I'm having a hard time understanding the following sentence because of by example:

This is because religions could never have got started, let alone thrived, unless for the influence of men as fanatical as Moses or Muhammad or Joseph Kony, while charity and relief work, while they may appeal to tenderhearted believers, are the inheritors of modernism and the Enlightenment. Before that, religion was spread not by example but as an auxiliary to the more old-fashioned methods of holy war and imperialism.

I'm not sure if I should treat it as in lead by example. I don't think so but that's the closest thing I can come up with.

Assuming that it's like in lead by example, what I understand from the sentence is that before the Enlightenment, religion was spread not in a way to be looked up to/modeled on etc. but in a way that is auxiliary to ….

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    I think your sample text is poor quality, so I don't think you should agonise too much about the (clumsy, imho) phrasing. Jul 23, 2015 at 16:53
  • @FumbleFingers - I would have thought it to be a poor phrasing or typo or something like that but the quote is from god is not Great by Christopher Hitchens. I think twice before I qualify Hitchens as wrong in linguistic matters. It's my fault not to state the source of the quote. Sorry.
    – A.K.
    Jul 23, 2015 at 17:28
  • Ah. Well, I confess that much as I like the way Hitchens thinks and speaks, I've never actually read any of his books. I know he often appeared to be (let's be honest, was) drunk, but I don't count that against him. I partly took against the excerpt because I was coming at it from the "non-native speaker" perspective that I normally try to adopt on ELL, which makes that somewhat meandering first sentence a bit tricky. But I really don't like his use of unless there. I still wouldn't agonise over it - I think he's more a "get the message across" speaker than a "polished writer". Jul 23, 2015 at 20:10

1 Answer 1


I think what he means is this: if religion is spread "by example", it means that non-believers see the good example of religious people, and willingly join the religion, and that's how it grows.

He's contrasting it with "holy war and imperialism", in which people may be more or less forced or coerced into joining a religion.

It is similar to "lead by example", which means to behave in such a way that people want to follow you, as opposed to using punishment, intimidation, or coercion to make people follow you.

  • It seems I get the meaning right then. Thank you very much.
    – A.K.
    Jul 23, 2015 at 17:25

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