Voltaire was an 18th Century French playwright. Highly influential regarding the French Revolution, he was a rabid atheist and satirist. He wrote: “One hundred years from my day, there will not be a Bible on earth except one that is looked upon by an antiquarian curiosity-seeker.” Ironically, it is also said that, some 50 years later, the Protestant Bible Society purchased one of the chateaus where Voltaire had his works published. Apocryphal or not, the fact remains that far many more people today are familiar with the Bible than with Voltaire or his masterwork, “Candide.”
I have no problem with Voltaire’s atheism. I do have a problem with his being rabid about it. Rationalist that he has been proclaimed to be, one would think his utter disdain for any set of beliefs would be considered far too emotional, especially on so uncertain a topic. For example, whether historically accurate or not, tying a Bible to a donkey’s tail and leading a funeral procession to a cemetery to dramatize the fate of the sacred was totally in keeping with his faith in materialism and the spirit of “Candide.” For me, to quote another playwright of note, Shakespeare, “The lady doth protest too much.”
The same is true of adamant theists. Most Christians believe that “God is Love,” but what that means is open to often violent debate. “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:8) means, for some, that there is no Hell and that God’s mercy is so infinite that none will ever be excluded. But then there are those who quote “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. “ (Matthew 7:21) Each often smiles a bit too smugly, often with arms folded, fully confident they have exclusively ascertained the Will of the Divine. Centuries of bloodshed between Catholics and Protestants indicate differences in scale, not attitude. Islamic conflicts between the Shia and the Sunni may differ as to topics, but the rivers of red are comparable.
Eastern religious traditions tend to be less violent regarding religious diversity. For example, the debates between the Dvaita, Advaita, and Vishishadvaita Hindu schools about the extent to which all of our perceived reality is but a dream of Brahman (God) or “really” real separate from Brahman tend to be more scholarly than military, but are quite insistent. Part of that may be due to the apparent (though not truly) polytheistic nature of Hinduism. On the other hand, Taoism has a more indifferent, if equally smug, approach: “Believe what you like. The Tao will function regardless.” For the Taoist fully certain of his beliefs, one can believe there is no law of gravity, but see how much lift that belief generates when jumping off a cliff.
Finally, it would seem that agnosticism–believing that it is impossible to believe anything about such topics because of insufficient information–is the only logical answer. However, that also falls short. One’s spiritual beliefs invariably affect one’s entire life, both in terms of mental attitude and relationships with others. For instance, if one sincerely believes only one theology will keep people out of eternal damnation, one will not only accept that theology personally, but will also seek to impose it on others, even at the expense of the non–believer’s life, “For what is the benefit if someone shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? (Matthew 16:26) Put another way, if one has been diagnosed with cancer and offered a variety of treatments, refusing to select one–albeit because of limited information–is not likely to produce a positive result.
As for me, I have considered a number of spiritual options and have committed to my own spiritual path. If it turns out I am wrong–a distinct possibility, given my own lack of information and experience–and am damned for all eternity as a result, as unpleasant a future as that would be, I cannot see an authentic alternative. After all, if I were to believe something else that someone else came up with, I would believe that on the basis of my attitude, circumstances and information. When God confronted Adam with the sin of eating the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, Adam answered with: ““The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” (Genesis 3:12), suggesting the fault was truly the woman’s or God’s for having given him that woman. I prefer a different playwright’s answer, maybe with more of a sigh than Voltaire’s defiant smirk, “To thine own self be true.” (Shakespeare)