Maximilien Robespierre was a leading figure in the French Revolution. As a member of the Committee of Public Safety, he personally signed off on 542 arrests during the Reign of Terror, which saw more than 16,000 death sentences imposed throughout France. While Robespierre was an adherent to—and proponent of—most of the beliefs and policies which underscored the Revolution, however, there was one place where he and his fellows differed strongly, and that was belief in a higher power.
Prior to the Revolution, France had been a Catholic country—both in practice and by law. Anti-clerical sentiment was one of the many factors which drove the Revolution, and the first “state religion” to replace Catholicism was the atheistic Cult of Reason, which replaced the worship of any deity with an anthropocentric veneration of human reason, liberty, and justice.
In fact, by 1792, just three years after the Revolution had begun, the first nationwide “Festival of Reason” was held but the cult’s adherents, in which churches across France were transformed into “Temples of Reason”. In the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, the altar was dismantled and transformed into a shrine to Liberty, while the stone above the cathedral doors was carved with the epithet, “To Philosophy”.
Ostensibly as a way to avoid idolatry, the Festival of Reason eschewed statuary and other iconography, and instead featured stylized “Goddesses of Reason” portrayed by living women who sometimes dressed “provocatively”. In fact, the whole affair was described by many (often anti-revolutionary) sources at the time as “lurid”, “licentious”, and filled with “depravities”.
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Whether true or manufactured, this reputation for wantonness helped to fuel anti-revolutionary sentiment and also empowered the downfall of the Cult of Reason, even among the adherents of the Revolution, especially Robespierre.
While Robespierre agreed with many of the beliefs and ideals of his Revolutionary peers, he had a particular horror of atheism, and liked to quote Voltaire, saying that “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”
To him, belief in a supreme being was a necessary element of society. So it was that, in late 1793, he denounced the Cult of Reason in an impassioned speech, proposing his own Cult of the Supreme Being in its place.
Like the atheistic Cult of Reason, Robespierre’s new religion rejected the nation’s previous Catholic trappings and enshrined human reason as sacrosanct. However, to Robespierre, reason was merely a means to an end, not an end unto itself. And for him, that end was public virtue.
Unlike the Cult of Reason, this civic-minded form of deism placed as its primary pillars a belief in a supreme being (hence the name) and the immortality of the human soul, even while rejecting revelation as a means of knowing god, and looking instead to human reason to derive the necessary proofs of the existence of a supreme being.
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To Robespierre, these beliefs were “constant reminders of justice,” and were therefore necessary to sustain a just society. The result was a schism within the Revolution, as Robespierre and his followers used the “scandalous scenes” that had supposedly taken place under the Cult of Reason to denounce many of their fellow revolutionaries, eventually leading to the execution of numerous founding members of the Revolution, including Jacques Hebert and Antoine-Francois Momoro, two of the leading proponents of the Cult of Reason.
By May of 1794, the Cult of the Supreme Being was the official state religion of France, as authorized by the National Convention. Perhaps as a direct response to the “scandalous” Festival of Reason, Robespierre declared a Festival of the Supreme Being to be held on June 8, 1794, just a month after the recognition of the cult as the nation’s official civic religion.
Where the Festival of Reason was characterized by “wild masquerades” and much more spontaneous celebrations, the Festival of the Supreme Being was as meticulously planned as it’s possible for a nationwide festival to be in only one month, and was described by historian Mona Ozouf as possessing a “creaking stiffness” that may have been indicative of the growing “sclerosis of the Revolution.”
Indeed, many historians point to the Festival of the Supreme Being as the beginning of the end for Robespierre. Other leading figures of the Revolution were starting to grow wary of Robespierre already, fearful that he would install some sort of dictatorship rather than the liberty and equality that they had fought for. His zealous promotion of the Cult of the Supreme Being rubbed these individuals the wrong way, especially those of anti-clerical sentiments, who had been for the dechristianization of France that happened early on.
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Within a little more than a month, these growing concerns had metastasized into what later historians came to call the Thermidorian Reaction, named for the month in which it took place, Thermidor, the 11th month in the French Republican Calendar.
On what we know as July 27, 1794, not much more than two months after the Cult of the Supreme Being had been recognized as the official religion of France, Robespierre was forcibly removed from power. By the following day, he had been put to death, executed by guillotine in the Place de la Revolution – in the same spot and by the same means that King Louis XVI had met his end under Robespierre’s watch just a year before.
This also essentially marked the end of the Cult of the Supreme Being. Just as Robespierre had fallen out of favor, so too did the religion he had created, gone within three months of being instated. Within the decade, it was banned entirely when Napoleon restored France to Catholicism as part of his Law on Cults of 18 Germinal, Year X in April of 1802.
Like so many things about the French Revolution, the Cult of the Supreme Being was ascendant for only a short time, yet it left a significant mark. Just as Robespierre had previously done with the dominant Cult of Reason, it was undermined by dissenting opinions from among Robespierre’s fellow revolutionaries. Like that short-lived cult, however, we still remember it today, in ways both large and small…