Baron d’Holbach 1769

On Religious Cruelty

Source: De la cruauté réligieuse. 1769, [n.p.] London;
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor 2005;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2005.

In this essay I am going to examine the different kinds of religious cruelty. Under this name I include those religious opinions that proceed from this cruelty or give birth to it, those acts of barbarism imposed by religion itself, and those its zealots take as an obligation occasioned by its service and love.

The belief in God being the foundation of every religion, it is in general the idea we have of the Supreme Being that imprints a character on the cult we render him. If men imagine for themselves a tyrannical, capricious or wicked God their religion will breathe slavery, inconsistency, and cruelty. But if they sincerely look upon the divinity as a being infinitely wise and good we would be justified in concluding that their religion will be full of reason and benevolence and will lead to an honest way of conducting oneself. Those who adore one God doubtless say that this being is gifted with infinite wisdom and goodness. But if they attribute cruel acts to him, if they think that we can please him with vain and puerile practices or through barbaric actions, if they think that God himself has ordered such things, then the idea they truly have of the Divinity will be directly opposed to what they say, and it will be that idea that will constitute the essence of their religion.

Without even being aware of it, many people believe in a cruel God, and they are consequently cruel when it comes to religion. In this area they impose on themselves and on others. But let them question themselves in good faith and let them, deep in their hearts, ask themselves how they imagine the Supreme Being will treat in the other world the largest part of the men he has created, namely the infidels. Let them ask themselves how they themselves, if they had the power, would treat in this world the people not in agreement with them on religions or the dogmas of religion. These questions, carefully and thoughtfully examined and candidly answered, will make men’s opinions concerning the Divinity visible and cast their religion in a light very different from that with which it was originally envisaged.

Though most men agree that because of their consequences there are no opinions more important than those that have God and religion as objects, there is nevertheless no other that we so commonly take at face value. The symbolism and the catechism are learned by routine, much like vaudevilles and songs, and we don’t reason any more about the one than about the other.

A great number of articles of faith are warmly embraced, stubbornly supported, and courageously defended, not because they are found to be reasonable, but because we have been accustomed to respect them from an early age, or because they are in accordance either with our temperament or our interests. We are disposed to think that the opinions we were penetrated with in our childhood and which habit has, in a certain sense, caused to grow along with us are the result of our own reasoning, though we have never examined them. There are some that are so obviously true that it is of little import to know whether we discovered them ourselves, or if they were simply acquired. But as for those about which there can be the least doubt it is essential that we only admit them after careful reflection. This alone gives us the right to look upon them as truly ours...

Men always give the Gods they adore the passions they themselves have.

We know nothing either clear or satisfying about the creation of man [1].

We thus do not know the original opinion he had of his creator and what, at the beginning, was the object of his adoration.

If our first fathers admitted the excellence of a being eternal, infinite, omnipotent, of an infinite goodness, creator of the universe, it is obvious that almost their entire posterity soon lost both this knowledge and any reasonable sentiment regarding the divinity [2]. According to the most ancient testimonies we have of our history, the men of the earliest ages adored the strangest of gods: there is nothing more ridiculous than their different opinions concerning that multitude of divinities. They are so absurd that if we didn’t have incontestable proofs of them it would be impossible for us to believe that a man, gifted with any kind of intelligence, could so deprave himself as to fall into such a pit of unreason. These notions were both absurd and changeable, and this must necessarily have been the case. In fact, if the truth is by its very nature circumscribed and always the same, error has neither fixed form nor limits.

But though straying from the truth by different routes, men have in general come together when it comes to their gods: they have attributed to them the dispositions and passions that they themselves feel, and often a corporeal resemblance [3]. For what has been more common among most nations and religions than representing gods with a human likeness?

Among the very Christians, and especially among the monks of Egypt, there was once a sect that professed anthropomorphism. It based this sentiment on the fact that it is said that man was created in the image of God. The opinion of these monks was taken to such a degree of madness that they would have assassinated Theophilus, their bishop, who had written against the idea, if he hadn’t had the quick wittedness to calm them by saying: when I see you I see the face of God [4]. Tertullien and Epiphanus, those two great antagonists of heretics, were accused of this error. In fact, what is more common among those called Christians than to see the omnipotent, the incomprehensible, the invisible creator of the universe represented as a feeble mortal [5]?

It is obvious that most men take themselves as the model for the idea they have of gods and even of one God. In this they only aggrandize their own dimensions. A God for them is nothing but a colossal man or, if you will, man is a pigmy God. It is likely that if other animals, whether reptiles or insects, were capable of imagining gods, they would make them resemble themselves; these would be elephant or ant gods; lamb or lion gods.

This general propensity of men, to give their divinities those dispositions and passions that dominate them, explains quite well the cruelty they have always attributed to their gods. At the same time, it is an extremely strong proof of the natural cruelty of the human heart.

Through their own experience and that of others men feel how strongly connected power is to tyranny and cruelty. For this they have examples drawn from the conduct of masters with their servants, husbands with their wives, fathers with their children, teachers with their pupils, absolute monarchs with their slaves. And just as they’ve attributed an unlimited power to their gods they put no limit to their tyranny and cruelty [6].

It is obvious from countless examples that the greatest part of humanity, in all times, in all nations, in all religions, has regarded that cruelty as an attribute of the gods. Pagans generally supposed that they were punished with the greatest calamities, like famines or plagues, and this commonly for the omission of some vain and ridiculous ceremony, or for having held some absurd tale from their divines or priests in contempt. If they believed their gods capable of being irritated by subjects so frivolous, they also thought they could appease them through expiations of the same type. For this a few songs, dances, or games in their honor were often employed [7]. The Romans especially, when they were afflicted with some contagion, in order to expiate their sins and appease the gods named a dictator whose functions were limited to attaching a nail to the temple of Jupiter. He abdicated his magistracy after that beautiful ceremony.

There is nothing to be surprised about that pagans, who often deified their like and particularly their most odious princes, should attribute cruelty to the gods who were the makers of their vices as well as their virtues. But it is as absurd as it is astonishing that those who adore an infinitely good God should insult him in the same way.

Nevertheless, it is well known that the Jews, Christians and Mohammedans, who all claim to believe in the same God, represent him as even more cruel than the pagan gods. The opinion taught by the Jews, adopted and spread by Christian sages, is of a God merciful and beneficent, full of patience, rich in goodness, full of tender compassion, ready to pardon iniquities, transgressions and sins, but who nevertheless wants to cruelly punish the guilty, take vengeance for the iniquities of the children on the children, and on the children of the children until the third and fourth generation [8].

The Old Testament provides us with many other examples of the Jews’ belief that God punished the innocent for the crimes of the guilty. A unique but remarkable example of this will suffice. We read in the book of Chronicles, chapter 21, that King David ordered a census of the people of Israel. It is likely that this was motivated by vanity. Nevertheless, this wasn’t so horrible a crime, nor was it comparable in atrocity to many others committed by this man according to God’s heart. Nevertheless, God was so irritated that he struck Israel with the plague and made 70,000 men perish. If a census was a crime it was that of David and not that of the people. He himself felt this so strongly that here is what David’s prayer was: Is it not I who ordered the census? It is thus I who sinned, but what did this flock do? It is obvious that the people could no more prevent a census being taken than could a flock of sheep, and that it was no more guilty. Nevertheless, after God had destroyed for this reason as many as 70,000 men, as we said, he repented of the evil he had done and said to the exterminating angel: that is enough, stay your hand now. This is the notion of the cruelty with which the pagans and Jews imagined that their gods punished them in this world. Nevertheless, the worst temporal punishments are nothing but mild afflictions in comparison with the eternal torments reserved to sinners in the other world by the God of goodness, if we are to believe those who admit the dogma of the future life. In fact, according to most Christians eternal misfortune will be the share not only of atrocious and stubborn scoundrels, but also of sinners who, all things being weighed, couldn’t prevent themselves from falling into certain errors, the necessary result of their fragility. The same sentences are distributed for the omission, even absolutely involuntary, of certain ceremonies that assuredly cannot purify either the heart or the conscience. This is the case for children who die without having been baptized.

All infidels and unbelievers are still threatened with eternal damnation. Thus the belief in the true God having been, during many centuries, exclusively granted to an obscure, contemptible, wicked people (as they are depicted by their own historians and prophets), given that this people inhabited a small country that had but little commerce with its neighbors, it follows that since they lack knowledge of the true God the rest of humanity had to be eternally unhappy. We are forced to believe that the Aristides, the Phocions, the Timoleons, the Epaminodas, the Socrates, the Platos, in a word, that the most excellent pagans were included in that cruel sentence. Since Christ’s arrival we must damn both those who didn’t believe in him, though they never heard of him, and those who recognize him as God but haven’t accepted the same type of cult or doctrine taught by some particular sect. This is what the Roman Catholics dare to maintain, and this is what a great number of Protestants presume. And this, if you believe the Mohammedans, is the way that God will treat those men who didn’t recognized their prophet and who didn’t regard the Koran and its doctrine as having emanated from heaven.

“Truly,” says this so-called celestial book,” we will cast into the fires of hell those who do not recognize the signs of our faith. When they are well grilled we will give them new skins in exchange, so they can suffer even worse torments, for God is powerful and wise.” And elsewhere: “ Boiling water will fall on their heads; their entrails and their skin will be torn and they will be continually beaten with iron clubs. Each time they attempt to leave hell in order to avoid torments they will be dragged back there and their executioners will tell them: savor the torment of fire.”

In a word, several Christians have believed and taught that God condemned the greatest part of humanity, millions and millions of their own creatures, to suffer in a place where all the faculties of he body and the soul will be tormented continuously and without pause.

“It is there, oh sinner, that you will live in an eternal prison of external shadows, where the only order shall be confusion and horror. Where nothing will be heard but screams and blasphemies, no other sound but the gnashing of teeth, where there will be no other society but that of the devil and his angels who, tormented themselves, will have no other relief than that of making you feel their fury. St Mathew chap 13 verse 42 and chapter 25 verse 36, etc. It is there that punishment will be without pity, misery without grace, pain without consolation, wickedness without measure, torment without rest. Apocalypse chapter 14 verses 10 & 11. God’s anger will penetrate the body and the soul, as the flame does with a block of sulfur or of pitch. Daniel chapter 7 verse 10. In this flame you shall be forever burned without ever being consumed, forever dying without expiring, forever groaning in the anguish of death without ever being delivered from it or even having the power to hope for the end of your suffering, in such a way that after having endured them as many thousands of years as there are blades of grass on the earth, sand in the ocean, hairs on the head of all the children of Adam born or to be born, you will be no closer to the end of your torments than you were the day you were cast there. Far from finishing, they will do naught at every instant but begin, for it will be some relief to envisage a possible end to your misfortune after so many thousands of years; but each time that your spirit shall recall that word ‘never,’ and it will recall this every instant, your heart shall be torn with rage and by a horrible despair, that horrible idea shall sharpen your unbearable pains that already exceed any power to explain or imagine. This shall be a new hell in the midst of the very hell.”

With what surprise must such a shocking, such a terrible tale be read, on which, by the ideas which it gives of the manner which God will treat his creatures, seems to have been proposed in order to transform him into a demon.

I can’t leave behind the subject of God thus condemning men to eternal and unheard of torments without posing a question to those who are unfortunate enough to admit so blasphemous and diabolical a doctrine. I especially pose it to those who, without believing it, are cowardly or perverse enough to teach it and spread it.

I would thus ask of them: what could be the legitimate and advantageous end of all this punishment? Is it not, in the first place, to correct the guilty, which is certainly very much to be desired? In second place is it not to turn men away from the committing of the crimes for which they see others punished? Finally, is it not send away from or to cut off from society those members which it fears? Such are the unvarying notions which men should formulate of the goals of punishments. And so, eternal punishments fulfill none of these legitimate views. The guilty cannot be corrected and it would even be useless to do so since, corrected or not, they will still be tormented. His example cannot help others turn away from crime; his conduct as well as his destiny are irrevocably determined. Finally, it cannot be imagined that among the damned any could be dangerous to society.

Is it possible for men to fall into so manifest a contradiction as to represent God as a being of infinite goodness, or even of the most ordinary equity and to believe at the same time or teach that he punishes his creatures in such a way? Should they not rather represent him as a barbaric demon, as in infinitely unjust and cruel being? Through an act of pure will he created man in order to then condemn the work of his hands to eternal misery! What is the cause of this rigor? He is punished for things that did not at all depend upon him. Is there a man ferocious enough to want, in cold blood, for whatever reason , to condemn to eternal torments his own children, or even a declared enemy? Is there anyone so pitiless as to not spare torments without measure to any being at all? Will a good man not want, on the contrary, to spread happiness as far as he can? Will not his only desire be to procure happiness for all created beings? Though these unworthy and absurd ideas about the divinity originally emanated from a barbaric disposition that many people bear within them, and which is inspired in others by other means, they are taught these opinions and they are more or less profoundly impressed on their souls according to the degree to which they are temperamentally disposed to cruelty. But we should be attentive to the fact that far from serving religion, by inculcating the doctrine of eternal punishment reasons are furnished for the atheism that annihilates all religion. And, on the other hand, we throw into despair a great number of honest, simple, and timorous souls without holding back the intrepid and hardened wicked ones, whose excesses, as experience proves, cannot be repressed by distant fears.


1. The stories of all pagan authors concerning the origin of man are indubitably fables. And the stories in the book of Genesis attributed to Moses are regarded by many scholars as a pure allegory. In fact, they more nearly resemble allegory than history. At the very least it is quite true that the story is obscure and not very satisfying.

2. According to what we are taught, as well as commonly received opinion, all men descend from one man and one woman, but this opinion seems unsustainable for several reasons, and especially for the impossibility of black and white men coming from the same parents. But whether there were at the beginning one or several couples of created men changes nothing in the matter in question.

3. The Lacedemonians, the most bellicose people on earth, always represented their gods, and even their goddesses, in warrior garb. In his account of the Cape of Good Hope Mr. Pierre Kolbe tells us that some Hottentots, the filthiest men that exist, who cover their bodies with soot mixed with grease, and who only clothe themselves in animal skins, say that in his color, his face, and his clothing God resembles the most handsome among them.

4. See the French translation by Cousin, chap II page 472.

5. Paintings of God the Father as an old man are very common in Roman Catholic countries. The author of this essay saw in Lyon a God the Father sporting a fashionable three-cornered hat, apparently to represent the Trinity.

6. In antiquity and in pagan countries most servants were slaves and treated with an extreme barbarism. Doctor Jortin in his excellent Discours sur la religion Chretienne observes that Christianity proscribed a great number of atrocious usages, especially those relating to the treatment of servants. We would owe a great debt to Christianity if it had abolished all those barbarisms about which the doctor speaks, and especially this one. In Europe, where servants are not slaves, where they serve willingly and are under the protection of the law, it is not in the power of masters to treat them as cruelly as they’d like. Nevertheless it must be admitted that in our colonies in America many Christians treat their slaves with a cruelty unknown to the pagans themselves. The worthy and scholarly author who I just cited gives in a footnote an example of the manner in which Seneca, who was a pagan, pleads the cause of servants. His defense speech is so reasonable and so that I can’t but transcribe it here. ‘The are slaves, but they are also men. They are slaves, but they are your like. They are slaves, but they are unfortunate friends. They are slaves, but they are your brothers, if you think that fortune might treat you like them, etc.’ Beginning of ep. 47 of Seneca.

We must nevertheless concede that there are very few servants faithful enough, attached enough, caring enough to be looked upon as unfortunate friends. It is no less certain that their masters should always remember that they are of the same species as them and consequently treat them with indulgence and humanity.

7. The reader will have doubtless see that in these expiations, as well as in many other religious practices, the pagans were very closely imitated by a great number of Christians.

8. Christians have carried this opinion much farther than the third and fourth generation. They have extended divine vengeance from the first man to the last: by Adam’s sin all of his posterity finds itself punished.