Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1916
Thomas Hardy’s poem “God’s Funeral,” written between 1908 and 1910 and quoted before the first chapter of Wilson’s book, not only gives title to the book, but serves as the introduction to the issues explored in it. Hardy imagines himself attending the funeral of God. Hardy’s God is merely a “projection of human fears and desires,” but nevertheless, He is missed and mourned—“And who or what shall fill his place?” This is Wilson’s introduction to his account of the developments in philosophy, science, skeptical literature, and biblical scholarship in the nineteenth century that confronted Victorian men and women with new ideas and facts that undermined their religious beliefs. It is difficult for people in the modern age to imagine how radical ideas and scientific discoveries of the time rocked the world of the Victorians—“the Victorian Age was a battleground between Science and Religion”—when materialists attacked Christianity as little more than idolatry, and Christian apologists responded loudly.
The Victorians’ belief in a loving, omnipotent Creator depended upon an orderly, human-centered view of Nature that could not be supported by pure reason or scientific evidence. In the wake of change, many were disturbed and depressed, with feelings of isolation. For them, the choice seemed to be either to abandon religion or to abandon intellectual honesty. Some doubters became agnostics or out-and-out atheists. Others who ceased to believe (like Hardy, who continued to enjoy the rituals, music, and teachings of the church until an intolerant bishop drove him out) attended services and embraced the morality, without embracing the doctrines, of the church. Known as modernists, they probably included Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), and Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892). At the opposite pole were the Catholic defenders of orthodoxy, notably Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-1890) of the Oxford Movement, and those known as fundamentalists, who became more entrenched in dogmatism and orthodoxy. According to Wilson, the modernists won out, but the fight continues; the religious debate straddling the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in the United States between liberals and the Far Right has its origins in that conflict.
In this account, Wilson re-creates the world of the Victorians. He provides numerous thumbnail sketches of real people of the times, including most of the major and many minor players of the age, along with often amusing, always telling, quotes that epitomize the personalities involved and mirror the debate from both sides. Through numerous anecdotes and vignettes, he details the conflicts between religious faith and doubt that left many unbelieving, but puzzled and dazed by an agonizing sense of loss.
Wilson credits Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788) with having done more to undermine faith in God among the English than any other book except David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779). Gibbon’s history debunked official church history and exposed the early saints, martyrs, and popes as contemptible, wicked, superstitious, and absurd human beings.
There follows an excellent discussion of how philosophers undermined the rational basis for belief in religion among intellectuals. While not directly influencing ordinary people, these philosophers laid the necessary intellectual groundwork for further developments. David Hume (1711-1776), writing over a hundred years before Charles Darwin (1809-1882), challenged the three conventional and undisputed arguments for the existence of God: first, that God is a necessary truth (ontological proof); second, that facts that are contingent must have causes (cosmological proof); and third, that natural law and the pattern of things indicate that there must be a designer (argument from design). Hume questioned why “mind” must of necessity be the only model for looking at the...
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universe, and if so, why must it be only one mind? Matter might just as well have sprung from many minds, or for that matter, from matter itself, in a system without mind and with no discernible purpose. Thus Hume concluded that it was not philosophically necessary to believe in God. According to Wilson, “[Jean-Baptiste] Lamarck’s evolutionary theories, [Sir Charles] Lyell’s geology, Darwin’s species relentlessly striving for mastery, make more sense to a universe like Hume’s than to one where God made all things bright and beautiful.”
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) shared Hume’s rejection of the three conventional proofs of God’s existence, but gave ambivalent signals as to his own belief on the subject, apparently hovering between two distinct possibilities—that God was merely an inner reality, known only within oneself (Immanentism), or that God existed as a reality apart from oneself (Transcendentalism). His belief in a categorical imperative—that humans are somehow programmed to distinguish right from wrong—implies a lawgiver outside oneself, and in fact, was offered as proof of God’s existence. However, it appears that God may have become an unnecessary hypothesis to Kant in his later years, although his belief in a sense of duty never failed.
Kant made two significant contributions to the debate regarding God’s existence. First, by distinguishing between things that can be known empirically and other things that can be reasoned, but that are not subject to proof (God, the soul, immortality), Kant made it clear that some philosophical questions cannot be answered through metaphysics, clearing the way for the development of physical science, another way of understanding the world. In so doing, he set the limits of science—one can know how, but not why, nature works as it does. Second, by arguing that the human mind makes an essential contribution to the way that reality is perceived, Kant laid the groundwork for the system of philosophy known as Idealism, which focused on the insight that “reality”—history, time, religion—is a human construct without meaning apart from human thought. Kant asserted that reality gains its order from the mind that observes it—humans invent their world by the very process of perceiving and knowing—although this world has a reality of its own.
Idealists later discarded Kant’s belief that reality had an existence in and of itself, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s (1770-1831) optimistic view of the progressive march of history left Christianity behind, much as Greek civilization and other “products of the collective mind” had been left behind. For Hegel, truth was an abstraction—Christianity was the product of the believers who produced the Gospels, but had nothing to do with historical accuracy. His view of religion and the sacred history of the Bible as myth led to German biblical criticism, which applied the same academic rigor to biblical scholarship as to the study of other texts. Scholars pointed out the improbability that the Gospels contained the actual words of the historical Jesus, and the basic common-sense improbability of angelic apparitions, virgin conception, the feeding of five thousand with a few loaves and fishes, and the Resurrection. According to David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874), author of Das Leben Jesu(1835), which was translated into English by George Eliot (1819-1880),
There is little of which we can say for certain that it took place, and of all to which the faith of the Church especially attaches itself, the miraculous and supernatural matter in the facts and destinies of Jesus, it is far more certain that it did not take place.
Christians were left to wonder what, if anything, in the biblical account, actually happened, and most British Protestants came to believe that Jesus was a myth or a good man who embodied an innate sense of duty. Catholics and pious Protestants responded angrily to these attacks on traditional Christianity, but, according to Wilson, modern biblical criticism did more to destroy ordinary Christian faith than any other phenomenon in the Protestant world.
Scientific discoveries in the nineteenth century also contributed to the “death of God.” Geologists began to realize that the world could not have been created in six days, but took eons to evolve. Sir Charles Lyell, who wrote the widely popular Principles of Geology in four volumes (1830-1833), was himself a believer, but he did more than other scientists to disturb faith in the 1830’s and the century that followed. The study of fossils revealed a pitiless universe-—whole species evolved and were then allowed to become extinct. Lyell helped Darwin, the brilliant naturalist, who was reluctant to publish (perhaps out of consideration for his orthodox wife), arrange publication of On the Origin of Speciesby Means of NaturalSelection. Darwin’s theory of natural selection removed the necessity of purpose and the need for a first cause of life on earth, making the idea of a personal God remote, as it became clear that the strong, not the meek, inherit the earth. The theory of natural selection “invests life on earth with the power to be self-generating, self-regulating and impersonal.” Before Darwin, even scientists were able to believe that nature pointed to design and concluded that there was a designer; even later, many scientists did not believe that Darwinism contradicted faith in a Creator. Most Victorian men of science were committed Christians, though not necessarily orthodox. They were firm believers in God. (Gregor Mendel, 1822-1884, for example, was an Austrian monk whose experiments demonstrated that natural forms can be subdivided into traits that are transmitted genetically from one generation to the next.) It was the stupidity of the opponents of science, who blindly opposed scientific developments and created an uproar over Darwin’s findings, that popularized his work. These factors were aided by T. H. Huxley (1825-1895), Darwin’s apostle and a pioneering member of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, which had an evangelical faith in science, going so far as to assert that it was wrong to believe anything without sufficient evidence.
By the end of the century, unbelief had become commonplace, and even members of parliament refused to take their oaths. In the remainder of the book Wilson parades before readers a number of public figures, poets, and clerics who broke with traditional faith, and devotes a chapter to the rise of Marxism, viewed as social determinism and a kind of universal “religious” belief system that sees human society moving toward a utopia. He speculates about the relationship between the “death of God,” nihilism, and the rise of Hitler and Stalin in Western Europe, but devotes little attention to Friedrich Nietzsche (1844- 1900). Although he alludes to the violence in the world that has followed the “death of God,” he does little to explore the possible connections, except to conclude that the nineteenth and the twentieth are very different centuries.
Wilson’s style is rather loose and hard to follow, ranging from scholarly exactitude to journalistic clichés, and lapses in places into the vernacular. He is witty and irreverent, often interjecting his own opinions and raising rhetorical questions, which he proceeds to answer. There are quotations from scientists, philosophers, clerics, political figures, and poets from Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) to John Milton (1608-1674) to Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909) and Tennyson. Still, it is a very informative and entertaining read, and his scholarship is extraordinary.
Having concluded that God is dead, what will fill the void? Even though there is no logical justification for faith, the yearning for transcendence, for something beyond oneself, remains. Wilson himself seems to be haunted by his loss of belief, observing, “Human beings are natural adorers. Religion is basic to human character. How it is directed, that is the question.”
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 95 (May 1, 1999): 1557.
Commonweal 126 (October 8, 1999): 28.
Library Journal 124 (June 1, 1999): 124.
National Review 51 (May 31, 1999): 65.
New Statesman 128 (June 14, 1999): 45.
Publishers Weekly 246 (May 31, 1999): 83.