« I am not become an Atheist, I assure you, by residing in Paris ».
Mary Wollstonecraft wrote these words in a letter to Joseph Johnson, her publisher, on 15 February 1793, after she had resided in Paris for two months. She had travelled to Paris with a commission to write a series of letters on the French Revolution.
Wollstonecraft had come to Paris at the beginning to the reign of Terror. A few months before her arrival, mobs had butchered aristocrats in their prisons, priests and nuns in convents and monasteries, supposedly on the order of Danton. The first few weeks of her stay had themselves been momentous: the King of France had been tried by the people, condemned to death and executed. She had the seen Louis drive past her window on the way to his trial, just a couple of weeks after she had settled in Paris. But even without the growing atmosphere of terror Wollstonecraft would have found it hard to settle in Paris: her French, while good enough for reviewing and translation purposes, was not really up to making conversation, and she was here alone despite having originally planned to travel with friends. Perhaps it is not surprising that her first impressions should be negative, bordering on the depressive. It would not have been surprising either if she had begun to lose her faith.
Wollstonecraft's republican friends, the Girondins, were mostly atheists, Grouchy and Condorcet were, the Rolands were, as was Brissot. It seemed that for many French republicans of that time, the rule of reason precluded the belief in God.
This may well indeed have been a Parisian thing. Thomas Paine, also ally to the Girondins, was not an atheist either. But he described the French of that time as ‘running headlong into atheism’, and saw his role as their friend to persuade them to give up such silliness. In the Age of Reason, which he wrote while incarcerated in the Palais du Luxembourg, he attempts to divert the French from the path of Atheism, showing them that one could be reasonable, defend the values of the Enlightenment and of the revolution, while still believing in God.
This is where I live blog about my new book project, an intellectual biography of three French Revolutionary women philosophers.