atheism for lent, day seven: testament by jean meslier
So, here on DAY SEVEN, a brief overview of Jean Meslier and his posthumously published Testament:
- Meslier: French Catholic priest who secretly penned a scathing diatribe against God, Christianity, the Bible, basically the whole religious shebang
- bequeathed his writings and all his other belongings to his parish
- writings later published as Testament, the first systematic text devoted to atheism
- philosophical objections to the existence of God
- exegetical arguments against the reliability of the Bible
- moral arguments against the teachings of scripture
- stance: Christianity degenerated from a beneficial 1st-century movement (believers’ sharing all things in common) to a system that encourages submission to tyranny and the acceptance of suffering
Ironically enough — or, depending on your point of view, as was only to be expected — Meslier’s doubts arose directly from his intensive study of the Bible. He lost his faith before his ordination and only went through with it to “obey” his parents. He believed very strongly that civilized people can’t possibly accept a God who would let God’s creations suffer eternal torment; such a God would be more evil than the most churlish human. Meslier considered Jesus to be a fanatic and misanthrope who encouraged people to hate self and embrace pain. God, in Meslier’s view, has to be a capricious tyrant so that priests can maintain their power by scaring people into obedience.
I mean, the guy minced not a single word.
Meslier trusted his reason and his senses, and he believed that common sense is sufficient for us to come to morality. In his writings he begged his parishioners’ forgiveness for “having served error and prejudice through all his career.” He considered the “promise” of eternal life no consolation at all and saw death as our well-deserved release from the troubles of this life.
“Let thought and speech and print be free, let education be secular and unconstrained; men will move day by day toward utopia.”
His writings eventually contributed to the thought that led the French Revolution. I am Jill’s complete lack of surprise.
In Testament, Meslier describes his loathing for all the priestly duties he had to perform and lead his parishioners in. And yet, he did it for decades, and nobody had a clue of how he felt. It makes me wonder how many of today’s priests, preachers, and pastors feel exactly the way Meslier did — but don’t speak out. How many of them are out there, suffering in silence, wracked with pain and fury, but never voicing a single doubt to their “fellow” believers, the people they should be able to trust with their deepest vulnerabilities?
It reminds me of a friend in the denomination I used to be part of. He was an associate minister, someone who worked part-time for the church in counseling, Bible study, and other random “duties.” He kept an office at the church building, and he was used to people dropping by to chat and even to share deep, personal struggles.
Then, in the parlance of the denomination, he was “installed as an elder” (one of the men who leads the congregation) — and almost from one day to the next, those voluntary, vulnerable conversations just stopped. “Since I became an elder, hardly anybody just drops by anymore,” he told me. “It’s like I’m suddenly too removed from them.”
Maybe they thought that in his sudden “elevated” position, he could no longer relate to the troubles of “normal” people. Maybe they thought that since he had achieved this “rank,” he must be morally superior to them, so they felt ashamed to confess any temptations or wrongdoing in their own lives.
Whatever the reason, the casual friendliness stopped. As he told me this, the loneliness was written all over him.
I feel like Meslier must have felt terribly lonely, too. Sharing one’s heart with a pen and a piece of paper isn’t quite the same as sharing them with another person.
On the other hand, I’m also reminded of this quote:
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”–Upton Sinclair
If Meslier’s or any other “cleric’s” income didn’t depend on maintaining the pretense, would they keep the illusion going?