The author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788), Gibbon is most renowned for his thesis that Christianity played a leading role in the Roman Empire’s fall. His views on Christianity ran from skepticism to outright denial of its central claims. In openly expressing such views, he risked falling afoul of England’s Blasphemy Act of 1698. To avoid prosecution, he adopted the protective coloring of a dispassionate literary style, indirect expression, and artful construction of passages designed to disguise—though not fully conceal—his cynical attitude toward Christianity. Speaking of this technique in his autobiography, he wrote that he learned from the Provincial Letters of Blaise Pascal “to manage grave and temperate irony, even on the subjects of ecclesiastical solemnity”—more accurately, especially on religious subjects. In Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1818), George Gordon, Lord Byron later wrote, appropriately, of Gibbon’s treatment of Christianity, that it constituted “sapping a solemn creed with a solemn sneer.”
Gibbon’s stratagems succeeded, for he was never prosecuted, nor were his works officially censored. He was subjected, however, to furious theological criticism from clerics, who had little difficulty penetrating his flimsy literary veil. Gibbon’s ill-concealed cynicism about religion is most apparent in such passages as this ironic “explanation” of...
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