Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary
The Philosophical Dictionary
Selected and Translated by H.I. Woolf
New York: Knopf, 1924

Scanned by the Hanover College Department of History in 1995.
Proofread and pages added by Jonathan Perry, March 2001.

Atheism II

Let us say a word on the moral question set in action by Bayle, to know "if a society of atheists could exist?" Let us mark first of all in this matter what is the enormous contradiction of men in this dispute; those who have risen against Bayle's opinion with the greatest ardour; those who have denied with the greatest insults the possibility of a society of atheists, have since maintained with the same intrepidity that atheism is the religion of the government of China.

Assuredly they are quite mistaken about the Chinese government; they had but to read the edicts of the emperors of this vast country to have seen that these edicts are sermons, and that everywhere there is mention of the Supreme Being, ruler, revenger, rewarder.

But at the same time they are not less mistaken on the impossibility of a society of atheists; and I do not know how Mr. Bayle can have forgotten one striking example which was capable of making his cause victorious.

In what does a society of atheists appear impossible? It is that one judges that men who had no check could never live together; that laws can do nothing against secret crimes; that a revengeful God who punishes in this world or the other the wicked who have escaped human justice is necessary.

The laws of Moses, it is true, did not teach a life to come, did not threaten punishments after death, did not teach the first Jews the immortality of the soul; but the Jews, far from being atheists, far from believing in avoiding divine vengeance, were the most religious of all men. Not only did they believe in the existence of an eternal God, but they believed Him always present among them; they trembled lest they be punished in themselves, in their wives, in their children, in their posterity, even unto the fourth generation; this curb was very potent.

But, among the Gentiles, many sects had no curb; the sceptics doubted everything: the academicians suspended judgment on everything; the Epicureans were persuaded that the Deity could not mix Himself in the affairs of men; and at bottom, they admitted no Deity. They were convinced that the soul is not a substance, but a faculty which is born and which perishes with the body; consequently they had no yoke other than morality and honour. The Roman senators and knights were veritable atheists, for the gods did not exist for men who neither feared nor hoped anything from them. The Roman senate in the time of Caesar and Cicero, was therefore really an assembly of atheists.

That great orator, in his harangue for Cluentius, says to the whole senate in assembly: "What ill does death do him? we reject all the inept fables of the nether regions: of what then has death deprived him? of nothing but the consciousness of suffering."

Does not Caesar, the friend of Cataline, wishing to save his friend's life against this same Cicero, object to him that to make a criminal die is not to punish him at all, that death is nothing, that it is merely the end of our ills, that it is a moment more happy than calamitous? And do not Cicero and the whole senate surrender to these reasons? The conquerors and the legislators of the known universe formed visibly therefore a society of men who feared nothing from the gods, who were real atheists.

Further on Bayle examines whether idolatry is more dangerous than atheism, if it is a greater crime not to believe in the Deity than to have unworthy opinions thereof: in that he is of Plutarch's opinion; he believes it is better to have no opinion than to have a bad opinion; but with all deference to Plutarch, it was clearly infinitely better for the Greeks to fear Ceres, Neptune and Jupiter, than to fear nothing at all. The sanctity of oaths is clearly necessary, and one should have more confidence in those who believe that a false oath will be punished, than in those who think they can make a false oath with impunity. It is indubitable that in a civilized town, it is infinitely more useful to have a religion, even a bad one, than to have none at all.

It looks, therefore, that Bayle should have examined rather which is the more dangerous, fanaticism or atheism. Fanaticism is certainly a thousand times more deadly; for atheism inspires no bloody passion, whereas fanaticism does: atheism is not opposed to crime, but fanaticism causes crimes to be committed. Fanatics committed the massacres of St. Bartholomew. Hobbes passed for an atheist; he led a tranquil and innocent life. The fanatics of his time deluged England, Scotland and Ireland with blood. Spinoza was not only atheist, but he taught atheism; it was not he assuredly who took part in the judicial assassination of Barneveldt; it was not he who tore the brothers De Wit in pieces, and who ate them grilled.

The atheists are for the most part impudent and misguided scholars who reason badly, and who not being able to understand the creation, the origin of evil, and other difficulties, have recourse to the hypothesis of the eternity of things and of inevitability.

The ambitious, the sensual, have hardly time for reasoning, and for embracing a bad system; they have other things to do than comparing Lucretius with Socrates. That is how things go among us.

That was not how things went with the Roman senate which was almost entirely composed of atheists in theory and in practice, that is to say, who believed in neither a Providence nor a future life; this senate was an assembly of philosophers, of sensualists and ambitious men, all very dangerous, who ruined the republic. Epicureanism existed under the emperors: the atheists of the senate had been rebels in the time of Sylla and Caesar: under Augustus and Tiberius they were atheist slaves.

I would not wish to have to deal with an atheist prince, who would find it to his interest to have me ground to powder in a mortar: I should be quite sure of being ground to powder. If I were a sovereign, I would not wish to have to deal with atheist courtiers, whose interest it would be to poison me: I should have to be taking antidotes every day. It is therefore absolutely necessary for princes and for peoples, that the idea of a Supreme Being, creator, ruler, rewarder, revenger, shall be deeply engraved in people's minds.

Bayle says, in his "Thoughts on the Comets," that there are atheist peoples. The Caffres, the Hottentots, the Topinambous, and many other small nations, have no God: they neither deny nor affirm; they have never heard speak of Him; tell them that there is a God: they will believe it easily; tell them that everything happens through the nature of things; they will believe you equally. To claim that they are atheists is to make the same imputation as if one said they are anti-Cartesian; they are neither for nor against Descartes. They are real children; a child is neither atheist nor deist, he is nothing.

What conclusion shall we draw from all this? That atheism is a very pernicious monster in those who govern; that it is also pernicious in the persons around statesmen, although their lives may be innocent, because from their cabinets it may pierce right to the statesmen themselves; that if it is not so deadly as fanaticism, it is nearly always fatal to virtue. Let us add especially that there are less atheists to-day than ever, since philosophers have recognized that there is no being vegetating without germ, no germ without a plan, etc. and that wheat comes in no wise from putrefaction.

Some geometers who are not philosophers have rejected final causes, but real philosophers admit them; a catechist proclaims God to the children, and Newton demonstrates Him to the learned.

If there are atheists, whom must one blame, if not the mercenary tyrants of souls, who, making us revolt against their knaveries, force a few weak minds to deny the God whom these monsters dishonour. How many times have the people's leeches brought oppressed citizens to the point of revolting against their king!

Men fattened on our substance cry to us: "Be persuaded that a she-ass has spoken; believe that a fish has swallowed a man and has given him up at the end of three days safe and sound on the shore; have no doubt that the God of the universe ordered one Jewish prophet to eat excrement (Ezekiel), and another prophet to buy two whores and to make with them sons of whoredom (Hosea). These are the very words that the God of truth and purity has been made to utter; believe a hundred things either visibly abominable or mathematically impossible; unless you do, the God of pity will burn you, not only during millions of thousands of millions of centuries in the fire of hell, but through all eternity, whether you have a body, whether you have not."

These inconceivable absurdities revolt weak and rash minds, as well as wise and resolute minds. They say: "Our masters paint God to us as the most insensate and the most barbarous of all beings; therefore there is no God; but they should say: therefore our masters attribute to God their absurdities and their furies, therefore God is the contrary of what they proclaim, therefore God is as wise and as good as they make him out mad and wicked. It is thus that wise men account for things. But if a bigot hears them, he denounces them to a magistrate who is a watchdog of the priests; and this watchdog has them burned over a slow fire, in the belief that he is avenging and imitating the divine majesty he outrages.

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