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 just recently in France. What happened on July 14, 1789 was to leave a lasting legacy on not only that nation but the world as well. How one views that legacy depends in part on where one stands on the political and ideological spectrum.

The Day of course refers to the storming of the fortress/prison in Paris by insurgents. It would unleash a trail of bloodshed and destruction, resulting in perhaps as many as 40,000 deaths before Napoleon came on the scene a decade later.

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

Of interest is the Reign of Terror, infamously symbolised by the use of the guillotine. Louis XVI of course met his fate there, as did Marie Antoinette, Madame Roland, and many thousands of others. But this is part of the larger story of the war against religion and the secular assault on the nation which was such a defining feature of this revolution.

Historians debate how much influence the intellectuals, atheists and deists had on the revolution, but they certainly played their part. French Enlightenment figures such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot and Montesquieu were no doubt influential, to say the least. The philosophes emphasised progress, reason and tolerance. They were often deists, and tended to have great contempt for the Catholic Church, as well as the much smaller groups, such as the Calvinists.

Reason, not revelation, would save the day, and France would flourish and progress when the church had withered away – with a little help from the revolutionaries. Thus Diderot could famously declare that “man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest”.

The viciousness of some of these secular radicals is seen in the amount of blood that was shed, especially religious blood. Thousands of clerics were executed (perhaps as many as 5,000), with many tens of thousands forced to flee, or renounce their vows.

Numerous laws against religion were passed. Churches were closed, looted, and destroyed, and church properties were confiscated. People were forbidden from wearing 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.

There was even the creation of a new secular calendar, beginning from this period. All this culminated in a Goddess of Reason paraded through the streets, before being placed on the high altar of the Notre Dame Cathedral in 10 November, 1793.

All in all this was an incredible display of secularist rage and revolution. As mentioned, there were plenty of problems in both church and state which demanded serious attention prior to the Revolution, but for all the talk of tolerance and reason by the revolutionaries, there was plenty of 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 puts it, “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 has written, “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 present this far-too-sketchy overview of the French Revolution for a reason. With the rise of an exuberant, even fanatical, form of atheism around the Western world, one wonders whether any parallels can be drawn here. One wonders if some of the new atheist enfants terribles – if they had their way – would be so inclined to also unleash their own reign of terror, their own anti-Christian purges.

Other atheists regimes did of course, such as under Lenin, Stalin and Mao. Indeed, when secularists seek to bring their own version of heaven to earth, bloodshed is a common result. 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.”

Where the West is headed today is not altogether certain, but the path it is on is not looking all that good. One of the advantages of history, as Santayana reminds us, is to avoid its mistakes. Whether the West does so or not is a very good question indeed.

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