It was on this date, January 15, 1678, that the French priest who is remembered as a lifelong atheist, Jean Meslier, was born. Meslier has been described as the first person in the West to write an entire text in support of atheism – discovered, redacted (to make him a Deist) and promoted by Voltaire. On theology he wrote,
Theology is but a pretended science. Theology rests itself on principles which are contestable, and are hazardous suppositions, conceived in ignorance, propagated by enthusiasm or bad intention, adopted by timid credulity, and preserved by habit. … Theology never reasons, and is revered solely because it is not comprehended. … Some, theologists make the world believe that which they do not themselves believe; a greater number of others make themselves believe, not comprehending what it is to believe. … Common sense shows that religious opinions have no solid foundation. … All religion is but a castle in the air. Theology is but ignorance of natural causes reduced to a system and is but a long tissue of chimeras and contradictions. … Theology presents to all the different nations of the earth only romances of a God or Prophet devoid of probability, who is made up of qualities impossible to reconcile, with his name having the power to excite in all hearts respect and fear. … God is found to be but a vague word, which men continually utter, being able to attach to it only such ideas or qualities as are belied by the facts, or which evidently contradict each other.
On God, Meslier wrote,
How I suffered when I had to preach to you those pious lies that I detest in my heart. What remorse your credulity caused me! A thousand times I was on the point of breaking out publicly and opening your eyes, but a fear stronger than myself held me back, and forced me to keep silence until my death. … The notion of this imaginary being—God—or rather the word by which we designate him, would be of no consequence did it not cause ravages without number upon the earth. … We have seen, a thousand times, in all parts of our globe, infuriated fanatics slaughtering each other, lighting the funeral piles, committing without scruple, as a matter of duty, the greatest crimes. Why? To maintain or to propagate the impertinent conjectures of enthusiasts, or to sanction the knaveries of impostors on account of a God who exists only in their imagination, and who is known only by the ravages, the disputes, and the follies which he has caused upon the earth. … How could the human mind, filled with frightful phantoms and guided by men interested in perpetuating its ignorance and its fear, make progress?
On a more hopeful, humanistic note, Meslier wrote, “Let us teach men to be just, benevolent, moderate, and sociable, not because their Gods exact it, but to please men; let us tell them to abstain from vice and from crime, not because they will be punished in another world, but because they will suffer in the present world. … Let man’s reason be cultivated, let justice govern him, and there will be no need of opposing to his passions the powerless barrier of the fear of Gods.” And, anticipating George Carlin ("You Are All Diseased"), Meslier wrote, “Since it was necessary for men to have a God, why did they not have the sun, the visible God, adored by so many nations? What being had more right to the homage of mortals than the star of the day, which gives light and heat; which invigorates all beings; whose presence reanimates and rejuvenates nature; whose absence seems to plunge her into sadness and languor? If some being bestowed upon men power, activity, benevolence, strength, it was no doubt the sun, which should be recognized as the father of nature, as the soul of the world, as Divinity. At least one could not without folly dispute his existence, or refuse to recognize his influence and his benefits.”
That Jean Meslier was recognized as an atheist only after his death, and that he lived his life by all accounts as an unremarkable Catholic priest, prompted Wayne Jackson of the “Christian Courier” to dub Meslier a life-long hypocrite. Jackson complains that Meslier’s life was obscure and his “vicious” (posthumous) attacks on the Bible inconsequential.
After an anti-Catholic swipe at Meslier, who obviously wasn’t a “real” Christian, Jackson asks rhetorically, “what does it say about the character of atheism when the skeptics virtually ‘canonize’ a man whom they concede to be a life-long hypocrite, and who was able to express his true convictions only posthumously?” The same, presumably, could be said about Gregor Mendel, who passed as a priest in order to have the leisure to pursue his scientific interests – which made him (also posthumously) famous.
This criticism is at best insincere and at worst uninformed. Meslier was born under the reign of Louis XIV, the “Sun King,” and became a priest as a young teenager, a customary age in his time. But Meslier was only seven when Louis revoked the tolerance for French Protestants (Huguenots) enjoyed for the past 87 years under the Edict of Nantes. Although a priest of the majority religion, under the doctrine of cuius regio, eius religio (the religion of the ruler should be the religion of the realm), the persecution and forced conversion of Protestants that followed could not have escaped Meslier’s notice. The religious rift did not end until the 1787 Edict of Versailles, 54 years after Meslier’s death (and two years before the French Revolution).
Under such an intolerant regime, what would have been the fate of a man of conscience who was not only non-Catholic but atheist? It is never dangerous to profess agreement with the prevailing superstition (cf. Mendel). One might ask Jackson, rhetorically of course, how he might have behaved under Louis’s Edict of Fontainebleau. To most reasonable minds, under such conditions, Jean Meslier’s hypocrisy would be a survival skill!