Is religious faith normal, natural, or desirable? Does it serve an important function in the life of man, or is it, rather, an aggregation of pernicious superstitions, designed to soothe timid souls and blind man to truth by retarding his development?
A thousand treatises, setting sail on oceans of ink, have been penned in response to these questions. I personally have argued that religious faith is a necessary part of civilization, and an indispensable tool in the cultivation and taming of the wild individual ego. This view, however, is not shared by all.
Jean Meslier’s Testament
We will look at the life and writings of one such man, the dour Frenchman Jean Meslier (1678-1733). His Testament remains one of the most damning indictments of religion ever written, and must be given careful consideration by every fair-minded enquirer into these matters.
He was a quiet and withdrawn parish priest in the town of Etrepigny in Champagne, France. He had not wanted this profession; in his Testament, he makes it clear that he was ordained out of a desire to please his pious parents. He was never a believer, but kept this secret carefully hidden during his life.
The strain produced by such a disconnection between belief and profession must have been overwhelming. He died at the age of fifty-five, having served his local community dutifully and uneventfully for over thirty years.
But he left an incendiary tract to the world in his will. Among his papers discovered after his death was a book inscribed to his parishoners as a “bequest.” What he was unable to say during his life, apparently, he shouted out to the world from beyond the grave. For here was the most bleak and despairing endorsement of materialism and atheism that has ever been written. Let us examine this strange book.
It was not published in full until the 1860s, as its contents were deemed too disturbing for general consumption. Some French Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire, d’Holbach, and Diderot had released summaries before this time, however.
Meslier begins by describing how he became an atheist. His doubts began from an examination of the Bible. He was unsettled by the contradictions, uncertainties, and absurdities found there; unwilling or unable to interpret such things allegorically, he began to fill with resentment.
Promises of immortality he found unconvincing. The idea of a God who would create Hell as a depository institution for bad souls was to him unforgiveable cruelty: “Is there in nature a man so cruel as to wish in cold blood to torment, I do not say his fellow beings, but any sentient being whatever?”
Such a God could only be a wicked, cold being, unworthy of worship. To him it was also self-evident that it was God himself who created the evils which he then sought to punish.
In response to the argument that religious belief was natural, Meslier held that just the opposite was true:
All children are atheists—they have no idea of God…Men believe in God only on the word of those who have no more idea of him than they themselves…Very few people would have a god if care had not been taken to give them one.
Meslier even attacked the idea of Christ as a positive figure. To him, the recalcitrant Jew was nothing but a “fanatic, a misanthrope, who, preaching to the wretched, advises them to be poor, to combat and extinguish nature, to hate pleasure, to seek sufferings, and to despise themselves.”
What bitterness! And yet Meslier is not finished. There is nothing after death except the void. God, he believes, is naught but a delusion, a figment of an overactive imagination. It has been created from the dawn of history by a joint conspiracy of clerics and rulers to keep the mass of people subservient and distracted.
And does religious belief contribute to the shaping of morality? No, Meslier responds:
The nations where this fiction is established, are they remarkable for the morality of their conduct?…We see haughty tyrants, courtiers, countless extortioners, unscrupulous magistrates, imposters, adulterers, libertines, prostitutes, thieves, and rogues of all kinds, who have never doubted the existence of a vindictive God, or the punishments of hell, or the joys of Paradise.
Even the ancient Greek and Roman sages, Meslier argued, were unwilling to the face the stark truth of this reality. Despite being philosophers, they always genuflected to the gods of their day and era.
And so what, then, does this Frenchman think the ideal society should look like? He cast his vote in favor of a communistic utopia. Man could be happy if he abolished the ideas of privilege and property, for these were the root of all evil. All property should be nationalized by the state; every man should have his health and welfare guaranteed; and possessions should be held in common.
What are we to make of this testament? A man’s ideas are windows of his soul. We sense immediately the bitterness of a man resentful of a life wasted in a profession unsuited to him. This alone is a lesson to us, and a cautionary tale for the ages. Unable or unwilling to seek out his life’s passion, he resigned himself to secret rage, and finally, to despair.
We must grant him his due regarding some of the absurdities found in theology. And yet, it escapes him that perhaps religious doctrines exist to serve subtle moral purposes, and that scientific fact is not their major concern.
His opinions about religion epitomize all the myopia common to materialism and atheism. He forgets the profoundly inspirational qualities of faith; he ignores religion’s storehouse of literature, myth, and consoling rituals; and he entirely forgets the critical importance of religion in passing on a culture’s moral values.
Had he understood the nature of man more deeply, he would have understood that only philosophers and saints can be induced to do good by appeals to reason alone; for the average man, only the fears of eternal damnation will keep his baser instincts in check. Religion is the best unsleeping sentry created by history.
His suggestions for creating a perfect society have been proven wrong by experience. He seeks to replace one god with another god, that of socialism. And here again, his inexperience with government and leadership reveal themselves starkly.
Despite its imperfections, flaws, and dead ends, Jean Meslier’s Testament is still worth reading as an examination of the atheistic mind. It is a disturbing picture; for here is a man not at peace with himself, a man who lacked the resolution to follow his own path, a man who has been corroded at last by hate and repressed rage.
It is, perhaps, the best admonition against the danger of living an unfulfilled life that has yet been produced.
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