The Twilight of Atheism The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World by Alister McGrath (homepage or biography)
French Revolution (Chpt 2)
McGrath argues 18th century France provides clues to the rise of atheism. How would atheism gain momentum and build excitement for a country inundated with the Catholic Church? France during the time of Louis XVI was led by three estates aristocracy, clergy, and middle-class bourgeoisie. McGrath suggests that the middle-class bourgeoisie were marginalized and muted by the aristocracy and the clergy / church. Pressure mounted from the voiceless as they froze through the winter, starved during the famine, and barely escaped starvation. While life was miserable for the middle class, royalty was basking in extravagance, cozily warm in the winter, and steadily enlarging their plump stomachs. The church and aristocracy’s flagrant abuse of power and privilege stirred up eloquent influential critics. Voltaire who insisted on the importance of a Divine Being, chastised the Catholic Church for its exploitation. The middle class linked the Church leadership to the Christian faith so it hastily sought to curb if not overthrow Christianity and its god.
McGrath introduces a historical analogy by comparing two of the eighteenth century revolutions, French and American. The American Revolution was due in part from an effort to purify religion from a “compromised state church”, while the French Revolution insisted on ridding one’s conscience from the idea of a god.
Although renowned thinkers like Rene Descartes and Marin Marsenne challenged atheism by philosophically arguing for the existence of God, their plans “backfired” through failed arguments. Descartes and Marsenne were not alone church theologians argued about how they should respond to atheism, unfortunately their arguing indirectly contributed to the spread of atheism.
Atheism gained momentum and popularity while religion grappled with its fall from stardom. The destruction of religion in France brought erotic experimentation. Sexual repression was due in part to religion, but if God did not exist sensuality and pleasure take the forefront which includes sexual promiscuity. Obviously the promulgation of sexuality publically did not sit well with proponents of the church who lived in the shadows of Reason and Nature. Atheism, through the Revolutionary, eventually showed its ugly head in attempting to silence its opponents in the Reign of Terror. The rise of atheism had come full cycle-they had once been ignored by the aristocracy and clergy, but now they chose to ignore voices. McGrath’s closing thoughts to this chapter are…
“Inspiring and ennobling, the project of the French Revolution was at the same time brutal and repressive. The same movement that made such a powerful appeal to nature and reason for its justification ended up using systematic violence to subdue those who were unpersuaded of its merits. The movement that gave the world such noble monuments as the Declaration of the Rights of Man also gave it the Reign of Terror. To those who suggest that religion is responsible for the ills of the world, the Revolution offers an awkward anomaly. As the historian Reynald Secher has shown, pressure from Paris to eliminate counter-revolution in the south of France led to the deployment of Turreau’s colonnes infernales of 1794, whose wholesale destruction of villages and their inhabitants came close to genocide. 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 savior, and new saints. But it also had its own inquisition and began its own particular war of religion. During the French Revolution, for the first time in modern history the possibility of an atheist state was explored. That exploration was incomplete, inconsistent, and not entirely encouraging. Within a decade, the fledgling French republic found itself overtaken by events, as Napoleon Bonaparte entered Paris and seized power.”