Joseph McCabe (1867-1955) was one of the most prolific authors of all time. He was brought up as a Roman Catholic, worked on Latin documents, and made himself very well-informed about Christianity, but turned against it. But he was extremely naive about Jews; bear this in mind.

Click for Detailed notes on McCabe - scroll down for selections from A Rationalist Encyclopaedia (1948).

Here's the full A Rationalist Encyclopaedia (about 1.3 MBytes; Word format; includes notes on some of its limits)

The French Revolution.

J. McCabe, Rationalists Encyclopaedia

      Aulard, Prof. François Victor Alphonse (1849-1928), one of the most learned historians of France in recent years. He was professor of the History of the Revolution at the Sorbonne (Paris University) and the leading authority on that subject. In his Culte de la Raison (1892) he exposed for all time the falseness of such legends as that of the Goddess of Reason, though the myth still adorns religious (and some other) literature, and he published a valuable small work, Christianity and the French Revolution (Engl. trans. 1927), which corrects many other serious errors about the Revolution and the Church. Aulard was a militant anticlerical and Agnostic. See his preface to a collection of the speeches of Paul Bert (Le cléricalisme, 1900).

      Danton, Georges Jacques (1759-1794), leader in the French Revolution. A lawyer of considerable ability and good family who abandoned his profession to take part in revolutionary politics and for a time, when France was gravely threatened, approved of violent measures. The excesses sobered him - he opposed the use of the guillotine - and the extremists rallied to Robespierre, who had him arrested and executed. Even Belloc's Danton (1899) brings out the greatness of his personality and clears him of libels, but it misrepresents his attitude to religion - he was one of the most outspoken Atheists of the time and gives a deplorably false account of the general religious situation. [See French Revolution, The, and Prof. Aulard's Christianity and the French Revolution (Engl. trans., 1927).]

      Desmoulins, Benoit Camille (1760-94), French politician. People ignorant of the history of the French Revolution are apt to suppose that Desmoulins was a rough young working man of a violent type who led the crowd in the early days of the Revolution. He had, on the contrary, been educated at the same college as Voltaire (Louis le Grand) and had studied law and practised at the Paris Bar. He wrote pamphlets which are held to be responsible in large part for the support which the people gave to the reform-politicians, edited Le vieux Cordelier, and represented Paris in the Convention; but he protested against excesses and was guillotined by the Robespierre party. He was an Atheist, and, when he was asked his age by the Tribunal, he replied gaily that he was "the same age as the sans-culotte Jesus."

      Feast of Reason, The. Not only religious controversialists, but novelists and essayists, continue to refer to a Feast of Reason which was held in the cathedral of Notre Dame at Paris during the French Revolution, at which, they say, a prostitute impersonating the Goddess of Reason was permitted or invited to sing lewd songs from the High (or principal) Altar of the church. The story is, like the exaggeration of the executions, one of the wild rumours current among the refugee priests and nobles in London, and is entirely opposed to the facts as told even by Carlyle in his French Revolution over a hundred years ago (1836); yet in manuals of history which were in general use in British colleges only thirty years ago pupils were taught - doubtless still are in many places - that "the goddess was represented by a prostitute" and honoured with "obscene rites" (Sir R. Lodge's History of Modern Europe, 29th ed., 1909, p. 546). An American historian, Dr. W. S. Davis, repeats this ("a light woman had been encouraged as she screamed a ribald song from the high altar of Notre Dame in Paris") in his Europe Since Waterloo as late as 1926. French historians have shown for more than a century that this is a fantastic perversion of the facts. Prof. A. Aulard, the leading authority on the Revolution, wrote a special work on the subject (Le culte de la raison, not translated) in 1893, and the substance of his research is available in his Christianity and the French Revolution (Engl. trans., 1927). The facts may be found also in Lavisse's standard history of the Revolution.
      In 1790, long before invasion and civil war had embittered the revolutionaries, the practice spread in the provinces of having festivals in honour of Liberty, sometimes before altars set up in the open air and presided over by orthodox priests. When, in 1792 and 1793, the Church was abandoned, in spite of Danton and Robespierre, by the great majority of priests and people, these Feasts of Liberty became very important in the provincial towns, Liberty being represented by some girl chosen for character as well as beauty. The people and municipality of Paris decided, again in opposition to the Government, to hold one, and, as the bishop and clergy of Notre Dame had resigned and handed over the edifice to the Council, they proposed to hold it in the cathedral. As the Opera company had previously staged a very artistic performance in honour of Liberty, it was engaged to organize the ceremony, which was in every respect dignified and decorous. The High Altar was not used, but draped, and a lady who personified the spirit of Liberty stood upon a special erection, a model of a small Greek temple, and recited an impressive "Ode to Liberty" from it. The poem was written by the chief poet of the time, a very temperate and refined revolutionary, Marie-Joseph Chenier , and may be read in his works. The lady is unknown, but of the four ladies mentioned by contemporaries none was "a loose woman." She did not represent even a "goddess of Liberty," much less Reason, but, though Liberty was the chief note struck, Parisians had coupled Philosophy or Reason with it. This was on November 10, 1793. It was a serious attempt to maintain in a new form the higher emotion once expended upon religion, which was almost extinct in France. [See French Revolution, Religion and the.] If the reader will now pass to the articles ([Ass, Feast of the Fools, the Feast of; etc.] which describe the gross festivals that had been held in French churches and cathedrals during the "Ages of Faith" - festivals which are never now mentioned in literature or history - he will have some idea how gravely historical truth is now prostituted in the service of Catholicism.

      French Revolution, Religion and the. There is no other instance in history of so loose a use of the word "revolution" as in the phrase "French Revolution." A revolt may, especially when it puts rival armies in the field, last for months or years; but once it has accomplished its aim and definitely established its own government the revolution is considered to be over. In the case of the French revolt against absolute monarchy in the eighteenth century the phrase is made to cover five years, and, whatever the original motive was, this enables apologists to impute all crimes or follies that were committed from 1789 to 1794 to a body of men who carried an almost bloodless revolution against a regime that had a horrible record of injustice and then entered upon, and for three years persevered in, a sober and enlightened work of reconstruction. The wanton libel which is exposed in an earlier article [Feast of Reason] - a libel retailed to this day by even historical writers and literary men - is only one of many; yet most of them were refuted in Carlyle's history and other works of a century ago and have been excluded from serious history for many decades. A few points only can be discussed here, and it is enough by way of authority to say that the following observations are supported by the two standard works on the Revolution (vol. III, 1904, of the Cambridge Modern History, and Vols. I and II of Lavisse's Histoire a,,, France Contemporaine, 1921), supplemented by the specialist work of the highest recent authority, Prof. Aulard's Christianity and the French Revolution (Engl. trans. 1927).
      (1) The French Revolution of 1789 was an inevitable and beneficent revolt against a cruel and very corrupt tyranny. It was organized and conducted by a body of nobles and middle-class representatives of the people (and a few priests), and in the circumstances it was remarkably free from bloodshed. The people, who had been kept by Church and State in a 90 per cent illiteracy and had been grossly exploited for centuries, broke into disorder in many places, but the National Assembly, controlled by a majority of moderates, did its best to suppress such outbreaks. About the evils of the ancien regime there is no dispute. "The masses were ignorant and brutalized" (Camb. Mod. Hist.), crushed by appalling taxation and maddened by the tyranny of local seigneurs. Brisson shows in his Histoire de travail (1906) that the immense majority earned only fivepence a day. The Church owned one-fifteenth of the total wealth of the country (about £1,200,000,000) and paid no taxes; and even in its highest representatives - Cardinal de Rohan, Archbishop de Brienne, Archbishop Dillon, etc. - was cynically and luxuriously corrupt. By August 1789 it was clear that repression would not solve the problem. So conscious were nobles and prelates of their guilt that in the National Assembly on August 4th, as described in the Moniteur next day, their leaders voluntarily surrendered all their privileges and accepted the Revolution. For this rarely noticed development see McCabe's Talleyrand (1906, p. 76). We have, therefore, not to defend the Rationalist writers of France (Rousseau and the Encyclopedists) against blame for their predominant share in causing the Revolution, but to put this to their credit.
      (2) A point of cardinal importance in judging the Revolution is to realize clearly that the men (Lafayette, Talleyrand, Mirabeau, Sieyès, etc.) who had led the Revolution retired in September 1791 and left power to a set of men of less ability and often inferior character. To this point the work had been soberly constructive and enlightened and had produced a Constitution (including the establishment of the Roman Church and the monarchy) much milder than that of the United States. And the reason why these men stood aside was a piece of political morality which was without parallel. In order to avoid even the appearance of corruption they bound themselves to take no office under the new Constitution. Until then there had been no interference with religion, although the Pope had (March 1890) bitterly denounced their Declaration of the Rights of Man - rights which all now regard as elementary - and the French clergy abroad were urging the; Powers to invade France. The festival of Corpus Christi, in July 1791, was celebrated as usual in the streets of Paris, the National Guard lining the route and all citizens being compelled to decorate their houses. The King was not in danger until long afterwards, and the guillotine was unknown.
      (3) Even the new men worked on the whole admirably for a year, but in the summer of 1792 there were 90,000 Prussians ready to invade France, and England, Austria, Sardinia, Naples, and Sweden, stirred by the fugitive clergy and the Pope, prepared to assist; there was, as transpired in 1794, a formidable Catholic "fifth column" in France ready to co-operate with them; and the priests kindled in the west a gruesome civil war which drew off half the Army. The September Massacre followed; but even Sir R. Lodge, who repeats many libels of the Revolution in his Modern Europe (1909), ascribes this to "not more than five or six hundred men." It will be examined in a later article [September Massacre], but the most recent authorities find that only about 1,100 were killed, and of these the majority were criminals and prostitutes from the jails, the butchers declaring that their aim was" to purify Paris." In other words, the murderers were at least in large part Catholics. They were, in any case, some 500 out of 20,000,000 people. The Terror which followed in 1793 and 1794 was the outcome of a political feud. The summary of research in Lavisse's Histoire (II, p. 199) shows that, of about 18,000 victims in two years - the St. Bartholomew Massacre had had 50,000 in a few days - 67 per cent were working men, and only 8 per cent priests and nuns; and the chief butcher, Robespierre, was a firm believer in God, a man who hated and persecuted Atheism.
      (4) The common charge that the leaders of the Revolution "robbed the people of their religion," and so caused the horrors, is thus seen to be due to a gross historical ignorance and a refusal to consult any recognized authority. Not only the earlier revolutionary leaders, but Danton (though an Atheist) and Robespierre maintained the establishment of the Church and heatedly resisted all attempts to destroy it. The myth of the Goddess of Reason exposed in a previous article [Feast of Reason] is typical of the stuff on which writers rely who repeat that the people were deprived of, or in any degree persuaded to abandon, religion. Prof. Aulard (pp. 31-44) shows by abundant evidence that the movement began with the people and the priests. It was a rural district far from Paris that first declared its abandonment of the Church, and Catholic Strasburg that first closed its cathedral. The heads of the Government resisted all the anti-clerical demands of the representatives of the people until the end of 1793, when the great majority of the people had disowned the Church; and it was under the auspices of Robespierre's Cult of the Supreme Being - practically Unitarianism - that the bulk of the massacres of the Terror were perpetrated. But there were still millions of Catholics secretly organized in the provinces, and it will be shown elsewhere [see White Terror] that, as soon as Robespierre fell, these butchered Republicans by the thousand, and with such savagery as had been witnessed only in the worst days of the Red Terror. Yet so deeply is the false account of the Revolution and religion rooted in English tradition, while all serious history rebukes it, that shortly after the Russian Revolution an editorial in Nature, our leading scientific periodical, called upon British scientists to support religion in view of the horrid example of the French Revolution!

      Goddess of Reason, The. Many writers give a solemn warning to our age, with its increasing substitution of reason and science for faith, by vague and totally inaccurate references to the horrors into which, they say, the French Revolution plunged after setting up a Goddess of Reason in the Catholic cathedral at Paris. They do not seem to be aware of the fact, which not a single history of the time omits, that the chief author of the Reign of Terror was a man, Robespierre, who believed firmly in God, loathed Atheism, and, as soon as he could, replaced the voluntary cult of Reason and Liberty by a compulsory cult of the Supreme Being. We have seen, however, in various articles [Feast of Reason; French Revolution; etc.] that all historians agree that what happened in the Feast of Reason and Liberty in Notre Dame is very falsely represented in religious literature. There was no goddess," no use of the cathedral-altar, the lady (not a prostitute) who took the chief part symbolized Liberty not Reason, and the pageant was entirely decorous and impressive. See the above articles and Prof. Aulard's Culte de la raison (1892).

      Lafayette, the Marquis Marie Jean Paul Roch Yves Gilbert (1757-1834), French soldier. No Frenchman is more honoured in America, since he served, as a general, in the army of liberation. He was one of the moderate leaders of the French Revolution, and left France when it became more violent. He served again under Napoleon, and after the Restoration sat in the Extreme Left in the Chambre. He was a Deist.


Return to Joseph McCabe Selection

Home Page

Scanning, HTML Rae West. First upload 98-06-15