Redeeming History

Article excerpt

[Sacred Causes: The Clash of Religion and Politics from the Great War to the War on Terror, Michael Burleigh, HarperCollins, 557 pages] Redeeming History

BETWEEN RICHARD DAWKINS, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris, the past few years have witnessed a vitriolic string of attacks on organized religion, that terrible force from whose clutches the typical American teenager, full of knowledge and wisdom, never tires of announcing his glorious emancipation. These attacks went well beyond the usual claim that religion is a comforting, harmless delusion in which the weak or the intellectually deficient choose to take refuge. According to these critiques, religion is not only intellectually contemptible, but also a terrible scourge that with a few modest exceptions has produced nothing but misery for the human race.

These men are far from alone in taking such a stand. It has become increasingly common for intellectuals to extrapolate from the existence of Islamic terrorism the broader claim that religion per se amounts to little more than a source of irrationality and violence. In 2005, Muriel Gray declared in Scotland's Sunday Herald:

[T]he cause of all this misery, mayhem, violence, terror and ignorance is of course religion itself... . For the government of a secular country such as ours to treat religion as if it had real merit instead of regarding it as a ridiculous anachronism, which education, wisdom and experience can hopefully overcome in time, is one of the most depressing developments of the 21st century.

Likewise, Polly Toynbee wrote in the Guardian, "It is time now to get serious about religion-all religion-and draw a firm line between the real world and the world of dreams." Matthew Parris suggested in the London Spectator that "what unites an 'extremist' mullah with a Catholic priest or evangelical Protestant minister is actually much more significant and interesting than what divides him from them."

Sacred Causes, Michael Burleigh's new book, is an implicit reply to these increasingly strident secularist claims. He finds that the most self-consciously secular regimes of the 20th century were not the beacons of reason and progress that the grand promises of secularism lead us to expect. The churches, moreover, have quite a bit to show for themselves other than obscurantism and violence. An important if hobbled counterweight to the totalitarian regimes, the churches, for example, played an important role in bringing down communism-not exactly an achievement to be sniffed at.

Burleigh is interested in chronicling the relationship between religious forces (mainly Christian) and European regimes since World War I, and how the churches responded to the increasing claims of the political realm. He tells this important story superbly, with information and insight that can instruct even the expert. Burleigh is rightly contemptuous of the various strains of Christian leftism that became dominant in the 1960s, making it more difficult for the Christian world to operate as a counterforce to the secular state whose politically correct causes Christian leftists shared. He takes readers to the end of the Cold War and down through the present, with disorder in the Middle East and Islam challenging the tolerance of Europe.

Burleigh writes in an absorbing style and has a talent, reminiscent of Paul Johnson, for digging up long-forgotten historical episodes, though Burleigh is more organized and less idiosyncratic than his fellow British historian. Even when he repeats a familiar theme-the religious pretensions of the supposedly secular political ideologies of the 20th century-it is as if the reader encounters it for the first time. Consider this excerpt from the 1925 catechism of Italy's Balilla youth movement:

I believe in Rome the Eternal, the mother of my country, and in Italy her eldest Daughter, who was born in her virginal bosom by the grace of God; who suffered through the barbarian invasions, was crucified and buried; who descended to the grave and was raised from the dead in the nineteenth century; who ascended into Heaven in her glory in 1918 and 1922; who is seated on the right hand of her mother Rome; and who for this reason shall come to judge the living and the dead. …