When Voltaire wrote “Candide” he produced one of the greatest satires ever committed to paper by any author of any nationality at any time. (As I wrote that sentence, my “spellcheck” immediately flagged this title as a possible misspelling so I guess the programmers behind Windows Live Writer are not familiar with the work. This oversight makes a sad statement about the breadth of what we in the United States euphemistically call education).
If you are not familiar with the work, Voltaire, one of the great thinkers of the “Age of Enlightenment” broadly attacks the institutions of his day. Those include both religion and government, among others. The protagonist in the book which bears his name begins life with an optimistic view of the world but begins to encounter the reality which is our mortal existence – experiencing one misfortune after another.
The book is Voltaire’s caustic response in rebuttal to Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’ conclusion in his earlier work, “Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man and the Origin of Evil”, that this is “The Best of all Possible Worlds.” Empirical observation leads Voltaire to conclude that nothing could be further from the truth.
Leibniz struggled to find an explanation for the existence of evil. He came from a devout Lutheran background. How then, did one explain the allowance of a “good God” to permit the existence of so much that was foul and offensive to the Creator?
Voltaire, himself a deist although not affiliated with any particular religion, made the statement, “If there were no God, it would have been necessary to invent him.” Those who are atheists believe, of course, that is exactly what happened.
It is probably fair to say that those of us living at any time in history believe that things were better way back when. As we move along the time curve linearly we have an ever-widening time framework to which we may point in defense of that assertion. In the mid-eighteenth century when “Candide” was written, religion still held a powerful sway in Europe and throughout much of the rest of the world.
But let us consider the growing irrelevance of religion to many Americans. This is, perhaps with the notable exception of Islam, a development which is hardly unique to us but seems to be a growing trend worldwide. Science seems to be doing its job in debunking “the old myths” quite nicely.
Well, where are we in the absence of God? How do we behave when there is no Supreme Being to judge us for our deeds and our misdeeds? What is there to hold us accountable for our actions? Why should we not do everything to gorge ourselves on activities that we consider pleasurable, without worrying about the consequences or concerning ourselves about those whom we might hurt in the process of satisfying our lusts?
Not surprisingly, the answer to those questions is that we are where we are today.
In the absence of “Divine law” we have attempted to fill the gap of accountability with law made by man. But mankind is obviously flawed, motivated more by self-interest than fairness and it is so with those who pass laws to which we are, at least in theory, bound.
Laws, whether of Divine or human construction are inherently punitive. I do not know of one law on the books which rewards people for good behavior. And, of course, there are those, realizing that unlike a Divine being who is omniscient and omnipotent and never let’s anything go unnoticed, human governments are far less capable of punishing offenders, so they consciously engage in unlawful behavior believing they can get away with it. Often they are right.
When the Founding Fathers addressed the subject of religion in our Constitution, specifying that we were free either to accept or reject it in whatever form it might take, they did so with a reason. At the same time they proclaimed that all men had a right to “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”, they also recognized that old Christian religious principle that men had the power of “free will”. Only within a society which maintains the rights of the individual above those of the state can people truly be free.
I believe a compelling argument can be advanced which suggests that by condemning our religious beliefs to the trash pile of irrelevancy we have replaced God with Mammon and entrusted ourselves and our children to rulers whose only interest is their own agenda – and that in ever increasing amounts.
At one point, we looked to God to save us from calamities – even those we had brought on ourselves. Those of us who were Americans, whether we believed in a Supreme Being or not, still had the Constitution to which we could turn and which helped us sleep comfortably at night.
But the continuing erosion of the Constitution has now threatened the security of even the most ardent atheist who believes in individual freedom. And it should not surprise anyone that our government, in order for it to seize all authority to itself, has turned to attacking the one remaining thing in its way which still influences some men’s lives and their actions – their religious faith.
There is no clearer example than the penalty imposed on religious institutions which do not comply with the terms of the Affordable Care Act although those requirements are in direct conflict with their tenets. This administration has little concern about and no respect for the concept of “Separation of Church and State” – which makes it a new theocracy under the head of a very mortal President and an equally mortal and moribund Congress.
Now those who are atheists may shout – “At last. We’ve thrown over old demon mythology and religion. Reason has triumphed.” But I would contend that atheism, as much as Christianity or Buddhism or Judaism or Islam is itself a religion. It’s merely one without a head.
In the absence of religion, we have an ever growing, ever more encroaching College of Cardinals and a Pontiff whom we call by political names. And if it is true that, “Power corrupts”, we are hastening to the day when the corruption will be absolute – in this or any possible world.