A second-best for religion

S’il n’y avait en Angleterre qu’une religion, le despotisme serait à craindre ; s’il y en avait deux, elles se couperaient la gorge ; mais il y en a trente, et elles vivent en paix et heureuses.

–Voltaire, Lettres philosophiques*

As a non-believer, I am inclined to want religion to just go the hell away. It is highly unlikely that this will happen. As one sage once observed, religion is the opium of the people. As another sage observed, life is pain, princess, and anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something. No one is ever likely to talk those in pain out of their opium.

What would be better than the status quo and more feasible than universal atheism would be for there to be a hundred “major” religions, distributed among the people such that the largest of them claims no more than four times the number of adherents as the smallest, and the beliefs and practices of which would be the most wildly variable. Life would certainly be colorful then, no one sect would be powerful enough to oppress all the others, and religious liberty might be a worthwhile concept, rather than a club with which the largest sects beat those who live or believe differently.


*“Sixième lettre sur les presbytériens,” URL: https://fr.wikisource.org/wiki/Lettres_philosophiques. Accessed August 8, 2016. Return to main text.

One thought on “A second-best for religion

  1. Voltaire rather overestimated the toleration of eighteenth century England. On the other hand, the phenomena of “Anglostics” and “Angleists” are pretty common now: as one of my acquaintances put it: “The only problem with the Church of England is that people keep dragging religion into it.”

    Your own view was best summed up by Edward Gibbon:

    The policy of the emperors and the senate, as far as it concerned religion, was happily seconded by the reflections of the enlightened, and by the habits of the superstitious, part of their subjects. The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord.
    The superstition of the people was not embittered by any mixture of theological rancour; nor was it confined by the chains of any speculative system. The devout polytheist, though fondly attached to his national rites, admitted with implicit faith the different religions of the earth. Fear, gratitude, and curiosity, a dream or an omen, a singular disorder, or a distant journey, perpetually disposed him to multiply the articles of his belief, and to enlarge the list of his protectors. The thin texture of the Pagan mythology was interwoven with various but not discordant materials.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *