OF THE COMPARISON SO OFTEN MADE BETWEEN ATHEISM AND IDOLATRY
It seems to me that in the "Encyclopedic Dictionary" the opinion of the
Jesuit Richeome, on atheists and idolaters, has not been refuted as
strongly as it might have been; opinion held formerly by St. Thomas, St.
Gregory of Nazianze, St. Cyprian and Tertullian, opinion that Arnobius
set forth with much force when he said to the pagans: "Do you not blush
to reproach us with despising your gods, and is it not much more proper
to believe in no God at all, than to impute to them infamous
actions?" opinion established long before by Plutarch, who says "that
he much prefers people to say there is no Plutarch, than to say--'There
is an inconstant, choleric, vindictive Plutarch'"; opinion
strengthened finally by all the effort of Bayle's dialectic.
Here is the ground of dispute, brought to fairly dazzling light by the
Jesuit Richeome, and rendered still more plausible by the way Bayle has
turned it to account.
"There are two porters at the door of a house; they are asked: 'Can one
speak to your master?' 'He is not there,' answers one. 'He is there,'
answers the other, 'but he is busy making counterfeit money, forged
contracts, daggers and poisons, to undo those who have but accomplished
his purposes.' The atheist resembles the first of these porters, the
pagan the other. It is clear, therefore, that the pagan offends the
Deity more gravely than does the atheist."
With Father Richeome's and even Bayle's permission, that is not at all
the position of the matter. For the first porter to resemble the
atheists, he must not say--"My master is not here": he should say--"I
have no master; him whom you claim to be my master does not exist; my
comrade is a fool to tell you that he is busy compounding poisons and
sharpening daggers to assassinate those who have executed his caprices.
No such being exists in the world."
Richeome has reasoned, therefore, very badly. And Bayle, in his somewhat
diffuse discourses, has forgotten himself so far as to do Richeome the
honour of annotating him very malapropos.
Plutarch seems to express himself much better in preferring people who
affirm there is no Plutarch, to those who claim Plutarch to be an
unsociable man. In truth, what does it matter to him that people say he
is not in the world? But it matters much to him that his reputation be
not tarnished. It is not thus with the Supreme Being.
Plutarch even does not broach the real object under discussion. It is
not a question of knowing who offends more the Supreme Being, whether it
be he who denies Him, or he who distorts Him. It is impossible to know
otherwise than by revelation, if God is offended by the empty things men
say of Him.
Without a thought, philosophers fall almost always into the ideas of the
common herd, in supposing God to be jealous of His glory, to be
choleric, to love vengeance, and in taking rhetorical figures for real
ideas. The interesting subject for the whole universe, is to know if it
be not better, for the good of all mankind, to admit a rewarding and
revengeful God, who recompenses good actions hidden, and who punishes
secret crimes, than to admit none at all.
Bayle exhausts himself in recounting all the infamies imputed by fable
to the gods of antiquity. His adversaries answer him with commonplaces
that signify nothing. The partisans of Bayle and his enemies have
almost always fought without making contact. They all agree that Jupiter
was an adulterer, Venus a wanton, Mercury a rogue. But, as I see it,
that is not what needs consideration. One must distinguish between
Ovid's Metamorphoses and the religion of the ancient Romans. It is quite
certain that never among the Romans or even among the Greeks, was there
a temple dedicated to Mercury the rogue, Venus the wanton, Jupiter the
The god whom the Romans called _Deus optimus_, very good, very great,
was not reputed to encourage Clodius to sleep with Caesar's wife, or
Caesar to be King Nicomedes' Sodomite.
Cicero does not say that Mercury incited Verres to steal Sicily,
although Mercury, in the fable, had stolen Apollo's cows. The real
religion of the ancients was that Jupiter, _very good and very just_,
and the secondary gods, punished the perjurer in the infernal regions.
Likewise the Romans were long the most religious observers of oaths.
Religion was very useful, therefore, to the Romans. There was no command
to believe in Leda's two eggs, in the changing of Inachus' daughter into
a cow, in the love of Apollo for Hyacinthus.
One must not say therefore that the religion of Numa dishonoured the
Deity. For a long time, therefore, people have been disputing over a
chimera; which happens only too often.
The question is then asked whether a nation of atheists can exist; it
seems to me that one must distinguish between the nation properly so
called, and a society of philosophers above the nation. It is very true
that in every country the populace has need of the greatest curb, and
that if Bayle had had only five or six hundred peasants to govern, he
would not have failed to announce to them the existence of a God,
rewarder and revenger. But Bayle would not have spoken of Him to the
Epicureans who were rich people, fond of rest, cultivating all the
social virtues, and above all friendship, fleeing the embarrassment and
danger of public affairs, in fine, leading a comfortable and innocent
life. It seems to me that in this way the dispute is finished as regards
society and politics.
For entirely savage races, it has been said already that one cannot
count them among either the atheists or the theists. Asking them their
belief would be like asking them if they are for Aristotle or
Democritus: they know nothing; they are not atheists any more than they
In this case, I shall answer that the wolves live like this, and that an
assembly of cannibal barbarians such as you suppose them is not a
society; and I shall always ask you if, when you have lent your money to
someone in your society, you want neither your debtor, nor your
attorney, nor your judge, to believe in God.
OF MODERN ATHEISTS. REASONS OF THE WORSHIPPERS OF GOD
We are intelligent beings: intelligent beings cannot have been formed by
a crude, blind, insensible being: there is certainly some difference
between the ideas of Newton and the dung of a mule. Newton's
intelligence, therefore, came from another intelligence.
When we see a beautiful machine, we say that there is a good engineer,
and that this engineer has excellent judgment. The world is assuredly an
admirable machine; therefore there is in the world an admirable
intelligence, wherever it may be. This argument is old, and none the
worse for that.
All living bodies are composed of levers, of pulleys, which function
according to the laws of mechanics; of liquids which the laws of
hydrostatics cause to circulate perpetually; and when one thinks that
all these beings have a perception quite unrelated to their
organization, one is overwhelmed with surprise.
The movement of the heavenly bodies, that of our little earth round the
sun, all operate by virtue of the most profound mathematical law. How
Plato who was not aware of one of these laws, eloquent but visionary
Plato, who said that the earth was erected on an equilateral triangle,
and the water on a right-angled triangle; strange Plato, who says there
can be only five worlds, because there are only five regular bodies:
how, I say, did Plato, who did not know even spherical trigonometry,
have nevertheless a genius sufficiently fine, an instinct sufficiently
happy, to call God the "Eternal Geometer," to feel the existence of a
creative intelligence? Spinoza himself admits it. It is impossible to
strive against this truth which surrounds us and which presses on us
from all sides.
REASONS OF THE ATHEISTS
Notwithstanding, I have known refractory persons who say that there is
no creative intelligence at all, and that movement alone has by itself
formed all that we see and all that we are. They tell you brazenly:
"The combination of this universe was possible, seeing that the
combination exists: therefore it was possible that movement alone
arranged it. Take four of the heavenly bodies only, Mars, Venus, Mercury
and the Earth: let us think first only of the place where they are,
setting aside all the rest, and let us see how many probabilities we
have that movement alone put them in their respective places. We have
only twenty-four chances in this combination, that is, there are only
twenty-four chances against one to bet that these bodies will not be
where they are with reference to each other. Let us add to these four
globes that of Jupiter; there will be only a hundred and twenty against
one to bet that Jupiter, Mars, Venus, Mercury and our globe, will not be
placed where we see them.
"Add finally Saturn: there will be only seven hundred and twenty chances
against one, for putting these six big planets in the arrangement they
preserve among themselves, according to their given distances. It is
therefore demonstrated that in seven hundred and twenty throws,
movement alone has been able to put these six principal planets in their
"Take then all the secondary bodies, all their combinations, all their
movements, all the beings that vegetate, that live, that feel, that
think, that function in all the globes, you will have but to increase
the number of chances; multiply this number in all eternity, up to the
number which our feebleness calls 'infinity,' there will always be a
unity in favour of the formation of the world, such as it is, by
movement alone: therefore it is possible that in all eternity the
movement of matter alone has produced the entire universe such as it
exists. It is even inevitable that in eternity this combination should
occur. Thus," they say, "not only is it possible for the world to be
what it is by movement alone, but it was impossible for it not to be
likewise after an infinity of combinations."
All this supposition seems to me prodigiously fantastic, for two
reasons; first, that in this universe there are intelligent beings, and
that you would not know how to prove it possible for movement alone to
produce understanding; second, that, from your own avowal, there is
infinity against one to bet, that an intelligent creative cause animates
the universe. When one is alone face to face with the infinite, one
feels very small.
Again, Spinoza himself admits this intelligence; it is the basis of his
system. You have not read it, and it must be read. Why do you want to go
further than him, and in foolish arrogance plunge your feeble reason in
an abyss into which Spinoza dared not descend? Do you realize thoroughly
the extreme folly of saying that it is a blind cause that arranges that
the square of a planet's revolution is always to the square of the
revolutions of other planets, as the cube of its distance is to the cube
of the distances of the others to the common centre? Either the
heavenly bodies are great geometers, or the Eternal Geometer has
arranged the heavenly bodies.
But where is the Eternal Geometer? is He in one place or in all places,
without occupying space? I have no idea. Is it of His own substance that
He has arranged all things? I have no idea. Is He immense without
quantity and without quality? I have no idea. All that I know is that
one must worship Him and be just.
NEW OBJECTION OF A MODERN ATHEIST
Can one say that the parts of animals conform to their needs: what are
these needs? preservation and propagation. Is it astonishing then that,
of the infinite combinations which chance has produced, there has been
able to subsist only those that have organs adapted to the nourishment
and continuation of their species? have not all the others perished of
This objection, oft-repeated since Lucretius, is sufficiently refuted by
the gift of sensation in animals, and by the gift of intelligence in
man. How should combinations "which chance has produced," produce this
sensation and this intelligence (as has just been said in the preceding
paragraph)? Without any doubt the limbs of animals are made for their
needs with incomprehensible art, and you are not so bold as to deny it.
You say no more about it. You feel that you have nothing to answer to
this great argument which nature brings against you. The disposition of
a fly's wing, a snail's organs suffices to bring you to the ground.
Modern natural philosophers have but expanded these so-called arguments,
often they have pushed them to trifling and indecency. They have found
God in the folds of the skin of the rhinoceros: one could, with equal
reason, deny His existence because of the tortoise's shell.
What reasoning! The tortoise and the rhinoceros, and all the different
species, are proof equally in their infinite variety of the same cause,
the same design, the same aim, which are preservation, generation and
There is unity in this infinite variety; the shell and the skin bear
witness equally. What! deny God because shell does not resemble leather!
And journalists have been prodigal of eulogies about these ineptitudes,
eulogies they have not given to Newton and Locke, both worshippers of
the Deity who spoke with full knowledge.
Of what use are beauty and proportion in the construction of the snake?
They may have uses, some say, of which we are ignorant. At least let us
be silent then; let us not admire an animal which we know only by the
harm it does.
And be you silent too, seeing that you cannot conceive its utility any
more than I can; or avow that in reptiles everything is admirably
Some are venomous, you have been so yourself. Here there is question
only of the prodigious art which has formed snakes, quadrupeds, birds,
fish and bipeds. This art is sufficiently evident. You ask why the snake
does harm? And you, why have you done harm so many times? Why have you
been a persecutor? which is the greatest of all crimes for a
philosopher. That is another question, a question of moral and physical
ill. For long has one asked why there are so many snakes and so many
wicked men worse than snakes. If flies could reason, they would complain
to God of the existence of spiders; but they would admit what Minerva
admitted about Arachne, in the fable, that she arranges her web
One is bound therefore to recognize an ineffable intelligence which even
Spinoza admitted. One must agree that this intelligence shines in the
vilest insect as in the stars. And as regards moral and physical ill,
what can one say, what do? console oneself by enjoying physical and
moral good, in worshipping the Eternal Being who has made one and
permitted the other.
One more word on this subject. Atheism is the vice of a few intelligent
persons, and superstition is the vice of fools. But rogues! what are
Let us say a word on the moral question set in action by Bayle, to know
"if a society of atheists could exist?" Let us mark first of all in this
matter what is the enormous contradiction of men in this dispute; those
who have risen against Bayle's opinion with the greatest ardour; those
who have denied with the greatest insults the possibility of a society
of atheists, have since maintained with the same intrepidity that
atheism is the religion of the government of China.
Assuredly they are quite mistaken about the Chinese government; they had
but to read the edicts of the emperors of this vast country to have
seen that these edicts are sermons, and that everywhere there is mention
of the Supreme Being, ruler, revenger, rewarder.
But at the same time they are not less mistaken on the impossibility of
a society of atheists; and I do not know how Mr. Bayle can have
forgotten one striking example which was capable of making his cause
In what does a society of atheists appear impossible? It is that one
judges that men who had no check could never live together; that laws
can do nothing against secret crimes; that a revengeful God who punishes
in this world or the other the wicked who have escaped human justice is
The laws of Moses, it is true, did not teach a life to come, did not
threaten punishments after death, did not teach the first Jews the
immortality of the soul; but the Jews, far from being atheists, far from
believing in avoiding divine vengeance, were the most religious of all
men. Not only did they believe in the existence of an eternal God, but
they believed Him always present among them; they trembled lest they be
punished in themselves, in their wives, in their children, in their
posterity, even unto the fourth generation; this curb was very potent.
But, among the Gentiles, many sects had no curb; the sceptics doubted
everything: the academicians suspended judgment on everything; the
Epicureans were persuaded that the Deity could not mix Himself in the
affairs of men; and at bottom, they admitted no Deity. They were
convinced that the soul is not a substance, but a faculty which is born
and which perishes with the body; consequently they had no yoke other
than morality and honour. The Roman senators and knights were veritable
atheists, for the gods did not exist for men who neither feared nor
hoped anything from them. The Roman senate in the time of Caesar and
Cicero, was therefore really an assembly of atheists.
That great orator, in his harangue for Cluentius, says to the whole
senate in assembly: "What ill does death do him? we reject all the inept
fables of the nether regions: of what then has death deprived him? of
nothing but the consciousness of suffering."
Does not Caesar, the friend of Cataline, wishing to save his friend's
life against this same Cicero, object to him that to make a criminal die
is not to punish him at all, that death _is nothing_, that it is merely
the end of our ills, that it is a moment more happy than calamitous? And
do not Cicero and the whole senate surrender to these reasons? The
conquerors and the legislators of the known universe formed visibly
therefore a society of men who feared nothing from the gods, who were
Further on Bayle examines whether idolatry is more dangerous than
atheism, if it is a greater crime not to believe in the Deity than to
have unworthy opinions thereof: in that he is of Plutarch's opinion; he
believes it is better to have no opinion than to have a bad opinion; but
with all deference to Plutarch, it was clearly infinitely better for the
Greeks to fear Ceres, Neptune and Jupiter, than to fear nothing at all.
The sanctity of oaths is clearly necessary, and one should have more
confidence in those who believe that a false oath will be punished, than
in those who think they can make a false oath with impunity. It is
indubitable that in a civilized town, it is infinitely more useful to
have a religion, even a bad one, than to have none at all.
It looks, therefore, that Bayle should have examined rather which is the
more dangerous, fanaticism or atheism. Fanaticism is certainly a
thousand times more deadly; for atheism inspires no bloody passion,
whereas fanaticism does: atheism is not opposed to crime, but fanaticism
causes crimes to be committed. Fanatics committed the massacres of St.
Bartholomew. Hobbes passed for an atheist; he led a tranquil and
innocent life. The fanatics of his time deluged England, Scotland and
Ireland with blood. Spinoza was not only atheist, but he taught atheism;
it was not he assuredly who took part in the judicial assassination of
Barneveldt; it was not he who tore the brothers De Witt in pieces, and
who ate them grilled.
The atheists are for the most part impudent and misguided scholars who
reason badly, and who not being able to understand the creation, the
origin of evil, and other difficulties, have recourse to the hypothesis
of the eternity of things and of inevitability.
The ambitious, the sensual, have hardly time for reasoning, and for
embracing a bad system; they have other things to do than comparing
Lucretius with Socrates. That is how things go among us.
That was not how things went with the Roman senate which was almost
entirely composed of atheists in theory and in practice, that is to say,
who believed in neither a Providence nor a future life; this senate was
an assembly of philosophers, of sensualists and ambitious men, all very
dangerous, who ruined the republic. Epicureanism existed under the
emperors: the atheists of the senate had been rebels in the time of
Sylla and Caesar: under Augustus and Tiberius they were atheist slaves.
I would not wish to have to deal with an atheist prince, who would find
it to his interest to have me ground to powder in a mortar: I should be
quite sure of being ground to powder. If I were a sovereign, I would not
wish to have to deal with atheist courtiers, whose interest it would be
to poison me: I should have to be taking antidotes every day. It is
therefore absolutely necessary for princes and for peoples, that the
idea of a Supreme Being, creator, ruler, rewarder, revenger, shall be
deeply engraved in people's minds.
Bayle says, in his "Thoughts on the Comets," that there are atheist
peoples. The Caffres, the Hottentots, the Topinambous, and many other
small nations, have no God: they neither deny nor affirm; they have
never heard speak of Him; tell them that there is a God: they will
believe it easily; tell them that everything happens through the nature
of things; they will believe you equally. To claim that they are
atheists is to make the same imputation as if one said they are
anti-Cartesian; they are neither for nor against Descartes. They are
real children; a child is neither atheist nor deist, he is nothing.
What conclusion shall we draw from all this? That atheism is a very
pernicious monster in those who govern; that it is also pernicious in
the persons around statesmen, although their lives may be innocent,
because from their cabinets it may pierce right to the statesmen
themselves; that if it is not so deadly as fanaticism, it is nearly
always fatal to virtue. Let us add especially that there are less
atheists to-day than ever, since philosophers have recognized that there
is no being vegetating without germ, no germ without a plan, etc., and
that wheat comes in no wise from putrefaction.
Some geometers who are not philosophers have rejected final causes, but
real philosophers admit them; a catechist proclaims God to the children,
and Newton demonstrates Him to the learned.
If there are atheists, whom must one blame, if not the mercenary tyrants
of souls, who, making us revolt against their knaveries, force a few
weak minds to deny the God whom these monsters dishonour. How many times
have the people's leeches brought oppressed citizens to the point of
revolting against their king!
Men fattened on our substance cry to us: "Be persuaded that a she-ass
has spoken; believe that a fish has swallowed a man and has given him up
at the end of three days safe and sound on the shore; have no doubt that
the God of the universe ordered one Jewish prophet to eat excrement
(Ezekiel), and another prophet to buy two whores and to make with them
sons of whoredom (Hosea). These are the very words that the God of truth
and purity has been made to utter; believe a hundred things either
visibly abominable or mathematically impossible; unless you do, the God
of pity will burn you, not only during millions of thousands of millions
of centuries in the fire of hell, but through all eternity, whether you
have a body, whether you have not."
These inconceivable absurdities revolt weak and rash minds, as well as
wise and resolute minds. They say: "Our masters paint God to us as the
most insensate and the most barbarous of all beings; therefore there is
no God;" but they should say: therefore our masters attribute to God
their absurdities and their furies, therefore God is the contrary of
what they proclaim, therefore God is as wise and as good as they make
him out mad and wicked. It is thus that wise men account for things. But
if a bigot hears them, he denounces them to a magistrate who is a
watchdog of the priests; and this watchdog has them burned over a slow
fire, in the belief that he is avenging and imitating the divine majesty
 Arnobius, _Adversus Gentes._, lib. v.
 _Of Superstition_, by Plutarch.
 See Bayle, _Continuation of Divers Thoughts_, par. 77, art. XIII.
 See, for this objection, Maupertuis' Essay on Cosmology, first part.