Opposition to the Roman Catholic Church occurred because “the priests … had in preceding reigns been identified with the tyranny, the luxury, and the cruelty of the court and the noblesse.” This dislike for the church became one of the causes for the French Revolution, and dislike of the clergy resulted in the Cult of Reason (Culte de la Raison ).
The Cult of Reason was also the first state sponsored atheistic religion and it was created to replace Roman Catholicism. It first appeared around the time of Marie Antoinette’s trial and became much more popular after her execution. It was based on the principles of Enlightenment and anticlericalism, and its goal was the perfection of mankind through the attainment of Truth and Liberty. 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.
Bringing this civic religion to fruition culminated in a celebration known as the Festival of Reason (Fête de la Raison). The first festival was scheduled for 10 November 1793. Festival 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. Furthermore, the Bishop of Paris and the clergy were to attend. They were 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.”
In Paris, the cathedral of Notre Dame was renamed the Temple of Reason and turned into a theatre. The Christian altar was dismantled and an altar to Liberty was raised. The National Convention attended the celebration as a body. People wearing the bonnet rouge or the Phrygian cap as it was sometimes called, filled the Temple of Reason. Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord and E’vêque d’Autun officiated the devotional ceremonies. The opening words were given by a Prussian nobleman who was instrumental in the French Revolution. His name was Anacharsis Clootz. Clootz declared that the Republic would contain but “one God only, Le Peuple.“
During the ceremony the Goddess of Reason was to be 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.” These descriptions 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.”
- Berry, Mary, etal., A Comparative View of Social Life in England and France, Vol. 1, 1844
- Carlyle, Thomas, The French Revolution, Vol. 2, 1899
- Dryer, George Herbert, History of the Christian Church, 1903
- “The Fete of the Republic,” Leeds Mercury, 2 July 1878
- “The Reign of Atheism,” in Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, 21 September 1883
- View, 1828
- White, William, Notes and Queries, 1861