The Religious Revolution: The Birth of Modern Spirituality, 1848‒98

The Religious Revolution: The Birth of Modern Spirituality, 1848‒98

Dominic Green
New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2022; 452 pp., hardcover, $35.

With the advent of the age of science, many wondered what might replace Christianity in the Western religious tradition. Few realized that a new spirituality was dawning on the horizon. Dominic Green, a historian, Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and an author who has taught writing, history, and politics at Brandeis University and Boston College, takes us on this journey in his latest book, The Religious Revolution: The Birth of Modern Spirituality, 1848‒98.

With the death of the Christian God proclaimed by Friedrich Nietzsche (whom Green cites extensively), many wondered, would a new god arise? If so, what would that god look like? And who would present that god to the Western world? During the fifty-year period that Green examines, there were many participants in this religious revolution.

Green’s book begins with Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose beliefs shifted from those of a Christian theologian to something more akin to an Indian spiritual mindset, as set forth during his famous Harvard commencement address, which was influenced by the Bhagavad Gita. That small event may have marked the beginning of this religious revolution.

At the same time, political influence on Christian religious beliefs came not only from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels but from Charles Darwin, who posited the evolutionary development of species, including humans, putting science into the forefront of the revolution.

Green includes Claude de Rouvroy, the count of Saint-Simon, who “launched the ‘Scientific Religion” in 1803 by calling for a curia called the “Elect of Humanity” that would ensure “peaceful resolution of disagreements” as well as managing the spread of humanity throughout the world. Like some scientists today, Saint-Simon “warned that the Earth was over-heating, that the temperate zones would shortly resemble the deserts of Africa and Asia, and that Man would end up where he had begun, playing in the sand.”

The English economist Thomas Malthus was concerned about another problem: overpopulation. In his 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus was convinced that as populations grew, their numbers would outstrip the food supply. “Malthusian competition became the spring in the mechanism of Darwin’s universe,” Green notes.

Green has much to say about the role of Theosophy and its founders, H.P. Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott, in the religious revolution that brought East to the West. He writes extensively about the early history of Theosophy—the good, the bad, and the ugly—crediting HPB with bringing Buddhist philosophy West. Green is a bit critical of the “license” she took with science of her day, contending that her “scientist followers kept her up-to-date on their fields, and she remained a bold plagiarist. The Secret Doctrine mingles digressions into comparative mythology with speculations on the Ice Age,” wrote Green. (However, should Green care to study recent geological research on the Ice Ages, he would discover that her “speculations” have been borne out regarding Greenland’s former tropical climate.) 

“Science and skepticism had weakened the Christian theology, imperiling the soul and its after life,” Green writes. “Blavatsky returned it to them . . . the Western perception of life and death was changing, the New Age theology emerging Blavatsky was a catalyst.” W.T. Stead wrote in 1894 in his Spiritualist journal, Borderland, that the “range of popular thought” had widened, and this “great achievement” would ever be associated with Blavatsky, who “bridged the chasm between the materialism of the West and the occultism and metaphysics of the East.”

Addressing the contributions of Judaism to the religious revolution and the role that Zionism played in global politics and religion, Green writes, “The Jews needed to answer the ‘Jewish Question’ before their enemies did. The answer was a revolutionary leap forward into the past: the recovery of the lost Jerusalem, the return to Zion.” Theodor Herzl, “son of German-speaking Jews who migrated from Budapest to Vienna,” was a central figure in this religious revolution. The struggles of the Jews in Europe during that period are mirrored in today’s Middle Eastern strife, a seemingly never-ending trial that is both religious and political. 

Green’s tour de force of the religious revolution, which was in fact a spiritual evolution, includes many more players in that drama, ranging from Richard Wagner to Swami Vivekananda, Arthur, Comte de Gobineau to Mohandas Gandhi and others, each playing their roles in the religious revolution.

Their influence continues today. According to Green, recent surveys show that “one in three Americans believes in reincarnation” and nearly “one in five describes themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’”—which, for him, means that “the Religious Revolution is not over.”

Clare Goldsberry

Clare Goldsberry’s latest book, The Illusion of Life and Death, was reviewed in Quest, spring 2022.