Montesquieu

Mr. Bayle has pre­ten­ded to prove that it was bet­ter to be an atheist than an ido­la­ter, which is to say in other terms that it is less dan­ge­rous to have no reli­gion at all than to have a bad one.1 “I would pre­fer,” he says, “that it be said of me that I do not exist, than for it to be said that I am a wicked man.” This is a mere sophism, based on its being of no use to the human race to believe that a cer­tain man exists, whe­reas it is very use­ful to believe there is a God. From the thought that there is no God fol­lows the thought of our inde­pen­dence ; or if we can­not have this thought, that of our revolt. To say that reli­gion is not a res­trai­ning motive because it does not always res­train is to say that civil laws are not a res­trai­ning motive either. To gather into a great book a long enu­me­ra­tion of the evils it has pro­du­ced is to rea­son wron­gly against reli­gion, if one does not do like­wise for the good it has done. If I wan­ted to relate all the harm that civil laws, monar­chy, and repu­bli­can govern­ment have pro­du­ced in the world, I would assert some fright­ful things. Were it unne­ces­sary for sub­jects to have a reli­gion, it would not be use­less for prin­ces to have one, and to whi­ten with foam2 the only res­traint that those who do not fear human laws can have.

A prince who loves reli­gion and fears it is a lion who sub­mits to the hand that stro­kes it or to the voice that soo­thes it ; one who fears reli­gion and hates it is like the savage beasts who bite the chain that keeps them from lea­ping on pas­sers-by ; one who has no reli­gion at all is that fear­some ani­mal that feels his free­dom only when he rends and devours.

The ques­tion is not to know whe­ther it would be bet­ter for a cer­tain man or a cer­tain peo­ple to have no reli­gion than to abuse the one they have, but to know which is the les­ser evil, to abuse reli­gion some­ti­mes, or that there be none at all among men.

To dimi­nish the hor­ror of atheism, too much is said against ido­la­try. It is not true that, when the Ancients rai­sed altars to some vice, it meant they loved that vice : it meant on the contrary that they hated it. When the Lacedæmonians erec­ted a cha­pel to fear, that did not mean that that war­like nation was asking fear to lay hold of the Lacedæmonians’ hearts in their com­bats. There were dei­ties whom they asked not to ins­pire crime, and others whom they asked to turn it away from them.

Thoughts on the Comet, etc.

[As a horse straining against his bit.]