Tom Holland

The perfect religion for Guardian readers (plus some other neglected belief systems)

The perfect religion for Guardian readers (plus some other neglected belief systems)
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Exciting news from the world of philosophy! Next year will see the 20th anniversary of the New Stoa, an online community of ‘all those who are Stoics and who wish to be known by the commitment they have made’. Stoicism, the philosophy of choice for sanctimonious Roman billionaires, is evidently making a comeback. Its appeal, to an age obsessed equally by smartphones and virtue signalling, is no great mystery, I suppose. Seneca, who served as Nero’s tutor and whose manipulation of the overseas currency markets may well have precipitated Boudicca’s revolt, was a Stoic. ‘Though finding fault with the rich, he acquired a fortune of 300,000,000 sesterces,’ wrote the historian Dio Cassius; ‘and though he censured the extravagances of others, he had 500 tables of citrus wood with legs of ivory, all identically alike.’ Truly, there is something timeless about ancient philosophers.

That being so, might they perhaps provide us with some further role models? If Stoicism can find buyers in today’s marketplace of ideas, what about other ancient philosophies, religions and cults? Antiquity, the breeding ground which gave the world its two most popular faiths, had so much more to offer than Christianity and Islam. Here, in the hope that it provides something for everyone, is my selection of ancient belief systems suited to the modern palate.


What are they all about? In the beginning existed the supreme deity Ahura Mazda, wholly wise, just and good, whose wishes were revealed to the world by his prophet, Zoroaster. Against him, so Zoroastrians taught, stands the principal of evil, Angrya Mainu. The two of them are engaged in a fight for supremacy spanning both space and time, and in which humans are fully embroiled. Zoroastrians are summoned to choose light over darkness, in the assurance that time itself will ultimately come to an end, and all humanity be judged. So ancient that some scholars date its origins back to 1800 bc, the influence of Zoroastrianism on Judaism, Christianity and Islam has been immeasurable. Enshrined by the kings of Sasanian Iran as the state religion of their empire, it suffered grievous contraction under Muslim rule, but continues to be maintained to this day by some 150,000 followers. Londoners can find a Zoroastrian temple conveniently located in an Art Deco cinema next to Rayners Lane underground station.

Pros: Zoroaster, it is said, was the only baby ever to have laughed at birth: a legend that wonderfully expresses the moral beauties of this luminous religion. Anyone anxious about its take on hedgehogs should be reassured that they are much loved: ‘From midnight to morning they kill thousands of the creatures of the Evil One.’

Cons: Conversion is officially frowned upon, so it’s hard to join if you weren’t born into the religion. Zoroastrianism may not be best suited to people who like cats: its scriptures condemn them as the epitome of treachery. And those who don’t fancy having their naked corpse eaten by birds once they are dead may also have reservations.

Suited to: Anyone who likes a religion that believes in good and evil, the resurrection of the dead and a day of judgment, but wants something really exclusive. Star Wars fans.

Famous Zoroastrians: Zoroaster (if he existed); Darius the Great (possibly); Khusrow the Great; Freddie Mercury.


What are they all about? ‘We say that pleasure is the beginning and end of living happily.’ So declared Epicurus, a 4th-century bc Athenian whose garden in the city played host to a radically egalitarian community in which women and slaves were admitted as equals. Unsurprisingly, he was condemned in hysterical terms as a hedonist by his enemies. But Epicurus himself, abstemious and quite possibly bulimic, defined pleasure merely as that which removes pain. To that end, he recommended withdrawing from public life, rejecting anything that smacked of superstition and accepting his own authority as absolute. ‘Act always,’ he advised his followers, ‘as though Epicurus is watching you.’ Science, he taught, should be studied because it demonstrated that the gods were not worth worrying about, and sex — although he seems to have enjoyed droit de seigneur over his female followers — was dismissed as something that had ‘never profited a man’. Imagine the Mahirishi crossed with Richard Dawkins for a sense of how Epicurus might play today.

Pros: If you own a garden, can fund a commune of philosophically inclined layabouts, and feel that the object of life is to sit around doing nothing, then what’s not to like?

Cons: Adrenaline junkies are liable to end up very bored.

Suited to: Admirers of The God Delusion. People who don’t like politics. People with gardens.

Famous Epicureans: Epicurus; Lucretius; Thomas Jefferson; Christopher Hitchens.



What are they all about? A Jewish sect based near the Dead Sea, the Essenes were eulogised by Pliny the Elder, Rome’s equivalent of Wikipedia, as ‘a people unique of its kind and admirable beyond all others in the entire world: for they live in celibacy without women, without money, and having for company only palm trees’. Applicants to join the Essenes would first be obliged to serve a three-year period of probation, and then, on admission, submit to a strictly communal lifestyle. Pacifist, vegetarian and egalitarian, Essenes were expected to dress in white and never go anywhere without a pooper-scooper. The soul, so they taught, was immortal, ‘an emanation from the finest ether’, and human flesh merely a prison.

Pros: If Jeremy Corbyn strikes you as being a bit of a red Tory, then the Essenes will definitely tick your box — provided, that is, you overlook the fact that they were a group of Jewish settlers on the West Bank.

Cons: No bacon sandwiches.

Suited to: Guardian readers.

Famous Essenes: None.


What are they all about? Galli were cross-dressing priests of Cybele, an Anatolian mother goddess whose ultimate origins reached back to the Neolithic, and who probably holds the record as the deity who has been worshipped for the longest span of time. She was notorious among the Romans for driving her most frenzied followers to slice off their testicles. Processions in her honour — complete with flutes, tambourines and spectacular displays of self-laceration — were a common sight across the empire. Many Romans professed themselves appalled. ‘If a god desires worship of this kind,’ Seneca declared flatly, ‘then she does not deserve to be worshipped in the first place.’ Nevertheless, many Romans were attracted to the heady perfume of the counter-cultural that clung to the worship of Cybele. A first-person account by Catullus of a devotee who makes the ultimate sacrifice in honour of the goddess constitutes one of the most powerful and unsettling poems in the whole of Latin literature.

Pros: What could be less hip than being cisgender? So off with those testicles!

Cons: Off with those testicles!

Suited to: Exhibitionists. Masochists. Caitlyn Jenner.

Famous Galli: Nero is reported to have dressed as one on one occasion, and to have praised Cybele as the only goddess worth worshipping — but he then changed his mind, and urinated on her statue.


What are they all about? Odin, the All-Father of the Viking pantheon, was a god who combined deep wisdom with a relish for the surge and shock of battle. One-eyed, long-bearded, and sporting a broad-brimmed hat, he rode an eight-legged horse, and had two pet ravens who kept him up to date with goings-on in the world. Like Jesus, he once hung from a tree; like Allah, he had a multitude of names; like both of them, he was noted as a generous patron to those who merited his favour. They would gain invulnerability against the biting of iron; the fettering with paralysis of an enemy, who would find it impossible to lift his sword; weapons that sang in the heat of battle, with a loud and ringing sound. The surest marks of his favour, though, lay not in charms but in a ferocity so terrible as to render those possessed by it bestial. ‘Wolfskin-wearers they are called, who bear bloody shields in the slaughter; they redden spears when they join the fighting.’ As they howled and ran in packs at their prey, so Odin-worshippers would see the battlefield swept by red rain: a warp of blood.

Pros: Useful for dealing with rush-hour crowds.

Cons: Turning into a wolf might be awkward if it occurred at the wrong moment.

Suited to: Telegraph readers.

Famous Odin-worshippers: Ragnor Hairy Breeches, Ivar the Boneless, Erik Bloodaxe, Erik the Red.

This article is from the Spectator's Christmas treble issue.