Thursday, February 28, 2013

Voltaire contra Atheism

Like many thinkers during the Enlightenment era, Voltaire held beliefs which were nuanced and complex. Such beliefs are commensurate with his powerful intellect, but have the disadvantage of being easily misunderstood, and sometimes deliberately misunderstood.

Voltaire was a constant and sharp critic of the Roman Catholic church, and of organized religion in general. He ridiculed some religious leaders as hypocrites, and others as simply stupid. He believed that the Bible - the Old and New Testaments - was a flawed book.

Consistent in his critique of all forms of organized religion, Voltaire's play Mahomet is his rendering of an episode in the life of Muhammad. He shows him to be "the founder of a false and barbarous sect," and the plot reveals "the cruelty and errors of a false prophet." The play is primarily an evaluation of Islam, but secondarily an estimation of all institutional religion.

But Voltaire was no atheist. Many readers have mistakenly assumed that his antipathy toward spiritual traditions implied atheism, and many scholars have fostered that misunderstanding by suppressing portions of Voltaire's own writings. British philosopher Alfred Jules Ayer notes:

Voltaire was not himself an atheist but a deist. He thought that he had rational grounds for the belief that there is a necessary eternal supreme intelligent being, by whom the universe is governed. He did not consider it demonstrable that there is such a being, but he thought it vastly more probable than the alternative hypothesis that the order which is discernible in the world and the intelligence and sensitivity which are exhibited not only by human beings but also by many species of animals, are the product of an ultimately fortuitous collection of material atoms. In short, he accepted what is most commonly known as the argument from design.

Voltaire saw belief in God, not as a result of tradition, nor as the result of a divine revelation, but rather as the reasonable conclusion. He found that it was logical to believe in God, just as he found it logical not to accept churches or organized religions. In response to Blaise Pascal, Voltaire wrote:

Simple reasoning will afford us proofs of the truth of the creation; for when we perceive that matter cannot exist, move, etc. of itself, we readily come to know that it must have been assisted; but we can never discover by the bare help of reason, how a body which we see continually subject to change, is to be restored again to the same state as it was in at the time it put on that change: neither will reasoning satisfy us how a man could be produced without the seed peculiar to his species. Hence it follows, that the creation is an object of reason.

Voltaire, however, did more than simultaneously criticize religion and assert the existence of God. He also was actively critical of atheism.

It is at this point that the career of Voltaire and the career of the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe are tangential to each other. Voltaire, who was born in 1694 and who died in 1778, was older than Goethe, who was born in 1749. When Goethe was a university student, he was an admirer of Voltaire's work. Goethe studied at Leipzig from 1765 to 1768, when he was between 16 and 19 years old; Voltaire would have been between 71 and 74 years old during that time. Additionally, Goethe studied at Strasbourg from 1770 to 1771; he was between 21 and 22 years old then, and Voltaire was between 76 and 77 years old. The young Goethe saw the aging Voltaire as an example of intellectual courage. Goethe relates how Voltaire did not surrender to the increasingly vicious attacks of the atheists:

Those principles, for which he had stood all his life, and to the spread of which he had devoted his days, were no longer held in honour or esteem: nay, that very Deity he acknowledged, and so continued to declare himself free from atheism, was discredited.

Even as Goethe praised the courage with which Voltaire resisted the efforts of those who would "discredit" the concept of God, he also was disappointed in Voltaire's continued attacks on religion.

Voltaire's factious dishonesty and his constant perversion of noble subjects became more and more distasteful to us, and our aversion to him grew daily. He seemed never to have done with degrading religion and the Holy Scriptures on which it rests, for the sake of injuring priestcraft, as they called it, and had thereby awakened in me feelings of irritation.

In a bizarre turn of events, Voltaire's devotion to God and hatred of the church led him to comment on fossils. Because the fossil record suggests that there was a major flood which covered most of the earth's surface at one time, Voltaire rejected the veracity of the fossil record. Voltaire wanted to demonstrate that there had been no flood, because he wanted to undermine the authority of the Old Testament. To deny the evidence presented by fossils, however, took arcane reasoning. Goethe recounts:

when I now learned that, to weaken the tradition of a deluge, he had denied the existence of all fossilized shells, and admitted them only as lusus naturae, he entirely lost my confidence; for my own eyes had shown me on the Bastberg, plainly enough, that I stood on what had been the floor of an ancient sea, among the exuviae of its original inhabitants. These mountains had certainly been once covered with waves, whether before or during the deluge did not concern me; it was enough that the valley of the Rhine had been one vast lake, a bay extending further than eye could see; no amount of talk could shake me in this conviction. I hoped, rather, to extend my knowledge of lands and mountains, let the result be what it would.

Voltaire created enemies on both sides: atheists attacked him relentlessly, because he firmly believed in the existence of a creating and logical God; Christians were disappointed in the extremism of his attacks on anything connected with traditional religion.