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Western Religion of the 19th Century Competed with Darwin and Marx By Dabbling in Hinduism, Occultism, and Wellness

May 19, 2022
00:00 55:22
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We often think of the late nineteenth century in Western societies as an era of immense technological and scientific change, moving from religion to secularism, from faith to logic. But today’s guest, Dominic Green, author of The Religious Revolution: The Birth of Modern Spirituality, 1848-1898 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; April 19, 2022) religion in the past was much stronger, and much weirder, than we give it credit.
Tsame period that introduced Darwin’s theory of evolution, democratic revolutions, mass urbanization, and the Industrial Revolutions, also brought with it new kinds of religiosity. It wasn’t an absence of religion, but instead new forms of spirituality that filled the vacuum left behind by the diminished prominence of the Church in European and American politics and life.
While fueled by rapid scientific and technological innovation, these formative decades were also a time of great social strife. The same period that welcomed the invention of the telephone and the motor vehicle, the de jure abolishment of slavery and serfdom, the first women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls, and countless seminal artistic and literary movements, was also plagued by the aggressive rise of capitalism and colonialism, subjecting entire populations to the West’s bottomless appetite for money and power. In effect, another transformation was underway: the religious revolution.
Green chronicles this spiritual upheaval, taking us on a journey through the lives and ideas of a colorful cast of thinkers. He traces the influence of new Sanskrit translations of Hindu and Buddhist texts on the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson. He follows the rise of occultism from upstate New York to Bombay to Italy. He examines the ways in which religion and nationalism entwined for Wagner and Nietzsche. We get warts-and-all portraits of the many figures who profoundly influenced the religious shifts of this era, including big names like Marx, Darwin, Baudelaire, and Thoreau, as well as some lesser-known figures such as Éliphas Levi and--my personal favorite of the bunch--Helena Blavatsky. In response to the challenges brought on by industrialization, globalization, and political unrest, these figures found themselves connecting with their religious impulses in groundbreaking ways, inspiring others to move away from the oppressive weight of organized faith and toward the intimacies and opportunities that spirituality offered.

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Meet Your Host
Meet Your Host
Scott Rank is the host of the History Unplugged Podcast and a PhD in history who specialized in the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey. Before going down the academic route he worked as a journalist in Istanbul. He has written 12 history books on topics ranging from lost Bronze Age civilizations to the Age of Discovery. Some of his books include The Age of Illumination: Science, Technology, and Reason in the Middle Ages and History’s 9 Most Insane Rulers.. Learn more about him by going to scottrankphd.com.
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