Testament of Jean Meslier: Religions Are Human Inventions

by Luke Muehlhauser on April 9, 2010 in Reviews

meslier_testamentJean Meslier (1664-1729) served as a Catholic priest for 40 years, but after his death was discovered to have written the very first book-length philosophical essay promoting atheism.

I’m blogging my way through the book. See the index for all posts.

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Meslier says all religions are human inventions:

All the laws and orders that are issued in the name and authority of God or the gods are really only human inventions… invented by shrewd and crafty politicians, afterward cultivated and multiplied by the false seducers and charlatans, then accepted blindly by the ignorant, and finally supported and authorized by the laws of the princes and rulers of the earth who used these human inventions to keep a tight rein on the community of men and do with them what they wanted.

But basically, all these inventions are only “reins for calves,” as Montaigne said (Essays, II, 6), because they are only used to rein in the minds of ignorant and simple men…

And what I say here in general about the vanity and falsity of the religions of the world, I do not say only about the foreign and pagan religions, which you already regard as false, but I say it also about your Christian religion because, in fact, it is no less vain or less false than any other.1

Meslier calls the evidence that religions are human inventions the “first of my reasons” that religion is false:

We cannot say that most religions are really divine institutions because, seeing that all the different religions are conflicting and opposing to each other and even condemn each other… they cannot all be true, nor, consequently, can they all come from the same principle of truth, i.e., God…

From this I obviously infer that it is certain that at least most religions of the world are purely human inventions and that those who first invented them used the name and authority of God only to make it easier to accept the laws and orders that they wanted to establish…

We know that it was by these tricks and ploys that Numa Pompilius, king of the Romans, tamed the rough and wild ways of his people, softened them up little by little… on the pretext of honoring the gods…

Likewise, we know that Sertorius, the famous chief of the armies of Spain, used a similar ploy to command his troops at will, which was easy for him when he persuaded them that his white deer, which he always kept at this side, brought to him from the gods all the counsel he took.

Zoroaster, king of the Bactrians, did the same thing with respect to his people, persuading them that the laws he gave them came from the god Ahura Mazda.

Trismegistus, king of the Egyptians, likewise gave them his laws under the name and authority of the god Mercury. Zamolxis, king of the Sythians, issued his under the name of the goddess Vesta… Charondas, lawmaker of the Chalcidians, also issued his laws under the name of the god Saturn. Lycurgus, lawmaker of the Lacedaemonians, issued his under the name of Apollo. Draco and Solon, lawmakers of the Athenians, likewise issued their laws under the name of the goddess Minerva… Moses, lawmaker of the Jews, also issued his laws under the name of a god who, he said, appeared to him in a burning bush. Jesus, son of Mary, nicknamed the Christ and head of the Christian sect and religion that we profess, likewise assured his people… that he did not come on his own but that he was sent by God, his father, and he said and did only what his father ordered him to say and do… Simon, called the Magician, abused the people of Samaria for a long time, persuading them as much by his words as by his tricks and enchantments that he was something great so that everyone who heard him speak, from the first to the last, called him “the great virtue of God”… Finally, without speaking of many others, it was also by the same ploy of trickery and imposture that the much-renowned false prophet Mohammed established his laws and religion throughout the East, making his people believe that they had been sent from heaven by the angel Gabriel.2

Holy smackdown, Batman!

  1. Testament, page 45. []
  2. Ibid, pages 48-49. []

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

David John Wellman April 9, 2010 at 6:42 am

I’d actually never heard of this guy before. Thanks for bringing him to my attention.

Are there any unabridged English translations of this work available online?

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lukeprog April 9, 2010 at 7:07 am

Wellman,

I doubt it. This 2009 printing is the first English translation ever.

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Martin April 9, 2010 at 8:54 am

Of course, the philosophically literate theist would respond that this commits the genetic fallacy (assuming you are attempting to infer atheism from it) and that you cannot infer the falsity of X1 just because X2 and X3 are false.

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Erika April 9, 2010 at 10:28 am

(Warning, low content comment ahead =) I love the first couple passages of the second passage you quote!

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justfinethanks April 9, 2010 at 12:26 pm

you cannot infer the falsity of X1 just because X2 and X3 are false.

That’s true, and if that is what he is arguing (which is possible, because its not too clear) then this objection is meaningless to the question of whether or not God exists.

However, I think a different interpretation of what he is saying is more serious. Namely, that the obvious fact of inconsistent revelation (i.e. countless different religions all which claim to have revelation with God) is incompatible with a God who wishes to have a relationship with humanity. That is, if that sort of God exists, he would deliver his revelation with clarity and consistency. Revelation has not been delievered with clarity and consistency (as evidenced by the diversity of religions he cites), therefore that sort of God does not exist.

Basically, when when we look at the diversity of religion, we are left with two options with respect to a God who desires a relationship with humanity. Either God has revealed himself in some fashion (and one of these religions is correct), but that revelation got sorely bungled by almost all of humanity. Or alternatively religious diversity is a result of humanity’s incredulity, and people just invented different kinds of nonsense at different times and at different places.

When given the option between a God who is an incompetent communicator and one who doesn’t exist, Meslier founds the latter more probable.

But that’s just my idea, and I like I said, I think a good case could be made that Meslier is actually making the weaker argument that you cite.

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Hermes April 9, 2010 at 1:44 pm

Theoretical deities are potentially defensible, scriptural ones are not.

Examples: Generic deists and pantheists have consistent deity concepts. Specific deities that live in the sky and detest tall buildings but (oddly) not rockets or satellites just aren’t credible. That’s why none of the sophisticated theologians argue for a credible deity based primarily on scriptural references. Zeus & company, they’re real. We meet every second Tuesday for suffleboar. The boars hate it.

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Alex April 9, 2010 at 2:34 pm

jft – I think you’re more or less trying to force-fit his views into a sort of modern evidential argument from nonbelief. I think a much more plausible interpretation that’s also charitable is that he is making an argument from analogy. He’s trying to show that most religions can be explained as human inventions; given that Christianity is very similar in its features to the other religions he cites, Christianity can also be explained as a human invention. Of course this doesn’t imply the falsity of Christianity, but still, showing how the belief that X could have arisen with no causal connection to X’s truth undercuts X.

But I think the appropriateness of these interpretations depends on the overall quality of the text. If we’ll end up having to overinterpret all of his arguments to make them respectable, our doing so may not be appropriate.

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Beelzebub April 10, 2010 at 3:25 am

I have a kind of love/hate attitude regarding the genetic fallacy — and actually deductive reasoning in total. There comes a point where it serves more as a type of intellectual straitjacket. I’m not attempting to invalidate deductive reasoning, but you have to figure that it is but one form of reasoning. How many times do you have to observe a street corner Jesus suffering from schizophrenia before you are allowed to induct the conclusion that all people who claim to be Christ’s second coming are mentally ill — without being ridiculed for committing a deductive error? Too many times on the intertubes you get a person advancing a very reasonable inferential argument, just to be shot down by some nerd saying he or she has made a “logically invalid argument.” I think we need to break away from this kind of deductive lawyering. My $.02

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Martin April 10, 2010 at 5:29 am

Beelzebub,

See Luke’s post here. He uses an example similar to yours and shows why it’s still a fallacy.

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NFQ April 11, 2010 at 7:11 am

Fascinating. Is this really the “very first book-length philosophical essay promoting atheism”? I admit I’m kind of surprised it took that long.

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