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No. 3147:
Reason, Religion, and Revolution

by Andy Boyd

Today, the three r's: reason, religion and revolution. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights." These are just some of the eloquent words found in the Declaration of Independence, a document gushing with Enlightenment ideals. But the Enlightenment had its roots in Europe, where it most notably flourished in Paris. As part of their revolution, the French wrote their own declaration. But while the documents shared the same underlying ideals, the related conflicts that ensued were vastly different.

Depiction of the French Revolution's Pivotal Tennis Court Oath
Depiction of the French Revolution's Pivotal Tennis Court Oath Photo Credit: Wikimedia

The French declaration didn't precipitate the French Revolution - it had already been underway for months. But it helped the French crystalize what the fighting was all about; in particular, the "natural, unalienable and sacred rights of man" as declared "under the auspices of the Supreme Being." While both the Americans and French allude to a creator, their dealings with religion couldn't have been further apart.

At the time of the French revolution the Roman Catholic Church was a powerful presence in France, whose wealth made it a target for the revolutionaries. So, too, did Church dogma. Stemming from divine revelation rather than reason, it ran counter to Enlightenment thinking. Antichurch sentiment resulted in the passage of legislation that subjugated the clergy, requiring them to swear allegiance to the French Constitution. At the same time, short-lived efforts were made to replace Catholicism with an official state church founded on Enlightenment principles. First came the Cult of Reason, which deified reason itself, and later the Cult of the Supreme Being, which was briefly adopted as the civic religion of France.

Festival of the Cult of the Supreme Being
Festival of the Cult of the Supreme Being Photo Credit: Wikimedia

Execution Photo Credit: Wikimedia

In contrast, the colonies that would become the United States were filled with groups seeking freedom of religious practice. The many Protestant religions these groups represented were no more in line with Enlightenment thinking than Catholicism. Martin Luther famously referred to reason as "the Devil's whore."

Boston Massacre
Boston Massacre Photo Credit: Wikimedia

But the circumstances were different than in France. In France, the Catholic church was viewed as part of the repressive power structure. In the colonies, the many religious groups were part of the fabric of the emerging nation. When the newly formed United States went to war with Britain, religion and revolution were united. And the Enlightenment ideals that drove the revolution reached peaceful equilibrium with religion. The very first amendment in the Bill of Rights states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." In the U.S., Enlightenment thinking embraced religion as an individual liberty, even if the tenets of most religions were at odds with Enlightenment ideals. It's a story of how circumstances and interpretations can lead even the most creative minds to follow radically different paths.

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

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Special thanks to Professor Sarah Fishman of the University of Houston who provided an extensive critique in the preparation of this essay.

Civil Constitution of the Clergy. From the Wikipedia website: Accessed October 17, 2017.

Cult of Reason. From the Wikipedia website: Accessed October 17, 2017.

Cult of the Supreme Being. From the Wikipedia website: Accessed October 17, 2017.

Martin Luther's Last Sermon in Wittenberg, Second Sunday in Epiphany, 17 January 1546. Dr. Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe. Weimar: Herman Boehlaus Nachfolger, 1914, Band 51:126, Line 7ff. Reference taken from the website: Accessed October 17, 2017.

Russell Shorto. Descartes' Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason. New York: Vintage Books, 2008.