It is often said that the battles and conflicts of the Great English Revolution were fought in the terms of religion, with all of its various fractions defending some particular version of Protestantism. In contrary, the French Revolution is considered to have been mostly secular and was even perhaps a turning point in the secularization of the modern world. For example, the French « Declaration des Droits de l’Homme » says « All men are born free and equal » as its American predecessor says « All men are created equal ». It is widely known that many assets of the church were confiscated during the revolutionary period and that the counter-revolutionary forces inside and outside France were taking the defence of religion as an alibi to attack the new regime.
The secular character of the French Revolution is often attributed to the influence of the famous Enlightenment thinkers, who were atheists like Denis Diderot, agnostics like Voltaire or deists like Rousseau. It is true that those thinkers had a great influence in the petty and great bourgeoisie of the time, and even in some circles of the aristocracy. There was also a tradition of radical freethinking, incarnated by the « libertins » and one of the most prominent writers of this current, the « marquis » Alphonse Donatien de Sade, who was very involved in the Revolution. We could also mention a forgotten figure, the priest Jean Meslier who clandestinely wrote some of the fiercest critique of religion and notably this famous phrase: « Humanity will only be happy when the last of the aristocrats will be hanged with the « bowels » of the last priest ».
But if the French Revolution has been a terrible blow to the power of the church on society, it is not only because the enlightenment ideas were widespread among the elite. In fact, and it is rarely known, even in France, there was a mass uprising against religion across the country from 1789 to 1795. Even in very little towns, in very isolated areas, one of the first peasants’ reaction when they heard that the powers and privilege of the king and the landlords were « abolished » was to destroy the local church. As the power of the feudal aristocracy vanished so did its « religious justification ». The priests were mostly hated by the poor people as they were preaching obedience and passivity while being beneficiaries of the feudal exploitation. Of course, some were more honest and got involved in the revolutionary movement, sometimes on the radical side like the ex-priest Jacques Roux, leader of the « enragés » (the enraged), and then they were the most implacable enemies of the traditional church.
As in many other aspects, the politics of the revolutionary national assembly concerning religion was not really guided by the ideas or ideals of its members, but by the necessity of controlling and canalizing the popular movements. For example, if some radical initiatives occurred (you still see in France some church with a frontispiece where one can read « Death is a long sleep »), any debate on atheism was forbidden and Robespierre tried at the end of his regime to promote some civil religion via the « cult of the supreme being ». All the bourgeois members of the national assembly knew that it would be very dangerous for the stability of their new regime to allow the people to really eradicate religion and its culture of docility. The promise of Heaven is always the best guarantee for the continuation of the Hell of exploitation and domination on earth.
I think one important conclusion we can draw from the history of the French Revolution is that secularization can never be solely a movement from above. The failure of the authoritarian secularist regime in the Middle East reminds us that secularization can only be secured if there is also a movement from below, if the religion idiocies cannot serve anymore as an antidote for real social emancipation, and if the tough and dangerous work of the intellectual vanguard in the South countries can be associated to the diverse social movements that shake the foundations of the power of religion, docility and ignorance.