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Superstition in All Ages Paperback – May 5, 2011
"Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress"
Is the world really falling apart? Is the ideal of progress obsolete? Cognitive scientist and public intellectual Steven Pinker urges us to step back from the gory headlines and prophecies of doom, and instead, follow the data: In seventy-five jaw-dropping graphs, Pinker shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise. Learn more
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Jean Meslier (1664-1729), was a French Catholic priest who was discovered, upon his death, to have written this “Testament” which denounces religion and endorses atheism. In a letter from Voltaire to D’Alembert (February, 1762), Voltaire said of this book, “I trembled with horror in reading it. The testimony of a priest, who, in dying, asks God’s pardon for having taught Christianity.”
In the Preface, Meslier wrote, “all religion is but a castle in the air; that Theology is but ignorance of natural causes reduced to a system; that it is but a long tissue of chimeras and contradictions; that it presents to all different nations of the earth only romances devoid of probability, of which the hero himself is made up of qualities impossible to reconcile, his name having the power to excite in all hearts respect and fear, is found to be but a vague word, which men continually utter, being able to attach to it only such ideas or qualities as are belied by the facts, or which evidently contradict each other.” He adds, “Long enough have the instructors of the people fixed their eyes on heaven; let them at last bring them back to the earth…To annihilate religious prejudices it would be sufficient to show that what is inconceivable to man can not be of any use to him.”
He asserts, “All children are atheists---they have no idea of God; are they, then, criminal on account of this ignorance? At what age do they begin to be obliged to believe in God? It is, you say, at the age of reason. At what time does this age begin?” (XXX) He adds, “The instructors of the human race act very prudently in teaching men their religious principles before they are able to distinguish the true from the false, or the left hand from the right. It would be as difficult to tame the spirit of a man forty years old with the extravagant notions which are given us of Divinity, as to banish these notions from the head of a man who has imbibed them since his tenderest infancy.” (XXXV)
He observes, “Nature, you say, is totally inexplicable without a God; that is to say, in order to explain what you understand so little, you need a cause which you do not understand at all. You pretend to make clear that which is obscure, by magnifying its obscurity. You think you have untied a knot by multiplying knots.” (XXXVIII)
He states, “According to the notions of modern theology, it appears evident that God has created the majority of men with the view only of punishing them eternally. Would it not have been more in conformity with kindness, with reason, with equity, to create but stones or plants, and not sentient beings, than to create men whose conduct in this world would cause them eternal chastisements in another? A God so perfidious and wicked as to create a single man and leave him exposed to the perils of damnation, can not be regarded as a perfect being, but as a monster of nonsense, injustice, malice, and atrocity.” (LXII)
He asks, “Why did God create a Satan, a malicious spirit, a tempter? Why did not God, who was so desirous of doing good to mankind, why did He no annihilate, once for all, so many evil genii whose nature rendered them enemies of our happiness? Or rather, why did God create evil spirits, whose victories and terrible influences upon the human race He must have foreseen? Finally, by what fatality, in all the religions of the world, has the evil principle such a marked advantage over the good principle or over Divinity?” (LXXIV)
He denies freedom of the will: “you will say, ‘I feel myself free.’ It is an illusion which may be compared to that of the fly in the fable, which, lighting upon the shaft of a heavy wagon, applauded itself as driver of the vehicle which carried it. Man who believes himself free, is a fly who believes himself the master-motor in the machine of the universe, while he himself, without his own volition, is carried on by it.” (LXXX)
He contends, “There are in the human race, beings as different from one another as man is from a horse or dog. What conformity or resemblance do we find between some men? What an infinite distance between the genius of a Locke, of a Newton, and that of a peasant, or a Hottentot, or of a Laplander? Man differs from other animals but by the difference of his organization, which causes him to produce effects of which they are not capable.” (XCVI)
He points out, “If I ask what ground we have for supposing that the soul is immortal: they reply, it is because man by his nature desires to be immortal, or to live forever. But I rejoin, if you desire anything very much, is it sufficient to conclude that this desire will be fulfilled? By what strange logic so they decide that a thing can not fail to happen because they ardently desire it to happen? Man’s childish desires of the imagination, are they the measure of reality?” (CI)
He argues, “The dogma of the immortality of the soul assumes that the soul is a simple substance, a spirit; but I will always ask, what is a spirit? It is, you say, a substance deprived of expansion, incorruptible, and which has nothing in common with matter. But if this is true, how came your soul into existence? How did it grow? How did it strengthen? How weaken itself, get out of order, and grow old with your body? In reply to all these questions, you say that they are mysteries; but if they are mysteries, you understand nothing about them. If you do not understand anything about them, how can you positively affirm anything about them?” (CIII)
He suggests, “A universal God ought to have revealed a universal religion. By what fatality are so many different religions found upon the earth? Which is the true one amongst the great number of those which each one pretends to be the right one, to the exclusion of all others? We have every reason to believe that not one of them enjoys this advantage. The divisions and the disputes about opinions are indisputable signs of the uncertainty and of the obscurity of the principles which they profess.” (CXIV)
He notes, “The Christian religion which was originally preached by beggars and by very wretched men, strongly recommends alms-giving under the name of charity… Nothing, no doubt, is better suited to humanity than to assist the unfortunate to clothe the naked, to lend a charitable hand to whoever needs it. But would it not be more humane and more charitable to foresee the misery and to prevent the poor from increasing? If religion, instead of deifying princes, had but taught them to respect the property of their subjects, to be just, and to exercise but their legitimate rights, we should not see such a great number of mendicants in their realms.” (CLXIX)
He points out, “The law that compels man not to harm himself, is inherent in the nature of a sensible being who, no matter how he came into this world, or what can be his fate in another, is compelled by his very nature to seek his welfare and to shun evil, to love pleasure and to fear pain. The law which compels a man not to harm others and to do good, is inherent in the nature of sensible beings living in society, who, by their nature, are compelled to despise those who oppose their happiness. Whether these exists a God or not, whether this God has spoken or not, men’s moral duties will always be the same so long as they possess their own nature; that is to say, so long as they are sensible beings.” (CLXXI)
He advises, “Princes! Lay aside your idle fancies, your unintelligible dogmas, your despicable quarrels… instead of entertaining the people with foolish disputes, or preaching useless and fanatical virtues, preach to them humane and social morality; preach to them virtues which are really useful in the world; become the apostles of reason… the defenders of liberty, reformers of abuses, the friends of truth, and we will bless you, and you will be sure of holding an eternal empire over the hearts of your fellow-beings.” (CXC)
He states, “The adherents of credulity often accuse the unbelievers of bad faith because they sometimes waver in their principles, changing opinions during sickness, and retracting them at the hour of death. When the body is diseased, the faculty of reasoning is generally disturbed also. The infirm and decrepit man, in approaching his end, sometimes perceives himself that reason is leaving him, he feels that prejudice returns. There are diseases which have a tendency to lessen courage… and to enfeeble the brain… However, an unbeliever who retracts in sickness, is not more rare or more extraordinary than a devotionist who permits himself, while in health, to neglect the duties that his religion prescribes for him in the most formal manner.” (CXCII)
Meslier’s book (and the story behind it) are one of the most fascinating of the Enlightenment; this book will be of great interest to atheists, skeptics, and other freethinkers.