Darwin, Marx and Freud toppled God from his Victorian throne, yet the desire for worship persists. Richard Harries reviews a premature obituary
The Victorians were passionate about religion. The ferocious energy that went into ship-building, empire-building, railways and new markets was also channelled into Christian belief and the controversies aroused by it.
Matters of faith and loss of faith were not just intellectual ideas. They became the theme of best-selling novels. As A. N. Wilson puts it: "God's funeral was not, as many in the 19th century might have thought, the end of a phase of human intellectual history. It was the withdrawal of a great Love-object."
Wilson is highly readable: he even makes Immanuel Kant and Auguste Comte, Hegel and Spencer accessible to the general reader. He is also personally engaged.
Victorian believers felt their faith under attack for various reasons. The geological discoveries of Charles Lyell (who remained a believer) and Charles Darwin (who slowly and reluctantly became a disbeliever) discredited Milton's reading of the book of Genesis. Yet, despite the furore, historians of science remark on how quickly the theory of evolution was accepted by the general public.
Most leading scientists in Great Britain retained a Christian commitment, and an early opinion poll reveals that 90 per cent of scientists denied that their early religious upbringing had deterred them from research. Among leading men of science, "Christian commitment was not the exception but the rule".
More serious was the rise of biblical criticism, especially the minimalist lives of Jesus by David Friedrich Strauss (translated by George Eliot) and Ernest Renan that resulted. Those studies now seem as outdated as the reaction that followed their publication.
Even more threatening was the conviction of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels that religion was not just false but pernicious, an evil that had to be destroyed if the oppressed of the earth were to change their conditions. No doubt it was an unconscious premonition of this that gave rise to such extraordinary hypocrisy when disbelief ceased to be confined to an intellectual elite and spread to the masses. Religion came to be justified as a means of holding society together - in its due, divinely appointed order, giving the poor something to look forward to.
Wilson gives us a vignette of the main characters, Thomas Carlyle and the now forgotten Edward Irving, John William Colenso and Arthur Hugh Clough, Eleanor Marx, Benjamin Jowett ("that rather attractive mixture, a person of profound religious feeling and a sceptical cast of mind"), George Eliot, Spencer, Swinburne, Matthew Arnold, Edmund Gosse, William James, the Catholic modernists and a fair number of others. His hero is Ruskin, with his profound sense of the contribution of Catholic Christianity to European civilisation and his sense of loss at what industrial and commercial forces were bringing about.
Wilson cheers up the philosophy with references to the foibles and absurdities, the suffering and sorrows (usually sexual) of the protagonists. He shows how Sigmund Freud was anticipated in the rebellion of sons against their fathers, not only by Edmund Gosse but by Samuel Butler, whose father was described as "my most implacable enemy". Occasionally the reader has to stop being simply amused to realise that something outrageous is being asserted, as in the case of poor old George Bernard Shaw, whose plays are disparaged and habits of hygiene mocked.
Apparently Shaw once assured Beverley Nichols that as a result of being a vegetarian his own evacuations were "entirely odourless". This leads Wilson to write: "It is not true that cleanliness is next to godliness, though it is probably a mere accident that so many of the godly, from the Desert Fathers to Samuel Johnson, have been human beings who exuded a stench. It is probably an accident too that Shaw, prophet of the sweatless armpit and the odourless motion, was the man who ushered in the century of the deodorant and the ethnic cleanser." He then relates Shaw's vegetarianism to that of Hitler before asserting: "Dethroning God, that generation found it impossible to leave the sanctuary empty. They put man in His place, which had the paradoxical effect, not of elevating human nature but of demeaning it to depths of cruelty, depravity and stupidity unparalleled in human history." This fits in with the general theme of Wilson: that however important the achievements of some and however saintly, human beings are natural worshippers and that we sometimes find terrible, as well as absurd, outlets for this.
Where does all this leave us today? Wilson writes: "It is not just that we have all moved on from the religious positions of 100 years ago: our doubts and unbeliefs are different too." The issues raised by science, biblical criticism and the reactionary role of too much Christianity have for the most part been resolved. Our problems are of a different kind. First of all, if God has given the creative process a real autonomy, if in Archbishop Frederick Temple's phrase "God does not just make the world, he makes it make itself", where, in the Turkish earthquake or in East Timor, can we find examples of his saving presence? The question of evil remains in its old form.
There is also the moral criticism of Christianity that Wilson might have made more of. Edward Gibbon thought that, "The early and Mediaeval Christians were a shabby and badly-behaved collection of individuals considerably less impressive in many respects than the admirable Stoics and Epicureans who lived in the age of Cicero". Ruskin did not have any quarrel with God "but simply found what people told me was His service, disagreeable; and what people told me was His book, not entertaining". George Eliot, while admiring the moral teaching of Jesus, believed that the implications the church drew from this in the way of doctrine to be "notions most dishonourable to God and most pernicious in their influence on individual and social happiness".
Wilson's illuminating and entertaining book reveals that, admirable though many of the Victorian atheists were, and right in so much of what they stood for, their writings (except, of course, for George Eliot's novels - which paradoxically are sympathetic to religious believers) are for the most part unread. Religion has survived Victorian doubts, but the fundamental questions of belief facing the churches today are perhaps more searching and searing now than then.
The Rt Revd Richard Harries is bishop of Oxford.
Author - A. N. Wilson
ISBN - 0 7195 5761 5
Publisher - Murray
Price - £20.00
Pages - 402