Chap. XXII        Voltaire and Christianity



Here we summarize only his views on religion and his war against Christianity. We shall say nothing about him that has not been said a hundred times before; and he said nothing about Christianity that had not been said before. It is only that when he said it the words passed like a flame through Europe, and became a force molding his time, and ours.

It was natural that he should question the Christian creed, for a religion is intended to quiet rather than excite the intellect, and Voltaire was intellect incarnate, unquiet and unappeased.

   There may be some good in religion, but an intelligent man does not need it as a support to morality; too often, in history, it has been used by priests to bemuse the public mind while kings picked the public pocket.

At Cirey, about 1734, he tried to formulate his ideas on first and last things in a Traité de métaphysique. There may be some good in religion, but an intelligent man does not need it as a support to morality; too often, in history, it has been used by priests to bemuse the public mind while kings picked the public pocket. Virtue should be defined in terms of social good rather than obedience to God, and it should not depend upon rewards and punishments after death.

   Virtue should be defined in terms of social good rather than obedience to God, and it should not depend upon rewards and punishments after death.

He continued to the end of his life to rest his belief in God upon the argument from design. “To affirm that the eye is not made to see, nor the ear to hear, nor the stomach to digest — is not this is the most monstrous absurdity?”

We may conclude that until 1751—until he was fifty-seven years old—Voltaire refrained from any outright and public attack upon Christianity or the Catholic Church. What was it that aroused him to open war, precisely at an age when most rebels have subsided into peace? It was the suppression of the Encyclopédie, the orthodox explanations of the Lisbon earthquake, and the ferocious executions of Jean Calas and the Chevalier de La Barre.

a young Voltaire


He was in Potsdam when the first volume of the Encyclopédie was published (1751). He must have read with warm pleasure the lines by which d'Alembert had paid homage to him in the "Discours préliminaire": "May I not render to this rare genius the tribute and eulogy that he merits, which he has so frequently received from his compatriots, from foreigners, and from his enemies, and to which posterity will add full measure when he can no longer enjoy the praise?" Voltaire returned the compliment in a letter of September 5, 1752, to d'Alembert: "You and M. Diderot are accomplishing a work which will be the glory of France and the shame of those who persecute you. . . . Of eloquent philosophers I recognize only you and him." He pledged his support, and lost no opportunity to call attention to the enterprise as "an immense and immortal work, which accuses the shortness of human life."

He invoked the aid of influential friends to protect the editors. In 1755 he wrote to d'Alembert: "As long as I have a breath of life I am at the service of the illustrious authors of the Encylopédie.” When disaster threatened the great enterprise (January, 17S8) he wrote to Diderot:

Go on, brave Diderot, intrepid d'Alembert; . . . fall upon the knaves, destroy their empty declamations, their miserable sophistries, their historical lies, their contradictions and absurdities beyond number; do not let men of intelligence become the slaves of those who have none. The new generation will owe to you both reason and liberty.


La Barre was the grandson of an impoverished general. He confessed to being a heretic. A witness reported that La Barre, on being asked why he had not removed his hat before the Corpus Christi procession, had replied that he "regarded the Host as a piece of wax," and could not understand why anyone would adore a God of dough.

On February 28, 1766, the Abbeville court pronounced sentence. La Barre, and d’Étallonde if apprehended, were to be put to the torture to elicit the names of accomplices; they were to do public penance before the principal church of the city; their tongues were to be torn out by the roots, they were then to be beheaded, and their bodies were to be burned to ashes. The Dictionnaire philosophique of Voltaire was to be thrown into the same fire. On July 1, 1766, it was carried out, except that there was no tearing out of the tongue. La Barre bore his fate without implicating any of his friends. The executioner severed the head with a well-directed blow, to the applause of the crowd.

Voltaire was shocked by the severity of the punishment; this, he felt, was a barbarity worthy of the Spanish Inquisition at its worst. he sent to Louis XVI (1775) a letter entitled "The Cry of Innocent Blood." The judgment against La Barre was never reversed, but Voltaire had the satisfaction of seeing Turgot revise the criminal code that had sanctioned the execution of a youth for offenses that seemed to merit something less than decapitation. With an energy remarkable at his age, Voltaire continued to the end of his life to lead the crusade against the excesses of Church and state. In 1764 he secured the liberation of Claude Chaumont, who had been condemned to the gallows for attending Protestant services.


It was in the ardor of these struggles that Voltaire's opposition to Christianity became a hatred that almost consumed a decade of his life (1759- 69). He had begun with a youthful scorn of the miracles, mysteries, and myths that comforted the people; and he passed on to a mocking skepticism of those Christian doctrines, like the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Atonement, which St. Thomas Aquinas had frankly confessed to be beyond the reach of reason. But these moods of rebellion were natural in an active mind feeling the sap of growth; Voltaire might have passed through them to the man of the world's genial connivance at beliefs so dear to the masses and so useful as an aid to social order and moral discipline. In the first half of the eighteenth century the French clergy were relatively tolerant, and the hierarchy shared in the advancing Enlightenment. But the growth of unbelief, and the acclaim that greeted the Encyclopédie, frightened them, and they seized upon the terror inspired in the King by Damiens’ attempt at assassination (1757) to draw from the state an edict (1759) making any attack upon the Church a crime to be punished with death. The philosophes saw in this a declaration of war, and felt that henceforth they need spare no feelings, no traditions, in attacking what seemed to them a murderous absurdity. Behind the beauty and poetry of religion they saw propaganda conscripting art; behind the support that Christianity had given to morality they saw a thousand heretics burned at the stake, the Albigensians crushed out in a homicidal crusade, Spain and Portugal darkened with autos-da-fé, France torn apart by rival mythologies, and all the future of the human spirit subject in every land to the repeated resurrection of superstition, priestcraft, and persecution. They would fight such a medieval reaction with the last years of their life.

Now Voltaire spread and shouted the watchword of his ire, "Écrasez l'infâme! Crush the infamy!” With almost youthful enthusiasm, with incredible confidence, he set himself and a few hesitant aides to assail the most powerful institution in the history of mankind.

   Now Voltaire spread and shouted the watchword of his ire, "Écrasez l'infâme! Crush the infamy!”

What did he mean by "the infamy"? Did he propose to crush superstition, fanaticism, obscurantism, and persecution? By l’infâme he meant not religion in general, but religion as organized-to propagate superstition and mythology, to control education, and to oppose dissent with censorship and persecution. And such was Christianity as Voltaire saw it in history and in France.

So he burned all his bridges behind him, and called his cohorts to war. "To overturn the columns only five or six philosophes are needed who understand one another. . . . The vine of truth has been cultivated by the d'Alemberts, the Diderots, the Bolingbrokes, and the Humes.” “I hope that every year each of our fraternity will aim some arrows at the monster.”

New books became weapons, and literature became war. Not only did Diderot, d'Alembert, Helvétius, d'Holbach, Raynal, and a dozen others bring their pens to the battle, but Voltaire himself, always dying, became a veritable armory of anticlerical missiles. Within a decade he sent forth some thirty booklets. He had no belief in the efficacy of large volumes.

What harm can a book [the Encyclopédie] do that costs a hundred crowns? . . . Twenty volumes folio will never create a revolution. It is the little portable volumes of thirty sous that are to be feared.

But now Voltaire did not write in the name of Voltaire. He used over a hundred different pseudonyms; and sometimes, in his impish humor, he ascribed his anti-Christian blasts to "the Archbishop of Canterbury" or "the Archbishop of Paris," or an abbé, a pastor, or a monk. To throw the hounds of heaven off his trail he dedicated one of his pellets to himself. He knew printers in Paris, Amsterdam, the Hague, London, and Berlin; he used them in his campaign. Through Damilaville and others he had his brochures given free to booksellers, who sold them at low price and calculated risk. The seed went forth.

The sermon argued that the God revealed in the Old Testament is a boastful, jealous, angry, cruel, homicidal God, whom no sane person could worship, and that David was a scoundrel, a lecher, and a murderer. How could anyone believe such a book to be the word of God? And how from the Gospels could have come the incredible theology of Christianity, the easy, daily feat of turning a wafer into the body and blood of Christ, the innumerable relics, the sale of indulgences, the hatreds and holocausts of the religious wars?

We are told that the people need mysteries, and must be deceived. My brethren, dare anyone commit this outrage on humanity? Have not our fathers [the Reformers] taken from the people their transubstantiation, auricular confession, indulgences, exorcisms, false miracles, and ridiculous statues? Are not our people now accustomed to doing without these superstitions?

One of his most important publications: Dictionnaire philosophique portraitif. It was not the immense tome of 824 large double-column pages that we have in one form today, or the five or eight volumes that it fills in his collected works; it was a small book, easy to hold or to conceal. The brevity of its articles, the simplicity and clarity of its style, carried it to a in a dozen lands.

And here, in the article "Abuse of Words” —_and again in the article "Miracles" —is the famous Voltairean imperative “Define your terms!"

Essentially the book aimed to serve as an arsenal of arguments against Christianity as Voltaire knew it. Here once more are the incredibilities, absurdities, and scandals of the Bible, not only in the article “Contradictions," but on almost every page. What a revealing oversight it was to speak of the virgin Birth of Jesus and yet trace his genealogy to that rascal David through the allegedly fainéant [lazy] Joseph!

The city fathers of Geneva did not like the Dictionnaire philosophique; on September 24, 1763, the Council of Twenty-five ordered the executioner to burn every copy that he could find. The Parlement of Paris ordered a similar bonfire in 1765; we have seen the fate of the book in Abbeville (1766). Voltaire assured the Genevan authorities that the Dictionary was the work of a corps of writers entirely unknown to him. Meanwhile he prepared supplementary articles for the four further editions that were secretly printed before the end of 1765.

   Why had not Christ kept his promise to "come in a cloud, with power and great glory," to establish the "kingdom of God” before “this generation shall pass away?" What had detained him? Was the fog too thick?"

Every month he sent to some printer a new pamphlet against l'infâme. Les Questions de Zapata (March, 1767) pretended to be the queries put to a committee of theologians by , professor of theology at the University of Salamanca in 1629. Zapata confessed to doubts about the star of Bethlehem, the supposed census of "the whole earth” by Augustus, the slaughter of the innocents, and the temptation of Jesus by Satan on a hill whence one could see all the kingdoms of the Earth. Where was that wonderful hill? Why had not Christ kept his promise to "come in a cloud, with power and great glory," to establish the "kingdom of God” before “this generation shall pass away?" What had detained him? Was the fog too thick?" What must I do with those who dare to doubt? Must I, for their edification, have the ordinary and extraordinary question [torture] put to them?" Or "would it not be better to avoid these labyrinths, and simply preach virtue?" The conclusion:

Zapata, receiving no answer, took to preaching God in all simplicity. He announced to men the common father, the rewarder, the punisher, the pardoner. He extricated the truth from the lies, and separated religion from fanaticism; he taught and practiced virtue. He was gentle, kindly, and modest, and he was burned at Valladolid in the year of grace 1631.

Usually he disguised his publications with deceptive titles: Homily on the Interpretation of the Old Testament, Epistle to the Romans, Sermons of the Rev. Jacques Rossetes, Homily of Pastor Bourne, Counsels to the Fathers of Families. The educated public of France guessed that Voltaire had written them, for he could not disguise his style, but no one proved it. This exciting game became the talk of Paris and Geneva, and its echoes were heard in London, Amsterdam, Berlin, even in Vienna. Never in history had a writer played such hide-and-seek with such powerful enemies, and with such success. A hundred opponents tried to answer him; he rebutted them all, fighting back roughly, sometimes coarsely or unfairly; c'était la guerre. And he enjoyed it. In the ardor of battle he forgot to die.


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."

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." He never tired of denouncing the story and theory of "original sin."

In his war years Voltaire saw the history of Christianity as predominantly a misfortune for mankind. 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.

   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

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." But he was revolted by the emphasis placed by Luther and Calvin on predestination; 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. The advance of reason is leaving such controversies far behind.”

He came back to Socrates’ view that a life without thought is unworthy of a man. He touched on this in L’Histoire d’un bon Brahmin (1761):

“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.”


Add comment

Security code