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
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl

First look at Oscar winner as transgender artistfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month

TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel

film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island

Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey


Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower