shall proceed then, Madam, to address you with the most complete frankness. Perhaps at the first glance my ideas may appear strange; but on examining them with still further care and attention, they will cease to shock you. Reason, good faith, and truth cannot do otherwise than exert great influence over such an intellect as yours. I appeal, therefore, from your alarmed imagination to your more tranquil judgment; I appeal from custom and prejudice to reflection and reason. Nature has given you a gentle and sensible soul, and has imparted an exquisitely lively imagination, and a certain admixture of melancholy which disposes to despondent revery. It is from this peculiar mental constitution that arise the woes that now afflict you. Your goodness, candor, and sincerity preclude your suspecting in others either fraud or malignity. The gentleness of your character prevents your contradicting notions that would appear revolting if you deigned to examine them. You have chosen rather to defer to the judgment of others, and to subscribe to their ideas, than to consult your own reason and rely upon your own understanding. The vivacity of your imagination causes you to embrace with avidity the dismal delineations which are presented to you; certain men, interested in agitating your mind, abuse your sensibility in order to produce alarm; they cause you to shudder at the terrible words, death, judgment, hell, punishment, and eternity; they lead you to turn pale at the very name of an inflexible judge, whose absolute decrees nothing can change; you fancy that you see around you those demons whom he has made the ministers of his vengeance upon his weak creatures; thus is your heart filled with affright; you fear that at every instant you may offend, without being aware of it, a capricious God, always threatening and always enraged. In consequence of such a state of mind, all those moments of your life which should only be productive of contentment and peace, are constantly poisoned by inquietudes, scruples, and panic terrors, from which a soul as pure as yours ought to be forever exempt. The agitation into which you are thrown by these fatal ideas suspends the exercise of your faculties; your reason is misled by a bewildered imagination, and you are afflicted with perplexities, with despondency, and with suspicion of yourself. In this manner you become the dupe of those men who, addressing the imagination and stifling reason, long since subjugated the universe, and have actually persuaded reasonable beings that their reason is either useless or dangerous.
Such is, Madam, the constant language of the apostles of superstition, whose design has always been, and will always continue to be, to destroy human reason in order to exercise their power with impunity over mankind. Throughout the globe the perfidious ministers of religion have been either the concealed or the declared enemies of reason, because they always see reason opposed to their views. Every where do they decry it, because they truly fear that it will destroy their empire by discovering their conspiracies and the futility of their fables. Every where upon its ruins they struggle to erect the empire of fanaticism and imagination. To attain this end with more certainty, they have unceasingly terrified mortals with hideous paintings, have astonished and seduced them by marvels and mysteries, embarrassed them by enigmas and uncertainties, surcharged them with observances and ceremonies, filled their minds with terrors and scruples, and fixed their eyes upon a future, which, far from rendering them more virtuous and happy here below, has only turned them from the path of true happiness, and destroyed it completely and forever in their bosoms.
Such are the artifices which the ministers of religion every where employ to enslave the earth and to retain it under the yoke. The human race, in all countries, has become the prey of the priests. The priests have given the name of religion to systems invented by them to subjugate men, whose imagination they had seduced, whose understanding they had confounded, and whose reason they had endeavored to extinguish.
It is especially in infancy that the human mind is disposed to receive whatever impression is made upon it. Thus our priests have prudently seized upon the youth to inspire them with ideas that they could never impose upon adults. It is during the most tender and susceptible age of men that the priests have familiarized the understanding of our race with monstrous fables, with extravagant and disjointed fancies, and with ridiculous chimeras, which, by degrees, become objects that are respected and that are feared during life.
We need only open our eyes to see the unworthy means employed by sacerdotal policy to stifle the dawning reason of men. During their infancy they are taught tales which are ridiculous, impertinent, contradictory, and criminal, and to these they are enjoined to pay respect. They are gradually impregnated with inconceivable mysteries that are announced as sacred truths, and they are accustomed to contemplate phantoms before which they habitually tremble. In a word, measures are taken which are the best calculated to render those blind who do not consult their reason, and to render those base who constantly shudder whenever they recall the ideas with which their priests infected their minds at an age when they were unable to guard against such snares.
Recall to mind, Madam, the dangerous cares which were taken in the convent where you were educated, to sow in your mind the germs of those inquietudes that now afflict you. It was there that they began to speak to you of fables, prodigies, mysteries, and doctrines that you actually revere, while, if these things were announced to-day for the first time, you would regard them as ridiculous, and as entirely unworthy of attention. I have often witnessed your laughter at the simplicity with which you formerly credited those tales of sorcerers and ghosts, that, during your childhood, were related by the nuns who had charge of your education. When you entered society where for a long time such chimeras have been disbelieved, you were insensibly undeceived, and at present you blush at your former credulity. Why have you not the courage to laugh, in a similar manner, at an infinity of other chimeras with no better foundation, which torment you even yet, and which only appear more respectable, because you have not dared to examine them with your own eyes, or because you see them respected by a public who have never explored them? If my Eugenia is enlightened and reasonable upon all other topics, why does she renounce her understanding and her judgment whenever religion is in question? In the mean time, at this redoubtable word her soul is disturbed, her strength abandons her, her ordinary penetration is at fault, her imagination wanders, she only sees through a cloud, she is unquiet and afflicted. On the watch against reason, she dares not call that to her assistance. She persuades herself that the best course for her to take is to allow herself to follow the opinions of a multitude who never examine, and who always suffer themselves to be conducted by blind or deceitful guides.
To reestablish peace in your mind, dear Madam, cease to despise yourself; entertain a just confidence in your own powers of mind, and feel no chagrin at finding yourself infected with a general and involuntary epidemic from which it did not depend on you to escape. The good Abbe de St. Pierre had reason when he said that devotion was the small pox of the soul. I will add that it is rare the disease does not leave its pits for life. Indeed, see how often the most enlightened persons persist forever in the prejudices of their infancy! These notions are so early inculcated, and so many precautions are continually taken to render them durable, that if any thing may reasonably surprise us, it is to see any one have the ability to rise superior to such influences. The most sublime geniuses are often the playthings of superstition. The heat of their imagination sometimes only serves to lead them the farther astray, and to attach them to opinions which would cause them to blush did they but consult their reason. Pascal constantly imagined that he saw hell yawning under his feet; Mallebranche was extravagantly credulous; Hobbes had a great terror of phantoms and demons; and the immortal Newton wrote a ridiculous commentary on the vials and visions of the Apocalypse. In a word, every thing proves that there is nothing more difficult than to efface the notions with which we are imbued during our infancy. The most sensible persons, and those who reason with the most correctness upon every other matter, relapse into their infancy whenever religion is in question.
 On this subject see Bayle's Dict. Crit., art. Hobbes, Rem. N.
Thus, Madam, you need not blush for a weakness which you hold in common with almost all the world, and from which the greatest men are not always exempt. Let your courage then revive, and fear not to examine with perfect composure the phantoms which alarm you. In a matter which so greatly interests your repose, consult that enlightened reason which places you as much above the vulgar, as it elevates the human species above the other animals. Far from being suspicious of your own understanding and intellectual faculties, turn your just suspicion against those men, far less enlightened and honest than you, who, to vanquish you, only address themselves to your lively imagination; who have the cruelty to disturb the serenity of your soul; who, under the pretext of attaching you only to heaven, insist that you must sunder the most tender and endearing ties; and in fine, who oblige you to proscribe the use of that beneficent reason whose light guides your conduct so judiciously and so safely.
Leave inquietude and remorse to those corrupt women who have cause to reproach themselves, or who have crimes to expiate. Leave superstition to those silly and ignorant females whose narrow minds are incapable of reasoning or reflection. Abandon the futile and trivial ceremonies of an objectionable devotion to those idle and peevish women, for whom, as soon as the transient reign of their personal charms is finished, there remains no rational relaxation to fill the void of their days, and who seek by slander and treachery to console themselves for the loss of pleasures which they can no longer enjoy. Resist that inclination which seems to impel you to gloomy meditation, solitude, and melancholy. Devotion is only suited to inert and listless souls, while yours is formed for action. You should pursue the course I recommend for the sake of your husband, whose happiness depends upon you; you owe it to the children, who will soon, undoubtedly, need all your care and all your instructions for the guidance of their hearts and understandings; you owe it to the friends who honor you, and who will value your society when the beauty which now adorns your person and the voluptuousness which graces your figure have yielded to the inroads of time; you owe it to the circle in which you move, and to the world which has a right to your example, possessing as you do virtues that are far more rare to persons of your rank than devotion. In fine, you owe happiness to yourself; for, notwithstanding the promises of religion, you will never find happiness in those agitations into which I perceive you cast by the lurid ideas of superstition. In this path you will only encounter doleful chimeras, frightful phantoms, embarrassments without end, crushing uncertainties, inexplicable enigmas, and dangerous reveries, which are only calculated to disturb your repose, to deprive you of happiness, and to render you incapable of occupying yourself with that of others. It is very difficult to make those around us happy when we are ourselves miserable and deprived of peace.
If you will even slightly make observations upon those about you, you will find abundant proofs of what I advance. The most religious persons are rarely the most amiable or the most social. Even the most sincere devotion, by subjecting those who embrace it to wearisome and crippling ceremonies, by occupying their imaginations with lugubrious and afflicting objects, by exciting their zeal, is but little calculated to give to devotees that equality of temper, that sweetness of an indulgent disposition, and that amenity of character, which constitute the greatest charms of personal intercourse. A thousand examples might be adduced to convince you that devotees who are the most occupied in superstitious observances to please God are not those women who succeed best in pleasing those by whom they are surrounded. If there seems to be occasionally an exception to this rule, it is on the part of those who have not all the zeal and fervor which is exacted by their religion. Devotion is either a morose and melancholy passion, or it is a violent and obstinate enthusiasm. Religion imposes an exclusive and entire regard upon its slaves. All that an acceptable Christian gives to a fellow-creature is a robbery from the Creator. A soul filled with religious fervor fears to attach itself to things of the earth, lest it should lose sight of its jealous God, who wishes to engross constant attention, who lays it down as a duty to his creatures that they should sacrifice to him their most agreeable and most innocent inclinations, and who orders that they should render themselves miserable here below, under the idea of pleasing him. In accordance with such principles, we generally see devotees executing with much fidelity the duty of tormenting themselves and disturbing the repose of others. They actually believe they acquire great merit with the Sovereign of heaven by rendering themselves perfectly useless, or even a scourge to the inhabitants of the earth.
I am aware, Madam, that devotion in you does not produce effects injurious to others; but I fear that it is only more injurious to yourself. The goodness of your heart, the sweetness of your disposition, and the beneficence which displays itself in all your conduct, are all so great that even religion does not impel you to any dangerous excesses. Nevertheless, devotion often causes strange metamorphoses. Unquiet, agitated, miserable within yourself, it is to be feared that your temperament will change, that your disposition will become acrimonious, and that the vexatious ideas over which you have so long brooded will sooner or later produce a disastrous influence upon those who approach you. Does not experience constantly show us that religion effects changes of this kind? What are called conversions, what devotees regard as special acts of divine grace, are very often only lamentable revolutions by which real vices and odious qualities are substituted for amiable and useful characteristics. By a deplorable consequence of these pretended miracles of grace we frequently see sorrow succeed to enjoyment, a gloomy and unhappy state to one of innocent gayety, lassitude and chagrin to activity and hilarity, and slander, intolerance, and zeal to indulgence and gentleness; nay, what do I say? cruelty itself to humanity. In a word, superstition is a dangerous leaven, that is fitted to corrupt even the most honest hearts.
Do you not see, in fact, the excesses to which fanaticism and zeal drive the wisest and best meaning men? Princes, magistrates, and judges become inhuman and pitiless as soon as there is a question of the interests of religion. Men of the gentlest disposition, the most indulgent, and the most equitable, upon every other matter, religion transforms to ferocious beasts. The most feeling and compassionate persons believe themselves in conscience obliged to harden their hearts, to do violence to their better instincts, and to stifle nature, in order to show themselves cruel to those who are denounced as enemies to their own manner of thinking. Recall to your mind, Madam, the cruelties of nations and governments in alternate persecutions of Catholics or Protestants, as either happened to be in the ascendant. Can you find reason, equity, or humanity in the vexations, imprisonments, and exiles that in our days are inflicted upon the Jansenists? And these last, if ever they should attain in their turn the power requisite for persecution, would not probably treat their adversaries with more moderation or justice. Do you not daily see individuals who pique themselves upon their sensibility unblushingly express the joy they would feel at the extermination of persons to whom they believe they owe neither benevolence nor indulgence, and whose only crime is a disdain for prejudices that the vulgar regard as sacred, or that an erroneous and false policy considers useful to the state? Superstition has so greatly stifled all sense of humanity in many persons otherwise truly estimable, that they have no compunctions at sacrificing the most enlightened men of the nation because they could not be the most credulous or the most submissive to the authority of the priests.
In a word, devotion is only calculated to fill the heart with a bitter rancor, that banishes peace and harmony from society. In the matter of religion, every one believes himself obliged to show more or less ardor and zeal. Have I not often seen you uncertain yourself whether you ought to sigh or smile at the self-depreciation of devotees ridiculously inflamed by that religious vanity which grows out of sectarian conventionalities? You also see them participating in theological quarrels, in which, without comprehending their nature or purport, they believe themselves conscientiously obliged to mingle. I have a hundred times seen you astounded with their clamors, indignant at their animosity, scandalized at their cabals, and filled with disdain at their obstinate ignorance. Yet nothing is more natural than these outbreaks; ignorance has always been the mother of devotion. To be a devotee has always been synonymous to having an imbecile confidence in priests. It is to receive all impulsions from them; it is to think and act only according to them; it is blindly to adopt their passions and prejudices; it is faithfully to fulfil practices which their caprice imposes.
Eugenia is not formed to follow such guides. They would terminate by leading her widely astray, by dazzling her vivid imagination, by infecting her gentle and amiable disposition with a deadly poison. To master with more certainty her understanding, they would render her austere, intolerant, and vindictive. In a word, by the magical power of superstition and supernatural notions, they would succeed, perhaps, in transforming to vices those happy dispositions that nature has given you. Believe me, Madam, you would gain nothing by such a metamorphosis. Rather be what you really are. Extricate yourself as soon as possible from that state of incertitude and languor, from that alternative of despondency and trouble, in which you are immersed. If you will only take your reason and virtue for guides, you will soon break the fetters whose dangerous effects you have begun to feel.
Assume the courage, then, I repeat it, to examine for yourself this religion, which, far from procuring you the happiness it promised, will only prove an inexhaustible source of inquietudes and alarms, and which will deprive you, sooner or later, of those rare qualities which render you so dear to society. Your interest exacts that you should render peace to your mind. It is your duty carefully to preserve that sweetness of temper, that indulgence, and that cheerfulness, by which you are so much endeared to all those who approach you. You owe happiness to yourself, and you owe it to those who surround you. Do not, then, abandon yourself to superstitious reveries, but collect all the strength of your judgment to combat the chimeras which torment your imagination. They will disappear as soon as you have considered them with your ordinary sagacity.
Do not tell me, Madam, that your understanding is too weak to sound the depths of theology. Do not tell me, in the language of our priests, that the truths of religion are mysteries that we must adopt without comprehending them, and that it is necessary to adore in silence. By expressing themselves in this manner, do you not see they really proscribe and condemn the very religion to which they are so solicitous you should adhere? Whatever is supernatural is unsuited to man, and whatever is beyond his comprehension ought not to occupy his attention. To adore what we are not able to know, is to adore nothing. To believe in what we cannot conceive, is to believe in nothing. To admit without examination every thing we are directed to admit, is to be basely and stupidly credulous. To say that religion is above reason, is to recognize the fact that it was not made for reasonable beings; it is to avow that those who teach it have no more ability to fathom its depths than ourselves; it is to confess that our reverend doctors do not themselves understand the marvels with which they daily entertain us.
If the truths of religion were, as they assure us, necessary to all men, they would be clear and intelligible to all men. If the dogmas which this religion teaches were as important as it is asserted, they would not only be within the comprehension of the doctors who preach them, but of all those who hear their lessons. Is it not strange that the very persons whose profession it is to furnish themselves with religions knowledge, in order to impart it to others, should recognize their own dogmas as beyond their own understanding, and that they should obstinately inculcate to the people what they acknowledge they do not comprehend themselves? Should we have much confidence in a physician, who, after confessing that he was utterly ignorant of his art, should nevertheless boast of the excellence of his remedies? This, however, is the constant practice of our spiritual quacks. By a strange fatality, the most sensible people consent to be the dupes of these empirics who are perpetually obliged to avow their own profound ignorance.
But if the mysteries of religion are incomprehensible for even those who inculcate it,—if among those who profess it there is no one who knows precisely what he believes, or who can give an account of either his conduct or belief,—this is not so in regard to the difficulties with which we oppose this religion. These objections are simple, within the comprehension of all persons of ordinary ability, and capable of convincing every man who, renouncing the prejudices of his infancy, will deign to consult the good sense that nature has bestowed upon all beings of the human race.
For a long period of time, subtle theologians have, without relaxation, been occupied in warding off the attacks of the incredulous, and in repairing the breaches made in the ruinous edifice of religion by adversaries who combated under the flag of reason. In all times there have been people who felt the futility of the titles upon which the priests have arrogated the right of enslaving the understandings of men, and of subjugating and despoiling nations. Notwithstanding all the efforts of the interested and frequently hypocritical men who have taken up the defence of religion, from which they and their confederates alone are profited, these apologists have never been able to vindicate successfully their divine system against the attacks of incredulity. Without cessation they have replied to the objections which have been made, but never have they refuted or annihilated them. Almost in every instance the defenders of Christianity have been sustained by oppressive laws on the part of the government; and it has only been by injuries, by declamations, by punishments and persecutions, that they have replied to the allegations of reason. It is in this manner that they have apparently remained masters of the field of battle which their adversaries could not openly contest. Yet, in spite of the disadvantages of a combat so unequal, and although the partisans of religion were accoutred with every possible weapon, and could show themselves openly, in accordance with law, while their adversaries had no arms but those of reason, and could not appear personally but at the peril of fines, imprisonment, torture, and death, and were restricted from bringing all their arsenal into service, yet they have inflicted profound, immedicable, and incurable wounds upon superstition. Still, if we believe the mercenaries of religion, the excellence of their system makes it absolutely invulnerable to every blow which can be inflicted upon it; and they pretend they have a thousand times in a victorious manner answered the objections which are continually renewed against them. In spite of this great security, we see them excessively alarmed every time a new combatant presents himself, and the latter may well and successfully use the most common objections, and those which have most frequently been urged, since it is evident that up to the present moment the arguments have never been obviated or opposed with satisfactory replies. To convince you, Madam, of what I here advance, you need only compare the most simple and ordinary difficulties which good sense opposes to religion, with the pretended solutions that have been given. You will perceive that the difficulties, evident even to the capacities of a child, have never been removed by divines the most practised in dialectics. You will find in their replies only subtle distinctions, metaphysical subterfuges, unintelligible verbiage, which can never be the language of truth, and which demonstrates the embarrassment, the impotence, and the bad faith of those who are interested by their position in sustaining a desperate cause. In a word, the difficulties which have been urged against religion are clear, and within the comprehension of every one, while the answers which have been given are obscure, entangled, and far from satisfactory, even to persons most versed in such jargon, and plainly indicating that the authors of these replies do not themselves understand what they say.
If you consult the clergy, they will not fail to set forth the antiquity of their doctrine, which has always maintained itself, notwithstanding the continual attacks of the Heretics, the Mecreans, and the Impious generally, and also in spite of the persecutions of the Pagans. You have, Madam, too much good sense not to perceive at once that the antiquity of an opinion proves nothing in its favor. If antiquity was a proof of truth, Christianity must yield to Judaism, and that in its turn to the religion of the Egyptians and Chaldeans, or, in other words, to the idolatry which was greatly anterior to Moses. For thousands of years it was universally believed that the sun revolved round the earth, which remained immovable; and yet it is not the less true that the sun is fixed, and the earth moves around that. Besides, it is evident that the Christianity of to-day is not what it formerly was. The continual attacks that this religion has suffered from heretics, commencing with its earliest history, proves that there never could have existed any harmony between the partisans of a pretended divine system, which offended all rules of consistency and logic in its very first principles. Some parts of this celestial system were always denied by devotees who admitted other parts. If infidels have often attacked religion without apparent effect, it is because the best reasons become useless against the blindness of a superstition sustained by the public authority, or against the torrent of opinion and custom which sways the minds of most men. With regard to the persecutions which the church suffered on the part of the pagans, he is but slightly acquainted with the effects of fanaticism and religious obstinacy who does not perceive that tyranny is calculated to excite and extend what it persecutes most violently.
You are not formed to be the dupe of names and authorities. The defenders of the popular superstition will endeavor to overwhelm you by the multiplied testimony of many illustrious and learned men, who not only admitted the Christian religion, but who were also its most zealous supporters. They will adduce holy divines, great philosophers, powerful reasoners, fathers of the church, and learned interpreters, who have successively advocated the system. I will not contest the understanding of the learned men who are cited, which, however, was often faulty, but will content myself with repeating that frequently the greatest geniuses are not more clear sighted in matters of religion than the people themselves. They did not examine the religious opinions they taught; it may be because they regarded them as sacred, or it may be because they never went back to first principles, which they would have found altogether unsound, if they had considered them without prejudice. It may also have happened because they were interested in defending a cause with which their own position was allied. Thus their testimony is exceptionable, and their authority carries no great weight.
With regard to the interpreters and commentators, who for so many ages have painfully toiled to elucidate the divine laws, to explain the sacred books, and to fix the dogmas of Christianity, their very labors ought to inspire us with suspicion concerning a religion which is founded upon such books and which preaches such dogmas. They prove that works emanating from the Supreme Being are obscure, unintelligible, and need human assistance in order to be understood by those to whom the Divinity wished to reveal his will. The laws of a wise God would be simple and clear. Defective laws alone need interpreters.
It is not, then, Madam, upon these interpreters that you should rely; it is upon yourself; it is your own reason that you should consult. It is your happiness, it is your repose, that is in question; and these objects are too serious to allow their decision to be delegated to any others than yourself. If religion is as important as we are assured, it undoubtedly merits the greatest attention. If it is upon this religion that depends the happiness of men both in this world and in another, there is no subject which interests us so strongly, and which consequently demands a more thorough, careful, and considerate examination. Can there be any thing, then, more strange than the conduct of the great majority of men? Entirely convinced of the necessity and importance of religion, they still never give themselves the trouble to examine it thoroughly; they follow it in a spirit of routine and from habit; they never give any reason for its dogmas; they revere it, they submit to it, and they groan under its weight, without ever inquiring wherefore. In fine, they rely upon others to examine it; and they whose judgment they so blindly receive are precisely those persons upon whose opinions they should look with the most suspicion. The priests arrogate the possession of judging exclusively and without appeal of a system evidently invented for their own utility. And what is the language of these priests? Visibly interested in maintaining the received opinions, they exhibit them as necessary to the public good, as useful and consoling for us all, as intimately connected with morality, as indispensable to society, and, in a word, as of the very greatest importance. After having thus prepossessed our minds, they next prohibit our examining the things so important to be known. What must be thought of such conduct? You can only conclude that they desire to deceive you, that they fear examination only because religion cannot sustain it, and that they dread reason because it is able to unveil the incalculably dangerous projects of the priesthood against the human race.
For these reasons, Madam, as I cannot too often repeat, examine for yourself; make use of your own understanding; seek the truth in the sincerity of your heart; reduce prejudice to silence; throw off the base servitude of custom; be suspicious of imagination; and with these precautions, in good faith with yourself, you can weigh with an impartial hand the various opinions concerning religion. From whatever source an opinion may come, acquiesce only in that which shall be convincing to your understanding, satisfactory to your heart, conformable to a healthy morality, and approved by virtue. Reject with disdain whatever shocks your reason, and repulse with horror those notions so criminal and injurious to morality which religion endeavors to palm off for supernatural and divine virtues.
What do I say? Amiable and wise Eugenia, examine rigorously the ideas that, by your own desire, I shall hereafter present you. Let not your confidence in me, or your deference to my weak understanding, blind you in regard to my opinions. I submit them to your judgment. Discuss them, combat them, and never give them your assent until you are convinced that in them you recognize the truth. My sentiments are neither divine oracles nor theological opinions which it is not permitted to canvass. If what I say is true, adopt my ideas. If I am deceived, point out my errors, and I am ready to recognize them and to subscribe my own condemnation. It will be very pleasant, Madam, to learn truths of you which, up to the present time, I have vainly sought in the writings of our divines. If I have at this moment any advantage over you, it is due entirely to that tranquillity which I enjoy, and of which at present you are unhappily deprived. The agitations of your mind, the inquietudes of your body, and the attacks of an exacting and ceremonious devotion, with which your soul is perplexed, prevent you, for the moment, from seeing things coolly, and hinder you from making use of your own understanding; but I have no doubt that soon your intellect, strengthened by reason against vain chimeras, will regain its natural vigor and the superiority which belongs to it. In awaiting this moment that I foresee and so much desire, I shall esteem myself extremely happy if my reflections shall contribute to render you that tranquillity of spirit so necessary to judge wisely of things, and without which there can be no true happiness.
I perceive, Madam, though rather tardily, the length of this letter; but I hope you will pardon it, as well as my frankness. They will at least prove the lively interest I take in your painful situation, the sincere desire I feel to bring it to a termination, and the strong inclination which actuates me to restore you to your accustomed serenity. Less pressing motives would never have been sufficient to make me break silence. Your own positive orders were necessary to lead me to speak of objects which, once thoroughly examined, give no uneasiness to a healthy mind. It has been a law with me never to explain myself upon the subject of religion. Experience has often convinced me that the most useless of enterprises is to seek to undeceive a prejudiced mind. I was very far from believing that I ought ever to write upon these subjects. You alone, Madam, had the power to conquer my indolence, and to impel me to change my resolution. Eugenia afflicted, tormented with scruples, and ready to plunge herself into gloomy austerities and superstitions, calculated to render her unamiable to others, without contributing happiness to herself, honored me with her confidence, and requested counsel of her friend. She exacted that I should speak. "It is enough," I said; "let me write for Eugenia; let me endeavor to restore the repose she has lost; let me labor with ardor for her upon whose happiness that of so many others is dependent."
Such, Madam, are the motives which induce me to take my pen in hand. In looking forward to the time when you will be undeceived, I shall dare at least to flatter myself that you will not regard me with the same eyes with which priests and devotees look upon every one who has the temerity to contradict their ideas. To believe them, every man who declares himself against religion is a bad citizen, a madman armed to justify his passions, a perturbator of the public repose, and an enemy of his fellow-citizens, that cannot be punished with too much rigor. My conduct is known to you; and the confidence with which you honor me is sufficient for my apology. It is for you alone that I write. It is to dissipate the clouds that obscure your mental horizon that I communicate reflections which, but for reasons so pressing, I should have always enclosed in my own bosom. If by chance they shall hereafter fall into other hands than yours, and be found of some utility, I shall felicitate myself for having contributed to the establishment of happiness by leading back to reason minds which had wandered from it, by making truth to be felt and known, and by unmasking impostures which have caused so many misfortunes upon the earth.
In a word, I submit my reasoning to your judgment, I confide fully in your discretion, and I allow myself to conclude that my ideas, after you are disabused of the vain terrors with which you are now oppressed, will fully convince you that this religion, which is exhibited to men as a concern the most important, the most true, the most interesting, and the most useful, is only a tissue of absurdities, is calculated to confound reason, to disturb the understanding, and can be advantageous to none save those who make use of it to govern the human race. I shall acknowledge myself in the wrong if I do not prove, in the clearest manner, that religion is false, useless, and dangerous, and that morality, in its stead, should occupy the spirits and animate the souls of all men.
I shall enter more particularly into the subject in my next letter. I shall go back to first principles, and in the course of this correspondence I flatter myself I shall completely demonstrate that these objects, which theology endeavors to render intricate, and to envelop with clouds, in order to make them more respectable and sacred, are not only entirely susceptible of being understood by you, but that they are likewise within the comprehension of every one who possesses even an ordinary share of good sense. If my frankness shall appear too undisguised, I beg you to consider, Madam, that it is necessary I should address you explicitly and clearly. I now consider it my duty to administer an energetic and prompt remedy for the malady with which I perceive you to be attacked. Besides, I venture to hope that in a short time you will feel gratified that I have shown you the truth in all its integrity and brilliancy. You will pardon me for having dissipated the unreal and yet harassing phantoms which infested your mind. But let my success be what it may, my efforts to confer tranquillity upon you will at least be evidences of the interest I take in your happiness, of my zeal to serve you, and of the respect with which I am your sincere and attached friend.
Of the Ideas which Religion gives us of the Divinity.
Every religion is a system of opinions and conduct founded upon the notions, true or false, that we entertain of the Divinity. To judge of the truth of any system, it is requisite to examine its principles, to see if they accord, and to satisfy ourselves whether all its parts lend a mutual support to each other. A religion, to be true, should give us true ideas of God; and it is by our reason alone that we are able to decide whether what theology asserts concerning this being and his attributes is true or otherwise. Truth for men is only conformity to reason; and thus the same reason which the clergy proscribe is, in the last resort, our only means of judging the system that religion proposes for our assent. That God can only be the true God who is most conformable to our reason, and the true worship can be no other than that which reason approves.
Religion is only important in accordance with the advantages it bestows upon mankind. The best religion must be that which procures its disciples the most real, the most extensive, and the most durable advantages. A false religion must necessarily bestow upon those who practise it only a false, chimerical, and transient utility. Reason must be the judge whether the benefits derived are real or imaginary. Thus, as we constantly see, it belongs to reason to decide whether a religion, a mode of worship, or a system of conduct is advantageous or injurious to the human race.
It is in accordance with these incontestable principles that I shall examine the religion of the Christians. I shall commence by analyzing the ideas which their system gives us of the Divinity, which it boasts of presenting to us in a more perfect manner than all other religions in the world. I shall examine whether these ideas accord with each other, whether the dogmas taught by this religion are conformable to those fundamental principles which are every where acknowledged, whether they are consonant with them, and whether the conduct which Christianity prescribes answers to the notions which itself gives us of the Divinity. I shall conclude the inquiry by investigating the advantages that the Christian religion procures the human race—advantages, according to its partisans, that infinitely surpass those which result from all the other religions of the earth.
The Christian religion, as the basis of its belief, sets forth an only God, which it defines as a pure spirit, as an eternal intelligence, as independent and immutable, who has infinite power, who is the cause of all things, who foresees all things, who fills immensity, who created from nothing the world and all it encloses, and who preserves and governs it according to the laws of his infinite wisdom, and the perfections of his infinite goodness and justice, which are all so evident in his works.
Such are the ideas that Christianity gives us of the Divinity. Let us now see whether they accord with the other notions presented to us by this religious system, and which it pretends were revealed by God himself; or, in other words, that these truths were received directly from the Deity, who concealed them from the remainder of mankind, and deprived them of a knowledge of his essence. Thus the Christian religion is founded upon a special revelation. And to whom was the revelation made? At first to Abraham, and then to his posterity. The God of the universe, then, the Father of all men, was only willing to be known to the descendants of a Chaldean, who for a long series of years were the exclusive possessors of the knowledge of the true God. By an effect of his special kindness, the Jewish people was for a long time the only race favored with a revelation equally necessary for all men. This was the only people which understood the relations between man and the Supreme Being. All other nations wandered in darkness, or possessed no ideas of the Sovereign of nature but such as were crude, ridiculous, or criminal.
Thus, at the very first step, do we not see that Christianity impairs the goodness and justice of its God? A revelation to a particular people only announces a partial God, who favors a portion of his children, to the prejudice of all the others; who consults only his caprice, and not real merit; who, incapable of conferring happiness upon all men, shows his tenderness solely to some individuals, who have, however, no titles upon his consideration not possessed by the others. What would you say of a father who, placed at the head of a numerous family, had no eyes but for a single one of his children, and who never allowed himself to be seen by any of them except that favored one? What would you say if he was displeased with the rest for not being acquainted with his features, notwithstanding he would never allow them to approach his person? Would you not accuse such a father of caprice, cruelty, folly, and a want of reason, if he visited with his anger the children whom he had himself excluded from his presence? Would you not impute to him an injustice of which none but the most brutal of our species could be guilty if he actually punished them for not having executed orders which he was never pleased to give them?
Conclude, then, with me, Madam, that the revelation of a religion to only a single tribe or nation sets forth a God neither good, impartial, nor equitable, but an unjust and capricious tyrant, who, though he may show kindness and preference to some of his creatures, at any rate acts with the greatest cruelty towards all the others. This admitted, revelation does not prove the goodness, but the caprice and partiality of the God that religion represents to us as full of sagacity, benevolence, and equity, and that it describes as the common father of all the inhabitants of the earth. If the interest and self-love of those whom he favors makes them admire the profound views of a God because he has loaded them with benefits to the prejudice of their brethren, he must appear very unjust, on the other hand, to all those who are the victims of his partiality. A hateful pride alone could induce a few persons to believe that they were, to the exclusion of all others, the cherished children of Providence. Blinded by their vanity, they do not perceive that it is to give the lie to universal and infinite goodness to suppose that God was capable of favoring with his preference some men or nations, to the exclusion of others. All ought to be equal in his eyes if it is true they are all equally the work of his hands.
It is, nevertheless, upon partial revelations that are founded all the religions of the world. In the same manner that every individual believes himself the most important being in the universe, every nation entertains the idea that it ought to enjoy the peculiar tenderness of the Sovereign of nature, to the exclusion of all the others. If the inhabitants of Hindostan imagine that it was for them alone that Brama spoke, the Jews and the Christians have persuaded themselves that it was only for them that the world was created, and that it is solely for them that God was revealed.
But let us suppose for a moment that God has really made himself known. How could a pure spirit render himself sensible? What form did he take? Of what material organs did he make use in order to speak? How can an infinite Being communicate with those which are finite? I may be assured that, to accommodate himself to the weakness of his creatures, he made use of the agency of some chosen men to announce his wishes to all the rest, and that he filled these agents with his spirit, and spoke by their mouths. But can we possibly conceive that an infinite Being could unite himself with the finite nature of man? How can I be certain that he who professes to be inspired by the Divinity does not promulgate his own reveries or impostures as the oracles of heaven? What means have I of recognizing whether God really speaks by his voice? The immediate reply will be, that God, to give weight to the declarations of those whom he has chosen to be his interpreters, endowed them with a portion of his own omnipotence, and that they wrought miracles to prove their divine mission.
I therefore inquire, What is a miracle? I am told that it is an operation contrary to the laws of nature, which God himself has fixed; to which I reply, that, according to the ideas I have formed of the divine wisdom, it appears to me impossible that an immutable God can change the wise laws which he himself has established. I thence conclude that miracles are impossible, seeing they are incompatible with our ideas of the wisdom and immutability of the Creator of the universe. Besides, these miracles would be useless to God. If he be omnipotent, can he not modify the minds of his creatures according to his own will?
To convince and to persuade them, he has only to will that they shall be convinced and persuaded. He has only to tell them things that are clear and sensible, things that may be demonstrated; and to evidence of such a kind they will not fail to give their assent. To do this, he will have no need either of miracles or interpreters; truth alone is sufficient to win mankind.
Supposing, nevertheless, the utility and possibility of these miracles, how shall I ascertain whether the wonderful operation which I see performed by the interpreter of the Deity be conformable or contrary to the laws of nature? Am I acquainted with all these laws? May not he who speaks to me in the name of the Lord execute by natural means, though to me unknown, those works which appear altogether extraordinary? How shall I assure myself that he does not deceive me? Does not my ignorance of the secrets and shifts of his art expose me to be the dupe of an able impostor, who might make use of the name of God to inspire me with respect, and to screen his deception? Thus his pretended miracles ought to make me suspect him, even though I were a witness of them; but how would the case stand, were these miracles said to have been performed some thousands of years before my existence? I shall be told that they were attested by a multitude of witnesses; but if I cannot trust to myself when a miracle is performing, how shall I have confidence in others, who may be either more ignorant or more stupid than myself, or who perhaps thought themselves interested in supporting by their testimony tales entirely destitute of reality?
If, on the contrary, I admit these miracles, what do they prove to me? Will they furnish me with a belief that God has made use of his omnipotence to convince me of things which are in direct opposition to the ideas I have formed of his essence, his nature, and his divine perfections? If I be persuaded that God is immutable, a miracle will not force me to believe that he is subject to change. If I be convinced that God is just and good, a miracle will never be sufficient to persuade me that he is unjust and wicked. If I possess an idea of his wisdom, all the miracles in the world would not persuade me that God would act like a madman. Shall I be told that he would consent to perform miracles that destroy his divinity, or that are proper only to erase from the minds of men the ideas which they ought to entertain of his infinite perfections? This, however, is what would happen were God himself to perform, or to grant the power of performing, miracles in favor of a particular revelation. He would, in that case, derange the course of nature, to teach the world that he is capricious, partial, unjust, and cruel; he would make use of his omnipotence purposely to convince us that his goodness was insufficient for the welfare of his creatures; he would make a vain parade of his power, to hide his inability to convince mankind by a single act of his will. In short, he would interfere with the eternal and immutable laws of nature, to show us that he is subject to change, and to announce to mankind some important news, which they had hitherto been destitute of, notwithstanding all his goodness.
Thus, under whatever point of view we regard revelation, by whatever miracles we may suppose it attested, it will always be in contradiction to the ideas we have of the Deity. They will show us that he acts in an unjust and an arbitrary manner, consulting only his own whims in the favors he bestows, and continually changing his conduct; that he was unable to communicate all at once to mankind the knowledge necessary to their existence, and to give them that degree of perfection of which their natures were susceptible. Hence, Madam, you may see that the supposition of a revelation can never be reconciled with the infinite goodness, justice, omnipotence, and immutability of the Sovereign of the universe.
They will not fail to tell you that the Creator of all things, the independent Monarch of nature is the master of his favors; that he owes nothing to his creatures; that he can dispose of them as he pleases, without any injustice, and without their having any right of complaint; that man is incapable of sounding the profundity of his decrees; and that his justice is not the justice of men. But all these answers, which divines have continually in their mouths, serve only to accelerate the destruction of those sublime ideas which they have given us of the Deity. The result appears to be, that God conducts himself according to the maxims of a fantastic sovereign, who, satisfied in having rewarded some of his favorites, thinks himself justified in neglecting the rest of his subjects, and to leave them groaning in the most deplorable misery.
You must acknowledge, Madam, it is not on such a model that we can form a powerful, equitable, and beneficent God, whose omnipotence ought to enable him to procure happiness to all his subjects, without fear of exhausting the treasures of his goodness.
If we are told that divine justice bears no resemblance to the justice of men, I reply, that in this case we are not authorized to say that God is just; seeing that by justice it is not possible for us to conceive any thing except a similar quality to that called justice by the beings of our own species. If divine justice bears no resemblance to human justice,—if, on the contrary, this justice resembles what we call injustice,—then all our ideas confound themselves, and we know not either what we mean or what we say when we affirm that God is just. According to human ideas, (which are, however, the only ones that men are possessed of,) justice will always exclude caprice and partiality; and never can we prevent ourselves from regarding as iniquitous and vicious a sovereign who, being both able and willing to occupy himself with the happiness of his subjects, should plunge the greatest number of them into misfortune, and reserve his kindness for those to whom his whims have given the preference.
With respect to telling us that God owes nothing to his creatures, such an atrocious principle is destructive of every idea of justice and goodness, and tends visibly to sap the foundation of all religion. A God that is just and good owes happiness to every being to whom he has given existence; he ceases to be just and good if he produce them only to render them miserable; and he would be destitute of both wisdom and reason were he to give them birth only to be the victims of his caprice. What should we think of a father bringing children into the world for the sole purpose of putting their eyes out and tormenting them at his ease?
On the other hand, all religions are entirely founded upon the reciprocal engagements which are supposed to exist between God and his creatures. If God owes nothing to the latter, if he is not under an obligation to fulfil his engagements to them when they have fulfilled theirs to him, of what use is religion? What motives can men have to offer their homage and worship to the Divinity? Why should they feel much desire to love or serve a master who can absolve himself of all duty towards those who entered his service with an expectation of the recompense promised under such circumstances?
It is easy to see that the destructive ideas of divine justice which are inculcated are only founded upon a fatal prejudice prevalent among the generality of men, leading them to suppose that unlimited power must inevitably exempt its possessor from an accordance with the laws of equity; that force can confer the right of committing bad actions; and that no one could properly demand an account of his conduct of a man sufficiently powerful to carry out all his caprices. These ideas are evidently borrowed from the conduct of tyrants, who no sooner find themselves possessed of absolute power than they cease to recognize any other rules than their own fantasies, and imagine that justice has no claims upon potentates like them.
It is upon this frightful model that theologians have formed that God whom they, notwithstanding, assert to be a just being, while, if the conduct they attribute to him was true, we should be constrained to regard him as the most unjust of tyrants, as the most partial of fathers, as the most fantastic of princes, and, in a word, as a being the most to be feared and the least worthy of love that the imagination could devise. We are informed that the God who created all men has been unwilling to be known except to a very small number of them, and that while this favored portion exclusively enjoyed the benefits of his kindness, all the others were objects of his anger, and were only created by him to be left in blindness for the very purpose of punishing them in the most cruel manner. We see these pernicious characteristics of the Divinity penetrating the entire economy of the Christian religion; we find them in the books which are pretended to be inspired, and we discover them in the dogmas of predestination and grace. In a word, every thing in religion announces a despotic God, whom his disciples vainly attempt to represent to us as just, while all that they declare of him only proves his injustice, his tyrannical caprices, his extravagances, so frequently cruel, and his partiality, so pernicious to the greater portion of the human race. When we exclaim against conduct which, in the eyes of all reasonable men, must appear so excessively capricious, it is expected that our mouths will be closed by the assertion that God is omnipotent, that it is for him to determine how he will bestow benefits, and that he is under no obligations to any of his creatures. His apologists end by endeavoring to intimidate us with the frightful and iniquitous punishments that he reserves for those who are so audacious as to murmur.
It is easy to perceive the futility of these arguments. Power, I do contend, can never confer the right of violating equity. Let a sovereign be as powerful as he may, he is not on that account less blamable when in rewards and punishments he follows only his caprice. It is true, we may fear him, we may flatter him, we may pay him servile homage; but never shall we love him sincerely; never shall we serve him faithfully; never shall we look up to him as the model of justice and goodness. If those who receive his kindness believe him to be just and good, those who are the objects of his folly and rigor cannot prevent themselves from detesting his monstrous iniquity in their hearts.
If we be told that we are only as worms of earth relatively to God, or that we are only like a vase in the hands of a potter, I reply in this case, that there can neither be connection nor moral duty between the creature and his Creator; and I shall hence conclude that religion is useless, seeing that a worm of earth can owe nothing to a man who crushes it, and that the vase can owe nothing to the potter that has formed it. In the supposition that man is only a worm or an earthen vessel in the eyes of the Deity, he would be incapable either of serving him, glorifying him, honoring him, or offending him. We are, however, continually told that man is capable of merit and demerit in the sight of his God, whom he is ordered to love, serve, and worship. We are likewise assured that it was man alone whom the Deity had in view in all his works; that it is for him alone the universe was created; for him alone that the course of nature was so often deranged; and, in short, it was with a view of being honored, cherished, and glorified by man that God has revealed himself to us. According to the principles of the Christian religion, God does not cease, for a single instant, his occupations for man, this worm of earth, this earthen vessel, which he has formed. Nay, more: man is sufficiently powerful to influence the honor, the felicity, and the glory of his God; it rests with man to please him or to irritate him, to deserve his favor or his hatred, to appease him or to kindle his wrath.
Do you not perceive, Madam, the striking contradictions of those principles which, nevertheless, form the basis of all revealed religions? Indeed, we cannot find one of them that is not erected on the reciprocal influence between God and man, and between man and God. Our own species, which are annihilated (if I may use the expression) every time that it becomes necessary to whitewash the Deity from some reproachful stain of injustice and partiality,—these miserable beings, to whom it is pretended that God owes nothing, and who, we are assured, are unnecessary to him for his own felicity,—the human race, which is nothing in his eyes, becomes all at once the principal performer on the stage of nature. We find that mankind are necessary to support the glory of their Creator; we see them become the sole objects of his care; we behold in them the power to gladden or afflict him; we see them meriting his favor and provoking his wrath. According to these contradictory notions concerning the God of the universe, the source of all felicity, is he not really the most wretched of beings? We behold him perpetually exposed to the insults of men, who offend him by their thoughts, their words, their actions, and their neglect of duty. They incommode him, they irritate him, by the capriciousness of their minds, by their actions, their desires, and even by their ignorance. If we admit those Christian principles which suppose that the greater portion of the human race excites the fury of the Eternal, and that very few of them live in a manner conformable to his views, will it not necessarily result therefrom, that in the immense crowd of beings whom God has created for his glory, only a very small number of them glorify and please him; while all the rest are occupied in vexing him, exciting his wrath, troubling his felicity, deranging the order that he loves, frustrating his designs, and forcing him to change his immutable intentions?