2000 Years of Disbelief: Voltaire (1694 – 1778)

François-Marie Arouet, known as Voltaire, French Enlightenment writer and philosopher. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Excerpt from 2000 Years of Disbelief: Famous People with the Courage to Doubt, by James A. Haught (Prometheus Books, 1996). Reprinted with permission from the author.

Voltaire (1694 – 1778)

Francois Marie Arouet — “that consuming fire called Voltaire,” as Will Durant dubbed him — helped bring human rights and democratic freedoms to the world.

His name is synonymous with the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason, the tumultuous era when Western people gained the right to think independently, to follow the revelations of science, and to question religious dogmas without being executed or jailed for it.

After attaining fame and wealth as a witty writer, Voltaire became a fierce crusader against cruelties of the church and the aristocracy. He roused international outcries in behalf of victims killed or jailed for their religious beliefs. In a sense, Voltaire was the modern world’s first civil rights activist. His demands for freedom of speech and of worship spread across the Atlantic and helped formulate America’s budding democracy.

Born in Paris, son of a lawyer, Voltaire was sent to Jesuit schools with children of the aristocracy. His sparkling wit and clever writing made him popular among the fashionable set. But when he wrote a poem mocking a dissolute regent, he was thrown into the Bastille for a year.

While in prison, he adopted the pen name Voltaire and finished his first play, which became a success after his release. He poured forth writings, including an epic poem honoring King Henry IV, who decreed religious tolerance and temporarily ended France’s Wars of Religion, until he was assassinated by a fanatic. The poem was banned because it was seen as an attack on Christianity.

In 1726, Voltaire insulted an aristocrat, who had him beaten and thrown into the Bastille again. To gain release, the writer agreed to go to England. While there, he was impressed by England’s growing personal freedoms. It is sometimes said that Voltaire went into exile a poet and came back a philosopher.

He returned to Paris, only to encounter trouble a third time. His writings in praise of England’s freedoms were taken as condemnation of France’s lack thereof. Authorities issued a warrant for his arrest, and he fled to Cirey, where he became the lover of a sophisticated noblewoman.

Voltaire’s plays, poems, novels, essays — and especially his Philosophical Dictionary — jabbed church dogmas and aristocratic tyranny. His works were condemned and occasionally he was forced to flee. After the death of his mistress, Voltaire went to Berlin as a guest of Frederick the Great, and eventually settled on a large estate on the Swiss border — from where he could escape into France if pursued by Swiss Calvinists, or into Switzerland if menaced by French Catholics.

As he aged, Voltaire grew increasingly hostile to Christianity, and sought justice for victims of religious bigotry. Here is a famous case:

A teenage youth, Chevalier de La Barre, was convicted of marring a crucifix, singing irreverent songs, and wearing his hat while a religious procession passed. He was sentenced to have his tongue torn out and be burned to death. Horrified, Voltaire helped appeal the sentence to Parliament. The clergy clamored for a painful death, but Parliament showed “mercy” by giving the youth a swift execution by beheading. His body was burned, along with a copy of Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary.

Voltaire was infuriated and sickened by this outrage and others. From his mountain estate, he bombarded Europe with letters and essays denouncing the injustices. He roused public ferment and won reversals in a few cases. Voltaire freed Jean Espinas, who had spent 23 years on a penal galley ship because he gave lodging to a Protestant minister for one night. He likewise freed Claude Chaumont from a galley bench, where he had been sentenced for attending a Protestant worship service.

From his crusades and literary works, Voltaire’s fame spread worldwide. Renowned thinkers, scientists and other luminaries visited his estate. He remained a provocateur until his death in 1778.

Thomas Paine wrote of Voltaire in The Rights of Man: “His forte lay in exposing and ridiculing the superstitions which priestcraft, united with statecraft, had interwoven with governments.”

English writer Thomas Carlyle said of Voltaire: “He gave the death-stab to modern superstition. That horrid incubus, which dwelt in darkness, shunning the light, is passing away…. It was a most weighty service.”

Many years later, in a New York speech, Robert Ingersoll summed up: “Voltaire did more for human liberty than any other man who ever lived or died.”

Voltaire’s views on religion:

“Christianity is the most ridiculous, the most absurd and bloody religion that has ever infected the world.” — letter to Frederick the Great

“Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is a ridiculous one.” — letter to Frederick, April 6, 1767

“For 1,700 years, the Christian sect has done nothing but harm.” — ibid

“Metaphysics consists of two parts: first, that which all men of sense already know, and second, that which they can never know.” — letter to Frederick, April 17, 1737

“I wish that you would crush this infamy [the church]” (le voudrais que vous ecrasassiez l’infame). — letter to Jean d’Alembert, June 23, 1760

“Ecrasez l’infame!” [crush the infamous thing — Christianity] — slogan with which Voltaire ended many letters and pamphlets

“You seem solicitous about that pretty thing called soul. I do protest I know nothing of it, nor whether it is, nor what it is, nor what it shall be. Young scholars and priests know all of that perfectly. For my part, I am but a very ignorant fellow.” — letter to James Boswell, Feb. 11, 1765

“The truths of religion are never so well understood as by those who have lost the power of reasoning.” — Philosophical Dictionary, 1764

“Among theologians, heretics are those who are not backed with a sufficient array of battalions to render them orthodox.” — ibid

“Atheism is the vice of a few intelligent people.” — ibid

“Most of the great men of this world live as if they were atheists.” — ibid., quoted in the London edition, 1824

“Which is more dangerous, fanaticism or atheism? Fanaticism is certainly a thousand times more deadly; for atheism inspires no bloody passion, whereas fanaticism does…. Fanaticism causes crimes to be committed. — ibid

“Christians have been the most intolerant of all men.” — ibid

“Nothing can be more contrary to religion and the clergy than reason and common sense.” — ibid

“Sect and error are synonymous.” — ibid

“With regard to the Christians, assuredly their greatest and most venerable saints were those whose brains had sustained the severest shock.” — ibid

“Whenever an important event, a revolution, or a calamity turns to the profit of the church, such is always signalized as the Finger of God.” — ibid

“Clergyman: A generic title under which is designated any Christian who consecrates himself to the service of God, and feels himself called upon to live without working at the expense of the rascals who work to live.” — ibid

“Superstition, born of paganism, and adopted by Judaism, invested the Christian Church from earliest times. All the fathers of the Church, without exception, believed in the power of magic.” — ibid., under “Superstition”

“We offer up prayers to God only because we have made him after our own image. We treat him like a pasha, or a sultan, who is capable of being exasperated and appeased.” — ibid., under “Prayer”

“Theological religion is the source of all imaginable follies and disturbances; it is the parent of fanaticism and civil discord; it is the enemy of mankind.” — ibid., under “Religion”

“Every sensible man, every honest man, must hold the Christian sect in horror. But what shall we substitute in its place? you say. What? A ferocious animal has sucked the blood of my relatives. I tell you to rid yourselves of this beast, and you ask me what you shall put in its place?” — quoted in What Great Men Think of Religion, by Ira Cardiff

“The first divine was the first rogue who met the first fool.” — ibid

“Christianity must be divine since it has lasted 1,700 years despite the fact that it is so full of villainy and nonsense.” — ibid

“Theology: A science profound, supernatural and divine, which teaches us to reason on that which we don’t understand and to get our ideas mixed up on that which we do.” — ibid

“Wars of religion: Copious and salutary blood-lettings prescribed by the physician of souls for the bodies of those nations whom God in his goodness desires to endow with a pure doctrine. They have been of frequent practice since the foundation of the Christian faith.” — ibid

“God is always on the side of the heaviest battalions.” — letter to M. le Riche, Feb. 6, 1770

“I have never made but one prayer to God, a very short one: ‘O Lord, make my enemies ridiculous.’ And God granted it.” — letter to M. Damiliville, May 16, 1767

“When one man speaks to another man who doesn’t understand him, and when the man who’s speaking no longer understands, it’s metaphysics.” — Candide, 1759

“The man who says to me, ‘Believe as I do, or God will damn you,’ will presently say, ‘Believe as I do, or I shall assassinate you.’ “ — from The Great Quotations by George Seldes

“If God created us in his own image, we have more than reciprocated.” — Le Sottisier

“This agglomeration which was called and which still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire is neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.” — Essay on Morals and the Spirit of Nations

“Would you believe that while the flames were consuming these innocent victims, the inquisitors and the other savages were chanting our prayers? These pitiless monsters were invoking the God of mercy … while committing the most atrocious crime.” — Sermon du Rabbin Akib, 1765

“I know a man who is firmly persuaded that, at the death of a bee, its buzzing ceases.” — quoted in Views of Religion by Rufus Noyes

“Superstition sets the whole world in flames; philosophy extinguishes it.”-ibid

“Catechism: a collection of pious … instructions that priests take care to inculcate into little Christians to the end that they talk nonsense and rave for the rest of their lives.” — ibid

“Evil came into the world through the sin of Adam. If that idiot had not sinned, we should not have been afflicted with the smallpox, nor the itch, nor theology, nor the faith which alone can save us.” — ibid

“The word of God is the word of the priests; the glory of God is the pride of the priests; the will of God is the will of the priests; to offend God is to offend the priests; to believe in God is to believe all that the priests tell us.” — ibid

“On religion, many are destined to reason wrongly; others not to reason at all; and others to persecute those who do reason.” — ibid

Excerpted from 2000 Years of Disbelief: Famous People with the Courage to Doubt by James A. Haught. Copyright © James A. Haught, 1996. All rights reserved.

James A. HaughtJames A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s The Charleston Gazette-Mail and a senior editor of the Free Inquiry magazine. He is also the author of numerous books and articles; his most recent book is Religion is Dying: Soaring Secularism in America and the West (Gustav Broukal Press, 2010). Haught has won 21 national newswriting awards and thirty of his columns have been distributed by national syndicates. He is in Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in the World, Contemporary Authors, and 2000 Outstanding Intellectuals of the 21st Century. His website is haught.net.

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