The Reign of Terror was the darkest moment of the French Revolution. It was that moment when the revolution would turn in on itself, killing thousands of suspected counter-revolutionaries, many of whom simply opposed the more radical direction that the revolution was taking.
It took place in the middle of a budding civil war, with many elements of the old regime fighting against some of the policies of the revolutionary government. In the middle of the panic about the success or failure of the revolutionary undertaking, Maximilien Robespierre became the head of the Committee for Public Safety, which ostensibly operated to protect the government, but became the de facto executive body. (It served as a precursor to the role that the secret police would play in the Soviet Union during its own Great Purges.) Robespierre was a revolutionary zealot who sought to cleanse the revolution. Thousands would die by means of the guillotine, including many of the greatest lights of the revolution, like Georges Danton.
The French Revolution began not only as a revolt against the monarchy
, but had a strong anti-clerical streak as well. The revolutionaries were largely atheists
, products of the Enlightenment
. One of the more ironic twists, then, was Robespierre's embrace of a new religion
, a cult
of the "goddess of Reason," whose statue was unveiled in Paris
to the disbelief of the throngs. An attempt to institute a new set of rituals was undertaken, but without great success. However, it is a revealing insight into the mind of the revolutionaries, who understood that religion played a unifying role, and tried to create a new religion, even if it was one that was based on their atheism. Without the absolute value of human life that is conferred by theism
, those who stand in the way of the revolutionary leadership are expendable. Many thousands were executed or simply murdered during the Reign of Terror, including, in the end, Robespierre himself. It should be noted, however, that many have also been slaughtered in the name of imposing one religion onto another group, so religious people have not always adhered to this fundamental tenet of faith
, the divine nature of the human being.