The Religious Revolution: The Birth of Modern Spirituality, 1848-1898
By Dominic Green.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022.
Hardcover, 464 pages, $35.

Reviewed by Chilton Williamson, Jr.

“We live,” Flannery O’Connor wrote in 1963, “in an unbelieving age but one which is markedly and lopsidedly spiritual. There is one type of modern man who recognizes spirit in himself but who fails to recognize a being outside himself whom he can adore as Creator and Lord; consequently he has become his own ultimate concern. He says with Swinburne, ‘Glory to man in the highest, for he is the master of things,’ or with Steinbeck, ‘in the end was the word and the word was with men.’ For him, man has his own natural spirit of courage and dignity and pride and must consider it a point of honor to be satisfied with this.” 

“I’m not religious, I’m spiritual” is the prevailing mantra of this unbelieving age. Dominic Green’s The Religious Revolution demonstrates conclusively why and how Western civilization in the twenty-first century is the clear and inevitable result of the revolutionary eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. At once intellectually galvanizing and mentally depressing, it is an important book that helps us understand our current secular moment.

New lives create new ideals and myths—many of which in the nineteenth century became “isms”—Dominic Green contends. The decades between the revolutions of 1848 on the European Continent and the Spanish-American War in 1898 entirely remade Western life through industrial growth, urbanization, scientific discovery, and technological development with a speed unprecedented in human history before and since, including the recent decades of digital revolution. The transformation of the inner lives of human beings that accompanied the changes in our material condition is what Green means by the Religious Revolution, which in the instance of the United States he traces from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s address to the Harvard Divinity School on July 15, 1838, where he contrasted the Church with the Soul “in a manner,” Green observes, “reflecting dimly on the Church and radiantly on the Soul.” “Write your own bible!” the Sage of Concord once urged Margaret Fuller.

Industrialization, a globalized economy and globalized communications, the advance of experimental and applied science, and political revolution brought on a crisis in the history of Christianity; but these factors did not succeed in replacing religion, narrowly conceived, or the Western religious impulse with rank secularism. Rather, it produced a range of self-professed “spiritual” movements, or pseudo religions, offering “spirituality” in place of the old religiosity (though Green does on occasion conflate the two terminologically). “Before socialism became scientific,” he reminds us, citing the Putney Association of Perfectionists in Putney, Vermont, who practiced what they called “true” holiness and “true” spirituality, “it was religious.” Some of these movements, like Emerson’s Transcendentalism and Mme. Blavatsky’s Theosophy, arose directly from theological speculation and an interest in the supernatural and the occult, or were vaguely religious. Others, like those of Baudelaire, Ruskin, Wagner, and Nietzsche, sprang from aesthetic, historical, and philosophical obsessions. Marx’s movement grew from historical and philosophical theories. Walt Whitman’s was a blending of the new post-Christian spiritualism with the new free-verse poetry and literary bloviation. Jamal al-Din al-Afghani’s pan-Islamism was politico-religious in nature; Gandhi’s almost purely political. Gobineau’s racial theories were a combination of pseudo-science and his own romantic fantasies regarding himself, his family, and his aristocratic ancestry tracing back to Charlemagne, all of them wholly imaginary. Only Darwin, who was tempted to compromise his commitment to scientific inquiry from fear of the implications that evolutionary theory held for the future of his Christian faith, was working cautiously and reluctantly against the spirit of the New Age, rather than enthusiastically on behalf of it.

Otherwise, and almost without exception, the dominant characteristic of the new spirituality was the inflation, as egregious as it was absurd, of thought, of language, and of self: every man (or woman) a prophet, every man his own priest, every man a genius, each dedicated to what Dominic Green calls “the aristocrat within.” “Since the old God is abolished,” Nietzsche wrote in The Antichrist, “I am prepared to rule the world.” In point of fact, a considerable number of these supposed salvific figures—not just Blavatsky and Gandhi—were frauds and windbags, including Karl Marx, though portions of Das Kapital are solid, useful, and insightful history. Reading Emerson today one wonders how such rhetorical flatulence and ideational self-abandonment, completely unreflective of and untethered to communicative human thought and the actual world of reality and action, could possibly have established the enormous reputation the man enjoyed in his lifetime in America and in England. The same goes for Whitman, whose poetry and prose seem to the modern ear to have been deliberately calculated by the author to conceal the fact that the man, beyond being unable to write, was incapable even of sensible and intelligible thought. Indeed, The Religious Revolution lays bare the appalling thinness of nineteenth-century culture in the United States, due principally to that premature but seemingly deathless and indestructible form of early modern spirituality called Puritanism, of which twenty-first century progressivism is a postmodern descendant.

A further and equally striking aspect of modern “spirituality” in the second half of the 1800s—one that has become steadily more exaggerated since Whitman, Baudelaire, and Gandhi—is the gross sensuality it adopted, practiced, and preached, and still does in its aggiornamento, the new New Age of the rainbow flag and transgenderism. How can it be that so many “spiritual” people abandoned themselves during the first five decades of the nineteenth century’s Great Awakening to an appreciation of the most gross and disgusting aspects of the flesh and of fleshliness? Walt Whitman celebrated his unwashed armpits as being among his glorious human attributes, and lived in the most abject habitual squalor. For them, the flesh was the most spiritual of things in an age of railroad locomotives, foundries, devastating military weapons, heavy industry, and international commerce, in which the Bad Old Religion of the churches nevertheless continued to survive. In the First New Age, the spiritual could be discerned everywhere in the world save in its traditional forms. The truth is that where everything—or nearly everything—is either spiritual or a font of the spirit, nothing is. Just as in our own time the leftist assertion that “everything is political” is contradicted by its own implications.

“It is human,” Green writes, “to possess religiosity [spirituality], but its possession does not protect against inhumanity.” Rather the opposite, “This [period] is the age of the Religious Revolution. It is also the age of science and race. This is the age of the Religious Revolution because it is the age of science and race.” So is our own age, in which these account for two of the six overriding Western obsessions, the other three being money, sex, power, and what Friedrich Nietzsche called “metapolitics.” “For when truth enters into a fight with the lies of millennia,” Nietzsche wrote, “we shall have upheavals, a convulsion of earthquakes, a moving of mountains and valleys, the like of which has never been dreamed of. The concept of politics will have merged entirely with a war of the spirits; all power structures of the old society will have been exploded—all of them are based on lies: there will be wars the like of which have never yet been seen on earth. It is only beginning with me that the earth knows metapolitics.”

The world in the twenty-first century is facing destruction as tragic and complete as the immolation that Richard Wagner’s Valhalla suffered, but without the glorious musical themes and shimmering orchestration Wagner provided as accompaniment for that debacle. Surviving historians of the post-cataclysmic era (if there are any) will speculate on the reasons for the catastrophe. We can already, from our present vantage point, discern some of them, the central one being that industrialism and the technology and technique it has made possible have so changed the material and social facts of the human world as it has evolved into the present century that they no longer agree with Judeo-Christian teaching, traditions, and life; which is to say, they no longer correspond with Truth, lived Truth in particular. There are many signs that humanity has been traveling the wrong road for many centuries now. This one is the surest of them all. 

Chilton Williamson, Jr. is the author of After Tocqueville: The Promise and Failure of Democracy.

Support the University Bookman

The Bookman is provided free of charge and without ads to all readers. Would you please consider supporting the work of the Bookman with a gift of $5? Contributions of any amount are needed and appreciated