Books: Why won't He lie down?

God's Funeral by A N Wilson John Murray pounds 20
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The Independent Culture
A N Wilson has lifted the title of his book from a remarkable poem by Thomas Hardy, which he prints in full as a kind of epigraph. It begins:

I saw a slowly-stepping train -

Lined on the brows, scoop-eyed

and bent and hoar -

Following in files across a twilit plain

A strange and mystic form

the foremost bore.

The poet joins the cortege, and overhears the troubled mutterings of the mourners:

O man-projected Figure, of late

Imaged as we, thy knell who shall survive?

Whence came it we were tempted

to create

One whom we can no longer keep alive?

According to James Gibson, Hardy assured Edmund Gosse that this magnificently bleak and mordant poem "would have damned him for the laureateship", and it probably wouldn't go down too well at 10 Downing Street today, either.

God's Funeral is a timely as well as a very readable and rewarding book, because there has been something of a revival, lately, of the confrontation between science and religion which caused so many to lose their religious faith in the 19th century. A new and militant form of Darwinism, disseminated by a brilliant generation of popular science writers like Richard Dawkins, Steve Jones and Steven Pinker, has aggressively challenged religious belief with a wholly materialist and non- teleological explanation of life, the universe and everything, while itself coming under fire from Christians, humanists, deconstructionists, and New Age seekers after transcendental wisdom. As A N Wilson observes, it is surprising that there is still so much life in this debate. Though church attendance is declining in Britain and the rest of Europe, opinion polls still show majority support for the existence of God. The two most successful political leaders in the West are both high-profile Christians, and at least one of them is sincere. If it seemed to Hardy and so many other thoughtful Victorians that God was unquestionably dead, how come He won't lie down? It is Wilson's clever idea to seek some kind of explanation for this paradox by looking back at the loss of religious belief in the 19th century.

The phenomenon had its origins, of course, in the Enlightenment of the previous century; in, for instance, the suave scepticism of Hume and Gibbon (Carlyle lost his faith in miracles as a result of reading Gibbon). For those who could read German the idealism of Kant offered a temporary respite, but his assertion that our innate sense of Duty (the "categorical imperative") was a proof of the existence of God did not carry universal conviction. George Eliot famously invoked the words, God, Immortality, Duty, while walking in the Fellows' Garden of Trinity College with F W H Myers one rainy summer evening, and "pronounced, with terrible earnestness, how inconceivable was the first, how unbelievable the second, and yet how peremptory and absolute the third."

As Wilson observes, the two main destroyers of Christian faith in the 19th century were, firstly, the German biblical scholarship which demonstrated that the books of the Bible were not directly inspired by God, but the literary productions of fallible and historically conditioned human beings; and secondly, the discoveries of geologists (notably Lyell) and biologists (notably Darwin) that life forms evolved on this planet without any divine intervention, over an infinitely longer period of time than that indicated by Genesis.

In due course the mainline Christian Churches adjusted their teaching to take account of the new knowledge. But the initial shock of these revelations to those brought up in pious literal belief in the Bible was very great, for they invited the inference that God was, in Hardy's phrase, "man-created". Interestingly, the effect was generally more devastating on humanists than on scientists, who perhaps found it easier to compartmentalise their thinking. Atheistic scientists were a small minority. Wilson mentions a survey of Fellows of the Royal Society in 1874 in which 70 per cent declared themselves members of Established Churches in the United Kingdom, and 90 per cent denied that their Christian education had inhibited their scientific research. The typical Victorian figures of apostasy and doubt were literary intellectuals like Carlyle, J A Froude, George Eliot, Clough, Matthew Arnold, Ruskin, Hardy, Edmund Gosse, and Samuel Butler. For most, the loss of the Christian faith in which they had been brought up was a traumatic experience, often entailing painful breaches with their families and spouses. The fictional story of one such spiritual and emotional journey, Robert Elsmere, by Mrs Humphry Ward, daughter of Matthew Arnold's brother Tom, published in 1888, was, according to Professor John Sutherland, the best-selling "quality" novel of the century. Today, this earnest and slow-moving account of the agonies of conscience suffered by an Anglican clergyman afflicted by Doubts is almost totally forgotten. As Wilson justly observes, the Victorians were as obsessed by religion as we are by sex (it is symptomatic that the word "pervert" in the 19th century usually meant a convert to Rome).

Mr Wilson is admirably equipped to write this book. He is intelligent, immensely well-read, and unafraid of taking on a dauntingly large subject. He writes lucidly and often wittily about difficult and complex philosophical issues. Scholars may complain that the book is short on analysis of the actual intellectual processes that led individuals to renounce their religious beliefs, and full of biographical anecdote not always relevant to the theme in hand. But Wilson is well aware that the best way to interest the general reader in the history of ideas is by bringing to life the men and women who held them, and he does that admirably. He is well-known as a journalist of extreme and volatile opinions, and there are some characteristic provocations scattered through this book - he trashes Matthew Arnold's great elegy for lost faith, "Dover Beach," for example, while claiming that Swinburne's "Hertha" is arguably the century's most important religious poem in English. (Hands up those who have read a line of it. I thought so.) This is all part of the fun we expect of him.

But what animates this book above all is the author's genuine engagement with his subject. In a way it recapitulates his own biography. As Wilson hints, and as one may readily infer from the long list of his previous publications, he was once an orthodox Christian himself, and attended an Anglican theological college with a view to taking orders. As recently as 1985 he wrote a pamphlet defending the historicity of the Resurrection. But subsequently he seems to have lost his faith, and has published controversial demythologising lives of Jesus and Paul, while remaining wistfully respectful towards the religious instinct itself. At several points in his book he questions whether an either/or debate about the truth-claims of religion and science can ever be settled or serves any useful human purpose. "The fact is," he says, "that you reach a stage, whether you are a believer or an unbeliever, when you are no longer making up your mind on a rational basis." This was in fact very much the line of argument used to defend religious faith by John Henry Newman, a figure on whom Wilson comes down rather hard in this book, though he admired him once. Certainly, many of the Victorians who renounced Christianity subsequently adopted views which were no more, and sometimes less, rational. Several of Darwin's disciples and associates dabbled in spiritualism - Annie Besant, having abandoned Christianity and embraced progressive secularism, ended up as a Theosophist. Even Herbert Spencer, the quintessential Victorian spokesman for scientific materialism, found, towards the end of his life, the idea that his conscious self would be totally extinguished at death "strangely repugnant" and speculated hopefully that one day science might find evidence to the contrary.

The mistake of the Victorians, Wilson argues, was to suppose that if the idea of a personal God existing outside His own creation was discredited, religious faith was impossible. The wondrous discoveries of science in our century, he suggests, indicate that God should be looked for in creation, not outside it. He is kindly disposed towards the Catholic Modernist theologians, purged from the Church at the turn of the century for daring to suggest that the faithful must accept modern scientific knowledge, and revise their interpretation of the language of religion accordingly. They have been vindicated by history, for, as he rightly says, most churchgoers today are in some sense Modernists. He also approves of William James's tolerant openness to the varieties of religious experience, even if James's own "finite deity ... `coterminous and continuous with one's own consciousness'... glows like the very low pilot-light on a boiler". In that ironic simile there is an echo of Hardy's grander and more tragic vision of metaphysical bereavement:

Whereof, to lift the general night,

A certain few who stood aloof had said,

"See you upon the horizon that

small light -

Swelling somewhat?" Each mourner

shook his head.

And they composed a crowd of whom

Some were right good and many nigh

the best...

Thus dazed and puzzled 'twixt the

gleam and gloom

Mechanically I followed with the rest.

A N Wilson talks to Karen Armstrong on `Has God a future?' and to Richard Ingrams on the topic of Jesus at the Ways With Words Literary Festival (9-19 July). Call 01803 867373 for programme.