(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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 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 entire section is 1916 words.)