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Atheist priest Jean Meslier an unsung hero of Enlightenment

Atheist priest Jean Meslier an unsung hero of Enlightenment October 15, 2021

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An 1802 portrait of French Enlightenment priest Jean Meslier, who admitted his atheism in a posthumous will. (Flickr, Public Domain)

French atheist priest Jean Meslier (1664-1729), who lived during the post-medieval Enlightenment, is reported to have said:

“If God himself was not able to render humans sinless, what right had He to punish men for not being sinless?”

If you forgive for a moment that he was clearly a man of his patriarchal time and seemed in this quote only to question God’s punishment of men but not also women, it’s still a very compelling idea. (I found the quote on Twitter’s Pink Heretic site.)

It zeroes in on the age-old criticism of God: that He is apparently helpless to end various causes of human suffering in the world, such as all forms of evil.

It might not matter, practically speaking, but the prescribed punishment for sin, as laid out in the Bible and now in Western law particularly, is not only in some cases death by execution in this life — for capital murder, say — but also loss of immortal bliss in the supposed next one.

So, sin matters in the minds of people for whom it matters, of course, but also for people for whom it doesn’t yet who still get caught up, millennia after Jesus, in its sometimes lethal and always punishing legal ramifications.

This begs the question: Why would a supposedly omnipotent and omnibenevolent deity be OK with such broad suffering and unhappiness in the world and do nothing about it when one would think He could banish it all with a snap of His invisible fingers? “Free will” seems a limp answer.

I’ve blogged extensively on this topic, including this post in June, “Epicurus was right. ‘God’ is impotent or evil,” because I believe this one rational flaw renders all supernatural faiths untenable. Nonetheless the faithful work hard to convince us all that, well, you know, who can really know God or understand His perfect reasoning even if it seems decidedly imperfect?

Although little studied today, Meslier was a pioneer of atheist thinking. His last will and testament, not publicly released until after his death, shocked his parishoners. It seemed written by a man wholly different from the kindly, dutiful priest they had long known. According to the website historytoday.com:

“(Meslier) was a modest rural priest in Etrépigny in the Ardennes, who had always been devoted to his parishioners. Yet, when he died in 1729, he claimed unexpectedly to be an atheist in a will more than 1,000 pages long, which appeared to be a negation of the religion he had spent his life preaching. Meslier’s atheistic convictions had not impeded his civic duties. The discreet priest had always behaved honourably. In writing his will, however, he left a poisoned legacy for his parishioners.”

To atheists today, however, it’s sweet and benign.

Meslier wasn’t a coward who waited until he had departed this life to throw shade on its practitioners of injustice and irrationality.

Historytoday notes that he was once “remonstrated by his archbishop” for delivering a sermon in which he “accused the local lord of robbing the poor” and called for “the hanging and strangulation of all the nobles with priests’ entrails.”

Those would have been dangerous words in Meslier’s day — for Meslier. And that’s putting it mildly.

“Meslier’s work, which described religion as trickery, was inescapably dangerous,” wrote historytoday.com. “He wrote that the Gospels were fables, Jesus Christ a fanatical lunatic, the Holy Trinity meaningless, the Eucharist only a bakery farce and the Old Testament nothing more than a compilation of pagan customs. He argued that God, by relieving neither misery nor suffering, could not exist.”

To explain the utter intolerance of the Church for dissent in Meslier’s day, the website notes that a 19-year-old French nobleman, Chevalier de la Barre, “was executed by decapitation for refusing to remove his hat in front of a religious procession in 1766.”

Meslier radicalism was far more substantive than mere youthful indiscretion, his will revealed, and far more threatening to the ecclesiastical establishment. According to historytoday.com:

“Even more serious was his claim that matter existed by itself without the intervention of any creator and that neither God nor any other supreme being was behind the creation of the universe. He asserted that the soul was not immortal and would be extinguished at the time of death.

“Demonstrating the greatest compassion for the people, Meslier proclaimed, 60 years before the French Revolution, that kings and religion were the root cause of their suffering and that their liberation required the fall of altars and the heads of kings. Aware that he was not a theorist, Meslier called on intellectuals to tackle this subject and to stand up for the causes of justice and truth.”

This is what responsible free-thinking looks like in the cauldron of religious intolerance.

To give you a sense of how radical Melier’s ideas were in his time, consider that legendary French philosopher Voltaire, who obtained a copy of his will, waited 25 years to publish only some of it in very abridged, sanitized form. He apparently was following his own advise, shown in this quote:

Everything you say should be true, but not everything true should be said.

And Voltaire was famous for his perversity and utter disregard for intellectual fashion and dogma. But he also well understood the power of hierarchy against common folks, once writing:

It is dangerous to be right in matters where established men are wrong.

And Meslier was right while the Catholic establishment of his day — as now — were manifestly wrong. But religion, as always, is not fact- but bias-based.

Note that faith yet thrives, as always, as does sin.


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