The top-of-fold headline could have said “Armed White Europeans Replace Centuries-Old Religion.” The text would go on to describe the seizure of religious buildings and desecration of cemeteries. All vestiges of previous religious life were removed to make way for their government-sanctioned replacements.
You might assume this is some sad chapter of international relations in history — likely the Middle East. Or possibly some far-flung colony whose cities we can neither spell nor pronounce The Pacific Rim, or African Interior might come to mind. Perhaps, but you’d be wrong. This “crusade” is from history, but not where you might expect.
It is unlikely you have heard about these events, or at least these particular details of the larger story. Although Media and Academia usually trip over themselves trotting out the laundry-list of the Imperialist West’s offences, this saga seems to have escaped their notice.
The role of villain was played by French nationals. They overthrew an existing government and replaced it with hostile — violent — leaders. Wealth that had once belonged to religious groups was seized and auctioned by the new regime. The indigenous religious expression was forbidden — religious leaders were forced to register with and swear allegiance to the newly-installed government. Violators were punished by death or imprisonment. In a single month, hundreds of religious leaders were killed, on charges of treason or sedition.
Cemeteries were stripped of old religious symbols; even headstones were broken. Slogans agreeable to the new regime replaced them.
After the old houses of worship were seized, new rituals were conducted in their place. Festivals were done away with. The calendar was completely overhauled, scrubbing away familiar reminders of religious observance. Year, month and week were not only renamed, but changed in their lengths to correspond to a new system.
These were the years 1789 -1793. The victims were the citizens of France itself, immediately after its Revolution. The Republic’s cries of “Liberty!” quickly sank into bloody tyranny. Both Jewish and Christian houses of worship were seized, and destroyed, sold, or used in the Cultic Worship of “Reason”. This was a deliberately humanistic and atheistic religion. A cultural reset introduced the metric system, a 10-day work week, and a complete break with the historical calendar and a new system of dates.
They stripped down the altar in Notre Dame Cathedral, and dedicated it as an altar to “Liberty”.
They rejected God (slogan was “One God only — the People”) and elevated a live woman to stand on that altar signifying “Reason”. The woman was (no, this isn’t sarcasm) used to “avoid idolatry”.
Robespierre cut off the heads of the Cult’s central leaders, and the movement died with them. Naturally, since Nature abhors a vacuum, Robespierre tried his own approach; his was neither the Atheism of “the Cult of Reason”, nor the traditional Catholicism of France. He, instead, opted for Greco-roman Deism, the “Cult of the Supreme Being”.
Mirroring Catholic Sabbath-keeping, every 10th day became an obligatory State holiday to commemorate the new Religion. Robespierre himself led these religious services, until the Guillotine brought both his life and religion to an abrupt end.
What historical lessons can be drawn from this today?
First, some clarifying questions. If the French Revolution is such a big part of Enlightenment teaching, why skip this chapter? Why is history (like the news) reported with partisan favor toward the non- or anti-religious?
Second, as context for when New Atheism’s Army of Parrots spouts tired objections to Christianity. They often use slurs or fallacies rather than serious conversation, and rely on “gotcha” tactics to intimidate. Example: “SalemWitchHunt-SpanishInquisition”. Play along! Are they willing to be measured by that standard?
How about some apples-to-apples facts?
The Spanish Inquisition was bad, from first to final executions, it spanned 345 years, 5 months. Total executions are estimated at 3000 to 5000 people. That’s between 8 and 14 people every year, roughly one each month. Salem averaged 1 or 2 deaths per month.
Contrast that to the Reign of Terror. It ranged from 18-40 thousand deaths just by guillotine or summary execution. Ninety-six percent were between September 1793, and July 1794. Divide that by 11 months for anywhere from 1,636 to 3,636 people dead per month. That’s thousands per month dead.
Even one wrongful death is ethically repugnant, true. But in terms of objective moral outrage, how could the Spanish/Salem examples (combined!) eclipse the Reign of Terror? Both had religio-political causes. Whoever condemns Salem or Spain must indict themselves a thousand-fold more if they turn a blind eye to the irreligious violence of Paris. Could “religion poisons everything” be simplistic and reductionist? You bet!
Finally, we have today. The public square is a no-go zone for religious values. “You can’t legislate morality” is now axiomatic. Secularism is assumed to be objective and unbiased, the epitome of tolerance. Secularists insist that all religions are equal. And faith [but not sex] is specifically a private matter. And since faith [but not sex] is private, it must not influence public life or policy.
How do they pull this off? The belief that all religions are equal requires all religion to be equally false. So, patronizing someone is bad … unless you label it Tolerance. Right? Wrong!
They will call you arrogant for “claiming true religious knowledge”, and that is when you show them the glass house they live in.
Image: Public Domain/Copyright has expired.