Jean Meslier’s Secret War

     Voltaire, like Jefferson, was a man of mixed parts, hardly less interested in science than literature, history, and the social and political events of his day. Also like Jefferson, he was deist, one who could be disturbingly deferential to nobility and authority, but who courageously campaigned against the horrid injustice done by the Church-State coalition to the Calas family, and who led the philosophes’ war with the Church. Still, in the way of old men softening with age (perhaps fearing to rage against the darkness any longer), he sought Communion at the end of a long life and died in the Church. In the course of his conversion, he drew a cartoon of Jean Meslier which was mendacious and contemptible.

     The cartoon was all the more reprehensible because it was not a mere critique of Meslier (1664-1729), but rather an abduction of his very identity. He took Meslier’s posthumously published Testament, and printed a twisted, corrupted, hideously redacted version of the atheist priest’s explosive manuscript, dressing him up, as a modern Meslier defender states, “in a cassock and a clown suit,” and turning him into a deist.

     Meslier was a practicing priest, deeply compassionate toward his believing and oppressed flock, hardly able to contain in secrecy his vitriol and literally unspeakable apostasy in the practice of his vocation. It is his hidden life, his hidden thoughts that fascinate me as much as the virulence of his diatribes. His conflict between public role and private thought must have been excruciating. He acknowledges that to expose himself would destroy his parents, but also that the Church could not find “tortures cruel enough” to punish him for his radical non-belief and his amazing indictment of religion itself. Thus Meslier leaves his Testament as his posthumous, single-handed declaration of war on the suffocating oppression of religion, the exploitation of the credulous poor by the pampered priest-class, and the sheer absurdity of theism in all its guises.

     In multi-layered but often tedious and repetitious prose, he builds a double-barreled argument that no God, whether in the form of an anthropomorphic being or an abstract creator, exists; and second that religion colludes with the state to exploit the credulity of the peasants in order to oppress them, extort them, and tyrannize them. As Meslier says, “all religions are nothing but errors, illusion, and imposture.” In particular, his outrage emanates from his compassion for the people who are exploited by religious authority in a devil’s pact with the state—a pact in which all of the articles conspire for the benefit and protection of the signatories’ power, wealth, ease, and aggrandizement. He rages against this cruel exploitation, all the more cruel because the Church makes its parishioners complicit in their own oppression by fostering and then using their belief for its own ends. It is in this sense that religion is an “imposture,” and its leadership charlatans, con men—and no less so simply because some of them are taken in by their own con. It is, for Meslier, a cruel, life-ebbing criminality cloaked in the fine garments of soaring rhetoric and Godly compassion. Believe and accept (so the priest-nobility alliance says) this unfair imbalance of wealth and poverty in this life—and equally important, propagate it—and you will be rewarded in a deferred life that we have painted as a paradise. But protest this odious imbalance, this exploitation, and condemn it, and further proclaim to others their exploitation, and not only will we damn you to an eternity of torture, we will not even wait for that eternity to begin. Rather we will torture and painfully execute you here, in this life, partly from our own sadism, but mostly to protect our own hegemony from the dangerous sparks of disillusionment and the right to think.

     Thus speaks, if not in these words, a righteous man. After thousands of handwritten pages scribbled in secrecy, Meslier concludes his Testament with: “It is the force of truth that makes me say this, and it is the hatred of injustice, lies, deception, tyranny and all the other iniquities that make me speak in this way because I really hate and detest all injustice and iniquity. . . . I am hardly more than nothing and soon I will be nothing.” The outrage is palpable; and the human compassion which is its source is profound and incorruptible. And one should not ignore the existential bravery required: not only does he reject an inherited belief structure that suffuses his world and all his training and upbringing, he rejects the illusory comfort of an eternal life and accepts his coming extinction. Like Hume, when the void nears, he does not retreat into the illusion.

     For his time, Meslier, I believe, is correct in his indictment of the extortionate Church he knew regarding its exploitation of the people. And yet we do not have a full picture unless we also acknowledge the undeniable comfort provided those whose lives are an almost endless trial. The belief is probably illusory, but the comfort is not. The European Church of Meslier’s day earned its repellent reputation. Today, except where fundamentalism rules, religion often has a more benign face, and its anodyne value may exceed its vices. Thus the dilemma for non-believers: Can one embrace what he perceives to be an illusion because he also sees the comfort and consolation the illusion provides? At least the best of religion despises the fear, the superstition, the doctrinal exclusivity, and the obscurantism of most religion and stresses above all else kindness, compassion, and love. When the Dalai Lama says “my religion is simple: my religion is kindness,” he removes God and all the resulting dogma that so encumber faith and places humanity and humaneness for all sentient things at its center. But even in religions where God remains the center, the illusion can provide genuine comfort. If the illusion can inculcate an active kindness—as communities of faith often do during crisis, and as I have seen—then it is not without value. Where the message eschews dogma, and instead promotes the universal value of active humaneness, that is where religion’s potential for goodness resides.

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