The Cult of Reason (Culte de la Raison) was the first state sponsored atheistic religion. Bringing this civic religion to fruition was the Festival of Reason (Fête de la Raison), a celebration that would launch a dechristianization movement. The Cult of Reason had been created to replace Roman Catholicism because there was great unhappiness over the church clergy as they “had in preceding reigns been identified with the tyranny, the luxury, and the cruelty of the court and the noblesse.”
The Cult of Reason was based on the principles of Enlightenment and anticlericalism. Its goal was the perfection of mankind through the attainment of Truth and Liberty and its guiding principle was to exercise reason. Similar to traditional religion, the Cult of Reason also encouraged congregational worship and devotional displays based on reason. Thus, this was one reason for the Festival of Reason.
The first Festival of Reason was scheduled for 10 November 1793 (20 Brumaire, Year II). Fêtes were to be held in Bordeaux and Lyons, but the largest fête and ceremony was scheduled at the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. The dechristianization of the churches were these Festivals of Reason were to be held were transformed, sometimes dramatically. For instance, according to Historian Simon Schama:
“The churches themselves were often stripped of all sacerdotal objects. There were, in any case, urgent practical reasons for this despoliation. Church bells were needed for the arms foundries, gold and silver for the Republic’s treasury, though a great deal of the latter certainly founds its way into the pockets of the dechristianziers. But there was also pure vandalism on a massive scale. Altarpieces were slashed, stained-glass windows broken. … devotional manuals and hymnals were burned in great bonfires, together with the plaster and wood saints found on every road crossing, crackling and melting in the flames like inanimate victims of an auto-da-fé.”
Furthermore, the Bishop of Paris and the clergy were to attend the Festival of Reason in order to publicly renounce “their belief and functions as ministers of the Catholic Church, declaring that henceforth they would recognise no public worship but that of liberty, equality, and fraternity.” The cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris was also renamed the Temple of Reason and turned into a theatre. The Christian altar was dismantled and an altar to Liberty was raised in its place. Schema described the scene at Notre Dame stating:
“In the interior a gimcrack Greco-Roman structure had been erected beneath the Gothic vaulting. A mountain made of painted linen and papier-mâché was built at the end of the nave where Liberty (played a singer form the Opéra), dressed in white, wearing the Phyrgian bonnet and holding a pike, bowed to the flame of Reason and seated herself on a bank of flowers and plants.”
The National Convention attended the celebration as a body. People wearing the bonnet rouge also filled the Temple of Reason. Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, then the Bishop of Autun, officiated the devotional ceremonies. The opening words were given by a Prussian nobleman who was instrumental in the French Revolution named Anacharsis Clootz. He declared that the Republic would contain but “one God only, Le Peuple.“
During the ceremony the Goddess of Reason was worshiped. However, it is unclear exactly who portrayed this role of the Goddess. Reports indicate it could be one of three women — mademoiselle Maillard (a danseuse de l’Opéra), Thérèse-Angélique Aubry (a figurant de l’Opera), or Sophie, “wife of the printer Mormoro, who was himself the friend of [the Hébertists].” Each woman was described as being of “unparalleled beauty,” and whoever impersonated the Goddess of Reason “was borne in triumph over the heads of the people to receive their worship, with all the pomp and display the promoters could invent.”
Some people described the Festival of Reason as “lurid,” licentious,” or “scandalous.” Besides the Goddess of Reason being worshipped there were apparently revolutionary songs sung and scantily clad women danced the Carmagnole:
“Reminiscent of an opera aria, the tune of the Carmagnole has its origins in popular folk music. Some sources suggest that the song, and the dance [a meandering lively dance] that accompanied it, first appeared in Provence among the migrant laborers who came from Piedmont to pick grapes and olives. The song may have made its way to Paris with the Marseille volunteers in July 1792. The revolutionary lyrics to the song make direct reference to events and circumstance in Paris following 10 August 1792, and the song’s derisive references to Marie Antoinette gained for it the alternative title of Madame Véto. It was enormously popular among Parisian through the Terror, but was banned by Napoleon Bonaparte when he came to power.”
The revolutionary songs, scandalous dancing, and bacchanalian behavior offended anti-revolutionaries. Loyal Jacobins found “the fanaticism of Atheism worked its ruin. [Maximilien] Robespierre attacked it with vehemence, and [George Jacques] Danton joined with him.” Furthermore, dedicated Jacobins decided to put distance between themselves and the radical factions that supported the Festival of Reason.
When the idea surfaced that the National Convention should attend the Festival of Reason, Robespierre and other like-minded men were fervently against it. They joined together to prevent it from becoming an official event. Moreover, by early 1794, most of the Festival of Reason supporters were guillotined — Jacques René Hébert, Antoine-François Momoro, Charles-Philippe Ronsin, and François-Nicolas Vincent. Robespierre by this time had almost dictatorial power, and he decided to establish his own state religion, which he called the “Cult of the Supreme Being.”
The new deistic religion was intended to curtail the excesses associated with the dechristianization movement and the replacement of Catholicism. It flourished briefly lasting only through the spring and summer of 1794. In addition, “The Cult of the Supreme Being supported the idea of a supreme being and immortality of the soul. However, it was not consistent with Christian doctrine as the only way virtue could be attained … was through fidelity and devotion to liberty and democracy.”
To inaugurate the Cult of the Supreme Being a festival, similar to the Festival of Reason, was decreed by Robespierre. The celebration was planned for 8 June 1794, began at the Tuileries gardens, and was choreographed by the famous French artist Jacques-Louis David.
“The celebration included a man-made mountain on the Champ de Mars. Robespierre also decreed that the main festival, which was to be massive, was to be celebrated in Paris with small celebrations mandated throughout France. Moreover, Robespierre assumed leadership for the event.”
“A general summons was issued throughout Paris, inviting all male and female citizens to decorate their houses with the colours of liberty, ‘either by displaying new flags, or embellishing their old ones with garlands of flowers and greens.’ … artillery was discharged from Pont Neuf. … At noon, the National Convention preceded by Robespierre, promenaded to the amphitheatre … Robespierre … opened the festival with a ringing speech. … a hymn was sung … Another hymn was sung. A procession formed to march to the symbolic mountain that had been erected at the Champ de Mars. There the second portion of the festival [occurred].”
Although Robespierre ultimately declared his festival to a huge success, other were unhappy and felt that he had taken things too far. “When he descended the mountain, some deputies denounced him as being too prideful and critics mentioned his ‘pretended superiority.'” A month or so later, whatever accolades that he had received a month earlier for his festival seemed hollow when he fell from power and was guillotined on 28 July 1794. The Thermidor phase was then ushered in and with it was the demise of the Cult of the Supreme Being.
-  “The Reign of Atheism,” in Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, 21 September 1883, p. 3.
-  Schama, S., Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, 1989, p. 777-778.
-  “The Fete of the Republic,” Leeds Mercury, 2 July 1878, p. 4.
-  Schama, S., Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, 1989, p. 778.
-  Carlyle, Thomas, The French Revolution, Vol. 2, 1899, p. 291.
-  Dryer, George Herbert, History of the Christian Church, 1903, p. 43.
-  Hanson, P. R., The A to Z of the French Revolution, 2007, p. 54-55.
-  Walton, G., Madame Tussaud: Her Life and Legacy, 2019, p. 109.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid., p. 109-110.
-  Ibid. p. 111-112.