Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAP. XXIII.: END OF ALL RELIGIONS THE SAME. - The Ruins: or a Survery of the Revolutions of Empires
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CHAP. XXIII.: END OF ALL RELIGIONS THE SAME. - Constantin-François Chasseboeuf, marquis de Volney, The Ruins: or a Survery of the Revolutions of Empires 
The Ruins: or a Survery of the Revolutions of Empires, 3rd ed. (London: J. Johnson, 1796).
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END OF ALL RELIGIONS THE SAME.
Thus spoke the orator, in the name of those who had made the origin and genealogy of religious ideas their peculiar study.
The theologians of the different systems now expressed their opinions of this discourse. “It is an impious representation,” said some, “which aims at nothing less than the subversion of all belief, the introducing insubordination into the minds of men, and annihilating our power and ministry.”—It is a romance,” said others, “a tissue of conjectures, fabricated with art, but destitute of foundation.”—The moderate and prudent said, “Supposing all this to be true, where is the use of revealing these mysteries? Our opinions are doubtless pervaded with errors, but those errors are a necessary curb on the multitude. The world has gone on thus for two thousand years; why should we now alter its course?”
The murmur of disapprobation, which never fails to arise against every kind of innovation, already began to increase, when a numerous groupe of plebeians and untaught men of every country and nation, without prophets, without doctors, without religious worship, advancing in the sand, attracted the attention of the whole assembly; and one of them, addressing himself to the legislators, spoke as follows:
“Mediators and umpires of nations! The strange recitals that have been made during the whole of the present debate, we never till this day heard of; and our understanding, astonished and bewildered at such a multitude of doctrines, some of them learned, others absurd, and all unintelligible, remains in doubt and uncertainty. One reflection however has struck us: in reviewing so many prodigious facts, so many contradictory assertions, we could not avoid asking ourselves, Of what importance to us are all these discussions? Where is the necessity of our knowing what happened five or six thousand years ago, in countries of which we are ignorant, among men who will ever be unknown to us? True or false, of what importance is it to us to know whether the world has existed six thousand years or twenty thousand; whether it was made of something or of nothing; of itself, or by an artificer, equally in his turn requiring an author? What! uncertain as we are of what is passing around us, shall we pretend to ascertain what is transacting in the sun, the moon, and imaginary spaces? Having forgotten our own infancy, shall we pretend to know the infancy of the world? Who can attest what he has never seen? Who can certify the truth of what no one comprehends?
“Beside, what will it avail as to our existence, whether we believe or reject these chimeras? Hitherto neither our fathers nor ourselves have had any idea of them, and yet we do not perceive that on that account we have experienced more or less sun, more or less subsistence, more or less good or evil.
“If the knowledge of these things be necessary, how is it that we have lived as happily without it as those whom it has so much disquieted? If it be superfluous, why should we now take upon ourselves the burthen?” — Then addressing himself to the doctors and theologians: “How can it be required of us, poor and ignorant as we are, whose every moment is scarcely adequate to the cares of our subsistence and the labours of which you reap the profit; how can it be required of us to be versed in the numerous histories you have related, to read the variety of books which you have quoted, and to learn the different languages in which they are written? If our lives were protracted to a thousand years, scarcely would it be sufficient for this purpose.”
“It is not necessary,” said the doctors, “that you should acquire all this science: we possess it in your stead.”
“Meanwhile,” replied these children of simplicity, “with all your science, do you agree among yourselves? What then is its utility? Besides, how can you answer for us? If the faith of one man may be the substitute of the faith of many, what need was there that you should believe? Your fathers might believe for you; and that would have been the more reasonable, since they were the eye-witnesses upon whose credit you depend. Lastly, what is this circumstance which you call belief if it has no practical tendency? And what practical tendency can you discover in this question, whether the world be eternal or no?”
“To believe wrong respecting it would be offensive to God,” said the doctors.
“How do you know that?” cried the children of simplicity?
“From our scriptures,” replied the doctors.
“We do not understand them,” rejoined the simple men.
“We understand them for you,” said the doctors.
“There lies the difficulty,” resumed the simple men. “By what right have you appointed yourselves mediators between God and us?”
“By the command of God,” said the doctors.
“Give us the proof of that command,” said the simple men.
“It is in our scriptures,” said the doctors.
“We do not understand them,” answered the simple men; nor can we understand how a just God can place you over our heads. Why does our common Father require us to believe the same propositions with a less degree of evidence? He has spoken to you; be it so; he is infallible, he cannot deceive you. But we are spoken to by you; and who will assure us that you are not deceived, or that you are incapable of deceiving? If we are mistaken, how can it consist with the justice of God, to condemn us for the neglect of a rule with which we were never acquainted?”
“He has given you the law of nature,” said the doctors.
“What is the law of nature?” said the simple men. “If this law be sufficient, why does he give us another? If it be insufficient, why did he give us that?”
“The judgments of God,” replied the doctors, “are mysterious; his justice is not restrained by the rules of human justice.”
“If justice with him and with us,” said the simple men, “mean a different thing, what criterion can we have to judge of his justice? And once more, to what purpose all these laws? What end does he propose by them?”
“To render you more happy,” replied a doctor, “by rendering you better and more virtuous. God has manifested himself by so many oracles and prodigies to teach mankind the proper use of his benefits, and to dissuade them from injuring each other.”
“If that be the case,” said the simple men, “the studies and reasonings you told us of are unnecessary: we want nothing but to have it clearly made out to us, which is the religion that best fulfils the end that all propose to themselves.”
Instantly, every groupe boasting of the superior excellence of its morality, there arose among the partisans of the different systems of worship, a new dispute more violent than any preceding one. “Ours,” said the Mahometans, “is the purest morality, which teaches every virtue useful to men and acceptable to God. We profess justice, disinterestedness, resignation, charity, almsgiving, and devotion. We torment not the soul with superstitious fears; we live free from alarm, and we die without remorse.”
“And have you the presumption,” replied the Christian priests, “to talk of morality; you whose chief has practised licentiousness, and preached doctrines that are a scandal to all purity, and the leading principle of whose religion is homicide and war. For the truth of this we appeal to experience. For twelve centuries past your fanaticism has never ceased to spread desolation and carnage through the nations of the earth; and that Asia, once so flourishing, now languishes in insignificance and barbarism, is ascribable to your doctrine; to that doctrine, the friend of ignorance, the enemy of all instruction, which, on the one hand, consecrating the most absolute despotism in him who commands, and on the other, imposing the most blind and passive obedience on those who are governed, has benumbed all the faculties of man, and plunged nations in a state of brutality.
“How different is the case with our sublime and celestial morality! It is she that drew the earth from its primitive barbarity, from the absurd and cruel superstitions of idolatry, from human sacrifices(100) , and the orgies of Pagan mystery: it is she that has purified the manners of men, proscribed incest and adultery, polished savage nations, abolished slavery, introduced new and unknown virtues to the world, universal charity, the equality of mankind in the eyes of God, forgiveness and forgetfulness of injuries, extinction of the passions, contempt of worldly greatness, and, in short, taught the necessity of a life perfectly holy and spiritual.”
“We admire,” said the Mahometans, “the ease with which you can reconcile that evangelical charity and meekness of which you so much boast, with the injuries and outrages that you are continually exercising towards your neighbour. When you criminate with so little ceremony the morals of the great character revered by us, we have a fair opportunity of retorting upon you in the conduct of him whom you adore: but we disdain such advantages, and, confining ourselves to the real object of the question, we maintain, that your gospel morality is by no means characterised by the perfection which you ascribe to it. It is not true, that it has introduced into the world new and unknown virtues: for example, the equality of mankind in the eyes of God, and the fraternity and benevolence which are the consequence of this equality, were tenets formerly professed by the sect of Hermetics and Samaneans(101) , from whom you have your descent. As to forgiveness of injuries, it had been taught by the Pagans themselves; but in the latitude you give to it, it ceases to be a virtue, and becomes an immorality and a crime. Your boasted precept, to him that strikes thee on thy right cheek turn the other also, is not only contrary to the feelings of man, but a flagrant violation of every principle of justice; it emboldens the wicked by impunity, degrades the virtuous by the servility to which it subjects them; delivers up the world to disorder and tyranny, and dissolves the bands of society: such is the true spirit of your doctrine. The precepts and parables of your gospel also never represent God other than as a despot, acting by no rule of equity; than as a partial father, treating a debauched and prodigal son with greater favour than his obedient and virtuous children; than as a capricious master, giving the same wages to him who has wrought but one hour, as to those who have borne the burthen and heat of the day, and preferring the last comers to the first. In short, your morality throughout is unfriendly to human intercourse, a code of misanthropy, calculated to give men a disgust for life and society, and attach them to solitude and celibacy.
“With respect to the manner in which you have practised your boasted doctrine, we in our turn appeal to the testimony of fact, and ask: Was it your evangelical meekness and forbearance which excited those endless wars among your sectaries, those atrocious persecutions of what you called heretics, those crusades against the Arians, the Manicheans and the Protestants; not to mention those which you have committed against us, nor the sacrilegious associations still subsisting among you, formed of men who have sworn to perpetuate them* ? Was it the charity of your gospel that led you to exterminate whole nations in America, and to destroy the empires of Mexico and Peru; that makes you still desolate Africa, the inhabitants of which you sell like cattle, notwithstanding the abolition of slavery that you pretend your religion has effected; that makes you ravage India whose domains you usurp; in short, is it charity that has prompted you for three centuries past to disturb the peaceable inhabitants of three continents, the most prudent of whom, those of Japan and China, have been constrained to banish you from their country, that they might escape your chains and recover their domestic tranquillity?”
Here the Bramins, the Rabbins, the Bonzes, the Chamans, the priests of the Molucca Islands and of the coast of Guinea, overwhelming the Christian doctors with reproaches, cried: “Yes, these men are robbers and hypocrites, preaching simplicity to enveigle confidence; humility, the more easy to enslave; poverty, in order to appropriate all riches to themselves; they promise another world the better to invade this; and, while they preach toleration and charity, they commit to the flames, in the name of God, those who do not worship him exactly as they do.”
“Lying priests,” retorted the missionaries, “it is you who abuse the credulity of ignorant nations, that you may bend them to your yoke: your ministry is the art of imposture and deception: you have made religion a system of avarice and cupidity: you feign to have correspondence with spirits, and the oracles they issue are your own wills; you pretend to read the stars, and your desires only are what destiny decrees: you make idols speak, and the Gods are the mere instruments of your passions: you have invented sacrifices and libations for the sake of the profit you would thus derive from the milk of the flocks, and the flesh and fat of victims; and under the cloak of piety you devour the offerings made to Gods who cannot eat, and the substance of the people, obtained by industry and toil.”
“And you,” replied the Bramins, the Bonzes, and the Chamans, “sell to the credulous survivor vain prayers for the souls of his dead relatives. With your indulgences and absolutions you have arrogated to yourselves the power and functions of God himself: and making a traffic of his grace, you have put heaven up to auction, and have sounded, by your system of expiation, a tariff of crimes that has perverted the consciences of men(102) .”
“Add to this,” said the Imans, “that with these men has originated the most insidious of all wickedness, the absurd and impious obligation of recounting to them the most impenetrable secrets of actions, of thoughts, of velleités, (confession); by means of which their insolent curiosity has carried its inquisition even to the sacred sanctuary of the nuptial bed(103) , and the inviolable asylum of the heart.”
By thus reproaching each other, the chiefs of the different worships revealed all the crimes of their ministry, all the hidden vices of their profession, and it appeared that the spirit, the system of conduct, the actions and manners of priests were, among all nations, uniformly the same: that, every where they had formed secret associations, corporations of individuals, enemies to the rest of the society(104) :—that they had attributed to themselves certain prerogatives and immunities, in order to be exempt from the barthens which fell upon the other classes:—that they shared neither the toil of the labourer, nor the perils of the soldier, nor the vicissitudes of the merchant:—that they led a life of celibacy, to avoid domestic inconveniences and cares:—that, under the garb of poverty, they found the secret of becoming rich, and of procuring every enjoyment:—that under the name of mendicants, they collected imposts more considerable than those paid to princes:—that under the appellation of gifts and offerings, they obtained a certain revenue unaccompanied with trouble or expence:—that upon the pretext of seclusion and devotion, they lived in indolence and licentiousness: — that they had made alms a virtue, that they might subsist in comfort upon the labour of other men:—that they had invented the ceremonies of worship to attract the reverence of the people, calling themselves the mediators and interpreters of the Gods, with the sole view of assuming all his power; and that for this purpose, according to the knowledge or ignorance of those upon whom they had to work, they made themselves, by turns, astrologers, casters of planets, augurers, magicians(106) , necromancers, quacks, courtiers, confessors of princes, always aiming at influence for their own exclusive advantage:—that sometimes they had exalted the prerogative of kings, and held their persons to be sacred, to obtain their favour or participate in their power:—that at others they had decried this doctrine and preached the murder of tyrants (reserving it to themselves to specify the tyranny), in order to be revenged of the slights and disobedience they had experienced from them:—that at all times they had called by the name of impiety what proved injurious to their interest; had opposed public instruction, that they might monopolize science; and, in short, had universally found the secret of living in tranquillity amidst the anarchy they occasioned; secure, under the despotism they sanctioned; in indolence, amidst the industry they recommended; and in abundance, in the very bosom of scarcity; and all this, by carrying on the singular commerce of selling words and gestures to the credulous, who paid for them as for commodities of the greatest value(107) .
Then the people, seized with fury, were upon the point of tearing to pieces the men who had deceived them; but the legislators, arresting this sally of violence, and addressing the chiefs and doctors, said: “And is it thus, O institutors of the people, that you have misled and abused them?”
And the terrified priests replied: “O legislators, we are men, and the people are so superstitious! their weakness excited us to take advantage of it* .”
And the kings said: “O legislators, the people are so servile and so ignorant! they have prostrated themselves before the yoke which we scarcely had the boldness to show to them† .”
Then the legislators, turning towards the people, said to them: “Remember what you have just heard; it contains two important truths. Yes, it is yourselves that cause the evils of which you complain; it is you that encourage tyrants by a base flattery of their power, by an absurd admiration of their pretended beneficence, by converting obedience into servility, and liberty into licentiousness, and receiving every imposition with credulity. Can you think of punishing upon them the errors of your own ignorance and selfishness?”
And the people, smitten with confusion, remained in a melancholy silence.
[* ]The Oath taken by the Knights of the Order of Malta, is to kill, or make the Mahometans prisoners, for the glory of God.
[* ]Consider in this view the Brabanters.
[† ]The inhabitants of Vienna, for example, who harnessed themselves like cattle, and drew the chariot of Leopold.
[Page 304. (100).]Human sacrifices. Read the cold declaration of Eusebius (Præp. Evang. lib. 1. p. 11.) who pretends that, since the coming of Christ, there have neither been wars, nor tyrants, nor cannibals, nor sodomites, nor persons committing incest, nor savages devouring their parents, &c. When we read these fathers of the church, we are astonished at their insincerity or insatuation.
[Page 306. (101).]Sect of Samaneans. The equality of mankind in a state of nature, and in the eyes of God, was one of the principal tenets of the Samaneans, and they appear to be the only ancients that entertained this opinion.
[Page 309. (102.)]Perverted the consciences of men. As long as it shall be possible to obtain purification from crimes, and exemption from punishment by means of money or other frivolous practices; as long as kings and great men shall suppose that building temples or instituting foundations, will absolve them from the guilt of oppression and homicide; as long as individuals shall imagine that they may rob and cheat, provided they observe fast during Lent, go to confession, and receive extreme unction, it is impossible there should exist in society any morality or virtue; and it is from a deep conviction of truth, that a modern philosopher has called the doctrine of expiations la vérole des sociétés.
[Page 310. (103).]Has carried its inquisition even to the sacred sanctuary of the nuptial bed. The Mussulmans, who suppose women to have no souls, are shocked at the idea of confession, and say; How can an honest man think of listening to the recital of the actions or the secret thoughts of a woman? May we not also ask, on the other hand, how can an honest woman consent to reveal them?
[Page id. (104).]That every where they had formed secret associations, enemies to the rest of the society. That we may understand the general feelings of priests respecting the rest of mankind, whom they always call by the name of the people, let us hear one of the doctors of the church. “The people,” says Bishop Synnesius, in Calvit. page 315, “are desirous of being deceived, we cannot act otherwise respecting them. The case was similar with the ancient priests of Egypt, and for this reason they shut themselves up in their temples, and there composed their mysteries out of the reach of the eye of the people.” And forgetting what he has just before said, he adds—“For had the people been in the secret, they might have been offended at the deception played upon them. In the mean time how is it possible to conduct oneself otherwise with the people so long as they are the people? For my own part, to myself I shall always be a philosopher, but in dealing with the mass of mankind I shall be a priest.”
[Page 311. (106).]They made themselves in turns astrologers,casters of planets, magicians, &c. What is a magician, in the sense in which the people understand the word? a man who by words and gestures pretends to act on supernatural beings, and compel them to descend at his call and obey his orders. Such was the conduct of the ancient priests, and such is still that of all priests in idolatrous nations, for which reason we have given them the denomination of magicians.
[Page 312. (107).]Who paid for them as for commodities of the greatest value. A curious work would be the comparative history of the agnuses of the pope and the pastils of the grand Lama. It would be worth while to extend this idea to religious ceremonies in general, and to confront, column by column, the analogous or contrasting points of faith and superstitious practices in all nations. There is one more species of superstition which it would be equally salutary to cure, blind veneration for the great: and for this purpose it would be alone sufficient to write a minute detail of the private life of kings and princes. No work could be so philosophical as this; and accordingly we have seen what a general outcry was excited among kings and the panders of kings, when the Anecdotes of the Court of Berlin first appeared. What would be the alarm were the public put in possession of the sequel of this work? Were the people fairly acquainted with all the crimes and all the absurdities of this species of idol, they would no longer be exposed to covet their specious pleasures, of which the plausible and hollow appearance disturbs their peace, and hinders them from enjoying the much more solid happiness of their own condition.