Monday Meslier – 179: An Atheistical King Would be Preferable to One Who is Religious and Wicked, as We Often See Them

Jean Meslier Portrait

Jean Meslier

The speculating atheist, the theist will tell us, may be an honest man, but his writings will cause atheism in politics.

Princes and ministers, being no longer restrained by the fear of God, will give themselves up without scruple to the most  frightful excesses. But no matter what we can suppose of the depravity of an atheist on a throne, can it ever be any greater or more injurious than that of so many conquerors, tyrants, persecutors, of ambitious and perverse courtiers, who, without being atheists, but who, being very often religious, do not cease to make humanity groan under the weight of their crimes? Can an atheistical king inflict more evil on the world than a Louis XI., a Philip II., a Richelieu, who have all allied religion with crime? Nothing is rarer than atheistical princes, and nothing more common than very bad and very religious tyrants.


Meslier wrote at a time when “divine right of kings” was finally being destroyed by the great explosion of political philosophy of the enlightenment. Being an atheist was still considered pretty edgy: ethical systems that didn’t depend on religion for their justification were still an ongoing project. They are still an ongoing project, but at least humanity has mostly recognized that “because god says so” isn’t much of a philosophy.

“Because god said so” is suspiciously similar to “because I said so” – the penultimate argument of kings. I think Meslier misses a trick (he touches on it elsewhere) in this one; the obvious answer is that most tyrants have probably been atheists all along. How many christian tyrants have utterly ignored the supposed teachings of their savior? Tyrants seem to be a great bunch of sociopathic nihilists; if they believed in an afterlife wherein your pay for your sins, they’d be a lot nicer people.

I am not taking for granted the old chestnut: “if you don’t believe in god, how can you be a good person” – I just choose to ignore it. While Nietzsche tried to explain the origin of christian morality, I don’t think it’s even worth worrying about – an atheist has no reason to behave worse than a believer. That’s enough, right there.


  1. Owlmirror says

    Almost a decade ago, I found the following quote from The Beharistan by Nur ad-Din Abd ar-Rahman Jami:

      Justice without religion is better for the order of the universe than the tyranny of a pious prince.

    However, that was by one particular translator. I found another translation which was more flowery and less daring.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Aw, c’mon, Abbé Meslier – Louis XI, who ended the Hundred Years’ War by negotiation (and the banquet of a century) doesn’t rank in even the top 100 of history’s baddies.

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    an atheist has no reason to behave worse than a believer.

    Wonder what yer average Cambodian would think about that.

  4. says

    Rob Grigjanis@#3:
    Wonder what yer average Cambodian would think about that.

    “an atheist has no reason” doesn’t mean they won’t behave badly out of sheer cussedness.

  5. bmiller says

    I don’t know. I think the Khmer Rouge were pretty fervid believers. Don’t forget that Marxism at least partially grew out of millenialist Christian threads.