Rebels Without a Cause

Religion and Revolution

by Guenter Lewy
Oxford University Press, 694 pp., $17.50

This long work consists of seventeen case studies of revolutionary religious movements—which range over history from the Maccabean Revolt to the Taiping Rebellion to Catholic radicalism in contemporary Latin America—with an introduction and seven chapters of theoretical conclusions. In his preface, however, Guenter Lewy suggests that readers interested in his general argument skip the case studies and turn directly to the last chapters. That is bad advice. The book really has no general argument, and Lewy’s conclusions are inconclusive. But the cases are fascinating. As an anthology of historical studies, Religion and Revolution is an unquestionable success. Lewy, however, is more ambitious. For him, as for many social scientists these days, it is theory or nothing.

At the same time, he wants his theory to be true, and he knows that there isn’t much one can say about the connection of religious faith and revolutionary activity that will fit all his cases. It’s not entirely facetious to suggest that, for a really good theory, Lewy has sixteen cases too many. What proposition would be true for all of them? He might say, “Religious faith sometimes does and sometimes does not lead to revolutionary action.” Indeed, he does say something like that, but the statement is, unhappily, not yet a theory. He must go on to consider why it does and doesn’t. He thinks he can describe only the necessary, not the sufficient conditions of religious radicalism. He aims at non-statistical probabilities: if A and B and C, then probably D, where “probably” has its ordinary language meaning—more likely than not—and nothing more.

Now, in principle it must be possible to do this, to identify a set of variables which appear in some patterned way, so that it can be said that they probably will or won’t produce some specified outcome, depending on the pattern. But even this is very hard to do, and Lewy is honest enough to pull back from every serious attempt to do it. He is in flight from the theory he is committed to have, and the spectacle is sometimes painful.

Lewy identifies four variables which must be studied if we are to explain the political effect of religious belief. The first is the religious creed itself, the doctrine and dogmas of the believers. Might not belief have an impact on political life like that of Weber’s Calvinism on economic life? But it appears that Weber’s argument works only because we somehow assume that it isn’t terribly peculiar to be a Calvinist; Calvinism itself doesn’t have to be explained. It is the chief advantage of Lewy’s seventeen cases however that some of them are bound to seem peculiar. Consider the bizarre melange of Christian millenarian and traditional Confucian beliefs that swept China during the Taiping Rebellion. We are less inclined to explain the rebellion as an effect of the dogmas proclaimed by that son of God, Hung Hsiu-ch’üan, than to explain the dogmas, or the reception of the dogmas, as the effect of whatever (we…

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