The Future of Christianity: Through the Eyes of Voltaire
“Christianity will have a future.” –Professor Alexander Balmain Bruce, D.D.[i]
“There are truths which are not for all men, nor for all times.” –Voltaire (Letter to François-Joachim de Pierre, cardinal de Bernis, 1761)
What will the future of Christianity be like? As an ex-Christian and now free thinking Atheist I have a few predictions myself.
As with many intellectual atheists I share the sentiments of the renowned satirist Voltaire, born François-Marie Arouet and one of the most notorious free thinking anti-religion advocates of recent memory, was exceedingly vocal against the Christian Church and openly wrote about how it had been the “consistently implacable enemy of progress, decency, humanity and rationality,” and how it had been the Church’s interest to “keep people as ignorant and submissive as children.”[ii] As such Voltaire turned toward the Scottish Enlightenment for hope, as the Scots began developing a uniquely practical branch of humanism to the extent that Voltaire said, “We look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilization.”[iii]
The Scottish Enlightenment, famous for producing great rationalists like David Hume, led Voltaire to espouse, “Les mortels sont égaux; ce n’est pas la naissance, C’est la seule vertu qui fait la difference.” [All men are equal; it is not their birth, But virtue itself that makes the difference.][iv]
Voltaire was so perturbed by organized Church politics that it lead him to quip, “Tout homme sensé, tout homme de bien, doit avoir la secte chrétienne en horreur.” [Every sensible man, every honorable man, must hold the Christian sect in horror.][v] A sentiment many still share today.
Like Voltaire, I too believe that when considering the total sum of Christendom, from the Holy Roman Empire to the Dark Ages of Christian Europe to the Burnt Over Districts of the United States, Christianity is indeed a driving force behind cruelty and ignorance of all kinds. And like Voltaire, I must inquire, “While loving glory so much how can you persist in a plan which will cause you to lose it?”[vi]
Voltaire not only saw Christianity as mainly a source for evil, but he saw it as entirely manmade, something reflected in his comments, “Si Dieu nous a faits à son image, nous le lui avons bien rendu.” [If God has made us in his image, we have returned him the favor.] [vii]
Even as Voltaire was hounded, excommunicated, and eventually exiled by the Christian church for writing critically about it, his travels and worldliness led him to believe the world was advancing so fast that religion would lose ground to reason and science. The difference between my prediction of Christianity and Voltaire’s is simply the fact that we are living in completely different times. Although this seemed apparent in his day and time, it was a premature sentiment, as Voltaire was pre-Darwinian, pre-Newtonian (since he was a contemporary of Sir Isaac Newton, Netwton’s laws were not yet well established), and pre-Theory of Relativity, pre-Internet, and pretty much ahead of his times. This is made evident in his quotes, La superstition est à la religion ce que l’astrologie est à l’astronomie, la fille très folle d’une mère très sage. Ces deux filles ont longtemps subjugué toute la terre. [Superstition is to religion what astrology is to astronomy, the mad daughter of a wise mother. These daughters have too long dominated the earth.][viii]
Voltaire didn’t know of the germ theory of disease, or know of the abundance of evidence for Natural Selection, he was unaware of DNA, the human genome, and how all living things are related, the trees and the bees and people too. Certainly he was unaware of the modern laws of physics, of the vastness of the cosmos, of the big bang, and there was no quantum theory to haunt his imagination as it did Einstein, specifically because God does not play dice! If so, then what reason for God?
Einstein, of course, received his fondness for strict empiricism through studying David Hume and then the writings of Ernst Mach, helping instill an urgent sense of skepticism, that according to the physicist Walter Isaacson, would become a hallmark of his (Einstein’s) creativity, and that his genius was due to his “incorruptible skepticism and independence.”[ix]
Like Voltaire, Einstein was a strict Deist, and although the concept of a god was not totally implausible, the idea of a personal God was completely impossible. In fact, the idea of a personal deity who had a chosen lot of humanity specially picked out, who could via divine diktat command us to execute his every whim, entice us with reward and punishment, hold us guilty for superstitious crimes committed in a fairy tale, and through an inescapable destiny to be bound to sin predefine us, was so revolting to Voltaire that he saw it as an attack on human reason, intellect, and free will. What bothered him even more, as it constantly plagues me as an apostate of the Christian faith, is the fact that there have always been people who want desperately to believe in such an absurd story! This compelled him to write, “It is difficult to free fools from the chains they revere.”[x] Voltaire goes on to explain:
Formerly there were those who said: You believe things that are incomprehensible, inconsistent, impossible because we have commanded you to believe them; go then and do what is unjust because we command it. Such people show admirable reasoning. Truly, whoever is able to make you absurd is able to make you unjust. If the God-given understanding of your mind does not resist a demand to believe what is impossible, then you will not resist a demand to do wrong to that God-given sense of justice in your heart. As soon as one faculty of your soul has been dominated, other faculties will follow as well. And from this derives all those crimes of religion which have overrun the world.[xi]
Actually, over the hundreds of years Christianity has promised to offer the better life, to give happiness and contentment, the only thing we can be certain of is that it’s never made good on its promises. That those who believe feel they are enjoying God’s grace is upon them is for obviously false reasons, and none of this bodes well for the future of Christianity. It would be one thing if we knew it to be true, then at least such contentment and happiness would be genuine. But it’s not. It’s an illusion.
Least of all because it turns out to be a sham, a money laundering scheme where the Church can sell you any ole promise if it sounds good enough for a reasonable price. They used to sell salvation through Priestly pardons, and today they sell self help knowledge on how to succeed in life to gain that universal access to happiness and freedom it promises to be within reach, always within reach, but never a practicality except for the most fortunate.
More specifically, because the promises Christianity makes to be fulfilled are set down in universal terms, it has to answer for so much more with each scientific advance and each leap forward in the bulwark of human knowledge. Proving God used to be a non-concern. There was no reason to prove such a novel idea. Yet after thousands of years of failures to live up to even the simplest of promises, people began to doubt, and when science started to answer those big questions which religion only promised to, people took notice. Certainly Voltaire’s day was pre-tech, no computers to store vast amounts of data and no Internet to check up on all these scientific facts to see which carry weight and which still need more proving? Now that we have all this information at our finger tips, the prediction can be made that more accurately! Voltaire was simply ahead of his time, especially when he said, “What we find in books is like the fire in our hearths. We fetch it from our neighbors, we kindle it at home, we communicate it to others, and it becomes the property of all.”[xii] The same could be said of the World Wide Web. Now with the dissemination of information freely flowing into the homes of regular folk, with vast amounts of knowledge piling up, facing the facts is not just a matter of time, it’s inevitable. Knowledge, which at the height of Christianity belonged only to the Clergy and Patriarchs, now belongs to everyone.
Given the status of things, and the ability for any literate person to delve deep into matters for themselves, I give Christianity a shelf life of 150 years at most. Although I feel this number is on the sparse side, with the rate of technology increasing and the spread of the internet into all areas of the world, even tribal regions, I can’t help but feel things are speeding up by quantum leaps and bounds. That is to say, where once a person who was introduced to a novel belief would believe it simply for its novelty has become an incredulous luxury we no longer can afford. Now we have an obligation to do fact checking, and what’s more, we have the means!
As such, I’m guessing if England and greater Europe are any indication, the secularization and dwindling of Christian faith will be a worldwide phenomenon in as little as 50 years time. That is to say, when my newborn daughter turns 50, I am predicting, that Christianity in America will resemble Christianity in Europe today. Who knows what Christianity in Europe will be like then? Probably not very influential.
Doctor of Divinity at Free Church College in Glasgow, Scotland, Professor Alaxander Bruce has this to say in response to such an undeniable observation:
All this looks like impending dissolution. Yet there are not wanting facts and phenomena which encourage hope, wearing the aspect of a new dawn, suggesting the thought that if we have arrived at a crisis, it is not a crisis of destruction, but of reconstruction, a crisis in which old things pass away to make room for better things of the same kind.[xiii]
I am tempted to agree with him that Christianity does not face destruction, simply reconstruction. But this is one of Christianity’s great attributes, to be able to evolve and adapt along with the advance of science and reason. Its theology and doctrine simply becomes more constricted and refined in accordance with the relevant information, but it adapts none-the-less. And beyond that, who knows what newfangled religions will capture the imaginations of millions? Mormonism seems to be doing pretty good for itself. Scientology may have a boom in membership. Islam may take over the world. Maybe all religious faiths except for Buddhism will fade away? There is no telling, but if I were to venture an educated guess, I would say that Christianity has seen its day, it has had its time in the limelight, and now it recedes backstage, to take its final bow, before it retires into the annals of history along with the myriad of religious faiths of antiquity, all since having been delegated to the status of myth and fable.
Christianity will still be around, I’m not writing it off just yet, but it won’t be the Christianity we know today. It will be a different, less potent variety of faith, one which is humbled by the demand by reasonable people to be reasonable, hold to intellectually honesty, self integrity, and correct moral values, all things of which Christianity fails to produce. As such, wisdom can no longer be found in religion, but must be sought elsewhere. And as Voltaire suggested, that wisdom is to be found not in one ideology or proposed set of values, but that which we find in books, that wisdom which is like the fire in our hearths, lighting up our intellects. We’ll fetch it from the corners of the Earth, we’ll kindle it at home, and we will share it with others. As knowledge becomes the property of all so shall wisdom and truth become the timelessly sought possession of all who wish to obtain such valued treasures.
[ii] Gay, Party of Humanity, 44, 53.
[iii] José Manuel Barroso, 11th President of the European Commission (28 November 2006). “The Scottish enlightenment and the challenges for Europe in the 21st century; climate change and energy” (html). Enlightenment Lecture Series, Edinburgh University.
http://europa.eu/rapid/pressReleasesAction.do?reference=SPEECH/06/756&format=HTML&aged=1&language=EN&guiLanguage=en “I will try to show why Voltaire was right when he said: ‘Nous nous tournons vers l’Écosse pour trouver toutes nos idées sur la civilisation’ [we look to Scotland for all our ideas on civilisation].”
“Visiting The Royal Society of Edinburgh…” (html). Royal Society of Edinburgh. First published in The Scotsman Saturday 4 June 2005. http://www.royalsoced.org.uk/international/potocnik.htm
“Scotland has a proud heritage of science, research, invention and innovation, and can lay claim to some of the greatest minds and greatest discoveries since Voltaire wrote those words 250 years ago.”
[iv] Eriphile, act II, scene I (1732); these lines were also used in Mahomet, act I, scene IV (1741)
[vi] Letters of Voltaire and Frederick the Great (New York: Brentano’s, 1927), transl. Richard Aldington, letter 130 from Voltaire to Frederick II of Prussia, October 1757.
[vii] Notebooks (c.1735-c.1750)
[viii] From: “Whether it is useful to maintain the people in superstition,” Treatise on Toleration (1763)
[ix] See: Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson.
[x] Le dîner du comte de Boulainvilliers (1767): Troisième Entretien
[xi] See: Questions sur les miracles (1765)
[xii] “Lettre XII: sur M. Pope et quelques autres poètes fameux,” Lettres philosophiques’ (1733)