Freethought and Freedom: Jean Meslier and Christian Ethics
Smith explains Meslier’s three major objections to Christian morality, as taught by Jesus.
In Chapter 40 of his Testament (“Three Principal Errors of Christian Morality”), the atheist‐priest Jean Meslier displayed a depth of criticism of Christianity that few freethinkers have ever equaled, much less surpassed. This should come as no surprise to readers who make it to Chapter 40, for in earlier chapters (especially Chapter 33, “What Was His Preaching?”) Meslier accused Jesus of “malice and viciousness,” even attributing to him “mental derangement.”
It is easy to see by all his speeches that Jesus Christ was really only a fool and a fanatic. And it is certain that if he came back again today among us, if it were possible, and did and said the same things as before, we would certainly consider him nothing but a fool and fanatic.
This assessment runs contrary to the opinion of many early freethinkers, especially those English deists who expressed admiration for the moral teachings of Jesus and criticized later Christians for deviating from those teachings. But Meslier would have none of this, and his criticisms reflect a radical strain in French atheism that was largely (though not entirely) lacking in the English freethought tradition.
Meslier criticized the moral teachings of Christianity on three major points.
The first is that it makes the perfection of virtue and the greatest good or advantage of man consist in the love and pursuit of pain and suffering according to the maxim of Christ, its chief, who said to his disciples that happy are the poor, happy are those who cry, who are hungry and thirsty, who suffer persecution for justice (Matt. 5: 3–10). And according to other maxims of this Christ we have to carry our cross, renounce ourselves and all we possess, and if anyone wants to be perfect he has to sell everything he has and give it to the poor (Matt. 19.21; Luke 18.22)….
Meslier, who lived with the poor during his decades as a parish priest, saw nothing virtuous or admirable in poverty, especially when that poverty resulted from exploitation by the powerful. It is “clearly an error and madness to say that the greatest good and happiness of man consists in weeping and groaning, in being poor and unhappy, hungry and thirsty, etc.” Of course, Meslier understood that Christians did not preach poverty and suffering for their own sakes; rather, they claimed that the poor and suffering will be rewarded in an afterlife. But this teaching was “absolutely false,” according to Meslier. This life is all there is; the “so‐called kingdom of heaven, which our superstitious god‐cultists seem to make such a big deal about, is only an imaginary kingdom.” The desire for pleasure and a good life is part of human nature, so it is an abuse to teach the ignorant to “love and pursue real pain and suffering on the pretext of acquiring lovely rewards that are only imaginary.” The teachings that pain and suffering will be rewarded in an afterlife, and that we should renounce everything we possess, “is based only on the word of a miserable fanatic,” Jesus; and it is “an error and madness in men to want to follow or put any faith in such a maxim that is so contrary to the good of Nature and good judgment.”
Meslier’s comments on this matter were closely related to his belief that governments and churches teach the virtues of poverty and suffering as a means to keep the poor in their place, while expropriating from the poor the fruits of their labor. The doctrine of an afterlife served as an ideological smokescreen for political control and exploitation.
Meslier’s second criticism focused on what he viewed as the Christian bias against innocent sexuality, and especially the condemnation not only of overt deeds but of sexual thoughts and feelings as well, if those thoughts and feelings occur outside the context of marriage. Nothing is more natural to man than sexuality, and to condemn this natural impulse as sinful and worthy of hellfire is to condemn an essential aspect of human nature, one rooted in “the most intimate depths” of our being. Would an infinitely good God really want “to make young people burn eternally in the dreadful flames of hell only for having had a few moments of pleasure together?…Or even only for having consented and indulged in thoughts, desires, or carnal motions that God himself had formed and aroused in them?” To attribute such intentions to a perfect and infinitely good God is “entirely ridiculous and absurd and…disgraceful….The thought alone of such cruelty is monstrous.”
Before we accuse Meslier of favoring unbridled libertinism—an accusation commonly hurled against early atheists and other freethinkers—we need to keep in mind that he disapproved of “the debauchery of men or women who would indiscreetly or excessively abandon themselves to this animal inclination.” Meslier condemned “this excess and disorder as well as all other kinds of excess and disorder.” People should conform to the “laws, customs, and practices” of the countries in which they live. Meslier simply wished to protest the Christian doctrine that sexual “actions, desires, or thoughts and indulgences are crimes worthy of eternal punishments and torments.” Sexual excesses are ultimately slight and trivial human failings, and it is at once absurd and disgraceful to teach that a wise and benevolent deity would punish people severely for such actions.
Meslier’s third objection to Christian ethics (as taught by Jesus) is in some ways the most interesting of the lot.
Here again is another error of this Christian morality: it teaches that we must love our enemies, not take revenge for injuries and not even resist vicious men, but, on the contrary, that we must bless those who curse us, do good to those who do us harm, let them rob us when they want to take what we have, and always quietly suffer the injuries and mistreatments that they do, etc.
These teachings, according to Meslier, are contrary to “natural right and reason.”
[I]t is obviously a natural right, natural reason, natural equality and justice to preserve our life and goods against those who want to take them from us unjustly. And as it is natural to hate evil, it is also natural to hate those who unjustly do evil. Now, the aforementioned maxims of Christian morality go directly against all these natural rights and, consequently, are false. And it is an error to want to teach them and make people practice them, seeing that they are contrary to all natural rights and that they clearly tend to the reversal of justice, to the oppression of the poor and weak, and they are contrary to the good government of men.
Here again Meslier criticized “maxims of the Christian religion” because they “clearly tend to favor the vicious and their oppression of the good and the weak.” The doctrine that we should love our enemies and not resist or seek revenge against those who harm us has benefited rulers who “boldly attack the good and do whatever they want without punishment and without fear.” Meslier repudiated the doctrine of passive obedience unequivocally. Throughout the Testament he endorsed violent resistance against tyrannical rulers and their unjust actions. Indeed, in Chapter 2 we find the first formulation of a saying that has commonly been attributed to the French atheist Denis Diderot (1713–1784): “Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” This is not how Meslier worded the sentiment, nor did he take credit for the idea. Rather, Meslier attributed the sentiment to a common Frenchman “who had no culture or education.” This man, however, had the sound judgment to understand the evils inflicted upon him and other poor people by the French government and Gallican Church.
In his wish and in his way of expressing his thought it seemed that he saw rather far and penetrated rather deeply into the detestable mystery of iniquity of which I just spoke, and recognized very well the perpetrators and instigators. His wish was that all the rulers of the earth and all the nobles be hanged and strangled with the guts of priests.
This expression, Meslier remarked, “may seem hard, rude, and shocking, but you must admit that it is candid and simple.” It also expresses, if crudely, what rulers deserve for their merciless exploitation of the ruled. If Meslier could have been granted a single wish, he would wish to have the strength, courage, and resolve of Hercules so that he could “have the pleasure of bludgeoning all the monster tyrants with their crowned heads and all the other monsters and ministers of errors and iniquity who make all the people of the earth groan so piteously.” Since Meslier did not believe in hell, he did not agree with those Christians who believed that tyrants will suffer eternal torment for their crimes, however comfortable their life on earth may be. He preferred to see rulers punished in this life at the hands of their victims. Meslier did not reserve justice and revenge for a god in whom he did not believe.