Voltaire’s Study of Religion

Nathan Curland

God and Human Beings, by Voltaire; first English translation by Michael Shreve, Introduction by S.T. Joshi (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2010, ISBN 978-1-61614-178-3) 183 pp. Paper, $18.


God and Human Beings is a little-known work by Voltaire (1694–1778). It was published late in his life, when he was seventy-five years old, and just recently translated from the French by Michael Shreve. In it, one of the best-known symbols of the French Enlightenment creates what ostensibly appears to be one of the earliest known works of comparative religion. Voltaire’s disdain for organized religions, especially those with Judeo-Christian origins, and his well-known acerbic wit and skepticism turn the work into a 147-page essay highlighting the author’s long-held opinions and biases as well as breadth of knowledge. The book was published under an English pseudonym, Dr. Obern, and was supposedly translated into the French by “Jacques Aimon.” Upon publication, it was attacked as the work of the devil promoting atheism and was burned by order of the Parlement de Paris the following year. Though highly critical of Christianity, God and Human Beings does not, in fact, promote atheism but rather is better seen as a defense of Voltaire’s deism.

To fully understand God and Human Beings, one must first understand Voltaire and his times. Born in Paris as Franois Marie Arouet, he was the youngest of five children of Franois Arouet, a minor treasury official, and Marie Marguerite d’Aumart, daughter of a nobleman from Poitou. His parents sent him to the Jesuit College Louis-le-Grand with the intent that he would follow in his father’s footsteps. But by the time Voltaire had left school, he had decided that he wanted to be a writer. This set the stage for cycles of paternal actions and filial rebelliousness that extended to a lifelong disdain for French authority. He adopted the name “Voltaire” in 1718, a step that marked his formal split from his family.

Voltaire’s early life revolved around Paris, and his wit made him popular among the aristocratic families with whom he mixed. But he could not refrain from criticizing the government and the Catholic Church through his essays, verse, and plays. The early 1700s were not a time to poke, even mildly, at the French establishment. The monarchy, church, and nobility controlled the country with an iron hand. Voltaire’s writings resulted in numerous imprisonments (in the Bastille) and exiles. This in turn reinforced his outrage against the unjust use of power by the authorities and set the stage for his later attempts to improve the French judicial system. In 1725, Voltaire agreed to be exiled to Great Britain to avoid a long incarceration in the Bastille. There he became intrigued by Britain’s constitutional monarchy, as well as the country’s relative support of the freedoms of speech and religion, and made contact with many English deist freethinkers. After three years, he returned to Paris and wrote a series of essays on English literature, religion, and government, calling English views more “developed” and more tolerant than those of the French. This resulted in a burning of his work, and he was again forced to flee.

Voltaire took up residence in the Chateau de Cirey, located on the border of Champagne and Lorraine, and began a long-term relationship with the Marquise du Chatelet (better known as Emilie du Chatelet). Due to his past brushes with authority, he developed the habit of keeping of out of harm’s way and began publishing more and more works under pen names (at least 178 have been attributed to him), a common practice in eighteenth-century Europe. In addition to metaphysics, Voltaire studied the sciences, history, and the Bible, and his works started to openly criticize intolerance and established religions.

After the death of the Marquise in childbirth in 1749, he moved to Potsdam to join Frederick the Great, one of his admirers. But Voltaire’s penchant for using his pen to poke satirically at his rivals eventually led to a disruption of this relationship when it was directed at friends of the king. He then turned to Geneva and bought a nearby estate. However, the authorities banned theatrical performances of his plays, and he was forced to move across the French border to Ferney, where he spent the last twenty years of his life.

 

Voltaire was an incredibly prolific writer and playwright. He is credited with writing over two thousand books and pamphlets, over fifty plays, and over twenty thousand letters on a wide range of topics encompassing philosophy, science, politics, and history. His admirers regard him as one of the great figures of the Enlightenment, an advocate of church-state separation and champion for the oppressed (most notably in the last years of his life.) His detractors accuse him of plagiarism, racism, anti-Semitism, and an anti-democratic stance, the latter arising from his well-known distrust of “the masses” and his support for the English concept of a constitutional monarchy.

All these multifaceted aspects of Voltaire are visible in God and Human Beings. The work is organized into forty-four short chapters, none more than a few pages long. We are immediately informed of Voltaire’s underlying beliefs. Chapter 1 portrays humanity as “stupid, ungrateful, jealous, greedy for other people’s goods, abusive of their superiority when strong, and deceitful when weak.” The next chapters maintain that the antidote to this behavior is “God, the rewarder and revenger.” As “proof,” Voltaire maintains that all civilized societies have needed a God for their citizens to live morally with each other. That is sufficient for him to believe that there must be a deity. However, he notes that the leaders and chiefs of men have found it useful to take this belief in a God as a means to manipulate and control the populations. As a result, we have the major religions of the world with their class systems and myths.

Because of Voltaire’s belief that there must be a deity for humanity to behave morally, he never takes the final step toward atheism, instead declaring that a man who says there is no God is one that extols men to “slander, betray, deceive, steal, murder, poison, it’s all the same as long as you are the strongest and most clever.” He reserves the designation “freethinkers” for fellow deists such as John Locke, Isaac Newton, and Henry St. John Bolingbroke, listing them in abundance in Chapter 23. Contemporaries (and perhaps rivals) such as Baron D’Holbach and Denis Diderot, who were true atheists, are never mentioned.

The work is a fascinating study in how much was known during the eighteenth century about ancient religions. Voltaire credits India with having the oldest religion via texts that were written in Sanskrit at least three thousand years before the Common Era. The invention of Lucifer shows up in their writings and myths and is clearly the basis for the Christian version. The Chinese religion (presumably Confucianism) is also stated to have existed at least before the time of the biblical flood. In the Middle East, the Chaldeans had made astronomical observations for at least two thousand years before the time of Alexander. The Zoroastrians are credited with creating a hell for the wicked. Voltaire shows how the myths of these ancient religions can be found in Judaism and Christianity. He notes that successful conquerors either adopted parts or all of the religions of the peoples they conquered. He holds special approval for those that were tolerant of other religions as long as they did not undermine the authority of the state, which he deemed a necessity for a civilization to succeed. As such, he reserves high praise for the Roman Empire, the Chinese dynasties, and, in his time, the English constitutional monarchy.

The bulk of Voltaire’s work, however, is devoted to demonstrating the falsity and hypocrisy of the Jewish and Christian religions. He does so by attacking the historical basis of the Hebrew and Christian bibles; by noting various historical sources that should have mentioned, for example, the exodus or Moses or Jesus but did not; by citing works from various authors who have disproved the historical accuracy of these texts; and, more invectively, by bringing under his satirical and acidic gaze the morality of the biblical god and his people. In this context, the Jews are seen as wandering thieves, murderers, liars, and plagiarists who were idolaters until the time of the Babylonian exile. Their fables and myths can all be traced to other, older religions, and their murderous morality to those outside of the “tribe” is a sign of a “barbarous people.” These chapters are so filled with disdain for the Jewish people that they are hard to read and give underpinning to the charges that Voltaire was an anti-Semite. His apologists have said that this was common in the European Enlightenment era and that furthermore, Voltaire was setting the stage for his real target, the Catholic Church. However, he does spend fifteen chapters on this rant (versus only twelve on Jesus and Christianity), and one could certainly argue that his attitude led to the later atrocities against the Jews.

It is interesting to note that one of the tenets Voltaire attributes to the Jews, which modern humanists take for granted, is a lack of belief in an immortal soul. However, this is portrayed as a negative: “It is sure that almost all nations surrounding the Jews . . . accepted the immortality of the soul and only the Jews had not even examined the question.” This is portrayed as self-centeredness and lack of intellect on the part of the “Chosen People.” Voltaire himself appeared to believe in some sort of soul as part and parcel of his deism and even commented positively on the Eastern concept of reincarnation, stating: “Above all, the doctrine of metempsychosis is neither absurd nor useless.”

When it comes to Jesus, Voltaire does not dwell on whether Jesus existed or not. For him, the important point is that Jesus was a Jew who preached, as any preacher would, morality. To Voltaire, Jesus was not the Messiah and did not claim to be. Furthermore, the Gospels were written at least one hundred years after the supposed death of Jesus by non-eyewitnesses that contradict each other, and therefore these works cannot be considered anything more than a collection of fables. Christianity, as such, arose three hundred years after this time. Voltaire follows its theological progress over the next six hundred years as a mixture of fear about the end of the world, the development of the concept of resurrection, and the incorporation of the Platonic concept of trinity that was adopted by the Alexandrians. He goes on to show how Christianity developed a rigid orthodoxy and an intolerance for any view that does not strictly conform to its dogma, which has been the scourge of Western civilization ever since. He uses Chapter 42 to enumerate and estimate, in typical Voltaire style, how many humans were killed in the name of this religious purity. Only counting Christians killing Christians, he comes up with a figure of 9.5 million, noting that this estimate is very conservative.

In the end, Voltaire claims he does not want to abolish Christianity: “nevertheless, we don’t want to cut it down, we want to graft it.” He proposes to keep “in the morality of Jesus everything that conforms to universal reason” and discard “impertinence and absurdity,” which “cannot be religion.” He believes, “The adoration of a God who punishes and rewards unites all men; the detestable and contemptible argumentative theology divides them,” and concludes, “Yes, we want a religion, but a simple one, wise, august, less unworthy of God and made more for us; in a word, we want to serve ‘God and human beings.’”

Voltaire was a complex man, and his beliefs were complex. Considering his history of exile and persecution, his aptitude as a playwright and showman, his egotism and belief in his own superiority among men, his desire to be the shining example of the Enlightenment, and his contempt for those who did not agree with him, it is hard to know how many of the opinions in the book are genuine and which are for show. But that, in many ways, was his attraction.

Nathan Curland

Nathan Curland is vice president of the Humanists of Minnesota and editor of the group’s newsletter.


God and Human Beings, by Voltaire; first English translation by Michael Shreve, Introduction by S.T. Joshi (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2010, ISBN 978-1-61614-178-3) 183 pp. Paper, $18. God and Human Beings is a little-known work by Voltaire (1694–1778). It was published late in his life, when he was seventy-five years old, and just recently translated …

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