I’ve heard that, as part of new amendments to the Russian Constitution, President Putin proposes to include the Russian people’s “faith in God,” and a definition of marriage as a “union of a man and a woman.” I’m a bit skeptical about the news, but if true, I think it’s a great idea. If voted in the upcoming referendum, it would consecrate the civilizational schism that is likely to define the history of our civilization in the coming century: in the West, the post-modernist project of liberating man from his human nature, to produce an uprooted, transgendered, upgraded man, Homo Deus. In the East, the choice of honoring and protecting our spiritual and anthropological roots, to produce the genuine thing: Mars and Venus, virile men and feminine women grateful to their Creator for each other, reveling in their fertile complementarity.
Needless to say, the proposal has the support of Moscow Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, but also of Muslim leader Talgat Tadzhuddin. The idea is to transcend particular creeds and churches. More surprisingly, Communist Party boss Gennady Zyuganov raises no objection.
As a country that was still officially Marxist-Leninist thirty years ago, Russia has come a long way. America too, for that matter. Interestingly, God is not mentioned in the American Constitution, although he is ubiquitous on dollar bills (think of Jesus being handed a dollar bill instead of a Roman denarius in Matthew 22!).
Other proposed amendments, such as banning foreign citizenships and bank accounts for state officials, have obvious practical advantages, and are so sensible that they raise little discussion. By contrast, adding God into the constitution is highly and purely symbolic. Some will argue that it will have no real consequence. It all depends on the power we attribute to symbols. I would think that such a collective proclamation by the Russian people would have a strong impact, both on Russian self-consciousness, and as a message to the West. It could also lead to real changes, in academia, for example: I can’t wait for the day when Intelligent Design research will be funded in Russian universities, rather than censored as it is in the U.S. (watch Ben Stein’s documentary Expelled: No Intelligent Allowed).
What are the arguments for enshrining God in the Constitution? That is one of the most important questions in political science that you can think of. This will come as a surprise to many, but the man who has thought the deepest on this question is perhaps Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794). On May 7, 1794, he had the Convention decreed, with a view to inscribing it in the French Constitution, that, “the French people recognize the existence of the Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul.” On June 8, he presided over a national holiday dedicated to the Divine Creator. It was a great success, both in Paris and in the provinces. Robespierre was then immensely popular, but his career would end fifty days later when he was arrested, silenced by a gunshot through his jaw, and executed the next day without trial, together with his brother Augustin and twenty-one of his friends, followed the next two days by eighty-three of his supporters, their bodies and heads thrown into a mass grave, with lime spread on them so as to leave no trace. In the aftermath of their coup, Robespierre’s assassins crushed demonstrations of mourning for the Incorruptible, and launched a press campaign against him that basically continues to this day.
There is a great deal of misunderstanding about Robespierre and his “religious policy.” For that reason, I thought that the Russian constitutional debate would be a good opportunity—or a pretext—for some reappraisal of a great man unfairly vilified, and thereby a case study in the transformation of a vanquished hero into a monster by state propaganda. But the main purpose of this article is to present Robespierre’s ideas on the relationship between religion and politics, which I find stimulating and pertinent for our time—and, I expect, unfamiliar to most.
Robespierre was the heir and probably the most articulate advocate of a long tradition of thinkers who equally disliked religious dogmatism and atheism, not only as too narrow for their own minds, but as harmful to society. In his view, both were symmetrical forms of fanaticism. He would not be the last to think along this line. Thomas Jefferson once wrote to John Adams: “Indeed I think that every Christian sect gives a great handle to Atheism by their general dogma that, without a revelation, there would not be sufficient proof of the being of a god.” There is much truth in this statement. But the principle of authoritative revelation is not the main factor involved in the development of Western atheism, I think. The content of the revelation is critical. I believe that modern atheism is, to a great extent, a reaction to the disgusting character presented as “God” in the Old Testament. Yahweh’s obscenity has ultimately ruined God’s reputation. Voltaire, that old anti-Semite, ridiculed Christianity by quoting almost exclusively the Old Testament. Still today, Darwinian high priest Richard Dawkins can only make his atheism sound plausible by first professing, correctly:
“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion, Houghton Mifflin, 2006, p. 51.
In his speech on “the relations of religious and moral ideas with republican principles,” read at the Convention six weeks before his death, Robespierre said:
“I know of nothing so close to atheism as the religion that [the priests] have made: by disfiguring the Supreme Being, they have destroyed him as much as it was in them; […] the priests created a god in their image; they made him jealous, temperamental, greedy, cruel, relentless.”
(That judgment is partially inexact: the cruel God of the Old Testament may have been used by priests as a means of social control, but he had been created by the Levites long before. Robespierre had no clue about the Jewish Question.)
Let’s start with a clarification: Today’s French traditionalist Catholics insist that Robespierre’s “Être Suprême” has nothing to do with their God, and they pretend that it has Freemasonic overtones. They even confuse it with the deification of Reason, a cult that Robespierre execrated and combatted. So let’s set the record straight: There is no evidence that Robespierre was ever a Freemason. He borrowed the expression “Supreme Being” from Rousseau, who never was a Freemason either. It had been used since the Renaissance and was of common usage. Even the very royalist, Catholic and counter-revolutionary Joseph de Maître begins his Considerations on France (1797) with the sentence: “We are all attached to the throne of the Supreme Being by a flexible chain, which retains us without enslaving us.” François René de Chateaubriand, who also hated Robespierre, used repeatedly the phrase “Supreme Being” in his apology of Catholicism, Le Génie du christianisme (1799). Therefore, there is no reason to consider that, in Robespierre’s speeches, “Supreme Being” meant anything else than God. His suggestion to engrave in the Constitution that the French people have “faith in the Supreme Being” is equivalent to Putin’s proposal.
Putin has the support of the Patriarch whereas Robespierre was anathemized by the Pope, you may object. But here is the heart of the matter: Russian orthodoxy is, fundamentally, a national religion, and today more than ever, with the canonization of the martyred Romanovs. The main reason why Roman Catholicism was unacceptable for Robespierre was that it meant loyalty to a foreign power. Yet contrary to the common image, Robespierre did not seek to ban Catholicism, he only required that French bishops and priests swear loyalty to the French State, rather than to the Roman Pope. That was pretty much what every French monarch had tried and failed to do since Philipp the Fair. As we shall see, Robespierre actually opposed the “dechristianization” campaign of the Enragés, and denounced them as the useful idiots or willing accomplices of the counter-revolutionaries.
There are two other differences between Robespierre’s and Putin’s proposals. Robespierre saw the traditional family as the basic cell of a healthy society, but almost everyone did, then. Stipulating that marriage can only join a man and a woman would have been as superfluous as affirming that 1 plus 1 make 2.
The second difference is that Robespierre wanted to mention the immortality of the soul next to the existence of God. “Immortality of the soul” may have sounded to most of Robespierre’s contemporaries a straightforward concept. But today, the formulation would beg too many metaphysical questions: What’s a soul? Do animals have one? Is it individual or collective, or both? Where does it go? Does immortal means eternal? etc. And that other question: if every human being has an immortal soul, at what stage of its development does the fetus get one? I’m not saying it would be a bad thing, but bringing up the issue in the constitutional referendum could be very divisive.
In the standard textbook history of the French Revolution, Robespierre is portrayed as a fanatic and megalomaniac dictator, and he is blamed for the Great Terror that sent approximately 17,000 people to the guillotine in the six weeks preceding his demise. Ever since Jules Michelet, who fashioned our roman national, the figure of Robespierre has served to embody all the evils of the French Revolution, exactly like Philippe Pétain for World War II. While Danton has boulevards in his name and is celebrated by Hollywood, Robespierre is the usual bad guy.
However, there have always been a minority of historians (informed by the Société des Études Robespierristes founded by Robert Mathiez in 1907) to challenge the black legend, and there are still politicians occasionally honoring him (Jean-Luc Mélenchon). The most recent positive reappraisal of Robespierre is appropriately subtitled: La Fabrication d’un Monstre.Jean-Clément Martin, Robespierre, la fabrication d’un monstre, Perrin, 2016. Other recent French historians who have drawn a rather positive image of Robespierre include Jean-Philippe Domecq, Robespierre, dernier temps, Folio/Histoire, 2011 and Cécile Obligi, Robespierre. La probité révoltante, Belin, 2012. In English language, that revisionist trend is represented by David P. Jordan’s The Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre (Free Press, 2013). Chapter 1 begins like this:
“As Robespierre lay on a table in the antechamber of the Committee of Public Safety, drifting in and out of consciousness, his ball-shattered jaw bound up with a bandage, his triumphant enemies, in another room of the Tuileries palace, were creating the monster who would soon pass into historical legend. This Robespierre, created by using materials scavenged from old calumny, damaging anecdote, and sometimes sheer malicious invention, was one of the founding acts of a new revolutionary government. The Thermidorians—thus have Robespierre’s conquerors and successors been dubbed—sought not only to justify their coup d’état of July 1794 (the month of Thermidor in the revolutionary calendar) but to evade the opprobrium they shared with Robespierre and his comrades for deeds done during the agonizing crisis the previous year, during the Terror. The vengeful malice of the Thermidorians was partly successful: their caricature of Robespierre has proved durable.”
Robespierre was primarily a man of words, in a time when eloquence was a political act, when speeches could change the opinion of deputies, and sometimes even win a whole assembly. He was a great writer and a great orator. Not even his ennemies doubted the sincerity of his passionate defense of the poor and downtrodden: “That man will go far—he believes everything he says,” Mirabeau once remarked. His speeches, delivered at the Jacobin Club or at the Convention, were printed and widely distributed, and had a huge echo all over France.
In the spring of 1793, he reluctantly joined the Comité de salut public (Committee of Public Safety), a revolutionary tribunal responsible for sending conspirators against the new Republic to their death, at a time when the Republic was at war against Austria, Prussia, Spain and England. Robespierre’s responsibility in the Great Terror that marked the last two months of the Committee is a debated subject, but it is admitted that he was absent from Committee meetings, probably sick, during its last six weeks of work.
In his final speech to the Convention, just before being arrested, Robespierre denounced a plot to lose him by spilling blood on his behalf. He claimed that his enemies, in order to rally enough deputies against him, had circulated fake lists of suspects allegedly written by himself, and spread the rumor that he was preparing a major purge, when in fact he wanted to end the Terror. Napoleon Bonaparte later confirmed this accusation, and believed that “Robespierre was the real scapegoat for the Revolution.” Alphonse de Lamartine, who wrote a Histoire des Girondins in eight volumes, also came to the realization that Robespierre’s enemies “covered him, for forty days, with the blood they shed to disgrace him.”Jean-Philippe Domecq, Robespierre, dernier temps, Folio/Histoire, 2011, p. 27-30 Simultaneously, they created the golden legend of Danton, in reality a disgusting money-grubber.
I will not delve deeper into Robespierre’s biography; I just wanted to point out that his standard portrayal is the product of an elaborate and massive propaganda operation by those who overthrew him. I will now focus of his religious views, which are generally underrated, although, from his own testimony, they determined his political views.My presentation owes a lot to Henri Guillemin, Robespierre, Politique et mystique, Seuil, 1987.
Robespierre did not view religion as a purely private matter. He believed that the idea of God is an indispensable foundation for public morality, and should be taught in schools and celebrated publicly. “The idea of the Supreme Being and of the immortality of the soul is a constant reminder of justice; therefore, it is social and republican.”
Robespierre’s ideas were elaborated from those of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whom he held as the greatest “tutor of the human race.” Rousseau’s “natural religion” was itself not a new idea. Let me sketch a brief history of that tradition, before coming back to Robespierre.
If we define “natural religion” as the claim that belief in God and in the afterlife is sufficiently founded on reason and experience, then it is as old as Plato, and probably much older. If we define it additionally as a rebellion against the authority of Christian scriptures and dogmas, then it seems to have been around as long as Christianity. Proofs are hard to find for the Middle Ages, when monks had a quasi monopoly on writing. But from the end of the twelfth century, there is enough evidence of forms of religious beliefs independent and sometimes incompatible with Christian doctrine. I have analyzed some of this evidence in my book La Mort féerique: Anthropologie du merveilleux (XIIe-XVe siècles), a rewriting of my doctoral thesis. We know for example that the court of the famous Frederick II Hohenstaufen (1194-1250) was replete with scholars and noblemen whose religious views were inspired by classical philosophy, and who resented Catholic intolerance. Pope Gregory IX, founder of the Inquisition, made the following accusation against Frederick: “Openly, this king of pestilence notably affirmed—to use his own words—that the whole world was duped by three impostors: Jesus Christ, Moses and Muhammad.”Quoted in Ernst Kantorowicz, L’empereur Frédéric II, Gallimard, 1987 (1st German ed. 1927), pp. 451-452. The accusation is plausible. Having been raised in multicultural Sicily in the company of Jewish, Muslim and Christian scholars, he had reflected on the problems caused by the very notion of revelation.
Frederick was a polymath scientist, a polyglot, an outstanding diplomat (he conquered Jerusalem without shedding a drop of blood), and an enlightened lawmaker. He was “the Wonder of the World” (Stupor Mundi), the most prestigious and powerful prince of his age. Yet the pope prevailed over him, and pursued his descendants with insatiable hatred, until his lineage was eradicated, and his name covered with calumny. Nevertheless, his memory would be cherished by some of the best minds throughout the thirteenth centuries. Dante’s treaty De Monarchia (1313) is believed to be a defense of Frederick’s project (on Dante and the Fedeli d’Amore, you may want to read the relevant section of my article “The Crucifixion of the Goddess”).
With the growing power of the Inquisition, overt advocacy of natural religion became impossible. That is when we start hearing of secret circles of intellectuals. The rediscovery of the ancient Greeks and Romans also provided a relatively safe cover for expressing unchristian views on God and the afterlife, and I believe that apocryphal forgeries are more numerous than generally acknowledged. The great Petrarch (1304-1374) may have forged rather than discovered the letters of Cicero that became the blueprint for his own humanism.Jerry Brotton, The Renaissance Bazaar: From the Silk Road to Michelangelo, Oxford UP, 2010, pp. 66-67.
In the next century, the printing press and the Reformation provided an unprecedented window of tolerance, especially in the Netherlands. Erasmus of Rotterdam (1469–1536) approached natural religion as the common denominator of all faiths, and the means of overcoming religious wars. His friend Thomas More imagined in his Utopia, or the best form of government (1516), an ideal world where people hold a variety of opinions on religious questions, but “all agree in this: that they think there is one Supreme Being that made and governs the world.” The public cult is for this Supreme Being alone, while “every sect performs those rites that are peculiar to it in their private houses.”
Then came John Locke, with his Letter Concerning Toleration, first published in Latin in 1689. Locke went further than Erasmus in declaring immoral any doctrine professing that good people are damned if they do not believe in this or that dogma. Churches who require loyalty to a foreign power should also be banished, for by tolerating them, the magistrate “would give way to the settling of a foreign jurisdiction in his own country and suffer his own people to be listed, as it were, for soldiers against his own Government.” That concerns Roman Catholicism, of course, but also Islam:
“It is ridiculous for any one to profess himself to be a Mahometan only in his religion, but in everything else a faithful subject to a Christian magistrate, whilst at the same time he acknowledges himself bound to yield blind obedience to the Mufti of Constantinople, who himself is entirely obedient to the Ottoman Emperor and frames the feigned oracles of that religion according to his pleasure.”
Locke deemed atheism as immoral and socially corrosive as papism: “those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of a God. Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist.” For Anthony Collins (1676-1729), a friend of Locke,
“Ignorance is the foundation of Atheism, and Free-Thinking the Cure of it. And thus tho it should be allow’d, that some Men by Free-Thinking may become Atheists yet they will ever be fewer in number if Free-Thinking were permitted, than if it were restrain’d.” (A Discourse of Freethinking, 1713)
In the eighteenth century, it was still risky to profess openly such ideas. Locke had to print his book anonymously in Amsterdam. David Hume published his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion anonymously and posthumously in 1779. Secret societies were still necessary for intellectuals to discuss safely on these matters. Irish philosopher John Toland (1670-1722) wrote in his Pantheisticon:
“The Philosophers therefore, and other well-wishers to mankind in most nations, were constrain’d by this holy tyranny to make use of a twofold doctrine; the one Popular, accommodated to the Prejudices of the vulgar, and to the receiv’d Customs or Religions: the other Philosophical, conformable to the nature of things, and consequently to Truth; which, with doors fast shut and under all other precautions, they communicated only to friends of known probity, prudence, and capacity. These they generally call’d the Exoteric and Esoteric, or the External and Internal Doctrines.”Quoted in Jan Assmann, Religio Duplex: How the Enlightenment Reinvented Egyptian Religion, Polity Press, 2014, p. 59.
Toland’s Pantheisticon describes the rules and rites of a society of enlightened thinkers who meet secretly to discuss philosophy and search for metaphysical truths. Such clubs provided the first basis of Freemasonry.Albert Lantoine, Un précurseur de la franc-maçonnerie. John Toland (1670–1722), suivi de la traduction française du Pantheisticon de John Toland, Éditions E. Nourry, 1927. Because they also attracted Marrano crypto-Jews, and because of the strong Judeophilia among British aristocrats at that time, Jewish lore and kabbalistic mumbo-jumbo were transplanted into the rituals of the Grand Lodge of England from 1723. But that is another story.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) gave the notion of “natural religion” a wide audience by his literary genius. His religious conception is exposed in the “Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar”, a section of Book IV of the Émile, which caused the book to be banned in Paris and Geneva, and publicly burned in 1762. Rousseau gives there an exposé of “theism or natural religion, which Christians pretend to confound with atheism or irreligion, its exact opposite.” Rousseau declares having no need for religious books, since Nature is a more useful book for discovering God;
“if I use my reason, if I cultivate it, if I employ rightly the innate faculties which God bestows upon me, I shall learn by myself to know and love him, to love his works, to will what he wills, and to fulfill all my duties upon earth, that I may please him. What more can all human learning teach me?”
Catholic dogmas are a useless and even poisonous jumble, Rousseau writes in his Letters Written from the Mountain (1764):
“For how can the mystery of the Trinity, for example, contribute to the good constitution of the State? In what way will its members be better Citizens when they have rejected the merit of good works? And what does the dogma of original sin have to do with the good of civil society? Although true Christianity is an institution of peace, who does not see that dogmatic or theological Christianity, by the multitude and obscurity of its dogmas and above all by the obligation to accept them, is a permanent battlefield between men.”
Rousseau devotes the last chapter of The Social Contract (1762) to “civil religion”. Like Locke, he condemns as contrary to public peace churches professing intolerance, because: “It is impossible to live at peace with those we regard as damned.” Therefore, “whoever dares to say ‘Outside the Church is no salvation’, ought to be driven from the State.”
Rousseau first proceeded to show that “the law of Christianity at bottom does more harm than good by weakening instead of strengthening the constitution of the State.” Christianity, even at its best, is too focused on individual salvation. Rousseau sees God as more fully manifested in human societies than in holy hermits. Here is a sample of Rousseau’s proposal:
“it matters very much to the community that each citizen should have a religion that will make him love his duty; but the dogmas of that religion concern the State and its members only so far as they have reference to morality and to the duties which he who professes them is bound to do to others. Each man may have, over and above, what opinions he pleases, without it being the Sovereign’s business to take cognisance of them; for, as the Sovereign has no authority in the other world, whatever the lot of its subjects may be in the life to come, that is not its business, provided they are good citizens in this life.
There is therefore a purely civil profession of faith of which the Sovereign should fix the articles, not exactly as religious dogmas, but as social sentiments without which a man cannot be a good citizen or a faithful subject. […]
The dogmas of civil religion ought to be few, simple, and exactly worded, without explanation or commentary. The existence of a mighty, intelligent and beneficent Divinity, possessed of foresight and providence, the life to come, the happiness of the just, the punishment of the wicked, the sanctity of the social contract and the laws: these are its positive dogmas. Its negative dogmas I confine to one, intolerance, which is a part of the cults we have rejected.”
Rousseau uses here the word “dogmas”, but for him, neither the existence of God or the immortality of the soul are based on revelation; they are proven by observation and introspection. His argument for God’s existence in Émile sounds surprisingly similar to the modern argument for Intelligent Design:
“Those who deny the unity of intention which manifests itself in the reports of all the parts of this great whole, however much they cover their gibberish with abstractions, coordinations, general principles, emblematic terms; whatever they do, it is impossible for me to conceive of a system of beings so constantly ordered, that I do not conceive of an intelligence which orders it. It does not depend on me to believe that passive and dead matter could have produced living and feeling beings, […], that what does not think could have produced thinking beings.”
In a speech he had printed in April 1791, Robespierre thanked the “eternal Providence” who called on the French, “alone since the origin of the world, to restore on earth the empire of Justice and Liberty.” In March 1792, the president of the Legislative Assembly Élie Guadet opposed the sending to the patriotic societies of an address of Robespierre, on the pretext that he had used the word “Providence” too many times:
“I admit that, seeing no sense in this idea, I would never have thought that a man who worked with so much courage, for three years, to pull the people out of the slavery of despotism, could contribute to put them back under the slavery of superstition.”
“Superstition, it is true, is one of the supports of despotism, but it is not inducing citizens in superstition to pronounce the name of the Divinity. […] I, myself, support these eternal principles on which human weakness leans to rise up toward virtue. It is not a vain language in my mouth, any more than in that of all the illustrious men who had no less moral, to believe in the existence of God. / Yes, invoking the Providence and expressing the idea of the Eternal Being who influences essentially the destinies of nations, and who seems to me to watch over the French revolution in a very special way, is not an idea too haphazard, but a feeling of my heart, a feeling which […] has always sustained me. Alone with my soul, how could I have sufficed for struggles which are beyond human strength, if I had not raised my soul to God?”Auguste Valmorel, Œuvres de Robespierre, 1867 (sur fr.wikisource.org), p. 71.
Robespierre castigated the irreligion that prevailed in the aristocracy and the high clergy, with bishops like Talleyrand openly boasting of lying every Sunday. A gap had widened between the clerical hierarchy and the country priests. Among the latter, many were responsible for drafting the peasants’ cahiers de doléances. The counter-revolutionary bishop Charles de Coucy, of La Rochelle, said in 1797 that the Revolution was “started by the bad priests.”Henri Guillemin, Robespierre, Politique et mystique, Seuil, 1987, p. 351. For Robespierre, they were the “good priests” whom the people of the countryside needed.
Robespierre was inflexible against the priests who submitted to the pope by refusing to take an oath on the Civil Constitution (voted July 12, 1790). But he also opposed, until his last breath, any plan to abolish the funds allocated to Catholic worship under the same Civil Constitution. He also opposed, but in vain, the new Republican calendar, with its ten-day week aimed at “suppressing Sunday,” by the admission of its inventor Charles-Gilbert Romme.
Robespierre’s worst enemies were the militant atheists, the Enragés like Pierre-Gaspard Chaumette or Jacques-René Hébert, who unleashed the movement for dechristianization in November 1793, and started closing the churches in Paris or transforming them into “Temples of Reason”, with the slogan “death is an eternal sleep” posted on the gates of cemeteries. Robespierre condemned “those men who have no other merit than that of adorning themselves with an anti-religious zeal,” and who “throw trouble and discord among us” (Club des Jacobins, November 21 1793). In his speech to the National Convention of December 5, 1793, he accused the dechristianizers of acting secretly for the counter-revolution. Indeed, “hostile foreign powers support the dechristianization of France as a policy pushing rural France into conflict with the Republic for religious reasons and thus recruiting armies against the Republic in Vendée and in Belgium.” By exploiting the violence of militant atheist extremists, these foreign powers have two aims: “the first to recruit the Vendée, to alienate the peoples of the French nation and to use philosophy for the destruction of freedom; the second, to disturb public tranquility in the interior, and to distract all minds, when it is necessary to collect them to lay the unshakable foundations of the Revolution.”
Again in his “Report against Philosophism and for the Freedom of Worship” (November 21, 1793), Robespierre again castigated the grotesque cults of Reason instituted in churches by atheist fanatics:
“By what right do they come to disturb the freedom of worship, in the name of freedom, and attack fanaticism with a new fanaticism? By what right do they degenerate the solemn tributes paid to pure truth, in eternal and ridiculous pranks? Why should they be allowed to play with the dignity of the people in this way, and to tie the bells of madness to the very scepter of philosophy?”
The Convention, he says, intends “to maintain freedom of cult, which it has proclaimed, while repressing all those who abuse it to disturb public order.” He declares that those who “persecute the peaceful ministers of cult” will be punished severely.
“There are men who, […] on the pretext of destroying superstition, want to make a kind of religion of atheism itself. Any philosopher, any individual can adopt whatever religious opinion he likes. Anyone who wants to make it a crime is a fool; but the public figure, but the legislator would be a hundred times more foolish who would adopt such a system. The National Convention abhors it. The Convention is not a book writer, an author of metaphysical systems, it is a political and popular body, responsible for ensuring respect, not only for the rights, but for the character of the French people. It was not in vain that it proclaimed the Declaration of Human Rights [August 26, 1789] in the presence of the Supreme Being [mentioned in the preamble]!
It may be said that I am a narrow mind, a man of prejudice; what do I know, a fanatic. I have already said that I speak neither as an individual nor as a systematic philosopher, but as a representative of the people. Atheism is aristocratic; the idea of a Great Being who watches over oppressed innocence and punishes triumphant crime, is popular. […] This feeling is engraved in all sensitive and pure hearts; it always animates the most magnanimous defenders of freedom. […] I repeat: we have no other fanaticism to fear than that of immoral men, bribed by foreign courts to awaken fanaticism, and to give our revolution the veneer of immorality, which is the character of our cowardly and fierce enemies.”
The Robespierrists overcame the Hebertists. After having failed in a project of insurrection against the Convention, Chaumette was arrested, tried and executed for “conspiracy against the Republic” and for “having sought to annihilate any kind of morality, erase any idea of divinity and found the French government on atheism.” In May 1794, Robespierre ordered to erase the mention “Temple of Reason” (or any similar denomination) from the portico of the churches and to engrave instead: “the French people recognize the existence of the Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul.”
Robespierre justified his opposition to dechristianization and his religion policy in his last great speech, “on the relations of religious and moral ideas with republican principles” (May 7, 1794), the most important text of Robespierre on that question.A translation of this speech can be found in P. H. Beik (eds), The French Revolution: The Documentary History of Western Civilization. Palgrave Macmillan, 1970, but I have translated directly from the French.
“Any institution, any doctrine which consoles and lifts souls must be welcomed; reject all that tend to degrade and corrupt them. Revive, exalt all generous feelings and all the great moral ideas that others wanted to extinguish; bring together by the charm of friendship and by the bond of virtue the men whom others wanted to divide. Who then gave you the mission to announce to the people that the Divinity does not exist, O you who are passionate about this arid doctrine, and who are never passionate about the homeland? What advantage do you find in persuading man that a blind force presides over his destinies and strikes crime and virtue at random; that his soul is only a light breath that dies out at the gates of the tomb?
Will the idea of his nothingness inspire him with purer and higher feelings than that of his immortality? Will it inspire him more respect for his fellow men and for himself, more devotion to the fatherland, more courage to brave tyranny, more contempt for death or for voluptuousness? You who regret a virtuous friend, you like to think that the most beautiful part of himself has escaped death! You who weep over the coffin of a son or a wife, are you comforted by him who tells you that there is nothing left of them but a vile dust? […] Miserable sophist! by what right do you come to snatch from innocence the scepter of reason to put it back in the hands of crime, throw a funeral veil over nature, add despair to misfortune, make vice rejoice, and virtue saddened, degrade humanity? […]
Let us attach morality to eternal and sacred bases; let us inspire in man this religious respect for man, this deep feeling of his duties, which is the only guarantee of social happiness; let us nourish it with all our institutions; let public education be mainly directed towards this goal.”
On June 8, the resounding success of the Fête de l’Être Suprême consecrated Robespierre’s victory. In a show staged by the painter David, a gigantic statue representing Atheism was burnt, and the effigy of Wisdom revealed. Hymns to the deity were sung. But priests and references to Catholicism were absent. On this day, Robespierre declared, the Supreme Being, “sees an entire nation that is combating all the oppressors of humankind, suspend the course of its heroic labors in order to raise its thoughts and its vows towards the Great Being who gave it the mission to undertake it and the strength to execute it.”
“He created men to mutually assist and love each other, and to arrive at happiness by the path of virtue. It is He who placed remorse and fear in the breast of the triumphant oppressor, and calm and pride in the heart of the innocent oppressed. It is He who forces the just man to hate the wicked, and the wicked to respect the just man. It is He who adorned the face of beauty with modesty, so as to make it even more beautiful. It is He who makes maternal entrails palpitate with tenderness and joy. It is He who bathes with delicious tears the eyes of a son pressed against his mother’s breast. It is He who silences the most imperious and tender passions before the sublime love of the fatherland. It is He who covered nature with charms, riches and majesty. All that is good is His work, or is Him. Evil belongs to the depraved man who oppresses or allows his like to be oppressed. The author of nature ties together all mortals in an immense chain of love and felicity.”
Generally speaking, the cult of the Supreme Being was enthusiastically received in most regions of France. The French people were tired of the civil war and eager to be reconciled under the auspices of God. Unfortunately, two days later, the Law of the “22 Prairial” (June 10, 1794) accelerated the trials of the suspects of conspiracy against the Republic, and opened the brief period of what will be called the Great Terror.
Robespierre’s religious policy weighed heavily on the motivations of the Thermidorians’ plot against him. They accused him of aspiring to the office of Grand Pontiff.
On the day before his death (July 28, 1794), at age 36, Robespierre declared:
“O Frenchmen! O my countrymen! Let not your enemies, with their desolating doctrines, degrade your souls, and enervate your virtues! No, Chaumette, no! Death is not ‘an eternal sleep!’ Citizens! Erase from the tomb that motto, engraved by sacrilegious hands, which spreads over all nature a funereal crape, takes from oppressed innocence its support, and affronts the beneficent dispensation of death! Inscribe rather thereon these words: ‘Death is the commencement of immortality!’”
Laurent Guyénot, Ph.D., has recently edited some of his Unz Review articles in book form, under the title Our God is Your God Too, But He Has Chosen Us: Essays on Jewish Power. He is also the author of From Yahweh to Zion: Jealous God, Chosen People, Promised Land … Clash of Civilizations, 2018, and JFK-9/11: 50 years of Deep State, Progressive Press, 2014.
 Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion, Houghton Mifflin, 2006, p. 51.
 Jean-Clément Martin, Robespierre, la fabrication d’un monstre, Perrin, 2016. Other recent French historians who have drawn a rather positive image of Robespierre include Jean-Philippe Domecq, Robespierre, dernier temps, Folio/Histoire, 2011 and Cécile Obligi, Robespierre. La probité révoltante, Belin, 2012.
 Jean-Philippe Domecq, Robespierre, dernier temps, Folio/Histoire, 2011, p. 27-30
 My presentation owes a lot to Henri Guillemin, Robespierre, Politique et mystique, Seuil, 1987.
 Quoted in Ernst Kantorowicz, L’empereur Frédéric II, Gallimard, 1987 (1st German ed. 1927), pp. 451-452.
 Jerry Brotton, The Renaissance Bazaar: From the Silk Road to Michelangelo, Oxford UP, 2010, pp. 66-67.
 Quoted in Jan Assmann, Religio Duplex: How the Enlightenment Reinvented Egyptian Religion, Polity Press, 2014, p. 59.
 Albert Lantoine, Un précurseur de la franc-maçonnerie. John Toland (1670–1722), suivi de la traduction française du Pantheisticon de John Toland, Éditions E. Nourry, 1927.
 Auguste Valmorel, Œuvres de Robespierre, 1867 (sur fr.wikisource.org), p. 71.
 Henri Guillemin, Robespierre, Politique et mystique, Seuil, 1987, p. 351.
 A translation of this speech can be found in P. H. Beik (eds), The French Revolution: The Documentary History of Western Civilization. Palgrave Macmillan, 1970, but I have translated directly from the French.