How to be a successful atheist priest

Despite the fact that Voltaire thought him ‘the most singular [of] the meteors fatal to the Christian religion’, Jean Meslier has been almost completely forgotten for most of the last two hundred years, even in France where he was born in 1664. Yet his name should be familiar to anyone who is interested in the history of religion and of European atheism, especially if they have a sense of humour. Meslier’s achievement, unique for its period, was to put his name to a long, lacerating, well-referenced and unambiguously atheist document at a time when to do so was to invite almost certain and messy execution. He may not have known that even in our own comparatively tolerant islands, we were hanging people for atheism as late as 1697 but he certainly knew that only a few decades before he was born, the witty and articulate philosopher Vanini had been sent to the pyre after first having his tongue torn out as a little amuse ghoul. Just being the wrong sort of Christian – or even the wrong sort of Catholic – could get you into serious trouble in the France of Louis XIV.

Given this lethally discouraging atmosphere, what should an articulate and passionate man do if, despite a conventional religious upbringing – indeed, despite training for the Catholic priesthood and becoming a priest – you come to the conclusion that there is no god; that this life is the only one we have; that the bible is a farrago of superstitious, contradictory and often sadistic nonsense; and – for good measure – that religion and monarchy between them conspire to enrich the elites at the expense of the mass of the people and to keep them oppressed? You certainly don’t go around telling people (unless, as with poor Thomas Aikenhead in the Edinburgh of 1697, you are young and careless and perhaps too fond of a drink or even hypomanic). You can’t interest a publisher – probably not even in Holland and definitely not in France. In any case, you are the priest of the tiny village of Etrépigny, with a population of barely 150 souls up near the north-eastern border of France, across which the armies of Europe have been slogging it out for much of your priestly life. You were born in the area, in another tiny village, and apart from your studies at the seminary down the road at Reims, you have probably never left it.

You can put your thoughts down on paper, of course. That lets off a bit of steam but absolutely nobody else can be allowed to read them. It helps that as a priest, you have no wife or inquisitive teenage children who might come across them and talk, and that your housekeeper (or possibly ‘housekeeper’) is probably illiterate; but it’s still risky and anyway, what’s the point? And if you become ill, one of your clerical neighbours might read it while helping you out and then have you dragged from your sick-bed to face some very hard-faced men with voices like French versions of Dr Ian Paisley. You could recant if that happened but it’s not good for your self-esteem or your reputation and it still might not save you from the flames or the scaffold. It’s too late and too difficult to choose another profession and you don’t want to go back to the family farm and weaving-shed. In any case, you quite like your parishioners and you like helping them, which is just as well, since the welfare state hasn’t been invented yet. They certainly like you, especially after your proto-leftie ideas led you to criticise that absolute yahoo of a local squire in one of your sermons. Then you did it again! You were lucky to get away with a month’s ‘re-education’ back in Reims.

Yet Jean Meslier did write it all down – several hundred pages of mordant, ruthless and often quite amusing demolition of the bible; of anger at the contrast between the poverty of his flock and the affluence of ‘les grands’ – the nobility, the senior clergy, the landowners like squire de Toully; and most particularly, of the way in which religions in general and theistic beliefs in particular keep people in fear and superstition so that they regard the assorted disasters of both war and peace as either God’s will or a just punishment for their sins, original and otherwise. For good measure, these views were integrated into a materialist philosophy which, like his political views and his biblical criticism, was way ahead of his time. His arguments were supported by impressive references – especially for a village priest with no regular access to libraries.. Presumably he did much of his writing by candle-light while the parish slept. It must have taken him months or years and he made three copies. All were found by his death-bed, together with a couple of letters to his completely unsuspecting fellow-priests in the neighbouring parishes. There are suggestions that he hastened his death by refusing food and drink, perhaps to minimise the risk that someone would discover and read his heresies before he was actually dead.

It is really rather surprising that any of it survived but all three copies of his Mémoire (or Testament, as it is also known) are in the Bibliotheque Nationale. (The full title and subtitle – pretty clear even if your French is minimal – reads: Mémoire des pensées et des sentiments de Jean Meslier, prêtre curé d’Étrépigny…sur une partie des Erreurs et des Abus de la Conduite et du Gouvernement des Hommes, ou l’on voit des Démonstrations claires et évidentes de la Vanité et de la Fausseté de toutes les Divinités et de toutes les Religions du Monde. He marked it: ‘To be addressed to his parishioners after his death to serve as a witness to Truth’. It’s much less surprising that he was buried in an unmarked grave and that the archbishop of Reims may have sent his goons to exhume the body. It is said that he changed his mind in case it drew even more attention to this troublesome priest, apparently the first person actually to put his name to an unquestionably atheist document since Roman times. We do know that Meslier couldn’t have cared less because he wrote that when he was dead, ‘They can do what they like with my body. They can roast it, or fricassée it, and then eat it – with whichever sauce they prefer’.

We also know that soon after Meslier died, the manuscripts got into the hands of a senior judicial officer and we might have expected that he would quickly burn them, or at least make sure that they weren’t seen by the wrong sort of people. In the event, they soon entered the world of illicit samizdat copies and were selling briskly at what were, for the time, very high prices. Before long, one of these – or perhaps an abridged version – arrived at the Voltaire household. He thought it was dynamite and encouraged all his friends to read it but even for Voltaire, it was too hot to publish. When he did eventually take the risk, in 1762, the Meslier who emerged in Voltaire’s Extrait was a much-shortened, milk-and-water deist version of the unambiguous and uncompromising atheist of the Mémoire. No sign, either, of the sharing-and-caring, pre-industrial agrarian socialist that made Meslier so popular with Soviet propagandists 200 years after his death. Voltaire even made Meslier’s denunciation of his church and his religion seem like a death-bed conversion, when he had evidently been harbouring and refining these dangerous heresies for much of his adult life.

Voltaire’s literary betrayal helped to ensure that the real Jean Meslier remained largely unread and unknown but further historical falsification soon occurred, ironically in the form of a work by Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d’Holbach. This laid-back, immensely learned and well-heeled aristocrat was nicknamed (presumably by historians) ‘the maître d’hotel of the Enlightenment’ for his regular dinner-parties attended by the Encyclopédistes a|nd all the other movers and shakers – French and foreign – who wanted to join in the satisfying business of ridiculing the clergy, as well as discussing and propagating exciting new ideas.. D’Holbach was just as much an atheist and materialist as Meslier but also just as concerned to avoid a 5am knock on his door by the Bourbon thought-police. In 1772, he published his own attack on religion, superstition and theism, Le bon-sens, [ie Common Sense] but as with all his polemical works, he published it anonymously. After he died (with perfect timing, in 1789, just before le déluge) it was republished as Le bon sens du curé Meslier, or sometimes as Superstition in all ages. To this day, people think they are reading the words of an obscure country vicar when they are actually reading the more elegant phrases of a leisured Franco-German aristo with no socialist aspirations at all. The writer of a recent ‘Faith Column’ in the New Statesman said: ‘I sympathise with Denis Diderot, who wrote in the eighteenth century that “man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest”’, but it wasn’t Diderot at all. It was Meslier and it’s typical of the fire and passion of his writing, as well as of his earthy and robust vocabulary, though he didn’t claim to have originated the phrase. Although some Revolutionaries proposed to erect a statue to Meslier in the 1790s, it was never made and his complete Mémoire wasn’t published openly until a Dutch humanist printed a few hundred copies in 1860. The first annotated French edition (Anthropos) only appeared in 1970. Apart from a few fragments, no English translations exist and there are very few academic articles about Meslier in English either.

It was partly the way in which Meslier has been both forgotten and misrepresented that made me keen to persuade someone to write a play or a film script about him, though the main reason was that I thought his Mémoire was a text for our own times as well as for his. The Enlightenment upset a lot of people in all classes in the 18th century and their successors are still both numerous and influential, as Butterflies and Wheels records every day. I’m used to writing scientific medical papers and I’ve done quite a bit of medical journalism but I’ve not written fiction since I left school and I never even contemplated trying my hand at its dramatic forms. After several years of trying to interest any of my acquaintances with theatrical experience or ambitions who would listen, I finally hooked Julian Bird, an old friend and former fellow-trainee in psychiatry. Julian’s mother was a famous actress and he trod the boards a bit himself as a student. In his retirement, he has started treading them again with some success. Still, even Julian didn’t feel competent to write a play, as opposed to acting in it, so we simply advertised for someone who could. This is easier than it sounds and before long, we were cooperating with David Walter Hall, a philosophy graduate fresh out of Cambridge and writer-producer of a sell-out success at the 2005 Edinburgh Fringe. A cheerfully uncomplicated atheist himself and product of an atypically godless upbringing in Northern Ireland, he turned our thoughts into a preliminary text (entitled simply ‘Meslier’) that got good reviews at the 2006 Fringe. (Dressed in a rather fetching red cassock and black biretta, I myself walked the streets of the Athens of the North to sell tickets.)

The arts correspondent from one of the religious newspapers said that he liked it but it needed more atheism. We all agreed and the latest version, twice as long and now called The Last Priest (see above) is playing until July 1st at the King’s Head Theatre in Islington. Naturally, David has included the usual sex and a soupçon of rather clinical violence and there are a few obvious fantasy scenes but our main instructions to him were to avoid further Voltairean misrepresentations of the basic Meslier story. I particularly wanted none of the kind of Shafferian conceits that made Amadeus good theatre but disgraceful history. Even so, Benedict Nightingale, theatre critic of The Times has rated it one of the top five theatrical experiences in Britain (or at least, in England). Nobody expects to make money out of these things but if you come and see it, you will at least limit our losses as well as perhaps enjoying a little historical Enlightenment yourselves.

More information at The Last Priest

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