A Modern-Day Voltaire

One might think of Introvigne, the fellow who runs CENSUR and does battle with FECRIS (among others), as though in a great Bond movie, as a modern-day Voltaire. Voltaire (many will know) is from the 17th century, and is considered founder of the Enlightenment. He was a fierce critic of organized religion, particularly the Judeo-Christian variety. He was also firmly deist, that is, he never doubted the existence of God, and he came to be much distressed that his body of work was used as a stepping stone into atheism—to break free of God altogether. His dream was that there be religious tolerance, that all religions should get along peaceably. It never occurred to him to change them internally or to mush them into one incoherent whole. He just wanted them not to wreak violence upon one another. 

Early in his life a dispute with a French aristocrat caused Voltaire to flee to England. While there he noted how there were dozens of religions, many (maybe all) claiming to be the one true path (people took religion more seriously then), yet they all co-existed without rancor. (In his native France, the Roman Catholic Church was torturing those professing other faiths.) It never would have occurred to Voltaire that a faith calling itself the one true faith was doing violence to any other one—that view is a uniquely modern one. They all used to do it in the England Voltaire visited, yet they got along without cutting each other’s throats.

Voltaire’s Letters from England conveys his amazement and delight that here was a country, so different from back home, where people could worship as they pleased without anyone trying to ban them or beat up on them. He sets himself up as a chump interviewing a Quaker, just about as weird a religion as one could envision backed then—they ‘quaked’ when they became filled with spirit. He paints himself as though a devout Catholic thoroughly scandalized by Quaker beliefs, and he gives dialogue with one in which the Quaker ties him in knots, whereupon Voltaire sums up the exchange with an observation of how you just can’t talk sense with a fanatic.

It never occurred to Voltaire that the Quakers should change—he was just delighted that, given their “weirdness,” they could coexist so easily with the rest of society. In short, “intolerance” had nothing to do with doctrines or beliefs within a religion. He took for granted that internally each religion would be sufficiently different from other religions. If they were not, there would not BE separate religions—they would all blend into the same. It didn’t matter to him if Quakers were weird; if you conclude they are, don’t be one, would have been his obvious conclusion. 

Being a strict religion, serious about their beliefs, there would be severe internal strictures for any Quaker doing a 180 and leaving his faith. This was of no concern to Voltaire, who personally had no use for any of the established religions. Whatever strictures a departing Quaker would encounter would be more-or-less human nature: turn your back on previously cherished beliefs and you will of course find yourself on the outside looking in as regards those still holding fast to those beliefs. It only adds “fuel to the fire” that the Christian scriptures can so easily be read that way. It’s the same with Jehovah’s Witnesses today. It’s the same with most of the “new religions” that FECRIS labels as “cults,” as it seeks to homogenize religions, extracting whatever teeth they have making them stand out from others, and mash them all into something common that doesn’t stand for much of anything other than putting a God-smiley-face on humanist endeavors.

Voltaire’s firm deism, his belief in God, stems from what the Jehovah’s Witness organization has called the “Book of Creation.” It stems from the observed design of creation, and from what he called first cause, the utility that created things are put to. He rejected any “book of revelation,” that is, any sacred scriptures from any source that would attempt to explain the creator. But he also famously, after years of soul-searching, declared insoluble the “problem of evil.” There is undeniably a God, and there is undeniably evil. He could not reconcile the two, though he was the foremost thinker and deist of his time.

To say that it is dumb as a prima facie mindset to reject any revelatory information from God might be going too far, but it certainly is self-defeating. Voltaire yearns with all his heart to discern the problem of evil, yet he confines his gaze to where the answer certainly will not be—in the book of creation. There is only so far that book will take you. His aversion is understandable, given the horrendous abuse practices by the religions of his day, but it was still self-defeating as for discerning the problem of evil or any other aspects of God’s personality.

If there is an answer to the “problem of evil,” it will be found in the new religions. Of course, my view is that it will be found specifically within the the tenets of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Indeed, the wording may differ, but “Why is there Evil?” has been a staple of each of their basic study guides almost since their founding. Mainstream religions have so homogenized their views, so eager not to be out of step with intellectual or scientific trends, that they have modified their own foundation to the extent that the problem of evil cannot be solved given their revised terms. FECRIS gets around the issue by ignoring it. There is no answer to such questions, they maintain—forget about them. Focus on making the world a better place now. Nevermind arcane spiritual concerns that will distract from how we must, in the words of the Beatles, “come together.”

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….In the greater scheme of things, what really was Voltaire? A brief point of relative light, but also a bridge connecting one train wreck to another.

The train wreck of religious intolerance he battled all his life, and to a significant degree, he won that battle. But in a very short time, even during his lifetime, atheists usurped his work to provide underpinnings of their own rising movement—another train wreck. Voltaire was an initial hero of the French Revolution, but in short order, as inferior atheistic thinkers took over, he was downgraded as too moderate. Many of his own followers (Voltaire himself was dead by then) fell victim to the guillotine themselves when they resisted the fanatical excesses of those atheists.

Meanwhile, the light that he offered was but relative, in that he refused any revelatory look at God, and thus missed out on solving the problem of evil, since that is only solved through such searching. He may even have represented “one step forward, two steps back.” The step forward is to win against intolerance. The step back is to repudiate the means though which God gives explanation of himself AND to smoothe the way for atheism. Maybe even three steps back, for in declaring the issue of evil insoluble after grappling with it the better part of his life, he plants the notion in the educated people that adore him that it actually is. 

So is he required reading for JW members? No. He is an elective. Read him if you will. It will be beneficial if you do. But by no means is he indispensable to having one’s head on straight. Make him the centerpiece of your education, and it all but guarantees you will not have your head on straight. The JW organization will never recommend that members read Voltaire. Nor will they ever disparage him, at least no more than I have done above. They would have members direct their primary focus on what does deliver with regard to life’s more important things.

 

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“Besides, the English Don’t Like Women Much Anyway”—on Voltaire, Van Gogh, and Darwin

No, Charles Darwin did not do a stint as a clergyman—much less get yelled at by his superiors for not shaking his parishioners down for money—he may have thought about becoming a clergyman, but he never actually did it. How could I have written that he did?

I’ll tell you how. It is because I recalled the Darwin story from Irving Stone’s historical novel The Origin. Irving Stone also wrote an historical novel of Vincent Van Gogh (Lust for Life), and this is the fellow who flunked out as a clergyman (a missionary, actually) in his younger days, not Darwin. This is the fellow who wouldn’t shake his parishioners down for money, not Darwin. This was the fellow who “went native” to share the work and living conditions of those he was assigned to, not Darwin. This is the fellow who was dismissed for “undermining the dignity of the priesthood,” not Darwin. Ya wanna check your facts before you let fly, Harley? You remember half of them wrong, you know.

Fortunately, I do check them, but once in a while some blooper slips through—as another one almost did when I savored a new unflattering portrait of Charles Darwin from a review of a new book by A.N. Wilson. At least, I initially thought it was of Charles Darwin. I had even begun the process of cutting him down to size as payback for his evolution—I have borne him a grudge for years over that—relishing the revisionist’s biting words that he was “cruel, oversexed egoist”—I imagined the possibilities in answering one of his godless followers who ponders “the fundamental mystery” of how “a man he finds atrocious could have spoken to him so deeply.” “I’ll tell you how that could happen—it’s because you...” I saw myself beginning my tirade with glee, and then I noticed it was Charles Dickens, not Charles Darwin—and I like Charles Dickens’s work. I have even adopted many of Dickens’s lines, such as that of Miss. Pross, defending like a lion its cub against the wicked foreign woman who would destroy it: “I am stronger than you. I thank heaven for it.”

They are both D-names, and both Charles—it’s a easy mistake to make.

All is not lost. Van Gogh serves my purposes as well as Darwin, because the intent of all this is to segue into Voltaire. Van Gogh, too, was ground up by the church, as was Darwin, only in a different way. He, too, can be used to introduce Voltaire, who spent his life eviscerating the church and the way it ground up people. In fact, Van Gogh serves better that Darwin, because his trampling of faith reveals more starkly the Church’s amassing of wealth for wealth’s own sake, and that was one of Voltaire’s constant themes—that the clergy used the wealth they accumulated so as to lead corrupt lives. Not too much had changed in France, apparently, in the century of so between Voltaire and Van Gogh.

And Darwin was British!—how in the world could I have had him doing a clerical stint in France? Even as I wrote it, I knew something didn’t quite square, but I was on a roll and couldn’t stop.

Of course, many things did change from between Voltaire and Van Gogh—most notable is the French Revolution that intervened. Voltaire skewered the clergy of his time—whoa! did they hate him for it!—but he remained always adamant that atheism was for fools—just because the tour guides are corrupt does not prove there is no museum. The ‘Book of Creation’ was enough to teach anyone not self-blinded that there was a God, he maintained, and he was much taken with the common-sense of verses like Hebrew 3:4, that “every house is constructed by someone, but the one who constructed all things is God.” If you come across a well-stocked home in the midst of a barren desert, are you going to maintain that no one designed it? It took years of atheist machinations to undermine the obvious sense of that one.

They rose to the occasion, though. Let no one say they are not industrious. If people are intent on breaking free from God, do not underestimate their ability to rationalize it. The heart chooses what it wants and then charges the head to devise a convincing rationale to it. Voltaire’s followers were on the cutting edge of “enlightenment” heading towards the French Revolution that would cost so many heads, but they soon fell into disfavor for being too conservative—their movement passed them by—and many of them were among those whose heads were severed by the guillotine. When a mob gets rolling—watch out! Voltaire directed public fury at priests who abused their power, but he did not waver in God’s existence. It would take the next generation, some claiming to stand upon his shoulders, as Newton did on Galileo’s, to throw the baby out with the bath water.

Surely, the most egregious of abuses of the clergy were curtailed by the Revolution, if for no other reason than the royalty disappeared. French aristocracy prior to the Revolution forbade offspring to work—work was for commoners—so it became a problem for royalty to find suitable careers for their offspring. There was always the Royal Court, there was always the military—that’s why there were so many 21-year old colonels—and there was always the clergy to which one might appoint a young man as archbishop. Young men being what they were—and these French aristocrats being what they were—they would often hire at a pittance some underling to tend to spiritual things while they themselves would revel in riotous, immoral, and luxurious living.

Voltaire liked the English way that he picked up on during his exile there. There, only the number one son of nobility could not work—all the remaining ones were launched somewhere into the world of human enterprise. There, only those with long devotion to the church—not some nobility’s snotty kids—could be appointed to high clerical station. By that time, Voltaire notes, all the womanizing and drinking had been refined out of them, if not by spirituality, then by age alone. Their excesses against their churches were fewer, he notes. He is ever writing humorously on such things, and at this point he takes it to a new level: “Besides, the English don’t like women much anyway.” Ha! Bingo! Listen, I may not know much about Voltaire, but I do know about my own family. My great-grandfather was English. He had six children, and yet the family name managed to die out in but two generations! Meanwhile, the other side of my family has produced enough children to fill a stadium.

 

Defending Jehovah’s Witnesses with style from attacks... in Russia, with the ebook ‘I Don’t Know Why We Persecute Jehovah’s Witnesses—Searching for the Why’ (free).... and in the West, with the ebook ‘TrueTom vs the Apostates!’ (free)