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  What is Religion? And Other Writings
Leo Tolstoy

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‘What is religion?’ is a collection of articles and letters written by the mature Tolstoy of 1901 and 1902. Published originally by the Free Age Press, it features all his trademark clarity and insight.

Contained here is a wide variety of subject matter, including a look at the causes of social inequality, various attacks on the church and reflections on a recent political assassination.

‘How shall we escape?’ opens with a brilliant rural vignette exposing the absurd inequalities of the social order. Tolstoy believes that ultimately it’s the government who is to blame for such inequity; but instead of choosing the path of the revolutionary, he encourages people to look inwardly at themselves, where the power of violence and evil lie.
In ‘My reply to the synod’ Tolstoy responds to the church’s Edict of Excommunication, in which they accuse Tolstoy of being seduced by the pride of his intellect. In his reply, Tolstoy quotes Coleridge approvingly: ‘He who begins by loving Christianity better than the Truth, will proceed by loving his own sect or church better than Christianity, and end up by loving himself better than all.’ Tolstoy claims to love Truth above all things.

‘Thou shalt not kill’ explores how the masses have been hypnotised into believing that killing is not only acceptable, but desirable. For Tolstoy, this is the old order of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’, which Jesus’ teaching had cancelled.

The title piece, ‘What is religion?’ is the most substantial. Here Tolstoy explores the idea of religion and provides the following definition: ‘True religion is the establishment by man of a relation to the infinite life around him; as long as in connecting his life with this infinitude and directing his conduct, there is also

About the author

Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, better known as Leo Tolstoy, is rightly regarded as one of the greatest writers in the history of literature and his masterpieces, ‘War And Peace’ and ‘Anna Karenina’, are considered by many to be two of the most important novels ever written.

He was born in 1828 in Yasnaya, Polyana, in what was then the Russian Empire, into a noble family with old and established links to the highest echelons of the Russian aristocracy. His parents died while he was young leaving relatives to raise him and after a brief and disappointing time at University, where enrolled in 1844, he spent time gambling, and losing, in St. Petersburg and Moscow before joining the army in 1851.

He began writing whilst in the army and upon leaving took it up as his occupation with his first books detailing his life story as well as another, ‘Sevastopol Sketches’, discussing his experiences in the Crimean War. By the time he had completed ‘Sevastopol Sketches’ he had returned from the first of two trips abroad which would change his outlook on life and consequentially his writing approach and the content of his work.

A trip to Europe in 1861 and a meeting with Victor Hugo, who had just completed ‘Les Miserables’, which had a marked influence on ‘War And Peace’, would further push Tolstoy towards the mindset that would lead him to write his most famous works. On the same trip he also met Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, a French anarchist, with whom he discussed the importance of the need for education for all rungs of society. This revelation lead Tolstoy to open up 13 schools in Russia for the children of the working class, further highlighting his continuing separation from his noble roots.

‘War And Peace’, published in 1869, and ‘Anna Karenina’, published in 1878, were universally recognised as great works, but not long after the publication of the latter Tolstoy began to slip into an existentialist crisis. Although not suicidal in the literal sense of the term he did, however, decide that if he could find no reason or purpose for his existence he would rather die and so went about searching for a reason to live. He consulted his many friends in high places who espoused various intellectual theories but none of these sat well with him. Just as he was beginning to give up he had a dream that proved to be a moment of clarity and decided that God in a spiritual sense was the reason to keep on, though he was wary of the church and those that abused religion as a tool of oppression.

He published ‘A Confession’ in 1882 which explained his crisis and his resolution and how it came about. Two subsequent novels, ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’ and ‘What Then Must We Do?’, further re-enforced his views in which he criticised the Russian Orthodox Church.

The culmination of his 30 years of religious and philosophical thinking was ‘The Kingdom Of God Is Within you’ which was published in 1894. In the book he outlined the abuses of those in power in both the church and the government and this would eventually lead to his excommunication from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1901. Tolstoy’s main point derived from Jesus’ teachings to ‘turn the other cheek’ and Tolstoy believed that this was the key to Christ’s message which can be found in the Gospels and the ‘Sermon On The Mount’ in particular. This theory of ‘non-violence’ that dominated the book would make a profound impact on Mahatma Gandhi who read it as a young man whilst living in South Africa.

In 1908 Tolstoy wrote ‘A Letter To A Hindu’ in which he told the Indian people that only through non-violent reaction and love could they overcome their British colonial masters. The letter was published in an Indian paper and Gandhi not only read it but also wrote to Tolstoy to ask permission to translate it into his own native Gujarati. ‘The Kingdom Of God Is Within You’ and ‘A Letter To A Hindu’ solidified Gandhi’s non-violent idea of rebellion which he implemented and which came to fruition in 1947 when British rule came to an end and India became independent. Gandhi and Tolstoy would continue their correspondence up until Tolstoy’s death in 1910.

Sample chapter

(February 1902)


Always in all human societies, at a certain period of their existence a time comes when their religion begins to diverge from its fundamental meaning, then diverges more and more, loses this fundamental meaning, and finally crystallises into permanently established forms; —when its influence upon the life of men grows weaker and weaker.

At such periods, the educated minority, though no longer believing in the existing religious teaching, still pretend to believe, finding this religion necessary for holding the masses in the established order of life; whilst the masses, although adhering by the force of inertia to the established religion, are no longer guided in their lives by religious demands, but only by popular customs and state laws.

So it has been, many times, in many human communities. But what is now taking place in our Christian Society has never before occurred. It has never occurred before that the ruling and more educated minority, which has the chief influence on the masses, not only disbelieved in the existing religion but was certain that in its time religion was no longer necessary at all, and that it taught those who doubted the truth of the accepted faith not some other more rational and comprehensible religion than that existing, but even persuaded them that religion in general had outlived its time, and had become not only a useless but even a harmful organ of social life, something like the appendix of the caecum in the human organism.

Religion is studied by this class of men not as something which we know through our inner experience, but as an external phenomenon, a disease as it were to which some people are subject, and which we can understand only in its external symptoms.

Religion, according to some of these men, has sprung from the spiritualisation of all the phenomena of nature (animism). According to others, from the idea of the possibility of communicating with departed ancestors. According to others again, from the fear of the powers of nature. And as science has proved, —the scientists of our day further argue,—that trees and stone cannot be animated, and deceased ancestors are no longer conscious of what the living do, and the phenomena of nature are explicable by natural causes, —therefore the necessity for religion and for all those restraints which people impose upon themselves as the result of religious beliefs, has disappeared. In the opinion of scientists there once existed a period of unenlightenment—the religious period. Mankind outlived this long ago, but occasional atavistic symptoms remain. Then there came the metaphysical period, which also has been outlived. And now, we, the enlightened generations, live in the scientific period, — of positive science, — which replaces religion and leads mankind to a lofty degree of development, which it could never have attained whilst it submitted to superstitious, religious, teaching.

At the beginning of 1901 the celebrated French scientist Berthelot uttered a speech (Revue de Paris, Jan. 1901) in which he communicated to his audience the idea that the age of religion had passed, and that it must now be replaced by science. I cite this speech because it is the first to my hand and because a universally recognised scientist uttered it in the capital of the cultured world. But the same idea has been expressed continually and everywhere, from philosophical treatises down to newspaper articles.

Mons. Berthelot says in this speech that there were formerly two principles which moved mankind: Force, and Religion. These motive powers have become unnecessary now, because their place has been taken by science. By science Mons. Berthelot evidently implies (as all men who believe in it do) a science which embraces the whole sphere of human knowledge, each branch classified according to the degree of its importance, and the whole harmoniously bound together; a science possessing such methods that all the data it discovers present one unquestionable truth. But such a science does not exist, as a matter of fact. What is called science today consists of a haphazard heap of information, united by nothing, often utterly unnecessary, and not only failing to present one unquestionable truth, but as often as not containing the grossest errors, today put forward as truths, and tomorrow overthrown. It is evident, therefore, that the very thing which in Mons.
Berthelot’s opinion is to replace religion, does not exist. And therefore the assertion of Mons. Berthelot and those who agree with him, that science will replace religion, is entirely arbitrary, and is founded upon an unjustifiable belief in an Infallible Science, exactly resembling the belief in an Infallible Church.

And yet people who call themselves and are regarded as scientists are quite certain that already there exists a science, which must and can replace religion, and even has replaced it.

” Religion has outlived its day; to believe in anything except science is ignorance. Science will arrange all that is necessary, and one should be guided in life by science alone,’ So think and say both the scientists themselves and the crowd, which, although very far from being scientific yet believes the scientists and together with them asserts that religion is an outlived superstition and that our life should be guided only by science:—that is, in reality, by nothing, because science, according to its own acknowledged definition as the investigation of everything that exists, cannot furnish any guidance for man’s life.


The scientists of our times have decided that religion is unnecessary and that science will replace or already has replaced it; and yet, now as before, no human society or rational man ever has lived or can live without religion. (I say “rational” man because an irrational man can live as an animal, without religion.) A rational man cannot live without religion because religion alone gives the rational man the necessary guidance as to what he should do, and what he should do first and what next. A rational man cannot live without religion precisely because reason is an element of his nature. Every animal is guided in its actions—except those to which it is attracted by the direct demands of its desires—by considerations about the immediate results of its actions. Having considered these results by the aid of those means of comprehension which it possesses, the animal conforms its actions to the results, and always acts under the influence of these considerations in one and the same way, without wavering. Thus, for instance, a bee flies in search of honey and brings it home into its hive because in winter it will require the food it has collected for itself and the young; and beyond these considerations it knows nothing and is unable to know anything. A bird acts in the same way when it makes its nest, or migrates from the north to the south and vice versa. And so also does every animal when it commits any act, not from a direct immediate necessity but under the influence of considerations about expected results.

But it is not so with man. The difference between a man and an animal consists in this, that the perceptive faculties in the animal are limited by what we call instinct, whereas reason is the essential perceptive faculty of man.

A bee collecting its food can have no doubts about the rightness or wrongness of what it is doing. But a man gathering in the harvest cannot but reflect whether he is destroying for the future the growth of the wheat or fruit, and whether by thus gathering he is not depriving his neighbour of his food. He also cannot but think of the future of the children whom he feeds, and of many other things. The most important questions of conduct in life cannot be solved definitely by a rational man, precisely because of the multitude of results which he cannot help seeing. Every rational man feels, if he does not know, that in the most important affairs of life he cannot be guided either by the impulse of personal feelings or by considerations of the immediate results of his activity, because he sees too many different results, and often contradictory ones; results, that is, which with equal probability can be either beneficent or harmful, both to himself and to others.

There is a legend about an angel who descended to earth into a God-fearing family and killed a child in its cradle; when asked why he had done this he replied that the child would have become a great malefactor and would have brought misery to its family.

But not only in the question, which human life is useful, useless, or harmful?—not one of the most important questions of life can be solved, for a rational man, by considerations about immediate relations and results. A rational man cannot be content with the considerations which direct the actions of animals. Man may regard himself as an animal amongst animals, living from day to day; he may regard himself as a member of a family or of a society or of a nation living from century to century; he may, and even necessarily must (because his reason irresistibly attracts him to this) regard himself as a part of the whole Infinite Universe existing infinitely. And therefore a rational man is obliged to and always does do, in relation to the infinitely small circumstances of life which influence his actions, what in mathematics is called integration, that is, besides his relation to his immediate circumstances, he must establish his relation to the whole universe, infinite in time and space, and conceived as a whole. And such an establishment by man of his relation to that whole of which he feels himself a part and from which he obtains guidance for his actions, is precisely what was and is called Religion. And therefore religion always has been and cannot cease to be an indispensable and permanent condition of the life of a rational man and of rational humanity.

Publisher: White Crow Books
Published July 2010
178 pages
Size: 140 x 216 mm
ISBN 978-1907555-28-8
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