Agony for agnostics agony: God's Funeral by A N Wilson John Murray, pounds 20, 402pp

As the sea of faith receded, late-Victorian free-thinkers looked forward to a century of peace and truth. Little did they know... Christopher Hawtree asks why reason's victory turned sour

Come that sad day when A N Wilson slots the front wheel into a cloud-capp'd cycle-stand and, crouched before St Peter, removes the clips from his shins, there will soon be a muttering from behind. Standard-issue humanity will have assumed this to be a five-items-or-fewer queue. They will not expect their entry into Paradise to be delayed by Wilson's metaphysical trolley-load.

No need to rehearse here his two decades of about-turns, in which one political party or other has won favour; Princess Diana has been the object of devotion and derision; and the pamphlet in which this Barbara Pym-buff announced a loss of faith was widely likened to Bob Dylan's going electric. Wilson should be appreciated for the multitudes he contains. He functions by being a contrary spirit.

That very contrariness makes Wilson leave in dusty obscurity his most jocular articles. In this study of the loss of faith and the rise of atheism in the 19th century, he prefers such observations as "there is perhaps no philosopher who has devoted a more agile or patient attention to the very bases of epistemology - that is, of how we can claim to know anything, the way that knowledge works - than Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)." Two pages on comes the assertion that "if you haven't read Kant before, I should strongly recommend that you avoid summaries or introductions to his work until you have given yourself a few weeks, let us say, to catch the quality of his mind at first hand."

That said, Wilson's half-dozen pages are done with such panache that one can almost picture beaches upon which the Critique of Pure Reason will oust John Grisham this summer. As he notes, Kant's effect was such that "some of the problems of philosophy were unanswerable. There had to be another way than metaphysics of understanding the world. Inevitably, this was physical science."

The 19th-century confrontation between science and religion is at the heart of a book which takes its title from a 1910 poem by Hardy. This dense, rueful mediation pictures the journey "toward our myth's oblivion,/ Darkling, and languid-lipped, we creep and grope/ Sadlier than those who wept in Babylon,/ Whose Zion was a still abiding hope." All those doubts a century and a half ago can now seem dry as dust, but Wilson - who describes this book as being "the story of bereavement as much as adventure" - can always bring ancient controversy alive.

He would have failed in his duty, however, if he inspired anybody to read Herbert Spencer, whose one memorable phrase - "the survival of the fittest" - is invariably taken to be Darwin's. But he quotes sufficent of that woolly, well-nigh surreal prose to show Spencer was a figure of clout in his time. Even as fine a mind as George Eliot was beguiled by him until she saw the true, comic figure depicted by Wilson, who displays further mischief when it comes to George Henry Lewes. "He was described by a contemporary (Douglas Jerrold) as `the ugliest man in London', and by a scholar of our own day as `a Victorian Clive James'".

Badinage, Wilson's mainspring, should not obscure his enormous reading. He finds a splendid parallel between Swinburne's giggling relations, the Mitford sisters, and the poet himself. Like Hardy, Wilson is sympathetic to the attractions of faith and never blind to the paradox that, in setting aside superstition, these thinkers hoped for a better world but did not live to see the one that turned out so much worse.

As Leslie Stephen did in the 1870s, Wilson goes back to the 18th century of Gibbon and Hume for the roots of Victorian dissent. Curiously, he gives only three pages to Stephen, Virginia Woolf's father. He does not go beyond Noel Annan's study of him to such essays as "The Religion of All Sensible Men" (which saw that even in enlightened circles "most disputants go into a modern line of battle armed with antiquated bows and arrows") and, above all, to "A Bad Five Minutes in the Alps". Here Stephen, in danger on a cliff edge, encapsulates these 19th-century spiritual dilemmas and - did he but know it - gives a glimpse of the turmoil into which he second wife's death would send him.

The irrationality of rationality - well caught by Woolf's portrayal of Stephen in To The Lighthouse - is a perennial paradox which Wilson treats in a conclusion which dwells unduly upon the strand of Catholicism known as Modernism. This is surely but an aspect of something Annan has elsewhere described as dashing the hopes of Stephen's kind of rationalist. It was the rise of nationalism, the consciousness of belonging to a special ethnic and linguistic community, which has made diplomacy in our time a nightmare and "rational" solutions to political problems unattainable.

The enormous power that nationalism was to have over men's minds was not foreseen by the thinkers of Stephen's time. Those who noted the phenomenon considered it to be an agreeable and worthy kind of loyalty.

Will this change "now that we don't have countries, only e-mail addresses", as Kenny Wheeler puts it? The success of Wilson's book is to make us, like Carlyle, fear not.

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there