Voltaire and the Necessity of Church and State Segregation

In his 1764 publication of the groundbreaking and provocative Philosophical Dictionary, French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire poses an ever-provocative question: “must we not carefully distinguish the religion of the state from theological religion?” (Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary). Though a Diest believer in God himself, the name Voltaire remains synonymous with vehement religious criticism, and his expositions of the inherent corruption birthed from an intertwining of theology and governmental power continue to be hailed as the genesis of modern secular reasoning. Voltaire believed religion to be the enemy of reason, so much so that he espoused the idea of an absolute monarch, or enlightened despot, rising to power and overthrowing the oppressive theocratic empire. Voltaire spent a great deal of his life criticizing, satirizing, and championing against the excesses of religious power, and having been born into a world where the mere act of criticizing the church was enough to find yourself in exile or imprisoned (as Voltaire found himself routinely throughout his life), it comes as no small wonder that Voltaire saw religion as the barrier of progress, science, and fundamental liberties. In a scathing condemnation, Voltaire describes theological religion as, “the source of all imaginable follies and disturbances,” and, “the enemy of mankind” (Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary), a statement with which I emphatically disagree. Thanks in no small part to the philosophies of Voltaire and other Enlightenment thinkers who mercilessly battled for the freedom from religious persecution throughout the 18th century, I grew up surrounded by individuals of every religion whose beliefs, for the most part, arguably shaped their moral compass and sense of self for the better. However, while Voltaire’s appreciation and understanding of theology differs vastly from mine, we both share a fervent belief in the necessity of full segregation between religion and state for the purposes of advancing human rights worldwide. Legal systems dominated by one religion hold no capacity to regulate their own abuses and excesses, political interests fueled by religious superpowers have and continue to suppress societal growth, and in the fight for a more tolerant world, no religion should be legally exempt from the kind of scrutiny, criticism, and even hatred found in Voltaire. As Voltaire aptly wrote, “liberty of thought is the life of the soul”, and where thought is stifled by religious dogma and intimidation, human progress consequently suffers as well. The advancement of individual rights depends on the right to say what religion you are, the right to say what you want from government without powerful religious political interference, as well as the right to criticize the very religions we strive to protect.

Voltaire theorized, “if there were only one religion…there would be danger of tyranny; if there were two, they would cut each other’s throats; but there are thirty, and they live happily together in peace” (Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary). Though the United States and other countries with a diverse religious populous may seem far from exemplifying peaceful coexistence among religious groups, the alternative is as horrifying and tyrannical as Voltaire warned. Thirteen countries worldwide, all of which operate under a singular religious government, legally punish apostasy with death, with dozens of other religious countries administering punishments ranging from flogging to imprisonment. Unsurprisingly, many of these countries (including Iran, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen among others) may also punish homosexuality with death under Sharia law and were ranked by the 2015 World Bank survey as last in women’s well being and empowerment. Though it is certainly vital to note that homophobia, misogyny, and other forms of discrimination are far from exclusive to the religion of Islam (Voltaire being the first to remind us of the atrocities committed in the name of Christianity among other faiths), modern Muslim ruled countries possess the only theocratic governments in the world besides Vatican City which utilize scripture to legally prosecute and criminalize behavior. That is to say, the church and the state are one, and with this lack of segregation comes the inability to monitor and prevent extremist religious views from taking hold of a judicial system. After all, as Voltaire said, “what can you say to a man who tells you he prefers obeying God rather than man, and that as a result he’s certain he’ll go to heaven if he cuts your throat?” (Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary). In other words, how can oppression not result from a government which prioritizes a duty to religion at any cost over the intrinsic and sacred value of the individual? The stings of religious governmental oppression were all too familiar to Voltaire, having been exiled routinely throughout his life for daring to challenge and provoke church authority, and having fought mercilessly for the idea that true individual freedom cannot breathe under a smothering religious monarchy. His story displays how integral a secular government is to the pursuit of freedom, and though the practice of Islam and every other religion should be a right afforded to all individuals in a free society, Voltaire’s strong conviction that any one religion has no place dictating the law of the land is a sentiment I emphatically support.

However, even in countries such as Ireland, whose government repealed the formal power of the Roman Catholic church in 1972, the ability of dominating religious organizations to poison a political system with homophobia and other regressive beliefs remains an ever-present struggle. In the Philosophical Dictionary, Voltaire imagined a religious system, “which should insure to its ministers a revenue large enough for their decent maintenance, but should never allow them to usurp dignities and power that might make them tyrants” (Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary); for Ireland, this vision was not even partially realized until the past few decades. For years, the Roman Catholic Church reigned over Ireland’s judicial system, their substantial influence only faltering in the 1990’s following the horrifying discoveries of long-hidden sex scandals and abuse. In the wake of this tremendous fall from grace, Ireland transformed itself from one of the most conservative countries with regards to social issues to one of the most progressive. After legalizing same-sex activity in 1993, Ireland became the first country in the world to legalize same sex marriage on a national level in 2015. While the 1983 abortion referenda was able to be undermined by elected officials and politicians bending to the will of Church authority, later referendums displayed the true will of the Irish people, overwhelmingly voting to overturn abortion bans in 2018. Voltaire and I would both agree that the freedom to practice religion should forever be considered a protected and fundamental human right, but with this comes a shared disdain for powerful religious institutions using political influence to silence liberal thought and progressive ideals. Adopting Voltaire’s vision of a government unimpeded by religious tyranny and intimidation, Ireland has transformed into a modern beacon of Enlightenment values and human progress.

While fighting against religious tyrannies and governmental overreaches are perhaps more obvious battles in the fight for progressive human rights, legal protections for religious hate speech in liberal countries, often disguised as a cure for religious persecution, can be as corrupt as the poison itself. From Germany to Denmark, Ireland to Finland, hate speech laws in liberal, Western countries have targeted religious critics and satirists, with punishments ranging anywhere from fines and bans to imprisonment. These prosecutions, despite their claims of tolerance, are as dangerous to the true values of liberalism as overbearing religious superpowers. Upon hearing reports of left-wing comedian Stephen Fry being investigated by authorities for anti-Christian comments made on an Irish television program, or of right-wing U.S. provocateurs like Lauren Southern being banned from the United Kingdom for anti-Islamic “hate speech”, I find myself championing Voltaire’s belief in the freedom to criticize religion, any religion, to the fullest extent, no matter how much I disagree with or detest the rhetoric of the critic, and no matter how politically incorrect these criticisms may be. I would even extend this support to Voltaire himself, a man who deemed Jews, my ancestors, as “ignorant and barbarous people, who have long united the most sordid avarice with the most detestable superstition and the most invincible hatred for every people by whom they are tolerated and enriched” (Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary). While my gratitude to Voltaire for his contributions to free speech, free expression, and liberal values is endless, his personal views of Jews and other religious people stop nothing short of bigoted, hateful, and filled with vitriol. For someone who preached, “tolerance has never provoked a civil war, intolerance has covered the earth in carnage” (Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary), his relentless and at many times toxic views on religious people are both frustrating and disappointing. Nevertheless, the right to criticize, condemn, and satirize religion is just as fundamental as the right to religious practice, and in the battle for a fully segregated church and state, the freedom to scrutinize must not be lost along the way. Voltaire was imprisoned in Bastille in 1717 for attacking religion in his satirical poem, La Henriade, and should this have happened today, I would be holding a poster outside of the Bastille championing his release, no matter how toxic I find some of his views to be.

Voltaire is said to have been the originator of the famous phrase, “I disagree with what you have to say, but will defend to the death your right to say it”; this simple phrase fully encompasses the underlying ideology fueling the battle for church and state segregation. Modern countries governed by religious power such as Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen remain some of the most atrocious violators of human rights in the modern world, still barbarically punishing citizens with imprisonment or even the penalty of death for apostasy and other forms of religious disobedience. Though the strong-hold of the Roman Catholic Church slowly waned in Ireland and a more secular government emerged, the strangling political influence of the Church in previous decades fueled fierce bigotry and homophobia, provided a disturbing shelter for religious abusers, and prevented accessibility to fundamental liberties. Though masked in the guise of religious tolerance, modern religious critics in liberal, Western countries have been banned, deported, and even jailed for speech deemed religiously hateful. All of these modern human rights violations stem from a lack of tolerance, and as Voltaire astutely observed, tolerance, “is a necessary consequence of humanity. We are all fallible, let us then pardon each other’s follies. This is the first principle of natural right” (Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary). For Voltaire and myself, unfettered tolerance for religious belief, as well as for the lack thereof, is an eminently desirable consummation, and while it must certainly be noted that most major religions preach a similar necessity for tolerance, only when religion is fully separate from governmental power can the progression of human rights and true tolerance flourish.

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