I come, ye mortals, to announce to you the will of the most high. Acknowledge in my voice that of him who sent me. I command the sun to move backwards, the stars to change their places, the mountains to disappear, the waves to remain fixed on high, and the earth to wear a different aspect.
Nature is not obedient to impostors. Their miracles are always performed in the highways, in the fields, or in apartments where they are displayed before a small number of spectators, previously disposed to believe every thing they see.
Who is there that will venture to decide how many eye-witnesses are necessary to render a miracle worthy of credit? If the miracles, intended to prove the truth of your doctrine, stand themselves in need of proof, of what use are they? Their performance might as well have been omitted.
The most important examination after all remains to be made into the truth of the doctrines delivered; for as those who say that God is pleased to work these miracles, pretend that the devil sometimes imitates them, we are no nearer a decision than before, though such miracles should be ever so well attested. As the magicians of Pharaoh worked the same miracles, even in the presence of Moses, as he himself performed by the express command of God, why might not they, in his absence, from the same proofs, pretend to the same authority? Thus after proving the truth of the doctrine by the miracle, you are reduced to the necessity of proving the truth of the miracle by that of the doctrine,1 lest the works of the devil should be mistaken for those of the Lord. What think you of this alternative?
The doctrines coming from God, ought to bear the sacred characters of the divinity; and should not only clear up those confused ideas which unenlightened reason excites in the mind, but should also furnish us with a system of religion and morals agreeable to those attributes by which only we form a conception of his essence. If then they teach us any absurdities, if they inspire us with the sentiments of aversion for our fellow-creatures and fear for ourselves; if they describe the Deity as a vindictive, partial, jealous and angry being; as a God of war and of battles, always ready to thunder and destroy; always threatening slaughter and revenge, and even boasting of punishing the innocent, my heart cannot be incited to love so terrible a Deity, and I shall take care how I give up my natural religion to embrace such doctrines.
Your God is not mine! A Being who began his dispensations with partiality, selecting one people and proscribing the rest of mankind, is not the common father of the human race; a Being who destines to eternal punishment the greater part of his creatures, is not that good and merciful God who is pointed out by my reason.
With regard to articles of faith, my reason tells me they should be clear, perspicuous, and evident. If natural religion be insufficient, it is owing to the obscurity in which it necessarily leaves those sublime truths it professes to teach. It is the business of revelation to exhibit them to the mind in a more clear and sensible manner; to adapt them to our understanding, and to enable us to conceive, in order that we may be capable of believing them. True faith is assured and confirmed by the understanding. The best of all religions is undoubtedly the clearest. That which is clouded with mysteries and contradictions, the worship that is to be taught me by preaching, teaches me by that very circumstance to distrust it. The God whom I adore is not a God of darkness; he hath not given me an understanding to forbid me the use of it. To bid me give up my reason, is to insult the author of it. The minister of truth doth not tyrannize over my understanding,he enlightens it.
We have set aside all human authority, and without it, I cannot see how one man can convince another by preaching top him an unreasonable doctrine. Let us suppose two persons engaged in a dispute on this head, and see how they will express themselves in the language generally made use of on such occasions.
Rationalist.And who are you, that dare to tell me God contradicts himself? In whom shall I rather believe; in him who instructs me in the knowledge of eternal truths by means of reason, or in you who in his name would impose on me the greatest absurdities?
Rationalist.How! will you prove that God hath sent you to depose against himself? What sort of proofs can you bring to convince me it is more certain that God speaks by your mouth, than by the understanding he hath given me?
Rationalist.Arguments! why, you surely do not pretend to any! To tell me that my reason is fallacious, is to refute whatever it may say in your favor. Whoever refuses to abide by the dictates of reason, ought to be able to convince without making use of it. For, supposing that in the course of your arguments you should convince me, how shall I know whether it be not through the fallacy of reason depraved by sin, that I acquiesce in what you affirm? Besides, what proof, what demonstration, can you ever employ more evident that the axiom which destroys it? It is fully as credible that a just syllogism should be false, as that a part is greater than the whole.
Rationalist.There is nothing more incontestable than the dictates of reason, nor can the testimony of all mankind prove the truth of an absurdity. Let us see some of your supernatural truths then, as the attestation of men is not so.
Rationalist.Because, to give them such weight requires three things, the concurrence of which is impossible. These are, that I should in the first place be a witness to the delivery of the prophecy; next, that I should be witness also to the event; lastly, that it should be clearly demonstrated to me that such event could not have occurred by accident. For, though a prophecy were as precise, clear, and determinate as an axiom of geometry, yet as the perspicuity of a prediction made at random does not render the accomplishment of it impossible, that accomplishment when it happens proves nothing in fact concerning the fore-knowledge of him who predicted it. You see, therefore, to what your pretended supernatural proofs, your miracles, and your prophecies reduce us:to the folly of believing them all on the credit of others, and of submitting the authority of God speaking to our reason, to that of man. If those eternal truths, of which my understanding forms the strongest conception, can possibly be false, I can have no hope of ever arriving at certitude; and so far from being capable of being assured that you speak to me from God, I cannot even be assured of his existence.
You see, my child, how many difficulties must be removed before our disputants can agree; nor are these all. Among so many different religions, each of which proscribes and excludes the other, one only can be true; if, indeed, there be such a one among them all. Now, to discover which this is, it is not enough to examine that one; it is necessary to examine them all, as we should not, on any occasion whatever, condemn without a hearing. It is necessary to compare objections with proofs, and to know what each objects to in the others, as well as what the others have to say in their defence. The more clearly any sentiment or opinion appears demonstrated, the more narrowly it behooves us to inquire, what are the reasons which prevent its opponents from subscribing to it?
We must be very simple indeed, to think that an attention to the theologists of our own party sufficient to instruct us in what our adversaries have to offer. Where shall we find divines, of any persuasion, perfectly candid and honest? Do they not all begin to weaken the arguments of their opponents before they proceed to refute them? Each is the oracle of his party, and makes a great figure among his own partisans, with such proofs as would expose him to ridicule among those of a different persuasion.
Are you desirous of gaining information from books? What a fund of erudition will not this require! How many languages must you learn! How many libraries must you turn over! And who is to direct you in the choice of the books? There are hardly to be found in any one country the best books on the contrary side of the question, and still less is it to be expected that we should find books on all sides. The writings of the adverse and absent party, were they found also, would be very easily refuted. The absent are always in the wrong; and the most weak and insufficient arguments laid down with a confident assurance, easily efface the most sensible and valid, when exposed with contempt. Add to all this, that nothing is more fallacious than books, nor exhibit less faithfully the sentiments of their writers. The judgment which you formed, for instance, of the Roman Catholic religion, from the treatise of Bossuet, was very different from that which you acquired by residing among us. You have seen that the doctrines we maintain in our controversies with the Protestants, are not those which are taught the common people; and that Bossuets book by no means resembles the instructions delivered from the pulpit.
To form a proper judgment of any religion, we are not to deduce its tenets from the books of its professors; we must go and learn it among the people. Each sect have their peculiar traditions,their customs, prejudices, and modes of acceptation, which constitute the peculiar mode of their faith. This should all be taken into consideration when we form a judgment of their religion.
How many considerable nations are there who print no books of their own, and read none of ours? How are they to judge of our opinions, or we of theirs? We laugh at themthey despise us; and though our travellers have turned them into ridicule, they need only to travel among us, to ridicule us in their turn. In what country are there not to be found men of sense and sincerity, friends of humanity, who require only to know truth, in order to embrace it? And yet every one imagines that truth is confined to his own particular system, and thinks that the religion of all other nations in the world is absurd. These foreign modes, therefore, cannot be in reality so very absurd as they appear, or the apparent reasonableness of ours is less real.
We have three principal religions in Europe. One admits only of one revelation, another of two, and the third of three. Each holds the other in detestation, anathematizes its possessors, accuses them of ignorance, obstinacy, and falsehood. What impartial person will presume to decide between them, without having first examined their proofs and heard their reasons? That which admits only of one revelation is the most ancient and seems the least disputable; that which admits of three is the most modern and seems to be the most consistent; that which admits of two and rejects the third, may possibly be the best, but it hath certainly every prepossession against itits inconsistency stares one full in the face.
In all these three revelations, the sacred books are written in languages unknown to the people who believe in them. The Jews no longer understand Hebrew; the Christians neither Greek nor Hebrew; the Turks and Persians understand no Arabic, and even the modern Arabs themselves speak not the language of Mahomet. Is not this a very simple manner of instructing mankind, by talking to them always in a language which they do not comprehend? But these books, it will be said, are translated; a most unsatisfactory answer, indeed! Who can assure me that they are translated faithfully, or that it is even possible they should be so? Who can give me a sufficient reason why God, when he hath a mind to speak to mankind, should stand in need of an interpreter?
I can never conceive that what every man is indispensably obliged to know can be shut up in these books; or that he who is incapacitated to understand them, or the persons who explain them, will be punished for involuntary ignorance. But we are always plaguing ourselves with books. What a frenzy! Because Europe is full of books, the Europeans conceive them to be indispensable, without reflecting that three-fourths of the world know nothing at all about them. Are not all books written by men? How greatly, therefore, must man have stood in need of them, to instruct him in his duty, and by what means did he come to the knowledge of such duties, before books were written? Either he must have acquired such knowledge of himself, or it must have been totally dispensed with.
We, Roman Catholics, make a great noise about the authority of the church: but what do we gain by it, if it requires as many proofs to establish this authority as other sects also require to establish their doctrines? The church determines that the church has a right to determine. Is not this a special proof of its authority? And yet, depart from this, and we enter into endless discussions.
Do you know many Christians who have taken the pains to examine carefully into what the Jews have alleged against us? If there are a few who know something of them, it is from what they have met with in the writings of Christians: a very strange manner indeed of instructing themselves in the arguments of their opponents! But what can be done? If any one should dare to publish among us such books as openly espouse the cause of Judaism, we should punish the author, the editor, and the bookseller.2 This policy is very convenient, and very sure to make us always in the right. We can refute at pleasure those who are afraid to speak.
Those among us, also, who have an opportunity to converse with the Jews, have but little advantage. These unhappy people know that they are at our mercy. The tyranny we exercise over them, renders them justly timid and reserved. They know how far cruelty and injustice are compatible with Christian charity. What, therefore, can they venture to say to us, without running the risk of incurring the charge of blasphemy? Avarice inspires us with zeal, and they are too rich not to be ever in the wrong. The most sensible and learned among them are the most circumspect and reserved. We make a convert, perhaps, of some wretched hireling, to calumniate his sect; we set a parcel of pitiful brokers disputing, who give up the point merely to gratify us; but while we triumph over the ignorance or meanness of such wretched opponents, the learned among them smile in contemptuous silence at our folly. But do you think that in places where they might write and speak securely, we should have so much the advantage of them? Among the doctors of the Sorbonne, it is as clear as daylight, that the predictions concerning the Messiah relate to Jesus Christ. Among the Rabbins at Amsterdam, it is just as evident that they have no relation whatever to him. I shall never believe that I have acquired a sufficient acquaintance with the arguments of the Jews, till they compose a free and independent State, and have their schools and universities, where they may talk and dispute with freedom and impunity. Till then we can never really know what arguments they have to offer.
At Constantinople, the Turks make known their reasons, and we dare not publish ours. There it is our turn to submit. If the Turks require us to pay to Mahomet, in whom we do not believe, the same respect which we require the Jews to pay to Jesus Christ, in whom they believe as little, can the Turks be in the wrong and we in the right? On what principle of equity can we resolve that question in our own favor?
Two-thirds of mankind are neither, Jews, Christians, nor Mahometans. How many millions of men, therefore, must there be who never heard of Moses, of Jesus Christ, or of Mahomet? Will this be denied? Will it be said that our missionaries are dispersed over the face of the whole earth? This, indeed, is easily affirmed; but are there any of them in the interior parts of Africa, where no European hath ever yet penetrated? Do they travel through the inland parts of Tartary, or follow on horseback the wandering hordes, whom no stranger ever approaches, and who, so far from having heard of the Pope, hardly know any thing of their own Grand Lama? Do our missionaries traverse the immense continent of America, where there are whole nations still ignorant that the people of another world have set foot on theirs? Are there any missionaries in Japan, from whence their ill-behavior hath banished them forever, and where the fame of their predecessors is transmitted to succeeding generations as that of artful knaves, who, under cover of a religious zeal, wanted to make themselves gradually masters of the empire? Do they penetrate into the harems of the Asiatic princes, to preach the gospel to millions of wretched slaves? What will become of these secluded women for want of a missionary to preach to them this gospel? Must every one of them go to hell for being a recluse?
Note 1. This is expressly mentioned in many places in Scripture, particularly in Deuteronomy, chap. xiii., where it is said that, if a prophet, teaching the worship of strange Gods, confirm his discourse by signs and wonders, and what he foretells really comes to pass, so far from paying any regard to his mission, the people should stone him to death. When the Pagans, therefore, put the Apostles to death, for preaching up to them the worship of a strange God, proving their divine mission by prophesies and miracles, I see not what could be objected to them, which they might not with equal justice have retorted upon us. Now, what is to be done in this case? There is but one step to be taken, to recur to reason and leave miracles to themselves: better indeed had it been never to have had recourse to them, nor to have perplexed good sense with such a number of subtle distinctions. What! do I talk of subtle distinctions in Christianity? If there are such, our Saviour was in the wrong surely to promise the Kingdom of Heaven to the weak and simple! How came he to begin his fine discourse on the Mount, with blessing the poor in spirit, if it requires so much ingenuity to comprehend and believe his doctrines? When you prove that I ought to subject my reason to his dictates, it is very well; but to prove that, you must render them intelligible to my understanding; you must adapt your arguments to the poverty of my genius, or I shall not acknowledge you to be true disciple of your Master, or think that it is his doctrines which you would inculcate. [back]
Note 2. Among a thousand known instances, the following stands in no need of comment: the Catholic divines of the sixteenth century having condemned all the Jewish books without exception to be burnt, a learned and illustrious theologue, who was consulted on that occasion, had very nearly involved himself in ruin by being simply of the opinion that such of them might be preserved as did not relate to Christianity, or treated of matters foreign to religion. [back]