You’ve probably heard the aphorism about freedom coming only when the last priest’s entrails are used to strangle the last king. If you’re particularly familiar with it, you might think that it was written by a French Enlightenment-era philosopher named Denis Diderot. You’d be wrong, but it’s far from the only time that history has failed to properly record the contributions of its real author, which in this instance was a 17th century Catholic priest named Jean Meslier who is perhaps the most overlooked and misunderstood intellectual figure in modern history.
Meslier is barely a footnote to that history today, but he deserves better than that. As British journalist Colin Brewer wrote in a 2007 article in the New Humanist, “Meslier was arguably the first to put his name to an incontrovertibly atheist document.” What makes that document even more interesting, and the cultural obscurity of its author all the more confounding, is the fact that Meslier spent most of his life serving as a Catholic priest.
Meslier was born in Mazerny, France, a small village in the Ardennes region of the country, in 1664. He joined the seminary as a young man, and on January 7, 1689, he became the priest at Étrépigny, in nearby Champagne. Except for a running dispute with a local nobleman that lived in his parish over the treatment of the poor, Meslier lived the same life of worship, public service and penury as other Catholic priests of his era. But there was one crucial difference between Meslier and other men of God: he spent the last ten years of his life producing a 633-page treatise against organized religion. “All the laws and orders that are issued in the name and authority of God or the gods are really only human inventions,” he wrote, “invented by shrewd and crafty politicians, afterward cultivated and multiplied by the false seducers and charlatans, then accepted blindly by the ignorant, and finally supported and authorized by the laws of the princes and rulers of the earth who used these human inventions to keep a tight rein on the community of men and do with them what they wanted.” Even the eternally caustic Christopher Hitchens would struggle to do better than that.
Meslier was well aware of the conflict between his private views on religion and his public duties. “I have had the displeasure of seeing myself in this annoying obligation of acting and speaking entirely against my own sentiments,” he wrote. “I have had the displeasure of keeping you in the stupid errors, the vain superstitions, and the idolatries that I hated, condemned, and detested to the core.” But, as he noted in his testament, the Church had recourse to the pyre, and he didn’t particularly feel like dying for his beliefs. Instead, he transcribed three copies of his testament and left them by his death bed, where they quickly made their way into what Brewer describes as “the lively world of illicit reproductions.”
His testament eventually found its way into other hands, and many of the ideas contained within it were borrowed – some have said plagiarized – by Voltaire some fifty years later in his own writings on the subject. Yet today, aside from the work of French scholar Michel Onfray, who wrote about Meslier in his 2007 book In Defence of Atheism, Meslier’s life remains a mystery to most of us. This is perplexing. By virtue of its ironic value alone, the story of a Catholic priest who made a convincing case against faith ought to be more widely told. But what makes Meslier’s anonymity most confounding is the fact that he is precisely what is missing from the stories that have been told by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and other prominent atheist authors in recent years: a hero.
I went in search of that hero, or at least some trace of his existence, this past summer. I suppose if I were a Christian or a Muslim or a member of another monotheistic faith I’d describe my trip as a pilgrimage. It was, after all, sufficiently excessive (and obsessive) to qualify as one, given that I had voluntarily left Paris – in June, no less – so that I could spend five hours navigating the treacherous French autoroutes on my way into the Ardennes in order to pay a visit to Mazerny, a village that had once been the home of a man I’d only read about.
My ambitions for the trip were modest. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to find Meslier’s grave, since he was buried in an unmarked plot on the property of descendents of a nobleman that he had quarreled with repeatedly during the course of his life – more irony – and I knew better than to expect any grand monuments to his existence in the town itself. But I had expected to at least find some trace of his existence, some thread to pull on. I was wrong. There was no Musee de Jean Meslier, no Rue Jean Meslier, and no mention of his existence on or near the town’s only church. This struck me as more than just an historical oversight. But even if his heresy had offended the town’s religious sensibilities, and they had decided to deliberately ignore his existence, it still didn’t add up. In a town with 78 official residents according to the most recent French census and a local economy that depended entirely on what the surrounding fields could provide, how could they afford to ignore him?
They weren’t ignoring me, though. Children stared from the second floor windows of their two-story brick houses, while the adults working in their gardens or trying to fix some thing or another in their garages looked up and monitored my rented Peugeot’s slow progress past their property. It was no wonder, given that it had probably been a long time since the people of Mazerny had seen a tourist in their town, much less one that wasn’t there in search of a restroom. I thought about trying to explain what I was there for but my French wasn’t nearly good enough to communicate my interest in the atheist who had lived in their village three centuries ago. After making three complete loops of the town and with dusk already on the horizon, I decided that it was time to look somewhere else for some clues.
I retreated to the commune of Poix-Terron, a town of a few hundred residents a few kilometers north that felt like New York City by comparison. I also needed to eat something, so I stopped in at what appeared to be the only restaurant on the town’s main drag, a family tavern that curiously advertised the fact that it sold pizza. Here, at least, I was more welcome, and the kindness of the family that ran the joint was sufficiently heartening and friendly that I decided to abuse them with my defective French. Had they heard of Jean Meslier, I asked? Did they know anything of this atheist priest that had lived just a few kilometres up the road from them? They huddled in order to translate both the meaning and intent of my unusual request. Eventually, the woman who ran the place came back to me with their answer. “Non,” she said. “Jamais.”
Meslier hasn’t always been invisible. In the early 20th century his legacy was conscripted by the Soviets, who saw it as a useful counterpoint to organized religion. They engraved his name on an obelisk that was erected in Moscow’s Red Square in 1919 along with other leading communist thinkers like Lenin, Engels, Charles Fourier and Jean Jaures, and treated him, for a time, as a significant philosopher. But they stopped talking about Meslier when it became clear that his could just as easily be seen as a role model for insurrectionary behaviour and anti-establishment thinking, values that conflicted with the unthinking servitude that the Soviet leadership demanded of its people. The obelisk was quietly moved to the Alexandrovsky Gardens, near the Middle Arsenal Tower of the Kremlin, in 1967 to make way for a timelier piece of propaganda, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
If his value to communist propagandists was obvious, his appeal to contemporary atheists ought to be even more so. Yet somehow, in spite of all the ink that’s been spilled in recent years on the subject, today’s atheists have all but ignored Jean Meslier. Colin Brewer, a British writer and dramatist who played Meslier in 2007’s The Last Priest, noted in a 2007 article that Meslier was even absent from two high-profile television documentaries on atheism, one of which was produced by Richard Dawkins. Brewer thinks this has a great deal to do with the fact that his work was both poorly circulated and widely borrowed against by atheist intellectuals who followed Meslier. There is Voltaire’s famous “Extract,” which Brewer says inaccurately described Meslier as “a fellow-deist and entirely suppressed Meslier’s anti-monarchist, proto-communist opinions.” Meanwhile, the definitive, annotated French edition of his testament did not appear until 1970, and until the 2009 publication of Michael Shreve’s Testament: Memoir of the Thoughts and Sentiments of Jean Meslier only fragmentary English translations could be found. Shreve’s translation, meanwhile, is ranked number 355,280 on Amazon’s best-sellers list. By way of comparison, Richard Dawkins’s “The God Delusion” checks in at number 700.
I had assumed that Meslier’s invisibility was an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon, and that in France I would find a more receptive environment for his message. Sure, I hadn’t found any pamphlets at Charles De Gaulle about Mazerny and Meslier, and there were no signs on the highway near the town indicating that a point of historical interest was nearby. But I had assumed that I would have been able to find some trace of his influence, some thread to tug on. How could somebody who ought to be so important remain so consistently invisible?
I spent most of the three-plus hour drive back towards Paris that same day – well, that evening – preoccupied with trying to resist the temptation to just close my eyes for a few seconds and keep my little Peugeot between the yellow lines. But in those moments where I wasn’t fighting to stay awake, I was trying to figure out what had just taken place in Mazerny. Okay, I thought, a small, rural French village probably isn’t the most appropriate environment for a shrine to an atheist apostate, but shouldn’t there have been something? Surely, some enterprising local resident would have realized that there was considerable monetary potential in branding the town as the home of Europe’s most outspoken atheist? But maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t a case of their ignoring him. Maybe they just didn’t need to remember. Life in Mazerny may not have been what I would want, but it was a pleasant, civilized town, in an undeniably beautiful part of the world. Maybe that was enough.
Contemporary atheist thinkers have no such excuse. Almost by the day, it seems, another unfathomably foul-smelling layer of the onion that is organized religion gets peeled back, and for all the notoriety that writers like Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins have earned with their atheist treatises, the project to which they’re dedicated hasn’t made any detectable progress. In this environment, the story of a 17th century Catholic priest who quarreled with the church, stuck up for those being abused by the rich and powerful and eventually committed his ideas about the failure of religion and the promise of atheism to writing ought to be tremendously attractive.
So, too, should the testimony that this most unusual priest left behind, one that is at once more convincing and more inspirational than anything written on the subject in recent years. Meslier’s testimony aims at something greater than merely rejecting religion or describing its faults, the subjects to which today’s atheist writers seem to restrict themselves. Instead, it is a declaration of the moral and ethical virtues of a Godless existence: an atheist manifesto, in the best sense of the term. As Meslier wrote in his testament, “It has been long enough that the poor people have been so miserably abused by all kinds of idolatries and superstitions. It has been long enough that the rich and the rulers of the death have pillaged and oppressed the poor. It is time to deliver them from their miserable slavery. It is time to open their eyes everywhere and make them know the truth of things.”
There are some curious similarities between the approach taken by people like Dawkins and Hitchens and that of the Soviets a few generations back. It was the Soviets, after all, who set up museums of atheism in old eastern orthodox churches in an effort to undermine organized religion, and it’s clear that today’s secular spokespeople would do the same if they could get away with it. While the aims of today’s atheists are both more moderate and more moderating than those of their Soviet predecessors, they share the same basic conceit in thinking that if they accumulated enough evidence of organized religion’s misdeeds the faithful would eventually awaken and realize the error of their ways. But nobody will exchange something for nothing, even if that something is demonstrably flawed.
That’s where Jean Meslier ought to come in. For all the good work that professional atheists have done in highlighting the flaws of organized religion, they have done almost nothing to present an affirmative case for atheism. According to Michel Onfray, a French scholar who has worked diligently to revive Meslier’s legacy, he didn’t write his manifesto in the hopes of destroying Christianity but instead of replacing it. “Atheism does not constitute an end in itself but a beginning, a necessary base, an ethical foundation. Meslier negates the principle of God in order to arrive at a caring morality of a joyful body, of happy existence, of peaceful relations between beings and between sexes.”
Atheists, of course, are no more a monolith than any other cultural or religious group, but they do share some common beliefs. They respect the rights of individuals, freedom of thought and inquiry, the equality of all people, and an appreciation of natural and man-made wonders. Atheists don’t discriminate, they don’t withhold rights from particular groups, they don’t fear scientific progress and the frequently baffling explanations of the world it provides, they don’t wish for the end of the world, and they don’t insist upon imposing feelings of guilt and failure onto the thoughts and actions of others. Perhaps most importantly, atheists are engaged in the one life that they’re given rather than simply enduring it in anticipation of something better to come.
Meslier articulated all of this in his manifesto almost 300 years ago. His philosophy of “social hedonism,” Michel Onfray writes, “proposes the happiness of all and of each individual. Not an ideal happiness, but a real one, concrete, pragmatic: to work, by which people can eat healthfully and sufficiently all the time, live and sleep in a decent and heated house, be nourished, be clothed, have the means to educate their children, and be cared for in illness.”
Most atheists would resist the term, but it’s tempting all the same to describe Meslier as a prophet. In the same way that Jesus Christ’s apostles articulated the values and beliefs that form the foundation of contemporary Christianity, so too does Meslier’s manifesto serve as a template for all atheist thought that has followed. And like Christ himself, Meslier serves as a role model for those who share his beliefs, his life an example of how to be good and decent in a world that often isn’t. The key difference, of course, was that Meslier was completely, and contentedly, of this world.
Maybe that’s why Meslier continues to languish in obscurity. Atheists aren’t prone to idolatry, after all, and the idea of placing someone at the spiritual forefront of the movement would be anathema to many of them. Still, maybe it’s time for them – for us – to take a different approach, given the pitiful returns of our efforts so far. In a world where atheism ought to be making significant cultural inroads, it is instead barely able to hold its own. The odds of an openly atheist candidate getting elected to the highest office in the land in North America are about the same as those of an openly gay communist with a penchant for flag burning. With that in mind, maybe it’s time we found somebody to worship, to lead by example, to serve as an archetype for everything that’s good and decent about the non-religious life. I can’t think of a better candidate than Jean Meslier.
Edmonton – November 9, 2011 – 2,782 words