But how had all this come about? Why had so many philosophers, especially in France, turned against Christianity, which, after all, had mingled hope with its terrors, charity with its crimes, beauty with its sins?
In England the revolt, as expressed by the deists, had met with a relatively tolerant hearing, even from the Established Church; and perhaps for that reason the fire of revolt had died down. Moreover, the Church in England was subject to the state, and no longer made any active pretense to be a rival independent power. But in France the Church was a powerful organization owning a large share of the national wealth and soil, and yet bound by supreme allegiance to a foreign power. It seemed to be draining more wealth from secular into ecclesiastical hands through its role in the making of wills and the guidance of bequests; it refused to pay taxes beyond its occasional “gratuitous gift”; it held thousands of peasants in practical serfdom on its lands; it maintained monks in what seemed to be fruitless idleness. It had repeatedly profited from false documents and bogus miracles. It controlled nearly all schools and universities, through which it inoculated the minds of the young with stupefying absurdities. It denounced as heresy any teaching contrary to its own, and used the state to enforce its censorship over speech and press. It had done its best to choke the intellectual development of France. It had urged Louis XIV into the inhuman persecution of the Huguenots, and the heartless destruction of Port-Royal. It had been guilty of barbarous campaigns against the Albigenses, and of sanctioning massacres like that of St. Bartholomew’s Day; it had fomented religious wars that had almost ruined France. And amid all these crimes against the human spirit it had pretended, and had made millions of simple people believe, that it was above and beyond reason and questioning, that it had inherited a divine revelation, that it was the infallible and divinely inspired vicegerent of God, and that its crimes were as much the will of God as were its charities.
The Church offered many answers to this indictment; we shall hear them in due course. Meanwhile these proliferating charges moved thousands of minds to resentment and protest, and finally to an impassioned hostility. Skeptics multiplied to the point where they ceased to fear the clergy, and openly harassed them with difficult questions. When, about 1730, Father Tournemine, at the Collège Louis-le-Grand, invited unbelievers to meet him, “his room,” we are told, “was soon filled with freethinkers, deists, materialists; he converted hardly any.”6 The clergy were appalled at the number of Frenchmen and Frenchwomen who died rejecting the sacraments of the Church. Mme. de Prie threatened to have her servants throw through the window the curé who importuned her to accept extreme unction.7 A priest complained that “the moment we appear we are forced into discussion. We are called upon to prove, for example, the utility of prayer to a man who does not believe in God, and the necessity of fasting to a man who has all his life denied the immortality of the soul. The effort is very irksome, while those who laugh are not on our side.”8
Barbier remarked in 1751, “We may see in this country a revolution in favor of Protestantism.”9 He was mistaken. The expulsion of the Huguenots had left no halfway house between Catholicism and unbelief. French liberal thought skipped the Reformation, and went at one leap from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment. So in France it was not to the Jansenists or to the few surviving Protestants that the French mind turned in its rebellion; it was to Montaigne, Descartes, Gassendi, Bayle, and Montesquieu. When the French freethinkers went back to Descartes they rejected nearly all of him but his “methodic doubt” and his mechanistic interpretation of the objective world. Bayle was honored as the subtlest of reasoners, whose doubts had generated a thousand doubts more; hisDictionnaire was an inexhaustible armory for the enemies of the Church.
The example of England was an emboldening inspiration to the freethinkers of France. First, Francis Bacon, whose call to inductive science seemed to promise so much more fruit than Descartes’ magical deduction of God and immortality from the existence of Descartes. Then Hobbes, whose blunt materialism never ceased to agitate Diderot. Then Newton, who seemed to have reduced God to a button-presser in the world machine; the French did not yet know that Newton was more prolific in theology than in science. Then the English deists, who had given courage and impetus to Voltaire. And finally Locke, for the French skeptics thought that all religion collapsed before the proposition that all ideas are derived from sensation. If sensation is a product of external forces, mind is a product of experience, not a deathless gift of an invisible God. And if experience creates character, character can be changed by altering educational methods and content, and reforming social institutions. From these two propositions men like Diderot, Helvétius, and d’Holbach drew revolutionary conclusions. “Can there be anything more splendid,” asked Voltaire, with Locke in mind, “than to put the whole world into commotion by a few arguments?”10 (Voltaire died before 1789.)
Hear again the alert Marquis d’Argenson, writing in 1753:
It would be a mistake to attribute the loss of religion in France to the English philosophy, which has not gained more than a hundred philosophes or so in Paris, instead of setting it down to the hatred against the priests, which goes to the very last extreme.
And he added, after that prediction of revolution which we have already quoted:
It [the revolution] will be a very different thing from the rude Reformation—a medley of superstition and freedom that came to us from Germany in the sixteenth century. As our nation and our century are enlightened in so very different a fashion, they will go whither they ought to go: they will expel the priests, abolish the priesthood, and get rid of all revelation and all mystery. …
One may not speak in behalf of the clergy in social circles; one is scoffed at and regarded as a “familiar” [spy] of the Inquisition. …
The priests remark that this year there is a diminution of more than one third in the number of communicants. The college of the Jesuits is being deserted; 120 boarders have been withdrawn from these so greatly defamed monks.11
There were other intellectual influences that weakened the medieval creed. The philosophes joined with the orthodox in rejecting Spinoza, for the great Jew had been labeled atheist, and it was dangerous to speak of him without denouncing him, as Hume and Voltaire took care to do; but clandestinely Spinoza was being read; his Tractatus theologico-politicus was stirring up Biblical criticism; and M. le Comte de Boulainvilliers expounded Spinoza under the pretense of refuting him. Hume himself, influenced by France, was influencing France. Freemasons were establishing lodges in France, and were privately enjoying their deistic heresies. Exploration, history, and the comparative study of religions were adding fire to the crucible in which Christianity was being tried as never before. Every science, in its growth, was raising the respect for reason, the belief in universal law, the disbelief in miracles, including the greatest and most frequent miracle of all—the daily transformation of bread and wine, by fifty thousand simple priests, into the body and blood of Christ.
Social forces entered into the decay of dogma. Every increase in wealth was accelerating the race for pleasure, and was making the restraints of Christian morality more and more irksome in a Paris where the Most Christian King kept a stud of mistresses, and the Virgin Mary had been displaced by Mme. de Pompadour. And even the moral laxity of the age was turned into an indictment of Christianity: how was it that after seventeen hundred years of Christian domination the morals of Europe were no better than those of American savages or the “heathen Chinee”?
Every class but the peasantry included a skeptical minority. The governmental bureaucracy resented the independence and the tax immunity of the Church; the old association between the Church and its “secular arm,” the state, was breaking down. There were freethinkers like Males-herbes in the department of censorship, actively protecting Diderot and the Encyclopédie; and much closer to the King was Mme. de Pompadour, who hated the Jesuits and was counted by Voltaire as “one of us.” The aristocracy thought of the Church as supporting a Bourbon dynasty that had deposed the aristocracy from rule; they were not averse to weakening the clergy; many nobles enjoyed the irreverencies of Voltaire. The upper middle class smiled its favor upon the intellectuals who were battling the clergy; it had never forgiven the Church for condemning interest and favoring landowners over moneyed men; if these supercilious bishops were taken down a peg the bourgeoisie would move up in the scale of repute and power; so financiers like La Popeliniére, Helvétius, and d’Holbach opened their homes and purses, even, in some cases, their hearts, to the crusade against the Church. The lawyers had long since been envious of the clergy; they looked forward to the time when they could rule the state, as they were already ruling the parlements. In 1747 a police report alleged that there was hardly an officer of the Paris Parlement who had not an irreligious publication or manuscript in his home.12 The cafés of Paris hummed with atheism; lampoons of the clergy were the feast of urban wits, who referred to God as “Monsieur de l’Être,” Mr. Being. Even in the provinces anticlerical literature circulated widely; some traveling salesmen profitably peddled from door to door a brochure entitled The Three Most Famous Impostors: Moses, Jesus, and MahometII And was not the clergy itself infected with religious doubt—even, here and there, with out-and-out atheism?