“If God Did Not Exist, it Would be Necessary to Invent Him”
Addressing the Jacobin Club, November 21, 1793
Let men, animated by pure zeal, lay on the altar of their country the useless and pompous monuments of superstition. Let others renounce such ceremonies, and adopt on all matters the opinion which seems to them most conformable with true reason. Philosophy can only applaud their conduct. But by what title does hypocrisy come here to mingle with that of civism and virtue? What right have men, hitherto unknown in the Revolution, to come into the midst of you, to seek in passing events false popularity, to hurry on patriots to fatal measures, and to throw among them the seeds of trouble and discord? By what right do they disturb the existing worship in the name of liberty, and attack fanaticism by fanaticism of another kind? By what right will they degrade the solemn homage rendered to truth into an eternal and ridiculous farce? One would suppose the Convention had proscribed the Catholic faith; it has done no such thing. It has, on the contrary, by a solemn decree, established the liberty of worship. It will alike proscribe the ministers of religion who disturb and protect those who respect the public peace. It is the Royalist, not the Catholic, priesthood whom it has with justice persecuted. We have heard of priests being denounced for having said Mass; they will only say it the more for being disturbed: whoso would prevent them is a greater fanatic than he who says the Mass. There are men who would go further; who, under the guise of destroying superstition, would establish atheism itself. Every philosopher, every individual, is at liberty to adopt whatever opinion he please, but the legislator would be a thousand times blamable who adopted such a system. The Convention abhors all such attempts; it is no maker of metaphysical theories: it is a popular body, whose mission is to cause, not only the rights, but the character, of the French people to be respected. Not in vain has it proclaimed the rights of man in the presence of the Supreme Being.
They will say, perhaps, that I am prejudiced, that I am a man of narrow mind, that I am a fanatic. I have already said that I do not here speak as an individual, nor as a systematic philosopher, but a representative of the people. Atheism is aristocratic. The idea of a Supreme Being, who watches over oppressed innocence, and punishes triumphant crime, is altogether popular. The people, the unfortunate, will always applaud me; I shall find detractors only among the rich and the guilty. I have from my youth upward been but an indifferent Catholic, but I have never been a cold friend, or a faithless defender of humanity. I am even more strongly attached to moral than political truth. If God did not exit, it would be necessary to invent him. I speak here in a tribune where the impudent Gaudet dared to accuse me of having pronounced the word “Providence,” as if that were a crime. And when? When my heart was ulcerated with all the crimes of which we were the witnesses and the victims—when shedding bitter, powerless tears on the misery of the people, eternally betrayed, eternally oppressed, I endeavored to raise myself above the crowd of impure conspirators who environed me, and invoked against them celestial vengeance, in default of the thunder of the people! And if ever tyranny should reappear among us, where is the energetic and virtuous soul that would not appeal in secret to that eternal justice which seems to have been written in all hearts? It seems to me that the latest martyr of liberty would exhale his soul with a more tender sentiment, relying on that consoling idea. This sentiment is the sentiment of Europe, of the Universe; it is that of the French people. The people is not attached, either to priests, or to superstition; it is only attached to the idea of an incomprehensible power, the terror of crime, the support of virtue, to whom it is pleased to render those homages which are due to it, and which are so many anathemas against injustice and triumphant crime!
[Mayo W. Hazeltine, ed., Orations: From Homer to William McKinley (New York, NY: Collier and Son, 1902), vol. viii, p. 3279-84.]