Testament of Jean Meslier: The Vanity of Religion

by Luke Muehlhauser on July 22, 2014 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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Earlier, we read that Meslier’s ‘first proof’ against religion was that religions were clearly human inventions. Next, Meslier gives his ‘second proof’: the vanity of religions:

…it is obvious… that all religions, and principally the Christian religion, base their mysteries… on what they call faith, i.e., a blind, though firm and confident, belief in some divinity [and also] some laws and divine revelations. This is also why there is no religion that does not urge all its followers above all else to be firm in their faith…

…Their faith, according to what they say, would be worth nothing if it relied on the experience of the senses or on human reason. The most… powerful motive to believe in the most incomprehensible and the most incredible things is to have nothing but their faith… Thus they hold the maxim that it is necessary to renounce all the lights of reason and all the appearances of the senses to hold their mind captive in the obedience of faith.1

Moreover, religion is a source of eternal troubles and divisions:

[Religion] is a deadly source of eternal troubles and divisions among men, because it is not through reason but rather through stubbornness and obstinacy that they are all bound to their religions… [this is] why they will never agree.

…Indeed, we see no wars as bloody and cruel as those that are waged on the motive or pretext of religion because then everyone is carried blindly away by zeal and fury and tries to make of his enemy a sacrifice to God…

Now, it is not believable that an all-powerful, infinitely good and wise god would ever want to use such deceitful ways… as this to establish his laws and orders or make his will known to men…

Likewise, it is not believable that a god who loved unity and peace… would ever have wanted to… set as a foundation of his religion so fatal and deadly a source of eternal troubles and divisions among men as is this blind belief, which is [so] deadly…2

Next, Meslier makes a point that is central to my arguments against religion:

Now, the arguments and proofs that our Christ-cultists draw [in defense of Christianity] can equally serve to establish and confirm a lie and imposture as the truth. [All religions], as false as they may be… claim to be based on similar motives of credibility and to have a pure and truthful doctrine. [Also], There is not one that does not claim to have miracles and prodigies done in their favor.3

Our Christ-cultists would not like to say that all the so-called miracles of the pharaoh’s magicians were clear and convincing proofs of truth or that they were done by holy people. So they have to recognize, in spite of themselves, that these kinds of signs or effects can come equally from vice as from virtue, from error as from truth, and that they can be done and have been done by swindlers and impostors as well as by honest men; and, consequently, they are not sure and decisive proofs or evidence of the truth of any religion.4

Meslier then applies these points to the Historical Jesus:

We could say, for example, that it would be more reasonable to believe what Philostratus relates in his eight books of the Life of Apollonius than what all the evangelists together say about the miracles of their Jesus Christ, because at least we know that Philostratus was eloquent and articulate [and well known]. This cannot at all be said about Jesus Christ or about those who wrote his life because they were… ignorant men, the dregs of society, poor laborers and fishermen who did not even have the sense to tell things in succession and in order and who very often even contradicted themselves in their narratives.

And with respect to what they described, the life and actions: if he really performed all the miracles they say, he surely would have become famous and illustrious by all his wonderful actions and he would not have failed to attract the glory and admiration of the people… (Ibid, pages 83-84.))

Next, I’ll discuss Meslier’s aptly-titled section ‘Uncertainty of the So-Called Holy Scriptures, Which Were Falsified and Corrupted.’

  1. Testament, pages 71-72. []
  2. Testament, pages 75-76. []
  3. Ibid, page 79. []
  4. Ibid, page 83. []

Next post:

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Hermes May 1, 2010 at 6:33 am

In the historic documents category, the good Baron Paul Henri Thiry d’Holbach’s Good Sense is now available as an audio book from the good folks who contribute to LibriVox. For those who are familiar with LibriVox, this recording has professional polish to it and is a joy to listen to.

I contend that even after two hundred years, his brief summary of the issues are often addressed by Christians and other theists but not effectively refuted by them. An excellent overview of the topic.

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Rob May 1, 2010 at 6:53 am

This is interesting stuff Luke, thanks. I can’t believe I’ve never heard of this guy.

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Erika May 1, 2010 at 8:41 am

I love it not because Meslier is making particularly great arguments against religion but because, with a little updated wording, it could fit right in on the list of current New Atheist best sellers. =)

Which just goes to show that what makes the New Atheists new is not what they have to say, but the fact that they are willing and able to say it in their life time.

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revrogers May 1, 2010 at 10:13 am

“This cannot at all be said about Jesus Christ or about those who wrote his life because they were… ignorant men, the dregs of society, poor laborers and fishermen who did not even have the sense to tell things in succession and in order and who very often even contradicted themselves in their narratives.”

What a bigot.

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noen May 1, 2010 at 10:51 am

revrogers
“What a bigot.

and elitist. Not to mention wrong since we now know that the gospels were not written until at least 70 ad. Long after anyone alive at the time of Christ had since passed away.

“Meslier’s ‘first proof’ against religion was that religions were clearly human inventions.”

Genetic fallacy.

“religion is a source of eternal troubles and divisions”

Why? Because….

“we see no wars as bloody and cruel as those that are waged on the motive or pretext of religion because then everyone is carried blindly away by zeal and fury and tries to make of his enemy a sacrifice to God…”

However a pretext for war cannot by definition be a cause of war. If religious belief is used and manipulated as a pretext for violence it is not then a cause of that violence. The true cause lies in those who manipulate others for personal gain.

“Meslier makes a point that is central to my arguments against religion.” Which is I take it that miracles “are not sure and decisive proofs or evidence of the truth of any religion”.

I know of no contemporary apologists who argue that miracles are proof of anything at all. Virtually all apologetics I’m aware of argue strongly against that. In my view religion is not about the performance of miracles any way. Only ignorant rubes and atheists believe that.

“if he [Jesus] really performed all the miracles they say, he surely would have become famous”

I really doubt that. People are naturally skeptical and by all accounts many of those around Jesus were highly skeptical of his purported miracles. Jesus also admonished his followers not to spread news of miraculous events around. That wasn’t what he was about, it wasn’t his message.

It is a very bad misreading of the new testament to come away thinking that Jesus’ message was: “Here I am, a God among men and these are my mighty works that prove what I say is true. You’d damn well better obey me and worship me or else I’ll fucking burn you alive forever.”

If that’s what you believe you couldn’t be more wrong.

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al friedlander May 1, 2010 at 11:04 am

“Only ignorant rubes and atheists believe that.”

Aww, c’mon. Was that really necessary?

“It is a very bad misreading of the new testament to come away thinking that Jesus’ message was: “Here I am, a God among men and these are my mighty works that prove what I say is true. You’d damn well better obey me and worship me or else I’ll fucking burn you alive forever.”

If that’s what you believe you couldn’t be more wrong.”

But, why? I’m a bit curious, if you wouldn’t mind explaining exactly what you mean here.

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Justfinethanks May 1, 2010 at 11:29 am

noen: “Meslier’s ‘first proof’ against religion was that religions were clearly human inventions.”

Genetic fallacy.

Wha? The genetic fallacy (as I think you trying to refer to it) is the argument that a certain belief is false because the person holding to the belief holds it for non-rational reasons, such as:

P1) If Person X is a Christian because X was raised as a Christian, then Christianity is false.
P2) X was raised to be a Christian.
C) Christianity is false.

P1 is clearly false because a “true belief” is clearly compatible with a belief you were raised to have, even if they hold to that belief without argument or evidence.

The following is NOT a genetic fallacy:

P1) If a religion that claims to be divinely inspired is a wholly human invention, then it is false.
P2) Religion X is a human invention.
C) Religion X is false.

In this argument, P1 is necessarily true as “divinely inspired” is incompatible with a “human invention.” P2 is possibly true, which is what Meslier argues for.

So I’m afraid he does not commit that particular fallacy in the argument.

I know of no contemporary apologists who argue that miracles are proof of anything at all. Virtually all apologetics I’m aware of argue strongly against that.

Allow me to introduce you to this obscure modern apologist who goes by the name of “William Lane Craig,” who does seem to be under the impression that miracles can rationally lead to conclusions about God and Jesus:

The miraculous act of God’s raising Jesus from the dead is plausibly taken to be God’s vindication of Jesus’ radical personal claims for which he was crucified as a blasphemer. In light of God’s raising Jesus, Jesus’ personal claims to divinity take on a new credibility. The resurrection is God’s imprimatur on those extraordinary claims.

http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=7169

People are naturally skeptical and by all accounts many of those around Jesus were highly skeptical of his purported miracles.

It would be exhausting to to show all the ways in which “people are naturally skeptical” is a false statement. But to name one: despite it having no empirically demonstrated health benefits, homeopathy is a multi billion dollar a year industry.

http://www.wellsphere.com/complementary-alternative-medicine-article/americans-spend-3-billion-dollars-on-homeopathy/759860

Even a mild understand of how the Confirmation bias operates should put the idea of innate skepticism to rest.

Could you provide us with some reasons to believe that people were more skeptical two thousand years ago?

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Hermes May 1, 2010 at 11:35 am

A reference to add to Al’s comments;

John 3:16-20 (New International Version)

16″For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son,[a] that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.[b] 19This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.

[ source ]

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revrogers May 1, 2010 at 12:09 pm

“and elitist. Not to mention wrong since we now know that the gospels were not written until at least 70 ad. Long after anyone alive at the time of Christ had since passed away.”

Even “after 70 AD” is not too long after to be written by eyewitnesses. Also, some scholars argue for a pre-70 date for the Synoptics and some even for the entire NT (J. A. T. Robinson, no fundamentalist he, John Wenham, and E. Earle Ellis, et al.)

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noen May 1, 2010 at 12:22 pm

Justfinethanks
“Wha? The genetic fallacy (as I think you trying to refer to it) is the argument that a certain belief is false because the person holding to the belief holds it for non-rational reasons”

Nope. “The genetic fallacy is a fallacy of irrelevance where a conclusion is suggested based solely on something or someone’s origin rather than its current meaning or context.”

Or in other words, explaining religion in terms of it’s origins says nothing of it’s claims and even less of it’s efficacy (Capacity or power to produce a desired effect). Which certainly could be independent of it’s truth claims.


al friedlander
“Aww, c’mon. Was that really necessary?”

I’ll refrain from snide remarkes when you stop telling me that I am being just like Neville Chamberlain appeasing Hitler because I don’t join with Dawkins et al in your pogroms against all religion.

Re: “William Lane Craig”

I’m really not familiar with him but a brief look about seems to suggest that he is an evangelical preacher of some sort. Or in other words, “low hanging fruit” and not really representative. Though I am sure that it must be really tempting to try to act like fundamentalists are really the only true Christians around. It just isn’t so and it is intellectually dishonest to try to claim they are.

“It would be exhausting to to show all the ways in which “people are naturally skeptical” is a false statement. “

You sound… skeptical, huh, imagine that.

“people are naturally skeptical”
“people are naturally gullible”

Both statements are true.

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nate May 1, 2010 at 12:58 pm

//Or in other words, explaining religion in terms of it’s origins says nothing of it’s claims and even less of it’s efficacy (Capacity or power to produce a desired effect). Which certainly could be independent of it’s truth claims.//

It is true that proving a religion was made up by men does not disprove it; in the case of Christianity, which claims to be divinely inspired, it does. It’s really weird that you would concede that Christianity was made up by men, then argue that that doesn’t mean it’s false. I would think most Christians would argue that their religion is divinely inspired.

//I’m really not familiar with him but a brief look about seems to suggest that he is an evangelical preacher of some sort.//

He’s one of the only Christians that has his own section on this website. That should tell you something. Do you have any apologist that says “miracles don’t prove anything”?

//“people are naturally skeptical”
“people are naturally gullible”

Both statements are true.//

It’s weird that you would know about the genetic fallacy, but the not law of noncontradiction. It’s impossible for people to hold two contradictory characteristics.

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Justfinethanks May 1, 2010 at 12:58 pm

Or in other words, explaining religion in terms of it’s origins says nothing of it’s claims

Except in this particular instance, it’s origins is perfectly relevant, if it is claiming to be “from God” but is actually “from man,” and furthermore if the part about it being “from God” is fundamental to its veracity. Is there really any Christian who holds that Christianity is actually tenable if God played no part in its formation? If it is true that Christianity is human-made, then lots of fundamental Christian claims like “Jesus is God,” and “God inspired the Bible” are all false, and Christianity goes with it.

I’m really not familiar with him but a brief look about seems to suggest that he is an evangelical preacher of some sort.

???

This comment seems an awful lot like troll bait, but I’ll try to educate you nontheless. William Lane Craig, far from being an evangelical preacher, is one of the most visible philosophers of religion today. He is perhaps most famous for his defense of the Kalam argument. According to rival philosopher Quentin Smith:

[A] count of the articles in the philosophy journals shows that more articles have been published about Craig’s defense of the Kalam argument than have been published about any other philosopher’s contemporary formulation of an argument for God’s existence.

He is also known as a supremely skilled debater, dozens of which you can hear on Luke’s debate page.

http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=50

So when I called Craig “obscure,” it was an apparently failed attempt at sarcasm, as it would actually be impossible for me to choose a more visible or more qualified Christian apologist, which makes your claim that apologists think that miracles prove nothing untrue.

You sound… skeptical, huh, imagine that.

I try to be. What I am not, however, is naturally skeptical.

“people are naturally skeptical”
“people are naturally gullible”
Both statements are true.

Perhaps I did not interpret you correctly. In the context, it seemed that you are making the claim that people are generally naturally skeptical, (i.e. there are more naturally skeptical people than naturally gullible people) which is I think clearly false.

If you meant it in the sense that “naturally skeptical people exist,” I think think that’s true, but so is “people naturally don’t have eyeballs” or “snakes naturally have two heads.” It’s true, but it’s not really relevant.

Furthermore, I fail to understand how the mere existence of naturally skeptical people should lead us to believe the people Jesus’ surrounded himself with were skeptical. Do we have any reason to make that conclusion, BESIDES the fact that skeptical people exist?

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noen May 1, 2010 at 3:48 pm

“It’s weird that you would know about the genetic fallacy, but the not law of noncontradiction. It’s impossible for people to hold two contradictory characteristics.”

Well, we humans are like that, I hold contradictory concepts together all the time. It’s part of who I am and what makes me human.

We are not formal systems.

Hence, because we are not formal systems we cannot be fully described by a set of internally consistent rules. If you do try to describe any one person by a set of strictly typed formal rules there will always be some statements that are true of the person but undecidable within the description of the person.

William Lane Craig? pffft… sounds boring as hell. But I suppose you priests lap that stuff up I guess.

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Mark May 2, 2010 at 4:37 pm

William Lane Craig? pffft… sounds boring as hell. But I suppose you priests lap that stuff up I guess.

???

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Zeb May 2, 2010 at 8:24 pm

Noen, you are about half as arrogant and nonsensical as people on here blame you for being, but your comments are half golden, and almost always funny at least. I’m glad someone here is shaking up the analytic orthodoxy because I’m not prepared to attempt it.

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joseph August 6, 2011 at 9:49 pm

@Noen

William Lane Craig, low hanging fruit! Hilarious!

Seconding previously mentioned points, if a religion claims to originate with God, and in fact originates with man, though it may contain a great deal of good (humanism) it cannot claim any spevial knowledge that would only be available from a divine source.

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