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Voltaire (born François-Marie d’Arouet) was, perhaps, the most influential social and political thinker among the French philosophes in the years leading up to the American and French revolutions.
As a young man, he was in exile in England for two and a half years and was deeply influenced by British philosophers and their promotion of and the country’s greater support of free speech, freedom of religion and religious toleration.
While many of the French philosophers rejected faith outright, Voltaire astutely distinguished between what he believed was the oppression, superstition and false teachings of the Roman Catholic Church of his day and the greater truths of Christianity. He wrote often about Jesus Christ’s teachings in support of his plea for greater tolerance for other people, ethnicities and faiths in the world.
His pronouncements and ideas were timely in his day and beg wider consideration and application in our day. One of his most famous essays is found in his “Philosophical Dictionary” and deals with religious toleration. He describes an evening spent in meditation and contemplation of nature, admiring the “immensity,” and “harmony” in the heavens and opining, “I admired still more the intelligence which directs these vast forces. I said to myself: ‘One must be blind not to be dazzled by this spectacle; one must be stupid not to recognize its author; one must be mad not to worship the Supreme Being’” (see F.M. Arouet de Voltaire, “Oeuvres Completes, Vol. 8,” translated by J. McKay).
He continues with a parable of sorts wherein a genie transports him to a desert covered with the bones of Jews, Midianites and Christians, all killed by Christians — some 300,000 persons. He describes in “Oeuvres Completes,” “What! … Brothers have treated their brothers like this, and I have the misfortune to be of this brotherhood?”
This horrifying vision is followed by another of Native Americans killed for not being baptized into the Roman Church.
The genie then shows Voltaire, “a man with a gentle, simple face, who seemed to me to be about 35 years old. From afar he looked with compassion upon those piles of whitened bones, through which I had been led. … I was astonished to find his feet swollen and bleeding, his hands likewise, his side pierced, and his ribs laid bare by the cut of the lash. … I said to him, ‘Is it possible for a just man, a sage, to be in this state?’
“… He answered, ‘Yes.’
“’And who were these monsters?’
“’They were hypocrites.’”
Voltaire continues in “Oeuvres Completes” to question the individual, Jesus Christ, as to what he taught while on the Earth.
“‘I told them simply: “Love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself, for this is the whole of mankind’s duty.” Judge yourself if this precept is not as old as the universe.’
“’But did you say nothing, do nothing that could serve them as a pretext?’
“’To the wicked everything serves as pretext.’”
Voltaire, a biting satirical polemicist, is, in this instance, being perfectly frank in his indictment of “hypocrites”; pretenders who claim they kill in the name of God when, in truth, their purposes are evil, hateful, self-serving, and antithetical to Jesus Christ’s teachings.
Concluding his vision, Voltaire explains:
“I asked him to tell me in what true religion consisted.
“’Have I not already told you? Love God and your neighbor as yourself.’
“’Is it necessary for me to take sides either for the Greek Orthodox Church or the Roman Catholic?’
“’When I was in the world, I never made any difference between the Jew and the Samaritan.'”
Voltaire was a deist — an intellectual movement popular in the 17th-18th centuries — believing in a supreme being, who created the universe, stepped away and became, at best, a distant, impersonal God.
While religious believers across a broad spectrum might disagree with Voltaire’s specific deist beliefs, Voltaire has identified an essential feature, if not the essential feature, of Christian and many other faith-based belief systems; true believers tolerate other’s religious beliefs, love and respect others, defend another’s right to worship as they wish, and reject killing, discrimination and mistreatment of those whose beliefs do not accord with their own.
The Prophet Joseph Smith of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints beautifully encapsulated Christ’s doctrine regarding religious toleration and love for others, “We claim the privilege of worshipping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may” (see Articles of Faith 11).
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