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The French Revolution wasn’t just a political revolution where one government was replaced with a new one.
The French Revolution was also a social revolution and the largest social institution in France at the time of the revolution was the Catholic Church.
At the height of the revolution, the revolutionaries attempted to replace the church with a new state religion which was quite unlike anything else the world had seen before or since.
Learn more about the Cult of Reason and the attempts of Revolutionary France to create a state religion that wasn’t a religion on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
To understand how the Cult of Reason came about, it is necessary to understand the conditions in pre-revolutionary France.
The French Revolution was a lot more than beheading Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.
The French Revolution was a revolution against the entire French system, which was known as the Ancien Regime.
The Ancien Regime included not just the monarchy, but the nobility, and perhaps most importantly, the Catholic Church.
The Ancien Regime established what were known as “estates” which were the broad categories of social and civil hierarchy under which society was organized.
The first estate was the church, the second estate was the nobility, and the third estate were peasants and common people.
Despite some activity early in the Protestant Reformation, France remained an overwhelmingly Catholic country. The Edict of Nantes in 1685 codified Catholicism as not just the state religion, but the only religion allowed in the country.
Protestants and Jews were not allowed to practice their religion openly, nor were they given many legal and civil rights. Marriages were not recognized, for example, unless the parties converted to Catholicism.
Moreover, the church was the largest single landowner in France. There was a good chance if you were a peasant, your landlord who you paid rent to was a monastery. On top of that, there was a mandatory system of tithing, which was in effect a ten percent tax on everyone.
In the day to day lives of most people in France, their lives were more influenced by the church than by the monarchy.
So when discontent in France began to grow, it was the entire Ancien Regime which was in the crosshairs of the revolutionaries, which also included the church.
Here I need to give a bit of background as to who the revolutionaries were and what was the intellectual environment of the revolution.
The French Revolution, like the American Revolution, took place in the intellectual environment known as the Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment is probably worth an episode of its own, but its origins can roughly be traced back to the late 17th century with the scientific discoveries of people like Isaac Newton.
The discovery of scientific principles encouraged an environment where truth, reason, and liberty were held as the supreme values.
While there was no uniform set of Enlightenment or beliefs, many Enlightenment thinkers regularly disagreed with each other, there was a general consensus against reverting to tradition and mysticism.
Many of the greatest Enlightenment thinkers came from France. Thinkers such as Jean Jaques-Rousseau and Voltaire were leaders in the growth in this school of thought.
The French Revolution was, at its core, a revolution fueled by Enlightenment values.
When things began to come to a head and the Ancien Regime began to institute reforms, many of those reforms had to do with religion.
On August 4, 1789, the National Constituent Assembly in just a few hours, managed to completely overhaul many of the laws governing France and the system of three estates. The reform eliminated the mandatory tithes to the church.
On August 26, the National Constituent Assembly passed the landmark Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. This was the French equivalent of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.
In it were two clauses which were relevant to this discussion.
Article IV – Liberty consists of doing anything which does not harm others: thus, the exercise of the natural rights of each man has only those borders which assure other members of the society the enjoyment of these same rights. These borders can be determined only by the law.
Article X – No one may be disturbed for his opinions, even religious ones, provided that their manifestation does not trouble the public order established by the law.
For most people listening to this, these seem like pretty reasonable proposals. You can practice your religion, however you like, so long as you don’t harm anyone else.
This was very much in accordance with the principles of the enlightenment.
On October 10, they seized all church property in France and sold the assets to raise money.
Finally, on July 12, 1790, they officially made the church subordinate to the government. All priests were now to be employees of the state, and all clergy were to be elected. They also had to swear an oath of fealty to the state, under penalty of deportation or death.
Needless to say, the pope did not approve and did not allow priests to take the oath.
All of these changes generally fall under the category of “freedom of religion”, although things like forcing priests to take an oath were a bit extreme.
They removed having a state sponsored church, removed the power of the church over the citizenry, and allowed everyone to practice religion as they saw fit.
If this had been the end of the reforms, I would not be doing this episode.
As the revolution continued, it became more and more radicalized. It wasn’t just a matter of freedom of religion anymore and dismantling a state church, it became extremely anti-clerical.
On September 2, 1792, over 200 priests were killed over a period of five days known as the September Massacre. They were only a small part of the 1,200 to 1,600 people killed overall.
It wasn’t just a matter of freedom of religion at this point, there were now forces who were actively seeking to de-christianize France. One of the major steps was the elimination of the Gregorian Calendar, which I’ve addressed in a previous episode.
The new calendar counted its years based on the French Revolution, changed the names of the days and the months, and instituted a ten day week.
However, the thing which really went over the top and was truly radical was the attempt to supplant christianity with a brand new state religion. This would not be another christian, protestant church the likes of which were established in other European countries.
This would be a church which was fundamentally atheist. It became known as the Cult of Reason.
It is difficult to call an atheist movement a religion and historians have been debating exactly how to categorize the Cult of Reason for over two hundred years.
The supporters of the Cult of Reason were primarily those from the radical Exaggerators faction, who were the followers of Jacques Hébert. It came to prominence in 1793 during the start of the Reign of Terror.
The advocates for this new church included Antoine-François Momoro and Joseph Fouché.
Many Catholic churches were converted to Temples of Reason. All of the Christian symbolism was either removed, destroyed or covered up and replaced with symbols representing liberty, and philosophy.
At Notre Dame in Paris, the altar was removed and replaced with an altar to liberty. In stone above the doors to the entrance were etched the words “”To Philosophy”.
There was no coherent dogma for this religion. Every Temple of Reason just sort of did their own thing.
Joseph Fouché, who was one of the chief enforcers during the Reign of Terror, created his own Feast of Brutus on September 22, 1793. It was pretty much the same as other Cult of Reason celebrations.
The biggest day for the Cult of Reason took place on 20 Brumaire in the Year II, and for those of you who are not fluent in the French Revolutionary calendar, that would be November 10, 1793.
It was a nationwide event called the Festival of Reason.
Liturgies were held in converted Temples of Reason all around the country. At the festival held in Notre Dame, an artificial mountain was built in the nave of the church. On top of the mountain was a Greek temple devoted to philosophy with busts of great philosophers. At the bottom of the mountain was an altar to reason with a torch dedicated to truth.
Girls wandered around wearing Roman dresses and sashes in the colors of the French flag. A woman was dressed as the embodiment of the goddess of Liberty.
If this sounds just a bit like a pagan ceremony, you wouldn’t be wrong.
The reaction to the Festival of Reason was swift and was almost universally condemned.
It was called “licentious” and “lurid,” and even Maximilien Robespierre, who was aligned with the radical factions, called the ceremonies “ridiculous farces” and began to separate himself from its most extreme members.
The Festival of Reason actually backfired and emboldened anti-revolutionary forces.
Robespierre particularly disliked the Cult of Reason. He was a deist. He didn’t particularly believe in any religion, but he did believe that some sort of belief in God was necessary for stable social order.
By the spring of 1794, ??Robespierre, who had accumulated an enormous amount of power during the Reign of Terror, was at the peak of his influence.
Jacques Hébert, Antoine-François Momoro, and other leaders of the Cult of Reason were executed in March, pretty much putting an end to it.
Robespierre then ushered in his own replacement for the Cult of Reason, known as the Cult of the Supreme Being.
On 18th Floréal, that would be May 7, the National Convention passed legislation making the Cult of the Supreme Being the state religion in France.
The Cult of the Supreme Being was pretty much wholly invented out of nothing by Robespierre
The tenets of the church included a belief in a supreme being, an immortal soul, and punishing tyrants.
On 20 Prairial, that would be June 8, he took a page out of the Cult of Reason playbook and held the Festival of the Supreme Being. There were festivities all over France, but the one held in Paris was an extremely well-organized and highly-planned event overseen by Robespierre himself.
It went over about as well as the Festival of Reason did eight months earlier. Many people saw the festival as evidence that the revolutionary government had become the very thing they had been fighting against.
Within six weeks of the Festival of the Supreme Being, Robespierre had his own date with Madame le Guillotine.
It is believed that the Festival of the Supreme Being was in no small part responsible for his downfall.
With Robespierre dead, who was really the only driving force behind it, the Cult of the Supreme Being quickly died out and was forgotten.
The entire rise and fall of two French national religions, the Cults of Reason and of the Supreme Being, took less than a single year.
Both cults were officially banned by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, who, ironically enough, in 1804, was coronated emperor of the French in a Catholic ceremony in Notre Dame Cathedral in the presence of the Pope.
While much in France had changed forever, after all the bloodshed and struggle, France found itself once again a Catholic country ruled by a monarch.
The Cult of Reason and the Cult of the Supreme Being both ended up as nothing but historical footnotes to an incredibly turbulent time in history.
The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
Today’s review comes from listener Wild Bill AK over on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:
One of my Favorites: A Thoughtful and Interesting Podcast
Everything Everywhere is a podcast about just that: everything and everywhere as seen during Gary Arndt’s travels.
I particularly enjoyed the recent podcast about the United States Minor Outlying Islands , which are a lot like a Seinfeld episode…basically about nothing :)
Keep up the good work Gary, I enjoy your podcast very much!
Thanks, Wild Bill! Sometimes an episode about something can be nothing, but other times an episode about nothing can be something. That of course means that something was in fact nothing, and nothing was something.
Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.