Reflections on the Revolution in France

OK, now that I have shamelessly pinched the title of Edmund Burke’s famous 1790 book, let me continue. Bastille Day, the French national holiday, was observed for the 220th time recently in France. What happened on July 14, 1789 changed the world for ever.

On the first Bastille Day, insurgents stormed a mediaeval prison-fortress in Paris which had become a symbol of royal tyranny. This sparked years of bloodshed and destruction, resulting in countless deaths before Napoleon assumed power a decade later.

The Ancien Régime was anything but perfect. Corruption and abuse of privilege in both the monarchy and the Catholic Church provided fertile soil for the revolution, along with widespread poverty amongst the masses.

But the Revolution brought madness. During the eleven months of the Reign of Terror, tens of thousands perished on the guillotine, including Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Hundreds of thousands died in the Vendée when Catholics revolted against the new government -- the first modern genocide. Thousands of clerics were executed (perhaps as many as 5,000), with many tens of thousands forced to flee or renounce their vows.

Historians debate fiercely the causes of the volcanic eruption of violence, but Enlightenment figures such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot and Montesquieu certainly must take some responsibility. The philosophes emphasised progress, reason and tolerance. They were often deists, and tended to have great contempt for the Catholic Church, as well as smaller groups such as the Calvinists.

Reason, not revelation, they said, would save the day. France would flourish and progress when the church had withered away -– with a little help from the revolutionaries. Diderot declared that "man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest". Voltaire snarled, écrasez l'infâme, crush that infamous thing, the Church!

Numerous laws against religion were passed. Churches were closed, looted, and destroyed, and church properties were confiscated. People were forbidden to wear crosses, church bells were not allowed to ring, religious processions were banned, and a secular war of terror was effectively unleashed on the French people.

Atheists and secularists had a field day, with enforced celebrations of secularism and reason, ransacking of churches, ceremonial iconoclasm, and other activities associated with the Cult of Reason. A secular cathedral was built, the Pantheon, in which the gods of reason, liberty and fraternity were worshipped. A secular calendar was created as a break with the Christian past. On the 20 Brumaire (10 November 1793 in the old calendar), Notre Dame cathedral was rededicated as a Temple of Reason, with a goddess of reason enthroned on the high altar.

It was an unprecedented display of secularist intolerance and unreasonableness. As historian Robert Royal notes, “Despite the admiration for Locke and Newton in France and the passionate talk of liberty, equality, and fraternity, the French Enlightenment harboured within it several kinds of authoritarianism and inequality. With few exceptions, the major Enlightenment figures in France essentially set up a Church of Reason that had its own forms of intolerance, excommunication, and inquisition.”

Like so many revolutionary movements, an action undertaken in the name of humanity actually resulted in a war on humanity. As Royal notes, “Part of the denigration of everything except a certain type of reason entailed dismissiveness not only of the religion of the masses, but of the masses themselves”.

Or as Alister McGrath, author of The Twilight of Atheism, has observed, “During the French Revolution, for the first time in modern history, the possibility of an atheist state was explored.” But it was a short-lived experiment which fell far short of its ideals: “Inspiring and ennobling, the project of the French Revolution was at the same time brutal and repressive.”

He continues, “The new religion of humanity mimicked both the virtues and vices of the Catholicism it hoped to depose. It might well have a new god, a new saviour, and new saints. But it also had its own inquisition and began its own particular war of religion.”

Now I have presented this sketch of the French Revolution for a reason. Exuberant, even fanatical, atheism is chic again, at least in Europe and the US. Are there any lessons to be learned? I wonder what will happen if the new atheism becomes a dominant ideology in countries where Christianity is withering and politically correct secularism is growing. 

Recent precedents are not promising -- Lenin, Stalin, Hitler and Mao were all atheists. Indeed, when secularists seek to bring their own version of heaven to earth, bloodshed is a frequent outcome. They promise much, but deliver little. As G.K. Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy: “The secularists have not wrecked divine things; but the secularists have wrecked secular things, if that is any comfort to them. The Titans did not scale heaven; but they laid waste the world.” One of the uses of history, as Santayana reminds us, is to see and avoid the mistakes others have made. Whether the West can avoid its own French Revolution is a necessary question.

Bill Muehlenberg is a lecturer in ethics and philosophy at several Melbourne theological colleges and a PhD candidate at Deakin University.


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