Thursday, June 16, 2011

Anti-Religious Illiberalism of Revolutionary France

I wrote a few days ago that illiberalism was not an inevitable part of religion, nor was liberalism an inevitable part of secularism. By coincidence I just read a section from Norman Davies's Europe: A History that bears this out quite well.

Davies describes the French Revolution, when early constitutional reformers were replaced by waves of ever more radical revolutionaries. Within a few years the radicals were tearing apart Catholicism in France. A new calendar was developed without Sundays, priests and bishops were forced to swear allegiance to an anti-clerical constitution, Church property was nationalised and religious orders destroyed. Disobedient priests were executed or deported, and thousands of them fled France.

In some parts of France, religious peasants became ever more upset with the anti-religious turn of the new government. Gangs of 'urban republicans' blundered into rural areas to loot churches, while the state enacted conscription laws which forced Catholic peasants 'to die for an atheist Republic which they had never wanted in the first place'. A counter-revolution emerged in the Vendée to the west of France armed with 'scythes, pitchforks, and fowling-pieces'. The government's response was genocidal. A French general reported to the government in 1793:

The Vendée is no more... I have buried it in the woods and marshes of Savenay... According to your orders, I have trampled their children beneath our horses' feet; I have massacred their women, so they will no longer give birth to brigands. I do not have a single prisoner to reproach me. I have exterminated them all. The roads are sown with corpses. At Savenay, brigands are arriving all the time claiming to surrender, and we are shooting them non-stop... Mercy is not a revolutionary sentiment.

The French had difficulty in killing prisoners fast enough, so they jammed them onto a fleet of ships, which they sank at night, refloating them for the next cargo of doomed people the next day.

So one of the first staunchly secular governments in modern history was more barbaric and brutal than the religious state it replaced. This suggests again that a defence of liberalism is more important than an assault on religion.


  1. Your most recent posts seem to form around 'religion is bad but it is just another dogma that should judged by the same standards as any other dogma.' (Please correct me if I'm wrong)

    Fair enough., but take the Catholic Church. Has there been a more violent or corrupt or dogmatic regime since it was formed? In my opinion, no. Organised religion is the greatest curse to hit humanity since (and before) the bubonic plague. Organised religion is devastating, but even worse, faith is now stronger than ever. Ignorance of our reality is a terrible disease.

    Shame on humanity and shame on those who defend religion and its worthless and make-believe promises!!!

    I'll put it this way, Irish primary school children know the story of Zacchaeus but don't know who Stephen Hawking is. And who's the more important person in reality? Well at least we know Hawking exists!

    God is a make believe figure, made in the image of man (not the other way round). If the French went illiberal against 'it', they were as justified as any country would be in going to war against say, the 'Milk Bar Kid'.

    Excuse my language, but **** God and his/her and its followers!

    Religion is a cruel disease.

  2. Well actually the point is simpler than that. As I said in the previous post, not all religions were illiberal, not all non-religious systems were liberal. So why bother fighting religion at all? One could finish destroying religion and end up being sent to the ovens by fascists or communists.

    On the wider topic, I've seen anti-religious people talk about religion as if it only inhibits the natural development of science and liberalism. This is an odd thought. Supposing back in prehistoric times some hunter gatherers stopped believing in gods and ghosts. What WOULD they believe? Science? Of course not, it took thousands of years for scientific ideas to develop and when they finally did it was to Christian Europeans.

    I read once about a rare South American tribe called Pirahã who had no concept of God. In discussion forums this tribe was saluted by atheists as a great example because they believed nothing they couldn't see. But I thought it was a pretty bad example. These people had no concept of HISTORY at all, they remembered nothing about their ancestors. No creation myth existed because they didn't think about the past or anything they couldn't immediately see. Needless to say they were deeply conservative, and extremely low-tech. With no past there was no ability to learn from mistakes, no accumulated knowledge, no way to develop economically or technologically. (One might argue that this is an unfair view since they seem happy with such low-tech life. But it means that they will always be vulnerable to disease, predation and famine in ways we are not.) In that case I wondered if disinterest in gods and spirits simply indicated an ability to think in abstract terms and a lack of curiosity. If so, I would expect that only religious societies - those ancient cultures willing to ponder the unseen workings of the world - could develop high technology.

    Then I stumbled across this excellent review of Sam Harris's latest book:

    It's long, but well worth the read. Scott Atran has similiar concerns with Harris's dismissive atheism to my own. He points out that the rationality Harris celebrates "in fact bubbled up from the primordial ooze of the sacred" - emerged from religion. The progressive movements of the 19th century to end slavery in the US were dominated by Christians (Quakers were particularly active), and justified in religious terms.

    Atran goes further to argue that the whole idea of a single humanity came from Christianity and Islam via the union of "Hebrew tribal belief in one God with Greek faith in universal laws applicable to the whole of creation". Without religion there would have been no humanism.

    Religion was probably even necessary for the development of large communities (like countries and cities):

    "Yet its creative role in getting us out of the caves and begetting civilization is evident (archaeological research by the University of Michigan’s Joyce Marcus and others shows growing ritual complexity predicting the formation of increasingly larger and more complexly organized societies).... In the Encyclopedia of Wars, Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod surveyed nearly one thousand eight hundred violent conflicts throughout history, and less than 10 percent were religious."

    If religion was a necessary step to the development of science and humanism, one might argue if it is now no longer relevant. But to denounce its entire history is incorrect. Without ancient religions we would still be roaming the forests as hunter gatherers.

  3. As for the Catholic Church, well it certainly has a bizarre and brutal history. Even here, though, I think there's an element of double standards at play in modern discussions. Much is made of the Catholic destruction of indigenous religions in the Americas. That sucks, yet look at what they replaced in cannibalistic Aztec religion, for example, or the mass-human sacrifices of the Mayans. Human sacrifice was ended by the spread of Christianity across Europe too.

    Also, I wonder what life would have been like without religion in the medieval period. People had no idea how nature worked, so they would either have simply stopped bothering to think about it or invented theories of their own. These, in the absence of the scientific tradition, would probably have created new religions. With no fixed borders, no concept of a common humanity and a constant terror of invasion, war would have been extremely prevalent. In attempts to prevent rebellion, governments would probably have created official ideologies based on the new religions. So repression would probably happen anyway.

    All in all I just think a more subtle approach is necessary.

  4. David, yours is a pretty sorry life if you believe that God is make believe and "created" in the image of man. you would not exist without God, and you will not continue to exist if you carry on believing that He doesn't


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