A.N. Wilson


Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2000).

There were sceptical philosophers in the eighteenth century, notably David Hume, who questioned the validity of religion, but they had relatively little impact on public opinion. But the nineteenth century saw a crisis of faith in Christianity, for a variety of reasons. In part it was certainly due to science, especially Darwinism, but another important factor was the application of textual analysis to the Scriptures by German scholars. To many thinkers of the time it seemed probable that faith in Christianity and even belief in God would progressively decline, but this has not happened, or at least not in the way that they expected.

In this book the novelist and biographer A.N. Wilson has explored the way in which a number of nineteenth-century writers, artists, philosophers and miscellaneous intellectuals struggled to come to terms with their loss of faith. The title relates indirectly, of course, to Nietzsche's announcement of the death of God, but it is actually the title of a poem by Thomas Hardy. Hardy is still read today, but the same is not true of a number of the other writers whom Wilson discusses. As he himself remarks more than once, he is probably the only person to have read Thomas Carlyle for years, yet in his day Carlyle was enormously influential. The same could be said of John Henry Newman, Benjamin Jowett, Thomas Hill Green, Herbert Spencer, and perhaps even John Ruskin, while others, such as Matthew Arnold, are probably remembered by most people just for one frequently anthologized poem (and Wilson has a lot of fun with 'Dover Beach', pointing out, among other weaknesses, that the tide comes back in after it goes out and is thus not a good metaphor for the irrevocable decline of religion).

Not all the writers quoted by Wilson are so unfamiliar to modern readers. Hardy himself is still read, and so are George Eliot, William James, and perhaps Algernon Charles Swinburne. The names of others, especially the scientists, are frequently cited today (Charles Darwin, T.H. Huxley), though probably their own works are not read all that often.

Wilson's own view emerges only obliquely from this lengthy book. He agrees with the Victorians that increase in our knowledge of scientific facts has rendered certain older religious attitudes untenable by anyone who is intellectually honest. For example, it is impossible to regard the Earth as at the centre of the universe, or to believe that it is only a few thousand years old. A more serious problem is that, since Darwin, it is difficult to believe in the benevolence of the universe or to maintain that it exists for the benefit of human beings. Nor could it be claimed that the New Testament is a biography of Jesus or can be relied on to have reproduced his actual words.

For Wilson, however, these things don't show that God is an irrelevance. He is not in sympathy with ultra-Darwinists like Richard Dawkins, who think that modern science leads us inevitably to atheism. He agrees that the literalist view of religion that the Victorians reacted against is untenable, but he doesn't draw the wholly negative conclusion that many of them did.

One of his favourite writers from the period he deals with is William James, who he thinks set out, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, a view of religion that is capable of withstanding the inroads of materialism. He also gives a good deal of space to George Tyrrell, an almost forgotten Roman Catholic reformer of the early twentieth century who, in Wilson's words, was persecuted by the Church for his modernist views. Modernism was decisively rejected by Catholic orthodoxy, but Wilson thinks that Tyrell and those who thought like him were pointing to a valid way forward for religion.

Whatever one's view of religion, Wilson's book is definitely worth reading. The thinkers of the nineteenth century had rather different questions about God and Christianity from those that are asked today, but they were not totally different; and understanding the problems they faced, and the solutions they found, or failed to find, can help to illuminate our own situation.

%T God's Funeral
%A Wilson, A.N.
%I Abacus
%C London
%D 1999
%G ISBN 0-349-11265-7
%P xii + 528 pp
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