He was not so simple as to imagine that religion had been invented by priests. On the contrary he wrote, in the Dictionnaire philosophique:

The idea of a god is derived from feeling, and that natural logic which unfolds itself with age, even in the rudest of mankind. Astonishing effects of nature were beheld—harvests and barrenness, fair weather and storms, benefits and scourges; and the hand of a [supernatural] master was felt.… The first sovereigns in their time used these notions to cement their power.90

Each group singled out one of the supernatural powers as its tutelary deity, and gave him adoration and sacrifices in the hope that he would protect the group against the power and gods of other groups. Priests had been produced by these beliefs, but the interpretations and rituals were the work of the priests. In the course of time priests played upon human fear to extend their power. They committed all kinds of knavery, extending at last to the murder of “heretics,” the assassination of whole groups, and the near-ruin of nations. Voltaire concluded: “I hated priests, I hate them, I shall hate them till doomsday.”91

He found much that he could accept in non-Christian religions, especially in Confucianism (which was not a religion); but very little in Christian theology pleased him. “I have two hundred volumes on this subject, and, what is worse, I have read them. It is like going the rounds of a lunatic asylum.”92 He added little to previous Biblical criticism; his function was to spread it, and the effect is with us still. With more audacity than most of his predecessors, he emphasized again and again the absurdity of Noah’s Deluge, the passage of the Red Sea, the slaughter of the innocents, and so forth; and he never tired of denouncing the story and theory of “original sin.” He quoted with indignation St. Augustine’s dictum, “The Catholic faith teaches that all men are born so guilty that even infants are certainly damned when they die without having been regenerated in Jesus.”93(We are now informed that such infants go to a pleasantly warm place called Limbo, next door to hell.)

As to Jesus, Voltaire vacillated. From the natural piety of childhood he passed to youthful irreverencies, even to accepting the story of Mary’s affair with a Roman soldier; and at one time he thought of Jesus as a deluded fanatic—“un fou.”94 As he matured he learned to admire the ethical precepts of Jesus; we shall be saved by practicing those principles, he said, rather than by believing that Christ was God. He made much fun of the Trinity in The Atheist and the Sage. The atheist asks, “Do you believe that Jesus Christ has one nature, one person, and one will, or two natures, two persons, and two wills, or one will, one nature, and two persons, or two wills, two persons, and one nature, or—” but the sage bids him forget such puzzles and be a good Christian.95 Voltaire points out that Christ, unlike St. Paul and subsequent Christians, remained faithful to Judaism, despite his criticism of the Pharisees:

This Eternal God, having made himself a Jew, adheres to the Jewish religion during the whole of his life. He performs its functions, he frequents the Jewish Temple, he announces nothing contrary to Jewish Law. All his disciples are Jews and observe the Jewish ceremonies. It is certainly not he who established the Christian religion.… There is not a single dogma [characteristic] of Christianity that was preached by Jesus Chirst.96

Jesus, in Voltaire’s view, accepted the belief of many pious Jews before him that the world as they knew it was coming to an end, and would soon be replaced by the “Kingdom of Heaven”—i.e., the direct rule of God on earth. (Modern criticism accepts this view.)

In his final years Voltaire responded more and more warmly to the story of Christ. He began to call him “my brother,” “my master.”97 He pictured himself as transported in a dream into a desert covered with heaps of bones; here the remains of 300,000 massacred Jews, there four mounds of Christians “strangled because of metaphysical disputes”; and piles of gold and silver topped with the croziers and crowns of disintegrated prelates and kings. Then his guiding angel took him into a green valley, where lived the great sages; there he saw Numa Pompilius, Pythagoras, Zoroaster, Thales, Socrates … Finally

I advanced with my guide into a grove higher than that in which the sages of antiquity tasted a pleasant repose. I saw a man of sweet and simple aspect, who seemed to me some thirty-five years old; his feet and hands swollen and bleeding, his side pierced, his flesh torn with blows of a whip. There was no comparison between the sufferings of this sage and those of Socrates.

Voltaire asked him the cause of his death. Jesus replied, “Priests and judges.” Had he intended to found a new religion? No. Was he responsible for those mountains of bones, those masses of royal or sacerdotal gold? No; “I and mine lived in the humblest poverty.” Then in what did true religion consist? “Have I not told you before? Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.” “If this is the case,” said Voltaire, “I take you for my sole master.” “He made me a sign that filled me with consolation. The vision disappeared, and I was left with my conscience at peace.”98

But that was a later mood. In his war years Voltaire saw the history of Christianity as predominantly a misfortune for mankind. The mysticism of Paul, the fables of Gospels canonical or apocryphal, the legends of martyrs and miracles, and the strategy of priestcraft combined with the hopeful credulity of the poor to produce the Christian Church. Then the Fathers of the Church formulated the doctrine in eloquence capable of satisfying middle-class minds. Bit by bit the light of classic culture was dimmed by the spread of childish imaginations and pious frauds, until darkness settled for centuries upon the European mind. Meditative men, lazy men, men shrinking from the challenges and responsibilities of life, crept into monasteries and infected one another with neurotic dreams of women, devils, and gods. Learned councils assembled to debate whether one absurdity or another should become part of the infallible creed. The Church, basing its power on the popular appetite for consolatory myths, became stronger than the state basing its authority on organized force; the power of the sword became dependent upon the power of the word; popes deposed emperors, and absolved nations from loyalty to their kings.

In Voltaire’s view the Protestant Reformation was only a halting step toward reason. He applauded the revolt against monastic mendicants, indulgence peddlers, and moneygrubbing ecclesiastics who in some cases “absorbed the whole revenue of a province;” in northern Europe the “people adopted a cheaper religion.”99 But he was revolted by the emphasis placed by Luther and Calvin on predestination;100 imagine a ruler who condemned two thirds of his subjects to everlasting fire! Or consider the various Christian interpretations of the Eucharist: the Catholics profess that they eat God and not bread, the Lutherans eat both God and bread, the Calvinists eat bread but not God; “if anyone told us of a like extravagance or madness among Hottentots and Kaffirs, we should think we were being imposed upon.”101 The advance of reason is leaving such controversies far behind; “were Luther and Calvin to return to the world, they would make no more noise than the Scotists and the Thomists.”102 If Protestants continue to preach such a theology the educated classes will abandon them, while the masses will prefer the fragrant and colorful faith of Rome. Already, Voltaire surmised, “Calvinism and Lutheranism are in danger in Germany; that country is full of great bishoprics, sovereign abbacies and canonries, all proper for making conversions.”103

Should religion, then, be altogether abandoned by reasonable men? No; a religion preaching God and virtue, and no other dogmas, would be of real service to mankind. In earlier years Voltaire had thought that “those who would need the help of religion to be good men are to be pitied,” and that a society might live with a natural morality independent of supernatural beliefs.104 But as he enlarged his experience of human passions he came to admit that no moral code could successfully withstand the primitive force of the individualistic instincts unless it was buttressed by popular belief that the code had its source and sanction in an all-seeing, rewarding, and punishing God. After agreeing with Locke that there are no innate ideas, he fell back upon Leibniz’ contention that the moral sense is inborn, and he defined it as a sentiment of justice placed in us by God. “Laws watch over known crimes, religion over secret crimes.”105 Says the sage in The Atheist and the Sage:

I will presume (God forbid it!) that all Englishmen are atheists. I will allow that there may be some peaceable citizens, quiet by nature, rich enough to be honest, regulated by honor, and so attentive to demeanor that they contrive to live together in society.… But the poor and needy atheist, sure of impunity, would be a fool if he did not assassinate or steal to get money. Then would all the bonds of society be sundered. All secret crimes would inundate the world, and, like locusts, though at first imperceptible, would overspread the earth.… Who would restrain great kings? … An atheist king is more dangerous than a fanatical Ravaillac.… Atheism abounded in Italy in the fifteenth century. What was the consequence? It was as common a matter to poison another as to invite him to supper.… Faith, then, in a God who rewards good actions, punishes the bad, and forgives lesser faults, is most useful to mankind.106

Finally Voltaire inclined to see some sense in the doctrine of hell:

To those philosophers who in their writings deny a hell, I will say: “Gentlemen, we do not pass our days with Cicero, Atticus, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, … nor with the too scrupulously virtuous Spinoza, who, although laboring under poverty and destitution, gave back to the children of the Grand Pensionary de Witt an allowance of 300 florins which had been granted him by that great statesman—whose heart, it may be remembered, the Hollanders devoured.… In a word, gentlemen, all men are not philosophers. We are obliged to hold intercourse and transact business and mix up in life with knaves possessing little or no reflection, with a vast number of persons addicted to brutality, intoxication, and rapine. You may, if you please, preach to them that the soul of man is mortal. As for myself, I shall be sure to thunder in their ears that if they rob me they will inevitably be damned.107

We conclude that the Devil can quote Voltaire to his purpose. After appealing for a religion freed from fables,108 the great skeptic ended preaching the worst fable of all. He had asked for a religion confined to the inculcation of morality;109 now he admitted that common men cannot be kept from crime except by a religion of heaven and hell. The Church could claim that he had come to Canossa.

At the age of seventy-two he rephrased his faith under the chastened title The Ignorant Philosopher (1766). He confesses at the outset that he does not know what matter or mind is, nor how he thinks, nor how his thought can move his arm.110 He asks himself a question that apparently never occurred to him before: “Is it necessary for me to know?” But he adds: “I cannot divest myself of a desire of being instructed; my baffled curiosity is ever insatiable.”111 He is now convinced that the will is not free; “the ignoramus who thinks thus did not always think so, but he is at length compelled to yield.”112 “Is there a God?” Yes, as the Intelligence behind “the order, the prodigious art, and the mechanical and geometrical laws that reign in the universe”;113 but this Supreme Intelligence is known to us only in his existence, not in his nature. “Miserable mortal! If I cannot understand my own intelligence, if I cannot know by what I am animated, how can I have any acquaintance with that ineffable intelligence which visibly presides over the universe? … But we are his work.”114 Voltaire is inclined to believe that there was never a creation in time, that the world has always existed, “has ever issued from that primitive and necessary cause, as light emanates from the sun,” and that “nature has always been animated.”115 He still believes that there is design in the universe, a Providence that guides the whole but lets the part—including each human individual—shift for itself.116 And he concludes: “If you tell me that I have taught you nothing, remember that I set out by informing you that I am ignorant.”117

The perplexed philosopher began to envy those who had never thought but had only believed and hoped. And yet he came back to Socrates’ view that a life without thought is unworthy of a man. He expressed his hovering between these views of life in L’Histoire d’un bon Brahmin (1761):

In my travels I once happened to meet with an aged Brahmin. This man had great understanding, great learning, … and great wealth. …

“I wish,” he said to me one day, “I had never been born.”

“Why so?” I asked.

“Because I have been studying these forty years, and I find it has been so much time lost. Though I teach others, I know nothing … I exist in time, without knowing what time is. I am placed, as our wise men say, in the confines between two eternities, and yet have no idea of eternity. I am composed of matter. I think, but I have never been able to satisfy myself what it is that produces thought.… I do not know why I exist, and yet I am applied to every day for a solution of the enigma. I must return an answer, but I can say nothing satisfactory on the subject. I talk a great deal, and when I have done speaking I remain confounded, and ashamed of what I have said.” …

The condition in which I saw this good man gave me real concern.… The same day I had a conversation with an old woman, his neighbor. I asked her if she had ever been unhappy for not understanding how her soul was made. She did not comprehend my question. She, had not, for the briefest moment IN LIFE, HAD a thought about these subjects with which the good Brahmin had so tormented himself. She believed from the bottom of her heart in the metamorphoses of her god Vishnu, and, provided she could get some of the sacred water of the Ganges in which to make her ablutions, she thought herself the happiest of women.

Struck with the happiness of this poor creature, I returned to my philosopher, whom I thus addressed:

“Are you not ashamed to be thus miserable when, not fifty yards from you, there is an old automaton who thinks of nothing and lives contented?”

“You are right,” he replied. “I have said to myself a thousand times that I should be happy if I were as ignorant as my old neighbors, and yet it is a happiness I do not desire.”

The reply of the Brahmin made a greater impression upon me than anything that had passed.… I concluded that although we may set a great value upon happiness, we set a still greater value upon reason. But after mature reflection … I still thought there was great madness in preferring reason to happiness.118

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!