The Portable Enlightenment Reader - Isaac Kramnick (1995)




The writings of the French Protestant scholar Pierre Bayle (1647- 1706) anticipated and inspired the philosophes, especially with respect to religion. These selections are from his Miscellaneous Thoughts on the Comet of 1680 (1682) and Philosophical Commentary on the Words of Jesus Christ, “Compel Them to Come In” (1686-1687).

Now let us undertake the task of considering whether or not the general agreement among ancients and moderns that comets are evil omens should bear much weight. Again I say, it is pure illusion to claim that a notion that has passed from one century to the next, from generation to generation, cannot be entirely false. If only we examine the causes of the establishment of certain opinions in the world about us, we readily see that nothing is less reasonable than such a claim. You will certainly grant me that it is easy to persuade the people of certain false opinions which are in accordance with the prejudices of childhood or the desires of the heart, as are all the so-called rules in regard to omens. That is all I ask, for that admission is enough to perpetuate such opinions forever; for except for a few philosophical minds, no one thinks of submitting to examination what is universally held to be true. We assume that the ancients once examined it and were sufficiently on their guard against error; and therefore we teach it in our turn to our children as infallible fact. If you remember, too, what I have said elsewhere about man’s intellectual indolence and the pains that must be taken for thorough reconsideration, you will see that we will not say, with Minucius Felix, “Everything is uncertain in human affairs, but the more uncertain it is, the more reason to be astonished that some, disgusted with the exacting search for the truth, prefer rashly to embrace the first opinion that lies at hand, rather than take the time and the care that deep thought requires”; we should rather say, “The more uncertain everything is, the less reason we have to be astonished at such a solution.” The author of the Art of Thinking observes very judiciously that most men decide to accept one notion rather than another because of certain superficial and extraneous traits which they consider to be more in conformity with truth than with falsehood and which are easily discernible; whereas solid and essential reasons which reveal truth are difficult to come by. Hence, since men are prone to follow the easier course, they almost always take the side on which these superficial traits are apparent.

It is a common occurrence to see people avoid marriage in the month of May, because it has been believed from time immemorial that May weddings bring bad luck; and I have no doubt that this superstition, which came down to us from ancient Rome and was founded on the fact that the festival of evil spirits, or Lemuralia, was celebrated in May, will subsist among Christians until the end of time. For it will be kept alive in a family, if only it is remembered that some grandfather or uncle took such precautions. And the reasoning becomes invincible and all the more impressive when we see intelligent people observe the same practice. In fact many persons, not superstitious themselves, delay or speed up their marriage to avoid the month of May, because it is important that the belief should not be spread around that they have courted misfortune. In this society of ours, all precautions should be taken. A merchant can become truly unlucky just because people entertain the ridiculous idea that he is threatened with bad luck; for no one will be willing to extend him credit or associate in business with him. If anyone wanted to seek out all the reasons for popular misconceptions, it would be an unending task....

That man is a reasoning animal, we are all agreed; it is no less true that he almost never acts in accordance with his principles. He is well able, in speculative matters, to avoid drawing false conclusions, for in this field he sins much less through the ease with which he entertains false principles than through the false suppositions that he derives from them. But in questions of moral conduct, it is an entirely different matter. Almost never yielding to false principles and almost always retaining in his conscience ideas of natural equity, he nevertheless almost always concludes to the advantage of his unbridled desires. Tell me, please, how it happens that although there exists among men a prodigious diversity of opinion concerning the manner of serving God and living according to the laws of propriety, we see nonetheless that certain passions constantly hold sway in all countries and have done so through all ages; that ambition, avarice, envy, the desire for vengeance, indecency, all the crimes that satisfy these passions are everywhere apparent; that the Jew, the Mohammedan, the Turk, and the Moor, Christian and infidel, Indian and Tartar, continentals and islanders, noblemen and commoners, all these kinds of people who, in other respects, we might say have only their humanity in common, are so alike in respect to these passions that we would think they copy one another? How can all that be true unless we admit that the true principle of all our actions (I except those in whom the grace of the Holy Spirit is fully operative) is our temperament, our natural inclination to seek pleasure, the taste that we acquire for certain objects, the desire to please someone, a habit contracted in dealing with our friends, or some other disposition which arises from the depths of our natures, in whatever country we may be born, and with whatsoever knowledge our minds may be imbued?

That must be so, since the ancient heathen, overwhelmed with an unbelievable multitude of superstitions, perpetually busy appeasing the anger of their gods, terrified by an infinity of prodigies, imagining that the gods were dispensers of adversity and prosperity according to the lives that they had led, did not fail to commit all crimes imaginable. And if that were not so, how would it be possible that Christians, who know so clearly through a revelation upheld by so many miracles that they must renounce vice in order to be eternally happy and not to be eternally damned; who have such excellent preachers to present to them in these matters the most vivid and pressing exhortations possible; who have all around them so many zealous and learned directors of conscience and so many books of devotion; how would it be possible, I say, that in the midst of all that, Christians could lead, as they do, the most sinful of lives? ...

The charge has sometimes been made against Christians that the principles of the Gospel are not suited to safeguarding the commonwealth, because they undermine courage and inspire horror for blood and all the violence of war...

Evangelical courage only makes us despise the insults of poverty, the persecution of tyrants, prisons, torture, and all the throes of martyrdom. It quite properly makes us brave with heroic patience the most inhuman rage of persecutors of the faith. It resigns us to the will of God in the most painful of maladies. In that consists the courage of the true Christian. That is enough, I confess, to convince infidels that our religion does not undermine courage and inspire cowardice. But that does not prevent them from being able to say with reason that if we take the word courage in its commonly accepted sense, the Gospel is not apt to foster it. It is understood that by a courageous man we mean a man who makes it a point of honor not to suffer the least insult, who avenges himself gloriously and at the peril of his life for the slightest offense given him; who loves war, seeks the most perilous occasions to dip his hands in the blood of enemies, who is ambitious and wants to shine above all other men. It would be completely nonsensical to say that the counsels and precepts of Jesus Christ inspire us with that spirit; for it is a notorious conviction among all who know the first elements of the Christian religion that it recommends above all else that we suffer insults, walk humbly, love our neighbor, seek peace, and render good for evil, and abstain from every semblance of violence. I defy all living men, no matter how expert they may be in the military arts, ever to make good soldiers of an army in which are found only men resolved to follow punctually all these maxims. The best that could be expected would be that they would not be afraid to die for their country and their God. But I leave it to those who know what war is to decide if that is sufficient to qualify as a good soldier and if men who want to succeed in that calling must not inflict all possible harm on the enemy, outguess him, take him by surprise, put him to the sword, bum his supplies, reduce him to starvation and destitution....

It may be said that if the principles of Christianity were truly followed, we would see no conqueror among Christians nor offensive war, and we would restrict ourselves to a defense against the invasions of infidels. That being so, how many nations in Europe would we see enjoying a profound peace for very long who because of that would be the least fit of all peoples in the world to wage war? It is therefore true that the spirit of our holy religion does not make us warlike: and yet there are no more warlike nations on the face of the earth than those which make a profession of Christianity....

We Christians daily improve upon the art of war by inventing an infinite number of machines to make sieges more deadly and horrible; and from us Christians infidels learn to use better weapons. I know very well that we do not do that because we are Christians, but because we are more skillful than infidels: for if they were clever and valorous enough to wage war better than Christians they would do so without fail. Nevertheless I find here a very convincing argument to prove that in daily life we do not follow the principles of our religion, since I show that Christians employ all their knowledge and passions in improving upon the art of war, without the slightest hindrance from a knowledge of the Gospel in pursuing this cruel design.


If a multiplicity of religions is harmful to the State, that is only because one religion will not tolerate the other but wants rather to swallow it up by dint of persecution. Hinc prima mali labes, that is where trouble begins. If each religion adopted the spirit of tolerance that I recommend, there would be the same concord in a state with ten religions as in a city in which different artisans and craftsmen mutually support one another. The most that could happen would be honest rivalry in outdoing one another in piety, good conduct and knowledge; each religion would take pride in proving its favored share of God’s love by exhibiting a firmer attachment to moral conduct; all would boast of greater love for their country, if the sovereign protected them all and through his justice held them in balance. Such handsome emulation would give rise to innumerable blessings; consequently toleration is of all things the most conducive to the return of the golden age and the formation of a concert and harmony of a number of voices and instruments of different tones and notes as agreeable at the very least as the uniformity of a single voice. What then prevents this beautiful concert composed of such different voices and tones? It is only because one of two religions wants to exercise cruel tyranny over men’s minds and force others to act against their conscience; because kings foment this unjust partiality and lend secular force to the furious and tumultuous desires of a populace of monks and clerics; in short the whole disorder springs not from toleration but from non-toleration....

It is impossible in our present condition to know with certainty whether or not what appears to us to be the truth (I am speaking of the particular truths of religion and not of the properties of numbers or the first principles of metaphysics or the demonstrations of geometry) is absolute truth; the best we can do is to be fully convinced that we hold to absolute truth, that we are right and other people are wrong, all very dubious indications of truth, since they can be found among pagans and the most damnable of heretics. It is therefore certain that there is no trustworthy indication which will enable us among our beliefs to distinguish the true from the false. This distinction cannot be deduced from evidence; for on the contrary everyone says that the truths of God’s revealed word are profound mysteries which require us to surrender our intelligence in obedience to the Faith. This is not because of incomprehensibility, for what is more false and altogether incomprehensible than a squared circle, than an essentially vicious first principle, than God a father through carnal generation, as Jupiter was among the pagans? Nor is it to satisfy our conscience, for a Papist is as satisfied with his religion, and a Turk and a Jew with theirs, as we are with ours. Nor is it because of the courage and zeal that belief inspires, for the falsest of religions have their martyrs, their incredible austerities, their spirit of proselytism which very often overcomes the charity of true believers, and their unshakable attachment to superstitious ceremonies. Nothing in short can assure a man of the distinction between truth and falsehood. Thus it is asking too much of him to hope that he can make this distinction. The best he can do is to judge certain questions under examination by their appearances, whether or not they seem true or false to him. He can then be asked to see to it that those that are true appear to him to be true; but whether he succeeds in this or whether the false seem to him to be true, he must follow his own persuasion....

This consideration, if it were carefully weighed and thoroughly meditated upon, would surely reveal the truth of what I am here claiming: which is that, in man’s present condition, God is content to demand that he seek the truth as diligently as possible and when he thinks he has found it that he cherish it and make it the rule of his life. As everyone can see, this proves that we are obliged to have the same respect for presumptive as for real truth. Whence it follows that all the objections that can be brought to bear on the difficulty of examination disappear like idle phantoms, since each individual is surely capable of finding a meaning in what he reads or hears, and of feeling that that meaning is true; and thus his particular brand of truth is established. It is enough that every man consult sincerely and in good faith the light that God gives him and seize accordingly upon the idea that seems to him the most reasonable and the most conformable to God’s will. In this way he is a true believer in respect to God, although through a flaw for which he cannot be blamed his thoughts may not be a faithful image of reality, just as a child is a true believer in taking for his father his mother’s husband, of whom he is not the son. The important consideration is then to act virtuously; thus everyone should try as hard as he can to honor God through prompt obedience to moral precepts. In this respect, that is, in respect to the knowledge of our moral obligations, the light of revelation is so clear that few can mistake it if only they seek it in good faith....

Whence I conclude that ignorance founded on good faith is excusable in the most criminal of cases, such as robbery or adultery, and that thus ignorance in every domain is excusable, to the extent that a heretic of good faith or even an infidel will be punished by God only for evil acts that he has committed knowing well that they were evil. As for acts committed in all good conscience, a conscience, I say, that he has not himself maliciously stultified, I cannot be convinced that they constitute a crime....

Judging by our ideal of a man most accomplished in wisdom and justice, we believe that if, after leaving an order with his servants as he departed on a long journey he found upon his return that they understood it differently and that while they were all agreed that their master’s will was their sole guide, they disagreed only on what that was, he would declare that they were all equally respectful of his orders; but that some were more intelligent than others in their understanding of the real meaning of his instructions. Certainly, we would clearly and distinctly expect that to be his pronouncement; therefore Reason requires that God should declare likewise in regard to both true believers and conscientious heretics.



John Locke (1632-1704), the patron philosopher of liberalism, would profoundly influence Enlightenment thought with his Letters Concerning Toleration (1689-1693), in which he sought “to distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion.”

The toleration of those that differ from others in matters of religion, is so agreeable to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to the genuine reason of mankind, that it seems monstrous for men to be so blind as not to perceive the necessity and advantage of it in so clear a light. I will not here tax the pride and ambition of some, the passion and uncharitable zeal of others. These are faults from which human affairs can perhaps scarce ever be perfectly freed; but yet such as nobody will bear the plain imputation of, without covering them with some specious color; and so pretend to commendation, whilst they are carried away by their own irregular passions. But, however, that some may not color their spirit of persecution and unchristian cruelty with a pretense of care of the public weal and observation of the laws; and that others, under pretense of religion, may not seek impunity for their libertinism and licentiousness; in a word, that none may impose either upon himself or others, by the pretenses of loyalty and obedience to the prince, or of tenderness and sincerity in the worship of God I esteem it above all things necessary to distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion, and to settle the just bound that lie between the one and the other. If this be not done, there can be no end put to the controversies that will be always arising between those that have, or at least pretend to have, on the one side, a concernment for the interest of men’s souls, and, on the other side, a care of the commonwealth.

The commonwealth seems to me to be a society of men constituted only for the procuring, preserving, and advancing their own civil interests.

Civil interests I call life, liberty, health, and indolency of body; and the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture, and the like.

It is the duty of the civil magistrate, by the impartial execution of equal laws, to secure unto all the people in general, and to every one of his subjects in particular, the just possession of these things belonging to this life. If any one presume to violate the laws of public justice and equity, established for the preservation of those things, his presumption is to be checked by the fear of punishment, consisting of the deprivation or diminution of those civil interests, or goods, which otherwise he might and ought to enjoy. But seeing no man does willingly suffer himself to be punished by the deprivation of any part of his goods, and much less of his liberty or life, therefore is the magistrate armed with the force and strength of all his subjects, in order to the punishment of those that violate any other man’s rights.

Now that the whole jurisdiction of the magistrate reaches only to these civil concernments, and that all civil power, right, and dominion, is bounded and confined to the only care of promoting these things; and that it neither can nor ought in any manner to be extended to the salvation of souls, these following considerations seem unto me abundantly to demonstrate.

First, because the care of souls is not committed to the civil magistrate, any more than to other men. It is not committed unto him, I say, by God; because it appears not that God has ever given any such authority to one man over another, as to compel anyone to his religion. Nor can any such power be vested in the magistrate by the consent of the people, because no man can so far abandon the care of his own salvation as blindly to leave to the choice of any other, whether prince or subject, to prescribe to him what faith or worship he shall embrace. For no man can, if he would, conform his faith to the dictates of another. All the life and power of true religion consist in the inward and full persuasion of the mind; and faith is not faith without believing. Whatever profession we make, to whatever outward worship we conform, if we are not fully satisfied in our own mind that the one is true, and the other well pleasing unto God, such profession and such practice, far from being any furtherance, are indeed great obstacles to our salvation. For in this manner, instead of expiating other sins by the exercise of religion, I say, in offering thus unto God Almighty such a worship as we esteem to be displeasing unto him, we add unto the number of our other sins those also of hypocrisy, and contempt of his Divine Majesty.

In the second place, the care of souls cannot belong to the civil magistrate, because his power consists only in outward force; but true and saving religion consists in the inward persuasion of the mind, without which nothing can be acceptable to God. And such is the nature of the understanding, that it cannot be compelled to the belief of anything by outward force. Confiscation of estate, imprisonment, torments, nothing of that nature can have any such efficacy as to make men change the inward judgment that they have framed of things.

It may indeed be alleged that the magistrate may make use of arguments, and thereby draw the heterodox into the way of truth, and procure their salvation. I grant it; but this is common to him with other men. In teaching, instructing, and redressing the erroneous by reason, he may certainly do what becomes any good man to do. Magistracy does not oblige him to put off either humanity or Christianity; but it is one thing to persuade, another to command; one thing to press with arguments, another with penalties. This civil power alone has a right to do; to the other good-will is authority enough. Every man has commission to admonish, exhort, convince another of error, and, by reasoning, to draw him into truth; but to give laws, receive obedience, and compel with the sword, belongs to none but the magistrate. And upon this ground, I affirm that the magistrate’s power extends not to the establishing of any articles of faith, or forms of worship, by the force of his laws. For laws are of no force at all without penalties, and penalties in this case are absolutely impertinent, because they are not proper to convince the mind. Neither the profession of any articles of faith, nor the conformity to any outward form of worship (as has been already said), can be available to the salvation of souls, unless the truth of the one, and the acceptableness of the other unto God, be thoroughly believed by those that so profess and practice. But penalties are no way capable to produce such belief It is only light and evidence that can work a change in men’s opinions; which light can in no manner proceed from corporal sufferings, or any other outward penalties.

In the third place, the care of the salvation of men’s souls cannot belong to the magistrate; because, though the rigor of laws and the force of penalties were capable to convince and change men’s minds, yet would not that help at all to the salvation of their souls. For there being but one truth, one-way-to-heaven, what hope is there that more men would be led into it if they had no rule but the religion of the court, and were put under the necessity to quit the light of their own reason, and oppose the dictates of their own consciences, and blindly to resign themselves up to the will of their governors, and to the religion which either ignorance, ambition, or superstition had chanced to establish in the countries where they were born? In the variety and contradiction of opinions in religion, wherein the princes of the world are as much divided as in their secular interests, the narrow way would be much straitened; one country alone would be in the right, and all the rest of the world put under an obligation of following their princes in the ways that lead to destruction; and that which heightens the absurdity, and very ill suits the notion of a Deity, men would owe their eternal happiness or misery to the places of their nativity.

These considerations, to omit many others that might have been urged to the same purpose, seem unto me sufficient to conclude that all the power of civil government relates only to men’s civil interests, is confined to the care of the things of this world, and hath nothing to do with the world to come.

Let us now consider what a church is. A church, then, I take to be a voluntary society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord in order to the public worshiping of God in such manner as they judge acceptable to him, and effectual to the salvation of their souls.

I say it is a free and voluntary society. Nobody is born a member of any church; otherwise the religion of parents would descend unto children by the same right of inheritance as their temporal estates, and everyone would hold his faith by the same tenure he does his lands, than which nothing can be imagined more absurd. Thus, therefore, that matter stands. No man by nature is bound unto any particular church or sect, but everyone joins himself voluntarily to that society in which he believes he has found that profession and worship which is truly acceptable to God. The hope of salvation, as it was the only cause of his entrance into that communion, so it can be the only reason of his stay there. For if afterwards he discover anything either erroneous in the doctrine or incongruous in the worship of that society to which he has joined himself, why should it not be as free for him to go out as it was to enter? No member of a religious society can be tied with any other bonds but what proceed from the certain expectation of eternal life. A church, then, is a society of members voluntarily uniting to that end.

It follows now that we consider what is the power of this church, and unto what laws it is subject.

Forasmuch as no society, how free soever, or upon whatsoever slight occasion instituted, whether of philosophers for learning, of merchants for commerce, or of men of leisure for mutual conversation and discourse, no church or company, I say, can in the least subsist and hold together, but will presently dissolve and break in pieces, unless it be regulated by some laws, and the members all consent to observe some order. Place and time of meeting must be agreed on; rules for admitting and excluding members must be established; distinction of officers, and putting things into a regular course, and such-like, cannot be omitted. But since the joining together of several members into this church-society, as has already been demonstrated, is absolutely free and spontaneous, it necessarily follows that the right of making its laws can belong to none but the society itself; or, at least (which is the same thing), to those whom the society by common consent has authorized thereunto....

The end of a religious society (as has already been said) is the public worship of God, and, by means thereof, the acquisition of eternal life. All discipline ought therefore to tend to that end, and all ecclesiastical laws to be thereunto confined. Nothing ought nor can be transacted in this society relating to the possession of civil and worldly goods. No force is here to be made use of upon any occasion whatsoever. For force belongs wholly to the civil magistrate, and the possession of all outward goods is subject to his jurisdiction....

Concerning outward worship, I say, in the first place, that the magistrate has no power to enforce by law, either in his own church, or much less in another, the use of any rites or ceremonies whatsoever in the worship of God. And this, not only because these churches are free societies, but because whatsoever is practiced in the worship of God is only so far justifiable as it is believed by those that practice it to be acceptable unto him. Whatsoever is not done with that assurance of faith is neither well in itself, nor can it be acceptable to God. To impose such things, therefore, upon any people, contrary to their own judgment, is in effect to command them to offend God, which, considering that the end of all religion is to please him, and that liberty is essentially necessary to that end, appears to be absurd beyond expression....

In the next place: As the magistrate has no power to impose by his laws the use of any rites and ceremonies in any church, so neither has he any power to forbid the use of such rites and ceremonies as are already received, approved, and practiced by any church; because, if he did so, he would destroy the church itself: the end of whose institution is only to worship God with freedom after its own manner.

You will say, by this rule, if some congregations should have a mind to sacrifice infants, or (as the primitive Christians were falsely accused) lustfully pollute themselves in promiscuous uncleanness, or practice any other such heinous enormities, is the magistrate obliged to tolerate them, because they are committed in a religious assembly? I answer, No. These things are not lawful in the ordinary course of life, nor in any private house, and therefore neither are they so in the worship of God, or in any religious meeting. But, indeed, if any people congregated upon account of religion should be desirous to sacrifice a calf, I deny that that ought to be prohibited by a law. Meliboeus, whose calf it is, may lawfully kill his calf at home, and burn any part of it that he thinks fit. For no injury is thereby done to anyone, no prejudice to another man’s goods. And for the same reason he may kill his calf also in a religious meeting. Whether the doing so be well-pleasing to God or no, it is their part to consider that do it. The part of the magistrate is only to take care that the commonwealth receive no prejudice, and that there be no injury done to any man, either in life or estate. And thus what may be spent on a feast may be spent on a sacrifice. But if peradventure such were the state of things that the interest of the commonwealth required all slaughter of beasts should be forborne for some while, in order to the increasing of the stock of cattle that had been destroyed by some extraordinary murrain, who sees not that the magistrate, in such a case, may forbid all his subjects to kill any calves for any use whatsoever? Only it is to be observed that, in this case, the law is not made about a religious, but a political matter; nor is the sacrifice, but the slaughter of calves, thereby prohibited.

By this we see what difference there is between the church and the commonwealth. Whatsoever is lawful in the commonwealth cannot be prohibited by the magistrate in the church. Whatsoever is permitted unto any of his subjects for their ordinary use, neither can nor ought to be forbidden by him to any sect of people for their religious uses. If any man may lawfully take bread or wine, either sitting or kneeling in his own house, the law ought not to abridge him of the same liberty in his religious worship; though in the church the use of bread and wine be very different, and be there applied to the mysteries of faith and rites of divine worship. But those things that are prejudicial to the commonweal of a people in their ordinary use, and are therefore forbidden by laws, those things ought not to be permitted to churches in their sacred rites. Only the magistrate ought always to be very careful that he do not misuse his authority to the oppression of any church, under pretense, of public good....

Thus far concerning outward worship. Let us now consider articles of faith.

The articles of religion are some of them practical and some speculative. Now, though both sorts consist in the knowledge of truth, yet these terminate simply in the understanding, those influence the will and manners. Speculative opinions, therefore, and articles of faith (as they are called) which are required only to be believed, cannot be imposed on any church by the law of the land. For it is absurd that things should be enjoined by laws which are not in men’s power to perform. And to believe this or that to be true, does not depend upon our will. But of this enough has been said already. But (will some say) let men at least profess that they believe. A sweet religion, indeed, that obliges men to dissemble and tell lies, both to God and man, for the salvation of their souls! If the magistrate thinks to save men thus, he seems to understand little of the way of salvation. And if he does it not in order to save them, why is he so solicitous about the articles of faith as to enact them by a law?

Further, the magistrate ought not to forbid the preaching or professing of any speculative opinions in any church, because they have no manner of relation to the civil rights of the subjects. If a Roman Catholic believe that to be really the body of Christ, which another man calls bread, he does no injury thereby to his neighbor. If a Jew do not believe the New Testament to be the word of God, he does not thereby alter anything in men’s civil rights. If a heathen doubt of both Testaments, he is not therefore to be punished as a pernicious citizen. The power of the magistrate and the estates of the people may be equally secure whether any man believe these things or no. I readily grant that these opinions are false and absurd. But the business of laws is not to provide for the truth of opinions, but for the safety and security of the commonwealth, and of every particular man’s goods and person. And so it ought to be. For the truth certainly would do well enough is she were once left to shift for herself. She seldom has received, and I fear never will receive, much assistance from the power of great men, to whom she is but rarely known, and more rarely welcome. She is not taught by laws, nor has she any need of force to procure her entrance into the minds of men. Errors indeed prevail by the assistance of foreign and borrowed succors. But if truth makes not her way into the understanding by her own light, she will be but the weaker for any borrowed force violence can add to her. Thus much for speculative opinions. Let us now proceed to practical ones.

A good life, in which consists not the least part of religion and true piety, concerns also the civil government; and in it lies the safety both of men’s souls and of the commonwealth. Moral actions belong therefore to the jurisdiction both of the outward and inward court; both of the civil and domestic governor; I mean both of the magistrate and conscience. Here, therefore, is great danger, lest one of these jurisdictions intrench upon the other, and discord arise between the keeper of the public peace and the overseers of souls. But if what has been already said concerning the limits of both these governments be rightly considered, it will easily remove all difficulty in this matter.

Every man has an immortal soul, capable of eternal happiness or misery; whose happiness depending upon his believing and doing those things in this life which are necessary to the obtaining of God’s favor, and are prescribed by God to that end. It follows from thence, first, that the observance of these things is the highest obligation that lies upon mankind, and that our utmost care, application, and diligence ought to be exercised in the search and performance of them; because there is nothing in this world that is of any consideration in comparison with eternity. Secondly, that seeing one man does not violate the right of another by his erroneous opinions and undue manner of worship, nor is his perdition any prejudice to another man’s affairs, therefore, the care of each man’s salvation belongs only to himself. But I would not have this understood as if I meant hereby to condemn all charitable admonitions, and affectionate endeavors to reduce men from errors, which are indeed the greatest duty of a Christian. Anyone may employ as many exhortations and arguments as he pleases, towards the promoting of another man’s salvation. But all force and compulsion are to be forborne. Nothing is to be done imperiously. Nobody is obliged in that matter to yield obedience unto the admonitions or injunctions of another, further than he himself is persuaded. Every man in that has the supreme and absolute authority of judging for himself. And the reason is because nobody else is concerned in it, nor can receive any prejudice from his conduct therein....

These things being thus explained, it is easy to understand to what end the legislative power ought to be directed, and by what measures regulated; and that is the temporal good and outward prosperity of the society; which is the sole reason of men’s entering into society, and the only thing they seek and aim at in it. And it is also evident what liberty remains to men in reference to their eternal salvation, and that is, that everyone should do what he in his conscience is persuaded to be acceptable to the Almighty, on whose good pleasure and acceptance depends their eternal happiness. For obedience is due, in the first place, to God, and afterwards to the laws.

But some may ask, What if the magistrate should enjoin anything by his authority that appears unlawful to the conscience of a private person? I answer, that if government be faithfully administered, and the counsels of the magistrates be indeed directed to the public good, this will seldom happen. But if, perhaps, it do so fall out, I say, that such a private person is to abstain from the action that he judges unlawful, and he is to undergo the punishment which it is not unlawful for him to bear. For the private judgment of any person concerning a law enacted in political matters, for the public good, does not take away the obligation of that law, nor deserve a dispensation. But if the law indeed be concerning things that lie not within the verge of the magistrate’s authority (as for example, that the people, or any party amongst them, should be compelled to embrace a strange religion, and join in the worship and ceremonies of another church), men are not in these cases obliged by that law, against their consciences. For the political society is instituted for no other end, but only to secure every man’s possession of the things of this life. The care of each man’s soul, and of the things of heaven, which neither does belong to the commonwealth nor can be subjected to it, is left entirely to every man’s self. Thus the safeguard of men’s lives, and of the things that belong unto this life, is the business of the commonwealth; and the preserving of those things unto their owners is the duty of the magistrate. And therefore the magistrate cannot take away these worldly things from this man or party, and give them to that; nor change propriety amongst fellow-subjects (no not even by a law), for a cause that has no relation to the end of civil government, I mean for their religion, which whether it be true or false does no prejudice to the worldly concerns of their fellow-subjects, which are the things that only belong unto the care of the commonwealth.



In this selection from his famous Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, etc. (1699), Anthony Ashley Cooper, third earl of Shaftsbury (1671-1713), offers a sober plea for reason and moderation to replace superstition and enthusiasm, by which he meant religious zeal and fanaticism.

If the knowing well how to expose any infirmity or vice were a sufficient security for the virtue which is contrary, how excellent an age might we be presumed to live in! Never was there in our nation a time known when folly and extravagance of every kind were more sharply inspected, or more wittily ridiculed. And one might hope, at least from this good symptom, that our age was in no declining state; since whatever our distempers are, we stand so well affected to our remedies. To bear the being told of faults is in private persons the best token of amendment. ‘Tis seldom that a public is thus disposed. For where jealousy of state, or the ill lives of the great people, or any other cause, is powerful enough to restrain the freedom of censure in any part, it in effect destroys the benefit of it in the whole. There can be no impartial and free censure of manners where any peculiar custom or national opinion is set apart, and not only exempted from criticism, but even flattered with the highest art. ’Tis only in a free nation, such as ours, that imposture has no privilege; and that neither the credit of a court, the power of a nobility, nor the awfulness of a Church can give her protection, or hinder her from being arraigned in every shape and appearance. ‘Tis true, this liberty may seem to run too far. We may perhaps be said to make ill use of it. So every one will say, when he himself is touched, and his opinion freely examined. But who shall be judge of what may be freely examined and what may not? Where liberty may be used and where it may not? What remedy shall we prescribe to this in general? Can there be a better than from that liberty itself which is complained of? If men are vicious, petulant, or abusive, the magistrate may correct them: but if they reason ill, ’tis reason still must teach them to do better. Justness of thought and style, refinement in manners, good breeding, and politeness of every kind can come only from the trial and experience of what is best. Let but the search go freely on, and the right measure of everything will soon be found. Whatever humor has got the start, if it be unnatural, it cannot hold; and the ridicule, if ill-placed at first, will certainly fall at last where it deserves.

I have often wondered to see men of sense so mightily alarmed at the approach of anything like ridicule on certain subjects; as if they mistrusted their own judgment. For what ridicule can lie against reason? or how can any one of the least justness of thought endure a ridicule wrong placed? Nothing is more ridiculous than this itself. The vulgar, indeed, may swallow any sordid jest, any mere drollery or buffoonery; but it must be a finer and truer wit which takes with the men of sense and breeding. How comes it to pass, then, that we appear such cowards in reasoning, and are so afraid to stand the test of ridicule? O! say we, the subjects are too grave. Perhaps so: but let us see first whether they are really grave or no: for in the manner we may conceive them they may, peradventure, be very grave and weighty in our imagination, but very ridiculous and impertinent in their own nature. Gravity is of the very essence of imposture. It does not only make us mistake other things, but is apt perpetually almost to mistake itself. For even in common behavior, how hard is it for the grave character to keep long out of the limits of the formal one? We can never be too grave, if we can be assured we are really what we suppose. And we can never too much honor or revere anything for grave, if we are assured the thing is grave, as we apprehend it. The main point is to know always true gravity from the false: and this can only be by carrying the rule constantly with us, and freely applying it not only to the things about us, but to ourselves; for if unhappily we lose the measure in ourselves, we shall soon lose it in everything besides. Now what rule or measure is there in the world, except in the considering of the real temper of things, to find which are truly serious and which ridiculous? And how can this be done, unless by applying the ridicule, to see whether it will bear? But if we fear to apply this rule in anything, what security can we have against the imposture of formality in all things? We have allowed ourselves to be formalists in one point; and the same formality may rule us as it pleases in all other.

’Tis not in every disposition that we are capacitated to judge of things. We must beforehand judge of our own temper, and accordingly of other things which fall under our judgment. But we must never more pretend to judge of things, or of our own temper in judging them, when we have given up our preliminary right of judgment, and under a presumption of gravity have allowed ourselves to be most ridiculous and to admire profoundly the most ridiculous things in nature, at least for aught we know. For having resolved never to try, we can never be sure.

This, my lord, I may safely aver, is so true in itself, and so well known for truth by the cunning formalists of the age, that they can better bear to have their impostures railed at, with all the bitterness and vehemence imaginable, than to have them touched ever so gently in this other way. They know very well, that as modes and fashions, so opinions, though ever so ridiculous, are kept up by solemnity; and that those formal notions, which grew up probably in an ill mood and have been conceived in sober sadness, are never to be removed but in a sober kind of cheerfulness, and by a more easy and pleasant way of thought. There is a melancholy which accompanies all enthusiasm. Be it love or religion (for there are enthusiasms in both) nothing can put a stop to the growing mischief of either, till the melancholy be removed and the mind at liberty to hear what can be said against the ridiculousness of an extreme in either way.

It was heretofore the wisdom of some wise nations to let people be fools as much as they pleased, and never to punish seriously what deserved only to be laughed at, and was, after all, best cured by that innocent remedy. There are certain humors in mankind which of necessity must have vent. The human mind and body are both of them naturally subject to commotions: and as there are strange ferments in the blood, which in many bodies occasion an extraordinary discharge; so in reason, too, there are heterogeneous particles which must be thrown off by fermentation. Should physicians endeavor absolutely to allay those ferments of the body, and strike in the humors which discover themselves in such eruptions, they might, instead of making a cure, bid fair perhaps to raise a plague, and turn a spring-ague or an autumn-surfeit into an epidemical malignant fever. They are certainly as ill physicians in the body-politic who would needs be tampering with these mental eruptions ; and under the specious pretense of healing this itch of superstition, and saving souls from the contagion of enthusiasm, should set all nature in an uproar, and turn a few innocent carbuncles into an inflammation and mortal gangrene.

We read in history that Pan, when he accompanied Bacchus in an expedition to the Indies, found means to strike a terror through a host of enemies by the help of a small company, whose clamors he managed to good advantage among the echoing rocks and caverns of a woody vale. The hoarse bellowing of the caves, joined to the hideous aspect of such dark and desert places, raised such a horror in the enemy, that in this state their imagination helped them to hear voices, and doubtless to see forms too, which were more than human: whilst the uncertainty of what they feared made their fear yet greater, and spread it faster by implicit looks than any narration could convey it. And this was what in after-times men called a panic. The story indeed gives a good hint of the nature of this passion, which can hardly be without some mixture of enthusiasm and horrors of a superstitious kind.

One may with good reason call every passion panic which is raised in a multitude and conveyed by aspect or, as it were, by contact of sympathy. Thus popular fury may be called panic when the rage of the people, as we have sometimes known, has put them beyond themselves; especially where religion has had to do. And in this state their very looks are infectious. The fury flies from face to face; and the disease is no sooner seen than caught. They who in a better situation of mind have beheld a multitude under the power of this passion, have owned that they saw in the countenances of men something more ghastly and terrible than at other times is expressed on the most passionate occasion. Such force has society in ill as well as in good passions: and so much stronger any affection is for being social and communicative.

Thus, my lord, there are many panics in mankind besides merely that of fear. And thus is religion also panic; when enthusiasm of any kind gets up, as oft, on melancholy occasions, it will. For vapors naturally rise; and in bad times especially, when the spirits of men are low, as either in public calamities, or during the unwholesomeness of air or diet, or when convulsions happen in nature, storms, earthquakes, or other amazing prodigies: at this season the panic must needs run high, and the magistrate of necessity give way to it. For to apply a serious remedy, and bring the sword, or fasces, as a cure, must make the case more melancholy, and increase the very cause of the distemper. To forbid men’s natural fears, and to endeavor the overpowering them by other fears, must needs be a most unnatural method. The magistrate, if he be any artist, should have a gentler hand; and instead of caustics, incisions, and amputations, should be using the softest balms; and with a kind sympathy entering into the concern of the people; and taking, as it were, their passion upon him should, when he has soothed and satisfied it, endeavor, by cheerful ways, to divert and heal it.

This was ancient policy: and hence (as a notable author of our nation expresses it) ’tis necessary a people should have a public leading in religion. For to deny the magistrate a worship, or take away a national church, is as mere enthusiasm as the notion which sets up persecution. For why should there not be public walks as well as private gardens? Why not public libraries as well as private education and home-tutors? But to prescribe bounds to fancy and speculation, to regulate men’s apprehensions and religious beliefs or fears, to suppress by violence the natural passion of enthusiasm, or to endeavor to ascertain it, or reduce it to one species, or bring it under any one modification, is in truth no better sense, nor deserves a better character, than what the comedian declares of the like project in the affair of love.

Not only the visionaries and enthusiasts of all kinds were tolerated, your lordship knows, by the ancients; but, on the other side, philosophy had as free a course, and was permitted as a balance against superstition. And whilst some sects, such as the Pythagorean and latter Platonic, joined in with the superstition and enthusiasm of the times; the Epicurean, the Academic, and others, were allowed to use all the force of wit and raillery against it. And thus matters were happily balanced; reason had fair play; learning and science flourished. Wonderful was the harmony and temper which arose from all these contrarieties. Thus superstition and enthusiasm were mildly treated, and being let alone they never raged to that degree as to occasion bloodshed, wars, persecutions, and devastation in the world. But a new sort of policy, which extends itself to another world and considers the future lives and happiness of men rather than the present, has made us leap the bounds of natural humanity; and out of a supernatural charity has taught us the way of plaguing one another most devoutly. It has raised an antipathy which no temporal interest could ever do; and entailed upon us a mutual hatred to all eternity. And now uniformity in opinion (a hopeful project!) is looked on as the only expedient against this evil. The saving of souls is now the heroic passion of exalted spirits; and is become in a manner the chief care of the magistrate, and the very end of government itself.

If magistracy should vouchsafe to interpose thus much in other sciences, I am afraid we should have as bad logic, as bad mathematics, and in every kind as bad philosophy, as we often have divinity, in countries where a precise orthodoxy is settled by law. ‘Tis a hard matter for a government to settle wit. If it does but keep us sober and honest, ’tis likely we shall have as much ability in our spiritual as in our temporal affairs: and if we can but be trusted, we shall have wit enough to save ourselves, when no prejudice lies in the way. But if honesty and wit be insufficient for this saving work, ’tis in vain for the magistrate to meddle with it: since if he be ever so virtuous or wise, he may be as soon mistaken as another man. I am sure the only way to save men’s sense, or preserve wit at all in the world, is to give liberty to wit. Now wit can never have its liberty where the freedom of raillery is taken away: for against serious extravagances and splenetic humors there is no other remedy than this.

We have indeed full power over all other modifications of spleen. We may treat other enthusiasms as we please. We may ridicule love, or gallantry, or knight-errantry to the utmost; and we find that in these latter days of wit, the humor of this kind, which was once so prevalent, is pretty well declined. The crusades, the rescuing of holy lands, and such devout gallantries, are in less request than formerly: but if something of this militant religion, something of this soul-rescuing spirit and saint-errantry prevails still, we need not wonder, when we consider in how solemn a manner we treat this distemper, and how preposterously we go about to cure enthusiasm.

I can hardly forbear fancying that if we had a sort of inquisition, or formal court of judicature, with grave officers and judges, erected to restrain poetical license, and in general to suppress that fancy and humor of versification; but in particular that most extravagant passion of love, as it is set out by poets, in its heathenish dress of Venuses and Cupids: if the poets, as ringleaders and teachers of this heresy, were, under grievous penalties, forbid to enchant the people by their vein of rhyming; and if the people, on the other side, were, under proportionable penalties, forbid to hearken to any such charm, or lend their attention to any love tale, so much as in a play, a novel, or a ballad—we might perhaps see a new Arcadia arising out of this heavy persecution: old people and young would be seized with a versifying spirit: we should have field-conventicles of lovers and poets: forests would be filled with romantic shepherds and shepherdesses: and rocks resound with echoes of hymns and praises offered to the powers of love. We might indeed have a fair chance, by this management, to bring back the whole train of heathen gods, and set our cold northern island burning with as many altars to Venus and Apollo, as were formerly in Cyprus, Delos, or any of those warmer Grecian climates.



In these two selections, which anticipate much of Enlightenment deism, Newton insists that the design apparent everywhere in nature proves the existence of an intelligent and omnipresent Supreme Being. The first excerpt is from Newton’s Opticks (1704), and the second is from a letter written in 1692 to the Reverend Dr. Richard Bentley.

The main business of natural philosophy is to argue from phenomena without feigning hypotheses and to deduce causes from effects, till we come to the very first cause, which certainly is not mechanical; and not only to unfold the mechanism of the world, but chiefly to resolve these and suchlike questions. What is there in places almost empty of matter, and whence is it that the sun and planets gravitate toward one another, without dense matter between them? Whence is it that nature does nothing in vain, and whence arises all that order and beauty which we see in the world? To what end are comets, and whence is it that planets move all one and the same way in orbs concentric while comets move all manner of ways in orbs very eccentric, and what hinders the fixed stars from falling upon one another? How came the bodies of animals to be contrived with so much art, and for what ends were their several parts? Was the eye contrived without skill in optics and the ear without knowledge of sounds? How do the motions of the body follow from the will, and whence is the instinct in animals? Is not the sensory of animals that place to which the sensitive substance is present and into which the sensible species of things are carried through the nerves and brain, that there they may be perceived by their immediate presence to that substance? And these things being rightly dispatched, does it not appear from phenomena that there is a Being, incorporeal, living, intelligent, omnipresent, who in infinite space, as it were in his sensory, sees the things themselves intimately and thoroughly perceives them, and comprehends them wholly by their immediate presence to himself, of which things the images only carried through the organs of sense into our little sensoriums are there seen and beheld by that which in us perceives and thinks? And though every true step made in this philosophy brings us not immediately to the knowledge of the first cause, yet it brings us nearer to it, and on that account is to be highly valued.



When I wrote my Treatise about our System, I had an Eye upon such Principles as might work with considering Men, for the Belief of a Deity, and nothing can rejoice me more than to find it useful for that Purpose. But if I have done the Public any Service this way, it is due to nothing but Industry and patient Thought.

As to your first Query, it seems to me that if the Matter of our Sun and Planets, and all the Matter of the Universe, were evenly scattered throughout all the Heavens, and every Particle had an innate Gravity towards all the rest, and the whole Space, throughout which this Matter was scattered, was but finite; the Matter on the outside of this Space would by its Gravity tend towards all the Matter on the inside, and by consequence fall down into the middle of the whole Space, and there compose one great spherical Mass. But if the Matter was evenly disposed throughout an infinite Space, it could never convene into one Mass, but some of it would convene into one Mass and some into another, so as to make an infinite Number of great Masses, scattered at great Distances from one to another throughout all that infinite Space. And thus might the Sun and fixt Stars be formed, supposing the Matter were of a lucid Nature. But how the Matter should divide itself into two sorts, and that Part of it, which is fit to compose a shining Body, should fall down into one Mass and make a Sun, and the rest, which is fit to compose an opaque Body, should coalesce, not into one great Body, like the shining Matter, but into many little ones; or if the Sun at first were an opaque Body like the Planets, or the Planets lucid Bodies like the Sun, how he alone should be changed into a shining Body, whilst all they continue opaque, or all they be changed into opaque ones, whilst he remains unchanged, I do not think explicable by mere natural Causes, but am forced to ascribe it to the Counsel and Contrivance of a voluntary Agent.

The same Power, whether natural or supernatural, which placed the Sun in the Center of the six primary Planets, placed Saturn in the Center of the Orbs of his five secondary Planets, and Jupiter in the Center of his four secondary Planets, and the Earth in the Center of the Moon’s Orb; and therefore had this Cause been a blind one, without Contrivance or Design, the Sun would have been a Body of the same kind with Saturn, Jupiter, and the Earth, that is, without Light and Heat. Why there is one Body in our System qualified to give Light and Heat to all the rest, I know no Reason, but because the Author of the System thought it convenient; and why there is but one Body of this kind I know no Reason, but because one was sufficient to warm and enlighten all the rest. For the Cartesian Hypothesis of Suns losing their Light, and then turning into Comets, and Comets into Planets, can have no Place in my System, and is plainly erroneous; because it is certain that as often as they appear to us, they descend into the System of our Planets, lower than the Orb of Jupiter, and sometimes lower than the Orbs of Venus and Mercury, and yet never stay here, but always return from the Sun with the same Degrees of Motion by which they approached him.

To your second Query, I answer, that the Motions which the Planets now have could not spring from any natural Cause alone, but were impressed by an intelligent Agent. For since Comets descend into the Region of our Planets, and here move all manner of ways, going sometimes the same way with the Planets, sometimes the contrary way, and sometimes in cross ways, in Planes inclined to the Plane of the Ecliptick, and at all kinds of Angles, ’tis plain that there is no natural Cause which could determine all the Planets, both primary and secondary, to move the same way and in the same Plane, without any considerable Variation: This must have been the Effect of Counsel. Nor is there any natural Cause which could give the Planets those just Degrees of Velocity, in Proportion to their Distances from the Sun, and other central Bodies, which were requisite to make them move in such concentrick Orbs about those Bodies. Had the Planets been as swift as Comets, in Proportion to their Distances from the Sun (as they would have been, had their Motion been caused by their Gravity, whereby the Matter, at the first Formation of the Planets, might fall from the remotest Regions towards the Sun) they would not move in concentrick Orbs, but in such eccentrick ones as the Comets move in. Were all the Planets as swift as Mercury, or as slow as Saturn or his Satellites; or were their several Velocities otherwise much greater or less than they are, as they might have been had they arose from any other Cause than their Gravities; or had the Distances from the Centers about which they move, been greater or less than they are with the same Velocities; or had the Quantity of Matter in the Sun, or in Saturn, Jupiter, and the Earth, and by consequence their gravitating Power been greater or less than it is; the primary Planets could not have revolved about the Sun, nor the secondary ones about Saturn, Jupiter, and the Earth, in concentrick Circles as they do, but would have moved in Hyperbolas, or Parabolas, or in Ellipses very eccentrick. To make this System therefore, with all its Motions, required a Cause which understood, and compared together, the Quantities of Matter in the several Bodies of the Sun and Planets, and the gravitating Powers resulting from thence; the several Distances of the primary Planets from the Sun, and of the secondary ones from Saturn, Jupiter, and the Earth; and the Velocities with which these Planets could revolve about those Quantities of Matter in the central Bodies; and to compare and adjust all these Things together, in so great a Variety of Bodies, argues that Cause to be not blind and fortuitous, but very well skilled in Mechanicks and Geometry.

To your third Query, I answer, that it may be represented that the Sun may, by heating those Planets most which are nearest to him, cause them to be better concocted, and more condensed by that Concoction. But when I consider that our Earth is much more heated in its Bowels below the upper Crust by subterraneous Fermentations of mineral Bodies than by the Sun, I see not why the interior Parts of Jupiter and Saturn might not be as much heated, concocted, and coagulated by those Fermentations as our Earth is; and therefore this various Density should have some other Cause than the various Distances of the Planets from the Sun. And I am confirmed in this Opinion by considering, that the Planets of Jupiter and Saturn, as they are rarer than the rest, so they are vastly greater, and contain a far greater Quantity of Matter, and have many Satellites about them; which Qualifications surely arose not from their being placed at so great a Distance from the Sun, but were rather the Cause why the Creator placed them at great Distance. For by their gravitating Powers they disturb one another’s Motions very sensibly, as I find by some late Observations of Mr. Flamsteed, and had they been placed much nearer to the Sun and to one another, they would by the same Powers have caused a considerable Disturbance in the whole System.

To your fourth Query, I answer, that in the Hypothesis of Vortices, the Inclination of the Axis of the Earth might, in my Opinion, be ascribed to the Situation of the Earth’s Vortex before it was absorbed by the neighboring Vortices, and the Earth turned from a Sun to a Comet; but this Inclination ought to decrease constantly in Compliance with the Motion of the Earth’s Vortex, whose Axis is much less inclined to the Ecliptick, as appears by the Motion of the Moon carried about therein. If the Sun by his Rays could carry about the Planets, yet I do not see how he could thereby effect their diurnal Motions.

Lastly, I see nothing extraordinary in the Inclination of the Earth’s Axis for proving a Deity, unless you will urge it as a Contrivance for Winter and Summer, and for making the Earth habitable towards the Poles; and that the diurnal Rotations of the Sun and Planets, as they could hardly arise from any Cause purely mechanical, so by being determined all the same way with the annual and menstrual Motions, they seem to make up that Harmony in the System, which, as I explained above, was the Effect of Choice rather than Chance.

There is yet another argument for a Deity, which I take to be a very strong one, but till the Principles on which it is grounded are better received, I think it more advisable to let it sleep.

I am, 
Your most humble Servant 
to command,


Decemb. 10, 1692.



A friend of John Locke, Anthony Collins (1676-1729) was perhaps England’s most outspoken foe of religion in the eighteenth century. His recurring theme in this essay of 1713 is the inability of religious believers and priests to agree on creedal truth.

The Subjects of which Men are deny’d the Right to think by the Enemys of Free- Thinking, are of all others those of which Men have not only a Right to think, but of which they are oblig’d in duty to think; viz. such as of the Nature and Attributes of the Eternal Being or God, of the Truth and Authority of Books esteem’d Sacred, and of the Sense and Meaning of those Books; or, in one word, of Religious Questions.

1st. A right Opinion in these matters is suppos’d by the Enemys of Free-Thinking to be absolutely necessary to Mens Salvation, and some Errors or Mistakes about them are suppos’d to be damnable. Now where a right Opinion is so necessary, there Men have the greatest Concern imaginable to think for themselves, as the best means to take up with the right side of the Question. For if they will not think for themselves, it remains only for them to take the Opinions they have imbib’d from their Grandmothers, Mothers or Priests, or owe to such like Accident, for granted. But taking that method, they can only be in the right by chance; whereas by Thinking and Examination, they have not only the mere accident of being in the right, but have the Evidence of things to determine them to the side of Truth: unless it be suppos’d that Men are such absurd Animals, that the most unreasonable Opinion is as likely to be admitted for true as the most reasonable, when it is judg’d of by the Reason and Understanding of Men. In that case indeed it will follow, That Men can be under no Obligation to think of these matters. But then it will likewise follow, That they can be under no Obligation to concern themselves about Truth and Falshood in any Opinions. For if Men are so absurd, as not to be able to distinguish between Truth and Falshood, Evidence and no Evidence, what pretense is there for Mens having any Opinions at all? Which yet none judg so necessary as the Enemys of Free-Thinking.

2dly. If the surest and best means of arriving at Truth lies in Free-Thinking, then the whole Duty of Man with respect to Opinions lies only in Free-Thinking. Because he who thinks freely does his best towards being in the right, and consequently does all that God, who can require nothing more of any Man than that he should do his best, can require of him. And should he prove mistaken in any Opinions, he must be as acceptable to God as if he receiv’d none but right Opinions....

On the other side, the whole Crime of Man, with respect to Opinions, must lie in his not thinking freely. He who is in the right by accident only, and does but suppose himself to be so without any Thinking, is really in a dangerous state, as having taken no pains and used no endeavors towards being in the right, and consequently as having no Merit; nay, as being on the same foot with the most stupid Papist and Heathen. For when once Men refuse or neglect to think, and take up their Opinions upon trust, they do in effect declare they would have been Papists or Heathens, had they had Popish or Heathen Priests for their Guides, or Popish or Heathen Grandmothers to have taught them their Catechisms.

3dly. Superstition is an Evil, which either by the means of Education, or the natural Weakness of Men, oppresses almost all Mankind. And how terrible an Evil it is, is well describ’d by the ancient Philosophers and Poets. TULLY says, If you give way to Superstition, it will ever haunt and plague you. If you go to a Prophet, or regard Omens; if you sacrifice or observe the Flight of Birds; if you consult an Astrologer or Haruspex; if it thunders or lightens, or any place is consum’d with Lightning, or such-like Prodigy happens (as it is necessary some such often should) all the Tranquillity of the Mind is destroy’d. And Sleep it self, which seems to be an Asylum and Refuge from all Trouble and Uneasiness, does by the aid of Superstition increase your Troubles and Fears.

Horace ranks Superstition with Vice; and as he makes the Happiness of Man in this Life to consist in the practice of Virtue and Freedom from Superstition, so he makes the greatest Misery of this Life to consist in being vicious and superstitious. You are not covetous, says he; that’s well: But are you as free from all other Vices? Are you free from Ambition, excessive Anger, and the Fear of Death? Are you so much above Superstition, as to laugh at allDreams, panick Fears, Miracles, Witches, Ghosts, and Prodigys?

This was the state of Superstition among the Antients; but since Uncharitableness and damning to all eternity for Trifles, has (in opposition both to Reason and Revelation) come into the World, the Evil of Superstition is much increas’d, and Men are now under greater Terrors and Uneasiness of Mind than they possibly could be when they thought they hazarded less.

Now there is no just Remedy to this universal Evil but Free-Thinking. By that alone can we understand the true Causes of things, and by consequence the Unreasonableness of all superstitious Fears. Happy is the Man, says the Divine VIRGIL, who has discover’d the Causes of Things, and is thereby cured of all kind of Fears, even of Death it self, and all the Noise and Din of Hell. For by Free-Thinking alone Men are capable of knowing, that a perfectly Good, Just, Wise and Powerful Being made and governs the World; and from this Principle they know, that he can require nothing of Men in any Country or Condition of Life, but that whereof he has given them an opportunity of being convinc’d by Evidence and Reason in the Place where they are, and in that Condition of Life to which Birth or any other Chance has directed them; that an honest and rational Man can have no just reason to fear any thing from him: nay, on the contrary, must have so great a Delight and Satisfaction in believing such a Being exists, that he can much better be suppos’d to fear lest no such Being should exist, than to fear any harm from him. And lastly, That God being incapable of having any addition made either to his Power or Happiness, and wanting nothing, can require nothing of Men for his own sake, but only for Man’s sake; and consequently, that all Actions and Speculations which are of no use to Mankind, [as for instance, Singing or Dancing, or wearing of Habits, or Observation of Days, or eating or drinking, or slaughtering of Beasts (in which things the greatest part of the Heathen Worship consisted) or the Belief of Transubstantiation or Consubstantiation, or of any Doctrines not taught by the Church of England] either signify nothing at all with God, or else displease him, but can never render a Man more acceptable to him.

By means of all this, a Man may possess his Soul in peace, as having an expectation of enjoying all the good things which God can bestow, and no fear of any future Misery or Evil from his hands; and the very worst of his State can only be, that he is pleasantly deceiv’d.

Whereas superstitious Men are incapable of believing in a perfectly just and good God. They make him talk to all Mankind from corners, and consequently require things of Men under the Sanction of Misery in the next World, of which they are incapable of having any convincing Evidence that they come from him. They make him (who equally beholds all the Dwellers upon earth) to have favorite Nations and People, without any Consideration of Merit. They make him put other Nations under Disadvantages without any Demerit. And so they are more properly to be stil’d Demonists than Theists. No wonder therefore if such Wretches should be so full of Fears of the Wrath of God, that they are sometimes tempted (with the Vicious) to wish there was no God at all; a Thought so unnatural and absurd, that even Speculative Atheists would abhor it. These Men have no quiet in their own Minds; they rove about in search of saving Truth thro the dark Comers of the Earth, and are so foolish as to hope to find it (if I may so say) hid under the Sands of Africa, where Cato scorn’d to look for it: and neglecting what God speaks plainly to the whole World, take up with what they suppose he has communicated to a few; and thereby believe and practice such things, in which they can never have Satisfaction. For suppose Men take up with a Religion which consists in Dancing or Musick, or such-like Ceremonys, or in useless and unintelligible Speculations; how can they be assur’d they believe and perform as they ought? What Rule can such Men have to know whether other Ceremonys, and useless and unintelligible Speculations, may not be requir’d of them instead of those they perform and believe? And how can they be sure that they believe rightly any unintelligible Speculations? Here is a foundation laid for nothing but endless Scruples, Doubts, and Fears. Wherefore I conclude, that every one, out of regard to his own Tranquility of Mind, which must be disturb’d as long as he has any Seeds of Superstition, is oblig’d to think freely on Matters of Religion.

4thly. The infinite number of Pretenders in all Ages to Revelations from Heaven, supported by Miracles, containing new Notions of the Deity, new Doctrines, new Commands, new Ceremonys, and new Modes of Worship, make thinking on the foregoing Heads absolutely necessary, if a Man be under an obligation to listen to any Revelation at all. For how shall any Man distinguish between the true Messenger from Heaven and the Impostor, but by considering the Evidence produc’ d by the one, as freely as of the other? ...

It is objected, That to allow and encourage Men to think freely, will produce endless Divisions in Opinion, and by consequence Disorder in Society. To which I answer,

1. Let any Man lay down a Rule to prevent Diversity of Opinions, which will not be as fertile of Diversity of Opinions as Free-Thinking; or if it prevents Diversity of Opinions, will not be a Remedy worse than the Disease; and I will yield up the Question.

2. Mere Diversity of Opinions has no tendency in nature to Confusion in Society. The Pythagoreans, Stoicks, Scepticks, Academicks, Cynicks, and Stratonicks, all existed in Greece at the same time, and differ’d from one another in the most important Points, viz. concerning the Freedom of human Actions, the Immortality and Immateriality of the Soul, the Being and Nature of the Gods, and their Government of the World: And yet no Confusion ever arose in Greece on account of this Diversity of Opinions. Nor did the infinite Variety of Religions and Worships among the Antients ever produce any Disorder or Confusion. Nay, so little Polemick Divinity was there among them, and so little mischief did the Heathen Priests do, that there are no Materials for that sort of History call’d Ecclesiastical History. And the true reason why no ill effect follow’d this Diversity of Opinions, was, because Men generally agreed in that mild and peaceable Principle of allowing one another to think freely, and to have different Opinions. Whereas had the common practice of Calumny us’d among us prevail’d among them, or had they condemn’d one another to Fire and Faggot, Imprisonment and Fines in this World, and Damnation in the next, and by these means have engag’d the Passions of the ignorant part of Mankind in their several Partys; then Confusion, Disorder, and every evil Work had follow’d, as it does at this day among those who allow no Liberty of Opinion. We may be convinc’d of this by our own Experience. How many Disputes are there every where among Philosophers, Physicians, and Divines; which, by the allowance of free Debate, produce no ill effects? Further, let any man look into the History and State of the Turks, and he will see the influence which their tolerating Principles and Temper have on the Peace of their Empire.... So that it is evident Matter of Fact, that a Restraint upon Thinking is the cause of all the Confusion which is pretended to arise from Diversity of Opinions, and that Liberty of Thinking is the Remedy for all the Disorders which are pretended to arise from Diversity of Opinions.



In his Persian Letters, published in 1721, Charles de Secondat, baron de la Brède et de Montesquieu (1689-1755), offers a penetrating critique of French life through imagined letters home from two Persians traveling in France. The following selections are from Letters 83 and 85.

If there is a God, my dear Rhedi, he must necessarily be just; for if he were not, he would be the most wicked and imperfect of all beings.

Justice is a true relation between two things: this relation is always the same, no matter who examines it, whether it be God, or an angel, or lastly, man himself

It is true that men do not always perceive these relations; often even when they do perceive them, they turn away from them, and their self-interest is what they perceive most clearly. Justice cries aloud, but her voice can hardly be heard above the tumult of the passions.

Men can commit unjust acts because it is to their advantage to do so and because they prefer their own contentment to that of others. They always act from selfish motives: no man is evil gratuitously: there must be a determining cause, and that cause is always selfishness.

But God cannot possibly commit an unjust act: once we assume that he perceives what is just he must of necessity act accordingly, for since he is self-sufficient and in need of nothing, he would otherwise be the most wicked of beings, since he has no selfish interests.

Thus if there were no God, we would still be obliged to venerate justice, that is, we should do everything possible to resemble that being of whom we have such an exalted notion and who, if he exists, would necessarily be just. Free though we might be from the yoke of religion, we should never be free from the bonds of equity.

That, Rhedi, is what makes me think that justice is eternal and does not depend on human conventions. And if it did depend on them, that would be a terrible fact that we should hide from ourselves.

We are surrounded by men stronger than we are: they can harm us in a thousand different ways; three times out of four, they can do it with impunity. What a relief for us to know that there is in the hearts of all men an inner principle fighting in our behalf and protecting us from their attempts.

Without that principle, we could live only in a state of constant alarm; we would walk among men as among lions; and we could never be assured for a moment of our goods, our honor, or our lives.

These thoughts always stir me up against those theologians who represent God as a being who makes tyrannical use of his power; who make him do things that we would not do for fear of offending him; who burden him with all the imperfections that he punishes us for: and represent him, quite contradictorily, sometimes as an evil being, sometimes as a being who hates evil and punishes it.

When a man looks within himself, what a satisfaction it is for him to find that his heart is just! This pleasure, no matter how austere, should delight him: he sees himself as far above those lacking in this quality as he is above tigers and bears. Yes, Rhedi, if I were always sure of following inviolably the justice that I perceive, I would consider myself the first among men.


You know, Mirza, that a number of ministers of Shah-Soliman had formed the project of forcing all the Armenians in Persia to leave the realm or become Mohammedans, with the idea that our empire would be polluted as long as it kept these infidels in our midst.

That would have meant the end of the grandeur of Persia, if blind devotion had been heeded on this occasion.

It is not known why the project failed. Neither those who proposed it nor those who rejected it knew what the consequences thereof would have been: chance played the part of reason and policy and saved the empire from a risk greater than it could have run from the loss of a battle and the capture of two cities.

By proscribing the Armenians, the ministers were on the verge of destroying in a single day all the merchants and nearly all the artisans of the kingdom. I am sure that the great Shah-Abbas would have preferred to cut off his two arms rather than sign such an order, and that by sending to the Mogul and other kings of India his most industrious subjects, he would have believed he was giving away half of his States.

The persecutions that our zealous Mohammedans have inflicted upon the Parsees obliged a multitude of them to flee into India and deprived Persia of a population devoted to agriculture which alone was capable by dint of labor to overcome the sterility of our soil.

Religious devotees had only to make a second attempt and ruin industry; as a result of which the empire would have toppled, and with it, as a matter of course, the very religion that they had sought to strengthen.

All prejudice aside, I do not know, Mirza, if it is not a good thing to have several religions in a State.

It is notable that those who adhere to tolerated religions ordinarily render more useful services to their country than do those who are members of the dominant religion, because, since they are kept from honored positions and can gain distinction only through opulence, they are led to acquire wealth by their toil and embrace the most arduous of society’s tasks.

Besides, since all religions entertain socially useful precepts, it is good to have them zealously observed. And what is more apt than a multiplicity of religions to inspire zeal?

Rival religions grant each other nothing. Their jealousy is shared by their individual members: all are on their guard and are afraid of doing things that would dishonor their sect and expose it to the contempt and unpardonable censure of the opposite sect.

It has also always been observed that the introduction of a new sect into a State has been the surest means of correcting the abuses of the older sect.

In vain we say that it is not in the interests of the prince to tolerate several religions within his State: even if all the sects in the world should happen to be brought together, no harm would result, because there is not one of them which does not prescribe obedience and preach submission.

I confess that histories are replete with religious wars: but on close examination, it is apparent that they were caused, not by a multiplicity of religions, but by the spirit of intolerance that ran rife in the religion that considered itself dominant.

The cause was that spirit of proselytism which the Jews took over from the Egyptians and which passed from them, like a common epidemic disease, to Mohammedans and Christians.

It was indeed a kind of madness, the progress of which can be looked upon only as a total eclipse of human reason.

For even if it were not inhuman to afflict the consciences of other peoples, even if there were none of the evil results that are counted by the thousands, it would be madness even to consider it. The man who wants to make me change my religion surely does so only because he would not change his, even if forced: he thinks it strange, then, that I do not do something he would not do himself perhaps for the whole world.



In these two selections the Scottish philosopher and historian David Hume (1711-1776) turns his philosophical skepticism on religious faith and the history of religion. The first is from Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects (1768), and the second is from The Natural History of Religion (1757). This second selection, “The Origin of Polytheism,” contains an interesting discussion of the psychology of religion.

A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined. Why is it more than probable, that all men must die; that lead cannot, of itself, remain suspended in the air; that fire consumes wood, and is extinguished by water; unless it be, that these events are found agreeable to the laws of nature, and there is required a violation of these laws, or in other words a miracle to prevent them? Nothing is esteemed a miracle, if it ever happen in the common course of nature. It is no miracle that a man, seemingly in good health, should die on a sudden: because such a kind of death, though more unusual than any other, has yet been frequently observed to happen. But it is a miracle, that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed in any age or country. There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation. And as a uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is here a direct and full proof, from the nature of the fact, against the existence of any miracle; nor can such a proof be destroyed, or the miracle rendered credible, but by an opposite proof, which is superior.

The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), “That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish; and even in that case there is a mutual destruction of arguments, and the superior only gives us an assurance suitable to that degree of force, which remains, after deducting the inferior.” When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.

In the foregoing reasoning we have supposed, that the testimony, upon which a miracle is founded, may possibly amount to an entire proof, and that the falsehood of that testimony would be a real prodigy: But it is easy to show, that we have been a great deal too liberal in our concession, and that there never was a miraculous event established on so full an evidence.

For first, there is not to be found, in all history, any miracle attested by a sufficient number of men, of such unquestioned good sense, education, and learning, as to secure us against all delusion in themselves; of such undoubted integrity, as to place them beyond all suspicion of any design to deceive others; of such credit and reputation in the eyes of mankind, as to have a great deal to lose in case of their being detected in any falsehood; and at the same time, attesting facts performed in such a public manner and in so celebrated a part of the world, as to render the detection unavoidable: All which circumstances are requisite to give us a full assurance in the testimony of men.

Secondly. We may observe in human nature a principle which, if strictly examined, will be found to diminish extremely the assurance which we might, from human testimony, have in any kind of prodigy. The maxim, by which we commonly conduct ourselves in our reasonings, is, that the objects of which we have no experience, resemble those of which we have; that what we have found to be most usual is always most probable; and that where there is an opposition of arguments, we ought to give the preference to such as are founded on the greatest number of past observations. But though, in proceeding by this rule, we readily reject any fact which is unusual and incredible in an ordinary degree; yet in advancing farther, the mind observes not always the same rule; but when anything is affirmed utterly absurd and miraculous, it rather the more readily admits of such a fact, upon account of that very circumstance, which ought to destroy all its authority. The passion of surprise and wonder, arising from miracles, being an agreeable emotion, gives a sensible tendency towards the belief of those events, from which it is derived. And this goes so far, that even those who cannot enjoy this pleasure immediately, nor can believe those miraculous events, of which they are informed, yet love to partake of the satisfaction at second-hand or by rebound, and place a pride and delight in exciting the admiration of others.

With what greediness are the miraculous accounts of travelers received, their descriptions of sea and land monsters, their relations of wonderful adventures, strange men, and uncouth manners? But if the spirit of religion join itself to the love of wonder, there is an end of common sense; and human testimony, in these circumstances, loses all pretensions to authority. A religionist may be an enthusiast, and imagine he sees what has no reality: he may know his narrative to be false, and yet persevere in it, with the best intentions in the world, for the sake of promoting so holy a cause: or even where this delusion has not place, vanity, excited by so strong a temptation, operates on him more powerfully than on the rest of mankind in any other circumstances; and self-interest with equal force. His auditors may not have, and commonly have not, sufficient judgment to canvass his evidence: what judgment they have, they renounce by principle, in these sublime and mysterious subjects: or if they were ever so willing to employ it, passion and a heated imagination disturb the regularity of its operations. Their credulity increases his impudence: and his impudence overpowers their credulity.

Eloquence, when at its highest pitch, leaves little room for reason or reflection; but addressing itself entirely to the fancy or the affections, captivates the willing hearers, and subdues their understanding. Happily, this pitch it seldom attains. But what a Tully or a Demosthenes could scarcely effect over a Roman or Athenian audience, every Capuchin, every itinerant or stationary teacher can perform over the generality of mankind, and in a higher degree, by touching such gross and vulgar passions.

The many. instances of forged miracles, and prophecies, and supernatural events, which, in all ages, have either been detected by contrary evidence, or which detect themselves by their absurdity, prove sufficiently the strong propensity of mankind to the extraordinary and the marvelous, and ought reasonably to beget a suspicion against all relations of this kind. This is our natural way of thinking, even with regard to the most common and most credible events. For instance: There is no kind of report which rises so easily, and spreads so quickly, especially in country places and provincial towns, as those concerning marriages; insomuch that two young persons of equal condition never see each other twice, but the whole neighborhood immediately join them together. The pleasure of telling a piece of news so interesting, of propagating it, and of being the first reporters of it, spreads the intelligence. And this is so well known, that no man of sense gives attention to these reports, till he find them confirmed by some greater evidence. Do not the same passions, and others still stronger, incline the generality of mankind to believe and report, with the greatest vehemence and assurance, all religious miracles?

Thirdly. It forms a strong presumption against all supernatural and miraculous relations, that they are observed chiefly to abound among ignorant and barbarous nations; or if a civilized people has ever given admission to any of them, that people will be found to have received them from ignorant and barbarous ancestors, who transmitted them with that inviolable sanction and authority which always attend received opinions. When we peruse the first histories of all nations, we are apt to imagine ourselves transported into some new world; where the whole frame of nature is disjointed, and every element performs its operations in a different manner from what it does at present. Battles, revolutions, pestilence, famine and death, are never the effect of those natural causes, which we experience. Prodigies, omens, oracles, judgments, quite obscure the few natural events that are intermingled with them. But as the former grow thinner every page, in proportion as we advance nearer the enlightened ages, we soon learn, that there is nothing mysterious or supernatural in the case, but that all proceeds from the usual propensity of mankind towards the marvelous, and that, though this inclination may at intervals receive a check from sense and learning, it can never be thoroughly extirpated from human nature.

It is strange, a judicious reader is apt to say, upon the perusal of these wonderful historians, that such prodigious events never happen in our days. But it is nothing strange, I hope, that men should lie in all ages. You must surely have seen instances enough of that frailty. You have yourself heard many such marvelous relations started, which, being treated with scorn by all the wise and judicious, have at last been abandoned even by the vulgar. Be assured, that those renowned lies, which have spread and flourished to such a monstrous height, arose from like beginnings; but being sown in a more proper soil, shot up at last into prodigies almost equal to those which they relate.


We are placed in this world, as in a great theater, where the true springs and causes of every event are entirely concealed from us; nor have we either sufficient wisdom to foresee, or power to prevent, those ills with which we are continually threatened. We hang in perpetual suspense between life and death, health and sickness, plenty and want, which are distributed amongst the human species by secret and unknown causes, whose operation is oft unexpected, and always unaccountable. These unknown causes, then, become the constant object of our hope and fear; and while the passions are kept in perpetual alarm by an anxious expectation of the events, the imagination is equally employed in forming ideas of those powers on which we have so entire a dependence. Could men anatomize nature, according to the most probable, at least the most intelligible philosophy, they would find that these causes are nothing but the particular fabric and structure of the minute parts of their own bodies and of external objects; and that, by a regular and constant machinery, all the events are produced, about which they are so much concerned. But this philosophy exceeds the comprehension of the ignorant multitude, who can only conceive the unknown causes, in a general and confused manner; though their imagination, perpetually employed on the same subject, must labor to form some particular and distinct idea of them. The more they consider these causes themselves, and the uncertainty of their operation, the less satisfaction do they meet with in their researches; and, however unwilling, they must at last have abandoned so arduous an attempt, were it not for a propensity in human nature, which leads into a system that gives them some satisfaction.

There is an universal tendency among mankind to conceive all beings like themselves, and to transfer to every object those qualities with which they are familiarly acquainted, and of which they are intimately conscious. We find human faces in the moon, armies in the clouds; and, by a natural propensity, if not corrected by experience and reflection, ascribe malice or good-will to every thing that hurts or pleases us. Hence the frequency and beauty of the prosopopœia in poetry, where trees, mountains, and streams, are personified, and the inanimate parts of nature acquire sentiment and passion. And though these poetical figures and expressions gain not on the belief, they may serve, at least, to prove a certain tendency in the imagination, without which they could neither be beautiful nor natural. Nor is a river-god or hamadryad always taken for a mere poetical or imaginary personage, but may sometimes enter into the real creed of the ignorant vulgar; while each grove or field is represented as possessed of a particular genius or invisible power, which inhabits and protects it. Nay, philosophers cannot entirely exempt themselves from this natural frailty; but have oft ascribed to inanimate matter the horror of a vacuum, sympathies, antipathies, and other affections of human nature. The absurdity is not less, while we cast our eyes upwards; and, transferring, as is too usual, human passions and infirmities to the Deity, represent him as jealous and revengeful, capricious and partial, and, in short, a wicked and foolish man in every respect but his superior power and authority. No wonder, then, that mankind, being placed in such an absolute ignorance of causes, and being at the same time so anxious concerning their future fortune, should immediately acknowledge a dependence on invisible powers, possessed of sentiment and intelligence. The unknown causes which continually employ their thought, appearing always in the same aspect, are all apprehended to be of the same kind or species. Nor is it long before we ascribe to them thought, and reason, and passion, and sometimes even the limbs and figures of men, in order to bring them nearer to a resemblance with ourselves.

In proportion as any man’s course of life is governed by accident, we always find that he increases in superstition, as may particularly be observed of gamesters and sailors, who, though of all mankind the least capable of serious reflection, abound most in frivolous and superstitious apprehensions. The gods, says Coriolanus in Dionysius, have an influence in every affair; but above all in war, where the event is so uncertain. All human life, especially before the institution of order and good government, being subject to fortuitous accidents, it is natural that superstition should prevail everywhere in barbarous ages, and put men on the most earnest inquiry concerning those invisible powers, who dispose of their happiness or misery. Ignorant of astronomy and the anatomy of plants and animals, and too little curious to observe the admirable adjustment of final causes, they remain still unacquainted with a first and a Supreme Creator, and with that infinitely Perfect Spirit, who alone, by his almighty will, bestowed order on the whole frame of nature. Such a magnificent idea is too big for their narrow conceptions, which can neither observe the beauty of the work, nor comprehend the grandeur of its author. They suppose their deities, however potent and invisible, to be nothing but a species of human creatures, perhaps raised from among mankind, and retaining all human passions and appetites, together with corporeal limbs and organs. Such limited beings, though masters of human fate, being each of them incapable of extending his influence everywhere, must be vastly multiplied, in order to answer that variety of events which happen over the whole face of nature. Thus every place is stored with a crowd of local deities; and thus polytheism has prevailed, and still prevails, among the greatest part of uninstructed mankind.



More than any of the other philosophes, Voltaire has been identified as the archenemy of supernatural religion. These selections are principally from his Philosophical Dictionary, published in 1764. The next to last is a letter of 1770 to Frederick the Great, and the last, “On the Presbyterians,” is from his Letters Concerning the English Nation (1733), which contains his famous evocation of religious tolerance at London’s Royal Exchange.


The institution of religion exists only to keep mankind in order, and to make men merit the goodness of God by their virtue. Everything in a religion which does not tend toward this goal must be considered alien or dangerous.

Instruction, exhortation, threats of torments to come, promises of immortal beatitude, prayers, counsels, spiritual help, are the only means ecclesiastics may use to try to make men virtuous here below, and happy for eternity. All other means are repugnant to the liberty of reason, to the nature of the soul, to the unalterable rights of conscience, to the essence of religion, to that of the ecclesiastical ministry, and to the rights of the sovereign.

Virtue supposes liberty, as the carrying of a burden supposes active force. Under coercion there is no virtue, and without virtue there is no religion. Make a slave of me, and I shall be no better for it. The sovereign, even, has no right to use coercion to lead men to religion, which in its nature presupposes choice and liberty. My thought is subject to authority no more than is sickness or health.

In order to disentangle all the contradictions with which books on canon law have been filled, and to clarify our ideas on the ecclesiastical ministry, let us investigate, amid a thousand equivocations, what the Church really is.

The Church is the assembly of all the faithful summoned on certain days to pray in common, and at all times to do good actions.

The priests are persons established under the authority of the sovereign to direct these prayers and all religious worship.

A numerous Church could not exist without ecclesiastics; but these ecclesiastics are not the Church.

It is no less evident that if the ecclesiastics, who are part of civil society, have acquired rights which might trouble or destroy society, these rights should be suppressed.

It is still more evident that, if God has attached to the Church prerogatives or rights, neither these rights nor these prerogatives should belong exclusively either to the chief of the Church or to the ecclesiastics, because they are not the Church, just as the magistrates are not the sovereign, in either a democratic state or in a monarchy.

Finally, it is quite evident that it is our souls which are under the clergy’s care, solely in spiritual matters.

Our soul acts internally. Internal acts are thought, volition, inclinations, acquiescence in certain truths. All these acts are above coercion, and are within the ecclesiastical minister’s sphere only in so far as he must instruct, but never command.

The soul also acts externally. External actions are under the civil law. Here coercion may have a place; temporal or corporal penalties maintain the law by punishing those who infringe it.

Obedience to ecclesiastical order must consequently always be free and voluntary: no other should be possible. Submission to civil order, on the other hand, may be compulsory and compelled.

For the same reason, ecclesiastical punishments, always spiritual, reach only those here below who are convinced inwardly of their fault. Civil pains, on the contrary, accompanied by physical ill, have their physical effects, whether or no the guilty person recognizes their justice.

From this it results, obviously, that the authority of the clergy is and can be spiritual only; that the clergy should not have any temporal power; that no coercive force is proper to its ministry, which would be destroyed by force.

It follows from this further that the sovereign, careful not to suffer any partition of his authority, must permit no enterprise which puts the members of society in external and civil dependence on an ecclesiastical body.

Such are the incontestable principles of real canon law, of which the rules and decisions should be judged at all times by the eternal and immutable truths which are founded on natural law and the necessary order of society.


Fanaticism is to superstition what delirium is to fever and rage to anger. The man visited by ecstasies and visions, who takes dreams for realities and his fancies for prophecies, is an enthusiast; the man who supports his madness with murder is a fanatic. Jean Diaz, in retreat at Nuremberg, was firmly convinced that the Pope was the Antichrist of the Apocalypse, and that he bore the sign of the beast; he was merely an enthusiast; his brother, Bartholomew Diaz, who came from Rome to assassinate his brother out of piety, and who did in fact kill him for the love of God, was one of the most abominable fanatics ever raised up by superstition.

Polyeucte, who goes to the temple on a solemn holiday to knock over and smash the statues and ornaments, is a less dreadful but no less ridiculous fanatic than Diaz. The assassins of the Duke François de Guise, of William, Prince of Orange, of King Henri III, of King Henri IV, and of so many others, were fanatics sick with the same mania as Diaz’.

The most detestable example of fanaticism was that of the burghers of Paris who on St. Bartholomew’s Night went about assassinating and butchering all their fellow citizens who did not go to mass, throwing them out of windows, cutting them in pieces.

There are coldblooded fanatics: such as judges who condemn to death those who have committed no other crime than failing to think like them; and these judges are all the more guilty, all the more deserving of the execration of mankind, since, unlike Clement, Châtel, Ravaillac, Damiens, they were not suffering from an attack of insanity; surely they should have been able to listen to reason.

Once fanaticism has corrupted a mind, the malady is almost incurable. I have seen convulsionaries who, speaking of the miracles of Saint Pâris, gradually grew impassioned despite themselves: their eyes got inflamed, their limbs trembled, madness disfigured their faces, and they would have killed anyone who contradicted them.

The only remedy for this epidemic malady is the philosophical spirit which, spread gradually, at last tames men’s habits and prevents the disease from starting; for, once the disease has made any progress, one must flee and wait for the air to clear itself. Laws and religion are not strong enough against the spiritual pest; religion, far from being healthy food for infected brains, turns to poison in them. These miserable men have forever in their minds the example of Ehud, who assassinated King Eglon; of Judith, who cut off Holofemes’ head while she was sleeping with him; of Samuel, who chopped King Agag in pieces. They cannot see that these examples which were respectable in antiquity are abominable in the present; they borrow their frenzies from the very religion that condemns them.

Even the law is impotent against these attacks of rage; it is like reading a court decree to a raving maniac. These fellows are certain that the holy spirit with which they are filled is above the law, that their enthusiasm is the only law they must obey.

What can we say to a man who tells you that he would rather obey God than men, and that therefore he is sure to go to heaven for butchering you?

Ordinarily fanatics are guided by rascals, who put the dagger into their hands; these latter resemble that Old Man of the Mountain who is supposed to have made imbeciles taste the joys of Paradise and who promised them an eternity of the pleasures of which he had given them a foretaste, on condition that they assassinated all those he would name to them. There is only one religion in the world that has never been sullied by fanaticism, that of the Chinese men of letters. The schools of philosophers were not only free from this pest, they were its remedy; for the effect of philosophy is to make the soul tranquil, and fanaticism is incompatible with tranquility. If our holy religion has so often been corrupted by this infernal delirium, it is the madness of men which is at fault.


Tonight I was in a meditative mood. I was absorbed in the contemplation of nature; I admired the immensity, the movements, the harmony of those infinite globes which the vulgar do not know how to admire.

I admired still more the intelligence which directs these vast forces. I said to myself: “One must be blind not to be dazzled by this spectacle; one must be stupid not to recognize the author of it; one must be mad not to worship Him. What tribute of worship should I render Him? Should not this tribute be the same in the whole of space, since it is the same supreme power which reigns equally in all space? Should not a thinking being who dwells in a star in the Milky Way offer Him the same homage as the thinking being on this little globe where we are? Light is uniform for the star Sirius and for us; moral philosophy must be uniform. If a sentient, thinking animal in Sirius is born of a tender father and mother who have been occupied with his happiness, he owes them as much love and care as we owe to our parents. If someone in the Milky Way sees a needy cripple, if he can help him, and if he does not do so, he is guilty in the sight of all globes. Everywhere the heart has the same duties: on the steps of the throne of God, if He has a throne; and in the depth of the abyss, if He is an abyss.”

I was plunged in these ideas when one of those genii who throng the interplanetary spaces came down to me. I recognized this aerial creature as one who had appeared to me on another occasion, to teach me how different God’s judgments were from our own, and how a good action is preferable to an argument.

He transported me into a desert, covered with piles of bones; and between these heaps of dead men there were walks of evergreen trees, and at the end of each walk there was a tall man of august mien, who regarded these sad remains with pity.

“Alas! my archangel,” said I, “where have you brought me?”

“To desolation,” he answered.

“And who are these fine patriarchs whom I see sad and motionless at the end of these green walks? They seem to be weeping over this countless crowd of dead.”

“You shall know, poor human creature,” answered the genie from the interplanetary spaces. “But first of all you must weep.”

He began with the first pile. “These,” he said, “are the twenty-three thousand Jews who danced before a calf, with the twenty-four thousand who were killed while lying with Midianitish women. The number of those massacred for such errors and offenses amounts to nearly three hundred thousand.

“In the other walks are the bones of the Christians slaughtered by each other in metaphysical quarrels. They are divided into several heaps of four centuries each. One heap would have mounted right to the sky, so they had to be divided.”

“What!” I cried. “Brothers have treated their brothers like this, and I have the misfortune to be of this brotherhood!”

“Here,” said the spirit, “are the twelve million Americans killed in their native land because they had not been baptized.”

“My God! why did you not leave these frightful bones to dry in the hemisphere where their bodies were born, and where they were consigned to so many different deaths? Why assemble here all these abominable monuments to barbarism and fanaticism?”

“To instruct you.”

“Since you wish to instruct me,” I said to the genie, “tell me if there have been peoples other than the Christians and the Jews in whom zeal and religion wretchedly transformed into fanaticism have inspired so many horrible cruelties.”

“Yes,” he said. “The Mohammedans were sullied with the same inhumanities, but rarely; and when one asked amman, pity, of them and offered them tribute, they were merciful. As for the other nations, there has not been a single one, from the beginning of the world, which has ever made a purely religious war. Follow me now.” I followed him.

A little beyond these piles of dead men, we found other piles; they were composed of sacks of gold and silver, and each had its label: “Substance of the heretics massacred in the eighteenth century, the seventeenth, and the sixteenth.” And so on in going back: “Gold and silver of Americans slaughtered,” etc., etc. And all these piles were surmounted with crosses, mitres, croziers, and triple crowns studded with precious stones.

“What, my genie! Do you mean that these dead were piled up for the sake of their wealth?”

“Yes, my son.”

I wept. And when, by my grief, I was worthy of being led to the end of the green walks, he led me there.

“Contemplate,” he said, “the heroes of humanity who were the world’s benefactors, and who were all united in banishing from the world, as far as they were able, violence and rapine. Question them.”

I ran to the first of the band. He had a crown on his head, and a little censer in his hand. I humbly asked him his name. “I am Numa Pompilius,” he said to me. “I succeeded a brigand, and I had to govern brigands. I taught them virtue and the worship of God, but after me they forgot both more than once. I forbade that there should be any image in the temples, because the Deity which animates nature cannot be represented. During my reign the Romans had neither wars nor seditions, and my religion did nothing but good. All the neighboring peoples came to honor me at my funeral; and a unique honor it was.”

I kissed his hand, and I went to the second. He was a fine old man about a hundred years old, clad in a white robe. He put his middle finger on his mouth, and with the other hand he cast some beans behind him. I recognized Pythagoras. He assured me he had never had a golden thigh, and that he had never been a cock; but that he had governed the Crotoniates with as much justice as Numa governed the Romans, almost at the same time; and that this justice was the rarest and most necessary thing in the world. I learned that the Pythagoreans examined their consciences twice a day. The honest people! How far we are from them! But we, who have been nothing but assassins for thirteen hundred years, we call these wise men arrogant.

In order to please Pythagoras, I did not say a word to him, and I passed on to Zoroaster, who was occupied in concentrating the celestial fire in the focus of a concave mirror, in the middle of a hall with a hundred doors which all led to wisdom. (Zoroaster’s precepts are called doors, and are a hundred in number.) Over the principal door I read these words which are the sum of all moral philosophy, and which cut short all the disputes of the casuists: “When in doubt if an action is good or bad, refrain.”

“Certainly,” I said to my genie, “the barbarians who immolated all these victims had never read these beautiful words.”

We then saw Zaleucus, Thales, Anaximander, and all the sages who had sought truth and practiced virtue.

When we came to Socrates, I recognized him very quickly by his flat nose. “Well,” I said to him, “so you are one of the Almighty’s confidants! All the inhabitants of Europe, except the Turks and the Tartars of the Crimea, who know nothing, pronounce your name with respect. It is revered, loved, this great name, to the point that people have wanted to know those of your persecutors. Melitus and Anitus are known because of you, just as Ravaillac is known because of Henry IV; but I know only this name of Anitus. I do not know precisely who was the scoundrel who calumniated you, and who succeeded in having you condemned to drink hemlock.”

“Since my adventure,” replied Socrates, “I have never thought about that man, but seeing that you make me remember it, I pity him. He was a wicked priest who secretly conducted a business in hides, a trade reputed shameful among us. He sent his two children to my school. The other disciples taunted them with having a father who was a currier, and they were obliged to leave. The irritated father did not rest until he had stirred up all the priests and all the sophists against me. They persuaded the council of five hundred that I was an impious fellow who did not believe that the Moon, Mercury, and Mars were gods. Indeed, I used to think, as I think now, that there is only one God, master of all nature. The judges handed me over to the poisoner of the republic. He cut short my life by a few days: I died peacefully at the age of seventy, and since that time I have led a happy life with all these great men whom you see, and of whom I am the least.”

After enjoying some time in conversation with Socrates, I went forward with my guide into a grove situated above the thickets where all the sages of antiquity seemed to be tasting sweet repose.

I saw a man of gentle, simple countenance, who seemed to me to be about thirty-five years old. From afar he cast compassionate glances on these piles of whitened bones, across which I had had to pass to reach the sages’ abode. I was astonished to find his feet swollen and bleeding, his hands likewise, his side pierced, and his ribs flayed with whip cuts. “Good Heavens!” I said to him, “is it possible for a just man, a sage, to be in this state? I have just seen one who was treated in a very hateful way, but there is no comparison between his torture and yours. Wicked priests and wicked judges poisoned him. Were priests and judges your torturers?”

He answered with much courtesy: “Yes.”

“And who were these monsters?”

“They were hypocrites.”

“Ah! that says everything. I understand by this single word that they must have condemned you to death. Had you proved to them then, as Socrates did, that the Moon was not a goddess, and that Mercury was not a god?”

“No, these planets were not in question. My compatriots did not know what a planet is; they were all arrant ignoramuses. Their superstitions were quite different from those of the Greeks.”

“You wanted to teach them a new religion, then?” “Not at all. I said to them simply: ‘Love God with all your heart and your fellow creature as yourself, for that is man’s whole duty.’ Judge if this precept is not as old as the universe; judge if I brought them a new religion. I did not stop telling them that I had come not to destroy the law but to fulfill it. I observed all their rites; circumcised as they all were, baptized as were the most zealous among them. Like them I paid the Corban; I observed the Passover as they did, eating, standing up, a lamb cooked with lettuce. I and my friends went to pray in the temple; my friends even frequented this temple after my death. In a word, I fulfilled all their laws without a single exception.”

“What! these wretches could not even reproach you with swerving from their laws?”

“No, not possibly.”

“Why then did they reduce you to the condition in which I now see you?”

“What do you expect me to say! They were very arrogant and selfish. They saw that I knew them for what they were; they knew that I was making the citizens acquainted with them; they were the stronger; they took away my life: and people like them will always do as much, if they can, to anyone who does them too much justice.”

“But did you say nothing, do nothing that could serve them as a pretext?”

“To the wicked everything serves as pretext.”

“Did you not say once that you were come not to bring peace, but a sword?”

“It is a copyist’s error. I told them that I brought peace and not a sword. I never wrote anything; what I said may have been changed without evil intention.”

“You therefore contributed in no way by your speeches, badly reported, badly interpreted, to these frightful piles of bones which I saw on my road in coming to consult you?”

“It is with horror only that I have seen those who have made themselves guilty of these murders.”

“And these monuments of power and wealth, of pride and avarice, these treasures, these ornaments, these signs of grandeur, which I have seen piled up on the road while I was seeking wisdom, do they come from you?”

“That is impossible. I and my followers lived in poverty and meanness: my grandeur was in virtue only.”

I was about to beg him to be so good as to tell me just who he was. My guide warned me to do nothing of the sort. He told me that I was not made to understand these sublime mysteries. But I did implore him to tell me in what true religion consisted.

“Have I not already told you? Love God and your fellow creature as yourself.”

“What! If one loves God, one can eat meat on Friday?”

“I always ate what was given me, for I was too poor to give anyone food.”

“In loving God, in being just, should one not be rather cautious not to confide all the adventures of one’s life to an unknown being?”

“That was always my practice.”

“Can I not, by doing good, dispense with making a pilgrimage to St. James of Compostella?”

“I have never been in that region.”

“Is it necessary for me to imprison myself in a retreat with fools?”

“As for me, I was always making little journeys from town to town.”

“Is it necessary for me to take sides either for the Greek Church or the Latin?”

“When I was in the world, I never differentiated between the Jew and the Samaritan.”

“Well, if that is so, I take you for my only master.” Then he made me a sign with his head which filled me with consolation. The vision disappeared, and a clear conscience stayed with me.


Every sect, of every kind, is a rallying point for doubt and error. Scotist, Thomist, Realist, Nominalist, Papist, Calvinist, Molinist, and Jansenist are only pseudonyms.

There are no sects in geometry. One does not speak of a Euclidean, an Archimedean. When the truth is evident, it is impossible for parties and factions to arise. There has never been a dispute as to whether there is daylight at noon. The branch of astronomy which determines the course of the stars and the return of eclipses being once known, there is no dispute among astronomers.

In England one does not say: “I am a Newtonian, a Lockian, a Halleyan.” Why? Those who have read cannot refuse their assent to the truths taught by these three great men. The more Newton is revered, the less do people style themselves Newtonians; this word supposes that there are anti-Newtonians in England. Maybe we still have a few Cartesians in France, but only because Descartes’ system is a tissue of erroneous and ridiculous speculations.

It is the same with the small number of matters of fact which are well established. The records of the Tower of London having been authentically gathered by Rymer, there are no Rymerians, because it occurs to no one to assail this collection. In it one finds neither contradictions, absurdities, nor prodigies; nothing which revolts the reason, nothing, consequently, which sectarians strive to maintain or upset by absurd arguments. Everyone agrees, therefore, that Rymer’s records are worthy of belief

You are a Mohammedan; therefore there are people who are not; therefore you might well be wrong.

What would be the true religion if Christianity did not exist? The religion in which there were no sects, the religion in which all minds were necessarily in agreement.

Well, to what dogma do all minds agree? To the worship of a God, and to honesty. All the philosophers of the world who have had a religion have said in all ages: “There is a God, and one must be just.” There, then, is the universal religion established in all ages and throughout mankind. The point in which they all agree is therefore true, and the systems through which they differ are therefore false.

“My sect is the best,” says a Brahmin to me. But, my friend, if your sect is good, it is necessary; for if it were not absolutely necessary you would admit to me that it was useless. If it is absolutely necessary, it is for all men. How, then, can it be that all men have not what is absolutely necessary to them? How is it possible for the rest of the world to laugh at you and your Brahma?

When Zoroaster, Hermes, Orpheus, Minos, and all the great men say: “Let us worship God, and let us be just,” nobody laughs. But everyone hisses the man who claims that one cannot please God unless one is holding a cow’s tail when one dies; or the man who wants one to have the end of one’s prepuce cut off; or the man who consecrates crocodiles and onions; or the man who attaches eternal salvation to dead men’s bones carried under one’s shirt, or to a plenary indulgence which may be bought at Rome for two and a half sous.

Whence comes this universal competition in hisses and derision from one end of the world to the other? It is clear that the things at which everyone sneers are not very evidently true. What would we say of one of Sejanus’s secretaries who dedicated to Petronius a bombastic book entitled: “The Truths of the Sibylline Oracles, Proved by the Facts”?

This secretary proves to you, first, that it was necessary for God to send on earth several sibyls one after the other; for He had no other means of teaching mankind. It is demonstrated that God spoke to these sibyls, for the word sibyl signifies God’s counsel. They had to live a long time, for persons to whom God speaks should have this privilege, at the very least. They were twelve in number, for this number is sacred. They had certainly predicted all the events in the world, for Tarquinius Superbus bought three of their books from an old woman for a hundred crowns. “What incredulous fellow,” adds the secretary, “will dare deny all these obvious facts which happened in a comer in the sight of the whole world? Who can deny the fulfillment of their prophecies? Has not Virgil himself quoted the predictions of the sibyls? If we have no first editions of the Sibylline Books, written at a time when people did not know how to read or write, have we not authentic copies? Impiety must be silent before such proofs.” Thus did Houttevillus speak to Sejanus. He hoped to have a position as augur which would be worth an income of fifty thousand francs, and he had nothing.

“What my sect teaches is obscure, I admit it,” says a fanatic; and it is because of this obscurity that it must be believed; for the sect itself says it is full of obscurities. My sect is extravagant, therefore it is divine; for how should what appears so mad have been embraced by so many peoples, if it were not divine?” It is precisely like the Koran, which the Sunnites say has an angel’s face and an animal’s snout. Be not scandalized by the animal’s snout, and worship the angel’s face. Thus speaks this mad fellow. But a fanatic of another sect answers: ”It is you who are the animal, and I who am the angel.”

Well, who shall judge the case? Who shall decide between these two fanatics? Why, the reasonable, impartial man who is learned in a knowledge that is not that of words; the man free from prejudice and the lover of truth and justice—in short, the man who is not the foolish animal, and who does not think he is the angel.

Sect and error are synonymous. You are a Peripatetic and I a Platonist; we are therefore both wrong; for you combat Plato only because his fantasies have revolted you, while I am alienated from Aristotle only because it seems to me that he does not know what he is talking about. If one or the other had demonstrated the truth, there would be a sect no longer. To declare oneself for the opinion of one or the other is to take sides in a civil war. There are no sects in mathematics, in experimental physics. A man who examines the relations between a cone and a sphere is not of the sect of Archimedes: he who sees that the square of the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle is equal to the square of the two other sides is not of the sect of Pythagoras.

When you say that the blood circulates, that the air is heavy, that the sun’s rays are pencils of seven refrangible rays, you are not either of the sect of Harvey, or the sect of Torricelli, or the sect of Newton; you merely agree with the truth as demonstrated by them, and the entire world will always be of your opinion.

This is the character of truth: it is of all time, it is for all men, it has only to show itself to be recognized, and one cannot argue against it. A long dispute means that both parties are wrong.


The superstitious man is to the rogue what the slave is to the tyrant. Further, the superstitious man is governed by the fanatic and becomes a fanatic. Superstition born in paganism, and adopted by Judaism, invested the Christian Church from the earliest times. All the fathers of the Church, without exception, believed in the power of magic. The Church always condemned magic, but she always believed in it: she did not excommunicate sorcerers as madmen who were mistaken, but as men who were really in communication with the devil.

Today one half of Europe thinks that the other half has long been and still is superstitious. The Protestants regard the relics, the indulgences, the mortifications, the prayers for the dead, the holy water, and almost all the rites of the Roman Church, as evidences of superstitious dementia. Superstition, according to them, consists in taking useless practices for necessary practices. Among the Roman Catholics there are some more enlightened than their ancestors, who have renounced many of these usages formerly considered sacred; and they defend themselves against the others who have retained them, by saying: “They are unimportant, and what is merely unimportant cannot be an evil.”

It is difficult to set the limits of superstition. A Frenchman traveling in Italy finds almost everything superstitious, and he is right. The Archbishop of Canterbury maintains that the Archbishop of Paris is superstitious; the Presbyterians direct the same reproach against His Grace of Canterbury, and are in their turn treated as superstitious by the Quakers, who are the most superstitious of all in the eyes of other Christians.

In Christian societies, therefore, no one agrees as to what superstition is. The sect which seems to be the least attacked by this malady of the intelligence is that which has the fewest rites. But if, with few ceremonies, it is still strongly attached to an absurd belief, this absurd belief is equivalent alone to all the superstitious practices observed from the time of Simon the magician to that of Father Gauffridi.

It is therefore clear that it is the fundamentals of the religion of one sect which are considered as superstition by another sect.

The Moslems accuse all Christian societies of it, and are themselves accused. Who will judge this great matter? Will it be reason? But each sect claims to have reason on its side. It will therefore be force which will judge, while awaiting the time when reason can penetrate a sufficient number of heads to disarm force.

Up to what point can statecraft permit superstition to be destroyed? This is a very thorny question. It is like asking to what depth should one make an incision in a dropsical person, who may die under the operation. It is a matter for the doctor’s discretion.

Can there exist a people free from all superstitious prejudices? This is equivalent to asking: Can there exist a nation of philosophers? It is said that there is no superstition in the magistracy of China. It is probable that some day none will remain in the magistracy of a few towns of Europe.

Then the magistrates will stop the superstition of the people from being dangerous. These magistrates’ example will not enlighten the mob, but the leading citizens of the middle class will hold the mob in check. There is perhaps not a single riot, a single religious outrage in which the middle classes were not once involved; because these same middle classes were then the mob. But reason and time will have changed them. Their softened manners will soften those of the lowest and most savage populace. We have had striking examples of this in more than one country. In a word, less superstition, less fanaticism; and less fanaticism, less misery.


What is tolerance? It is the natural attribute of humanity. We are all formed of weakness and error: let us pardon reciprocally each other’s folly. That is the first law of nature.

It is clear that the individual who persecutes a man, his brother, because he is not of the same opinion, is a monster. There is no difficulty here. But the government! But the magistrates! But the princes! How do they treat those whose religion is other than theirs? If they are powerful foreigners, it is certain that a prince will make an alliance with them. François I, most Christian, will unite with Mussulmans against Charles V, most Catholic. François I will give money to the Lutherans of Germany to support them in their revolt against the Emperor; but, in accordance with custom, he will start by having Lutherans burned at home. For political reasons he pays them in Saxony; for political reasons he burns them in Paris. But what happens? Persecutions make proselytes. Soon France will be full of new Protestants. At first they will let themselves be hanged, later they in their turn will hang. There will be civil wars, then will come St. Bartholomew’s Eve, and this corner of the world will be worse than all that the ancients and modems have ever told of hell.

Madmen, who have never been able to worship the God who made you! Miscreants, whom the examples of the learned Chinese, the Parsees, and all the sages have never been able to lead! Monsters, who need superstitions as crows’ gizzards need carrion! It has been said before, and it must be said again: if you have two religions in your land, the two will cut each other’s throats; but if you have thirty religions, they will dwell in peace. Look at the Great Turk. He governs Guebres, Banians, Greek Christians, Nestorians, Romans. The first who tried to stir up tumult would be impaled; and everyone is at peace.

Of all religions, the Christian is without doubt the one which should inspire tolerance most, although up to now the Christians have been the most intolerant of all men. The Christian Church was divided in its cradle, and was divided even in the persecutions which it sometimes endured under the first emperors. Often the martyr was regarded as an apostate by his brethren, and the Carpocratian Christian expired beneath the sword of the Roman executioners, excommunicated by the Ebionite Christian, while the Ebionite was anathema to the Sabellian.

This horrible discord, which has lasted for so many centuries, is a very striking lesson that we should pardon each other’s errors. Discord is the great ill of mankind, and tolerance is the only remedy for it.

There is nobody who does not agree with this truth, whether he meditates soberly in his study, or peaceably examines the truth with his friends. Why then do the same men who in private advocate indulgence, kindness, and justice, vise in public with so much fury against these virtues? Why? Can it be that their own interest is their god, and that they sacrifice everything to this monster which they worship?

I possess a dignity and a power founded on ignorance and credulity; I walk on the heads of the men who lie prostrate at my feet; if they should rise and look me in the face, I am lost; I must bind them to the ground, therefore, with iron chains. Thus have reasoned the men whom centuries of bigotry have made powerful. They have other powerful men beneath them, and these have still others, who all enrich themselves with the spoils of the poor, grow fat on their blood, and laugh at their stupidity. They all detest tolerance, as partisans grown rich at the public expense fear to render their accounts, and as tyrants dread the word liberty. And then, to crown everything, they hire fanatics to cry at the top of their voices: “Respect my master’s absurdities, tremble, pay, and keep your mouths shut.”

It is thus that a great part of the world was long treated; but today when so many sects make a balance of power, what course shall we take with them? Every sect, as one knows, is a ground of error; there are no sects of geometers, algebraists, arithmeticians, because all the propositions of geometry, algebra, and arithmetic are true. In every other field of knowledge one may be deceived. What Thomist or Scotist theologian would dare say seriously that he is sure of his case?

If it were permitted to reason consistently in religious matters, it would be clear that we all ought to become Jews, because Jesus Christ our Savior was born a Jew, lived a Jew, died a Jew, and said expressly that he was accomplishing, that he was fulfilling the Jewish religion. But it is clearer still that we ought to be tolerant of one another, because we are all weak, inconsistent, liable to fickleness and error. Shall a reed laid low in the mud by the wind say to a fellow reed fallen in the opposite direction: “Crawl! as I crawl, wretch, or I shall petition that you be torn up by the roots and burned”?


Monseigneur, the royal family of Prussia has excellent reasons for not wishing the annihilation of the soul. It has more right than anyone to immortality.

It is very true that we do not know any too well what the soul is: no one has ever seen it. All that we do know is that the eternal Lord of nature has given us the power of thinking, and of distinguishing virtue. It is not proved that this faculty survives our death: but the contrary is not proved either. It is possible, doubtless, that God has given thought to a particle to which, after we are no more, He will still give the power of thought: there is no inconsistency in this idea.

In the midst of all the doubts which we have discussed for four thousand years in four thousand ways, the safest course is to do nothing against one’s conscience. With this secret, we can enjoy life and have nothing to fear from death.

There are some charlatans who admit no doubts. We know nothing of first principles. It is surely very presumptuous to define God, the angels, spirits, and to pretend to know precisely why God made the world, when we do not know why we can move our arms at our pleasure.

Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is an absurd one.

What is most repellent in the System of Nature [of Holbach]—after the recipe to make eels from flour—is the audacity with which it decides that there is no God, without even having tried to prove the impossibility. There is some eloquence in the book: but much more rant, and no sort of proof. It is a pernicious work, alike for princes and people:

“Si Dieu n‘existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer.” [If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.]

But all nature cries aloud that He does exist: that there is a supreme intelligence, an immense power, an admirable order, and everything teaches us our own dependence on it.

From the depth of our profound ignorance, let us do our best: this is what I think, and what I have always thought, amid all the misery and follies inseparable from seventy-seven years of life.

Your Royal Highness has a noble career before you. I wish you, and dare prophesy for you, a happiness worthy of yourself and of your heart. I knew you when you were a child, monseigneur: I visited you in your sick room when you had smallpox: I feared for your life. Your father honored me with much goodness: you condescend to shower on me the same favors which are the honor of my old age, and the consolation of those sufferings which must shortly end it. I am, with deep respect, etc.


The Church of England is confined almost to the kingdom whence it received its name, and to Ireland, for Presbyterianism is the established religion in Scotland. This Presbyterianism is directly the same with Calvinism as it was established in France and is now professed at Geneva. As the priests of this sect receive but very inconsiderable stipends from their churches, and consequently cannot emulate the splendid luxury of bishops, they exclaim very naturally against honors which they can never attain to. Figure to yourself the haughty Diogenes, trampling under foot the pride of Plato. The Scotch Presbyterians are not very unlike that proud though tattered reasoner. Diogenes did not use Alexander half so impertinently as these treated King Charles the Second; for when they took up arms in his cause, in opposition to Oliver, who had deceived them, they forced that poor monarch to undergo the hearing of three or four sermons every day; would not suffer him to play, reduced him to a state of penitence and mortification; so that Charles soon grew sick of these pedants, and accordingly eloped from them with as much joy as a youth does from school.

A Church of England minister appears as another Cato in presence of a juvenile, sprightly French graduate, who bawls for a whole morning together in the divinity schools, and hums a song in chorus with ladies in the evening: But this Cato is a very spark when before a Scotch Presbyterian. The latter affects a serious gait, puts on a sour look, wears a vastly broad-brimmed hat, and a long cloak over a very short coat; preaches through the nose, and gives the name of the whore of Babylon to all churches where the ministers are so fortunate as to enjoy an annual revenue of five or six thousand pounds, and where the people are weak enough to suffer this and to give them the titles of my lord, your lordship, or your eminence.

These gentlemen, who have also some churches in England, introduced there the mode of grave and severe exhortations. To them is owing the sanctification of Sunday in the three kingdoms. People are there forbid to work or take any recreation on that day, in which the severity is twice as great as that of the Romish church. No operas, plays or concerts are allowed in London on Sundays; and even cards are so expressly forbid, that none but persons of quality and those we call the genteel play on that day; the rest of the nation go either to church, to the tavern, or to see their mistresses.

Though the Episcopal and Presbyterian sects are the two prevailing ones in Great Britain, yet all others are very welcome to come and settle in it, and live very sociably together, though most of their preachers hate one another almost as cordially as a Jansenist damns a Jesuit.

Take a view of the Royal Exchange in London, a place more venerable than many courts of justice, where the representatives of all nations meet for the benefit of mankind. There the Jew, the Mahometan, and the Christian transact together as though they all professed the same religion, and give the name of Infidel to none but bankrupts. There the Presbyterian confides in the Anabaptist, and the Churchman depends on the Quaker’s word. At the breaking up of this pacific and free assembly, some withdraw to the synagogue, and others to take a glass. This man goes and is baptized in a great tub, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost: That man has his son’s foreskin cut off, whilst a set of Hebrew words (quite unintelligible to him) are mumbled over his child. Others retire to their churches, and there wait for the inspiration of heaven with their hats on, and all are satisfied.

If one religion only were allowed in England, the government would very possibly become arbitrary; if there were but two, the people would cut one another’s throats; but as there are such a multitude, they all live happy and in peace.



Always somewhat at odds with his fellow philosophes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) offers a deism much more reflective of heartfelt religious sensibility. This profession of faith is from his 1762 novel, Emile.

I believe, therefore, that the world is governed by a wise and powerful Will. I see it, or rather I feel it; and this is of importance for me to know. But is the world eternal, or is it created? Are things derived from one self-existent principle, or are there two or more, and what is their essence? Of all this I know nothing, nor do I see that it is necessary I should. In proportion as such knowledge may become interesting I will endeavor to acquire it: but further than this I give up all such idle disquisitions, which serve only to make me discontented with myself, which are useless in practice, and are above my understanding.

You will remember, however, that I am not dictating my sentiments to you, but only explaining what they are. Whether matter be eternal or only created, whether it have a passive principle or not, certain it is that the whole universe is one design, and sufficiently displays one intelligent agent: for I see no part of this system that is not under regulation, or that does not concur to one and the same end; viz., that of preserving the present and established order of things. That Being, whose will is his deed, whose principle of action is in himself—that Being, in a word, whatever it be, that gives motion to all parts of the universe, and governs all things, I call GOD.

To this term I affix the ideas of intelligence, power, and will, which I have collected from the order of things; and to these I add that of goodness, which is a necessary consequence of their union. But I am not at all the wiser concerning the essence of the Being to which I give these attributes. He remains at an equal distance from my senses and my understanding. The more I think of him, the more I am confounded. I know of a certainty that he exists, and that his existence is independent of any of his creatures. I know also that my existence is dependent on his, and that every being I know is in the same situation as myself. I perceive the deity in all his works, I feel him within me, and behold him in every object around me: but I no sooner endeavor to contemplate what he is in himself—I no sooner enquire where he is, and what is his substance, than he eludes the strongest efforts of my imagination; and my bewildered understanding is convinced of its own weakness.

For this reason I shall never take upon me to argue about the nature of God further than I am obliged to do by the relation he appears to stand in to myself. There is so great a temerity in such disquisitions that a wise man will never enter on them without trembling, and feeling fully assured of his incapacity to proceed far on so sublime a subject: for it is less injurious to entertain no ideas of the deity at all, than to harbor those which are unworthy and unjust.

After having discovered those of his attributes by which I am convinced of his existence, I return to myself and consider the place I occupy in that order of things, which is directed by him and subjected to my examination. Here I find my species stand incontestibly in the first rank; as man, by virtue of his will and the instruments he is possessed of to put it in execution, has a greater power over the bodies by which he is surrounded than they, by mere physical impulse, have over him. By virtue of his intelligence, I also find, he is the only created being here below that can take a general survey of the whole system. Is there one among them, except man, who knows how to observe all others? to weight, to calculate, to foresee their motions, their effects, and to join, if I may so express myself, the sentiment of a general existence to that of the individual? What is there so very ridiculous then in supposing everything made for man, when he is the only created being who knows how to consider the relation in which all things stand to himself?

It is then true that man is lord of the creation, that he is, at least, sovereign over the habitable earth; for it is certain that he not only subdues all other animals, and even disposes by his industry of the elements at his pleasure, but he alone of all terrestrial beings knows how to subject to his convenience, and even by contemplation to appropriate to his use, the very stars and planets he cannot approach. Let anyone produce me an animal of another species who knows how to make use of fire, or hath faculties to admire the sun. What! am I able to observe, to know other beings and their relations; am I capable of discovering what is order, beauty, virtue, of contemplating the universe, of elevating my ideas to the hand which governs the whole; am I capable of loving what is good and doing it, and shall I compare myself to the brutes? Abject soul! it is your gloomy philosophy alone that renders you at all like them. Or, rather, it is in vain you would debase yourself. Your own genius rises up against your principles; your benevolent heart gives the lie to your absurd doctrines, and even the abuse of your faculties demonstrates their excellence in spite of yourself.

For my part, who have no system to maintain, who am only a simple, honest man, attached to no party, unambitious of being the founder of any sect, and contented with the situation in which God hath placed me, I see nothing in the world, except the deity, better than my own species; and were I left to choose my place in the order of created beings, I see none that I could prefer to that of man.

This reflection, however, is less vain than affecting; for my state is not the effect of choice, and could not be due to the merit of a being that did not before exist. Can I behold myself, nevertheless thus distinguished, without thinking myself happy in occupying so honorable a post; or without blessing the hand that placed me here? From the first view I thus took of myself, my heart began to glow with a sense of gratitude towards the author of our being; and hence arose my first idea of the worship due to a beneficent deity. I adore the supreme power, and melt into tenderness at his goodness. I have no need to be taught artificial forms of worship; the dictates of nature are sufficient. Is it not a natural consequence of self-love to honor those who protect us, and to love such as do us good?

But when I come afterwards to take a view of the particular rank and relation in which I stand, as an individual, among the fellow creatures of my species; to consider the different ranks of society and the persons by whom they are filled; what a scene is presented to me! Where is that order and regularity before observed? The scenes of nature present to my view the most perfect harmony and proportion: those of mankind nothing but confusion and disorder. The physical elements of things act in concert with each other; the moral world alone is a chaos of discord. Mere animals are happy; but man, their lord and sovereign, is miserable! Where, Supreme Wisdom! are thy laws? Is it thus, O Providence! thou governest the world? What is become of thy power, thou Supreme Beneficence, when I behold evil thus prevailing upon the earth?

Would you believe, my good friend, that from such gloomy reflections and apparent contradictions, I should form to myself more sublime ideas of the soul than ever resulted from my former researches? In meditating on the nature of man, I conceived that I discovered two distinct principles; the one raising him to the study of eternal truths, the love of justice and moral beauty—bearing him aloft to the regions of the intellectual world, the contemplation of which yields the truest delight to the philosopher—the other debasing him even below himself, subjecting him to the slavery of sense, the tyranny of the passions, and exciting these to counteract every noble and generous sentiment inspired by the former. When I perceived myself hurried away by two such contrary powers, I naturally concluded that man is not one simple and individual substance. I will, and I will not; I perceive myself at once free, and a slave; I see what is good, I admire it, and yet I do the evil: I am active when I listen to my reason, and passive when hurried away by my passions; while my greatest uneasiness is to find, when fallen under temptations, that I had the power of resisting them.

Attend, young man, with confidence to what I say; you will find I shall never deceive you. If conscience be the offspring of our prejudices, I am doubtless in the wrong, and moral virtue is not to be demonstrated; but if self-love, which makes us prefer ourselves to everything else, be natural to man, and if nevertheless an innate sense of justice be found in his heart, let those who imagine him to be a simple uncompounded being reconcile these contradictions, and I will give up my opinion and acknowledge him to be one substance.

You will please to observe that by the word substance I here mean, in general, a being possessed of some primitive quality, abstracted from all particular or secondary modifications. Now, if all known primitive qualities may be united in one and the same being, we have no need to admit of more than one substance; but if some of these qualities are incompatible with, and necessarily exclusive of each other, we must admit of the existence of as many different substances as there are such incompatible qualities. You will do well to reflect on this subject. For my part, notwithstanding what Mr. Locke hath said on this head, I need only to know that matter is extended and divisible, to be assured that it cannot think; and when a philosopher comes and tells me that trees and rocks have thought and perception, he may, perhaps, embarrass me with the subtlety of his arguments, but I cannot help regarding him as a disingenuous sophist, who had rather attribute sentiment to stocks and stones than acknowledge man to have a soul.

Let us suppose that a man, born deaf, should deny the reality of sounds, because his ears were never sensible of them. To convince him of his error, I place a violin before his eyes; and, by playing on another, concealed from him, give a vibration to the strings of the former. This motion, I tell him, is effected by sound.

“Not at all,” says he, “the cause of the vibration of the string is in the string itself: it is a common quality in all bodies so to vibrate.”

“Show me then,” I reply, “the same vibration in other bodies; or, at least, the cause of it in this string.”

“I cannot,” the deaf man may reply, “but wherefore must I, because I do not conceive how this string vibrates, attribute the cause to your pretended sounds, of which I cannot entertain the least idea? This would be to attempt an explanation of one obscurity by another still greater. Either make your sounds perceptible to me, or I shall continue to doubt their existence.”

The more I reflect on our capacity of thinking, and the nature of the human understanding, the greater is the resemblance I find between the arguments of our materialists and that of such a deaf man. They are, in effect, equally deaf to that internal voice which, nevertheless, calls to them so loud and emphatically. A mere machine is evidently incapable of thinking, it has neither motion nor figure productive of reflection: whereas in man there exists something perpetually prone to expand, and to burst the fetters by which it is confined. Space itself affords not bounds to the human mind: the whole universe is not extensive enough for man; his sentiments, his desires, his anxieties, and even his pride, take rise from a principle different from that body within which he perceives himself confined.

No material being can be self-active, and I perceive that I am so. It is in vain to dispute with me so clear a point. My own sentiment carries with it a stronger conviction than any reason which can ever be brought against it. I have a body on which other bodies act, and which acts reciprocally upon them. This reciprocal action is indubitable; but my will is independent of my senses. I can either consent to, or resist, their impressions. I am either vanquished or victor, and perceive clearly within myself when I act according to my will, and when I submit to be governed by my passions. I have always the power to will, though not the force to execute it. When I give myself up to any temptation, I act from the impulse of external objects. When I reproach myself for my weakness in so doing, I listen only to the dictates of my will. I am a slave in my vices, and free in my repentance. The sentiment of my liberty is effaced only by my depravation, and when I prevent the voice of the soul from being heard in opposition to the laws of the body....

Enquire no longer then, who is the author of evil. Behold him in yourself. There exists no other evil in nature than what you either do or suffer, and you are equally the author of both. A general evil could exist only in disorder, but in the system of nature I see an established order, which is never disturbed. Particular evil exists only in the sentiment of the suffering being; and this sentiment is not given to man by nature, but is of his own acquisition. Pain and sorrow have but little hold on those who, unaccustomed to reflection, have neither memory nor foresight. Take away our fatal improvements, take away our errors and our vices, take away, in short, everything that is the work of man, and all that remains is good.

Where everything is good, nothing can be unjust, justice being inseparable from goodness. Now goodness is the necessary effect of infinite power and self-love essential to every being conscious of its existence. An omnipotent Being extends its existence also, if I may so express myself, with that of its creatures. Production and preservation follow from the constant exertion of its power: it does not act on non-existence. God is not the God of the dead, but of the living. He cannot be mischievous or wicked without hurting himself. A being capable of doing everything cannot will to do anything but what is good. He who is infinitely good, therefore, because he is infinitely powerful, must also be supremely just, otherwise he would be inconsistent with himself For that love of order which produces it we call goodness, and that love of order which preserves it is called justice.

God, it is said, owes nothing to his creatures. For my part, I believe he owes them everything he promised them when he gave them being. Now what is less than to promise them a blessing, if he gives them an idea of it, and has so constituted them as to feel the want of it? The more I look into myself, the more plainly I read these words written in my soul: Be just and thou wilt be happy. I see not the truth of this, however, in the present state of things, wherein the wicked triumph and the just are trampled on and oppressed. What indignation, hence, arises within us to find that our hopes are frustrated! Conscience itself rises up and complains of its maker. It cries out to him, lamenting, Thou hast deceived me!

“I have deceived thee, rash man? Who hath told thee so? Is thy soul annihilated? Dost thou cease to exist? Oh, Brutus! stain not a life of glory in the end. Leave not thy honor and thy hopes with thy body in the fields of Philippi. Wherefore dost thou say, virtue is a shadow, when thou wilt yet enjoy the reward of thine own? Dost thou imagine thou art going to die? No! thou art going to live! and then will I make good every promise I have made to thee.”



Paul Henri Thiry, baron d’Holbach (1723-1789), was a philosophical materialist who unabashedly preached atheism. The following selection is from his Common Sense, or Natural Ideas Opposed to Supernatural, published in 1772.

When we coolly examine the opinions of men, we are surprised to find, that in those, which they regard as the most essential, nothing is more uncommon than the use of common sense; or, in other words, a degree of judgment sufficient to discover the most simple truths, to reject the most striking absurdities, and to be shocked with palpable contradictions. We have an example of it in theology, a science revered in all times and countries, by the greatest number of men; an object they regard as the most important, the most useful, and the most indispensable to the happiness of societies. Indeed, with little examination of the principles, upon which this pretended science is founded, we are forced to acknowledge, that these principles, judged incontestable, are only hazardous suppositions, imagined by ignorance, propagated by enthusiasm or knavery, adopted by timid credulity, preserved by custom, which never reasons, and revered solely because not understood. Some, says Monta[i]gne, make the world think, that they believe what they do not; others, in greater number, make themselves think, that they believe what they do not, not knowing what belief is.

In a word, whoever will deign to consult common sense upon religious opinions, and bestow in this inquiry the attention that is commonly given to objects, we presume interesting, will easily perceive, that these opinions have no foundation; that all religion is an edifice in the air; that theology is only the ignorance of natural causes reduced to system; that it is a long tissue of chimeras and contradictions. That it represents, in every country, to the different nations of the earth, only romances void of probability, the hero of which is himself composed of qualities impossible to combine; that his name, exciting in all hearts respect and fear, is only a vague word, which men have continually in their mouths, without being able to affix to it ideas or qualities, which are not contradicted by facts, or evidently inconsistent with one another.

The idea of this being, of whom we have no idea, or rather, the word by which he is designated, would be an indifferent thing, did it not cause innumerable ravages in the world. Prepossessed with the opinion, that this phantom is an interesting reality, men, instead of concluding wisely from its incomprehensibility, that they are not bound to regard it; on the contrary infer, that they cannot sufficiently meditate upon it, that they must contemplate it without ceasing, reason upon it without end, and never lose sight of it. Their invincible ignorance, in this respect, far from discouraging them, irritates their curiosity; instead of putting them upon guard against their imagination, this ignorance renders them decisive, dogmatical, imperious, and even exasperates them against all, who oppose doubts to the reveries, which their brains have begotten.

What perplexity arises, when it is required to solve an insolvable problem! Restless meditations upon an object, impossible to understand, in which, however, he thinks himself much concerned, cannot but put man in a very ill humor, and produce in his head dangerous transports. Let interest, vanity and ambition, co-operate ever so little with these dispositions, and society must necessarily be disturbed. This is the reason that so many nations have often been the theaters of the extravagances of senseless dreamers, who, believing, or publishing their empty speculations as eternal truths, have kindled the enthusiasm of princes and people, and armed them for opinions, which they represented as essential to the glory of the Deity, and the happiness of empires. In all parts of our globe, intoxicated fanatics have been seen cutting each other’s throats, lighting funeral piles, committing, without scruple and even as a duty, the greatest crimes, and shedding torrents of blood. For what? To strengthen, support, or propagate the impertinent conjectures of some enthusiasts, or to give validity to the cheats of some impostors, in the name and behalf of a being, who exists only in their imagination, and who has made himself known only by the ravages, disputes, and follies, he has caused upon the earth.

Fierce and uncultivated nations, perpetually at war, have in their origin, under divers names, adored some God, conformable to their ideas; that is to say, cruel, carnivorous, selfish, blood-thirsty. We find, in all religions of the earth, a God of armies, a jealous God, an avenging God, a destroying God, a God, who is pleased with carnage, and whom his worshippers, as a duty, serve to his taste. Lambs, bulls, children, men, heretics, infidels, kings, whole nations are sacrificed to him. Do not the zealous servants of this so barbarous God, even think it a duty to offer up themselves as a sacrifice to him? We every where see madmen, who, after dismal meditations upon their terrible God, imagine, that to please him, they must do themselves all possible injury, and inflict on themselves, for his honor, invented torments. In short, the gloomy ideas of the divinity, far from consoling men under the evils of life, have every where disquieted and confused their minds, and produced follies destructive to their happiness.

Infested with frightful phantoms, and guided by men, interested in perpetuating its ignorance and fears, how could the human mind have made any considerable progress? Man has been forced to vegetate in his primitive stupidity; nothing has been offered to his mind, but stories of invisible powers, upon whom his happiness was supposed to depend. Occupied solely by his fears, and unintelligible reveries, he has always been at the mercy of his priests, who have reserved to themselves the right of thinking for him, and directing his actions.

Thus man has been, and ever will remain, a child without experience, a slave without courage, a stupid animal, who has feared to reason, and who has never known how to extricate himself from the labyrinth, where his ancestors had strayed. He has believed himself forced to groan under the yoke of his gods, whom he has known only by the fabulous accounts of his ministers, who, after having bound him with the chords of opinion, have remained his masters; or rather have abandoned him, defenseless, to the absolute power of tyrants, no less terrible than the gods, whose representatives they have been upon earth.

Crushed under the double yoke of spiritual and temporal power, it was impossible for the people to know and pursue their happiness. As religion, politics, and morality became sanctuaries, into which the ungodly were not permitted to enter, men had no other morality, than what their legislators and priests brought down from the unknown regions of the Empyrean. The human mind, confused with its theological opinions, forgot itself, doubted its own powers, mistrusted experience, feared truth, disdained its reason, and abandoned her direction, blindly to follow authority. Man was a mere machine in the hands of his tyrants and priests, who alone had the right of directing his actions; always led like a slave, he ever had his vices and character. These are the true causes of the corruption of morals, to which religion ever opposes only ideal barriers, and that without effect. Ignorance and servitude are calculated to make men wicked and unhappy. Knowledge, reason, and liberty can alone reform them, and make them happier; but every thing conspires to blind them, and confirm their errors. Priests cheat them, tyrants corrupt, the better to enslave them. Tyranny ever was, and ever will be, the true cause of the corruption of morals, and the habitual calamities of men; who, almost always fascinated with religious notions, and metaphysical fictions, instead of turning their eyes to the natural and obvious causes of their misery, attribute their vices to the imperfection of their nature, and their unhappiness to the anger of the gods. They offer up to heaven vows, sacrifices, and presents, to obtain the end of their sufferings, which, in reality, are chargeable only to the negligence, ignorance, and perversity of their guides, the folly of their institutions, their silly customs, false opinions, irrational laws, and above all, to the want of knowledge. Let men’s minds be filled with true ideas; let their reason be cultivated; let justice govern them; and there will be no need of opposing to the passions, such a feeble barrier, as a fear of gods. Men will be good, when they are well instructed, well governed, and when they are punished or despised for the evil, and justly rewarded for the good, they do to their fellow-creatures.

In vain should we attempt to cure men of their vices, unless we begin by curing them of their prejudices. It is only by shewing them the truth, that they will know their dearest interests, and the motives that ought to incline them to do good. Instructors have long enough fixed men’s eyes upon heaven, let them now turn them upon earth. Fatigued with an inconceivable theology, ridiculous fables, impenetrable mysteries, puerile ceremonies, let the human mind apply itself to the study of nature, to intelligible objects, sensible truths, and useful knowledge. Let the vain chimeras of men be removed, and reasonable opinions will soon come of themselves, into those heads, which were thought to be forever destined to error.

Does it not suffice to annihilate or shake religious prejudices, to shew, that what is inconceivable to man, cannot be made for him? Does it then require any thing, but plain, common sense, to perceive, that a being incompatible with the most evident notions; that a cause continually opposed to the effects, which we attribute to it; that a being, of whom we can say nothing, without falling into contradiction; that a being, who, far from explaining the enigmas of the universe, only makes them more inexplicable; that a being, whom for so many ages men have so vainly addressed to obtain their happiness, and the end of their sufferings; does it require, I say, any thing but plain, common sense, to perceive, that the idea of such a being is an idea without model, and that it is evidently only a being of imagination? Is any thing necessary but common sense to perceive, at least, that it is madness and folly to hate and torment one another for unintelligible opinions upon a being of this kind? In short, does not every thing prove, that morality and virtue are totally incompatible with the notions of a God, whom his ministers and interpreters have described in every country, as the most capricious, unjust, and cruel of tyrants, whose pretended will, however, must serve as law and rule to the inhabitants of the earth?

To learn the true principles of morality, men have no need of theology, of revelation, or gods: They have need only of reason. They have only to enter into themselves, to reflect upon their own nature, consult their sensible interests, consider the object of society, and of the individuals, who compose it; and they will easily perceive, that virtue is the interest, and vice the unhappiness of beings of their kind. Let us persuade men to be just, beneficent, moderate, sociable; not because the gods demand it, but because they must please men. Let us advise them to abstain from vice and crimes; not because they will be punished in the other world, but because they will suffer for it in this.—There are, says a great man, means to prevent crimes—these are punishments; there are those to reform mannersthese are good examples.

Truth is simple; error is complex, uncertain in its progress, and full of windings. The voice of nature is intelligible; that of falsehood is ambiguous, enigmatical, mysterious; the way of truth is straight; that of imposture is crooked and dark. Truth, forever necessary to man, must necessarily be felt by all upright minds; the lessons of reason are formed to be followed by all honest men. Men are unhappy only because they are ignorant; they are ignorant only because every thing conspires to prevent their being enlightened; they are so wicked only because their reason is not yet sufficiently unfolded.

By what fatality then, have the first founders of all sects given to their gods the most ferocious characters, at which nature recoils? Can we imagine a conduct more abominable, than that ascribed by Moses to his God, towards the Egyptians, where that assassin proceeds boldly to declare, in the name, and by the order of his God, that Egypt shall be afflicted with the greatest calamities, that can happen to man. Of all the different ideas, which they wish to give us of a supreme being, of a God, creator and preserver of men, there are none more horrible, than those of these impostors, who believed themselves inspired by a divine spirit.

Why, O theologians! do you presume to rummage in the impenetrable mysteries of a first being, whom you call inconceivable to the human mind. You are the first blasphemers, in attributing to a being, perfect according to you, so many horrors, committed towards creatures, whom he has made out of nothing. Confess, with us, your ignorance of a creating God; and forbear, in your turn, to meddle with mysteries, which man seems unworthy of knowing....

Religion, especially with the modems, has tried to identify itself with morality, the principles of which it has thereby totally obscured. It has rendered men unsociable by duty, and forced them to be inhuman to everyone who thought differently from themselves. Theological disputes, equally unintelligible to each of the enraged parties, have shaken empires, caused revolutions, been fatal to sovereigns and desolated all Europe. These contemptible quarrels have not been extinguished even in rivers of blood. Since the extinction of Paganism, the people have made it a religious principle to become outrageous, whenever any opinion is advanced which their priests think contrary to sound doctrine. The sectaries of a religion, which preaches, in appearance, nothing but charity, concord, and peace, have proved themselves more ferocious than cannibals or savages, whenever their divines excited them to destroy their brethren. There is no crime which men have not committed under the idea of pleasing the Divinity or appeasing his wrath....

A morality, which contradicts the nature of man, is not made for man. “But,” say you, “the nature of man is depraved.” In what consists this pretended depravity? In having passions? But, are not passions essential to man? Is he not obliged to seek, desire, and love what is, or what he thinks is conducive to his happiness? Is he not forced to fear and avoid what he judges disagreeable or fatal? Kindle his passions for useful objects; connect his welfare with those objects; divert him, by sensible and known motives, from what may injure either him or others, and you will make him a reasonable and virtuous being. A man without passions would be equally indifferent to vice and to virtue....

What is virtue according to theology? It is, we are told, the conformity of the actions of men to the will of God. But what is God? A being of whom nobody has the least conception, and whom everyone consequently modifies in his own way. What is the will of God? It is what men, who have seen God, or whom God has inspired, have declared to be the will of God. Who are those who have seen God? They are either fanatics or rogues, or ambitious men, whom we cannot readily believe upon their word.

To found morality upon a God, whom everyone paints to himself differently, composes in his way, and arranges according to his own temperament and interest, is evidently to found morality upon the caprice and imagination of men; it is to found it upon the whims of a sect, a faction, a party, who will believe they have the advantage to adore a true God to the exclusion of all others.

To establish morality of the duties of man upon the divine will, is to found it upon the will, the reveries and the interests of those who make God speak without ever fearing that he will contradict them. In every religion, priests alone have a right to decide what is pleasing or displeasing to their God; we are certain they will always decide that it is what pleases or displeases themselves....

A morality, connected with religion, is necessarily subordinate to it. In the mind of a devout man, God must be regarded more than his creatures; it is better to obey him than men. The interests of the celestial monarch must prevail over those of weak mortals. But the interests of heaven are obviously those of its ministers; whence it evidently follows, that in every religion, priests, under pretext of the interests of heaven or the glory of God, can dispense with the duties of human morality, when they clash with the duties which God has a right to impose. Besides, must not he, who has power to pardon crimes, have a right to command the commission of crimes?

We are perpetually told, that, without a God there would be no moral obligation; that the people and even the sovereigns require a legislator powerful enough to constrain them. Moral constraint supposes a law; but this law arises from eternal and necessary relations of things with one another; relations, which have nothing common with the existence of a God. The rules of man’s conduct are derived from his own nature which he is capable of knowing, and not from the divine nature of which he has no idea. These rules constrain or oblige us; that is, we render ourselves estimable or contemptible, amiable or detestable, worthy of reward or of punishment, happy or unhappy, according as we conform to, or deviate from these rules. The law, which obliges man not to hurt himself, is founded upon the nature of a sensible being, who, in whatever way he came into the world, or whatever may be his fate in a future one, is forced by his actual essence to seek good and shun evil, to love pleasure and fear pain. The law, which obliges man not to injure, and even to do good to others, is founded upon the nature of sensible beings, living in society, whose essence compels them to despise those who are useless, and to detest those who oppose their felicity.

Whether there exists a God or not, whether this God has spoken or not, the moral duties of men will be always the same, so long as they retain their peculiar nature, that is, as long as they are sensible beings. Have men then need of a God whom they know not, of an invisible legislator, of a mysterious religion and of chimerical fears, in order to learn that every excess evidently tends to destroy them, that to preserve health they must be temperate; that to gain the love of others it is necessary to do them good, that, to do them evil is the sure means to incur their vengeance and hatred?

“Before the law there was no sin.” Nothing is more false than this maxim. It suffices that man is what he is, or that he is a sensible being, in order to distinguish what gives him pleasure or displeasure. It suffices that one man knows that another man is a sensible being like himself, to perceive what is useful or hurtful to him. It suffices that man needs his fellow creature, in order to know that he must fear to excite in him sentiments unfavorable to himself. Thus the feeling and thinking being has only to feel and think, in order to discover what he must do for himself and others. I feel, and another feels like me; this is the foundation of all morals....

We can judge of the goodness of a system of morals, only by its conformity to the nature of man. By this comparison, we have a right to reject it, if contrary to the welfare of our species. Whoever has seriously meditated upon religion and its supernatural morality; whoever has carefully weighed their advantages and disadvantages, will be fully convinced, that both are injurious to the interests of man, or directly opposite to his nature....

It is asserted, that the dogma of another life is of the utmost importance to the peace and happiness of societies; that without it, men would be destitute of motives to do good. What need is there of terrors and fables to make every rational man sensible how he ought to conduct himself upon earth? Does not everyone see, that he has the greatest interest in meriting the approbation, esteem, and benevolence of the beings who surround him, and in abstaining from everything, by which he may incur the censure, contempt, and resentment of society? However short an entertainment, a conversation, or visit, does not each desire to act his part decently, and agreeably to himself and others? If life is but a passage, let us strive to make it easy; which we cannot effect, if we fail in regard for those who travel with us.

Religion, occupied with its gloomy reveries, considers man merely as a pilgrim upon earth; and therefore supposes that, in order to travel the more securely, he must forsake company and deprive himself of the pleasures and amusements, which might console him for the tediousness and fatigue of the road. A stoical and morose philosopher sometimes gives us advice as irrational as that of religion. But a more rational philosophy invites us to spread flowers in the way of life, to dispel melancholy and panic terrors, to connect our interest with that of our fellow-travelers, and by gaiety and lawful pleasures, to divert our attention from the difficulties and cross accidents, to which we are often exposed; it teaches us, that, to travel agreeably, we should abstain from what might be injurious to ourselves, and carefully shun what might render us odious to our associates....

It is asked, what motives an Atheist can have to do good? The motive to please himself and his fellow-creatures; to live happily and peaceably; to gain the affection and esteem of men, whose existence and dispositions are much more sure and known, than those of a being impossible to be known. “Can he who fears not the gods, fear anything?” He can fear men; he can fear contempt, dishonor, the punishment and vengeance of the laws; in short, he can fear himself, and the remorse felt by all those who are conscious of having incurred or merited the hatred of their fellow-creatures.

Conscience is the internal testimony, which we bear to ourselves, of having acted so as to merit the esteem or blame of the beings, with whom we live; and it is founded upon the clear knowledge we have of men, and of the sentiments which our actions must produce in them. The conscience of the religious man consists in imagining that he has pleased or displeased his God, of whom he has no idea, and whose obscure and doubtful intentions are explained to him only by men of doubtful veracity, who, like him, are utterly unacquainted with the essence of the Deity, and are little agreed upon what can please or displease him. In a word, the conscience of the credulous is directed by men, who have themselves an erroneous conscience, or whose interest stifles knowledge.

“Can an Atheist have a conscience? What are his motives to abstain from hidden vices and secret crimes, of which other men are ignorant, and which are beyond the reach of laws?” He may be assured by constant experience, that there is no vice, which by the nature of things, does not punish itself. Would he preserve this life? He will avoid every excess that may impair his health: he will not wish to lead a languishing life, which would render him a burden to himself and others. As for secret crimes, he will abstain from them, for fear he shall be forced to blush at himself, from whom he cannot fly. If he has any reason, he will know the value of the esteem which an honest man ought to have for himself. He will see that unforeseen circumstances may unveil the conduct which he feels interested in concealing from others. The other world furnishes the motives for doing good, to him who finds none here below....

A man of reflection cannot be incapable of his duties, of discovering the relations subsisting between men, of mediating his own nature, of discerning his own wants, propensities, and desires, and of perceiving what he owes to beings, who are necessary to his happiness. These reflections naturally lead him to a knowledge of the morality most essential to social beings. Dangerous passions seldom fall to the lot of man who loves to commune with himself, to study, and to investigate the principles of things. The strongest passion of such a man will be to know truth, and his ambition to teach it to others. Philosophy is proper to cultivate both the mind and the heart. On the score of morals and honesty, has not he who reflects and reasons, evidently an advantage over him, who makes it a principle never to reason?

If ignorance is useful to priests, and to the oppressors of mankind, it is fatal to society. Man, void of knowledge, does not enjoy his reason; without reason and knowledge, he is a savage, every instant liable to be hurried into crimes. Morality, or the science of duties, is acquired only by the study of man, and of what is relative to man. He who does not reflect, is unacquainted with true morality, and walks with precarious steps in the path of virtue. The less men reason, the more wicked they are. Savages, princes, nobles, and the dregs of the people, are commonly the worst of men, because they reason the least....



The greatest historian of the eighteenth century, Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) was a typical Enlightenment skeptic deeply suspicious of religious faith. He was convinced that Christianity had played a central role in undermining the glories of antiquity. His disdain for the Church is evident in this famous passage from his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, whose several volumes he published between 1776 and 1788.

The miracles of the primitive church, after obtaining the sanction of ages, have been lately attacked in a very free and ingenious inquiry; which, though it has met with the most favorable reception from the Public, appears to have excited a general scandal among the divines of our own as well as of the other Protestant churches of Europe. Our different sentiments on this subject will be much less influenced by any particular arguments than by our habits of study and reflection; and, above all, by the degree of the evidence which we have accustomed ourselves to require for the proof of a miraculous event. The duty of an historian does not call upon him to interpose his private judgment in this nice and important controversy; but he ought not to dissemble the difficulty of adopting such a theory as may reconcile the interest of religion with that of reason, of making a proper application of that theory, and of defining with precision the limits of that happy period, exempt from error and from deceit, to which we might be disposed to extend the gift of supernatural powers. From the first of the fathers to the last of the popes, a succession of bishops, of saints, of martyrs, and of miracles is continued without interruption, and the progress of superstition was so gradual and almost imperceptible that we know not in what particular link we should break the chain of tradition. Every age bears testimony to the wonderful events by which it was distinguished, and its testimony appears no less weighty and respectable than that of the preceding generation, till we are insensibly led on to accuse our own inconsistency, if in the eighth or in the twelfth century we deny to the venerable Bede, or to the holy Bernard, the same degree of confidence which, in the second century, we had so liberally granted to Justin or to Irenæus. If the truth of any of those miracles is appreciated by their apparent use and propriety, every age had unbelievers to convince, heretics to confute, and idolatrous nations to convert; and sufficient motives might always be produced to justify the interposition of Heaven. And yet, since every friend to revelation is persuaded of the reality, and every reasonable man is convinced of the cessation, of miraculous powers, it is evident that there must have been some period in which they were either suddenly or gradually withdrawn from the Christian church. Whatever æra is chosen for that purpose, the death of the apostles, the conversion of the Roman empire, or the extinction of the Arian heresy, the insensibility of the Christians who lived at that time will equally afford a just matter of surprise. They still supported their pretensions after they had lost their power. Credulity performed the office of faith; fanaticism was permitted to assume the language of inspiration, and the effects of accident or contrivance were ascribed to supernatural causes. The recent experience of genuine miracles should have instructed the Christian world in the ways of Providence, and habituated their eye (if we may use a very inadequate expression) to the style of the divine artist. Should the most skillful painter of modern Italy presume to decorate his feeble imitations with the name of Raphael or of Correggio, the insolent fraud would be soon discovered and indignantly rejected.

Whatever opinion may be entertained of the miracles of the primitive church since the time of the apostles, this unresisting softness of temper, so conspicuous among the believers of the second and third centuries, proved of some accidental benefit to the cause of truth and religion. In modern times, a latent, and even involuntary, skepticism adheres to the most pious dispositions. Their admission of supernatural truths is much less an active consent than a cold and passive acquiescence. Accustomed long since to observe and to respect the invariable order of Nature, our reason, or at least our imagination, is not sufficiently prepared to sustain the visible action of the Deity. But, in the first ages of Christianity, the situation of mankind was extremely different. The most curious, or the most credulous, among the Pagans were often persuaded to enter into a society which asserted an actual claim of miraculous powers. The primitive Christians perpetually trod on mystic ground, and their minds were exercised by the habits of believing the most extraordinary events. They felt, or they fancied, that on every side they were incessantly assaulted by daemons, comforted by visions, instructed by prophecy, and surprisingly delivered from danger, sickness, and from death itself, by the supplications of the church. The real or imaginary prodigies, of which they so frequently conceived themselves to be the objects, the instruments, or the spectators, very happily disposed them to adopt, with the same ease, but with far greater justice, the authentic wonders of the evangelic history; and thus miracles that exceeded not the measure of their own experience inspired them with the most lively assurance of mysteries which were acknowledged to surpass the limits of their understanding. It is this deep impression of supernatural truths which has been so much celebrated under the name of faith; a state of mind described as the surest pledge of the divine favor and of future felicity, and recommended as the first or perhaps the only merit of a Christian. According to the more rigid doctors, the moral virtues, which may be equally practiced by infidels, are destitute of any value or efficacy in the work of our justification.

But the primitive Christian demonstrated his faith by his virtues; and it was very justly supposed that the divine persuasion, which enlightened or subdued the understanding, must, at the same time, purify the heart, and direct the actions, of the believer. The first apologists of Christianity who justify the innocence of their brethren, and the writers of a later period who celebrate the sanctity of their ancestors, display, in the most lively colors, the reformation of manners which was introduced into the world by the preaching of the gospel. As it is my intention to remark only such human causes as were permitted to second the influence of revelation, I shall slightly mention two motives which might naturally render the lives of the primitive Christians much purer and more austere than those of their Pagan contemporaries, or their degenerate successors; repentance for their past sins, and the laudable desire of supporting the reputation of the society in which they were engaged.

The acquisition of knowledge, the exercise of our reason or fancy, and the cheerful flow of unguarded conversation, may employ the leisure of a liberal mind. Such amusements, however, were rejected with abhorrence, or admitted with the utmost caution, by the severity of the fathers, who despised all knowledge that was not useful to salvation, and who considered all levity of discourse as a criminal abuse of the gift of speech. In our present state of existence, the body is so inseparably connected with the soul that it seems to be our interest to taste, with innocence and moderation, the enjoyments of which that faithful companion is susceptible. Very different was the reasoning of our devout predecessors; vainly aspiring to imitate the perfection of angels, they disdained, or they affected to disdain, every earthly and corporeal delight. Some of our senses indeed are necessary for our preservation, others for our subsistence, and others again for our information, and thus far it was impossible to reject the use of them. The first sensation of pleasure was marked as the first moment of their abuse. The unfeeling candidate for Heaven was instructed, not only to resist the grosser allurements of the taste or smell, but even to shut his ears against the profane harmony of sounds, and to view with indifference the most finished productions of human art. Gay apparel, magnificent houses, and elegant furniture were supposed to unite the double guilt of pride and of sensuality: a simple and mortified appearance was more suitable to the Christian who was certain of his sins and doubtful of his salvation. In their censures of luxury, the fathers are extremely minute and circumstantial; and among the various articles which excite their pious indignation, we may enumerate false hair, garments of any color except white, instruments of music, vases of gold or silver, downy pillows (as Jacob reposed his head on a stone), white bread, foreign wines, public salutations, the use of warm baths, and the practice of shaving the beard, which, according to the expression of Tertullian, is a lie against our own faces, and an impious attempt to improve the works of the Creator. When Christianity was introduced among the rich and the polite, the observation of these singular laws was left, as it would be at present, to the few who were ambitious of superior sanctity. But it is always easy, as well as agreeable, for the inferior ranks of mankind to claim a merit from the contempt of that pomp and pleasure, which fortune has placed beyond their reach. The virtue of the primitive Christians, like that of the first Romans, was very frequently guarded by poverty and ignorance.

The chaste severity of the fathers, in whatever related to the commerce of the two sexes, flowed from the same principle; their abhorrence of every enjoyment which might gratify the sensual, and degrade the spiritual, nature of man. It was their favorite opinion that, if Adam had preserved his obedience to the Creator, he would have lived for ever in a state of virgin purity, and that some harmless mode of vegetation might have peopled paradise with a race of innocent and immortal beings. The use of marriage was permitted only to his fallen posterity, as a necessary expedient to continue the human species, and as a restraint, however imperfect, on the natural licentiousness of desire. The hesitation of the orthodox casuists on this interesting subject betrays the perplexity of men, unwilling to approve an institution which they were compelled to tolerate. The enumeration of the very whimsical laws, which they most circumstantially imposed on the marriage-bed, would force a smile from the young, and a blush from the fair. It was their unanimous sentiment that a first marriage was adequate to all the purposes of nature and of society. The sensual connexion was refined into a resemblance of the mystic union of Christ with his church, and was pronounced to be indissoluble either by divorce or by death....

The decline of ancient prejudice exposed a very numerous portion of human kind to the danger of a painful and comfortless situation. A state of skepticism and suspense may amuse a few inquisitive minds. But the practice of superstition is so congenial to the multitude that, if they are forcibly awakened, they still regret the loss of their pleasing vision. Their love of the marvelous and supernatural, their curiosity with regard to future events, and their strong propensity to extend their hopes and fears beyond the limits of the visible world, were the principal causes which favored the establishment of Polytheism. So urgent on the vulgar is the necessity of believing that the fall of any system of mythology will most probably be succeeded by the introduction of some other mode of superstition. Some deities of a more recent and fashionable cast might soon have occupied the deserted temples of Jupiter and Apollo, if, in the decisive moment, the wisdom of Providence had not interposed a genuine revelation, fitted to inspire the most rational esteem and conviction, whilst, at the same time, it was adorned with all that could attract the curiosity, the wonder, and the veneration of the people. In their actual disposition, as many were almost disengaged from their artificial prejudices, but equally susceptible and desirous of a devout attachment; an object much less deserving would have been sufficient to fill the vacant place in their hearts, and to gratify the uncertain eagerness of their passions. Those who are inclined to pursue this reflection, instead of viewing with astonishment the rapid progress of Christianity, will perhaps be surprised that its success was not still more rapid and still more universal.



The scientist and Protestant minister Priestley was one of the founders of Unitarianism, which bears a striking intellectual kinship to deism. The creed, here called Socinian, would attract others like Jefferson. The selection is from Priestley’s Letters to Dr. Horsley of 1783.

Having been educated in the strictest principles of Calvinism, and having from my early years had a serious turn of mind, promoted no doubt by a weak and sickly constitution, I was very sincere and zealous in my belief of the doctrine of the trinity; and this continued till I was about nineteen; and then I was as much shocked on hearing of any who denied the divinity of Christ (thinking it to be nothing less than impiety and blasphemy) as any of my opponents can be now. I therefore truly feel for them, and most sincerely excuse them.

About the age of twenty, being then in a regular course of theological studies, I saw reason to change my opinion, and became an Arian; and notwithstanding what appeared to me a fair and impartial study of the scriptures, and though I had no bias on my mind arising from subscribed creeds and confessions of faith, etc. I continued in that persuasion fifteen or sixteen years; and yet in that time I was well acquainted with Dr. Lardner, Dr. Fleming, and several other zealous Socinians, especially my friend Mr. Graham. The first theological tract of mine (which was on the doctrine of atonement) was published at the particular request, and under the direction of, Dr. Lardner; and he approving of the scheme which I had then formed of giving a short view (which was all that I had then thought of) of the progress of the corruptions of christianity, he gave me a few hints with respect to it. But still I continued till after his death indisposed to the Socinian hypothesis. After this, continuing my study of the scriptures, with the help of his Letters on the Logos, I at length changed my opinion, and became what is called a Socinian; and in this I see continually more reason to acquiesce, though it was a long time before the arguments in favor of it did more than barely preponderate in my mind.

I was greatly confirmed in this doctrine after I was fully satisfied that man is of an uniform composition, and wholly mortal; and that the doctrine of a separate immaterial soul, capable of sensation and action when the body is in the grave, is a notion borrowed from heathen philosophy, and unknown to the scriptures. Of this I had for a long time a mere suspicion; but having casually mentioned it as such, and a violent outcry being raised against me on that account, I was induced to give the greatest attention to the question, to examine it in every light, and to invite the fullest discussion of it. This terminated in as full a conviction with respect to this subject as I have with respect to any other whatever. The reasons on which that conviction is founded may be seen in my Disquisitions on Matter and Spirit....

Being now fully persuaded that Christ was a man like ourselves, and consequently that his pre-existence, as well as that of other men, was a notion that had no foundation in reason or in the scriptures, and having been gradually led (in consequence of wishing to trace the principal corruptions of christianity) to give particular attention to ecclesiastical history, I could not help thinking but that (since the doctrine of the pre-existence of Christ was not the doctrine of the scriptures, and therefore could not have been taught by the apostles) there must be some traces of the rise and progress of the doctrine of the trinity, and some historical evidence that unitarianism was the general faith of christians in the apostolical age, independent of the evidence which arose from its being the doctrine of the scriptures.

In this state of mind, the reader will easily perceive that I naturally expected to find, what I was previously well persuaded was to be found; and in time I collected much more evidence than I at first expected, considering the early rise and the long and universal spread of what I deem to be a radical corruption of the genuine christian doctrine. This evidence I have fairly laid before the reader. He must judge of the weight of it, and also make whatever allowance he may think necessary for my particular situation and prejudices.

I am well aware that it is naturally impossible that the evidence I have produced should impress the minds of those who are Arians or Athanasians, as it will those of Socinians; nor are men to be convinced of the proper humanity of Christ, by arguments of this kind. They must begin, as I did, with the study of the scriptures; and whatever be the result of that study, it will be impossible for them, let them discipline their minds as they will, not to be influenced in the historical inquiry, as I was, by their previous persuasion concerning the subject of it. If, however, they should be so far impressed with the historical arguments, as to think it probable that the christian Church was, in a very early period, unitarian, it will, no doubt, lead them to expect that they shall find the doctrine of the scriptures, truly interpreted, to be so too.

With respect to myself, I do not know that I can do anything more. Being persuaded, as I am, from the study of the scriptures, that Christ is properly a man, I cannot cease to think so; nor can I possibly help the influence of that persuasion in my historical researches. Let other persons write as freely on their respective hypotheses as I have done on mine, and then indifferent persons, and especially younger persons, whose minds have not acquired the stiffness of ours, who are turned fifty, may derive benefit from it.

Firm as my persuasion now is concerning the proper humanity of Christ (a persuasion that has been the slow growth of years, and the result of much anxious and patient thinking) I do not know that, in the course of my enquiry, I have been under the influence of prejudice more than all other men naturally are. As to reputation, a man may distinguish himself just as much by the defense of old systems as by the erection of new ones; but I have neither formed any new systems, nor have I particularly distinguished myself in the defense of old ones. When I first became an Arian and afterwards a Socinian, I was only a convert, in company with many others, and was far from having any thoughts of troubling the world with publications on the subject. This I have been led to do by a series of events of which I had no foresight and of which I do not see the issue.

The conclusion that I have formed with respect to the subject of this work and my exertions in support of it, are, however, constantly ascribed by my opponents to a force of prejudice and prepossession so strong as to pervert my judgment in the plainest of all cases. Of this I may not be a proper judge; but analogy may be some guide to myself as well as to others in this case.

Now, what appears to have been my disposition in other similar cases? Have I been particularly attached to hypotheses in philosophy, even to my own, which always create a stronger attachment than those of other persons? On the contrary, I will venture to say that no person is generally thought to be less so; nor has it been imagined that my pursuits have been at all defeated or injured, by any prepossession in favor of particular theories; and yet theories are as apt to mislead in philosophical as in any other subjects. I have always shown the greatest readiness to abandon any hypothesis that I have advanced, and even defended, while I thought it defensible, the moment I have suspected it to be ill founded, whether the new facts that have refuted it were discovered by myself or others. My friends in general have blamed me for my extreme facility in this respect. And if I may judge of myself by my own feelings, after the closest examination that I can give myself, I am just the same with respect to theology.

In the course of my life I have held and defended opinions very different from those which I hold at present. Now, if my obstinacy in retaining and defending opinions had been so great as my opponents represent it, why did it not long ago put a stop to all my changes, and fix me a Trinitarian, or an Arian? Let those who have given stronger proofs of their minds being open to conviction than mine has been, throw the first stone at me.

I am well aware of the nature and force of that opposition and obloquy to which I am exposing myself in consequence of writing my History of the Corruptions of Christianity, the most valuable, I trust, of all my publications, and especially in consequence of the pains that have been taken to magnify and expose a few inaccuracies, to which all works of a similar nature have been and ever must be subject. But I have the fullest persuasion that the real oversights in it are of the smallest magnitude and do not at all affect any one position or argument in my work, as I hope to satisfy all candid judges; and as to mere cavil and reproach, I thank God I am well able to bear it.

The odium I brought upon myself by maintaining the doctrines of materialism and necessity, without attempting to cover or soften terms of so frightful a sound, and without palliating any of their consequences, was unspeakably greater than what this business can bring upon me. At the beginning of that controversy I had few, very few indeed, of my nearest friends who were with me in the argument. They, however, who knew me, knew my motives, and excused me; but the christian world in general regarded me with the greatest abhorrence. I was considered as an unprincipled infidel, either an atheist or in league with atheists. In this light I was repeatedly exhibited in all the public papers; and the Monthly Review and other Reviews, with all the similar publications of the day, joined in the popular cry. But a few years have seen the end of it. At least all that is left would not disturb the merest novice in these things. The consequence (which I now enjoy) is a great increase of materialists; not of atheistical ones, as some will still represent it, but of the most serious, the most rational and consistent christians.

A similar issue I firmly expect from the present controversy, unpromising as it may appear in the eyes of some, who are struck with what is speciously and confidently urged. For my own part, I truly rejoice in the present appearance of things; as I foresee that much good will arise from the attention that will by this means be drawn upon the subject, and as I hope I respect the hand of God in everything, I thank him for leading me into this business; as I hope to have occasion to thank him, some years hence, for leading me through it, and with as much advantage as I have been led through the other.

It is, indeed, my firm and it is my joyful persuasion, that there is a wise Providence over-ruling all inquiries as well as other events. The wisdom of God has appeared, as I have endeavored to point out, even in the corruptions of christianity, and the spread of error; and it is equally conspicuous in the discovery and propagation of truth.

I am far from thinking that that great Being who superintends all things, guides my pen, any more than he does that of my fiercest opponent; but I believe that by means of our joint labors and those of all who engage in theological controversy (which is eminently useful in rousing men to the utmost exertion of their faculties) he is promoting his own excellent purposes, and providing for the prevalence of truth in his own due time; and in this general prospect we ought all equally to rejoice.

It becomes us, however, to consider that they only will be entitled to praise who join in carrying on the designs of providence with right views of their own; who are actuated by a real love of truth, and also by that candor and benevolence, which a sense of our common difficulties in the investigation of truth most effectually inspires. A man who has never changed an opinion cannot have much feeling of this difficulty, and therefore cannot be expected to have much candor, unless his disposition be uncommonly excellent. I ought to have more candor than many others, because I have felt more than many can pretend to have done, the force of those obstacles which retard our progress in the search of truth.



America’s third president, Jefferson (1743-1826) was a friend and correspondent of many of the leading writers and scientists in the English and French Enlightenment. In these two selections, Jefferson argues the case for toleration and describes his own religious beliefs. The first is from his one book, The Notes on Virginia (1787); the second is a letter of 1803 to the Philadelphia scientist, physician, and political leader Benjamin Rush.

The error seems not sufficiently eradicated, that the operations of the mind, as well as the acts of the body, are subject to the coercion of the laws. But our rulers can have authority over such natural rights only as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. If it be said, his testimony in a court of justice cannot be relied on, reject it then, and be the stigma on him. Constraint may make him worse by making him a hypocrite, but it will never make him a truer man. It may fix him obstinately in his errors, but will not cure them. Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error. Give a loose to them, they will support the true religion, by bringing every false one to their tribunal, to the test of their investigation. They are the natural enemies of error, and of error only. Had not the Roman government permitted free enquiry, Christianity could never have been introduced. Had not free enquiry been indulged, at the æra of the reformation, the corruptions of Christianity could not have been purged away. If it be restrained now, the present corruptions will be protected, and new ones encouraged. Was the government to prescribe to us our medicine and diet, our bodies would be in such keeping as our souls are now. Thus in France the emetic was once forbidden as a medicine, and the potato as an article of food. Government is just as infallible too when it fixes systems in physics. Galileo was sent to the inquisition for affirming that the earth was a sphere: the government had declared it to be as flat as a trencher, and Galileo was obliged to adjure his error. This error however at length prevailed, the earth became a globe, and Descartes declared it was whirled round its axis by a vortex. The government in which he lived was wise enough to see that this was no question of civil jurisdiction, or we should all have been involved by authority in vortices. In fact, the vortices have been exploded, and the Newtonian principle of gravitation is now more firmly established, on the basis of reason, than it would be were the government to step in, and to make it an article of necessary faith. Reason and experiment have been indulged, and error has fled before them. It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself Subject opinion to coercion: whom will you make your inquisitors? Fallible men; men governed by bad passions, by private as well as public reasons. And why subject it to coercion? To produce uniformity. But is uniformity of opinion desirable? No more than of face and stature. Introduce the bed of Procrustes then, and as there is danger that the large men may beat the small, make us all of a size, by lopping the former and stretching the latter. Difference of opinion is advantageous in religion. The several sects perform the office of a Censor morum over each other. Is uniformity attainable? Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth. Let us reflect that it is inhabited by a thousand millions of people. That these profess probably a thousand different systems of religion. That ours is but one of that thousand. That if there be but one right, and ours that one, we should wish to see the 999 wandering sects gathered into the fold of truth. But against such a majority we cannot effect this by force. Reason and persuasion are the only practicable instruments. To make way for these, free enquiry must be indulged; and how can we wish others to indulge it while we refuse it ourselves. But every state, says an inquisitor, has established some religion. No two, say I, have established the same. Is this a proof of the infallibility of establishments? Our sister states of Pennsylvania and New York, however, have long subsisted without any establishment at all. The experiment was new and doubtful when they made it. It has answered beyond conception. They flourish infinitely. Religion is well supported; of various kinds, indeed, but all good enough; all sufficient to preserve peace and order: or if a sect arises, whose tenets would subvert morals, good sense has fair play, and reasons and laughs it out of doors, without suffering the state to be troubled with it. They do not hang more malefactors than we do. They are not more disturbed with religious dissensions. On the contrary, their harmony is unparalleled, and can be ascribed to nothing but their unbounded tolerance, because there is no other circumstance in which they differ from every nation on earth. They have made the happy discovery, that the way to silence religious disputes, is to take no notice of them. Let us too give this experiment fair play, and get rid, while we may, of those tyrannical laws. It is true, we are as yet secured against them by the spirit of the times. I doubt whether the people of this country would suffer an execution for heresy, or a three years imprisonment for not comprehending the mysteries of the Trinity. But is the spirit of the people an infallible, a permanent reliance? Is it government? Is this the kind of protection we receive in return for the rights we give up? Besides, the spirit of the times may alter, will alter. Our rulers will become corrupt, our people careless. A single zealot may commence persecutor, and better men be his victims. It can never be too often repeated, that the time for fixing every essential right on a legal basis is while our rulers are honest, and ourselves united. From the conclusion of this war we shall be going down hill. It will not then be necessary to resort every moment to the people for support. They will be forgotten, therefore, and their rights disregarded. They will forget themselves, but in the sole faculty of making money, and will never think of uniting to effect a due respect for their rights. The shackles, therefore, which shall not be knocked off at the conclusion of this war, will remain on us long, will be made heavier and heavier, till our rights shall revive or expire in a convulsion.



In some of the delightful conversations with you, in the evenings of 1798-99, and which serve as an anodyne to the afflictions of the crisis through which our country was then laboring, the Christian religion was sometimes our topic; and I then promised you, that one day or other, I would give you my views of it. They are the result of a life of inquiry and reflection, and very different from that anti-Christian system imputed to me by those who know nothing of my opinions. To the corruptions of Christianity I am, indeed, opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other. At the short interval since these conversations, when I could justifiably abstract my mind from public affairs, the subject has been under my contemplation. But the more I considered it, the more it expanded beyond the measure of either my time or information. In the moment of my late departure from Monticello, I received from Dr. Priestley, his little treatise of “Socrates and Jesus Compared.” This being a section of the general view I had taken of the field, it became a subject of reflection while on the road, and unoccupied otherwise. The result was, to arrange in my mind a syllabus, or outline of such an estimate of the comparative merits of Christianity, as I wished to see executed by some one of more leisure and information for the task, than myself. This I now send you, as the only discharge of my promise I can probably ever execute. And in confiding it to you, I know it will not be exposed to the malignant perversions of those who make every word from me a text for new misrepresentations and calumnies. I am moreover averse to the communication of my religious tenets to the public; because it would countenance the presumption of those who have endeavored to draw them before that tribunal, and to seduce public opinion to erect itself into that inquisition over the rights of conscience, which the laws have so justly proscribed. It behooves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself, to resist invasions of it in the case of others; or their case may, by change of circumstances, become his own. It behooves him, too, in his own case, to give no example of concession, betraying the common right of independent opinion, by answering questions of faith, which the laws have left between God and himself. Accept my affectionate salutations.


In a comparative view of the Ethics of the enlightened nations of antiquity, of the Jews and of Jesus, no notice should be taken of the corruptions of reason among the ancients, to wit, the idolatry and superstition of the vulgar, nor of the corruptions of Christianity by the learned among its professors.

Let a just view be taken of the moral principles inculcated by the most esteemed of the sects of ancient philosophy, or of their individuals; particularly Pythagoras, Socrates, Epicurus, Cicero, Epictetus, Seneca, Antoninus.

I. Philosophers.

1. Their precepts related chiefly to ourselves, and the government of those passions which, unrestrained, would disturb our tranquility of mind. In this branch of philosophy they were really great.

2. In developing our duties to others, they were short and defective. They embraced, indeed, the circles of kindred and friends, and inculcated patriotism, or the love of our country in the aggregate, as a primary obligation; toward our neighbors and countrymen they taught justice, but scarcely viewed them as within the circle of benevolence. Still less have they inculcated peace, charity, and love to our fellow men, or embraced with benevolence the whole family of mankind.

II. Jews.

1. Their system was Deism; that is, the belief of one only God. But their ideas of him and of his attributes were degrading and injurious.

2. Their Ethics were not only imperfect, but often irreconcilable with the sound dictates of reason and morality, as they respect intercourse with those around us; and repulsive and anti-social, as respecting other nations. They needed reformation, therefore, in an eminent degree.

III. Jesus. In this state of things among the Jews, Jesus appeared. His parentage was obscure; his condition poor; his education null; his natural endowments great; his life correct and innocent; he was meek, benevolent, patient, firm, disinterested, and of the sublimest eloquence.

The disadvantages under which his doctrines appear are remarkable.

1. Like Socrates and Epictetus, he wrote nothing himself.

2. But he had not, like them, a Xenophon or an Arrian to write for him. I name not Plato, who only used the name of Socrates to cover the whimsies of his own brain. On the contrary, all the learned of his country, entrenched in its power and riches, were opposed to him, lest his labors should undermine their advantages; and the committing to writing his life and doctrines fell on unlettered and ignorant men; who wrote, too, from memory, and not till long after the transactions had passed.

3. According to the ordinary fate of those who attempt to enlighten and reform mankind, he fell an early victim to the jealousy and combination of the altar and the throne, at about thirty-three years of age, his reason having not yet attained the maximum of its energy, nor the course of his preaching, which was but of three years at most, presented occasions for developing a complete system of morals.

4. Hence the doctrines which he really delivered were defective as a whole, and fragments only of what he did deliver have come to us mutilated, misstated, and often unintelligible.

5. They have been still more disfigured by the corruptions of schismatizing followers, who have found an interest in sophisticating and perverting the simple doctrines he taught, by engrafting on them the mysticisms of a Grecian sophist, frittering them into subtleties, and obscuring them with jargon, until they have caused good men to reject the whole in disgust, and to view Jesus himself as an impostor.

Notwithstanding these disadvantages, a system of morals is presented to us, which, if filled up in the true style and spirit of the rich fragments he left us, would be the most perfect and sublime that has ever been taught by man.

The question of his being a member of the Godhead, or in direct communication with it, claimed for him by some of his followers, and denied by others, is foreign to the present view, which is merely an estimate of the intrinsic merit of his doctrines.

1. He corrected the Deism of the Jews, confirming them in their belief of one only God, and giving them juster notions of his attributes and government.

2. His moral doctrines, relating to kindred and friends, were more pure and perfect than those of the most correct of the philosophers, and greatly more so than those of the Jews; and they went far beyond both in inculcating universal philanthrophy, not only to kindred and friends, to neighbors and countrymen, but to all mankind, gathering all into one family, under the bonds of love, charity, peace, common wants and common aids. A development of this head will evince the peculiar superiority of the system of Jesus over all others.

3. The precepts of philosophy, and of the Hebrew code, laid hold of actions only. He pushed his scrutinies into the heart of man; erected his tribunal in the region of his thoughts, and purified the waters at the fountain head.

4. He taught, emphatically, the doctrines of a future state, which was either doubted, or disbelieved by the Jews; and wielded it with efficacy, as an important incentive, supplementary to the other motives to moral conduct.



Franklin’s personal creed seems quite close to Jefferson’s as he outlines it in this letter of 1790 to Ezra Stiles, fellow member of the American Philosophical Society and president of Yale College.


You desire to know something of my Religion. It is the first time I have been questioned upon it. But I cannot take your curiosity amiss, and shall endeavor in a few words to gratify it. Here is my creed. I believe in one God, Creator of the universe. That he governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable service we render to him is doing good to his other children. That the soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental principles of all sound religion, and I regard them as you do in whatever sect I meet with them.

As to Jesus of Nazareth, my opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the system of morals and his religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting changes, and I have, with most of the present dissenters in England, some doubts as to his divinity; tho’ it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble. I see no harm, however, in its being believed, if that belief has the good consequence, as probably it has, of making his doctrines more respected and better observed; especially as I do not perceive that the Supreme takes it amiss, by distinguishing the unbelievers in his government of the world with any peculiar marks of his displeasure.

I shall only add, respecting myself, that, having experienced the goodness of that Being in conducting me prosperously thro’ a long life, I have no doubt of its continuance in the next, though without the smallest conceit of meriting such goodness. My sentiments on this head you will see in the copy of an old letter enclosed, which I wrote in answer to one from a zealous religionist, whom I had relieved in a paralytic case by electricity, and who, being afraid I should grow proud upon it, sent me his serious though rather impertinent caution. I send you also the copy of another letter, which will shew something of my disposition relating to religion. With great and sincere esteem and affection, I am, Your obliged old friend and most obedient humble servant


P.S. Had not your College some present of books from the King of France? Please to let me know if you had an expectation given you of more, and the nature of that expectation? I have a reason for the enquiry. I confide that you will not expose me to criticism and censure by publishing any part of this communication to you. I have ever let others enjoy their religious sentiments, without reflecting on them for those that appeared to me unsupportable and even absurd. All sects here, and we have a great variety, have experienced my good will in assisting them with subscriptions for building their new places of worship; and, as I have never opposed any of their doctrines, I hope to go out of the world in peace with them all.


In its more radical phase after 1792, the leaders of the French Revolution closed the churches and abolished the Christian calendar and sabbath. The Goddess of Reason was enshrined in Notre Dame, and Temples of Reason were established in many French cities. This selection is a contemporary description of a civic festival held in 1794 in Châlons-sur-Marne to inaugurate such a Temple.

The festival was announced in the whole Commune the evening before; for this purpose, retreat was sounded by all the drummers and by the trumpeters of the troops in barracks at Châlons, in all parts of the town.

The next day at daybreak, it was again announced by general quarters, which was likewise sounded in all parts; the artillery did not fire, in order to save the powder to destroy the despots’ henchmen.

The former church of Notre Dame was, for lack of time and means, cleaned and prepared only provisionally for its new use, and in its former sanctuary there was erected a pedestal supporting the symbolic statue of Reason. It is of simple and free design, decorated only by an inset bearing this inscription:

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

It was flanked by two columns surmounted by two antique bronze perfume boxes, which emitted incense smoke during the whole ceremony: in front, at the foot of three steps, was placed an altar of antique form, on which were to be placed the emblems that the various groups composing the procession would put there; on the four pillars at the corners of the sanctuary were four projecting brackets to receive the busts of Brutus, the father of Republics and the model of Republicans; of Marat, the faithful friend of the people; of Le Peletier, who died for the Republic; and of the immortal Chalier.

At precisely nine o’clock in the morning, the general assemblage formed on the gravel promenade, otherwise called the promenade of Liberty; the military detachments and other groups destined to form the procession had their places indicated there; commissioners from the Society arranged them in order....

A detachment of cavalry, national constabulary, and hussars mingled together, to strengthen the bonds of fraternity, led the march, and on their pennant there were these words: “Reason guides us and enlightens us.”

It was followed by the company of cannoneers of Châlons, preceded by a banner with this inscription: “Death to the Tyrants.”

This company was followed by a cart loaded with broken chains, on which were six prisoners of war and a few wounded being cared for by a surgeon; this cart carried two banners, front and back, with these two inscriptions: “Humanity is a Republican virtue” [and] “They were very mistaken in fighting for tyrants.”

This cart was accompanied by two detachments of national guardsmen and regular troops fully armed.

The drummers grouped together followed and in turn were followed by four sans-culottes carrying a superb fasces from which flew a tricolor banner on which were these words: “Let us be united like it, nothing can conquer us.”

Forty women citizens dressed in white and decorated with tricolor ribbons surrounded the fasces, and each carried a large tricolor ribbon which was tied to her head.

A Liberty bonnet crowned this banner, and young national guardsmen accompanying the fasces carried various pennants on which were written different devices.

After them marched groups of national guardsmen and regular troops mingled together and fraternally and amicably united, arm in arm, singing hymns to Liberty and bearing with them two banners on which were written the following inscriptions: “Our Unity is our strength.” “We will exterminate the last of the despots.”

Then came the military band gathered from different barracks, playing alternately with the drummers who were in front during the procession. The band was followed by a chariot of antique type decorated with oak branches and bearing a sexagenarian couple, with a streamer on which were written these words: “Respect Old Age.”

The Société Populaire marched next, preceded by its banner, on which was depicted a watchful eye, and underneath were these words: “We watch over the maintenance of Liberty and the public welfare.”

In its train, groups of children of both sexes carried baskets of fruit and vases of flowers, accompanying a cart drawn by two white horses; in the cart was a young woman nursing an infant, beside her a group of children of different ages; it was preceded by a banner with this inscription: “They are the hope of the Patrie.” From the cart flew a tricolor streamer with this inscription: “The virtuous mother will produce defenders for the Patrie.”

Next marched a group of women citizens adorned with tricolor ribbons, bearing a standard with this inscription: “Austere Morals will strengthen the Republic.” All who composed this group were dressed in white, as were the drivers of the cart, and all were bedecked with tricolor ribbons.

Then followed the surveillance committees of the sections of the Commune of Châlons, grouped together one after another; in front were four banners, each bearing the name of a section, and an emblem depicting a finger on the lips to indicate secrecy, and another banner with this inscription: “Our institution purges Society of a multitude of suspect people.”

The Republic section went first; it accompanied a chariot pulled by two white horses and led by two men on foot dressed in Roman style; in it was a woman dressed in the same way, representing the Republic; on the front of this chariot appeared a tricolor ensign bearing these words: “Government of the Wise.”

Next marched the Equality section, accompanying a plow pulled by two oxen and guided by a cultivator in work clothes; a couple seated on it carried a standard on which were written on one side, “Honor the Plow,” and on the other side, “Respect conjugal love.”

The principal inspector and all the employees in the military store-houses formed a group which followed the plow: two standards were carried by this group; the first had the words, “Military supplies,” and the second, “Our activity produces abundance in our armies.”

The Liberty section followed, accompanied by groups of citizens, artisans, and workmen of all kinds and types; each of them was carrying an instrument or a tool related to and representative of his art or occupation. This group was preceded by a tricolor standard, inscribed with a single word: “Sovereign.”

Then marched the Fraternity section, consoling groups of convalescents, whose physicians were close by. In the middle of this section was an open cart from the Montagne hospital, containing men wounded in the defense of the Patrie, who appeared to have been cared for and bled by health officers who were binding their wounds. They were partly covered by their bloody bandages. The front of this cart carried a banner with this inscription: “Our blood will never cease to flow for the safety of the Patrie.”

After the committees followed four women citizens dressed in white and adorned with tricolor belts decorated with the attributes of the four seasons they represented.

After the four seasons came the People’s Representative in the midst of the constituted Authorities, civil and judicial, wearing their distinctive insignia. In their midst citizens carried litters draped in antique style and bearing the constitution and the busts of Brutus, Marat, Le Peletier, and Chalier. Each citizen held in his hand a wheat stalk, and on the banner which preceded the constituted Authorities was this inscription: “From the enforcement of the laws come prosperity and abundance.”

The constituted Authorities were followed by various staff officers of the national guard of Châlons and by regular troops stationed in Châlons; they were preceded by a banner with this inscription: “Destroy the tyrants, or die.”

Next, the natural children of the Patrie were led by a woman bearing a banner with this inscription: “The Patrie adopts us, we are eager to serve it.”

Finally the old people, represented by veterans without weapons, formed a group preceded by two banners on which were these inscriptions: “The dawn of Reason and Liberty embellishes the end of our life” [and] “The French Republic honors loyalty, courage, old age, filial piety, misfortune; it places its constitution under the safekeeping of all the virtues.”

After the group of veterans followed a cart drawn by four donkeys and containing remains of feudalism, such as armorial bearings, etc., as well as emblems of the superstition in which we were too long submerged. On the front was a man representing a pope adorned with tiara and pallium, having two cardinals for acolytes; on the front and rear of the cart were two billboards, the first of which bore the words “Prejudices pass away,” and the second, “Reason is eternal.”

The end of the procession was a detachment of cavalry, national guardsmen, and hussars mingled together, led by a trumpeter, and on their banner were these words: “The French government is revolutionary until the peace.”

The whole being thus ordered, the procession left the promenade at exactly ten o’clock, crossed on the drawbridge, followed the avenue which is its continuation to reach the Rue de la Société Populaire, where there was a pause for the singing of ... patriotic songs.... In the Place de la Liberté, there was another pause, for further singing....

On the front steps of the city hall, there had been built and painted a mountain, at the top of which was placed a Hercules defending a fasces fourteen feet in height. A tricolor flag flew above it on which was written in large letters: “To the Mountain, the grateful French.”

At the foot of the mountain, pure water flowed from a spring, falling by various cascades; twelve men dressed as mountaineers, armed with pikes and with civic crowns on their heads, were hidden in caverns in the mountain; as the procession arrived, singing the last couplet of the Marseillaise, the mountaineers quietly came out of their caverns without fully revealing themselves, and when “Aux armes, citoyens” was sung, they ran to get axes to defend their retreat, posted themselves on different sides of the mountain, but seeing the cart with feudalism and fanaticism drawn by asses with miters on their heads, they ran towards them, axe in hand, grabbed the miters, copes, and chasubles which adorned them as well as the pope and his acolytes, and chained them to the chariot of Liberty. During this, the band played a military charge; the carmagnole song was heard; but the mountaineers, seeing other carts arrive and feigning to believe that they were only the train following the one containing fanaticism, advanced in a column to meet the first one they saw, which was the chariot of Liberty; they lowered their axes as a sign of respect, and the band played a march; then a litter appeared, supporting a chair decorated with garlands; the Goddess descended from her cart, seated herself on the chair and was borne by eight mountaineers to the foot of the mountain; she was followed by two nymphs, one of whom was carrying a tricolor flag and the other the Declaration of the Rights of Man; they marched upon the trash remnants of nobility and superstition, which were then burned, to the great contentment of all the citizens, and climbing the mountain, with People’s Representative Pfliéger, then present at this festival, and mountaineers who represented his colleagues, while the band played “Where can one better be than in the bosom of one’s family,” reached the summit. The Goddess was crowned by the graces, then a tricolor flag was displayed, and they sang “Our country’s three colors,” and still on the mountain they sang “When from the mountain peaks the sun,” etc. The procession descended, the Goddess stopped at the spring, a vase was presented to her by the president of the Commune, she drank some water from the mountain, then presented some to the People’s Representative, to all the constituted authorities, citizens and officers of the different corps present, who all drank to the health of the Republic, one and indivisible, and of the Mountain. The Goddess, again on her chair, was borne to her chariot by eight mountaineers, four others placed themselves at her sides, axes raised, to drive away the profane, the others took their places with the administrative bodies, to indicate that public dignities are consistent with virtue alone.

From there... they went ... to ... the Temple of Reason....

All the musicians gathered behind the altar, with the singers; at the moment when the procession entered the Temple, the organ blared an overture, and the Société Populaire, the constituted Authorities, the surveillance committees, and the groups described above took places in rows facing the altar of Reason and a certain distance from it.

The military band played hymns to Reason, to Liberty, to hatred for tyrants, and to sacred love for the Patrie. After which the president of the Société Populaire delivered the inaugural speech, the Commune president, the Department president, the District president, the People’s Representative, and General Debrun delivered speeches set forth hereafter.

After their harangues, various patriotic hymns were repeated and accompanied by the military band, after which, in front of the Temple entrance, the trumpeters announced that the inauguration festival and the ceremony were concluded.

In the evening fireworks were displayed on the mountain, a bouquet marked the gratitude of all the French to the mountaineers present, who were solemnly recognized to be the saviors of the Republic; then a ball was held, and so brotherhood was twice celebrated in a single day. Each citizen taking part in this fine day evidenced his civic spirit. All took the oath to live in freedom or to die.



Few embodied the cosmopolitanism of the Enlightenment as did Thomas Paine (1737-1809). An Englishman who helped ignite the American Revolution, he would also sit in the French Revolutionary Assembly. His deistic plea for a rational Christianity, published in 1794, turned many Americans against Paine, the man they once regarded as a national hero.

To My Fellow-Citizens of the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

I put the following work under your protection. It contains my opinion upon religion. You will do me the justice to remember that I have always strenuously supported the right of every man to his own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it.

The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is reason. I have never used any other, and I trust I never shall.

It has been my intention for several years past to publish my thoughts upon Religion. I am well aware of the difficulties that attend the subject; and from that consideration had reserved it to a more advanced period of life. I intended it to be the last offering I should make to my fellow-citizens of all nations, and that at a time when the purity of the motive that induced me to it could not admit of a question, even by those who might disapprove the work.

The circumstance that has now taken place in France, of the total abolition of the whole national order of priesthood and of everything appertaining to compulsive systems of religion and compulsive articles of faith, has not only precipitated my intention, but rendered a work of this kind exceedingly necessary; lest, in the general wreck of superstition, of false systems of government, and false theology, we lose sight of morality, of humanity, and of the theology that is true.

As several of my colleagues, and others of my fellow-citizens of France, have given me the example of making their voluntary and individual profession of faith, I also will make mine; and I do this with all that sincerity and frankness with which the mind of man communicates with itself.

I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life.

I believe in the equality of man, and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.

But lest it should be supposed that I believe many other things in addition to these, I shall, in the progress of this work, declare the things I do not believe and my reasons for not believing them.

I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.

All national institutions of churches—whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish—appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind and monopolize power and profit.

I do not mean by this declaration to condemn those who believe otherwise. They have the same right to their belief as I have to mine. But it is necessary to the happiness of man that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe.

It is impossible to calculate the moral mischief, if I may so express it, that mental lying has produced in society. When a man has so far corrupted and prostituted the chastity of his mind as to subscribe his professional belief to things he does not believe, he has prepared himself for the commission of every other crime. He takes up the trade of a priest for the sake of gain, and, in order to qualify himself for that trade, he begins with a perjury. Can we conceive anything more destructive to morality than this?

Soon after I had published the pamphlet, COMMON SENSE, in America, I saw the exceeding probability that a revolution in the system of government would be followed by a revolution in the system of religion. The adulterous connection of church and state, wherever it had taken place, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, had so effectually prohibited, by pains and penalties, every discussion upon established creeds and upon first principles of religion, that until the system of govemment should be changed those subjects could not be brought fairly and openly before the world; but that whenever this should be done, a revolution in the system of religion would follow. Human inventions and priestcraft would be detected, and man would return to the pure, unmixed, and unadulterated belief of one God, and no more.

Every national church or religion has established itself by pretending some special mission from God, communicated to certain individuals. The Jews have their Moses; the Christians their Jesus Christ, their apostles and saints; and the Turks their Mahomet—as if the way to God was not open to every man alike.

Each of those churches show certain books which they call revelation, or the word of God. The Jews say that their word of God was given by God to Moses face to face; the Christians say that their word of God came by divine inspiration; and the Turks say that their word of God (the Koran) was brought by an angel from heaven. Each of those churches accuse the other of unbelief; and, for my own part, I disbelieve them all.

As it is necessary to affix right ideas to words, I will, before I proceed further into the subject, offer some observations on the word revelation. Revelation, when applied to religion, means something communicated immediatelyfrom God to man.

No one will deny or dispute the power of the Almighty to make such a communication, if he pleases. But admitting, for the sake of a case, that something has been revealed to a certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is revelation to that person only. When he tells it to a second person, a second to a third, a third to a fourth, and so on, it ceases to be a revelation to all those persons. It is a revelation to the first person only, and hearsay to every other; and, consequently, they are not obliged to believe it.

It is a contradiction in terms and ideas to call anything a revelation that comes to us at second-hand, either verbally or in writing. Revelation is necessarily limited to the first communication. After this, it is only an account of something which that person says was a revelation made to him; and though he may find himself obliged to believe it, it cannot be incumbent upon me to believe it in the same manner, for it was not a revelation to me, and I have only his word for it that it was made to him.

When Moses told the children of Israel that he received the two tables of commandments from the hand of God, they were not obliged to believe him, because they had no other authority for it than his telling them so; and I have no other authority for it than some historian telling me so. The commandments carry no internal evidence of divinity with them. They contain some good moral precepts, such as any man qualified to be a lawgiver, or a legislator, could produce himself, without having recourse to supernatural intervention.

When I am told that the Koran was written in heaven, and brought to Mahomet by an angel, the account comes too near the same kind of hearsay evidence and secondhand authority as the former. I did not see the angel myself, and therefore I have a right not to believe it.

When also I am told that a woman, called the Virgin Mary, said, or gave out, that that she was with child without any cohabitation with a man, and that her betrothed husband, Joseph, said that an angel told him so, I have a right to believe them or not; such a circumstance required a much stronger evidence than their bare word for it; but we have not even this; for neither Joseph nor Mary wrote any such matter themselves. It is only reported by others that they said so. It is hearsay upon hearsay, and I do not choose to rest my belief upon such evidence.

It is, however, not difficult to account for the credit that was given to the story of Jesus Christ being the Son of God. He was born at a time when the heathen mythology had still some fashion and repute in the world, and that mythology had prepared the people for the belief of such a story. Almost all the extraordinary men that lived under the heathen mythology were reputed to be the sons of some of their gods. It was not a new thing, at that time, to believe a man to have been celestially begotten; the intercourse of gods with women was then a matter of familiar opinion. Their Jupiter, according to their accounts, had cohabited with hundreds; the story therefore had nothing in it either new, wonderful, or obscene; it was conformable to the opinions that then prevailed among the people called Gentiles, or mythologists, and it was those people only that believed it. The Jews, who had kept strictly to the belief of one God and no more, and who had always rejected the heathen mythology, never credited the story.

It is curious to observe how the theory of what is called the Christian church sprung out of the tail of the heathen mythology. A direct incorporation took place, in the first instance, by making the reputed founder to be celestially begotten. The trinity of gods that then followed was no other than a reduction of the former plurality, which was about twenty or thirty thousand. The statue of Mary succeeded the statue of Diana of Ephesus. The deification of heroes changed into the canonization of saints. The mythologists had gods for everything; the Christian mythologists had saints for everything. The church became as crowded with the one as the pantheon had been with the other; and Rome was the place of both. The Christian theory is little else than the idolatry of the ancient mythologists, accommodated to the purposes of power and revenue; and it yet remains to reason and philosophy to abolish the amphibious fraud.

Nothing that is here said can apply, even with the most distant disrespect, to the real character of Jesus Christ. He was a virtuous and an amiable man. The morality that he preached and practiced was of the most benevolent kind; and though similar systems of morality had been preached by Confucius, and by some of the Greek philosophers, many years before, by the Quakers since, and by many good men in all ages, it has not been exceeded by any.

Jesus Christ wrote no account of himself, of his birth, parentage, or anything else. Not a line of what is called the New Testament is of his writing. The history of him is altogether the work of other people; and as to the account given of his resurrection and ascension, it was the necessary counterpart to the story of his birth. His historians, having brought him into the world in supernatural manner, were obliged to take him out again in the same manner, or the first part of the story must have fallen to the ground.

The wretched contrivance with which this latter part is told exceeds everything that went before it.... A small number of persons, not more than eight or nine, are introduced as proxies for the whole world, to say they saw it, and all the rest of the world are called upon to believe it. But it appears that Thomas did not believe the resurrection; and, as they say, would not believe without having ocular and manual demonstration himself. So neither will I; and the reason is equally as good for me, and for every other person, as for Thomas....

But some perhaps will say: Are we to have no word of God—no revelation? I answer: Yes, there is a word of God; there is a revelation.

THE WORD OF GOD IS THE CREATION WE BEHOLD; and it is in this word, which no human invention can counterfeit or alter, that God speaketh universally to man.

Human language is local and changeable, and is therefore incapable of being used as the means of unchangeable and universal information. The idea that God sent Jesus Christ to publish, as they say, the glad tidings to all nations from one end of the earth unto the other, is consistent only with the ignorance of those who knew nothing of the extent of the world, and who believed, as those world-saviors believed and continued to believe for several centuries (and that in contradiction to the discoveries of philosophers and the experience of navigators), that the earth was flat like a trencher; and that a man might walk to the end of it....

It is always necessary that the means that are to accomplish any end be equal to the accomplishment of that end, or the end cannot be accomplished. It is in this that the difference between finite and infinite power and wisdom discovers itself. Man frequently fails in accomplishing his ends from a natural inability of the power to the purpose; and frequently from the want of wisdom to apply power properly. But it is impossible for infinite power and wisdom to fail as man faileth. The means it useth are always equal to the end; but human language, more especially as there is not a universal language, is incapable of being used as a universal means of unchangeable and uniform information; and therefore it is not the means that God useth in manifesting himself universally to man.

It is only in the CREATION that all our ideas and conceptions of a word of God can unite. The creation speaketh a universal language, independently of human speech or human languages, multiplied and various as they be. It is an ever existing original which every man can read. It cannot be forged; it cannot be counterfeited; it cannot be lost; it cannot be altered; it cannot be suppressed. It does not depend upon the will of man whether it shall be published or not; it publishes itself from one end of the earth to the other. It preaches to all nations and to all worlds; and this word of God reveals to man all that is necessary for man to know of God.

Do we want to contemplate his power? We see it in the immensity of the creation. Do we want to contemplate his wisdom? We see it in the unchangeable order by which the incomprehensible whole is governed. Do we want to contemplate his munificence? We see it in the abundance with which he fills the earth. Do we want to contemplate his mercy? We see it in his not withholding that abundance even from the unthankful. In fine, do we want to know what God is? Search not the book called the Scripture, which any human hand might make, but the scripture called the Creation.

The only idea man can affix to the name of God is that of a first cause, the cause of all things. And incomprehensibly difficult as it is for man to conceive what a first cause is, he arrives at the belief of it from the tenfold greater difficulty of disbelieving it. It is difficult beyond description to conceive that space can have no end; but it is more difficult to conceive an end. It is difficult beyond the power of man to conceive an eternal duration of what we call time; but it is more impossible to conceive a time when there shall be no time. In like manner of reasoning, everything we behold carries in itself the internal evidence that it did not make itself. Every man is an evidence to himself that he did not make himself; neither could his father make himself, nor his grandfather, nor any of his race; neither could any tree, plant, or animal make itself; and it is the conviction arising from this evidence that carries us on, as it were, by necessity, to the belief of a first cause eternally existing, of a nature totally different to any material existence we know of, and by the power of which all things exist; and this first cause, man calls God.

It is only by the exercise of reason that man can discover God. Take away that reason and he would be incapable of understanding anything; and, in this case, it would be just as consistent to read even the book called the Bible to a horse as to a man. How then is it that those people pretend to reject reason?