Monday Meslier: 122 – The More Ancient and General a Religious Opinion is, the Greater the Reason For Suspecting It

Jean Meslier Portrait

Jean Meslier

Whoever has formed true ideas of the ignorance, credulity, negligence, and sottishness of common people, will always regard their religious opinions with the greater suspicion for their being generally established.

The majority of men examine nothing; they allow themselves to be blindly led by custom and authority; their religious opinions are specially those which they have the least courage and capacity to examine; as they do not understand anything about them, they are compelled to be silent or put an end to their reasoning. Ask the common man if he believes in God. He will be surprised that you could doubt it. Then ask him what he understands by the word God. You will confuse him; you will perceive at once that he is incapable of forming any real idea of this word which he so often repeats; he will tell you that God is God, and you will find that he knows neither what he thinks of Him, nor the motives which he has for believing in Him.

All nations speak of a God; but do they agree upon this God? No! Well, difference of opinion does not serve as evidence, but is a sign of uncertainty and obscurity. Does the same man always agree with himself in his ideas of God? No! This idea varies with the vicissitudes of his life. This is another sign of uncertainty. Men always agree with other men and with themselves upon demonstrated truths, regardless of the position in which they find themselves; except the insane, all agree that two and two make four, that the sun shines, that the whole is greater than any one of its parts, that Justice is a benefaction, that we must be benevolent to deserve the love of men, that injustice and cruelty are incompatible with goodness. Do they agree in the same way if they speak of God? All that they think or say of Him is immediately contradicted by the effects which they wish to attribute to Him. Tell several artists to paint a chimera, each of them will form different ideas of it, and will paint it differently; you will find no resemblance in the features each of them will have given to a portrait whose model exists nowhere. In painting God, do any of the theologians of the world represent Him otherwise than as a great chimera, upon whose features they never agree, each one arranging it according to his style, which has its origin but in his own brain? There are no two individuals in the world who have or can have the same ideas of their God.

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Meslier’s argument, here, breaks along epistemological lines: what do mortals really know about god? Meslier’s answer is “they probably think they know a lot” but when you start to explore it, it turns out to be vacuous and hazy. It’s impossible to avoid that different elements of culture bleed into humans’ created gods – Babylonian gods wore their hair like Babylonians did (not the other way around) and Ray Kurtzweil’s gods are probably running Linux. That’s a depressing thought!

A second attack is against the popular wisdom. Many philosophers will try to ground their arguments on popular opinion (“surely everyone would agree….” does not mean everyone is right) but Meslier inverts that: since most people are sottish we shouldn’t take the collective wisdom as such: it’s collective sottises.

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“sottise” translates into “foolishness” which is different from “sot” which is an English term for a drunk. I’m guessing the English got the word from the French and mis-used it. I’ve even heard modern English-speakers refer to “drunken sot” which is redundant. I’m guessing some Frenchman used the expression “sottises” to describe some drunks’ foolishness and it got adopted wrong.