Freethought Archives > Baron d'Holbach > Christianity Unveiled
OF THE NECESSITY OF AN INQUIRY RESPECTING RELIGION,
AND THE OBSTACLES WHICH ARE MET IN PURSUING THIS INQUIRY.
A REASONABLE being ought in all his actions to aim at his own happiness and that of his fellow-creatures. Religion, which is held up as an object most important to our temporal and eternal felicity, can be advantageous to us only so far as it renders our existence happy in this world, or as we are assured that it will fulfil the flattering promises which it makes us respecting another.--Our duty towards God, whom we look upon as the ruler of our destinies, can be founded, it is said, not only on the evils which we fear on his part. It is then necessary that man should examine the grounds of his fears. He ought, for this purpose, to consult experience and reason, which are the only guides to truth. By the benefits which he derives from religion in the visible world which he inhabits, he may judge of the reality of those blessings for which it leads him to hope in that invisible world, to which it commands him to turn his views.
Mankind, for the most part, hold to their religion through habit. They have never seriously examined the reasons why they are attached to it, the motives of their conduct, or the foundations of their opinions. Thus, what has ever been considered as most important to all, has been of all things least subjected to scrutiny. Men blindly follow on in the paths which their fathers trod; they believe, because in infancy they were told they must believe; they, hope, because their progenitors hoped, and they tremble, because they trembled. Scarcely ever have they deigned to render an account of the motives of their belief. Very few men have leisure to examine, or fortitude to analyze, the objects of their habitual veneration, their blind attachment, or their traditional fears. Nations are carried away in the torrent of habit, example, and prejudice. Education habituates the mind to opinions the most monstrous, as it accustoms the body to attitudes the most uneasy. All that has long existed appears sacred to the eyes of man; they think it sacrilege to examine things stamped with the seal of antiquity. Prepossessed in favour of the wisdom of their fathers, they have not the presumption to investigate what has received their sanction. They see not that man has ever been the dupe of his prejudices, his hopes, and his fears; and that the same reasons have almost always rendered this enquiry equally impracticable.
The vulgar, busied in the labours necessary to their subsistence, place a blind confidence in those who pretend to guide them, give up to them the right of thinking, and submit without murmuring to all they prescribe. They believe they shall offend God, if they doubt for a moment, the veracity of those who speak to them in his name. The great, the rich, the men of the world, even when they are more enlightened than the vulgar, have found it their interest to conform to received prejudices, and even to maintain them; or, swallowed up in dissipation, pleasure, and effeminacy, they have no time to bestow on a religion, which they easily accommodate to their passions, propensities, and fondness for amusement. In childhood, we receive all the impressions others wish to make upon us; we have neither the capacity, experience, or courage, necessary to examine what is taught us by those, on whom our weakness renders us dependent. In youth, the ardour of our passions, and the continual ebriety of our senses, prevent our thinking seriously of a religion, too austere and gloomy to please; if by chance a young man examines it, he does it with partiality, or without perseverance; he is often disgusted with a single glance of the eye on an object so disgusting. In riper age, new passions and cares, ideas of ambition, greatness, power, the desire of riches, and the hurry of business, absorb the whole attention of man, or leave him but few moments to think of religion, which he never has the leisure to scrutinize. In old age, the faculties are blunted, habits become incorporated with the machine, and the senses are debilitated by time and infirmity; and we are no longer able to penetrate back to the source of our opinions; besides, the fear of death then renders an examination, over which terror commonly presides, very liable to suspicion.
Thus, religious opinions, once received, maintain their ground, through a long succession of ages; thus nations transmit from generation to generation ideas which they have never examined; they imagine their welfare to be attached to institutions in which, were the truth known, they would behold the source of the greater part of their misfortunes. Civil authority also flies to the support of the prejudices of mankind, compels them to ignorance by forbidding inquiry, and holds itself in continual readiness to punish all who attempt to undeceive themselves.
Let us not be surprised, then, if we see error almost inextricably interwoven with human nature. All things seem to concur to perpetuate our blindness, and hide the truth from us. Tyrants detest and oppress truth, because it dares to dispute their unjust and chimerical titles; it is opposed by the priesthood because it annihilates their superstitions. Ignorance, indolence, and passion render the great part of mankind accomplices of those who strive to deceive them, in order to keep their necks beneath the yoke, and profit by their miseries. Hence nations groan under hereditary evils, thoughtless of a remedy; being either ignorant of the cause, or so long accustomed to disease, that they have lost even the desire of health.
If religion be the object most important to mankind, if it extends its influences not only over our conduct in this life, but also over our eternal happiness, nothing, can demand from us a more serious examination. Yet it is of all things, that, respecting which, mankind exercise the most implicit credulity. The same man, who examines with scrupulous nicety things of little moment to his welfare, wholly neglects inquiry concerning the motives, which determine him to believe and perform things, on which, according to his own confession, depend both his temporal and eternal felicity. He blindly abandons himself to those whom chance has given him for guides; he confides to them the care of thinking for him, and even makes a merit of his own indolence and credulity. In matters of religion, infancy and barbarity seem to be the boast of the greater part of the human race.
Nevertheless, men have in all ages appeared. who, shaking off the prejudices of their fellows, have dared to lift before their eyes the light of truth. But what could their feeble voice effect, against errors imbibed at the breast, confirmed by habit, authorised by example, and fortified by a policy, which often became the accomplice of its own ruin? The stentorian clamours of imposture soon overwhelm the calm exhortations of the advocates of reason. In vain shall the philosopher endeavour to inspire mankind with courage, so long as they tremble beneath the rod of priests and kings.
The surest means of deceiving mankind, and perpetuating their errors, is to deceive them in infancy. Amongst many nations at the present day, education seems designed only to form fanatics, devotees, and monks; that is to say, men either useless or injurious to society. Few are the places in which it is calculated to form good citizens. Princes, to whom a great part of the earth is at present unhappily subjected, are commonly the victims of a superstitious education, and remain all their lives in the profoundest ignorance of their own duties, and the truest interests of the states which they govern. Religion seems to have been invented only to render both kings and people equally the slaves of the priesthood. The latter is continually busied in raising obstacles to the felicity of nations. Wherever this reigns, other governments have but a precarious power; and citizens become indolent, ignorant, destitute of greatness of soul, and, in short, of every quality necessary to the happiness of society.
If, in a state where the Christian religion is professed, we find some activity, some science, and an approach to social manners; it is, because nature, whenever it is in her power, restores mankind to reason, and obliges them to labour for their own felicity. Were all Christian nations exactly conformed to their principles, they must be plunged into the most profound inactivity. Our countries would be inhabited by a small number of pious savages, who would meet only to destroy each other. For, why should a man mingle with the affairs of a world, which his religion informs him is only a place of passage? What can be the industry of that people, who believe themselves commanded by their God to live in continual fear, to pray, to groan, and afflict themselves incessantly? How can a society exist which is composed of men who are convinced that, in their zeal for religion, they ought to hate and destroy all, whose opinions differ from their own ? How can we expect to find humanity, justice, or any virtue, amongst a horde of fanatics, who copy in their conduct, a cruel, dissembling, and dishonest God? A God who delights in the tears of his unhappy creatures, who sets for them the ambush, and then punishes them for having fallen into it! A God who himself ordains robbery, persecution, and carnage!
Such, however, are the traits with which the Christian religion represents the God which it has inherited from the Jews. This God was a sultan, a despot, a tyrant, to whom all things were lawful. Yet he is held up to us as a model of perfection. Crimes, at which human nature revolts, have been committed in his name; and the greatest villainies have been justified by the pretence of their being committed, either by his command, or to merit his favour. Thus the Christian religion, which boasts of being the only true support of morality, and of furnishing mankind with the strongest motives for the practice of virtue, has proved to them a source of divisions, oppressions, and the blackest crimes. Under the pretext of bringing peace on earth, it has overwhelmed it with hate, discord, and war. It furnishes the human race with a thousand ingenious means of tormenting themselves, and scatters amongst them scourges unknown before. The Christian, possessed of common sense, must bitterly regret the tranquil ignorance of his idolatrous ancestors.
If the manners of nations have gained nothing by the Christian religion, governments of which it has pretended to be the support, have drawn from it advantages equally small. It establishes to itself in every state a separate power, and becomes the tyrant or the enemy of every other power. Kings were always the slaves of priests; or if they refused to bow the knee, they were proscribed, stripped of their privileges, and exterminated either by subjects whom religion had excited to revolt, or assassins whose hands she had armed with her sacred poignard. Before the introduction of the Christian religion, those who governed the state commonly governed the priesthood; since that period, sovereigns have dwindled into the first slaves of the priesthood, the mere executors of its vengeance and its decrees.
Let us then conclude, that the Christian religion has no right
to boast of procuring advantages either to policy or morality. Let
us tear aside the veil with which it envelopes itself. Let us
penetrate back to its source. Let us pursue it in its course; we
shall find that, founded on imposture, ignorance, and credulity, it
can never be useful but to men who wish to deceive their
fellow-creatures. We shall find, that it will never cease to
generate the greatest evils among mankind, and that instead of
producing the felicity it promises, it is formed to cover the earth
with outrages, and deluge it in blood; that it will plunge the
human race in delerium and vice, and blind their eyes to their
truest interests and their plainest duties.
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