On this day in 1794, French lawyer Maximilien Robespierre proposed an idea for a new state religion in France. Known as the Cult of the Supreme Being, the new “religion” was intended to fill the vacuum left by the Catholic church in the wake of the French Revolution. Beginning in 1789, the revolution saw a popular uprising overthrow the well-established monarchy and its allies in the Catholic clergy. Inspired by Greco-Roman ideals of liberty and civic responsibility, Robespierre’s new cult rejected atheism on Voltairean principles: “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him” in order to inspire good civic behaviour amongst France’s citizens. The provisional French government swiftly adopted the new cult as the state religion, elevating Robespierre to new heights of power. Emboldened by his newfound influence, Robespierre organized a series of “Festivals of the Supreme Being” and doubled down on his efforts to hunt down political opponents. Armed with new semi-religious justification, the Robespierre-led Reign of Terror resulted in the deaths of 16,594 people.
Although Robespierre had killed off his most outspoken political opponents, his new Cult of the Supreme Being sparked an incredibly negative reaction. To many, Robespierre was beginning to appear more and more like the autocratic rulers he had replaced and the emergence of the new cult marked a point where the revolution had gone too far. By July of the same year, significant opposition had developed within the government and Robespierre was executed. Largely inspired by the excesses of Robespierre’s actions, the Thermidorian Reaction period began and many of the Revolution’s progressive ideals were abandoned. Facing attacks from many of Europe’s most established monarchies – who were horrified at the possibility of similar revolutions springing up in their own countries – the new French First Republic adopted an increasingly authoritarian stance as it battled for survival. By 1804, many of the revolution’s ideals – including universal liberty and a rejection of authoritarianism – had been rejected, and France accepted a new supreme leader in the form of Napoleon Bonaparte. In many ways, post-revolutionary France was a testing ground for new forms of government and religion; many of these new ideas failed because of the excesses of men like Robespierre.