History can be so darn inconvenient. Take the gag-reflex-inducing ‘thoughts’ expressed by John Lennon in the insipid yet popular ballad, Imagine. Why, if people would just abandon all the beliefs they hold to be worth fighting for, then, you know, there would be nothing worth fighting over. So, like, nobody would fight. Mellows would go unharshed. And if anyone disagrees, we’ll just kill them.
Lennon doesn’t actually say that last part. History does, however.
When people think The Enlightenment, they prefer to think of, oh, Thomas Jefferson, whose personal Bible had all the miracles cut out and who put social contract theory into a more rhetorically forceful form in the Declaration of Independence (which, in hindsight, made the Civil War pretty much inevitable, but we’ll skip over that for now – this is a happy time!). But the true and final expression of the Enlightenment, both philosophically and historically, was the somewhat less happy French Revolution. The deep-revolving Mike Flynn, in the course of recounting his most recent adventures, mentions in passing:
A similar, if briefer, such incident was the establishment of Temples of Reason by the French Revolution. When Catholicism was banned in 1792, many church buildings were converted into Temples of Reason and services were held in worship of Reason. This was naturally followed by the Terror, when the devotees of Reason began rationally to chop off the heads first of those who opposed them, then of those they thought might one day oppose them, and finally of one another. Think of these as the human sacrifices of the new paganism of Reason. The Cult of Reason was later banned by Robespierre who replaced it with his Cult of the Supreme Being and lopped off the heads of the leaders of the Cult of Reason, proving (one supposes) that even atheists can have schisms. In a shorter period of time, the Rationalists had executed more people per annum than the Spanish Inquisition had for most of its history.
To recap: the evil evil bad bad Catholic Inquisition had handed over a couple thousand people to get burned at the stake over the course of a couple centuries, where each one was individually charged and given, by the standards of the time, a fair trial. The Reason-worshiping atheists of the French Revolution, proud children of the Enlightenment, over the course of less than a decade and a half, executed up to 40,000 people, mostly by just rounding them up and marching them off to the guillotine or a prison where they would be left to rot, often for the crime of being insufficiently convincing in their enthusiasm for the Revolution.
We call this the triumph of Reason. Some of us, anyway.
No way this could *ever* happen again. Right? Right?