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Chapter 9

ON ATHEISM.


BIRTON.—You must not expect such success, sir, on the subject of goodness, as you have had on ingenuity and power. First, I shall touch on the misconstructions of our globe, in many instances opposed to the cleverness so much boasted of; then I intend to dwell on the perpetual crimes and misfortunes of the inhabitants; and you will judge of the great ruler's paternal affection for them.

I shall begin by telling you that in Gloucestershire, my county, when we breed horses, we rear them with care, in fine pasturage and good stables, with hay and oats. Pray, what shelter and food had these poor Americans, when we discovered their continent? They were obliged to scour over thirty or forty miles for food. All the northern coast of the old world is exposed to the same cruel necessity; and from Swedish Laponia to the Sea of Japan, a hundred tribes spend a life as short as it is wretched, in the most complete want, amidst eternal snows.

Fine climates are continually exposed to destructive scourges. There we walk over burning precipices, covered by fertile plains, which prove but deadly snares. There is no hell but this, doubtless; and it opens a hundred times beneath our feet.

They tell us of an universal deluge, an event physically impossible, and at which all sensible people laugh. But they console us by saying it only lasted ten months. I wonder it did not put out the fires which have since destroyed so many flourishing towns. Your St. Augustin tells us of a hundred cities burnt or swallowed up in Lydia, by an earthquake. Volcanoes have several times devastated lovely Italy. As a crowning misfortune, the inhabitants of the Arctic Circle are not exempt from these subterranean fires. The Icelander, always in alarm, has hunger staring him in the face, and a hundred feet of flame or ice to the right or left, under their Mount Hecla; for the great volcanoes are always found among terrible mountains.

It is in vain to say that mountains of two thousand toises in elevation are nothing on a globe nine thousand miles in diameter, or like the irregularities of an orange compared with the bulk of that fruit—that it is scarcely one foot to every three thousand feet. Alas! What then are we, if high mountains are but as figures one foot high for every three thousand feet, or four inches for every nine thousand inches? We are then animals absolutely imperceptible; yet we are liable to be crushed by all that surrounds us, though our infinite littleness, so closely bordering on nothing, might seem to secure us from all accidents. Besides the countless cities, destroyed and re-destroyed like as many ant-hills, what shall we say to the seas of sand that cross the centre of Africa, and whose burning waves, raised by the wind, have buried entire armies? What is the use of the vast deserts on the borders of Syria,—deserts so horrible that the ferocious animals, called Jews, imagined they had reached Paradise when they passed from these scenes of horror into a little corner of land where they could cultivate a few acres? It is not enough that man (the noble creature) should be so ill lodged, clothed, and fed, for so many ages. He comes into the world to live for a few days, perplexed by deceitful hopes and real vexations. His body, contrived with useless art, is a prey to all the ills resulting from that very art. He lives between the dangers of poison and plague. No one can remember the list of ills we are subject to; and the modest doctors of Switzerland pretend they can cure them all.



While Birton said this, the company listened with attention and even emotion. Parouba said "Let us see how the doctor will get over this."

Even John said in a low tone: "On my word, he is right. I was a fool to be so soon touched by my father's conversation."

Mr. Freind waited till their imaginations were a little recovered from the assault, and then resumed the discussion.



FREIND.—A young theologian would answer these sad truths by sophisms, backed with quotations from St. Basil and St. Cyril. For my part, I shall admit that there are many physical evils in the world. I will not even lessen the number, though Mr. Birton has seen fit to exaggerate. I ask you, my dear Parouba, is not your climate made for you? It cannot be injurious, since neither you nor your companions wish to leave it. Esquimaux, Icelanders, Laplanders, Asiatics, and Indians, never think of leaving theirs. The reindeer, which God has sent to clothe and feed them, die when transported to another zone. Laplanders themselves die in southern climates. The south of Siberia is too warm for them; here they would be burnt. It is evident that God made every kind of animal and vegetable for the clime in which it thrives. Negroes, a race of men so different to ours, are so thoroughly formed for their country, that thousands of them have preferred death to slavery elsewhere. The camel and ostrich are quite at home in the sands of Africa. The bull abounds in fertile countries, where the grass is ever fresh for his nourishment. Cinnamon and spice only grow in India. Barley is only useful in those countries where God has appointed it to grow. From one end of America to the other, you have different kinds of food. The vine cannot be brought to perfection in England, nor in Sweden and Canada. This is the reason that in some countries the elements of religious rites consist in bread and wine; and they do well to thank God for the food and beverage his goodness has provided; and Americans would do well to thank him for their Indian corn and arrow-root. Throughout the world God has suited all animals, from the snail to man, to the countries in which he has placed them. Let us not reproach Providence when we owe him praises.

But to consider scourges, such as inundations, volcanoes, earthquakes. If you confine your attention to the accidents which sometimes happen to the wheels of the eternal machine, you may well consider God as a tyrant; but observe his ceaseless benefits, and he becomes a compassionate father. You have quoted Augustin and his account of the destruction of a hundred cities; but remember the African rhetorician often contradicts himself and was prodigal of exaggerations in his writings. He wrote of earthquakes as he did of the efficacy of grace, and the damnation of children dying without baptism. Has he not said in his thirty-seventh sermon, that he had seen people at Ethiopia with one eye in the middle of the forehead like the Cyclops, and a whole race without heads?

We, who are not fathers of the church, ought not to go beyond nor to stop short of truth; and the truth is, that of the houses destroyed, we cannot reckon that more than one out of every hundred thousand, is destroyed by the fires necessary to the due performance of the operations of the world.

So essential to the nature of the universe is fire, that but for it there would be no sun nor stars, no animals, vegetables, or minerals. The fire, placed under the earth, is subject to fixed natural laws. Some disasters may nevertheless occur. You cannot say a man is a poor artisan when an immense machine, formed by him, lasts unimpaired for years. If a man invented a hydraulic engine to water a province, would you disparage his work because it destroys some insects?

I have shown you that the machine of the world is the work of an intelligent and powerful being; you, who are intelligent, ought to admire him,—you, who are laden with his gifts, ought to adore him.

But how, you inquire, can the wretches who are condemned to languish under incurable evils—how can they admire and love? I must tell you, that such ills are generally brought on ourselves, or come to us from our fathers, who abused their bodies, and not from the great fabricator. No disease but decrepitude was known in America till we introduced strong liquors, the source of all evils.

Let us remember that in Milton's Poem, the simple Adam is made to inquire if he will live long. Yes, is the reply, if you take nothing to excess. Observe this rule, my friends. Can you require that God should let you live for ages, as the reward of your gluttony, your drunkenness, your incontinence, and your indulgence in infamous passions, which corrupt the blood and necessarily shorten life?



I approved of this reply. Parouba liked it; but Birton was not moved. I read in John's eyes that he was still doubtful. Birton rejoined in these terms:

BIRTON.—Since you have made use of common arguments, with a few novel remarks, I may be allowed to follow your plan. If so good and powerful a God existed, surely he would not have suffered evil to enter the world, nor have devoted his creatures to grief and crime. If he cannot prevent evil, he is not almighty; if he will not, he is cruel.

The annals of the Brahmins only extend back 8,000 years; those of the Chinese only 5,000. Our knowledge is but of yesterday; but, in that brief space, all is horror. Murder has been the practice from one end of the earth to the other; and men have been weak enough to give to those men who slew the greatest number of their fellow creatures, the titles of heroes, demi-gods, and even gods.

In America there were left two great nations, beginning to enjoy the sweets of peace and civilization, when the Spaniards came there to slay eleven millions. They hunted men down with dogs; and King Ferdinand of Castile gave those dogs pensions for their services.

The heroes who subdued the New World, massacred innocent and helpless babes, murdered peaceable and defenceless Indians, and committed the most inhuman barbarities! They roasted King Guatimozin, in Mexico, on a gridiron. They hastened to Peru to convert the Inca, Atahualpa. A priest, named Almagro, son of a priest condemned to be hanged in Spain for highway robbery, went there with one Pizarro, to inform the Emperor of the Peruvians, by the voice of another priest, that a third priest, named Alexander IV., polluted by incest, assassination, and homicide, had given, with his full consent (proprio motu) and with full power, not only Peru, but one half of the New World, to the King of Spain; and that Atahualpa ought instantly to submit, under pain of suffering the indignation of the apostles Peter and Paul. But as this king knew as little of Latin as the priest who read the papal bull, he was instantly declared heretical and incredulous.

They burned Atahualpa, as they had burned Guatimozin. They slew his people; and all to gain that hard and yellow earth which has only served to depopulate and impoverish Spain; for it has made her neglect the cultivation of the earth, which really nourishes man.

Now, my dear Mr. Freind, if the fantastic and ridiculous being men call the devil, had wished to make men in his image, would he have made them otherwise? Do not, then, attribute such an abominable work to God.



This speech brought the party round again to Birton's views. I saw John rejoice in himself; even young Parouba heard with horror of the priest Almagro—of the priest who read the Latin bull—of the priest Alexander IV.—-of all Christians who committed, under pretence of devotion, such crimes to obtain gold. I confess, I trembled for Freind. I despaired of his cause. He replied, however, without embarrassment.

FREIND.—Remember, my friends, there is a God. This I proved to you, you agreed to it, and after being driven to admit that he exists, you strive to find out his imperfections, vices, and wickedness.

I am far from asserting, with some reasoners, that private ills form the general good. This is too ridiculous a sentiment. I admit, with grief, that the world contains much moral and physical evil: but, since it is certain that God exists, it is also certain that all these evils cannot prevent God's existence. He cannot be cruel. What interest could make him so? There are horrible evils in the world, my friends. Let us not swell their number. It is impossible that God can be other than good; but men are perverse, and make a detestable use of the liberty that God has given and ought to have given,—that is, the power of exercising their wills, without which they would be simple machines, formed by a wicked being, to be broken at his caprice.

All enlightened Spaniards agree that a small number of their ancestors abused this liberty so far as to commit crimes that make human nature shudder. The second Don Carlos did what he could to repair the atrocities committed by the Spaniards under Ferdinand and Charles V.

If there be crime in the world, my friends, there is virtue as well.

BIRTON.—Ah! ha! virtue! A good joke! I should like to see this virtue. Where is she to be found?

At these words I could not contain myself.

"You may find her," said I, "in the worthy Mr. Freind, in Parouba, even in yourself when your heart is cleansed of its vices."

He blushed; and John also. The latter looked down and seemed to feel remorse. His father surveyed him with compassion and resumed.

FREIND.—Yes, dear friends. If there have always been crimes; there have always been virtues too. Athens had such men as Socrates, as well as such as Anitus. Rome had Catos, as well as Syllas. Nero frightened the world by his atrocities, but Titus, Trajan, and the Antonines, consoled it by their benevolence, My friend will explain to Parouba who these great men were. Fortunately, I have Epictetus in my pocket. Epictetus was a slave, but the equal of Marcus Aurelius in mind. Listen; and may all who pretend to teach men hear what Epictetus says to himself,—"God made me; I feel this; and shall I dare to dishonor him by infamous thoughts, criminal actions, and base desires?" His mind agreed with his conversation. Marcus Aurelius, on the throne of Europe and two parts of our hemisphere, did not think otherwise than the slave Epictetus. The one was never humiliated by meanness, nor the other dazzled by greatness; and when they wrote their thoughts it was for the use of their disciples, and not to be extolled in the papers. Pray, in your opinion, were not Locke, Newton, Tillotson, Penn, Clarke, the good man called "The Man of Ross," and many others, in and beyond your island, models of virtue?

You have alluded to the cruel and unjust wars of which so many nations have been guilty. You have described the abominations of Christians in Mexico and Peru; you might add the St. Bartholomew of France and the Irish massacre. But are there not people who have always held in abhorrence the shedding of blood? Have not the Brahmins in all ages given this example to the world? and, even in this country, have we not near us, in Pennsylvania, our Philadelphians, whom they attempt in vain to ridicule by the name of Quakers, and who have always hated war?

Have we not the Carolinas, where the great Locke dictated laws? In these two lands of virtue, all citizens are equal; all consciences are free; all religions good; provided they worship God. There all men are brethren. You have seen, Mr. Birton, the inhabitants of the Blue Mountains lay down their arms before a descendant of Penn. They felt the force of virtue. You persist in disavowing it. Because the earth produces poisons as well as wholesome plants, will you prefer the poisons?

BIRTON.—Oh, sir, your poisons are not to the point. If God made them, they are his work. He is master, and does all. His hand directs Cromwell's, when he signs the death warrant of Charles I. His arm conducts the headsman's, who severs his head from the body. No, I cannot admit that God is a homicide.

FREIND.—Nor I. Pray, hear me. You will admit that God governs by general laws. According to these laws, Cromwell, a monster of fanaticism and envy, determines to sacrifice Charles I. to his own interest, which, no doubt, all men seek to promote, though they do not understand it alike. According to the laws of motion established by God, the executioner cuts off his head. But assuredly it is not God who commits the assassination by a particular act of his will. God was not Cromwell, nor Ravaillac, nor Balthazar Gerard, nor the preaching friar, James Clement. God does not permit, nor command, nor authorize crime. But he has made man; he has established laws of motion; and these eternal laws are equally executed by the good man who stretches out his hand to the poor, and by the hand of a villain who assassinates his brother. In the same way that God did not extinguish the sun, or swallow up Spain, to punish Cortez, Almagro, and Pizarro, so, also, he does not send a company of angels to London, nor make a hundred thousand pipes of Burgundy to descend from heaven to delight the hearts of his dear Englishmen, when they do good. His general providence would become ridiculous, if thus made manifest to every individual; and this is so striking, that God never punishes a criminal immediately, by a decided stroke of his power. He lets the sun shine on the evil and the good. If some wretches expire in their crimes, it is by the general laws that govern the world. I have read in a great book, by a Frenchman called Mézeray, that God caused our Henry V. to suffer a painful death, because he dared to sit on the throne of a Christian king.

The physical part of a bad action is the effect of the primary laws given to matter by the hand of God. All moral evil is the effect of the liberty which man abuses.

In a word, without plunging into the fogs of metaphysics, let us remember that the existence of God is proved. We have no longer to argue on that point. Take God from the world, and does the assassination of Charles I. become more lawful? Do you feel less aversion toward his executioner? God exists. Enough. If he exists, he is just. Be, then, just also.

BIRTON.—Your argument has strength and force, though it does not altogether exonerate God from being the author of physical and moral evil. I see your way of justifying him makes an impression on the assembly; but might it not be contrived that these laws should not involve such particular misfortunes? You have proved to me a powerful and eternal God, and I was almost on the point of believing. But I have some terrible objections to make. Come, John, courage; let us not be cast down.



Francois-Marie Arouet Voltaire

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