“Never,” says Pascal, “do we do evil so thoroughly and so willingly as when we do it through a false principle of conscience.”
Nothing is more dangerous than a religion which licenses the ferocity of the people, and justifies in their eyes the blackest crimes; it puts no limits to their wickedness as soon as they believe it authorized by their God, whose interests, as they are told, can justify all their actions. If there is a question of religion, immediately the most civilized nations become true savages, and believe everything is permitted to them. The more cruel they are, the more agreeable they suppose themselves to be to their God, whose cause they imagine can not be sustained by too much zeal. All religions of the world have authorized countless crimes. The Jews, excited by the promises of their God, arrogated to themselves the right of exterminating whole nations; the Romans, whose faith was founded upon the oracles of their Gods, became real brigands, and conquered and ravaged the world; the Arabians, encouraged by their Divine preceptor, carried the sword and the flame among Christians and idolaters. The Christians, under pretext of spreading their holy religion, covered the two hemispheres a hundred times with blood. In all events favorable to their own interests, which they always call the cause of God, the priests show us the finger of God. According to these principles, religious bigots have the luck of seeing the finger of God in revolts, in revolutions, massacres, regicides, prostitutions, infamies, and, if these things contribute to the advantage of religion, we can say, then, that God uses all sorts of means to secure His ends. Is there anything better calculated to annihilate every idea of morality in the minds of men, than to make them understand that their God, who is so powerful and so perfect, is often compelled to use crime to accomplish His designs?
Meslier’s language is carefully chosen, as always. Religion variously: “licenses” “excites” “encourages” “justifies” “authorizes” crimes, revolutions, massacres, regicides, etc. His intent is clear; there is a distinction between the excuses that religious leaders make for their actions, and what they can possibly claim about the will of god.
The Christians, under pretext of spreading their holy religion, covered the two hemispheres a hundred times with blood.
The crux seems to me to be that religion is merely a justifying nebulousness over top of things humans already wanted and planned to do. If that’s the case, then we should not simply say “religion caused these things” but rather a more nuanced argument: “religion was used as an excuse for these things.” If that’s true, then we need to look for more complicated causes behind human actions. Simply saying something like, “islam is a religion that encourages violence, therefore islam is bad” avoids doing the hard thinking.