Testament of Jean Meslier: Of Miracles

by Luke Muehlhauser on July 2, 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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In section 18, Meslier discusses miracles:

…[the] miracles reported in the so-called holy… books do not agree with what we should think of the… bounty, wisdom, and justice of an infinitely perfect being…

…for example, would it be appropriate for [an infinitely perfect being] to want to feed on flesh and blood through cruel and bloody sacrifices? Would it be appropriate to make an unjust and despicable exception of peoples? Would it be appropriate to want to cold-bloodedly and intentionally destroy some people and crush them with evils and miseries in order to favor others for nothing and to heap upon them all the goods?1

Moreover… we should not think that [an infinitely perfect being] would particularly want to use his omnipotence to perform miracles on small occasions and for inconsequential matters and that he would not want to perform them on occasions and in matters that were much more important…

[But] as to the miracles they claim were done through Moses, his prophet, what do they consist of? Changing, for example, a rod into a serpent and back again? Changing water into blood? Bringing forth a great number of frogs? Of locusts? …Infecting animals with contagious disease? …And all this simply for the love and interest of the vile and miserable little people of Israel?

What else is there? …Bringing water out of a rock to [quench] their thirst? Bringing a prodigious multitude of quail from beyond the seas to satisfy the greed and sensuality of this people who wanted to eat flesh? Miraculously preventing the clothes and shoes of all these people from being worn away during the so-called forty years in the desert? …

There you have it, the better part of these great and prodigious miracles of the Old Testament that they pretend to make such a big deal about…

There are too many examples to report here… but it is easy to see… that God on occasion really wanted to use his omnipotence to do harm rather than good, seeing that these so-called miracles only tend to afflict people; ravage provinces, cities, and kingdoms; and destroy entire nations and armies…

It is also easy to see by these miracles that God actually punished more severely certain individuals, and even innocent people, for trivial faults and even for faults these innocent people did not commit… For example, he very strictly punished a nation for the trivial fault that a king committed in making a census of his subjects through curiosity or vain glory, and he punished the Bethsamites very severely for such a trivial fault while he allowed elsewhere and still allows every day a number of very vicious crimes to go unpunished.

Finally, it is easy to see by these miracles that he showed himself more beneficent on trivial occasions than he did on countless other occasions, incomparably more pressing and more important… [for example he was] so good as to send an angel to console and help a simple servant, while he let, and still leaves every day, countless innocent people to languish and die in misery without help and without assistance of anybody in their needs.2

Meslier continues in this vein for many pages, and then compares Christian miracles to pagan miracles:

If our Christ-cultists say that their so-called saints resurrected the dead and had divine revelations, so likewise had the pagans already said the same thing of Aithalides…

Likewise they said that Asclepius… resurrected the dead…

If our Christ-cultists say that their Jesus Christ was born miraculously from a virgin who had known no man, likewise the pagans had already said that Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, were miraculously born of a vestal virgin… They had already said that Mars, Vulcan, Argus, and others were born of Juno who had no knowledge of men; they had already said that Minerva… was born of the brain of Jupiter and emerged armed to the teeth when he punched himself in the head.

If our Christ-cultists say that their saints made fountains of water spring from the rocks, likewise the pagans had already said that Minerva made a fountain of oil spring forth…3

Conclusion

Meslier goes on for another 463 pages, covering the following topics:

  • The vanity of divine revelations
  • The barbarity of animal sacrifice, and the thought that this would please a god
  • God’s supposed command for Abraham to slaughter his own son
  • Old Testament and New Testament prophecies
  • Errors in Christian doctrine and morality: the trinity, the incarnation, the mind and preaching of Jesus, religious fanaticism, adoration of gods of dough (the sacrament of wafers), creation, original sin, eternal punishment, and more.
  • Religion’s authorization of tyranny and laziness
  • The abuse of taking goods for oneself rather than sharing them
  • The evils of forbidding divorce
  • The joys of communal living
  • Tyrannical governments
  • How most of the wisest men have doubted the gods
  • Even Christians must admit they are atheists with regard to thousands of gods
  • The order in the world does not prove God
  • Time and space cannot have been created
  • The argument from evil
  • The argument from nonbelief
  • An all-wise, all-powerful God would not allow people to be so defective, mean, and unhappy
  • Refutation of Descartes’ arguments for God
  • Time and space must be infinite
  • Refutation of vain arguments for immortality
  • Thoughts, desires, sensations, and moral intuitions merely reflect the rearrangement of matter within a person
  • Neither Moses nor the prophets believed in immortality

All this from a Catholic priest, in 1729!

If you want more, just buy the book.

  1. Testament, page 115. []
  2. Ibid., pages 118-121. []
  3. Ibid., pages 129-130. []

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

svenjamin July 2, 2010 at 9:38 am

“If you want more, just buy the book.”
Okay already, done.

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lukeprog July 2, 2010 at 9:53 am

svenjamin,

Heh.

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Bill Maher July 2, 2010 at 2:52 pm

How does he explain magnets if there aren’t miracles?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_-agl0pOQfs

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Justfinethanks July 2, 2010 at 3:13 pm

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Freethinker July 2, 2010 at 3:58 pm

I bought the book upon your first recommendation of it. It is an excellent work. It is amazing how much things have changed and, yet, stayed the same.

Despite his relative obscurity, particularly in the English-speaking world, in some ways we have Meslier to thank for the advancement of atheism that continues today. He was an influence to Voltaire. Voltaire, in turn, influenced Thomas Paine. Paine and Voltaire both influenced later freethinkers like Ingersoll and Russell.

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ChristiansJewsMuslims July 3, 2010 at 3:49 am

You Atheists deal all day with confirmation bias.
Why not review a theist book like “The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions” or “There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind”

love god, he will love you back.

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Hermes July 3, 2010 at 4:02 am

ChristiansJewsMuslims, why when it’s clear such books don’t seem to enlighten the religious?

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Hermes July 3, 2010 at 4:06 am

Secondly, I’ll be glad to listen to your description/defintion/… about your specific deity, and from that I’ll be honest and tell you if it is plausible to me or not and why.

Unfortunately, most theists don’t know what gods they follow and can’t communicate about them effectively or consistently. This incoherence or confusion leaves little to comment on.

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Justfinethanks July 3, 2010 at 6:01 am

You Atheists deal all day with confirmation bias.

Of course we do. Everybody does. The human cognition is a deeply flawed thing.

Why not review a theist book like “The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions” or “There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind”

Firstly, Luke does engage with theistic arguments. Secondly, Berlinski isn’t an atheist, he’s an agnostic who who finds thrill in contrarianism in a manner most of us grew out of when we got out driver’s license. And thirdly, if you wanted to find meaningful challenges to atheism, these are bad places to go.

Berlinski’s book is typically mushed mouthed, meandering, and off point. For example, Berlinski criticizes Hitchens because he has the audacity to defer to experts on scientific matters:

“With forthcoming modesty, he has affirmed his willingness to defer to the world’s ‘smart scientists’ on any matter more exigent than finger-counting.”

Anyone who has read Hitchens knows that this isn’t true, and that he certainly attempts to offer insights of his own. And it’s also just sad that we live in a world were people think that defering to experts on areas outside of your education is considered a defect of some sort. I wonder if Berlinski feels the same about people’s tendency to defer to medical experts when they get sick.

Berlinski also expresses a willingness to sacrifice making any fucking sense in favor of being contrarian. For example, in response to Dawkins’ writing that Yahweh is a ” a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully,” Berlinski reponds:

“These are, to my way of thinking, striking points in God’s favor, but opinions, I suppose, will vary.”

Reflect on that for a moment. Berlinski thinks that to be “genocidal” is a favorable attribute. It’s his opinion that to be “misogynistic” is a good stance to take. He smiles upon those who are “pestilential.” He doesn’t disagree with Dawkins’ description of the old testament God, he simply likes the characteristic of a “capriciously malevolent bully.”

Considering he considers all of these traits favorable, it’s a little odd that he later goes on to criticize 20th century communist dictators, since they shared many of the traits that he apparently likes.

Also, either Berlinski is a dangerous sociopath or he simply has a bizarre need to contradict Dawkins, even if Dawkins says “Genocide is bad.” In either case, he’s not worth taking seriously.

And “There is a God” is simply a summary of modern natural theology (fine tuning, abiogenesis, Kalam, etc.) that are treated with more depth and even more clarity elsewhere.

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Bill Maher July 3, 2010 at 7:29 am

Christian,

Would you really prefer us to dog books you like?

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ChristiansJewsMuslims July 3, 2010 at 11:46 am

My concept of god:
My god is a perfect all loving being. A first cause which watches over us by creating the laws of nature which create life and determine everything. He can use miracles (tangling with these law, but not breaking them). He also punishes the wicked and gives rewards the good. when people die in earthquakes they go to heaven. This means we should help them because god orders us to and if we don’t succeed it’s god’s will.

How about that for a short one?

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Chiko July 3, 2010 at 3:57 pm

If recommended here to buy this book, why you don’t do that in your recommended books section?
Money isn’t garbage you know, I’m a student with not so rich parents who needs the money.
Do you think one should buy it or not? If so please update your section.

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lukeprog July 3, 2010 at 6:39 pm

Chiko,

My ‘recommended books’ section is reserved only for my very strongest recommendations. This book is recommended to only certain people, and you’ll get a sense if you’re one of those people by reading the quoted passages.

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Bill Maher July 3, 2010 at 9:55 pm

As someone studying to be a historian of thought, I find this to be a great addition to my collection. Other angry frenchmen worth checking out are Marquis de Sade and Baron D’Holbach (both were also from the 1700′s).

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Chiko July 4, 2010 at 9:31 am

Thank you for the reply.
I find the book compelling. Ordered it for 18 US backs online. Hope it’s great.
Can I ask you which heavy reading is the best to start with? (Is “Testament” good enough, I ordered it after all).

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lukeprog July 4, 2010 at 3:04 pm

Chiko,

You’re asking which heavy reading is best to start with… from among all the books on my ‘Recommended Books’ page?

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Chiko July 5, 2010 at 1:16 am

Yes, lukeprog.
This is what I’m asking.
Thx, Chikolata

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lukeprog July 5, 2010 at 6:34 am

Depends which topic you want to read on, but ‘Jesus, Interrupted’ is a good place to start, precisely because it’s easy reading, not heavy reading.

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Hermes July 5, 2010 at 11:55 am

ChristiansJewsMuslims, thanks for the reply. Sorry that I can’t give you much of a response yet, but if you can fill in the blanks maybe I’ll be able to give you a more solid answer as well?

ChristiansJewsMuslims: My god is a perfect all loving being.

Perfect in what way? That’s a very serious and often misused word. For example, I can support the idea that something is perfect for a specific instance and set of participants, but I can’t think of a single instance of perfection that is not on that level. In either case, as soon as the scope is widened and the participants are increased, perfect tends to fall apart.

For example, a sports game may be settled in the last moment by a skillful shot by one team, and the individual person making that score may be both personally deserving and become an inspiration for others or someone needing to see that expression of perfection. Yet, the same perfect act may lead to unintended disasters for other people. And, that’s just sports where attempting perfection in public is a common goal even if it is seldom achieved.

Maybe you did not mean perfection in any absolute sense, but a more limited one? I could fill in the gaps from what you are saying with my own interpretation, yet I would rather not put my words in your mouth if you are capable of properly expressing what you mean.

That’s the problem, though. Much of what you wrote depends on specific interpretations that aren’t part of what you actually wrote. Not just what you mean by perfect but also what you mean by many of the other words and phrases you have chosen.

ChristiansJewsMuslims: A first cause which watches over us by creating the laws of nature which create life and determine everything. He can use miracles (tangling with these law, but not breaking them). He also punishes the wicked and gives rewards the good. when people die in earthquakes they go to heaven. This means we should help them because god orders us to and if we don’t succeed it’s god’s will.

How about that for a short one?

Very cluttered. You use many specialized words that have varying meanings depending on the specific religious group or individual. Probably self-contradictory and thus refutable if you follow many of some of the varying versions of the Abrahamic relgions (as your name seems to require(?)), but I’ll hold off and wait for you to clarify what your intended meanings actually were. I’ve found that there are as many theisms as there are theists.

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