Jean Meslier, the atheist priest of the Enlightenment: Reading time approximately 2 minutes
In 1678, the French fourteen-year-old, Jean Meslier, began to study Latin. He became a Catholic priest by the time he was twenty-five. He died in 1729, at the age of sixty-five, a little-known and humble clergyman. It was the writings that were discovered after his death that would distinguish him as an important pioneer of the French Enlightenment.
After Meslier died, someone found copies of a six-hundred-page manuscript that he had written denouncing organized religion. In his writing, Meslier rejected God, primarily due to the evil in the world that created unnecessary suffering—suffering that a caring God could have prevented. He also rejected materialism, and strongly advocated for social justice. At the time he lived, because of a theocratic government in France, if his manuscripts were made public, Meslier would have faced the death penalty. That’s the reason he and those who found the writings had to keep them absolutely secret.
Meslier created the first compete text that supported atheism, at least since the Christianity era began. He believed the Gospels were fables, the Old Testament belonged to antiquity, and the Eucharist, or communion feast, only improved the lives of the bakers who made the bread and wafers.
Jean Meslier was not a brilliant thinker, basing his opinions on what he experienced and read. To him, there was no compelling proof of God’s existence. He wrote, “If God is incomprehensible to man, it would seem rational never to think of Him at all”. As far as Christianity, he thought the religion may have begun with good intentions but was later corrupted beyond repair. He concluded that those in power invented religions in order to keep people subservient and accepting of their suffering.
Voltaire picks up the baton
The French philosopher, Voltaire, published an abridged version of Meslier’s book in 1761. That was an extremely risky act on his part. Since Voltaire toned-down and somewhat distorted his version, the public didn’t greet it with much enthusiasm. No one published the full text until 1864, entitled: Testament: Memoir of the Thoughts and Sentiments of Jean Meslier.
Legacy of the Enlightenment
Today, people remember Jean Meslier as one of the sparks that helped ignite the Enlightenment, that great experiment in humanism. It sprang from the optimistic belief that human efforts could make the world a better place in which to live.
Due to the work of those seventeenth- and eighteenth-century humanists, torture and slavery were abolished, women gained greater equality with men, and governments began to separate religion from politics. Enlightened societies granted more freedom and rights to citizens, passed laws protecting children and animals, and even began advocating for the protection of the Earth’s environment.