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Fools in Chains

Updated: Nov 23, 2021

It is difficult to free fools from the chains they revere.

~ Voltaire

When Voltaire, that brilliant and troubled father of the Enlightenment, famously wrote the above quote, he was criticizing religion and its abuses. He continued, “Whoever can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” The context for that quote comes from Voltaire’s tract, “Questions on Miracles":

Formerly there were those who said: You believe things that are incomprehensible, inconsistent, impossible because we have commanded you to believe them; go then and do what is unjust because we command it. Such people show admirable reasoning. Truly, whoever can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. If the God‐​given understanding of your mind does not resist a demand to believe what is impossible, then you will not resist a demand to do wrong to that God‐​given sense of justice in your heart. As soon as one faculty of your soul has been dominated, other faculties will follow as well. And from this derives all those crimes of religion which have overrun the world.

We need to have a wider conversation about what it means to be, not only a thoughtful Christian, but a thoughtful human being in this increasingly unhinged culture we find ourselves in. The fact is, there have been many crimes committed in the name of religion over the long history of the world, and we are seeing such crimes committed now in the form of both Far Right popular evangelical patriotism and its sanction of force against its enemies, and left-leaning mainline Protestantism and its embrace of the New Eugenics movement in the form of sexual identity politics. But this is precisely where the conversation needs to begin, not end, if Voltaire’s gavel-pounding pronouncement is to be understood as a warning and not merely used as a cudgel.

Another place to start the conversation might be Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published in the late 1700s. With the publication of volume 3, Gibbon was attacked by some as a “paganist” because he argued that Christianity (or at least the abuse of it by some of the clergy and its followers) had hastened the fall of the Roman empire, as seen in this quote from chapter 38, part VI of Volume 3:

… the abuse of Christianity had some influence on the decline and fall of the Roman empire. … the active virtues of society were discouraged… [such as] Faith, zeal, curiosity, and the more earthly passions of malice and ambition kindled the flame of theological discord; the church, and even the state, were distracted by religious factions, whose conflicts were sometimes bloody and always implacable … the Roman world was oppressed by a new species of tyranny; and the persecuted sects became the secret enemies of their country. Religious precepts are easily obeyed which indulge and sanctify the natural inclinations of their votaries…

If you can’t see similarities with our present situation in this passage written over 200 years ago, you aren’t paying sufficient attention. At greater speed and with increasing ferocity, the American church is devolving into competing factions of competing views of truth, thanks largely to the medium of the internet, which allows for the quick dissemination of misinformation and distorted truths, which studies have proved spread six times faster than the truth. But even that sentence sounds quaint in a world that no longer believes in truth, or at least in the same truth. But then, we’ve been having our way with the truth for a long, long time and are now merely seeing the inevitable consequences of our uncritical embrace of cultural and moral relativity, where those in power almost always control what is seen and understood as true.

We are our own worst enemy. Always have been, always will be. What God finally saves us from is ourselves, but in the meantime and until that Day, the curse remains: When we get what we want, we usually get what we deserve.

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