Magazine article The Spectator

When a Man Stops Believing in God

Magazine article The Spectator

When a Man Stops Believing in God

Article excerpt

When a man stops believing in God...

Robbie Millen


by Adam Zamoyski

Weidenfeld, L25, pp. 498

History has been held hostage, insulted and violated by a motley crew of dismal scientists and sexual obsessives. In the hands of modern academic historians, man has been remoulded into homo economicus, a desiccated calculating machine, pushed hither and thither by massive structural forces. If the great men of history are studied, thanks to Dr Freud, they become bags of neuroses, driven from drama to drama by some deeply-ingrained psychosexual urge. But history is more than highbrow sex and shopping.

Adam Zamoyski, thankfully, has done that fair discipline a splendid service. In this provocative book he reveals the vitality and importance of the religious impulse in explaining the revolutions, turmoil and nationalism of the years 1776-1871. In our sadly secular age when Western intellectuals have even forgotten that they have buried God, he argues that the failure to understand resurgent contemporary nationalism is due to us not seeing the religious germ in that creed.

The national instinct [he observes] is a natural one where religious belief-systems have failed, and it inherits from these not only crude fanaticism, but also a spark of divinity, for it is, ultimately, a kind of mission. That is why it cannot be persuaded out of existence by the reasonable arguments of capitalist liberalism.

The scope of Holy Madness extends from America's fight for independence to the Paris Commune. An exotic collection of fanatics, adventurers, poets and thinkers are brought to life. All admired or sought martyrdom, were nurtured on traditional Christian imagery but subverted it for the ends of nation and liberty. Throughout, Zamoyski shows how the religious instinct sought outlets elsewhere in the occult, art, and above all the worship of the nation as the traditional church's influence waned. The philosophes who did so much to spread doubt, nonetheless were themselves 'peddling a mongrel Christianity'. They looked back to an Edenic path, where the noble savage, untainted by the artifice of civilisation, roamed free. The fall of man was to be cured by political means - Jerusalem was not to be found heavenwards, but by reforming 'Our Lord Mankind'. Enlightenment values and rationalism offered only thin gruel and failed to satisfy the innate need for faith. Rousseau's sense of imagination, emotion and faith, however, was a better credo for the topsy-turvy times at the end of the 18th century.

Tocqueville wrote of the events of 1789 that the revolution had 'become a sort of new religion itself, an imperfect religion it is true, without a God, without ritual and without an afterlife'. Zamoyski disagrees with the last three propositions, arguing that the spontaneous piety of the French people fulfilled such necessaries. Brought up in the Catholic tradition, he has a keen eye for how the language and ritual of that church were adapted by revolutionaries to their cause. The Marseillaise became the Te Deum of the Republic; Liberte, the .chaste daughter of the heavens', became a symbol for pseudo-Marian devotion; the tricolor was substituted for the Cross, and commonfolk crossed themselves 'in the name of Liberte, Egalite and Fraternite' or 'in the name of Marat, Lepeletier and Bara'; and relics were made of the bloodstained clothing of 'martyrs' or stones from the Bastille. …

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