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Jean Meslier : Virtual Priest, Real Atheist

February 6, 2009

Recently I finished reading an article about a prolific 17th Century Catholic priest named Jean Meslier who upon his death was found to have led a secretive double life – a priest to the outside world but an atheist in reality [link to the excellent article]. 

A priest in the tiny Ardennes parish  of Etrépigny (in France) he wrote a secret book  “Memoir of the Thoughts and Feelings of Jean Meslier” which was only discovered after his death (along with 3 other copies which he meticulously transcribed in the privacy of his parish). In this book he denounced religion as “but a castle in the air”, theology “but ignorance of natural causes reduced to a system” and had this to say of Jesus (his scathing attacks on Christianity and Jesus in the above article is worth a read)

“arch-fanatic, is equally mad, out of his mind, miserably fanatic, unhappy rogue, a man of the abyss, vile and despicable”

He denied the existence of  the soul, the notion of free-will and asserted that God is not prerequisite to morality. In fact, he concluded irrespective of the existence of God, “men’s moral duties will always be the same so long as they possess their own nature”. He is also said to have influenced great freethinkers and scholars like Voltaire and Diderot (both of whom allegedly plagiarized his book).


A page from Meslier's original manuscript

In 17th century France, when the punishment for heretics was torture and death he kept his silence in public but confessed to his parishioners in his book

I was nevertheless compelled to teach you your religion and to carry out that false duty that I had committed myself to as the vicar of our parish . . . I had the displeasure of finding myself annoyingly obliged to act and speak totally against my own feelings, to entertain you with foolish nonsense and vain superstition that I hated, condemned, and disliked in my heart. I, however, declare that I never did it without great pain and extreme repugnance. This is why I hated so much the vain functions of my ministry, particularly all those idolatrous and superstitious celebrations of masses, and those vain and ridiculous administerings of sacraments that I had to carry out. I cursed them thousands and thousands of times in my heart, when I was obliged to do them, and particularly when I had to carry them out with a bit more attention and a bit more solemnity than usual.

An article on him in the New Humanist mentions that he in effect wrote to his fellow parishioners

“I never believed any of that religious nonsense. There’s no God, there’s no afterlife and the church helps tyrants like Louis XIV to keep you poor and exploited. You’re on your own, but stand up to the bastards and you might just create a fairer world.”


Voltaire’s abridged version of Meslier’s book can be found here, although reading it makes me wonder if the critics were right and Voltaire indeed added his own thoughts to make Meslier look more like a deist.

One Comment leave one →
  1. nirmala permalink
    February 9, 2010 8:40 am

    The Testament of Meslier has been published as Testament: Memoir of the Thoughts and Sentiments of Jean Meslier, the first English translation of the complete work by Michael Shreve (Prometheus Books, 2009) ISBN 1 59102 749 7.

    This is the first english translation based on Meslier’s own text, not Votlaire’s bastardized version of D’Holbach’s personalized text… finally.
    and Michel Onfray wrote an introduction that must be worth reading.

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