Magazine article The New American

The Need for God

Magazine article The New American

The Need for God

Article excerpt

"Laws watch over known crimes, religion over secret crimes."

--Francois-Marie Arouet, better known by his pen name, Voltaire

Throughout his long, dissolute life (1694-1778), Voltaire considered himself the implacable enemy of God and religion. For decades, he ended all his letters to his atheist confreres with the blasphemous expression, "Ecrasons nous l'infame" ("Let us crush the wretch!"). The "wretch" to whom he referred with such derision and hatred is Jesus Christ and his church. Voltaire devoted his considerable talents--as a novelist, satirist, philosopher, bon vivant, and salon celebrity--to destroying Christianity and all its pernicious influences (as perceived by Voltaire's warped mind).

In his later years, this apostle of revolution modified his views of religion. As a wealthy aristocrat living in his country mansion in the village of Ferney, Voltaire realized the pragmatic value of Christianity in protecting himself against the natural criminality Of man. In his essay The Sage and the Atheist, Voltaire acknowledged that some citizens are peaceable and quiet by nature or are regulated by honor so that they will not victimize their neighbors. However, he averred, "the poor and needy atheist, sure of impunity, would be a fool if he did not assassinate or steal to get money. Then would all the bonds of society be sundered. All secret crimes would inundate the world, and, like locusts, though at first imperceptible, would overspread the earth.... Faith, then, in a God who rewards good actions, punishes the bad, and forgives lesser faults, is most useful to mankind."

"To those philosophers who in their writings deny a hell," he continued, "I will say: 'Gentlemen, we do not pass our days with Cicero, Atticus, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus.... In a word, gentlemen, all men are not philosophers. We are obliged to hold intercourse and transact business and mix up in life with knaves possessing little or no reflection, with a vast number of persons addicted to brutality, intoxication, and rapine. You may, if you please, preach to them that the soul of man is mortal. As for myself, I shall be sure to thunder in their ears that if they rob me they will inevitably be damned.'"

Voltaire's newfound religiosity was scorned by his erstwhile philosophe comrades, who (probably correctly) saw in it expedience rather than conviction. Historians Will and Ariel Durant seemed to share this view of the infamous atheist's "conversion."

"He sent his servants to church regularly, and paid to have their children taught the catechism," they wrote, while adding, "Much of this piety may have been designed to give his villagers a good example, to encourage them in beliefs that might lessen their crimes and safeguard his property. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.