Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

ATHEIST.

§ I.

There were once many atheists among the Christians; they are now much fewer. It at first appears to be a paradox, but examination proves it to be a truth, that theology often threw men’s minds into atheism, until philosophy at length drew them out of it. It must indeed have been pardonable to doubt of the Divinity, when His only announcers disputed on His nature. Nearly all the first Fathers of the Church made God corporeal, and others, after them, giving Him no extent, lodged Him in a part of heaven. According to some, He had created the world in Time; while, according to others, He had created Time itself. Some gave Him a Son like to Himself; others would not grant that the Son was like to the Father. It was also disputed in what way a third person proceeded from the other two.

It was agitated whether the Son had been, while on earth, composed of two persons. So that the question undesignedly became, whether there were five persons in the Divinity — three in heaven and two for Jesus Christ upon earth; or four persons, reckoning Christ upon earth as only one; or three persons, considering Christ only as God. There were disputes about His mother, His descent into hell and into limbo; the manner in which the body of the God-man was eaten, and the blood of the God-man was drunk; on grace; on the saints, and a thousand other matters. When the confidants of the Divinity were seen so much at variance among themselves anathematizing one another from age to age, but all agreeing in an immoderate thirst for riches and grandeur — while, on the other hand, were beheld the prodigious number of crimes and miseries which afflicted the earth, and of which many were caused by the very disputes of these teachers of souls — it must be confessed that it was allowable for rational men to doubt the existence of a being so strangely announced, and for men of sense to imagine that a God, who could of His own free will make so many beings miserable, did not exist.

Suppose, for example, a natural philosopher of the fifteenth century reading these words in “St. Thomas’s Dream”: “Virtus cœli, loco spermatis, sufficit cum elementis et putrefactione ad generationem animalium imperfectorum.” “The virtue of heaven instead of seed is sufficient, with the elements and putrefaction, for the generation of imperfect animals.” Our philosopher would reason thus: “If corruption suffices with the elements to produce unformed animals, it would appear that a little more corruption, with a little more heat, would also produce animals more complete. The virtue of heaven is here no other than the virtue of nature. I shall then think, with Epicurus and St. Thomas, that men may have sprung from the slime of the earth and the rays of the sun — a noble origin, too, for beings so wretched and so wicked. Why should I admit a creating God, presented to me under so many contradictory and revolting aspects?” But at length physics arose, and with them philosophy. Then it was clearly discovered that the mud of the Nile produced not a single insect, nor a single ear of corn, and men were found to acknowledge throughout, germs, relations, means, and an astonishing correspondence among all beings. The particles of light have been followed, which go from the sun to enlighten the globe and the ring of Saturn, at the distance of three hundred millions of leagues; then, coming to the earth, form two opposite angles in the eye of the minutest insect, and paint all nature on its retina. A philosopher was given to the world who discovered the simple and sublime laws by which the celestial globes move in the immensity of space. Thus the work of the universe, now that it is better known, bespeaks a workman, and so many never-varying laws announce a law-giver. Sound philosophy, therefore, has destroyed atheism, to which obscure theology furnished weapons of defence.

But one resource was left for the small number of difficult minds, which, being more forcibly struck by the pretended injustices of a Supreme Being than by his wisdom, were obstinate in denying this first mover. Nature has existed from all eternity; everything in nature is in motion, therefore everything in it continually changes. And if everything is forever changing, all possible combinations must take place; therefore the present combinations of all things may have been the effect of this eternal motion and change alone. Take six dice, and it is 46,655 to one that you do not throw six times six. But still there is that one chance in 46,656. So, in the infinity of ages, any one of the infinite number of combinations, as that of the present arrangement of the universe, is not impossible.

Minds, otherwise rational, have been misled by these arguments; but they have not considered that there is infinity against them, and that there certainly is not infinity against the existence of God. They should, moreover, consider that if everything were changing, the smallest things could not remain unchanged, as they have so long done. They have at least no reason to advance why new species are not formed every day. On the contrary, it is very probable that a powerful hand, superior to these continual changes, keeps all species within the bounds it has prescribed them. Thus the philosopher, who acknowledges a God, has a number of probabilities on his side, while the atheist has only doubts.

It is evident that in morals it is much better to acknowledge a God than not to admit one. It is certainly to the interest of all men that there should be a Divinity to punish what human justice cannot repress; but it is also clear that it were better to acknowledge no God than to worship a barbarous one, and offer Him human victims, as so many nations have done.

We have one striking example, which places this truth beyond a doubt. The Jews, under Moses, had no idea of the immortality of the soul, nor of a future state. Their lawgiver announced to them, from God, only rewards and punishments purely temporal; they, therefore, had only this life to provide for. Moses commands the Levites to kill twenty-three thousand of their brethren for having had a golden or gilded calf. On another occasion twenty-four thousand of them are massacred for having had commerce with the young women of the country; and twelve thousand are struck dead because some few of them had wished to support the ark, which was near falling. It may, with perfect reverence for the decrees of Providence, be affirmed, humanly speaking, that it would have been much better for these fifty-nine thousand men, who believed in no future state, to have been absolute atheists and have lived, than to have been massacred in the name of the God whom they acknowledged.

It is quite certain that atheism is not taught in the schools of the learned of China, but many of those learned men are atheists, for they are indifferent philosophers. Now it would undoubtedly be better to live with them at Pekin, enjoying the mildness of their manners and their laws, than to be at Goa, liable to groan in irons, in the prisons of the inquisition, until brought out in a brimstone-colored garment, variegated with devils, to perish in the flames.

They who have maintained that a society of atheists may exist have then been right, for it is laws that form society, and these atheists, being moreover philosophers, may lead a very wise and happy life under the shade of those laws. They will certainly live in society more easily than superstitious fanatics. People one town with Epicureans such as Simonides, Protagoras, Des Barreux, Spinoza; and another with Jansenists and Molinists. In which do you think there will be the most quarrels and tumults? Atheism, considering it only with relation to this life, would be very dangerous among a ferocious people, and false ideas of the Divinity would be no less pernicious. Most of the great men of this world live as if they were atheists. Every man who has lived with his eyes open knows that the knowledge of a God, His presence, and His justice, has not the slightest influence over the wars, the treaties, the objects of ambition, interest or pleasure, in the pursuit of which they are wholly occupied. Yet we do not see that they grossly violate the rules established in society. It is much more agreeable to pass our lives among them than among the superstitious and fanatical. I do, it is true, expect more justice from one who believes in a God than from one who has no such belief; but from the superstitious I look only for bitterness and persecution. Atheism and fanaticism are two monsters which may tear society in pieces; but the atheist preserves his reason, which checks his propensity to mischief, while the fanatic is under the influence of a madness which is constantly urging him on.

§ II.

In England, as everywhere else, there have been, and there still are, many atheists by principle; for there are none but young, inexperienced preachers, very ill-informed of what passes in the world, who affirm that there cannot be atheists. I have known some in France, who were quite good natural philosophers; and have, I own, been very much surprised that men who could so ably develop the secret springs of nature should obstinately refuse to acknowledge the hand which so evidently puts those springs in action.

It appears to me that one of the principles which leads them to materialism is that they believe in the plentitude and infinity of the universe, and the eternity of matter. It must be this which misleads them, for almost all the Newtonians whom I have met admit the void and the termination of matter, and consequently admit a God.

Indeed, if matter be infinite, as so many philosophers, even including Descartes, pretend, it has of itself one of the attributes of the Supreme Being: if a void be impossible, matter exists of necessity; it has existed from all eternity. With these principles, therefore, we may dispense with God, creating, modifying, and preserving matter.

I am aware that Descartes, and most of the schools which have believed in the plenum, and the infinity of matter, have nevertheless admitted a God; but this is only because men scarcely ever reason or act upon their principles.

Had men reasoned, consequently, Epicurus and his apostle Lucretius must have been the most religious assertors of the Providence which they combated; for when they admitted the void and the termination of matter, a truth of which they had only an imperfect glimpse, it necessarily followed that matter was the being of necessity, existing by itself, since it was not indefinite. They had, therefore, in their own philosophy, and in their own despite, a demonstration that there is a Supreme Being, necessary, infinite, the fabricator of the universe. Newton’s philosophy, which admits and proves the void and finite matter, also demonstratively proves the existence of a God.

Thus I regard true philosophers as the apostles of the Divinity. Each class of men requires its particular ones; a parish catechist tells children that there is a God, but Newton proves it to the wise.

In London, under Charles II. after Cromwell’s wars, as at Paris under Henry IV. after the war of the Guises, people took great pride in being atheists; having passed from the excess of cruelty to that of pleasure, and corrupted their minds successively by war and by voluptuousness, they reasoned very indifferently. Since then the more nature has been studied the better its Author has been known.

One thing I will venture to believe, which is, that of all religions, theism is the most widely spread in the world. It is the prevailing religion of China; it is that of the wise among the Mahometans; and, among Christian philosophers, eight out of ten are of the same opinion. It has penetrated even into the schools of theology, into the cloisters, into the conclave; it is a sort of sect without association, without worship, without ceremonies, without disputes, and without zeal, spread through the world without having been preached. Theism, like Judaism, is to be found amidst all religions; but it is singular that the latter, which is the extreme of superstition, abhorred by the people and contemned by the wise, is everywhere tolerated for money; while the former, which is the opposite of superstition, unknown to the people, and embraced by philosophers alone, is publicly exercised nowhere but in China. There is no country in Europe where there are more theists than in England. Some persons ask whether they have a religion or not.

There are two sorts of theists. The one sort think that God made the world without giving man rules for good and evil. It is clear that these should have no other name than that of philosophers.

The others believe that God gave to man a natural law. These, it is certain, have a religion, though they have no external worship. They are, with reference to the Christian religion, peaceful enemies, which she carries in her bosom; they renounce without any design of destroying her. All other sects desire to predominate, like political bodies, which seek to feed on the substance of others, and rise upon their ruin; theism has always lain quiet. Theists have never been found caballing in any state.

There was in London a society of theists, who for some time continued to meet together. They had a small book of their laws, in which religion, on which so many ponderous volumes have been written, occupied only two pages. Their principal axiom was this: “Morality is the same among all men; therefore it comes from God. Worship is various; therefore it is the work of man.”

The second axiom was: “Men, being all brethren, and acknowledging the same God, it is execrable that brethren should persecute brethren, because they testify their love for the common father in a different manner. Indeed,” said they, “what upright man would kill his elder brother because one of them had saluted their father after the Chinese and the other after the Dutch fashion, especially while it was undecided in what way the father wished their reverence to be made to him? Surely he who should act thus would be a bad brother rather than a good son.”

I am well aware that these maxims lead directly to “the abominable and execrable dogma of toleration”; but I do no more than simply relate the fact. I am very careful not to become a controversialist. It must, however, be admitted that if the different sects into which Christians have been divided had possessed this moderation, Christianity would have been disturbed by fewer disorders, shaken by fewer revolutions, and stained with less blood.

Let us pity the theists for combating our holy revelation. But whence comes it that so many Calvinists, Lutherans, Anabaptists, Nestorians, Arians, partisans of Rome, and enemies of Rome, have been so sanguinary, so barbarous, and so miserable, now persecuting, now persecuted? It is because they have been the multitude. Whence is it that theists, though in error, have never done harm to mankind? Because they have been philosophers. The Christian religion has cost the human species seventeen millions of men, reckoning only one million per century, who have perished either by the hands of the ordinary executioner, or by those of executioners paid and led to battle — all for the salvation of souls and the greater glory of God.

I have heard men express astonishment that a religion so moderate, and so apparently conformable to reason, as theism, has not been spread among the people. Among the great and little vulgar may be found pious herb-women, Molinist duchesses, scrupulous seamstresses who would go to the stake for anabaptism, devout hackney-coachmen, most determined in the cause of Luther or of Arius, but no theists; for theism cannot so much be called a religion as a system of philosophy, and the vulgar, whether great or little, are not philosophers.

Locke was a declared theist. I was astonished to find, in that great philosopher’s chapter on innate ideas, that men have all different ideas of justice. Were such the case, morality would no longer be the same; the voice of God would not be heard by man; natural religion would be at an end. I am willing to believe, with him, that there are nations in which men eat their fathers, and where to lie with a neighbor’s wife is to do him a friendly office; but if this be true it does not prove that the law, “Do not unto others that which you would not have others do unto you,” is not general. For if a father be eaten, it is when he has grown old, is too feeble to crawl along, and would otherwise be eaten by the enemy. And, I ask, what father would not furnish a good meal to his son rather than to the enemies of his nation? Besides, he who eats his father hopes that he in turn shall be eaten by his children.

If a service be rendered to a neighbor by lying with his wife, it is when he cannot himself have a child, and is desirous of having one; otherwise he would be very angry. In both these cases, and in all others, the natural law, “Do not to another that which you would not have another do to you,” remains unbroken. All the other rules, so different and so varied, may be referred to this. When, therefore, the wise metaphysician, Locke, says that men have no innate ideas, that they have different ideas of justice and injustice, he assuredly does not mean to assert that God has not given to all men that instinctive self-love by which they are of necessity guided.

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