Christianity Unveiled

Being an Examination of the Principles and Effects of the Christian Religion

By Paul-Henri Thiry, baron d'Holbach (1723-1789)

I RECEIVE, Sir, with gratitude, the remarks which you send me upon my work. If I am sensible to the praises you condescend to give it, I am too fond of truth to be displeased with the frankness with which you propose your objections. I find them sufficiently weighty to merit all my attention. He but ill deserves the title of philosopher, who has not the courage to hear his opinions contradicted. We are not divines; our disputes are of a nature to terminate amicably; they in no way resemble those of the apostles of superstition, who endeavour to overreach each other by captious arguments, and who, at the expence of good faith, contend only to advocate the cause of their vanity and their prejudices. We both desire the happiness of mankind, we both search after truth; this being the case, we cannot disagree.

You begin by admitting the necessity of examining religion, and submitting opinions to the decision of reason. You acknowledge that Christianity cannot sustain this trial, and that in the eye of good sense it can never appear to be any thing but a tissue of absurdities, of unconnected fables, senseless dogmas, puerile ceremonies, and notions borrowed from the Chaldeans, Egyptians, Phenicians, Grecians, and Romans. In one word, you confess that this religious system is only the deformed offspring of almost all ancient superstitions, begotten by oriental fanaticism, and diversely modified by the circumstances and prejudices of those who have since pretended to be the inspired ambassadors of God, and the interpreters of his will.

You tremble at the horrors which the intolerant spirit of Christians has caused them to commit, whenever they had power to do it; you feel that a religion founded on a sanguinary deity must be a religion of blood. You lament that phrenzy, which in infancy takes possession of princes and people, and renders them equally the slaves of superstition and her priests; which prevents their acquaintance with their true interests, renders them deaf to reason, and turns them aside from the great objects by which they ought to be occupied. You confess that a religion founded upon enthusiasm or imposture can have no sure principles; that it must prove an eternal source of disputes, and always end in causing troubles, persecutions, and ravages; especially when political power conceives itself indispensably obliged to enter into its quarrels. In fine, you go so far as to agree that a good Christian who follows literally the conduct prescribed to him as the most perfect by the gospel, knows not in this world any thing of those duties on which true morality is founded; and that if he wants energy he must prove an useless misanthrope, or if his temper be warm, a turbulent fanatic.

After acknowledging all this, how could it happen that you should pronounce any work a dangerous one! You tell me that a wise man ought to think only for himself; that to the populace a religion is necessary, be it good or bad; that it is a restraint necessary to gross and ignorant minds, which, without it, would have no longer any motive for abstaining from vice. You look upon a reform of religious prejudices as impossible, because it is the interest of many of those persons who alone can effect it, to continue mankind in that ignorance of which themselves reap the advantage. These, if I mistake not, are the weightiest of your objections. I will endeavour to remove them.

Books are generally written for that part of a nation whose circumstances, education, and sentiments, place them above the commission of crimes. This enlightened portion of society, which governs the other, reads and judges of writings; if they contain maxims false or injurious, they are soon either condemned to oblivion, or held up to public execration; if they contain only truth, they are not in danger. Fanatics and ignorant people are the disturbers of society. Sensible, enlightened, and disinterested persons are ever the friends of peace.

You are not, Sir, of the number of pusillanimous thinkers, who believe that truth is capable of doing harm. It does to those only who deceive mankind, and to the rest the human species it will always be useful. You ought to have been convinced that the evils with which mankind are afflicted, arise only from our errors, our prejudices, our interests misunderstood, and the false ideas we attach objects.

In fine, it is easy to see that the policy and morality, of man have been particularly corrupted by their religious prejudices. Was it not religious and supernatural ideas which caused sovereigns to be looked upon as gods? It is then religion which raised up tyrants and despots; tyrants and despots make wicked laws; their example corrupted the the great, the great corrupted the lower classes of mankind; these vitiated beings became unhappy slaves, employed either in injuring themselves, flattering the great; or struggling to get clear of their misery. Kings were styled images of God: they were absolute like him; they created justice and injustice; their wills often sanctified oppression, violence, and rapine. The means of obtaining their favours were vice and meanness. Thus nations became filled with perverted citizens, who, under leaders corrupted by religious notions made continually a war, either open or clandestine, and were left destitute of any motive for practising virtue.

Has this religion influenced the manners of sovereigns, who derive their divine power from it? Do we not behold princes, overflowing with faith, continually undertaking the most unjust wars; wasting the blood and treasure of their subjects; wrenching the bread from the hands of the poor; permitting and even commanding every species of injustice? Does this religion, considered by so many sovereigns as the support of their thrones, render them more humane, temperate, chaste, or faithful to their oaths? Alas! when we consult history, we there find sovereigns who were orthodox, zealous, and religious to a scruple, and at the same time guilty of perjury, usurpation, adultery, robbery, and murder; men who, in fine, behaved as if they feared not the God whom they honoured with their mouths. Among the courtiers who surrounded them, we see a continual alliance of Christianity and vice, devotion and iniquity, religion and treason. Among the priests of a poor and crucified God, who found their existence upon religion, and pretend that without it there could be no morality, do we not see reigning amongst them, pride, avarice, wantonness, and revenge?

Amongst us, education is very little attended to by the government, which shews the most profound indifference concerning an object the most essential to the happiness of states. With most modern nations public education is confined to the teaching languages, useless to most who learn them. Christians, instead of morality, inculcate the marvellous fables and incomprehensible dogmas of a religion extremely repugnant to right reason. At the first step a young man makes in his studies, he is taught that he ought to renounce the testimony of his senses, to reject his reason as an unfaithful guide, and blindly conform himself to the dictates of his masters. But who are these masters? Priests, whose interest it is to continue mankind in errors, of which they alone reap the advantage. Can the abject and isolated mind of these mercenary pedagogues be capable of instructing their pupils in that of which themselves are ignorant? Will they teach them to love the public good, to serve their try, to know the duties of the man and citizen? Certainly not; we can expect nothing from the bands of such teachers but ignorant and superstitious pupils, who, if they have profited of the lessons they have received, are unacquainted with every thing necessary in society, of which they must consequently become useless members.

On whatever side we cast our eyes, we see the study of the objects most important to man totally neglected. Morality, in which I also comprehend policy, is considered of very little importance in European education. The only morality taught by Christians is, the enthusiastic, impracticable, contradictory, and uncertain morality contained in the gospel. This is calculated only to degrade the mind, to render virtue odious, to form abject slaves, and break the Spring of the soul; or, if it is sown in warm and active minds, to produce turbulent fanatics, capable of shaking the foundations of society.

Notwithstanding the inutility and perversity of the morality which Christianity teaches mankind, its partisans presume to tell us that without this religion we cannot have morals. But what is it to have morals, in the language of Christians? It is to pray without ceasing, to frequent churches, to do penance, and to abstain from pleasure; it is to live in selfishness and solitude. What good results to society from these practices, all of which may be observed by a man, who has not the shadow of virtue? If such morals lead to heaven, they are very useless on earth. But certain it is, that a man may be a faithful observer of all that Christianity enjoins, without possessing any of the virtues which reason shews to be necessary to the support of political society.

It is necessary, then, to carefully distinguish Christian morality from political morality; the former makes saints, the latter citizens: one makes men useless, or even hurtful to the world; the other has for its object the formation of members useful to society; men active and vigorous, who are capable of serving it, who fulfil the duties of husbands, fathers, friends, and companions, whatever may be their metaphysical opinions, which, let Theologists say what they will, are much less sure than the invariable rules of good sense.

In fact, it is certain, that man is a social being, who in all things seeks his own happiness, that he does good when he finds it his interest; that he is not commonly bad, because that would be contrary to his welfare. This being premised let education teach men to know the relations which exist among themselves, and the arising from those relations; let governments calling to their aid laws, rewards and punishments, confirm the lessons given by education; let happiness accompany useful and virtuous actions, let shame, contempt, and chastisement be the rewards of vice. Then would mankind have a true morality, founded in their own nature upon their mutual and the interest of nations at large. This morality, independent of the sub. lime notions of Theology, perhap's have very little in common with Christian morality; but society has nothing to lose from this circumstance, as has already been proved.

When the people receive a proper education, which, by inspiring them early in life with virtuous principles, will habituate them to do homage to virtue, detest crimes, contemn vice, and shrink from infamy; such an education cannot be vain, when continual example shall prove to the citizens that talents and virtue are the only means of arriving at honour, fortune, distinction, consideration, and favour; and that vice conducts only to contempt and ignominy.

If the clergy have usurped from the sovereign power the right of instructing the people, let the latter reassume its rights, or at least not suffer the former to enjoy the exclusive liberty of governing the manners of mankind, and dictating their morality. Let them teach if they please, that their God transforms himself into bread, but let them never teach that we ought to hate or destroy those who refuse to believe this ineffable mystery. Let no individual in society have the power of exciting citizens to rebellion, of sowing discord, breaking the hands which unite the people amongst one another, and disturbing the public tranquillity for the sake of opinions. If it be said that all governments think it their interest to support religious prejudices, and manage the clergy through policy, although they themselves are undeceived; I answer, that it is easy to convince every enlightened government, that it is their true interest to govern a happy people; that upon the happiness it procures the nation, depends the stability and safety of the government; in one word, that a nation composed of wise and virtuous citizens, are much more powerful than a troop of ignorant and corrupted slaves, whom the government is forced to deceive in order to satisfy, and to deluge with impositions that it may succeed in any enterprise.

Thus let us not despair, that truth will one day force its way even to thrones. If the light of reason and science reaches princes with so much difficulty, it is because interested priests and starveling courtiers endeavour to keep them in a perpetual infancy, point out to them chimerical prospects of power and grandeur, and thus turn away their attention from objects necessary to their true happiness.

Every government must feel that their power will always be tottering and precarious, so long as it depends for support on the phantoms of religion, the errors of the people, and the caprices of the priesthood. It must feel the inconveniences resulting from fanatic administration, which have hitherto produced nothing but ignorance and presumption, nothing but obstinate, weak citizens, incapable of doing service to the state, and ready to receive the false impressions of guides who would lead them astray. It must perceive what immense resources might be derived from the wealth which has been accumulated by a body of useless men, who, under pretensions of teaching the nation, cheat and devour it. [Footnote: Some have thought that the clergy might one day serve as a barrier against despotism, but experience sufficiently proves that this body always stipulates for itself alone.] Upon this foundation (which to the shame of mankind be it said, has hitherto served only to support sacerdotal pride) a wise government might raise establishments which would become useful to the state in forming the youth, cherishing talents, rewarding virtuous services, and comforting the people.

I flatter myself, Sir, that these reflections will exculpate me in your eyes. I do not hope for the suffrages of those who feel themselves interested in the continuance of the evils suffered by their fellow-citizens; it in not such whom I aim to convince; nothing can be made to appear evident to vicious and unreasonable men. But I presume to hope, that you will cease to look upon my book as dangerous, and my expectations as altogether chimerical. Many immoral men have attacked the Christian religion, because it opposed their propensities; many wise men have despised it, because to them it appeared ridiculous; many persons have looked upon it with indifference, because they did not feel its real inconveniences. I attack it as a citizen, because it appears to me to be injurious to the welfare of the state, an enemy to the progress of the human mind, and opposed to the principles of true morality, from which political interests can never be separated. It remains only for me to say, with a poet, who was, like myself, an enemy to superstition:

Si tibi vera videtur, Dede manus, et si falsa est, accingere contra.

I am, &c.

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