Jean Meslier: The first atheist of Christendom.

March 10, 2014

Meslier The Islamic World in its early centuries seems to have been far less prone to the horrifying treatment of ‘heretics’ than its Christian counterpart in Europe.

Whilst the Abbasid Caliph al-Mahdi and his successor al-Hadi did initiate violent oppression of anyone even suspected of atheism, the ferocity by which this policy was pursued dwindled significantly by the reign of Harun al-Rashid at the beginning of the 9th Century. It briefly returned in the form of The Miḥnah (an inquisition) for around fifteen years until 851, when the hideous policy was completely reversed by al-Mutawakkil.

At this time, we see a number of culturally Islamic freethinkers enter the frame, newly freed from the shackles of religious oppression. Muhammad al Warraq was a wonderful early critic of Islam – leading the criticism of the idea of a God in general, and later, criticising the notion of ‘Prophets’ including Muhammad. Al Warraq openly and publicly derided God as a ‘fool’ and followers as ‘slaves’. Had that occurred in 9th Century Europe, Al Warraq would almost certainly have faced severe punishment before a violent and hellish death. Al Warraq also produced the longest attack on the Christian trinity doctrine that still survives today. The criticism influenced not only future Atheist criticisms of Christian theology, but also Islamic criticisms of Christian theology.

A student of Al Warraq, Ibn Al-Rawāndī abandoned his earlier attachment to Shia Islam for a life of free thinking in the late 9th Century. Similarly, the spectacular polymath, and unrivaled medical science pioneer Abū Bakr Al-Rāzī criticised the need for ‘Prophets’. Al-Rāzī was one of the first to note and criticise the often violent response to perceived religious ‘insult’ and the oppression of ideas deemed blasphemous:

“If the people of this religion are asked about the proof for the soundness of their religion, they flare up, get angry and spill the blood of whoever confronts them with this question. They forbid rational speculation, and strive to kill their adversaries. This is why truth became thoroughly silenced and concealed.”

– Al-Rāzī then goes one step further, and denounces a bizarre Islamic tradition still preached in the 21st Century:

“You claim that the evidentiary miracle is present and available, namely, the Koran. You say: “Whoever denies it, let him produce a similar one.” Indeed, we shall produce a thousand similar, from the works of rhetoricians, eloquent speakers and valiant poets, which are more appropriately phrased and state the issues more succinctly. They convey the meaning better and their rhymed prose is in better meter. By God what you say astonishes us! You are talking about a work which recounts ancient myths, and which at the same time is full of contradictions and does not contain any useful information or explanation. Then you say: “Produce something like it”‽

– Today, Al-Rāzī would almost certainly be condemned as some sort of awful Islamophobe. Had his similar polemic tone been aimed publicly at Christianity throughout the Middle Ages, it would have almost definitely been viciously oppressed. Indeed, even theological positions contrary to the dictates of Roman Catholic dogma – or more precisely, theological reasoning perceived as a threat to Roman Catholic authority – more often than not resulted in violent suppression.

So, whilst the Islamic world of the mid to late 9th Century and early 10th Century (and into the 11th century, with the wonderful Syrian freethinker Al-Ma’arri, whom I wrote on here) produced some wonderful critics of faith, and of Islamic dogma, the Christian world was keeping a firm grip on anyone suspected of any form of heretical views for centuries to come. We get a sense of just how dangerous it was to question the legitimacy of Christian dogma, from a spectacular book left in northern France in the 18th Century by Jean Meslier.

Meslier was born in the Ardennes in 1664. He lived poor, and led a quiet life in the tiny village of Étrépigny, fulfilling his Holy duties without controversy. That all changed within days of his death, in 1729. When his house was being cleared, a 630+ page manuscript was found written by Meslier, in which he denounces all religion, attacks the doctrines of the Christian faith foreshadowing the writings of Paine, Ingersoll and Hitchens, and becomes the first known person in Christian history to espouse Atheism and the morality of non-belief.

The ‘Testament of Jean Meslier’ is an extraordinary work and almost impossible to comment on in such a brief blog entry. Indeed, each paragraph could, and should receive a vast commentary worthy of the points it raises, and the importance of its place at that specific time in history. The entire ‘Testament’ can be seen here. It is a pioneering work of rational brilliance at the dawn of the enlightenment.

Meslier begins his book, with a masterfully vivid comparison of dictatorship, and the divine realm preached by the Abrahamic tradions:

“There is a vast empire governed by a monarch, whose conduct does but confound the minds of his subjects. He desires to be known, loved, respected, and obeyed, but he never shows himself; everything tends to make uncertain the notions which we are able to form about him. The people subjected to his power have only such ideas of the character and the laws of their invisible sovereign as his ministers give them; these suit, however, because they themselves have no idea of their master, for his ways are impenetrable, and his views and his qualities are totally incomprehensible.

He is supposed to be infinitely wise, and in his administration everything seems contrary to reason and good sense. They boast of his justice, and the best of his subjects are generally the least favored. We are assured that he sees everything, yet his presence remedies nothing. It is said that he is the friend of order, and everything in his universe is in a state of confusion and disorder; all is created by him, yet events rarely happen according to his projects. He foresees everything, but his foresight prevents nothing. He is impatient if any offend him; at the same time he puts everyone in the way of offending him. His knowledge is admired in the perfection of his works, but his works are full of imperfections, and of little permanence.

He is continually occupied in creating and destroying, then repairing what he has done, never appearing to be satisfied with his work. In all his enterprises he seeks but his own glory, but he does not succeed in being glorified. He works but for the good of his subjects, and most of them lack the necessities of life. Those whom he seems to favor, are generally those who are the least satisfied with their fate; we see them all continually revolting against a master whose greatness they admire, whose wisdom they extol, whose goodness they worship, and whose justice they fear, revering orders which they never follow. This empire is the world; its monarch is God; His ministers are the priests; their subjects are men.”

– From this, you can perhaps discern just why Meslier did not allow anyone to see the works whilst he was still alive.

Meslier then moves on to the vital importance of reason, and the falsifiability of theories:

“All religious principles are founded upon the idea of a God, but it is impossible for men to have true ideas of a being who does not act upon any one of their senses. All our ideas are but pictures of objects which strike us. What can the idea of God represent to us when it is evidently an idea without an object? Is not such an idea as impossible as an effect without a cause? An idea without a prototype, is it anything but a chimera?”

– For Meslier – as for those of us who hold similar principles true today – a theory that cannot be tested against the senses, is by definition nothing more than a chimera; an illusion. He summarises this in chapter 28:

“In truth, to adore God is to adore nothing but fictions of one’s own brain, or rather, it is to adore nothing.”

In chapter 76, Meslier goes after the supposed ‘goodness’ of God, by arguing that to create mankind as necessarily sinful, and to punish that sinful nature, must be condemned as violence:

“Man’s nature, it is said, must necessarily become corrupt. God could not endow him with sinlessness, which is an inalienable portion of Divine perfection. But if God could not render him sinless, why did He take the trouble of creating man, whose nature was to become corrupt, and which, consequently, had to offend God? On the other side, if God Himself was not able to render human nature sinless, what right had He to punish men for not being sinless? It is but by the right of might. But the right of the strongest is violence; and violence is not suited to the most Just of Beings. God would be supremely unjust if He punished men for not having a portion of the Divine perfections, or for not being able to be Gods like Himself.”

– This theme continues, a chapter later. In this, Meslier appears to be arguing a form of ‘Rights of Man’ later made famous by Paine. Perhaps influenced by the liberal writings of Locke – who was born just 30 years before Meslier – Meslier aims his argument at those who insist that we must not question God’s conduct toward mankind, by insisting that we are autonomous beings, capable of emotional response, and the importance of individual rights:

“We are told that the enormous distance which separates God from men, makes God’s conduct necessarily a mystery for us, and that we have no right to interrogate our Master. Is this statement satisfactory? But according to you, when my eternal happiness is involved, have I not the right to examine God’s own conduct? It is but with the hope of happiness that men submit to the empire of a God. A despot to whom men are subjected but through fear, a master whom they can not interrogate, a totally inaccessible sovereign, can not merit the homage of intelligent beings. If God’s conduct is a mystery to me, it is not made for me. Man can not adore, admire, respect, or imitate a conduct of which everything is impossible to conceive, or of which he can not form any but revolting ideas; unless it is pretended that he should worship all the things of which he is forced to be ignorant, and then all that he does not understand becomes admirable.”

– As well as possessing a Lockean quality, it also seems to draw on Descartes. Though Meslier is more conscious of shifting the ascertaining of truth from God, to individual humans, and makes it an issue of the supremacy of natural rights above divine authority. This foreshadows Jefferson’s complaints against King George III in the Declaration. For Jefferson, the King was inaccessible to the revolutionaries, they had no ability to ‘interrogate’ their ‘Master’. Meslier’s work here represents a paradigm shift in favour of the individual over the power of state that had been on the rise for the century prior to his death in 1729. For Meslier, natural rights are withheld by God, and so God is a ‘despot’.

Meslier’s scorn isn’t just poured upon the concept of a despotic God, but also upon the ‘morality’ of Jesus Christ:

“Shall we imitate, then, the Jesus of the Christians? Can this God, who died to appease the implacable fury of His Father, serve as an example which men ought to follow? Alas! we will see in Him but a God, or rather a fanatic, a misanthrope, who being plunged Himself into misery, and preaching to the wretched, advises them to be poor, to combat and extinguish nature, to hate pleasure, to seek sufferings, and to despise themselves; He tells them to leave father, mother, all the ties of life, in order to follow Him. What beautiful morality! you will say. It is admirable, no doubt; it must be Divine, because it is impracticable for men.

But does not this sublime morality tend to render virtue despicable? According to this boasted morality of the man-God of the Christians, His disciples in this lower world are, like Tantalus, tormented with burning thirst, which they are not permitted to quench. Do not such morals give us a wonderful idea of nature’s Author? If He has, as we are assured, created everything for the use of His creatures, by what strange caprice does He forbid the use of the good things which He has created for them? Is the pleasure which man constantly desires but a snare that God has maliciously laid in his path to entrap him?”

– This again plays upon the idea of God the despot. For Meslier, the God of Christianity is playing a wicked game with mankind. Like a child torturing an animal. The coming of Jesus offers no consolation, in fact he makes things worse. Jesus demands that his followers dissolve family ties, to hate everything our nature – created by God – tells us to love. Jesus’ apparent anti-family values is the direct cause of the psychological abuse practiced by Jehovah’s Witnesses with their policy of ‘disfellowshipping’. Meslier was right to point out the hideous nature of that particular moral teaching of Christ.

For some odd reason, Theists tend to argue their case for religion, by advocating the position that morality is dependent upon ‘God’. That, without anchoring right and wrong to a particular time and place in which a holy text was compiled, humanity is essentially free to do as we please. Today, we can point to the evolution of the human mind, its hardwiring for empathy and friendship, in connection with a constant shift of culture, society, expectation, and interaction, as a basis for how morality is defined and projected. Centuries ago, Meslier did not have that information, but he still managed to neatly address anchored religious morality, by hinting at a natural approach to the framing of human morality, centuries before modern evolutionary theories developed:

“The rules which govern men’s conduct spring from their own nature, which they are supposed to know, and not from the Divine nature, of which they have no conception; these rules compel us to render ourselves estimable or contemptible, amiable or hateful, worthy of reward or of punishments, happy or unhappy, according to the extent to which we observe them. The law that compels man not to harm himself, is inherent in the nature of a sensible being, who, no matter how he came into this world, or what can be his fate in another, is compelled by his very nature to seek his welfare and to shun evil, to love pleasure and to fear pain.

The law which compels a man not to harm others and to do good, is inherent in the nature of sensible beings living in society, who, by their nature, are compelled to despise those who do them no good, and to detest those who oppose their happiness. Whether there exists a God or not, whether this God has spoken or not, men’s moral duties will always be the same so long as they possess their own nature; that is to say, so long as they are sensible beings.”

– He goes on to espouse how morality is best served without God:

“Can an atheist have conscience? What are his motives for abstaining from secret vices and crimes of which other men are ignorant, and which are beyond the reach of laws? He can be assured by constant experience that there is no vice which, in the nature of things, does not bring its own punishment. If he wishes to preserve himself, he will avoid all those excesses which can be injurious to his health; he would not desire to live and linger, thus becoming a burden to himself and others.

In regard to secret crimes, he would avoid them through fear of being ashamed of himself, from whom he can not hide. If he has reason, he will know the price of the esteem that an honest man should have for himself. He will know, besides, that unexpected circumstances can unveil to the eyes of others the conduct which he feels interested in concealing. The other world gives no motive for doing well to him who finds no motive for it here.”

– This represents the first public pronouncement in Christendom, of the merits of atheist morality, over religious morality. The importance of this for the history of freethought, and the shift of mentality that the following century would produce, is evident. Indeed, it is Descartes taken one step further. Remember, Meslier was born in the same century that the last Tudor monarch died, and the counter-reformation came to a close. He was surrounded by Christianity and thought.

In chapter 169, Meslier eloquently recognises the mask of Christian ‘charity’ and the dogmatic and oppressive disclaimer that often comes with that promise of ‘charity’:

“When we reproach the theologians with the sterility of their religious virtues, they praise, with emphasis, charity, that tender love of our neighbor which Christianity makes an essential duty for its disciples. But, alas! what becomes of this pretended charity as soon as we examine the actions of the Lord’s ministers? Ask if you must love your neighbor if he is impious, heretical, and incredulous, that is to say, if he does not think as they do? Ask them if you must tolerate opinions contrary to those which they profess? Ask them if the Lord can show indulgence to those who are in error? Immediately their charity disappears, and the dominating clergy will tell you that the prince carries the sword but to sustain the interests of the Most High; they will tell you that for love of the neighbor, you must persecute, imprison, exile, or burn him. You will find tolerance among a few priests who are persecuted themselves, but who put aside Christian charity as soon as they have the power to persecute in their turn.”

– In one book, Meslier has taken on the absurdity of a theory that cannot be tested, he’s dismantled the concept of anchored religious morality, pronounced the virtues of atheist morality, denounced Jesus, and referred to the Christian God as a despotic ruler. And that is just a very brief selection of less than 10% of the chapters of Meslier’s masterful work.

‘Testament’, kept hidden for fear of persecution, was written by a man born 40+ years before Benjamin Franklin, born over 100 years before the American revolution enshrined the principles of secularism in its governing literature. His arguments form the very base of religious criticism in the 21st century and foreshadow Ingersoll in the 19th Century, Russell in the 20th and Hitchens in the 21st. ‘Testament’ predates Paine’s ‘Age of Reason’ by over half a century. No Christian writer before had issued such a polemic attack on church doctrine nor the concept of God in general. It is all the more profound and impressive a critique, when we remember that Jean Meslier spent 50 years, and died as a Catholic Priest.