Francois-Marie Arouet was a French philosopher and writer. Better known as his pen name Voltaire, he rose to fame due to his disquisitions on political and religious issues during a period in history known as the Age of Enlightenment. The Enlightenment brought about numerous revolutionary philosophies on topics such as natural liberty, religious intolerance, the power of human reason, and the separation of church and state. Voltaire is one of the most esteemed Enlightenment philosophers, and one of his famous works, titled Candide, brings several of his views to light. Candide is a satire, designed to call attention to aspects of the French Old Regime that Voltaire strongly disagreed with. One particular issue that Voltaire criticizes is organized religion, specifically Christianity. Voltaire belonged to a religious movement known as Deism. Deists believe that God created the world, but that He chooses to remain out of touch with mankind and allows the world to govern itself naturally. Deists also believe in a concept called natural religion, meaning that evidence of a God is not found in a church or in the Bible, but in the very world in which we live. (Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “Deism”). Within the pages of Candide, there are significant hints at Voltaire’s harsh critique on Christianity and his approval of Deism.
Voltaire’s mockery of Christianity and other organized religion is quite apparent in characters such as the Reverend Father Provincial, leader of the Jesuits in Paraguay. Upon arriving at the Jesuit kingdom, Candide and his companion observe the Reverend in all his glory; he is surrounded by armed soldiers, wears fine clothing, and carries a sword. When Candide asks to speak with the Reverend, he is informed that “He is upon the parade just after celebrating mass, and you cannot kiss his spurs till three hours hence” (Voltaire, 97). As the leader of a religious institution, one might expect the Reverend to be a humble, meek, welcoming man. However, Voltaire chooses to portray this character in an overly royal, prideful fashion. The Reverend’s demeanor is the polar opposite of Christ’s attitude in the Bible. This example demonstrates Voltaire’s opinions concerning Old Regime Christianity and the hypocrisy that surrounds it.
There is, however, reference to religion that does not carry a negative connotation. When Candide visits the paradisiacal kingdom of El Dorado, he discovers that the inhabitants “…Worship God morning and night” (Voltaire, 122). Upon further investigation, Candide also discovers that the people of El Dorado “…do not pray to Him; we have nothing to ask of Him; He has given us all we need, and we return him thanks without ceasing” (Voltaire, 122). The monks in El Dorado do not do not teach, govern, or dispute religion. Instead, they merely thank God for their blessings. The manner in which Voltaire showcases the religious scene of El Dorado stands in stark contrast with the way in which he describes European religion. He compares the hypocritical, controlling Christians with the perfect religious utopia of El Dorado. By doing so, Voltaire uses El Dorado to allude to and promote his own Deist beliefs.
In short, Candide showcases various schools of thought common to philosophers during the Enlightenment, in particular, Voltaire’s thoughts on religion. Years after the volume was published, he continued to write about the subject, even to his dear friend, the King of Prussia. “Ours [i.e., the Christian Religion] is assuredly the most ridiculous, the most absurd and the most bloody religion which has ever infected this world. Your Majesty will do the human race an eternal service by extirpating this infamous superstition…” (Voltaire, 184).
Voltaire, Candide, 1949.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “Deism,” https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/deism
Voltaire, Oeuvres complètes de Voltaire, Volume 7, 1869.