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A Treatise on Toleration

By Voltaire, Translated by Joseph McCabe

Critique by Punkerslut

Image from Radical Graphics
Image: From "Religion" Gallery from RadicalGraphics.org

Start Date: July 1, 2004
Finish Date: July 3, 2004


     The essential premise and arguments of this essay, which call for tolerance and acceptance of others no matter what their ideas, are agreeable to any humane thinker. Tolerant today is, in fact, interchangable with reasonable, intelligent, thoughtful, kind, and gentle. Those who exhibit these attributes, of course, must ehibit the indisposable attribute of tolerance. A man, no matter what beliefs the jury of his mind have confirmed or disconfirmed, must be not be persecuted for these beliefs. What this essay by Voltaire calls for, is an acceptance of this creed: that a man of any creed must be accepted. However, there is one statement in this essay that I find considerably bothersome. It seems that, while Voltaire professed to believe in tolerance, that he did harbor some intolerant sentiments towards the philosophy of Atheism. It is enough to say that all religions are accepted, that each man can worship at any church that he wants to, but when a man replies that he does not want to worship at all, it seems to be another question for Voltaire. I am sure, that had he been hardpressed to answer these allegations, he would reply that he believed in tolerance of Atheism, as well, but his bigotry would be still existent. He would regard it as a vice, coupled with alcoholism or promiscuity (if he did regard that as a "sin," of which I am unsure).

     The one part of this essay that I find difficult to believe, is the idea that religion and morality are intrinsically related. That, without religion, there can be no ethics -- without a god, there can be no right or wrong; without mystical beings, havoc and cruelty will become a staple of the world's affairs (as though it is not, even when religion is flowing from every pore). With that, I end the introduction and begin the actual critique.

The Critique

They lean to atheism. They become depraved... ["A Treatise on Toleration," by Voltaire, translated by Joseph McCabe. Quoted from "A Treatise on Toleration and Other Essays," Prometheus Books, 1994, page 187.]


A violent atheist would be as great a plague as a violent superstitious man...

Religion is necessary wherever there is a settled society. The laws take care of known crimes; religion watches secret crime. ["A Treatise on Toleration," by Voltaire, translated by Joseph McCabe. Quoted from "A Treatise on Toleration and Other Essays," Prometheus Books, 1994, page 207]

     The first statement that Voltaire makes here is that when men see the brutality that religion has given to the world, they lean towards an Atheistic philosophy. When men see the harshness that religionists offer the innocent, on behalf of their own religion, others observing this become Atheist altogether. This may be somewhat logical. But, it's not entirely true. Voltaire argued against such observations and logical deductions. It ought to be something taken into consideration, though. Yes, there may in fact be a god of peace and love that does exist, but when people who profess to believe in him commit the worst acts of war and violence, then there is a very highly logical reason to doubt their claims. What man, being tortured by an inquisition, would be wrong for thinking, "There can be no god who believes in justice and humaneness -- any god of truth and honor that these men believe in simply cannot and does not exist"? So, then, the next question of the matter must be addressed. Men who are Atheists -- are we simply depraved for the ideas that we hold to be just and reasonable? I must say that such a theory is bigotry and prejudice. Little more needs to be said of it than that. People have made the same claims against every other religious or racial group, and all those claims have been based on the same precept: prejudice. However, Voltaire does make an argument for it that I shall later address.

     The second statement that Voltaire makes is that a violent atheist would be as great a plague as a violent superstitious man. No argument here. A cruelty inflicted upon an innocent being, misery no matter who causes it, is a terrible thing. When we are judging a person as humane, just, kind, or charitable, we do not ask the name that they call their god -- we do not ask the myths that they profess to believe, we do not ask them their what their religious traditions are. There is only one question we can ask. In what way have they treated others around them? Have they been generous to those in need, have they been honorable in their word, have they been sincere in their affections? Did their actions result in the misery of everyone around them? Did they bring the message of universal kinship wherever they went? That is the one question that shall be asked of them. Some may argue that a person's religious or philosophical beliefs might influence their action. Of course this is true. People who believe that they are god's chosen people are often cruel to everyone else. A religion that believes a kind god created an eternal hellfire for nonbelievers would have no difficulty believing that charity consists of torture, that virtue consists of brutality. So it is true, that a person's religious beliefs may influence the way in which they act in our natural world, but this is irrelevant. As much as it may influence the way they act, I've seen people from the most minority religions believing in the ultimate goodness, and I've seen people from the majority religions believing in racism, sexism, and other tyranny. No person should ever be punished for what they believe.

     The final and third statement made by Voltaire is this: "Religion is necessary wherever there is a settled society. The laws take care of known crimes; religion watches secret crime." It is this statement that I wrote this critique intending to criticize. Why, then, did I include the other statements that I already responded to? Well, for the simple fact that they seem to be related to this statement. Believing that religion is necessary to society, and also saying that Atheism makes a person depraved, are related sentences. The first bleeds of poor reasoning, the second is a weed spawned from the seed of ignorance and bigotry.

     What is my argument to the statement that religion is necessary in "settled society"? Well, quite simply it is the presence of "known crimes." If, in fact, the belief of god is enough to stop murderers who can get away with it, then why would there be a need for a restraining anyone at all? In fact, at the sign of a threat, one might say, "Oh, you don't have to worry about him. I've seen him at church. He won't kill anyone." Belief in god doesn't stop a criminal from stealing if he can get away with it, and it doesn't stop them from stealing if they get caught. While the earthly law may deal only with the latter case, it is quite clear that the divine law is completely excluded from both. And, when Voltaire speaks of "secret crime," precisely what is he referring to? Maybe he wasn't referring to it, but Christians would interpret them as thought crimes. Lust, physical attraction to another, is considered a sin. Covetness or desire is another sin. The most natural parts of the human mind are also the most sinful. One hundred more books about theology will be written before one person asks, "If doing what you're designed to do is wrong, then why were we designed this way? That's like building a bomb and getting angry if it explodes for not resisting its natural temptation."

     So, the argument that religion is necessary in settled society is quite void. If religion is not enough for known crime, if it is by far not enough for known crime, then what merit would anyone think that it had for unknown crime? The answer is quite simple and obvious.


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