The Original Reason Rally

The Reason Rally is billing itself as “the largest gathering of the secular movement in world history.” This is probably true, but whether you’re a supporter, detractor, or merely an inquisitive bystander when it comes to what’s happening today on the National Mall in Washington, don’t make the mistake of thinking that it’s the first time that atheists and secularists have come together to celebrate reason and secularism. I personally find the notion of celebrating reason to be very odd, but the gathering of Dawkins and the throngs of enlightened and self-assured skeptics with him is thoroughly unremarkable when compared to the original “Festival of Reason” that French secularists celebrated after the French Revolution.

Shortly after the overthrow of the Ancien Régime, the leaders of the Revolution attempted to quash religion by closing churches and replacing Christianity with a new secular religion. In Notre Dame, Reason was actually enshrined as a goddess (although portrayed by an actual woman), and the adherents of this new Cult of Reason held festivals around France as churches were converted into “temples of reason.” Here for your creepy reading pleasure are a few excerpts from a description of one of these festivals in Châlons-sur-Marne in 1794. These are taken from The Portable Enlightenment Reader, edited by Isaac Kramnick:

The festival was announced in the whole Commune the evening before; for this purpose, retreat was sounded by all the drummers and by the trumpeters of the troops in barracks at Châlons, in all parts of the town …

The former church of Notre Dame was, for lack of time and means, cleaned and prepared only provisionally for its new use, and in its former sanctuary there was erected a pedestal supporting the symbolic statue of Reason. It is of simple and free design, decorated only by an inset bearing this inscription:

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

It was flanked by two columns surmounted by two antique bronze perfume boxes, which emitted incense smoke during the whole ceremony: in front, at the foot of the three steps, was placed an altar of antique form, on which were to be placed the emblems that the various groups composing the procession would put there; on the four pillars at the corners of the sanctuary were four projecting brackets to receive the busts of Brutus, the father of Republics and the model of Republicans; of Marat, the faithful friend of the people; of Le Peletier, who died for the Republic; and of the immortal Chalier.

At precisely nine o’clock in the morning, the general assemblage formed on the gravel promenade, otherwise called the promenade of Liberty; the military detachments and other groups destined to form the procession had their places indicated there; commissioners from the Society arranged them in order …

A detachment of cavalry, national constabulary, and hussars mingled together, to strengthen the bonds of fraternity, led the march, and on their pennant were these words: “Reason guides us and enlightens us.” …

The company was followed by a cart loaded with broken chains, on which were six prisoners of war and a few wounded being cared for by a surgeon; this cart carried two banners, front and back, with these two inscriptions: “Humanity is a Republican virtue” [and] “They were very mistaken in fighting for tyrants.” …

Forty women citizens dressed in white and decorated with tricolor ribbons surrounded the fasces, and each carried a large tricolor ribbon which was tied to her head.

A Liberty bonnet crowned this banner, and young national guardsmen accompanying the fasces carried various pennants on which were written different devices.

After them marched groups of national guardsmen and regular troops mingled together and fraternally and amicably united, arm in arm, singing hymns to Liberty and bearing with them two banners on which were written the following inscriptions, “Our Unity is our strength.” “We will exterminate the last of the despots.” …

Groups of children of both sexes carried baskets of fruit and vases of flowers, accompanying a cart drawn by two white horses; in the cart was a young woman nursing an infant, beside her a group of children of different ages; it was preceded by a banner with this inscription: “They are the hope of the Patrie.” From the cart flew a tricolor streamer with this inscription: “The virtuous mother will produced defenders for the Patrie.” …

After the group of veterans followed a cart drawn by four donkeys and containing remains of feudalism, such as armorial bearings, etc., as well as emblems of the superstition in which we were too land submerged. On the front was a man representing a pope adorned with tiara and pallium, having two cardinals for acolytes; on the front and rear of the cart were two billboards, the first of which bore the words, “Prejudices pass away,” and the second, “Reason is eternal.” …

The whole being thus ordered, the procession left the promenade at exactly ten o’clock, crossed on the drawbridge, followed the avenue which is its continuation to reach the Rue de la Société Populaire, where there was a pause for the singing of … patriotic songs … In the Place de la Liberté, there was another pause, for further singing …

On the front steps of the city hall, there had been built and painted a mountain, at the top of which was placed a Hercules defending a fasces fourteen feet in height. A tricolor flag flew above it on which was written in large letters: “To the Mountain, the grateful French.”

At the foot of the mountain, pure water flowed from a spring, falling by various cascades; twelve men dressed as mountaineers, armed with pikes and with civic crowns on their heads, were hidden in caverns in the mountain; as the procession arrived, singing the last couplet of the Marseillaise, the mountaineers quietly came out of their caverns without fully revealing themselves, and when “Aux armes, citoyens,” was sung, they ran to get axes to defend their retreat, posted themselves on different sides of the mountain, but seeing the cart with feudalism and fanaticism drawn by asses with miters on their heads, they ran towards them, axe in hand, grabbed the miters, copes, and chasubles which adorned them as well as the pope and his acolytes, and chained them to the chariot of Liberty. During this, the band played a military charge; the carmagnole song was heard; but the mountaineers, seeing other carts arrive and feigning to believe that they were only the train following the one containing fanaticism, advanced in a column to meet the first one they saw, which was the chariot of Liberty; they lowered their axes as a sign of respect, and the band played a march; then a litter appeared, supporting a chair decorated with garlands; the Goddess descended from her cart, seated herself on the chair and was borne by eight mountaineers to the foot of the mountain; she was followed by two nymphs, one of whom was carrying a tricolor flag and the other the Declaration of the Rights of Man; they marched upon the trash remnants of nobility and superstition, which were then burned, to the great contentment of all the citizens, and climbing the mountain, with People’s Representative Pflieger, then present at this festival, and mountaineers who represented his colleagues, while the band played, “Where can one better be than in the bosom of one’s family,” reached the summit. The Goddess was crowned by the graces, then a tricolor flag was displayed, and they sang “Our country’s three colors,” and still on the mountain they sang “When from the mountain peaks the sun,” etc. The procession descended, the Goddess stopped at the spring, a vase was presented to her by the president of the Commune, she drank some water from the mountain, then presented some to the People’s Representative, to all the constituted authorities, citizens and officers of the different corps present, who all drank to the health of the Republic, one and indivisible, and of the Mountain. The Goddess, again on her chair, was borne to her chariot by eight mountaineers, four others placed themselves at her sides, axes raised, to drive away the profane, the others took their places with the administrative bodies, to indicate that public dignitaries are consistent with virtue alone.

From there … they went … to … the Temple of Reason.

All the musicians gathered behind the altar, with the singers; at the moment when the procession entered the Temple, the organ blared an overture, and the Société Populaire, the constituted Authorities, the surveillance committees, and the groups described above took places in rows facing the altar of Reason and a certain distance from it.

The military band played hymns to Reason, to Liberty, to hatred for tyrants, and to sacred love for the Patrie …

After their harangues, various patriotic hymns were repeated and accompanied by the military band, after which, in front of the Temple entrance, the trumpeters announced that the inauguration festival and the ceremony were concluded.

In the evening fireworks were displayed on the mountain, a bouquet marked the gratitude of all the French to the mountaineers present, who were solemnly recognized to be the saviors of the Republic; then a ball was held, and so brotherhood was twice celebrated in a single day. Each citizen taking part in this fine day evidenced his civic spirit. All took the oath to live in freedom or die.

The Reason Rally is an immense bore compared to this gaudy display. Fortunately this type of idolatry of reason didn’t last long. Robespierre put an end to it shortly after.

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