left biblioblography: Profiles in Atheism - The Undercover Atheist

Monday, March 19, 2007

Profiles in Atheism - The Undercover Atheist

This one is an intriguing oddity: a quiet, unassuming Catholic priest who said nary a word during his priesthood, but upon passing away, it was discovered that he wrote extensively on atheism.

"Jean Meslier (1664 - 1733), was a Catholic priest who was discovered, upon his death, to have written a book-length philosophical essay promoting atheism. Entitled "Common Sense" and described by the author as his "testament" to his parishioners, the text denounces all religion, and argues the superiority of atheist morality. The book was published posthumously under the title "Superstition in All Ages" with a preface, in the second edition, by Voltaire. Despite its original and published titles, the work is most commonly referred to as "Meslier's Testament".

I wonder if it was ever read aloud to his parishioners?

"Life and works

"Jean Meslier was born January 15, 1664, in Mazerny in the Ardennes. He began learning Latin from a neighborhood priest in 1678 and eventually joined the seminary; he later claimed, in the Author's Preface to his Testament, this was done to please his parents. At the end of his studies, he took Holy Orders and, on January 7, 1689, became priest at Etr├ępigny, in Champagne. One public disagreement with a local nobleman aside, Meslier was to all appearances generally unremarkable, and he performed his office without complaint or problem for forty years.

"When Meslier died, there were found in his house three copies of a 633-page octavo manuscript in which the village curate denounces religion as "but a castle in the air", and theology as "but ignorance of natural causes reduced to a system". A materialist, Meslier denies the existence of the soul; he also dismisses the notion of free will.

"In Chapter V, the priest writes, "If God is incomprehensible to man, it would seem rational never to think of Him at all"; Meslier does think of him, however, for several hundred pages more, in which he calls God "a chimera" and argues that the supposition of God is not prerequisite to morality. In fact, he concludes that "[w]hether there exists a God or not [...] men's moral duties will always be the same so long as they possess their own nature".

"Voltaire often mentions Meslier in his correspondence, calling the atheist "a good priest", telling his daughter to "read and read again" Meslier's only work, and saying that "every honest man should have Meslier's Testament in his pocket." Although very few copies of Superstition in All Ages were printed, several Abstracts were circulated that were both less expensive to produce and to own, and easier for the uneducated to understand (Voltaire said of two of the Abstracts that they were "in the style of a carriage-horse").

His works can be found here - and he's a little bit of all right in my book.

A few quotes, to whet the palate:


"We are told that Divine qualities are not of a nature to be grasped by limited minds. The natural consequence of this principle ought to be that the Divine qualities are not made to employ limited minds; but religion assures us that limited minds should never lose sight of this inconceivable being, whose qualities can not be grasped by them: from which we see that religion is the art of occupying limited minds with that which is impossible for them to comprehend. "


"Religion unites man with God or puts them in communication; but do you say that God is infinite? If God is infinite, no finite being can have communication or any relation with Him. Where there are no relations, there can be no union, no correspondence, no duties. If there are no duties between man and his God, there exists no religion for man. Thus by saying that God is infinite, you annihilate, from that moment, all religion for man, who is a finite being. The idea of infinity is for us in idea without model, without prototype, without object. "


"In the matter of religion, men are but overgrown children. The more absurd a religion is, and the fuller of marvels, the more power it exerts; the devotee thinks himself obliged to place no limits to his credulity; the more inconceivable things are, the more divine they appear to him; the more incredible they are, the more merit he gives himself for believing them. "

I suppose the old saying "Silent waters run deep" applies here, no?

Till the next post, then.

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beepbeepitsme said...

Now THAT dude is interesting..

remy said...

Ramen Beep!

What discipline! I had a thought recently about teaching in the Catholic School Board. I would have to pretend to be ONE and I would require a letter from 'my priest'. This little fantasy didn't last long as I doubt that I could keep it shut for more than a day. 40 f#*king years!!?

karen said...

I wonder at what point in his priesthood this all became apparent to him. And why did he remain a priest? Nowhwere else to go? The life afforded him the time and luxury of writing? Studying the opposing view?

I must say I agree that he had a remarkable constitution. I would not have been able to tough it out for 40 years.

Chris Bradley said...


He became a priest to please his parents, and once he was a priest . . . well, if he quit, what would he have done? My guess is stayed a priest because he had no other way to support himself. And, really, a lot of the duties aren't terribly unpleasant. I'd die for the chance to hear confessions! That'd be great. Hearing all the juiciest town gossip straight from the source would delight me.

And think of the women! Let's face it, priests get a lot of action if they want it. Who knows? Maybe Meslier was totally about the hot French babes. ;)

Heck, maybe I should join the priesthood. The Catholic church is wicked hurting for priests . . .

Krystalline Apostate said...

From what little I can garner, most confessions are hardly novel...along the lines of "I lusted after so-and-so, I blasphemed, I touched myself", etc.
The 1st year might prove intriguing, but the novelty would wear thin quick.
And think of the women! Let's face it, priests get a lot of action if they want it. Who knows? Maybe Meslier was totally about the hot French babes. ;)
Well, we ALL know what Catholic priests are famous for in THAT arena, don't we?

Chris Bradley said...


Oh, sure, but this was the era before the Internet! And I love listening to people about their problems, even the most trivial of things. It's fascinating. Tho', yeah, most people do find it boring after a while. ;)

Krystalline Apostate said...

Chris - best to keep away from all those talkshows, ey? ;)

Chris Bradley said...


LOL. I must. Our TV, here, doesn't even have an antenna. We use it for video games and DVDs and that's it.

Otherwise, I'd be all about the Springer! :)

Mesoforte said...

Here's a copy on project Gutenburg-

Superstition in All Ages

karen said...

The confessional was one of the duties I was thinking would drive me mad. It would take too much self-restraint to not laugh or sigh or just go off at the inane sins folks admitted to on a regular basis. And then to assign them the rote Hail Marys and Our Fathers as pennance-or back in Father Jean's day, charging them a $ amount to buy their cleansing...UGH!

You've got a point about the French babes though. ;)

lynn's daughter said...

Hey, nice blog! I just found it. Hey, can you email me and tell me how to do that "more" thing on my blog for longer posts so that people can just see the first paragraph or so of each one? Thanks!

Krystalline Apostate said...

lynn's daughter:
You got mail!