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Title: Christianity
Original Title: Christianisme
Volume and Page: Vol. 3 (1753), pp. 381–387
Author: Unknown
Translator: Susan Emanuel
Subject terms:
Political science
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Citation (Chicago): . "Christianity." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Susan Emanuel. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2011. (accessed [fill in today's date in the form April 18, 2009 and remove square brackets]). Originally published as "Christianisme," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 3:381–387 (Paris, 1753).

Christianity is the religion that recognizes Jesus Christ as its author. Let us not confuse it here with the various sects of Philosophy. The Gospel, that contains its dogma, its moral doctrine, its promises, is not one of these ingenious systems to which the spirit of the Philosophers gives birth by dint of thought. Most of them, little caring about being useful to men, are more occupied with satisfying their vanity by the discovery of some truth, always sterile for the reformation of morals and most often useless to humankind. But Jesus Christ, by bringing his religion to the world, offered a more noble purpose, which is to instruct men and to make them better. It is this same view that guided legislators in the composition of their laws when, to make them more useful, they rested them upon the dogma of punishments and rewards of another life: thus one more naturally compares the legislator of the Christians with them than with Philosophers.

Christianity may be considered in its relation either to sublime and revealed truths, or to political interests; that is to say, in its relation either to the felicities of the other life, or to the happiness that it may procure in this one. Envisaged under the first aspect, it is among all religions that call themselves revealed the only one that is so effectively, and consequently the only one that should be embraced. The titles of its divinity are contained in the books of the old and new testaments. Even the most severe criticism recognizes the authenticity of these books; the proudest reason respects the truth of the facts they report; and sound philosophy, relying on their authenticity and their truth, concludes with both that these books are divinely inspired. The hand of God is visibly imprinted on the style of so many authors and such differentiated genius; it announces men heated in their composition by a fire other than the one of human passions; in this pure and sublime morality that shines in their works; in the revelation of these mysteries that astonish and confound reason, and which leaves it no other resort than to adore them in silence; in this crowd of prodigious events that have in all ages signaled the power of the Supreme Being; in this multitude of oracles that pierces through the clouds of time to show as present to us that which is buried in the depths of the centuries; in the relation of the two Testaments so sensitive and palpable — that it is not possible not to see that the revelation of Christians is founded on the revelation of the Jews. See Testaments(old and new), Miracles, Prophecies.

Other legislators, to imprint on peoples a respect for the laws that they give them, have also aspired to the honor of being regarded as the organs of the Divinity. Amasis and Mnevis, legislators of the Egyptians, claimed to have received their laws from Mercury. Zoroaster, legislator of the Bactrians, and Zamolxis, legislator of the Hetes, vaunted having received them from Vesta; and Zathraustes, legislator of the Arimaspes, from a familiar genius. Rhadamante and Minor, legislators of Crete, feigned having commerce with Jupiter. Triptolemus, legislator of the Athenians, affected being inspired by Ceres. Pythagoras, legislator of the Crotoniates, and Zaleuchus, legislator of the Locrians, attributed their laws to Minerva; Lyccurgus, legislator of Sparta, to Apollo; and Numa, legislator and king of Rome vaunted being inspired by the goddess Egeria. According to what Jesuits recount, the founder of China is called Fansur , son of the Sun, because he claimed to descend from him. The history of Peru says that Manco-Capac and Coya-Mama, his sister and wife, founders of the empire of the Incas, were thought to be the son and the daughter of the Sun, sent by their father to remove men from their savage life and establish order and policing among them. Thor and Odin, legislators of the Visigoths, also claimed to be inspired by and even to be gods. The revelations of Mohammed, leader of the Arabs, are too well-known to linger over them. The race of inspired legislators has long been perpetuated, but appears to have ended in Genghis Khan, founder of the Mongol Empire. He had revelations and he was no less than the son of the Sun.

This conduct of legislators, which we see so constantly maintained and which none among them has ever denied, evidently makes us see that in all times people have believed that the dogma of a Providence that mingles in human affairs, is the most powerful curb that can be given to men; and that those who regard religion as a useless spring in states, in fact know very little about the force of its influence on minds. But by making all these gods descend from heaven to earth like a machine, in order to inspire the laws they ought to dictate to men, legislators show themselves as deceitful imposters, who, to make themselves useful to human kind in this life, scarcely think of making it happy in another. By sacrificing the truth to utility, they do not perceive the blow they are striking against the former, which simultaneously strikes the latter, since there is nothing universally useful that is not exactly true. These two things march in step, so to speak, and we always see them act on minds at the same time. Following this idea, one might sometimes measure the degrees of truth that a religion contains by the degrees of utility that states draw from it.

Why then, you will say to me, have the legislators not consulted the true one, to render more useful to peoples the religion on which they founded their laws? I will answer you: this is because they found peoples imbued, or rather infected, with superstitions that divined the stars, heroes, and princes. Legislators do not ignore that the different branches of paganism were so many false and ridiculous religions, but they better liked to leave them with all their defects, than to purify them of all the superstitions that corrupted them. They feared that by disabusing the gross mind of human vulgarities about this multitude of gods that they adored, they might come to persuade them that were was no God at all. This is what stopped them: they did not dare to risk the truth that in the great mysteries was so celebrated in profane antiquity; and they were careful to admit only chosen people capable of maintaining the idea of a true God.

As the great Bossuet said in his Universal History, “Why was it that in Athens, the most polished and knowledgeable of all the Greek cities, they took for atheists those who spoke of intellectual things, they condemned Socrates for having taught that the statues were not gods, as the common herd thought?”

This society was well capable of intimidating legislators who did not respect in deeds of religion those prejudices that a great poet so justly calls the kings of the vulgar.

This was no doubt bad policy on the part of these legislators, for as long as they did not dry up the poisoned spring from whence the evils spread across states, it was not possible for them to arrest its awful overflowing. What would it serve them to teach openly within the great mysteries about the unity and providence of a single God, if at the same time they did not stifle the superstition that associated him with local and tutelary divinities; subaltern and dependent divinities, in truth, but licentious divinities that during their stay on earth had been subject to the same passions and same vices as the rest of morals? If the crimes with which these inferior gods were sullied during their lives had not prevented the Supreme Being from granting, by lifting them above their natural condition, the honors and prerogatives of Divinity, then might the adorers of these deified men be persuaded that the crimes and infamies (which had not harmed their apotheosis) would attract onto their heads heavenly bolts of lightning?

The legislator of the Christians, animated by a spirit quite different from that of all the legislators of whom I have spoken, began by destroying the errors that tyrannized the world, in order to render his religion more useful. By giving it as prime object the felicity of the other life, he still wanted this religion to make our happiness in this life. Upon the ruin of idols, whose superstitious cult entailed a thousand disorders, he founded Christianity , which adores in spirit and in truth a single God, just recompense of virtue. It reestablishes natural law in its primitive splendor, which the passions had so strongly obscured; it revealed to men a moral doctrine unknown until then in the other religions; it taught them to hate its and to renounce its dearest inclinations; it engraved in their minds a deep feeling of humility that destroys and annihilates all the resources of self-love, by pursuing it into the most hidden crevices of the soul; it did not enclose pardon for offences with a stoic indifference that is merely prideful contempt for the person who committed them but carried him to love even the cruelest enemies; it placed continence in the care of the most austere modesty, obliging it to make a pact with the eyes, out of fear that an indiscrete gaze might ignite a criminal flame in the heart; it commanded that modesty be allied with the rarest talents; it reprimanded by prudent severity a crime even in the will itself, in order to prevent it from being produced externally and causing disastrous ravages; it recalled marriage to its prime institution by prohibiting polygamy, which according to the illustrious author of The Spirit of Laws, is utterly without use to humankind or to both sexes, either the one who abuses or the one who is abused, and still less the children, to whom the father and mother cannot give the same affection, a father not being able to love twenty children as a mother loves two of them. It had in view the eternity of this sacred link, formed by God himself, by proscribing repudiation, which, although favorable to husbands, can only be sorrowful for the wives and for the children who always pay for the hatred that their father had for their mother. (See the same author’s chapters on divorce and repudiation.)

Here impiety is confounded; seeing no other recourse than to attack Christianity ’s moral doctrine for its perfection, it retrenches by saying that it is this very perfection that makes it harmful in fact; it distills its venom against celibacy, which it advises a certain order of persons for a great perfection; it cannot pardon the wrathful just for their testimony against luxury; it even dares condemn in them this spirit of gentleness and moderation that leads them to pardon, even to love their enemies; it does not blush to advance that true Christians might form an estate that could subsist; it does not fear withering it by opposing this spirit of intolerance that characterizes it and which is proper, it says, only to form monsters, this spirit of tolerance that dominated in ancient paganism and that make brothers of all those whom it carried in its bosom. It is a strange excess of blindness of the human spirit that turns against religion itself what ought ever to render it respectable! Who would have believed that Christianity, by proposing to men its sublime moral doctrine, would one day have to defend itself against the reproach of making men unhappy in this life in order to make them happy in the other?

Celibacy, you say, can only be pernicious to estates, which it deprives a great number of subjects, which might be called their true wealth . Who does not know the laws that the Romans made on various occasion to restore marriage to honor, to submit to these laws those who fled its knot, to oblige them by rewards and punishments to give themselves to the estate of citizens? This concern, doubtless worthy of a king who wants to make a flourishing estate, occupied the mind of Louis XIV in the finest years of his reign. But everywhere a religion dominates that makes it a point of perfection for men to renounce all engagement, what can all cares, all laws, all the rewards of the sovereign do to make marriage flourish and thereby civil society? Will not there always be found those men who, loving in morality all that bears a character of severity, will attach themselves to celibacy for the very reason that would distance them from it if they did not find in the difficulty of such a precept something that flatters their amour propre ?

The celibacy that merits such reproaches and against which it is not permitted to remain silent, says the author of The Spirit of Laws , is the one that is formed by libertinage, where the two sexes that are corrupted by natural sentiments flee a union that should make them better, in order to live in those that render them always worse; it is against this that the whole rigor of the law should be deployed; because, as this famous author remarks, it is a rule drawn from nature, that the more one reduces the number of marriages that might be made, the more one corrupts those that are; and that the fewer those who are married, the less there is fidelity in marriages; as when there are no more thieves, there are no more thefts.

But how can celibacy, which Christianity has adopted, be harmful to the good of society? It deprives it no doubt of some citizens, but those that it removes to give them to God, do work to form virtuous citizens and to engrave in their minds those great principles of dependence and submission toward those whom God has placed over their heads. He lifts the burden of family and civil affairs merely to occupy them with the care of watching more attentively over the maintenance of religion, which cannot be altered without troubling the repose and harmony of the estate. Moreover, the good deeds that Christianity pours on societies are rather great, rather multiplied, for one not to envy the virtue of continence that is imposed on its ministers, so that their bodily purity renders them more worthy of approaching the sites where the Divinity resides. It is as if someone complained of the liberalities of nature, because in this rich profusion of grains that it produces, there are a few that remain sterile.

Luxury, you say to us, makes the splendor of states; it sharpens the industry of workers, it perfects the arts, it augments all branches of commerce; gold and silver circulate in all parts, the rich spend a lot, and as the famous poet says, work guaranteed by softness opens by slow steps a path to riches . Who can deny that the arts, industry, taste for fashion — all the things that constantly augment the branches of commerce – are not a very real good thing for estates? The Christianity that proscribes luxury, that stifles it, does destroy and annihilate all these things that are necessary dependencies. By this spirit of abnegation and renunciation of all vanity, it introduces in their place laziness, poverty, abandonment of everything – in a word, the destruction of the arts. It is thus by its constitution ill suited to make the happiness of estates.

Luxury, I know, makes the splendor of estates, but because it corrupts morals, the glow it spreads over them can only be fleeting, or rather it is always the grim forerunner of their fall. Listen to a grand master who by his excellent work in The Spirit of Laws has proved that he has penetrated with a stroke of genius the whole constitution of different estates; he will say to you that a soul corrupted by luxury has many other desires than those for the glory of his country and his own; he will tell you that soon he becomes the enemy of the laws that hinder him; he will tell you, finally, that banishing the luxury of estates is to banish corruption and vices. But, you will say, is not the consumption of the productions of nature and are not necessary to make estates flourish? Yes, no doubt, but your error would be extreme if you imagined that there was only luxury that makes this consumption. I say that it can become in its hands only very pernicious, for luxury, being the abuse of the gifts of Providence, always dispenses them in a manner that turns either to the prejudice of the one who uses them by making him wrong (either in his person or in his goods) or to the prejudice of those whom one is obliged to rescue and assist. I refer you to the profound book on the causes of grander and decadence of the Romans , to learn there the fatal influence of luxury in estates. I will cite only this one trait that Juvenal tells us: that luxury, by overthrowing the Roman Empire, took vengeance on a universe tamed by the victories it had won over it. Saevoir armis luxuria incubuit, vitcumque ulciscitur orbem. That which overthrows states, how can it be useful and contribute to their grandeur and their power? Thus let us conclude that luxury, as well as the other vices, is the poison and loss of estates, and that if it is sometimes useful, this is not by its own nature, but rather under certain accessory circumstances which are foreign to it. I agree that in monarchies, whose constitution presupposes the inequality of wealth, it is necessary not to be confined to the narrow boundaries of simple necessity.

Were the rich not to be lavish, the poor would starve. It is even necessary here that the expenses of the opulent should be in proportion to the inequality of fortunes, and that luxury should increase in this proportion. The augmentation of private wealth is owing to its having deprived one part of the citizens of their necessary support; this must therefore be restored to them. Hence it is that for the preservation of a monarchical state, luxury ought continually to increase, and to grow more extensive, as it rises from the laborer to the artificer, to the merchant, to the magistrate, to the nobility, to the great officers of the state, up to the very prince, otherwise the nation will be undone. (Book VII ch 4) [1]

The term luxury used by M. de M[ontesquieu] is taken to mean any expenditure that exceeds the simply necessary; in which case luxury is either vicious or legitimate, according to whether it abuses or not the gifts of Providence. By interpreting it in the sense, Christianity authorizes the reasoning by which this famous author proves that sumptuary laws in general do not suit monarchies subsists in all its force; for as soon as Christianity permits expenses in proportion to the inequality of fortunes, it is evident that it is not an obstacle to the progress of commerce, to the industry of workers, to the perfection of the arts – all things that contribute to the splendor of estates. I do not forget that the idea that I am giving here of Christianity will displease certain sects, which have managed, by dint of exaggerating its precepts to render it odious to many who are always seeking some plausible pretext to give themselves over to their passions. It is rather the character of heresies to carry to excess anything to do with morality, and to speculatively love anything that relates to inflexible hardness and ferocious morality. The various heresies have furnished us with several examples: the Novatians and the Montanists, who reproached the Church for its extreme indulgence, at the very time when, still full of its first fervor, it imposed on public sinners canonical penitence, the picture of which would today frighten the Trappist solitaries; such were also the Vaudois and the Hussites, who prepared the way for the reformation of the Protestants; even in the Catholic Church, there are found those so-called spirituals ones who, either by hypocrisy or misanthropy, condemn as abusive any use of the goods of Providence that goes way beyond the strictly necessary. Proud of their crosses and their abstinence, they would want indifferently to subject all Christians to them, because they misunderstand the spirit of Christianity to the point of not knowing how to distinguish the precepts of the Gospel from its own counsels. They regard our most natural desires merely as the unfortunate privilege of the old man with all his covetousness. Christianity is not the one that is depicted before our eyes by these rigorous ones whose ferocious austerity is extremely harmful to religion, as if it were not conforming to the good of societies, and they do not have mind enough to see that its counsels, if they were commanded as laws, would be contrary to the spirit of its laws.

It is a consequence of this same ignorance, which destroys religion by outraging its precepts that Bayle has dared to castigate it as unsuitable to form heroes and soldiers.

Why not? Citizens of this profession being infinitely enlightened with respect to the various duties of life, and having the warmest zeal to fulfill them, must be perfectly sensible of the rights of natural defense. The more they believe themselves indebted to religion, the more they would think due to their country. The principles of Christianity, deeply engraved on the heart, would be infinitely more powerful than the false honor of monarchies, than the human virtues of republics, or the servile fear of despotic states. (Book 24, ch 6) [2]

The Christian religion, you object, is intolerant by its constitution: everywhere it dominates, it cannot tolerate the establishment of other religions. This is not all: since it proposes to its sectarians a symbol that contains several incomprehensible dogmas, it must necessarily be the case that minds are divided into sects, each one of which modifies at will this symbol of its belief. Hence these wars of religion, whose flames have been so nefarious for states, which were the theater of bloody scenes; this furor particular to Christians and unknown to idolaters, is an unfortunate consequence of the dogmatic spirit that is innate to Christianity . Paganism was likewise divided into several sects, but because all were mutually tolerant, there never were ignited in its bosom the wars of religion.

The praise that one showers here on paganism, with a view to rendering Christianity odious, can only come from the profound ignorance of what constitutes two religions so opposite in their genius and their character. To prefer the shadows of one to the lights of the other, is an excess of which one would not have believed philosophers capable - if our century had not shown us these so-called fine minds, who thought they were all the better citizens for being less Christian. The intolerance of the Christian religion comes from its perfection, as the tolerance of paganism had its source in its imperfection. (See Tolerance.) But because the Christian religion is intolerant and consequently has a great zeal to establish itself on the ruins of other religions, you are wrong to conclude that it quickly produces all the evils that your prevention makes you associate with its intolerance. It does not consist, as you might imagine, of constraining consciences and forcing man to render to God a worship contrary to its own principles, since divinity could not agree to a hypocritical homage that is rendered by those whom violence, not persuasion, made into Christians. Christianity ’s intolerance is confined to not accepting into its communion those who want to associate it with other religions, not to persecuting them. But to learn to what point it must be repressive in the countries where it has become the dominant religion, see Freedom of Conscience.

Christianity , I know, has had its wars of religion and the flames have often been disastrous for society: this proves that there is nothing so good that human malignity cannot abuse it. Fanaticism is a pest that from time to time reproduces the germs capable of infecting the earth, but it is the vice of individuals and not of Christianity, which by its nature is as removed from the outrageous fury of fanaticism as it is from the imbecile fears of superstition. Religion makes the pagan superstitious and the Mohammedan a fanatic; their cults lead them there naturally ( See Paganism, see Mohammedanism); but when the Christian abandons himself to one or the other of these two excesses, then he acts against what his religion prescribes. In believing only what is proposed to him by the most respectable authority that there is on earth, I mean to say the Catholic Church, there is no reason whatever to fear that superstition will fill his mind with prejudice and error. That is the portion of weak and imbecilic minds, not of that society of men that has been perpetuated from Jesus Christ to our day, and has transmitted in all ages the revelation of which it is the faithful repository. In conforming to the maxims of a wholly healthy religion that is wholly the enemy of cruelty, of a religion that has grown by the blood of its martyrs, of a religion, finally, that affects minds and heart with the sole triumph of truth, which is indeed very far from making it received by torture, it cannot be either fanatic or enthusiastic, it will never bear iron and flame in its native land, and will never take the knife upon the altar to make victims of those who refuse to think as it does.

You will perhaps tell me that the best remedy again fanaticism and superstition would be to stick to a religion that prescribes for the heart a pure morality, does not command the mind to blind belief in dogmas that it does not understand; the mysterious veils that envelop them are proper, you say, only to make fanatics and crazed enthusiasts. But reasoning thus is to know nothing about human nature: a revealed worship is necessary to men; it is the sole brake that can arrest them. The majority of men, whom reason alone would guide, would make impotent efforts to be convinced of dogmas, belief in which is absolutely essential for the conservation of states. Ask the Socrates, the Platos, the Ciceros, the Senecas, what they thought of the immortality of the soul, and you will find them floating and undecided about this great question, on which the whole OEonomy of religion and of the republic depends. Because they wanted to be enlightened only by the flame of reason, they marched along a dark route between nothingness and immortality. The path of reasoning is not made for the people. What did the Philosophers gain with their pompous discourses, with their sublime style, with so artfully arranged lines of reasoning? As long as they showed merely men in their discourses, without making Divinity intervene, they always found the people’s minds shut to all teaching. It is not thus that legislators act, the founders of the state, the institutors of religion; in order to entrain minds and bend them to their political designs, they put between them and the people the god that had spoken to them; they had nocturnal visions or divine warnings; the imperious tone of oracles made itself felt in the lively and impetuous speeches that they pronounced in the heat of enthusiasm. It was by covering this imposing exterior, by falling into these surprising convulsions (regarded by the people as the effect of a supernatural power); by presenting them with the charms of a ridiculous dream, that the imposter of Mecca dared to tempt the faith of credulous humans and that he dazzled minds that he knew how to charm by exciting their admiration and captivating their trust. Minds fascinated by the victorious charm of his eloquence saw this daring and sublime imposter only as a prophet who acted, spoke, punished, or pardoned as a God. But it does not please God that I confuse the revelations in which Christianity so rightly glories with those flaunted ostentatiously by other religions; I want only to insinuate thereby that one succeeds in warming minds only by making the God speak whose messenger one calls oneself, whether he truly spoke as in Christianity and Judaism, or else in the imposture that makes him speak as in Paganism and Mohammedanism. And he never speaks through the voice of the deist philosopher: therefore a religion cannot be useful unless it is a revealed religion. See Deism and Revelation.

Forced to agree that the Christian religions is the best of all religions for the states that have the good fortune to see it linked with their political government, perhaps you will not believe that it is the best of all for every country.

“For, you might say to me, when I suppose that Christianity has its roots in heaven, while the other religions have theirs in earth, this would not be a reason (considering things as politics and not as a theologian) for one to give it preference over a religion that for several centuries has been accepted in a country, and consequently appear as naturalized. To introduce this great change, it would be necessary on the one hand to compensate for the advantages that a better religion would procure for the state, and on the other the disadvantages that result from a change of religion. It is the exact combination of these various advantages with these various disadvantages (always impossible to make) that gave rise among the ancients to this wise maxim: that one should never touch the dominant religion of a country because in the upheaval in which minds are placed, it is to be feared that one would substitute suspicions against both religions for a firm belief in one of them, and thereby risk giving the state, at least for a while, bad citizens and bad believers. But another reason that should make policy extremely circumspect with regard to changing a religion is that the old religion is linked to the constitution of the state and the new one not at all, so and the latter agrees with the climate and the new one often rejects it. It is these and similar reasons that determined the ancient legislators to confirm people in the religion of their ancestors, although convinced as they were that these religions were contrary in many respects to political interests and that they might be changed for the better. What can we conclude from all this? That it is a very good civil law when the state is satisfied with the already established religion, and not suffer the establishment of another, even the Christian one.”

No doubt it is a very sensible maxim that conforms to good policy not to suffer the establishment of another religion in a state where the national religion is the best of all, but this maxim is false, and it becomes dangerous when the national religion is not of this august character; for then opposing the establishment of the most perfect religion of all (and thereby the most suited to the good of society) is to deprive the state of the great advantages that might flow to it. Thus in all countries and in all times, it would be a very good civil law to favor, as much as possible, the progress of Christianity ; because this religion, although it seems to have only the felicity of the other life as its goal, is nevertheless of all religions the one that can contribute the most to our happiness in this one. Its extreme utility comes from its precepts and counsels, which tend to conserve morals. It does not have the defect of ancient Paganism, whose gods authorized by their example the vices, encouraged crimes, and alarmed timid innocence; its licentious festivals dishonored the divinity by the most infamous prostitutions and the filthiest debauchery; whose mysteries and ceremonies shocked modesty; whose cruel sacrifices made nature tremble by spreading the blood of human victims whom fanaticism had destined to death in order to honor its gods.

Nor does it have the defect of Mohammedanism, which speaks only of the sword, acting on men only with the destructive spirit that founded it and which nourished its frenetic sectarians in an indifference to all things; the necessary consequence of the dogma of a rigid destiny that was introduced into this religion. If it does not deny along with the religion of Confucius the immortality of the soul, it does not exploit it, as is still done today in Japan, in Macassar, and several other places on earth, where one sees women, slaves, subjects, friends kill themselves to go serve in the other world as the objects of their respect and their love. This cruel custom is so destructive of society, and emanates less directly, according to the illustrious author of The Spirit of Laws , from the dogma of immortality of the soul than the one of the resurrection of the body, hence this consequences is drawn: that after death the same individual will have the same needs, same sentiments. Christianity not only establishes this dogma, but it knows admirably well how to direct it:

“It makes us hope for a state in which we believe, not a state that we feel or we know; everything until the resurrection of bodies leads us to spiritual ideas.” Nor is there that disadvantage of regarding as indifferent what is necessary, nor as necessary what is indifferent. It does not prohibit as a sin, or even as a capital crime, putting the knife in the fire, leaning against a whip, beating a horse with its bridle, breaking one bone with another: these prohibitions are good for the religion that Genghis Khan gave to the Tartars; but . Christianity does prohibit what this other religion regards as very licit: violating faith, ravishing the well-being of another, doing injury to a man, killing him. The religion of the inhabitants of the Island of Formosa order them to go naked in certain seasons, and threatens them with hell if they put on clothing of cloth and not silk, if they go in search of oysters, if they act without consulting the songs of birds; but on the other hand, it allows them drunkenness and unruliness with women, it even persuades them that the debauchery of their children is agreeable to their gods. Christianity is too full of good sense for it to be reproached with such ridiculous laws. It is believed among Indians that the waters of the Ganges have a sanctifying virtue, that those who die on the banks of this river are exempt from the pains of the other life, and that they inhabit a region full of delight: as a consequence of this dogma so pernicious to society, there are sent from the remotest places urns full of ashes of the dead to be thrown into the Ganges. What does it matter, says the author of Spirit of Laws , whether one has lived virtuously or not? One will be thrown into the Ganges. But although in the Christian religion there is no crime that by its nature is not expiable, still, as this author, to whom I owe these reflections, notes: it makes it felt that a whole life can be so; that it would be very dangerous to fatigue mercy with new crimes and new expiations; that, disturbed about old debts, never requited with the Lord, we should fear contracting new ones, to fill up the measure, and go to the limits of paternal goodness. See Penitence and Final Impenitence.

But to better know the advantages that Christianity procures for states, let us assemble some of the traits with which it is depicted in Book 24, chapter 3 of The Spirit of Laws :

The Christian religion is a stranger to mere despotic power. The mildness so frequently recommended in the Gospel is incompatible with the despotic rage with which a prince punishes his subjects, and exercises himself in cruelty. As this religion forbids the plurality of wives, its princes are less confined, less concealed from their subjects, and consequently have more humanity: they are more disposed to be directed by laws, and more capable of perceiving that they cannot do whatever they please. While the Mohammedan princes incessantly give or receive death, the religion of the Christians renders their princes less timid, and consequently less cruel. The prince confides in his subjects, and the subjects in the prince. How admirable the religion which, while it only seems to have in view the felicity of the other life, continues the happiness of this! It is the Christian religion that, in spire of the extent of the empire and the influence of the climate, has hindered despotic power from being established in Ethiopia, and has carried into the heart of Africa, the manners and laws of Europe. The heir to the empire of Ethiopia enjoys a principality and gives to other subjects an example of love and obedience. Not far thence may we see the Mohammedan shutting up the children of the King of Sennar, at whose death the council sends to murder them, in favor of the prince who mounts the throne. Let us set before our eyes, on the one hand, the continual massacres of the kings and generals of the Greeks and Romans, and on the other, the destruction of people and cities by those famous conquerors Timur Beg and Genghis Khan, who ravaged Asia, and we shall see that we owe to Christianity , in government, a certain political law; and in war, a certain law of nations – benefits which human nature can never sufficiently acknowledge. It is owing to this law of nations that among us victory leaves these great advantages to the conquered: life liberty, laws, wealth, and always religion, when the conqueror is not blind to his own interest. [3]

If I were shown a single fault in Christianity, or even shown some other religion without very great faults, I would willingly consent that it be repressed in all the states where it is not the national religion. But if Christianity is closely linked by its constitution with political interests, and if any other religion still causes somewhere great disadvantages to civil societies, then what political reason could oppose its establishment in places were it is not yet accepted? The best religion for a state is that which best conserves morality; since Christianity has this advantage over all religions, it would be sinning against political health not to employ, in order to favor its progress, all the arrangements suggested by human prudence. As peoples in general are very attached to their religions, to violently take religions away would be to make them unhappy and and make them revolt against this same religion that one wanted to make them adopt. Therefore one must engage them by means of gentle persuasion, to themselves change the religion of their fathers, to embrace one that condemns it. Christianity once was spread in this way in the Roman Empire and in all places were it is and has been dominant, this spirit of gentleness and moderation characterize it; this respectful submission toward the sovereigns (whatever their religion) that it orders upon all its sectarians; this invincible patience that it opposes to the Neros and Diocletians who would persecute it, although it is strong enough to resist them and to repel violence with violence: all these admirable qualities, joined to a pure and sublime moral doctrine that was their source, made it accepted in this vast empire. If during this great change that it produced in minds, the repose of the Empire was somewhat troubled, its harmony a little altered, the fault belongs to Paganism, which armed itself with all the passions to combat the Christianity that was everywhere destroying its altars and forcing the deceiving oracles of its gods into silence. It is justice owed to Christianity that in all the seditions that have shaken the Roman Empire to its foundations, none of its children was found complicit with the plots formed against the lives of the emperors.

I admit that Christianity, by establishing itself in the Roman Empire, occasioned tempests and that it took away many citizens, that there were martyrs whose blood was spilled in waves by a Paganism blind in its fury; I even admit that these victims were the wisest, the most courageous, and the best of subjects, but a religion as perfect as Christianity which abolished the cruel custom of immolating men and which destroyed the gods adored by superstition, struck at the same time against the vices they authorized by their example, — was such a religion, I say, too dearly bought by the Christian blood that flowed under the homicidal sword of tyrants? If the English do not regret the flow of blood in which they claim to have drowned the idol of despotism, if they believe they are spared by the happy constitution of their government, of which political liberty is the soul: does one think that Christianity can leave regrets in the heart of peoples who have accepted it, although it is not cemented there except by the blood of several of its children? No, undoubtedly, it has produced in society too much good for it not to be pardoned some evils necessarily occasioned by its establishment.

What does one claim is signified by these words: that the ancient religion is linked to the constitution of a state and that the new is not ? If this religion is bad, its internal vices soon influence the very constitution of the state to which it is linked, and consequently it matters for the happiness of this state that its constitution be changed, since the only good constitution is one that conserves morality. Will you allege that the nature of the climate is rejected by Christianity ? But then is it true that there are climates where Physics has such force that Morality can do almost nothing – is that a reason to banish it? The more the vices due to the climate are left in great freedom, the more they may cause disorder, and consequently it is in these climates that religion should be the most repressive. When the physical power of certain climates violates the natural law of the two sexes and that of intelligent beings, then it is up to religion to force the nature of the climate and to reestablish primitive laws. In places of Europe, Africa, and Asia, which today are inhabited by a Mohammedan softness, which have become sojourns of voluptuousness, Christianity once knew how to force the nature of the climate, to the point of establishing austerity and making continence flourish there, so great is the force over man that religion and truth possess. See Religion .

1. Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws, translated by Thomas Nugent, Great Books of the Western World, vol. 38 (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952), 45.

2. Ibid., 202.

3. Ibid., 201.