Si Dieu n'existait pas, il faudrait l'inventer

If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him

This statement by Voltaire was so famous that Flaubert included it in his Dictionnaire des idées reçues, and it is still frequently quoted today. But where does it first appear? And what precisely did Voltaire mean when he wrote it? Does it imply, as most of Voltaire's parrots seems to suppose, that God is a fictitious being, created for the comfort of the human race?

In its original form, the statement first appeared in a verse epistle from 1768, addressed to the anonymous author of a controversial work, The Three Impostors. According to Voltaire, this was a virulently atheistic text that denied the existence of a divine being. He found that this was an extremely dangerous work since it put into question a notion that was very useful for society: the idea that criminals would be punished in the afterlife. Thus, even when policing was insufficient, there was a strong deterrent against crime.

In this poem, Voltaire develops in a general way the idea that the existence of God (or the belief therein) helps establish social order. He then goes on to boast of his own role in eliminating prejudice and injustice in the eighteenth century. In its final sections, the poem turns to personal satire, as Voltaire attacks some of his favorite enemies.

As such, the text shows many of Voltaire's complexities, both in his philosophy and in his personality. Although he attacked the abuses of the Catholic Church throughout his life, he also spoke as a defender of religion on many occasions. If he is today often portrayed as a radical opponent of all religious sentiment, this is largely the result of accusations from his opponents and nineteenth-century polemical exchange.

Note: In publishing this text, it is not the wish of the Voltaire Society of America to begin theological or religious debate. We simply hope to shed some light on the origins of Voltaire's statement. If you with to copy the text, you are welcome to do so.

Read the text in French or in English.

Voltaire [1768], Epître à l'auteur du livre des Trois imposteurs
(OEuvres complètes de Voltaire, ed. Louis Moland [Paris: Garnier, 1877-1885], tome 10, pp. 402-405)

Voltaire [1768], "Epistle to the author of the book, The Three Impostors". This rough English translation was done by Jack Iverson. I have tried to give an exact rendering of the content of the text, largely ignoring (alas!) stylistic matters.

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