HARPERCOLLINS £25 (530pp) £22.50 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

Earthly Powers, by Michael Burleigh

Europe's cult of strange gods

Even in Britain, where communal interaction is making steady progress, religious tensions undermine the efforts of community workers or noble documents like the Parekh report on multiculturalism.

Parliament is asked to curtail historic freedoms in the cause of suppressing "religious hatred". The prime minister, who worked so brilliantly to break down the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland, is inclined to respond to religious differences by endorsing more faith schools, potentially segregating English and Welsh schoolchildren in the same way as Northern Irish. If religion is the opium of the people, then we are high on drugs.

Many of the historical strands lying behind modern religious observance and ideology are covered in Michael Burleigh's sprawling, stimulating book on religion and politics in Europe from the French Revolution to the Great War, a sequel to his earlier analysis of Nazism as a surrogate religion. His text is fascinating, and beautifully produced with superb colour illustrations and rich footnotes. There is a range of enjoyable detail - the symbolism of David's painting of the murder of Marat, Dostoevsky's spiritual turmoil over revolutionary "new men", Wagner on the music of the sublime, Comte throwing knives at his mistress while reciting Homer.

The book covers the more conventional story of the attempt of both Catholics and Protestants to confront the forces of modernisation after the French Revolution drew up new battle lines between church and state, faith and force. As befits a German specialist, Burleigh is particularly strong on the Kulturkampf, the battle of German Catholics against the Bismarckian state. He also covers the conflicts and accommodations of churches with nationalism and socialism, shown in the soul-wrestling of O'Connell and Mazzini, prophets of Young Ireland and Young Italy respectively. There is the even more powerful challenge of urbanisation as traditional religious bodies struggled to survive in the anonymity and disorder of cities. Imperialism should be added to this list.

But Burleigh also has a far more original theme, the mutation of secular creeds into "political religions". Tocqueville saw this in examining the messianic impulse of the French Revolution. Others later applied the idea to modern totalitarianism. Thus the Jacobin Robespierre appears as a highly religious prophet: he condemned the de-Christianising zeal of apostles of the Cult of Reason, and it cost him his life.

Burleigh shows how the trappings, and in part the substance, of organised religion coloured the international socialist movement. In that sense, when Morgan Phillips observed that the Labour Party owed more to Methodism to Marx, he was making a doubtful conceptual distinction. Utopian thinkers - St. Simon, Fourier, Robert Owen, Comte, even Marx - are seen as prophets of a "philosophical religion". In liberal, rational Britain, the emergence of a substitute public morality, focusing on civic and social reform, owed much to the moral canon of churches which were unthreatened by it.

Progressive movements demonstrated man's abiding religiosity. French writers like Lammenais or de Mun extended Catholicism to embrace liberalism and social reform. A German Protestant like Adolf Stoecker adapted his faith to militarism and even anti-Semitism.

Burleigh weaves together a rich miscellany of themes, but his book is less accessible than his earlier masterpiece on the Third Reich. Its very introduction is a complicated statement of what the book is about. And it stops with Pope Benedict XV's ineffective peace moves in 1917: since we have no conclusion, it is not clear where the argument has got us.

The emphasis is always on the enduring importance of religion. We read that in Britain "socialism did not displace Christianity". This is certainly true of ILP evangelists like Hardie and Snowden. But we hear nothing of frankly anti-religious socialists like the Fabians. Burleigh's view of them emerges in an offhand reference to Sidney Webb "worshipping the ghastly Beatrice and the beastly Soviet Union". A throwaway line about the Left's enduring, characteristic "unselfconscious projection of its own conspiratorial imaginings and its corrupt modus operandi" has a man-down-the-club ring to it.

The idea that those who advocated Church disestablishment were intrinsically religious in motivation should be re-examined. That would hardly apply to Clemenceau or Jaures, say. The author, attached to the University of Cardiff, might reflect that Welsh disestablishment, achieved amid broad indifference in 1920, was above all a political statement of national identity against the Church of England in Wales.

But this is only to say that Burleigh has written a thought-provoking, deeply civilised book. Its sequel, eagerly awaited, will examine a world turned upside down by totalitarian political religions, after 32 million men had been killed or mutilated pursuing a Holy War.

Kenneth O Morgan, biographer of Keir Hardie and James Callaghan, has just completed a biography of Michael Foot

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?