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The 15th and 16th chapters of Edward Gibbon’s momentous historical work left many of his contemporaries aghast, implying as they did that the growth of Christianity in Europe was neither providential nor down to its essential goodness. Rather, suggested Gibbon, a combination of all too human factors had assisted the rise of the Church and the demise of the Roman Empire. In his quest to understand, analyse, and elucidate the history he wrote about, Gibbon is viewed today as embodying the spirit of the Enlightenment, and his best known work as the period’s most significant historical production. In helping to pave the way for the honest and critical study of religion, Gibbon occupies an important place in the history of scepticism and humanism, and has influenced generations of humanists.

Writing in The Secular Chronicle a century after the publication of his History, Harriet Law described Gibbon as having ‘accomplished more for the emancipation of the human understanding from the fetters of dogmatic theology than many men of equal or even superior ability’. For another prominent freethinker, J. M. Robertson, histories of religion before him had represented ‘the chaos of tradition and miracle from which Gibbon helped to effect our deliverance.’ In the words of Edward Clodd, delivering the Conway Memorial Lecture in 1916:

It remains to his immortal credit that, once and for all, he cleared the way to subject Christianity to the same method of investigation which is since adopted in every field of research, and this at a time when the science of comparative theology was yet unborn… and, covertly denying the supernatural origin of Christianity, opened the road to proving that its progress, or whatever else we choose to call it, is explicable by human agencies, and human agencies alone.

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