Resistance to Christianity

Chapter 48: The End of the Divine Right

In the profusion of its diverse tendencies, the triumph of Protestantism – in which the economic mechanisms that chaotically governed historical evolution burst the skin of the God that had clothed them in his myth – put an end to the notion of repressive orthodoxy and, consequently, the existence of “heresy.”

The sects had given the [Greek] word hairesis the neutral meanings of “choice” and “option.” They then entered into the currents of opinions that, following Destutt de Tracy and Benjamin Constant, became known as “ideologies.”[1] The decapitation of Louis XVI, a monarch by virtue of divine right, removed from God the ecclesiastical head at which – like a monstrous cephalopod – were articulated the secular arms that were tasked with imposing his writs of mandamus. The French Revolution deprived the Church of its penal authority; until then, princes and priests had been the intermediaries that imposed its laws.

The jubilation that, around the end of the [Eighteenth] century, brought down the churches and monasteries began to express itself openly in works in which the derision of sacred things showed quite well that religion merited the impertinent pikes of jibes more than the death blows delivered by philosophical reason. The execution of the knight [Jean-François Lefevre] de la Barre recalled that the Church was still capable of biting cruelly, but this was the last crime prescribed by the obedience of civil law to religious power.

Nevertheless, if Diderot only received a short period of imprisonment as punishment for his insolence, the anti-religious thinkers of the beginning of the Eighteenth Century still had the keenest interest in being careful and circumspect.The case of the parish priest Jean Meslier is too well-known to be discussed at length here.[2] Let us recall that this parish priest from Étrépigny lived the life of a man who fulfilled the duties of his position, though he did have a disagreement with the lord of the town and a forbidden love affair with his servant. His Testament, discovered after his death, uprooted God from society and the universe by extirpating him along with hierarchical power and the exploitation of man by his fellow man, which were the foundations of God’s fantastical existence. This text, mutilated by Voltaire, was only distributed in its unabridged version later on, but the celebrity of Meslier himself preceded the publication of his work, thanks to his celebrated formula: “Humanity will only be happy when the last priest has been hanged with the guts of the last prince.”[3]

Thomas Woolston

The humorous irreverence and misfortune of Thomas Woolston proceeded from a misunderstanding. Even if we do not underestimate its corrosive humor, his Discourse on the Miracles of Jesus-Christ tried to demonstrate the points at which the Scriptures only had an allegorical meaning. Such had already been the opinion of Origen, Denck and Weigel; today it is the sentiment of the theologians who are appalled by the everyday derision of the religion of present-day [commodity] consumption.

Born in 1669 in Northamp, and later a student at Cambridge, Woolston acquired renown as an erudite and punctilious man of the Church. Written in Latin, his dissertation on a letter from Pontius Pilate to Tiberius about Jesus put into doubt a fabricated document, as many such documents were, with the sole goal of authenticating the historical Jesus.

Another one of his works expounded his thesis on the necessity of allegorical interpretations of texts that were supposed to be sacred. Intervening in the quarrel between Collins and the theologians about the foundations of Christianity, he wrote an ironic work titled The Moderator Between an Infidel and an Apostate.

Published in 1727, his Discourse on the Miracles of Jesus-Christ caused a quarrel with his friends and exposed him to the persecutions of all the religious minds of the day, whether they were conformist or not. Condemned to a year in prison and a fine that he could not pay, he aroused the democratic sentiments of a number of his fellow citizens. Samuel Clarke solicited his release in the name of the freedom of thought claimed by England. The authorities consented, on the condition that Woolston refrained from publishing anything shocking. He refused to exchange repudiation for freedom, which he estimated to be the spring of natural rights. On 27 January 1733, he died, saying, “This is a struggle which all men must go through, and which I bear not only patiently but willingly.”[4]

He addressed an acerbic dedication to the Bishop of London, his prosecutor; it rendered homage to him “with as much justice as you are due, because of the prosecution that you have wisely brought against the Moderator, as against a nonbeliever who here renders to you his very humble thanks, and who declares himself to be an admirer of your zeal, wisdom and conduct.”[5]

His Discourse [on the Miracles our Savior] ridiculed the Scriptures. He was astonished that Jesus-Christ had permitted demons to enter into a herd of pigs and cause destruction. “Where was the Goodness and Justice of his so doing?” With respect to the healing of a woman who lost some blood, he remarked: “And what if we had been told of the Popes curing an Hemorrhage like this before us? What would Protestants have said to it? Why, ‘that a foolish, credulous, and superstitious Woman had fancy’d herself cured of some slight Indisposition; and the crafty Pope and his Adherents, aspiring after popular Applause, magnified the presumed Cure into a Miracle.’”[6]

He added: “I am charmed that it is not said in the Gospels that he [Jesus] had taken money from these brave people, for having exercised his trade as a fortune teller; had this been said, our doctors would not have failed to found upon such an example a right to demand tithes, salaries and pensions as payment for their divinations.”[7]

Woolston ridiculed the curse hurled by Jesus against a fig tree that dried up one night without him taking into account the interests of the thus-wronged owner. He mocked the resurrection and the fact that Jesus appealed to Lazarus in a loud voice, “as if he had been as deaf as a dead Man.”[8] Like Jacques Gruet, Thomas Scoto and Herman de Rijswick, Woolston characterized the Savior “as impostor full of deceit.”[9]

Woolston’s caustic spirit did not attack the authority that the Constantinian Church had invested in the mythical Jesus-Christ without also aiming at all the truths that had been so quick to send those who did not kneel down before them to the pyre or prison. Woolston defended the memory of Servetus against Calvin. His refusal of a freedom purchased at the price of an enslavement to received ideas rested upon a model of dignity that struggled for tolerance, at a time when many others, such as Voltaire, were content to raise their voices when the danger had passed and their [personal] glory was not in peril.

Woolston’s spirit, disencumbered from the qualms of faith, sharpened itself upon Holbach’s Portable Theology and especially upon the works composed by the Abbot Henri-Joseph du Laurens (1719-1797), whose Matthew the Accomplice, or the Diversity of the Human Spirit was among the most amusing texts that ridiculed religious prejudices. (Note that one of his characters says the following, which contains a large part of the mystery of faith: “You have taken a great step towards mystical love if you have previously exercised all the faculties of your soul over those of a lover.”)

The Book of the Three Impostors

A mythic book if there ever was one, the De tribus impostoribus[10] haunted the imaginations of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance before offering bibliophiles occasions for research and passionate quarrels.

If there ever existed such a manuscript, circulated hand to hand, with all the attractions of peril and prohibition, its content probably added nothing to the thesis that its title proposed with such pleasing concision: three impostors have led the world – Moses, Jesus and Mohammed. Is it necessary to discover authors for such a formula, the obviousness of which would impose itself sooner or later, if only furtively, on anyone disturbed by the chaos and conflicts that afflicted society and the order of things? Goliards, ribald students, shameless priests, bishops and popes who were less concerned with faith than with prestige, peasants tyrannized by the aristocracy, bourgeois entangled in fiscal injustice, workers and unemployed people seeking for a little food and money in the streets day and night, women scorned or treated like Satan’s creatures – who, one time or another, had not spit upon the holy figures erected everywhere like bloody totems of monotheism and its ministers?

Even a slightly exhaustive study of mindsets from the Fourth to the Eighteenth Centuries would show the point at which religious belief – perhaps more so in certain orthodoxies than in many heretical engagements – was generally only a prudent or comfortable cover under which the torments and fleeting satisfactions of passion were unleashed. (Note that, in 1470, a police ordinance in Nuremberg concerning foreign beggars conceded to them permission to exercise their trade on the condition that they knew how to recite the Pater, the Ave Maria, the Credo and the ten commandments.)

In the preface to his reprint of De tribus impostoribus, Gerhardt Bartsch retraced the history of this text, which, in all probability, existed as a short statement of its provocative assertion before acceding to the typographical reality of a book.[11]

Abu Tahir, a philosopher belonging to the Qarmatian current that, from the Ninth to the Tenth Centuries, rejected and ridiculed the credibility of Mohammed and Islam, said, “In this world, three individuals have corrupted mankind: a shepherd (Moses), a physician (Jesus) and a camel-driver (Mohammed). And this camel-driver was the worst trickster, the worst prestidigitator of the three.” This idea, adopted by Ibn Rachd, better known as Averroës, suggested to the West the existence of a work as elusive as the opinion that it illustrated: the Liber de tribus impostoribus, sive Tractatus de vanitate religionum (the Book of the Three Impostors, or the Inanity of the Religions).[12] (In the words of Averroës: “The Jewish religion is the law of children, the Christian religion the law of impossibility and the Muslim religion the law of swine.”[13]

A professor at the Sorbonne and an admirer of Aristotle, Master Simon of Tournai (1130-1301) proclaimed – without, it seems, being otherwise disturbed – that “the Jews were seduced by Moses, the Christians by Jesus and the Gentiles by Mohammed.”[14]

The scholar [Bernard de] La Monnoye, who was among the first to study the question, cited the accusation made by Gregory IX against Frederic II, for whom religion was a simple instrument of domination. For a long time, the book [The Three Impostors] appeared (there was no proof) to have come from his pen, or from that of his chancellor, Pierre de la Vigne.

According to Alvarus Pelagius, Thomas Scoto denounced the imposture of the prophets. Herman de Rijswick referred to it in his confession. Putative authors were not lacking: Arnaldus de Villa Nova, Michel Servetus, Jacques Gruet, Fausto Longiano (whose Temple of the Truth, now lost, dismissed all the religions), Jeannin de Solcia, the Canon of Bergamo (who was condemned on 14 July 1459 for affirming that the three impostors “governed the world as they wished,”[15] and all of the following: Ochino, Campanella, Le Pogge, Cardan, Pomponaccio and even Spinoza. (Note that I have found no trace in the works of Antoine Couillard of the remark that was denounced by Drujon: “Jesus-Christ founded his religion on idiots.”)

Studying the printed copy dated 1598, which he found at the Library of Vienna, Bartsch established that it had in fact been back-dated. Without presupposing the existence of an earlier copy in manuscript, he confirmed Presser’s thesis that the book – published around 1753 – was the work of Johannes Joachim Müller (1661-1733), grandson of the theologian Johannes Müller (1598-1672), who was the author of a study entitled Atheismus devictus.[16] Taught about the existence of the mythic book [The Three Impostors], Johannes Joachim undertook to give it a reality, and – not without mischievousness – fixed its date of publication at 1598, the date of his grandfather’s birth.

In its modern version, De tribus impostoribus contains allusions to the Jesuits; it sets the “eternal truths” of each religion against the others. It emphasizes the incoherencies of the sacred texts and reaches this conclusion: there is no other God than nature, and no other religion than the laws of nature.

Matthias Knutzen

A poet of atheism and the struggle against religious obscurantism, Matthias Knutzen (1646-1674) played an exemplary and impassioned role in the history of the emancipation of mankind under the Ancien Régime. His theses inspired the French encyclopedists, even though – with the exception of [Jacques-André] Naigeon – they were resolved not to mention him.

Born in 1646 in Oldenmouth, in Holstein, he was the son of an organist. Upon the death of his parents, he was welcomed by Pastor Fabricius, who took care of his education, but failed – so it seems – to inculcate in the boy the obedience and austerity of the morals that were pleasing to God. His studies of theology in Königsberg ended up winning him over to atheism.

At the age of 21, he returned to his hometown without a strong desire to preach there. In 1668, he enrolled at the University of Copenhagen, where he wrote De lacrimis Christi[17] (now lost). Upon his return to Oldenmouth, he scandalized the good people by taking the floor in front of an assembly of peasants in Tönning and calling for rebellion against the Protestantism of the pastors and the absolutism of the princes. Banished by the city council in 1673, he took refuge at Krempen, in Denmark, and again took up his diatribes against the wealth of the consistories. Chased from Krempen, he traveled through Germany, where he publicly preached atheism and struggle against the aristocracy. On 5 September 1674, he deposited at the principal church of Jena the manuscript of Ein Gesprach zwischen einem Gastwirt und drei ungleichen Religionsgasten and the Latin text Amicus Amicis Amica.[18] These anonymous pamphlets, which were also sent to the principal authorities, aroused excitement in the city.

Knutzen narrowly escaped the repression and went to Cobourg, where he distributed his Amicus, which he diligently recopied. He did the same in Nuremberg. He returned to Jena under the pseudonym of Matthias Donner. He spread the rumor of an international sect, the “Conscious” [ les conscientaires], of which he was the initiator. This sect only existed in his will to propagate individual freedom and revolt against all forms of power. And in fact his pamphlets – clandestinely printed by his disciples, whose existence he probably knew nothing about – made it into France, where they counted among the first texts that opened in the feudal citadel a breach into which the French Revolution threw itself. His traces disappeared in 1674 and the common opinion is that he died in Italy. One of his letters, falsely date-lined Rome, was published in French by [Maturinus Veyssière] La Croze’s Interviews on Diverse Subjects in History in Cologne in 1711.

“Above all,” Knutzen wrote in Amicus, “we deny God, and we hurl him down from his heights, rejecting the temple and all its priests. What suffices for us, the Conscious [conscientaires], is the science, not of one, but of the greatest number (...). The consciousness that nature, the benevolent mother of the humble people, has accorded to all men, in place of the [various] Bibles.”[19]

The Fall of God

As Knutzen wanted, the French Revolution hurled God down to earth, where he agonized for two centuries and survived in the spirit of the great [political] ideologies that supplanted the European religions. At the end of the Twentieth Century, the collapse of both [the religions and the political ideologies] brought into universal discredit the residues of all celestial thought, whether it was sacred or profane, theist or atheist, religious or secular.

The decline of an intellectual conception of the living (one that turned against it) was completed amidst an indifference that contrasted with the fury that presided over its critique. The hatred of the “calotte-wearers” [les “calotins”] that was expressed through the sacking of churches and monasteries in both the towns and the countryside, and was a prelude to the Revolution, was legally confirmed in the Civil Constitution of the clergy, an act of bureaucratization that marked the end of religious power over the citizenry, for which undivided Statist repression was substituted.

Promulgated in 1790 by the French Revolution, the Civil Constitution of the clergy offered only a few points in common with the [relatively limited] provisions that subjected the ministers of the Anglican Church to royal power. More than just the prerogatives of the pope, it was the ascendancy of religion itself that was revoked. The refusal of Roman authority proceeded from the destruction of the divine rights of kings.

Supported by the new exigencies of the economy, philosophy triumphed over a “religious obscurantism” that in fact did not stop haunting it and that perpetuated in [apparently] enlightened mindsets the bloody stupidity that tore the individual away from what was most alive in order to identify him or her with the frozen truths of science, politics, sociology, ethics and ethnic groups. The flag replaced the cross and was then burned in its turn. Although the collapse of Jacobinism and Bonapartism gave the Church of the Nineteenth Century considerable power, Catholicism and Protestantism – worn away by social modernity – did not cease to decline. At the dawn of the Twenty-First Century, they only survive as folklore recounted on Sundays.

In the towns as well as in the countryside, the first months of the revolutionary effervescence decided the fate of the clergy. The [Church] dignitaries, closer to the aristocracy than to the people, shared the discredit of the Ancien Régime. Some of them chose prudence and conciliation. Others, espousing the convictions of their parishioners, took pride in representing them at the National Assembly. From their zeal came the image of “Citizen Jesus,” which demonstrated the astonishing capacity of religious values to adapt, even to the point of developing a theology of liberation.

Some dignitaries refused to swear allegiance to the Civil Constitution and preferred exile or clandestinity; others made pledges and betrayed them at an opportune moment; and still others took careers (full of risks) as local-government officers. Their discomfort grew to the extent that Jacobinite centralism displeased the provinces and countryside, and aroused liberal insurrections and Catholic peasant revolts.

After eight months of silence, Pope Pius VI condemned the Civil Constitution as “heretical and schismatic.” He was soon hanged and burned in effigy in the Tuileries Garden. Nevertheless, the parish priests gained in political character what they lost in sanctified virtue. Those who, in the manner of Jacques Roux, took the side of the Enragés succumbed to Jacobin persecution. The refractory ones were pursued, and those who swore allegiance were held to be hypocrites. The high clergy skillfully navigated in order to safeguard their privileges. A symbol of the two centuries to come, [Charles Maurice de] Talleyrand[-Périgord] – unscrupulous enough to take oaths and to consecrate other bishops who swore allegiance – survived the Revolution, Bonapartism, Empire, the Restoration and the monarchy through the use of skillful mimicry.

His exemplary modernity, his art of chipping away at the sacred in accordance with the necessities of politics, presaged the destiny of Christianity itself, which was condemned to become socialized before it succumbed to the indifference that market society propagated in matters of opinion at the end of the Twentieth Century.

[1] Translator: Antoine Louis Claude Destutt, comte de Tracy (1754-1836) is generally credited with coining the word “ideology.” Henri-Benjamin Constant de Rebecque (1767-1830) was a pioneering analyst of it.

[2] Translator: briefly mentioned in Chapters 28, 44 and 45 of the present work, Jean Meslier (1664-1733) was an otherwise unremarkable Catholic priest who, in turns out, wrote a massive atheistic book called Common Sense (also known as Meslier’s Testament). It was only discovered after his death. Voltaire edited and wrote a preface to its second edition.

[3] Translator: here Vaneigem has relayed a shortened version of the formula, which is generally said to have been Je voudrais, et ce sera le dernier et le plus ardent de mes souhaits, je voudrais que le dernier des rois fût etranglé avec les boyaux du dernier prêtre: “I would like, and this would be the last and most ardent of my wishes, I would like it that the last king was strangled with the guts of the last priest.” It appears that, in any case, this formula does not appear in the text of the Testament itself but in one of the many abstracts of it that circulated during the French Revolution. Note well that, on 17 May 1968, during the occupation of the Sorbonne, Vaneigem and the other members of the Situationist International sent out telegrams to various world leaders that included the following declaration: “Humanity won’t be happy until the last capitalist is hung with the guts of the last bureaucrat,” or, depending on the intended recipient, “. . . until the last bureaucrat is hung with the guts of the last capitalist.”

[4] Translator: rather than translate Woolston back into English, I have quoted directly from the original source.

[5] Translator: because Vaneigem doesn’t indicate from which dedication (to which book) he is quoting, I have had difficulty finding the original source. But Woolston’s A Discourse on the Miracles of Our Savior (1727) includes “A Dedication to the Right Reverend Father in God, Edmund, Lord Bishop of London,” which concludes with the following words: “And what Pity is it, that Infidels likewise are not to be quell’d with your Threats and Terrors! which (without the Weapons of sharp Reasonings, and thumping Arguments, that others are for the Use of) would transmit your Fame to Posterity, for a notable Champion for Christianity, as certainly as, that your judicious Prosecution of the Moderator for Infidelity is here remember’d by, My Lord, The Admirer of Your Zeal, Wisdom and Conduct.”

[6] Translator: rather than translating Woolston back into English, I have quoted directly from his Second Discourse on the Miracles of Our Savior.

[7] Translator: because Vaneigem doesn’t cite the source for this remark (it does not come from the Discourses), I have been unable to locate the original and, in this instance, have been forced to translate Woolston back into English.

[8] Translator: from the Fifth Discourse on the Miracles of Our Savior.

[9] Translator: though I have not been able to find this exact phrase in any of Woolston’s Discourses, I have been able to find descriptions of Jesus as a “juggler Impostor,” “an Impostor and false Prophet,” “a Deceiver, Impostor and Malefactor,” etc.

[10] Translator: Latin for “The Three Impostors.” Cf. Chapter 28, footnote 16 of the present work.

[11] G. Bartsch, preface to a reprinted edition of the De tribus impostoribus, Berlin, 1960.

[12] Mosheim, Histoire de l’Eglise, p. 151; P. Marchand, Dictionnaire historique, vol. II.

[13] J. Nevisan, Sylvae nuptialis libri sex.

[14] Collectio de scandalis ecclesiae, Florence, 1931.

[15] Rainaldus, Annales ecclesiastiques, t. XIV.

[16] Translator: Latin for “Atheism Overthrown” or “Defeated Atheism.”

[17] Translator: Latin for “The Tears of Christ.”

[18] Translator: German for “A Conversation between an Innkeeper and Three Different Religious Guests” and Latin for “A Friend of the Friend of A Friend,” respectively.

[19] G. Bartsch, Ein deutscher Atheist und Revolutionar Demokrat der 17. Jahrhundert, Berlin, 1965. One of Knutzen’s letters, falsely dated Rome, was published in French in the Entretiens sur divers sujets d’histoire of La Croze, in Cologne, 1711.

(Published by Fayard in 1993. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! May 2013. All footnotes by the author, except where noted.)

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