Losing Our Religion

REVIEW: ‘The Religious Revolution’ by Dominic Green

'Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog' by Caspar David Friedrich / Wikimedia Commons
• May 8, 2022 4:59 am


The 19th century was an age of upheaval, in which technology reshaped the course of human events, and scientific revelations imperiled an old consensus. Yet in the century Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God, religiosity flowered.

So writes Dominic Green, the British historian and critic, in his new book The Religious Revolution: The Birth of Modern Spirituality, 1848-1898. The birth of secularism, far from ending belief in the supernatural, coincided with a fervent search for transcendence, as disparate writers, scientists, and artists helped fashion faith into new forms. They were the beneficiaries of the period's innovations, "when mass communications, mass politics, and global markets converged" to create a new democratic world order. As the title alludes, the revolutions against monarchical powers that swept across Europe in 1848 were just a prelude to a more lasting religious transformation.

The book weaves a stimulating story with dramatic characters and descriptions, beginning with the intellectuals: Karl Marx, whose Communist Manifesto translates "religious communism into scientific socialism," and Charles Darwin, whose theories of evolution and natural selection erode belief in institutional Christianity even as they usher in a liberal social morality. (An effort so successful, Green notes, "that, today, American liberals ward off religion and right-wingers by sporting one-word bumper stickers bearing his name.") And there is Nietzsche, "the founding philosopher of identity politics," whose Übermensch denounces the "slave morality" of the Judeo-Christian tradition, inaugurating a sensual religion of personal autonomy sprung from the soil of pagan Greece. The spirit of self-determination from his writings so permeated German culture that both anti-Semitic nationalists and Jewish intellectuals, including the young Theodor Herzl, credited him with inspiring their political endeavors. Though Green gives him short shrift, the British aesthetician John Ruskin, who fears the century's drift toward "politics without morality," is one of the few who maintains his doctrinal Christian commitments.

Had they been born a century before, Green says, Ruskin, Darwin, and Nietzsche would almost assuredly have been priests. Instead, their pastoral nature emerged in their respective disciplines. Their genius lay in turning discrete facts into systems of belief. "Each harmonized a babble of inquiry into a single ‘scientific' system," Green writes. "Each explained all historical development by a single mechanism, and declared its logic to be its morality." Thus, the 19th century religion of progress, or positivism, was born.

As with the scientists, so with the pseudo-scientists. Anxious of a demystified future, spiritualists and occultists manufactured religions out of whole cloth, seeking refuge in seances, hashish, and travels to the Orient. Madame Helena Blavatsky and Henry Olcott, both of whom emigrated to India in the 1880s, blended the findings of the world's empirical sciences, philosophies, and religions into Theosophy, "the first global faith of the New Age." The fusion proved so successful that it later inspired a law student at the University of London named Mohandas Gandhi to return to his Hindu roots. Éliphas Lévi, a lapsed Catholic possessed by apocalyptic visions, introduced magic and tarot cards to the French aristocracy. In Rochester, N.Y., the Fox sisters—who convinced the famous newspaperman Horace Greeley "beyond a shadow of a doubt" he had communed with spirits—merely fabricated the rappings of the dead in their parlor room by cracking their joints. If others' testimony is to be believed, some performed miracles.

The American Transcendentalists, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman, were less daring. Their "natural religion" obeyed the testament of their senses, and they worshiped the things of their world—flora and fauna, democracy and sex. "Natural impulses are right because they are natural," Green summarizes Whitman's thought, "and sacred because they reunify mind and body, the individual soul with the soul of the world." Such spiritual libertinism triumphed even when their gods fell. President Lincoln's assassination at Ford's Theatre, Whitman wrote, made him a martyr, vindicating their newfound spirituality in a way "subtler, more underlying, than anything in written constitution, or courts, or armies."

The technologies of this so-called New Age further aided its spiritual efforts. Many, including the automobile and the telephone, helped form the commercial networks of our modern society. They also hastened cultural synthesis, discarding the rituals of ancient religions while keeping many of their most cherished beliefs. "The relics of the old are enveloped, like the medieval kernel in the heart of a modern metropolis," Green writes.

For the masses, the loss of the old rites led them to politics, "with the state replacing the church, and race theory and the cult of blood replacing theology and miracles." Eugenics became an accepted science, and the oldest hatred, anti-Semitism, united populist coalitions. "Mass politics, with its parties, rallies, platforms, and voting, would become part of everyone's life. The personal would be political, and the name of the modern catechism was ‘ideology.'" It is to the 19th century that we owe the term Kulturkampf ("culture war") coined by the German chancellor Otto von Bismarck in a fight with the Catholic Church over education.

Though Nietzsche read Emerson, many of the figures Green writes about had not heard of each other. (The reader too will likely have never heard of some figures in the book.) But Green seamlessly joins diffuse events, showing their efforts were actually syncretic. In doing so, he has created a first-rate work of historical narrative that is wide-ranging and artful.

In the 19th century, Green demonstrates, science and spirituality went hand in hand. And reading his account, it is hard not to see many societal movements since then as expressions of a religious impulse. Most Americans don't belong to a synagogue, church, or mosque, but the heirs of positivism are all around us—in strange occultic movements and "wellness" practices, in chants and protests, and in the speech and actions of politicians. "Religiosity is a threshold of human consciousness," he writes. As a part of culture, it "evolves as far and fast as we can think—and sometimes faster than our minds and societies can bear." Marx for good reason, then, called his revolution "permanent." We are still reckoning with its legacy.

The Religious Revolution: The Birth of Modern Spirituality, 1848-1898
By Dominic Green
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 464 pp., $35

Published under: Book reviews