ON THE REASONS WHICH HAVE LED MANKIND TO BELIEVE IN A DIVINITY from
Treatise of the Three Imposters
11th Century, author disputed
Those who are ignorant of physical causes have a natural fear, proceeding from a restlessness in their minds, as to whether there exists a Being or an Agency invisible to them, who has the power to injure them or to do them good. Hence the tendency which they have to feign unseen causes, which are only the phantoms of their imagination—whom they deprecate in adversity and thank in prosperity. They make Gods of them for this purpose; and this chimerical fear of invisible Powers is the source of those Religions which everyone forms after his own fashion. Those whose interest it is that the people should rest contentedly fettered by such reveries, have fostered their spread—have founded laws upon them—and finally reduced the people by the terrors of futurity to a blind obedience.
The origin of the Gods being discovered, men next imagined that they resembled themselves, and that they invariably acted with a certain end in view. Thus they unanimously said and believed, that God only works for man’s behoof; and reciprocally, that man is only created for God. This prejudice is general even in the present day, and when we reflect on the influence which it must necessarily have on the manners and opinions of men, we may clearly perceive that from it have arisen those false ideas which men have formed to themselves, of good and evil, of merit and demerit, of praise and blame, of order and confusion, of beauty and deformity, and a thousand other similar matters.
It must be agreed that all men are in a state of profound ignorance at their birth, and that their only natural wish is to seek that which is pleasant and profitable to them. Hence it follows, 1st, That they believe it sufficient for them that they are free, and that they feel within themselves the power of volition and desire, without troubling themselves as to the causes which effect this volition and this desire; because they know them not. 2dly, As men only aim at one object when they prefer it to all others, they sought to ascertain the final causes of their actions, imagining that after these were discovered there would be little room for doubt; and as they found within themselves and without themselves abundant means of arriving at the end proposed, —the eye constructed for vision, the ear for hearing; a sun above them to give them light and heat; they concluded that there was nothing in nature which was not made for them, and which they could not enjoy and dispose of; but as they well knew that they were not the creators of these things, they thought that they were justified in imagining a Supreme Being, the author of all: in one word they conceived that every thing in existence was the work of one, or of more Divinities. On the other hand, the nature of the Gods whom men acknowledged being unknown to them, they believed that they were susceptible of like passions with themselves; and as the natural dispositions of men are different, every one rendered to his Divinity a worship according to his fancy, with the view of drawing down his blessings, and making universal nature subservient to his own desires.
In this manner prejudice was changed into superstition. It was rooted in such a way that the most ignorant people believed themselves capable of explaining the doctrine of final causes, as if they had an entire knowledge of them. Thus, instead of proving that Nature did nothing in vain, they imagined that God and Nature thought after the manner of men. Experience taught them that an infinite number of calamities disturbed the pleasures of life—storms, earthquakes, plagues, hunger, thirst, &c. They attributed all these evils to divine wrath, and believed that the Deity was irritated against mankind for their offences; nor could the daily occurring examples which prove that good and evil happen alike to the just and to the unjust, disabuse them of their prejudices. This error prevailed, because they, found it easier to remain in their natural ignorance, than to divest themselves of notions established for so many ages; and to adopt something in their stead, having at least the appearance of truth.
This prejudice conducted them straightway to another, which was, that all the judgments of God were incomprehensible; and that consequently they were beyond the cognizance of truth, and above the strength of human reason; a mistake which would have existed at the present day, if mathematical knowledge, natural philosophy, and other sciences had not extinguished it.
There is no necessity for a long dissertation to prove that nature never aims at any definite end, and that all these final causes are only human fictions. It is sufficient to show that this doctrine deprives the Deity of all the perfections which have been attributed to him ; and this we will endeavour to do. If God acts for an end, either for himself or for any other being, he desires that which he does not possess; and it must be granted from these premises that, as there was a time when God had no object for which to act, he wished to have one; that is to say, that he stood in need of something. But not to overlook anything which may strengthen the arguments of those who maintain the opposite opinion, suppose, for a moment, that a stone detached from a battlement fell upon an individual and killed him ; it proves, say our opponents, that this stone fell for the purpose of killing this person, because it could not so have happened unless God had wished it. If we reply that it was the wind which caused its fall at the time when the unfortunate individual was passing, they demand at once, how it happened that he was passing exactly at the time when the wind brought down the stone. We answer that he was on his way to dine with a friend who had invited him ; they wish to know why his friend had invited him on that day rather than on any other. They put in this manner an infinitude of absurd questions to force you to confess that the will of God alone (which is the refuge of the ignorant) was the real cause of the fall of this stone. When they examine the structure of the human body, they fall into extacies; but because they are ignorant of the causes of those effects which appear to them so marvellous, they conclude that it must be a supernatural effect, when the causes which are known to us cannot account for it. This is the reason why the man who wishes deeply to examine the works of creation, and like a true philosopher to penetrate into their natural causes, irrespective of those prejudices which ignorance has created, is branded as an infidel, or speedily clamoured down by the malice of those whom the vulgar acknowledge as the interpreters of Nature and of the Gods These mercenary spirits are well aware that the ignorance which holds the people in wonderment, is that which gives them bread, and upholds their credit.
Men being thus imbued with the rediculous opinion that every thing which they behold is created for themselves, have made it a point of Religion to engross every thing, and to judge of its value by the profit which it brings. Accordingly they have invented notions which do them service in explaining the nature of things, and enable them to judge of good and evil, order and disorder, heat and cold, beauty and ugliness, &c. which are by no means what they imagine. Because they are able to frame their ideas in this way, they think that they are free; they believe that they are in a position to judge of praise and blame; of good and evil. They call that good which respects their divine worship, and turns to their own profit; and that which does neither the one nor the other they denominate evil; and because the ignorant are incapable of judging, and have no conception of any thing save through the medium of their imagination, which they mistake for judgment, they tell us that nothing can be learned from nature, and forthwith invent a particular arrangement of the world. In short they think that matters are ill or well constituted according to the facility or the difficulty which they have in conceiving of them when presented to them through the medium of their senses. People are best pleased with what gives least fatigue to the brain, These individuals have wisely resolved to prefer order to confusion, as if order were any thing else than a pure fiction of the imagination. Thus, to say that the Deity has made everything with order, is to pretend that it is in favour of the human imagination that he has created the world in a manner the most easy for it to form a conception of it;—or, which is the same thing, that they know with certainty all the relations and all the designs of whatever exists; an assertion too absurd to merit any serious refutation.
With respect to their other opinions, they are purely the result of this same imagination, having no basis in reality, and being only different modifications of which that faculty is susceptible. Thus, when the impressions made upon the nervous system through the medium of the eyes are agreeable, they pronounce that the objects viewed are beautiful. Smells are good or bad; tastes are sweet or bitter, things touched are hard or soft, according as the sensation produced is unpleasant or otherwise—as scents, and tastes, and contact, and sounds affect the system. Following up these ideas, men have believed that the Deity is pleased with melody, while others have believed that all the movements of the celestial bodies were one harmonious concert; a proof, that these men are persuaded that things are really such as they conceive them to be, or that the world is entirely ideal. It is not to be wondered at therefore, if we scarcely ever meet with two individuals of the same opinion: indeed some make it their boast to doubt of every thing; for although all men have a similar bodily conformation, and resemble each other in many respects, there are still as many respects in which they differ. Accordingly it must follow, that what pleases this party displeases that; and what appears good to one man appears evil to another. We must conclude therefore, that their various opinions must be attributed to their different organizations and the diversity of their co-existences—that reason has little connexion with them; and in short, that their conceptions of the material world are the decided results of imagination.
It is therefore evident, that all the reasonings which the generality of mankind are accustomed to employ when they set themselves to explain what nature is, are only their own modes of imagining that which is most uncalculated to make good their own position. They give names to their ideas, as if they existed in any other quarter than in their own prejudiced brain; but instead of calling them mere chimeras, they designate them Beings. There is extremely little difficulty in refuting the arguments grounded on such opinions. If it is true, they advance, that the universe is nothing more than an emanation from, or simply a necessary consequence to, the Divine nature, whence spring those imperfections and defaults which we perceive in it? This objection is easily answered. It is impossible for men to judge of the perfection or imperfection of any Being, without a thorough knowledge of his nature and essence; and it is a strange abuse of terms to assert that any thing is more or less perfect according as it pleases or displeases, or as it is useful or noxious to human nature. To terminate the argument with those who demand why God has not created all men good and happy, it is sufficient to state that every thing is necessarily what it is; and that, in nature there is no imperfection, since all flows from the necessity of things.
This being established, if it is asked “What then is God ?” I answer that the word imports that universal Being, “in whom,” as St Paul says, “we live, and move, and have our being.” This opinion conveys no unworthy notions of the Divinity, for if all things are in God, all things must necessarily flow from his essence, and consequently be of such essence as he himself; for it is impossible to conceive that Beings entirely material should be maintained and comprehended in a being who is not so. This opinion is not new. Tertullian, one of the most learned Christian fathers, maintained in his discourse against Appelles, that whatever is not corporeal is nothing; and in that against Praxeas that every Existence is a body. He adds, “who will deny that God is a body, although God is a spirit?” It is of importance to observe that this doctrine was not condemned in any of the four first Oecumenical or General Councils of the Christian Church.
These ideas are clear and simple, and the only ones which an unbiassed mind can form of God. However there are few contented with this simplicity. A gross people accustomed to the gratification of their senses, have conceived that God resembles the Kings of the earth. That pomp and splendour which surround the latter have dazzled them so much, that to uproot the idea that God has no resemblance whatever to earthly sovereigns, would be to deprive them of the hope of meeting celestial courtiers, and of enjoying in their company, the same pleasures which they had tasted at regal courts; it would take from them the only consolation which keeps them from despair amidst the miseries of this life. They assert that God must be a just and avenging Being who punishes and recompenses— they represent him as susceptible of every human passion— they depict him with feet, with hands, with eyes and with ears, and yet maintain that he is an immaterial Being. They quote Scripture to prove that man is chief of God’s works below, and formed in his own image; and deny that the copy has the slightest resemblance to the original. In short, the God of the people in the present day, as represented by themselves, is subject to more transformations than the pagan Jupiter. What is still more strange is this, that the more these opinions contradict each other and outrage common sense, the more are they revered by the vulgar, who uphold with bigotry whatever their prophets have enounced, although these visionaries only held the same place amongst the Hebrews, as did the augurs and soothsayers amongst the Pagans. They consult the Bible as if God and Nature had explained it to them exclusively, although it is only a tissue of fragments gathered together at various periods, and by different persons, and published under the censorship of the Rabbis. These, at their pleasure, decided as to what ought to be approved of, and what rejected; according as they found it agreeable or opposed to the law of Moses. Such are the malice and the folly of mankind. They spend their lives in quibbles, and persist in reverencing a book which has scarcely more arrangement than the Alcoran of Mahomet—a book, which from its obscurity nobody understands, and which has only served to foment divisions. The Jews and Christians love far better to consult this legerdemain book, than to listen to that which God, that is to say Nature (inasmuch as it is the origin of all things) has written on their hearts. All other laws are merely human figments—palpable illusions set abroad, not by demons or evil spirits which are the creations of fancy, but by the policy of princes, and the craft of priests. The former have striven in this way to add weight to their authority; and the latter have been contented to enrich themselves by the sale of an infinitude of chimerical notions, which they vend at a dear rate to their ignorant followers. No other code of laws which has followed that of Moses, except the Christian, has been based upon that Bible the original of which could never be discovered, which relates to things supernatural and impossible, and which speaks of rewards and punishments for actions good or bad, but wisely postpones them till an after life lest the imposture should be detected; for no one has ever returned from the grave. Thus the people, kept always fluctuating betwixt hope and fear, are held in bondage by the belief that God has created mankind for no other purpose than that of rendering them eternally happy or everlastingly miserable. This is the origin of the vast number of Religions which prevail in the world.