Re-humanising the religious victims of the Revolution: Admitting the truth is step one

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Recently a group of Islamic State sympathisers entered a Catholic Church in Normandy, France, during Mass, took hostages and murdered a priest.

Naturally, the French authorities condemned this violent act. This line in particular caught my eye:

François Hollande, the French president, promised to win the war against terrorism. In a televised address to the nation he said: “To attack a church, kill a priest, is to profane the republic.”

The republic? The irony here was a little rich. The republic, established by the French Revolution? The revolution in which clergy were literally being killed by those advocating atheism and reason, because the clergy represented allegiance to a foreign power? The republic whose violent birth is still celebrated on Bastille Day, commemorating a day of shocking violence, killings and beheading? Surely there is a fundamental disconnect here. I mean sure, of course I get that Mr Hollande condemns the attack. I don’t doubt his sincerity. But there doesn’t seem to be much careful, consistent thought to this statement in a French context, that an attack on the Church is an attack on the Republic.

I took to Twitter thus: “A Muslim kills a priest and he’s bad. Atheists murder the religious and people celebrate Bastille Day because of it. You silly Frenchies.” Yes its short and snarky, but such is Twitter.

The Tweet was shared by a self-proclaimed Atheist Missionary, garnering responses from fellow atheists like these (I have censored for profanity, which is not my general style):

“ahahahaha We’re laughing AT you, Godboy.

Are you insane? Or just that f****ng dense?

Murder in the name of”

“That’s worse than the “Stalin killed millions in the name of atheism” horses**t.”

“Are you [sic] f****ng moron?

Nevermind. Yes, you are. This tweet will be used as evidence against you.”

Naturally, such vacuous volleys from the peanut gallery don’t present anything with which to rationally interact. But they do present themselves like the tip of an iceberg of ignorance fueled by unwillingness to accept reality. We know that atheists aren’t like that. Religious people are, and that is the filter through which we read all of history, screaming down anyone who suggests otherwise.

Saying that atheists had nothing to do with the French revolution’s sometimes hideously violent dechristianisation of France is like saying that the Roman Catholic Church had nothing to do with the Spanish Inquisition.

Even a casual stroll through Wikipedia could be of some assistance to those trapped in the narrative that atheists couldn’t possibly have carried out the terrible actions associated with France’s reign of terror.

One of the purges of the French revolution is referred to as a process of “dechristianisation,” and included horrific bloodletting of clergy.

Priests were among those drowned in mass executions (noyades) for treason under the direction of Jean-Baptiste Carrier; priests and nuns were among the mass executions at Lyons, for separatism, on the orders of Joseph Fouché and Collot d’Herbois. Hundreds more priests were imprisoned and made to suffer in abominable conditions in the port of Rochefort.

Joseph Fouché was heavily involved in the atheist “Cult of Reason,” although his biographical notes at Wikipedia say that later in life he, ironically, was Catholic (I can’t find an account of his turning point).

Hundreds of clergy were summarily executed in the “September Massacres,” 191 of them being beatified by the Catholic Church as saints.

The article on “Irreligion in France” is decidedly tame in its description of the French Revolution:

The French Revolution marked a turning point for the ascendancy of atheism to a preeminent position as a cognitive and cultural stance against papal supremacy and the Holy Roman Empire across Europe and throughout the world. Now known as the atheist Cult of Reason ideology, established by Jacques Hébert, Pierre Gaspard Chaumette and their supporters and intended as a replacement for Christianity, and was replete with ceremonious destruction of Christian relics, conversion of churches into Temples of Reason and the personification of Reason as a goddess;

Atheism is happily identified as the motivator for the actions listed, but the list is truncated so as to exclude the killing of clergy. Still, a careful reader can connect the dots.

The point is, Twitter atheist apologists who let rip rhetorical jabs about history haven’t so much as a Wikipedia level understanding of the issues the pontificate on – although I realise, of course, that not all atheists are like such Twitter apologists (and nor, thankfully, are they anything like those atheists who were whipped up into a frenzy during the French Revolution). Did you know that you can be an atheist and also admit the wrong done by other atheists without giving in to a pathological need to smooth over history until it makes you feel more comfortable? The truth of your worldview does not depend on you insecurely trying to blot out any facts you find inconvenient or awkward.

Glenn Peoples

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{ 9 comments… add one }
  • Robert C July 28, 2016, 9:58 pm

    Maybe what bothered the president was that the terrorist didn’t ask for state approval before killing the priest.

    More seriously, if I’m to be charitable, maybe those responding to your tweet were specifically responding to the “Bastille day” aspect, which is more directly related to the military operation of storming the Bastille than to all the later revolutionary activities. The irony of the French president’s statement is still noteworthy though.

  • Matthew Flannagan July 28, 2016, 10:02 pm

    Whats interesting is the we of course have records of the writings of those who engaged in the De Christianisation during the period known as “the terror” during the French revolution and their rhetoric is the same kind of rhetoric used by contemporary new atheists. Here are some examples, the first is from a the official orders to implement De Christianisation in certain French Provinces:

    Considering the time has come when fanaticism and superstition must disappear forever from the soil of liberty: that it is urgent that the throne of error and falsehood be overthrown at the same time as that of a tyrant, to be replaced by the eternal reign of reason and philosophy.

    The orders go on to demand that “priests or ministers of public worship” were required to “disavow” the “errors and prejudices to which they had been subjugated until now, and with aid of which they have tyrannised the people before too long”. In its place “all churches and chapels, for too long the theatre of imposture, become temples of reason and schools of republican virtue”

    The idea here is that religion is a “superstition” and “fanatical” and “tyrnaical” and must be overthrown and replaced with “reason” to ensure “liberty”.

    Or consider the following “public proclamations of reason” delivered in the winter of 1794 for example which are recorded by Michel. Vovelle, in his book the revolution against the Church: from reason to the Supreme Being (Ohio State University Press, 1991):

    “The error which had been handed down from age to age has just vanished, the prejudices of fanaticism have disappeared, we have no other cult than that of Reason and of Liberty”

    “We place ourselves on a level with Reason, and we consolidate her Empire. May she alone reign henceforth over us, and may we be her untiring ministers.”

    “Fanaticism has ceased long ago to exist in Gonesse, and the inhabitants of Gonesse worship only Reason; Equality and Liberty are their only Gods; the Unity and Indivisibility of the Republic are the only objectives of their struggle … Enlightened by the flame of Philosophy and deeply filled with horror at both tyranny and superstition, they burn their incense only on the altar of their own Native Land, and all their affection is centred on the sovereignty of the people

    Again the picture is the same religion is an irrational, superstition, which is tyrannical, and needs to be removed and replaced with philosophies based on reason and the enlightenment values.
    So there isnt really much doubt I think that the justification for terror and de-Christianization in the 1790’s was based on the very same sort of rhetorical and thinking one reads in contemporary new atheist writers who also argue that religion is an irrational superstition, that its “poisons everything” and leads to tyranny and oppression and that we should have “reason rallies” where we advocate replacing religion with reason and skepticism.

  • Erroll Treslan July 29, 2016, 12:49 am

    Dr. Peoples, if this post was intended in any way to justify your tweet, I respectfully suggest that it has failed miserably.

    Let’s consider the tweet: “A Muslim kills a priest and he’s bad. Atheists murder the religious and people celebrate Bastille Day because of it. You silly Frenchies.”

    First of all, it is a gross Trump-like oversimplification to criticize ISIS killers as “bad” or “evil”. If you ever get the chance to read Adam Morton’s “On Evil”, I highly recommend it. In any event, I think all reasonable people can agree that the ISIS killing of the priest was not conducive to human flourishing.

    So let’s move to the second sentence of your tweet. Are you suggesting that any French nationals are celebrating Bastille Day in 2016 because atheists murdered religious believers during the French revolution? Perhaps a few ISIS sympathizers will but, aside from those, I think you would have to agree (after due reflection) that Bastille Day is celebrated by French citizenry to commemorate the storming of the Bastille and the ensuing abolition of monarchy/feudalism. Now, no person with even a passing knowledge of history (regardless of their religious belief or non-belief) is unaware of the atrocities committed by atheists against religious believers during the French revolution. However, your tweet goes far beyond making that trite observation. You have continued to digging your hole with this post (apparently with the explicit approval of Matthew Flannagan – another admirable apologist mind) suggesting that it was “a little rich” for François Hollande to be suggesting that the murder of a priest on an alter in front of worshipers amounted to profaning the Republic. What do you expect him to say? In my respectful submission, however you wish to define profane, nothing is more profane to a free, democratic and yes, secular, nation than the senseless slaughter of innocent, unarmed civilians.

  • Glenn July 29, 2016, 9:10 am

    Erroll, well we evidently don’t agree about whether or not my tweet was justified. Indeed, my view is that the tweet didn’t need this blog post to justify it. This blog post was prompted by the online hecklers who were apparently denying that atheists killed the religious in this context. It honours the humanity of the victims of such violence to correct that error, hence this post.

    Bastille day provides us with an opportunity to reflect on the way we approve of and even celebrate the most terrible violence when it is done for a cause that suits us and it is long enough ago that we don’t have to look at it.

    I’m sorry the irony is lost on you, but for Mr Hollande to specifically say that an attack on a *church* profanes the republic just is ironic, given that the revolution that led to the formation of that republic involved a widespread attack on the church, including murder. You ask what he should have said? A plethora of things come to mind (we condemn this violence, we will not tolerate this kind of terror etc), but selecting this one thing was rather striking.

    There’s no hole being dug here, except for by those Tweeters who wanted to deny the reality faced by the religious victims of violence.

  • Matthew Flannagan July 29, 2016, 12:52 pm

    I am not sure what I “explicitly” approved of, given that all I did was point out some documentation of the reasons people gave for acts of terror and Christianisation.
    But, as to your comment:

    Are you suggesting that any French nationals are celebrating Bastille Day in 2016 because atheists murdered religious believers during the French revolution? Perhaps a few ISIS sympathizers will but, aside from those, I think you would have to agree (after due reflection) that Bastille Day is celebrated by French citizenry to commemorate the storming of the Bastille and the ensuing abolition of monarchy/feudalism.

    I don’t think anyone said, that Bastille day is celebrated because because atheists murdered religious believers during the French revolution. As you say the celebrate the storming of the Bastille.

    What’s overlooked however is that the Bastille storming was itself an act of terror and a forerunner to the state endorsed terror that followed. When the Bastile surrendered the mob summarily executed there prisioners, cut of there heads and paraded them on pikes as a message of “what will be done to traitors to the revolution”. This wasn’t just bluster we know for a fact that thousands of heads did in fact literally role in the next few years as the revolution executed anyone who was perceived to be disloyal. Most notably the Catholic clergy and Catholic regions who resisted.

    Your answer underscores Glenn’s point. In France they actually celebrate beheading of people for the sake of terror, because doing this achieved a good goal the abolition of feudalism. The implicit suggestion is that beheading and terror is something to be celebrated if it serves our cause.

    If you do that you cant consistently turn around and say “ To attack a church, kill a priest, is to profane the republic.” Because, you have just suggested that the terrorist methods used in the revolution should be celebrated, on the grounds that the ends of the republic justified the means.

    As to the claim that ” no person with even a passing knowledge of history (regardless of their religious belief or non-belief) is unaware of the atrocities committed by atheists against religious believers during the French revolution” if you read the responses to Glenn’s tweet, its apparent many people did incredulously deny this, it was suggested that the killing of believers by atheists “never happen” and the kind of revolutionary terror Glenn refereed to has “nothing to do with Bastille day” that’s nonsense, Bastille day is a celebration of some of the first summary be-headings of people deemed disloyal to the revolution.

  • Andrew August 1, 2016, 2:01 pm

    “…it is a gross Trump-like oversimplification to criticize ISIS killers as “bad” or “evil” ”

    It’s worth reflecting on whether someone who articulates this has a functional moral compass.

  • Erroll Treslan August 2, 2016, 3:23 am

    It’s also worth reflecting on the theological motivations of ISIS killers (who undoubtedly “love their children too”) and what can be done to combat such destructive theology.

  • Glenn August 3, 2016, 11:03 am

    Erroll,
    “…it is a gross Trump-like oversimplification to criticize ISIS killers as “bad” or “evil”

    Tweets by their nature are short, but I think it’s fair to say that entering a church and murdering a priest is bad. Trump probably agrees, but I don’t think the characterisation of this view as “Trump-like” is reasonable.

  • Andrew August 3, 2016, 1:47 pm

    Eroll,

    No doubt. Notwithstanding, please do us the favour of articulating the conceptual connection between:

    (1). We need to reflect on what can be done to combat such destructive (ISIS) theology

    AND,

    (2). It is a gross Trump-like oversimplification to criticize ISIS killers as “bad” or “evil”

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