What amazes me about reading Marquis de Sade’s arguments against God and religion is how well they have stood the test of time.In Juliette, he speaks through the voice of his expositor Madame Delbéne, the randy mother superior of Panthemont. The character is a well-educated and deep philosopher. Sade also refers often to Spinoza and Voltaire.
Having not extensively read either of those giants of the Enlightenment, I can’t say how much Sade was recapitulating their arguments versus creating new ones. But whatever he’s doing, it works. His dialogues have been used and reused since he wrote them–often without anyone realizing their origins. Readers may even recognize many of them from the modern atheist blogosphere. They include the “god of the gaps,” the inevitable transition from belief to abject veneration, the absurdity of the “multifarious dogmas,” the circular arguments, the poor treatment of the very ones who show the greatest devotion, the lack of confirming scholarly accounts of events, and the stupidity of the notion of the Lord of the Universe appearing to Bronze Age nomads. But wait–just read it–he says it way better than I ever could! As eloquent now as he was 200 years ago, Sade intellectually crushed the foundations of God-belief and for this we owe him a debt.
When they begin to chatter about religion, the first of the dogmas they trundle forth is the one pertaining to the existence of God; as it is the foundation of the whole edifice, I ought logically to begin my examination by focusing upon it. Oh, Juliette! Let us have no doubt, this fantasy about there being a God has its origins in nothing but the minds’ limitation. Knowing not to whom or what all the universe about us is to be attributed, helpless before the utter impossibility of explaining the inscrutable mysteries of Nature, above her we have gratuitously installed a being invested with the power of producing all the effects of whose causes we are profoundly ignorant.
This abominable ghost was no sooner envisaged as the author of Nature than he had also to be deemed that of good and evil; the habit of regarding these opinions as true, and the obvious usefulness of suppositions which conveniently flatter laziness and curiosity, quickly made for the tendency most men still have of according the same degree of belief to a fable as to a geometrical proof, and the persuasion became so great, the habit so binding, that from the outset one had need of all one’s rational faculties to keep from tumbling into error. There is but a single easy step from the extravagance of acknowledging the existence of a God to the practice of worshiping him; nothing simpler than imploring the protection of what one dreads; nothing but what is most natural in the procedure, which leads to burning incense upon the altars of the magical individual they posit as simultaneously the prime mover and a dispenser of everything that is.
He was thought wicked, because some very disagreeable effects resulted from the necessary workings of nature’s laws; to appease him, victims were needed: whence fastings, macerations, penances, and every other sort of idiocy, the fruits of the fear of the many and the brazen and posture of the few. Or, if you prefer, the perennial, but altering effects of man’s weakness for, you may be certain that where ever you find human frailty you also come upon gods whelped by the same men’s terror, and homages rendered unto these gods, the inevitable result of the folly that erects them.
There is no question of it, my dear friend: this opinion, which holds a God exists, and that he is the omnipotent force responsible for plenty and dearth, is at the base of all the world’s religions. But which of these multifarious traditions is one to prefer? Each claims revelations which argue in its favor, each makes mention of texts, sacred books inspired by its divinity, each aims at nothing short of eclipsing all the others. Here I find I have a difficult choice to make. For guide in the night, I have none but my reason, and directly I bring up its light to help me in the task of examining all these competing aspirants to my belief, all these fables, I see no more than a heap of far-fetched incongruities and platitudes which chill and repulse me.
After devoting a rapid glance to the absurd ideas entertained upon the subject by all the peoples of the earth, I finally arrive at the doctrines espoused by the Jews and Christians. The former speak to me of a God, but they refused me any account of his origins, they give me no idea, no definite image of him, and with what regards the nature of this peoples’ overlord, I obtain nothing but puerile allegories, unworthy of the majesty of a being whom I am invited to accept as the creator of the all; it’s only in offensive contradictions this nation’s lawgiver talks to me of his God, and the terms and colors he uses to describe him are much apter to make me abhor than to get me to serve him.
Seeing that it is this God himself who speaks in the books they alluded to in their struggle to explain him, I ask myself how, in providing concepts and images of himself, a God could possibly have chosen those which can only excite a man to despise him. Puzzled by this question, I decide to consult these books with greater care; and what am I to think when I cannot avoid remarking, as I inspect them, that not only could they never have been dictated by the mind or spirit of a God, but that forsooth they were written down the long after the death of the personage who dares affirm he transmitted verbatim God’s own phrases.
Ha! So that’s the nonsense they’re peddling, I exclaim upon completing my investigations; these holy books they wish to fob off on me as performances composed by the Almighty are no more than the confections of some knavish charlatans, and instead of discerning traces of the deific, I behold nothing but the issue of a stupid credulity and lame sleight. And indeed! What more abject ineptitude is there than this of everywhere depicting, in these books, a people chosen of the Lord it has just fabricated for itself, of announcing far and wide to all the world’s nations that it is to none but these squatters in a desert the Almighty speaks; that it was only in their fate he took any interest; that it is for their sake only he tampers with the motions of the stars, splits the seas, showers down manna from the skies; as if it would not have been far easier for this God to penetrate into their hearts, enlighten their minds, than to disturb the smooth operations of nature, and as if this bent in favor of an obscure, insignificant, impoverished, unknown people were commensurate with the supreme majesty of the being to whom you would have me ascribe the faculty of universal creation.
But however compelling might be my urge to assent to what these preposterous books seek to foist upon their reader, what choice have I but to demand whether the unanimous silence of all the adjoining countries’ historians, who ought surely to have taken note of the extraordinary events that crowd scripture, must not suffice to make me doubt the authenticity of the marvels reported in these romances? What, pray tell, am I to think when it is precisely amongst the ranks of that very race which so exuberantly celebrates its god to me that I discover the greatest quantity of unbelievers?
What! This God overwhelms his people with blessings and miracles, and this cherished people believes not in its God? What! This God, to the tune of the most impressive theatrics, upon the peak of the mountain thunders forth his ordinations, upon this mountaintop dictates his sublime laws to the legislator of that people who, in the plain below, doubt him; and upon that plain idols are raised, monuments of cynicism, as though the law giving God booming on high deserves nothing better than to have his nose tweaked?
At last he dies, this exceptional man, who has just offered the Jews such a magnificent God, yes, he expires, a prodigy coincides with his death: by this abundance of unparalleled occurrences the majesty of this God is doubtless to be stamped eternally in the memory of the race which has been witness to his greatness — a greatness the scions of those who watched the spectacle are later to prove reluctant to acknowledge. But less gullible than their forebears, in a few years idolatry up tilts the precariously seated altars of the God of Moses, and the unhappy, oppressed Jews remember their ancestors’ Chimera only once they have regained their freedom. New leaders therewith begin to sing the old song, but, unfortunately, their prophecies are not borne out by developments: the Jews, these new leaders declare, shall prosper so long as they remain faithful to Moses deity: never did the Jews show him greater respect, and never did sorrow dog them more cruelly. Exposed to the wrath of Alexander’s successors, they escaped the Macedonian’s irons only to fall under the yoke of the Romans who, their patience exhausted at last by the revolt brewing perpetually among the Jews, demolished their temple and dispersed their numbers. And that then is how their God serves them! That is how their God who loves them, who solely for their benefit meddles with sacred order of nature, that is how he deals with them, that is how he fulfills his vows to them.
Ah no, it’s not then to be amongst the Jews I’ll go looking for universal Almighty; finding in that hapless nation nothing better than some repulsive phantom, spawn of the uncurbed imaginations of a handful of ambitious rogues, I must abhor the contemptible God wickedness dreamt up. And now let’s have a glance at the Christians…Marquis de Sade, Juliette pp. 29-32