Voltaire was one of the first French Philosophes, he introduced the English scientists to the French and had a long career exploring many topics. His attitude to the church was uncompromising. He regarded religion as necessary to keep order and to point humans in the direction of Godly virtue. Clerics could use any spiritual means to promote these goals. Anything outside of this was not their business. To encourage people’s virtue, they require liberty and not coercion. He states that the clergy are with us to encourage us to reach our spiritual goals of virtue and should be supportive and instructive, but never to command. They should never have authority outside the spiritual realm of life, they should never have authority over the sovereign, and therefore anyone political. That the laws of the land be subject to the law of nature and order in society.
He railed against the fanaticism of some religious people who take the leap from condemning someone as evil to taking the law into their own hands and committing acts of murder in the name of the God who would in turn surely condemn them.
He examined the effects of religion in a dream and was horrified about the number of people killed in its name and the amount of accumulated wealth. He met various religious leaders in that dream including Jesus and compared their teaching with the actions of those who were supposed to adhere to that teaching. Jesus explained that he was murdered for exposing them as hypocrites. Voltaire asked Jesus if he had given these wrongdoers any pretext for their crimes and he replied that for evil people, anything is a pretext. He goes on to debunk some of the practices of the church imposed on the people not being in line with the basis teaching of Jesus.
He derided religious sects who saw themselves as the purveyors of truth. He showed up the various requirements of belief in each unbending strand of faith that demonstrated the ludicrous nature of absolute truth applied to all. He demonstrated how Mathematicians were seekers of the truth and prepared to listen to each other to find and not be in conflict. He pointed out that an argument that carries on for a long time only proves both parties wrong.
He said that tolerance was a natural attribute of humanity and this can be achieved when we recognise our weakness and our mistakes. By doing this we can forgive those who wrong us. If we accept a religious doctrine and are tempted to believe it to be perfect, we may end up believing ourselves to be perfect then allowing all manner of wrongdoing. He believed toleration could be achieved by practice where instead of one or two belief structures there could be a number. He gave the Turks as an example where a multi-faith secular society was present where toleration was required for the survival of society.
Through all Voltaire’s criticism and analysis of the religious in Europe at the time, there was a simple observation of the root of the Christian or other faiths and how the adherents can get carried away and lose touch with their basic beliefs.
In another essay he demonstrates throughout 800 years of European history there had been many wars, some religious but not all, but there had been virtually no significant change in the states involved and no country had been completely assimilated into another. With his incisive mind he shows how the whole of that period had been a senseless waste.