Two hundred and ninety-four years ago according to Margaret Jacob, the Treatise of the Three Impostors “came out of the elite circles in the Dutch republic” (37), and was a product of the “enlightened” thinking of the period. While the authors who originally penned the Treatise remain anonymous, Jacob claims that the mystery of their identities has almost certainly been solved. But regardless of who they were, what is most important is that their Treatise questions the validity of the three dominant religions of their time, and the motives of their prophets, who have had such a massive influence on mankind ever since.
While the authors of the Treatise spend a great deal of time questioning the anthropomorphic character of God as depicted in the religions in question, and exposing the perpetrators of the myth of “His” existence, they also deliver an indictment of the gullible masses and their susceptibility to the far-fetched stories that comprise the very foundations of religion. From the first paragraph, the authors characterize those who accept without question religion’s dogma as being ignorant: “the world is filled with vain & ridiculous opinions; nothing is better able to give them currency than ignorance” (95). In fact, the word “ignorance” or “ignorant” appears in the text at least 29 times.
The Treatise portrays, as its title implies the three prophets of the dominant religions— Judaism, Christianity and Islam— as charlatans, and presents arguments to support the accusations. But even while the authors describe what they see as cynical schemes used by the prophets as instruments for acquiring power, they routinely return to point a finger in disgust at the malleable masses who for many reasons are unable, unwilling, or simply not interested enough to consider critically the likelihood that there are no “divine miracles.” In fact the authors characterize miracles as “the shipwreck of the ignorant & the refuge of the adroitly ambitious” (107). While the authors have obvious issues with the purveyors of these alleged mendacities, the recurring message of the Treatise of the Three Imposters is that their disciples are culpable as well.
Today, one wonders whether we may be slipping back into a mindset reminiscent of the days of the Treatise… or perhaps we never really strayed from it.
What renders the evil without remedy, is that after having established false ideas men have of God, they omit nothing to engage the people to believe in them, without permitting the people to examine them; on the contrary, they give the people an aversion for Philosophers or the truly Learned, for fear that the reason which they teach should make the people know the errors in which it is sunk (95).
Of the two major political parties in the US, one has made a concerted effort in recent years to “give the people an aversion for Philosophers or the truly Learned.” One only need quote
Jacob, Margaret, Ed. The Enlightenment: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001. Print.