Why did Voltaire think that deism would support an ethical social order better than atheism?


Voltaire advocated deism and vehemently opposed atheism. As far as I know, one of the most important reasons he gave was pragmatic, that the uneducated lower class must be kept believing in god, otherwise ethics and social order would collapse. Hence his famous quote that if god would not exist, we would have to invent him.

I am confused if he meant that the lower classes should be taught deism instead of traditional Christianity, or if deism would have be kept hidden from them. In the latter case, his pragmatic argument for deism would be pointless.

But otherwise, could one really assume that teaching deism is an important contribution to teaching ethical behaviour? The usual argument is that belief in god contributes to ethics since believers expect that god will punish evildoers after death. Traditional Christianity claims to know very precise rules how that judgement will happen.

So let's imagine that a deistic teacher describes a god who created the universe like a clockmaker and does not interfere after that. The teacher could still claim that this god also punishes evil in the next life. But what if a pupil ask how exactly we know that? Is a clockworker god allowed to send revelations? If the teacher argues that we can conclude god's judgement of good and evil according to the rational structure of the universe, the pupil could point out that even then we cannot know if the deistic god's punishment will be harsh or benevolent; that kind of god might be extremely forgiving and quickly resocialise all sinners into heaven. So I would conclude that deism can hardly be expected to provide much deterrence.

Has Voltaire ever discussed questions like that?

I guess one could view the matter more in the light of a historic political process, that effectively deism in that era hoped to masquerade as a mild and moderate form of Christianity, and the Christian establishment to a certain extent went along with that, offering some sort of tacit deal like "if you deists attack atheism just as vehemently as we do, we will give you a seat in the supervisory board as the token sceptic". But that would mean Voltaire's reasons were purely political. My question is, did he (or for that matter, other deists discussing the same topic) give solid philosophical reasons for preferring deism to atheism in regard to ethics?


Posted 2018-03-30T08:21:51.407

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Peter Gay in 'The Enlightenment' describes Voltaire's attitude like this :

Everyone knows the anecdote about Voltaire entertaining felllow philosophes at Ferney : as they frankly talk about atheism, he silences them, sends the servants out of the room, and then justifies his precaution : "Do you want your throats cut tonight ?" It is a dubious story, but the feeeling is authentic enough. Repeatedly, Voltaire called for a social religion that would sustain the social order by holding out the warning of a God who watched the world, punished sinners, and rewarded the good. This was certainly not the God in whom Voltaire himself believed, but it was also not the God of Christianity. The social religion Voltaire called for was a relatively rational religion that reduced nonsense, observances, manipulation, and priestly power to a minimum : deism for the mob. "The simpler the laws, the more the magisrates are respected; the simpler the reliigon, the more its ministers will be revered. RE ligion can be simple .... When enlightened people will announce a single God, rewarder and avenger, no one will laugh, everyone will obey. (Peter Gay, 'The Enlightenment : An Interpretation', NY : Norton, 1977, 526-7.)


I italicised the phrase, 'deism for the mob'. Voltaire's social religion is not deism at all, regardless of his own religious beliefs. Deism in its main variety holds, very roughly, that reason can establish the existence of a God, distinct from the world, a First Cause and Creator who instituted the the changeless, universal laws of nature, but who does not intervene in the world. The metaphor was common that God was an absentee landlord.


I think what he means is that while he accepted a form of deism, it was beyond the bulk of the population to follow such a refined view of the deity. Preferably, everyone would be a deist but as a deist himself Voltaire thought that the most that could be hoped for in the then-current state of civilisation was belief in a God who (in Gay's words) watched the world, punished sinners, and rewarded the good. This was a deist's solution to the problem of what people should believe who did not have the sophistication to accept deism.

To take up your question more precisely : (a) deism should not be popularly taught because it would not be accepted but (b) a social religion should be inculcated which, purged of superstition and reduced to simplicity, was the closest the bulk of the population could get to deism and (c) such a social religion was rationally calculated by deism (or at least by Voltaire) to keep the masses morally in line and preserve social order. The pragmatic argument is : as a deist, teach the masses the simplest religion they can accept short of deism. It is not obvious that this is a pointless strategy (so it seems to me) if you accept my account of Voltaire's approach to society and religion.


Gay discusses what Voltaire himself exactly believed. Various religious views were attributed to him, including atheism. Gay ascribes to Voltaire 'a suspicion of atheism' and concludes that on balance the evidence suggests deism as the most accurate chatacterisation of Voltaire's religious position. See Gay, esp. 524.

Geoffrey Thomas

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First, the famous quote you lead with has been truncated. The full quote was "If God did not exist we would have to invent him, but all of nature screams he exists."

Voltaire's deism was definitely based on arguments of Design and First Causes, so I don't understand the distinction made above. "Even science says that nothing comes from nothing" he retorted to materialists. He also never said that God sits back indifferent, as so often said. He just believed that 'God' operates through universal laws, equally applicable to everyone, including moral laws, since Jesus, Confucius, Mahomet and Marcus Aurelius essentially teach the same morals. He also makes the interesting observation (in his Philosophical Dictionary, chapter "Atheism" I think) that there were a lot more atheists before Newton proved the existence of universal laws with his demonstration of gravity. It is the tribal, "chosen people" mentality of most religions (and the persecutions and bloodshed they provoke or enflame) that Voltaire combatted.

Religious people are generally incensed with his researches into history which proved just how much the ancient Jews - i.e., the Bible - had taken from much older religions. From the Egyptians or Babylonians, among others. But broader-minded people, able to overcome religious training, see in this the huge extent to which we are all interrelated - the "brotherhood of man" he evoked so often. And his writings provoked a tsunami of new laws, gradually granting freedom of beliefs across the western world. First because, as he said himself, "Men are only enlightened by degrees." And second, as he also said (much repeated by America's founders), if we make just laws (applicable to everyone, including kings and priests), and people obey them, their beliefs are no one's else's business. It was a revolution in minds that has not been sufficiently taught. Far from it.

I preferred Peter Gay's "Voltaire's Politics: the Poet as Realist" myself, with one quibble: I disagree that he was an anti-Semite. He was anti-Biblical. Bertram Schwarzbach is a better expert on that issue. But nothing beats reading Voltaire himself. Try the Philosophical Dictionary, and/or God and Human Beings, or "Voltaire's Revolution: Writings from His Campaign to Free Laws from Religion", a collection which also includes some of his arguments against atheism.

GK Noyer

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