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ON SUPERSTITION - Voltaire, Toleration and Other Essays 
Toleration and Other Essays by Voltaire. Translated, with an Introduction, by Joseph McCabe (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1912).
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You are aware that all prominent nations have set up a public cult. Men have at all times assembled to deal with their interests and communicate their needs, and it was quite natural that they should open these meetings with some expression of the respect and love which they owe to the author of their lives. This homage has been compared to the respect which children pay to their father, and subjects to their sovereign. These are but feeble images of the worship of God. The relations of man to man have no proportion to the relation of the creature to the Supreme Being; there is no affinity between them. It would even be blasphemy to render homage to God in the form of a monarch. A ruler of the whole earth—if there could be such a person, and all men were so unhappy as to be subject to one man—would be but a worm of the earth, commanding other worms of the earth; he would still be infinitely lower than the Deity. In republics, moreover, which are unquestionably earlier than any monarchy, how could God be conceived in the shape of a king? If it be necessary to represent God in any sensible form, the idea of a father, defective as it is, would seem to be the best fitted to our weakness.
But emblems of the Deity were one of the first sources of superstition. As soon as we made God in our own image, the divine cult was perverted. Having dared to represent God in the form of a man, our wretched imagination, which never halts, ascribed to him all the vices of a man. We regarded him only as a powerful master, and we charged him with abuse of power; we described him as proud, jealous, angry, vindictive, maleficent, capricious, pitilessly destructive, a despoiler of some to enrich others, with no other reason but his will. Our ideas are confined to the things about us; we conceive hardly anything except by similitudes; and so, when the earth was covered with tyrants, God was regarded as the first of tyrants. It was much worse when the Deity was presented in emblems taken from animals and plants. God became an ox, serpent, crocodile, ape, cat, or lamb; bellowing, hissing, devouring, and being devoured.
The superstition of almost all nations has been so horrible that, did not the monuments of it survive, it would be impossible to believe the accounts of it. The history of the world is the history of fanaticism.
Have there been innocent superstitions among the monstrous forms that have covered the earth? Can we not distinguish between poisons which have been used as remedies and poisons which have retained their murderous nature? If I mistake not, here is an inquiry worth the close attention of reasonable men.
A man does good to his fellows and brothers. One man destroys carnivorous beasts; another invents arts by the force of his genius. They are, on that account, regarded as higher in the favour of God than other men, as children of God; they become demi-gods, or secondary gods, when they die. They are proposed to other men, not merely as models, but as objects of worship. He who worships Hercules and Perseus is incited to imitate them. Altars are the reward of genius and courage. I see in that only an error which leads to good. In that case they are deceived to their own advantage. How could we reproach the ancient Romans if they had raised to the rank of secondary gods only such men as Scipio, Titus, Trajan, and Marcus Aurelius?
There is an infinite distance between God and man. We agree; but if, in the system of the ancients, the human soul was regarded as a finite portion of the infinite intelligence, sinking back into the great whole without adding to it; if it be supposed that God dwelt in the soul of Marcus Aurelius, since his soul was superior to others in virtue during life; why may we not suppose that it is still superior when it is separated from its mortal body?
Our brothers of the Roman Catholic Church (for all men are brothers) have filled heaven with demi-gods, which they call “saints.” Had they always chosen them wisely, we may candidly allow that their error would have been of service to human nature. We pour on them our disdain only because they honour an Ignatius, the knight of the Virgin, a Dominic, the persecutor, or a Francis, fanatical to the pitch of madness, who goes naked, speaks to animals, catechises a wolf, and makes himself a wife of snow. We cannot forgive Jerome, the learned but faulty translator of the Jewish books, for having, in his history of the fathers of the desert, demanded our respect for a St. Pacomius, who paid his visits on the back of a crocodile. We are especially angered when we see that Rome has canonised Gregory VII., the incendiary of Europe.
It is otherwise with the cult that is paid in France to King Louis IX., who was just and courageous. If it is too much to invoke him, it is not too much to revere him. It is but to say to other princes: Imitate his virtues.
I go farther. Suppose there had been placed in some church the statue of Henry IV., who won his kingdom with the valour of Alexander and the clemency of Titus, who was good and compassionate, chose the best ministers and was his own first minister; suppose that, in spite of his weaknesses, he received a homage beyond the respect which we owe to great men. What harm would be done? It would assuredly be better to bend the knee before him than before this crowd of unknown saints, whose very names have become a subject of opprobrium and ridicule. I agree that it would be a superstition, but a superstition that could do no harm; a patriotic enthusiasm, not a pernicious fanaticism. If man is born to error, let us wish him virtuous errors.
The superstition that we must drive from the earth is that which, making a tyrant of God, invites men to become tyrants. He who was the first to say that we must detest the wicked put a sword in the hands of all who dared to think themselves faithful. He who was the first to forbid communication with those who were not of his opinion rang the tocsin of civil war throughout the earth.
I believe what seems to reason impossible—in other words, I believe what I do not believe—and therefore I must hate those who boast that they believe an absurdity opposed to mine. Such is the logic—such, rather, is the madness—of the superstitious. To worship, love, and serve the Supreme Being, and to be of use to men, is nothing; it is indeed, according to some, a false virtue, a “splendid sin,” as they call it. Ever since men made it a sacred duty to dispute about what they cannot understand, and made virtue consist in the pronunciation of certain unintelligible words, which every one attempted to explain, Christian countries have been a theatre of discord and carnage.
You will tell me that this universal pestilence should be imputed to the fury of ambition rather than to that of fanaticism. I answer that it is due to both. The thirst for domination has been assuaged with the blood of fools. I do not aspire to heal men of power of this furious passion to subject the minds of others; it is an incurable disease. Every man would like to see others hastening to serve him; and, that he may be the better served, he will, if he can, make them believe that their duty and their happiness are to be slaves. Find me a man with an income of a hundred thousand pounds a year, and with four or five hundred thousand subjects throughout Europe, who cost him nothing, besides his soldiers, and tell him that Christ, of whom he is the vicar and imitator, lived in poverty and humility. He will reply that the times are changed, and to prove it he will condemn you to perish in the flames. You will neither correct this man [the Pope] nor a Cardinal de Lorraine, the simultaneous possessor of seven bishoprics. What can one do, then? Appeal to the people, and, brutalised as they are, they listen and half open their eyes. They partly throw off the most humiliating yoke that has ever been borne. They rid themselves of some of their errors, and win back a part of their freedom, that appanage or essence of man of which they had been robbed. We cannot cure the powerful of ambition, but we can cure the people of superstition. We can, by speech and pen, make men more enlightened and better.
It is easy to make them see what they have suffered during fifteen hundred years. Few people read, but all may listen. Listen, then, my brethren, and hear the calamities which have fallen on earlier generations.
Hardly had the Christians, breathing freely under Constantine, dipped their hands in the blood of the virtuous Valeria,1 daughter, wife, and mother of the Cæsars, and in the blood of her young son Candidian, the hope of the Empire; hardly had they put to death the son of the Emperor Maximin, in his eighth year, and his daughter in her seventh year; hardly had these men, who are described as so patient for two centuries, betrayed their fury at the beginning of the fourth century, than controversy gave birth to those civil discords which, succeeding each other without a moment of relaxation, still agitate Europe. What are the subjects of these bloody quarrels? Subtilties, my brethren, of which not a trace is to be found in the Gospel. They would know whether the Son was engendered or made; whether he was engendered in time or before time; whether he is consubstantial with, or like, the Father; whether the divine “monad,” as Athanasius puts it, is threefold in three hypostases; whether the Holy Ghost was engendered, or proceeded; whether he proceeds from the Father only, or the Father and the Son; whether Jesus had one will or two, or two natures, or one or two persons.
In a word, from “consubstantiality” to “transubstantiation”—terms equally difficult to pronounce and to understand—everything has been a matter of dispute, and every dispute has caused torrents of blood to flow.
You know how much was shed by our superstitious Mary, daughter of the tyrant Henry VIII., and worthy spouse of the Spanish tyrant Philip II. The throne of Charles 1. became a scaffold; he perished ignominiously, after more than two hundred thousand men had been slaughtered for a liturgy.
You know the civil wars of France. A troop of fanatical theologians, called the Sorbonne, declare Henry III. to have forfeited the throne, and at once a theological apprentice assassinates him. The Sorbonne declares the great Henry IV., our ally, incapable of ruling, and twenty murderers rise in succession; until at last, on the mere announcement that the hero is about to protect his former allies against the Pope’s followers, a monk—a schoolmaster—plunges a knife in the heart of the most valiant of kings and best of men in the midst of his capital, under the eyes of his people, and in the arms of his friends. And, by an inconceivable contradiction, his memory is revered for ever, and the troop of the Sorbonne which proscribed and excommunicated him and his faithful subjects, and has no right to excommunicate anybody, still survives, to the shame of France.
It is not the ordinary people, my brethren, not the agricultural workers and the ignorant and peaceful artisans, who have raised these ridiculous and fatal quarrels, the sources of so many horrors and parricides. There is, unhappily, not one of them that is not due to the theologians. Men fed by your labours in a comfortable idleness, enriched by your sweat and your misery, struggled for partisans and slaves; they inspired you with a destructive fanaticism, that they might be your masters; they made you superstitious, not that you might fear God the more, but that you might fear them.
The gospel did not say to James, Peter, or Bartholomew: “Live in opulence; deck yourselves with honours; walk amid a retinue of guards.” It did not say to them: “Disturb the world with your incomprehensible questions.” Jesus, my brethren, touched none of these questions. Would you be better theologians than he whom you recognise as your one master? What! He said to you: “All consists in loving God and your neighbour”; yet you would seek something else.
Is there any one among you, is there any one on the whole earth, who can think that God will examine him on points of theology, not judge him by his deeds?
What is a theological opinion? It is an idea that may be true or false; but morality has no interest in it. It is clear that you should be virtuous, whether the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father by spiration, or from the Father and the Son. It is not less clear that you will never understand any proposition of this nature. You will never have the least idea how Jesus could have two natures and two wills in one person. If he had wished you to know it, he would have told you of it. I choose these examples among a hundred others, and I pass in silence over other controversies in order that I may not reopen wounds that still bleed.
God has given you understanding; he cannot wish that you should pervert it. How could a proposition of which you can never have an idea be necessary to you? It is a fact of daily experience that God, who gives everything, has given one man more light and more talent than another. It does not offend our good sense that he has chosen to link one man more closely to himself than others; that he has made him a model of reason or virtue. No one can deny that it is possible for God to shower his finest gifts on one of his works. We may, therefore, believe in Jesus as one who taught and practised virtue; but let us take care that in wishing to go too far beyond that, we do not overturn the whole structure.
The superstitious man puts poison in the most wholesome food; he is an enemy to himself and others. He believes himself the object of eternal vengeance if he eats meat on a certain day; he believes that a long, grey robe, with a pointed hood and a long beard, is much more agreeable to God than a shaven face and a head that retains its hair; he imagines that his salvation is bound up with certain Latin formulæ which he does not understand. He has educated his daughter in these principles. She buries herself in a dungeon as soon as she reaches a marriageable age; she betrays posterity to please God—more guilty, in regard to the human race, than the Hindoo widow, who casts herself on her husband’s pyre after bearing him children.
Monks of the southern parts of Europe, self-condemned to a life that is as abject as it is frightful, do not compare yourselves to the penitents of the banks of the Ganges; your austerities do not approach their voluntary sufferings. And think not that God approves in you what you say he condemns in them.
The superstitious man is his own executioner; and he is the executioner of all who do not agree with him. The most infamous informing he calls “fraternal correction.” He accuses the simple innocence that is not on its guard, and, in the candour of its heart, has not set a seal upon its lips. He denounces it to those tyrants of souls who laugh alike at the accused and the accuser.
Lastly, the superstitious man becomes a fanatic, and then his zeal becomes capable of all crimes in the name of the Lord.
We live no longer, it is true, in those abominable days when relatives and friends slaughtered each other, when a hundred battles covered the earth with corpses for the sake of some argument of the school; but a few sparks spring every day from the ashes of these vast conflagrations. Princes no longer march to the field at the voice of priests and monks; but citizens persecute each other still in the heart of the towns, and private life is often poisoned with superstition. What would you say of a family whose members were ever ready to fight each other in order to settle in what way their father must be saluted? My friends, the great thing is to love him; you may salute him as you will. Are you brothers only to be divided? Must that which should unite you be always a thing to separate you?
I know not of a single civil war among the Turks on the ground of religion. I say “civil war”; but history tells of no sedition or trouble among them that was due to controversy. Is it because they have fewer pretexts for disputes? Is it because they are by birth less restless and wiser than we? They ask not to what sect you belong, provided that you pay regularly the slight tax. Latin Christians and Greek Christians, Jacobites, Monothelites, Copts, or Protestants—all are welcome to them; whereas there are not three Christian nations that practise this humanity.
Jesus, my brethren, was not superstitious or intolerant; he said not a single word against the cult of the Romans, who surrounded his country. Let us imitate his indulgence, and deserve to experience it from others.
Let us not be disturbed by the barbaric argument that is often used. I will give it in its full strength:
“You believe that a good man may find favour in the eyes of the being of beings, the God of justice and mercy, at any time, in any place, in whatever religion he has spent his short life. We, on the contrary, say that a man cannot please God unless he be born among us, or taught by us. It is proved to us that we are the only persons in the world who are right. We know that, although God came upon the earth and died for all men, he will nevertheless show pity only to our little gathering, and that even among us there are very few who will escape eternal torment. Adopt the safer side, then. Enter our little body, and strive to be one of the elect among us.”
Let us thank our brethren who use this language. Let us congratulate them on being so sure that all in the world are damned except a few of themselves; and let us conclude that our sect is better than theirs by the very fact that it is more reasonable and humane. The man who says to me, “Believe as I do, or God will damn thee,” will presently say, “Believe as I do, or I shall assassinate thee.” Let us pray God to soften these atrocious hearts and inspire all his children with a feeling of brotherhood. We live in an island in which the episcopal sect dominates from Dover to the Tweed.1 From there to the last of the Orkneys presbyterianism holds the field, and beside these dominant religions are ten or a dozen others. Go to Italy, and you will find papal despotism on the throne. In France it is otherwise; France is already regarded by Rome as half-heretical. Pass to Switzerland and Germany. You sleep to-night in a Calvinistic town, to-morrow night in a Papist town, and the following night in a Lutheran. You go on to Russia, and find nothing of all this. It is a different sect. The court is illumined by an empress-philosopher. The august Catherine has put reason on the throne, with magnificence and generosity: but the people of her provinces detest alike the Lutherans, Calvinists, and Papists. They would not eat, nor drink in the same glass, with any of them. I ask you, my brethren, what would happen if, in an assembly of all these sectaries, each thought himself authorised by the divine spirit to secure the triumph of his opinions? See you not the swords drawn, the gibbets raised, the fires lit, from one end of Europe to the other? Who is right in this chaos of disputes? Surely the tolerant and beneficent. Do not say that in preaching tolerance we preach indifference. No, my brethren, he who worships God and serves men is not indifferent. The name is more fitting for the superstitious who thinks that God will be pleased with him for uttering unintelligible formulæ, while he is really very indifferent to the lot of his brother, whom he leaves to perish without aid, or abandons in disgrace, or flatters in prosperity, or persecutes if he is of another sect, unsupported and unprotected. The more the superstitious man concentrates upon absurd beliefs and practices, the more indifferent he becomes to the real needs of humanity. Let us remember one of our charitable compatriots. He founded a hospital for old men in his province. He was asked if it was for Papists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Quakers, Socinians, Anabaptists, Methodists, or Memnonists? He answered: For men.
O God, keep from us the error of atheism which denies thy existence, and deliver us from the superstition that outrages thy existence and fills ours with horror.
[1 ]Daughter of the Emperor Diocletian. Not executed by Christians.—J. M.
[1 ]The homily is supposed to have been delivered in London.—J. M.