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10. Abbé Grégoire (1750-1831), On Freedom of Worship, 179416

In 1794, it took a brave man to ask for complete freedom of worship for all, and the reopening of the churches.17 The priest Henri Grégoire, known as Abbé Grégoire, an abolitionist and defender of the Jews and all non-Catholics, was to stick to his position in spite of political turmoil. This excerpt is taken from a speech given on 1 Nivôse, year III (1794). When Abbé Grégoire died in 1831, at the height of the Restoration, he had been rejected by his Archbishop for his role in the Revolution and for refusing to renounce the oath he made in 1790 to obey the laws of the State over the laws of the church (known as the Civil Constitution of Clergy); he received religious burial in defiance of the Archbishop. In 1989, his remains were transferred to the Panthéon in Paris.

Any opinion is the result of the operations of the mind; these operations may be altered only by reason: an opinion will give way to a burst of illumination but never to force; the wish to dictate thought is a fanciful undertaking because it exceeds man’s powers; it is a tyrannical undertaking because no man has the right to set any limits on my reason.

From the instant I am allowed to have thoughts, I am also allowed to express them and behave in accordance with them. Public worship, which results from this, is a function of natural law and an equivalent to the freedom of the press; to attack it would be to destroy the basis of the social contract. Sometimes the way in which a question is posed is enough to resolve it; the question of the freedom of worship may be framed in these terms: may one require any member of the social body to do anything other than his duty as a good citizen?

The government must not adopt, let alone finance, any single religion, although it must acknowledge the right of each individual to worship as he pleases. The government may not therefore refuse protection or give preference to any one religion without being unjust; it follows that it must not itself say or do anything which, by offending those who hold something sacred, would endanger harmony or destroy political equality; it must hold all religions in balance and prevent them from being disrupted and from disrupting others.

It would, however, be necessary to forbid any religion which caused persecution, any religion which failed to acknowledge the full extent of national sovereignty or accept the principles of equality, liberty and fraternity; but once the government has satisfied itself that a given religion will not be not harmful to these principles, and that all its followers will swear allegiance to the political orthodoxy of the State, whether an individual is baptised or circumcised or whether he calls on Allah or Yahweh falls outside the realm of politics.

Even if there were a man so insane as to wish, as in Ancient Egypt, to worship a vegetable and build an altar to it, we have no right to stand in his way, because what the law does not forbid is allowed; and indeed I would make sure I did not disturb a Jew in his synagogue, a Muslim in his mosque or a Hindu in his temple, for that would be to violate one of their most sacred rights, that of honouring the Supreme Being in the way they choose. If I am wrong, the citizen would then say, you should pity and love me, teach me but do not persecute me: in any case, what are my beliefs to you? So long as I bend my own interest to the national interest and work with my brothers, liberty prospers and the Republic triumphs!

Let us appeal to the experience of the past to guide the present; for the experience of all centuries and all peoples proves that suppressing religious ideas only gives them more energy and, in the words of the philosopher Forster, increases their elasticity. Persuasion or pride make all the more precious any belief for which we have shed blood: when we persecute people and opinions, we isolate them, we make those opinions dearer to those who hold them, we make proselytism more likely, and we swell the ranks of those who wish to tread the path to martyrdom.

Read the free original text online (facsimile), 1795 edition:

16 Abbé Grégoire, Discourse sur la liberté des cultes, Paris: Maradan, 1795, pp. 11-12.

17 Background information on the ‘dechristianization’ of France during the French Revolution is available at