Victorian Doubt

Transforming the Dominant Idea of Religion

In the Preface to his Culture and Anarchy (1869), Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), son of famous headmaster of Rugby School Rev. Thomas Arnold (1795-1842), asserts that “the world is fast going away from old-fashioned people.” Culture and Anarchy, it has been said, is an attack on English narrowness, on Victorian parochialism and philistinism. Arnold saw his fellow Englishmen consumed with themselves, a markedly individualistic and liberal attitude. The creed of the Victorian, he quipped, was “do as one likes.” Arnold considered himself a “liberal of the future,” thus justifying himself in his critique of contemporary liberalism.

In his chapter on “Hebraism and Hellenism,” Arnold writes

Everywhere we see the beginnings of confusion, and we want a clue to some sound order and authority. This we can only get by going back upon the actual instincts and forces which rule our life, seeing them as they really are, connecting them with other instincts and forces, and enlarging our whole view and rule of life.

In the first chapter, “Sweetness and Light,” Arnold claims that “religion” is the most “important manifestation of human nature,” more central to culture than art and poetry. But because Victorian society was at the “beginnings of confusion,” Arnold thinks it is time to transform this “dominant idea of religion.” This central element in human nature can never be abandoned. It is, he writes

the greatest and most important of the efforts by which the human race has manifested its impulse to perfect itself,—religion, that voice of the deepest human experience,—does not only enjoin and sanction the aim which is the great aim of culture, the aim of setting ourselves to ascertain what perfection is and to make it prevail; but also, in determining generally in what human perfection consists, religion comes to a conclusion identical with that which culture,—culture seeking the determination of this question through all the voices of human experience which have been heard upon it, of art, science, poetry, philosophy, history, as well as of religion, in order to give a greater fulness and certainty to its solution.

We see here the beginnings of Arnold’s equating of “religion with morality.” These ideas foreshadowed his later definition of “religion” in Literature and Dogma (1873). There he writes,

Religion, if we follow the intention of human thoughts and human language in the use of the word, is ethics heightened, enkindled, lit up by feeling; the passage from morality to religion is made when to morality is applied emotion. And the true meaning of religion is thus not simply morality, but morality touched by emotion. And this new elevation and inspiration of morality is well marked by the word ‘righteousness.’ Conduct is the word of common life, morality is the word of philosophical disquisition, righteousness is the word of religion.

Here Arnold united the themes in his earlier “Hebraism and Hellenism.”

In the nineteenth century, Matthew Arnold was merely one of many attempting to redefine Christianity by moralizing religion.  Theologians, writers, and even men of science employed a vague, moralizing notion of “religion” in order to re-describe the essential features of Christianity. We see this particularly in the scientific naturalists, including the so-called co-founders of the “Conflict Thesis,” John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White. Draper, for instance, saw the politicization of Christianity as the end of “religion.” “True religion,” he maintained, is found in the teachings of Jesus Christ. Its doom came with Constantine. According to White, a pure and undefiled religion in found in the “recognition of ‘a Power in the universe, not of ourselves, which makes for righteousness,’ and in the love of God and of our neighbor.”

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Victorian Scientific Naturalism

A numDawson and Lightman - Victorian Scientific Naturalismber of books of recent date have made significant contributions to our understanding of the Victorian coterie known as the scientific naturalists. A comprehensive survey of the last few decades of scholarship in this field can be found in Gowan Dawson and Bernard Lightman’s introduction to their Victorian Scientific Naturalism: Community, Identity, Continuity (2014). Dedicated to Frank Miller Turner, who was one of the first scholars to use “scientific naturalism” as a historiographic category to describe a group of Victorian intellectuals—such as, e.g., Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, Thomas Henry Huxley, John Tyndall, William Kingdon Clifford, Francis Galton, Karl Pearson, John Lubbock, Edward Tylor, George H. Lewes, E. Ray Lankester, Henry Maudsley, Frederic Harrison, Leslie Stephen, John Morley, Grant Allen, and Edward Clodd—with the supposed common goal of redefining nature, humanity, society, and science, Dawson and Lightman have collected a group of essays first presented at a workshop on “Revisiting Evolutionary Naturalism: New Perspectives on Victorian Science and Culture” at York University in 2011.

They begin their introduction with an etymological survey of “scientific naturalism,” showing that long before Huxley used it in his Essays upon Some Controverted Questions (1892), it was employed by American evangelicals in the 1840s as a pejorative epithet. In the 1860s and 70s,  Scottish Free Church theologian David Brown and journalist and owner of the Contemporary Review William Brightly Rands also complained that scientific naturalism was the cause of “an inescapable sense of melancholy” and “moral decay” of their time. Only at the turn of the decade, in a letter published in the Secular Review, scientific naturalism was used, seemingly for the first time, as an “entirely positive designation for the scientific rejection of all nonmaterial phenomena.”

Returning to Huxley, Dawson and Lightman highlight his attempt to give the term a lengthy intellectual lineage. More interesting, however, is Huxley’s claim that the Bible is “the most democratic book in the world,” and that its strength lies in its “ethical sense,” and as such the “human race is not yet, possibly may never be, in a position to dispense with it.” In short, Huxley’s strategy was to make scientific naturalism “unimpeachably respectable, scrupulously cleansed of all the deleterious ethical and political connotations it had accrued since first coming into usage in the 1840s.”

Indeed, Huxley’s usage matched earlier connotations of the scientific naturalist, which simply meant being an expert and specialist practitioner of the life sciences. This leads Dawson and Lightman to suggest that scientific naturalism and scientific naturalist were “actor’s categories for much of the nineteenth century,” polemical constructs “employed by both evangelicals and secularists even before it was taken up by the archpolemicist Huxley.”

Dawson and Lightman then turn to twentieth and twenty-first developments. The work of Frank Turner is of course mentioned. But they also point out Robert M. Young’s collection of essays in Darwin’s Metaphor: Nature’s Place in Victorian Culture (1985), where an overarching theme of continuity is pronounced, “pointing out that while natural theology was built on an explicitly theological theodicy, scientific naturalism similarly rested on a secular theodicy based on biological conceptions and the assumptions of the uniformity of nature.” Two years later Lightman published his The Origins of Agnosticism (1987), which argued that “there were many vestiges of traditional religious thought embedded in Victorian agnosticism” and the “possibility that agnositicism originated in a religious context.” They also mention the influential work of Ruth Barton, especially her essays on the X-Club, John Tyndall, and the origins of the scientific journal, Nature.

More recently, historians of science have begun marginalizing Turner’s notion of an emerging, professional scientific elite. Adrian Desmond’s The Politics of Evolution (1989), Ann Secord’s “Science in the Pub” (1994), James Secord’s Victorian Sensation (2000), John van Wyhe’s Phrenology and the Origins of Victorian Scientific Naturalism (2004), and Lightman’s Victorian Popularizers of Science (2007), pushed “back the establishment of a secular naturalistic tendency in British science into the 1830s and 1840s,” essentially placing the scientific naturalists on the periphery. We should add here Lightman’s own collection of essays on Evolutionary Naturalism in Victorian Britain (2009), which examined the enduring strength of religion in the late nineteenth century and the vestiges of religious thought among the scientific naturalists, the problems of communicating their message to the general public, and Victorian critics of scientific naturalism and their strong resemblance to postmodern criticism.

Despite being pushed to the periphery in modern scholarship, Huxley and the scientific naturalists continue to fascinate. Paul White’s Thomas Huxley: Making the ‘Man of Science’ (2003) demonstrates that Huxley’s self-identity was “drawn, in part, from his understanding of domesticity, literature, and religion.” Dawson‘s own Darwin, Literature, and Victorian Respectability (2007) shows how advocates of scientific naturalism constructed “their model of professional scientific authority in line with their opponents’ standards of respectability.” Here again we should also add Lightman and Machael S. Reidy’s The Age of Scientific Naturalism (2014), which focuses on physicist John Tyndall, but also contains exemplary essays on Herbert Spencer and the metaphysical roots of his evolutionary naturalism, William Clifford’s use of Spencerian evolution, and many others.

“The time is right,” writes Dawson and Lightman, “to return to those canonical figures, in the light of the new scholarly agendas, and reevaluate their status as icons of the Victorian scientific scene.” With a focus on “forging friendships,” “institutional politics,” “broader alliances,” and “new generations,” this volume of essays offers “new perspectives on Victorian scientific naturalism that…produce a radically different understanding of the movement centering on the issues of community, identity, and continuity.”

The Nineteenth-Century Decline of Religious Orthodoxy

During the nineteenth century, scholarly clergymen like Leslie Stephen (1832-1904), J.R. Green (1837-1883), and J.E. Thorold Rogers (1823-1890) “felt it their duty of conscience to resign their orders.” Doubt and unbelief in the nineteenth century, it has been said, brought on by the concept of evolution and the “higher criticism” in biblical scholarship, led to such abdications of clerical duties. The revolt against evangelical or Catholic orthodoxy, however, was largely against the apparent immorality and inhumanity of certain doctrines within Christianity (e.g. “divine favoritism,” “substitutionary atonement,” “everlasting torment in hell,” etc.). The impression that Darwin’s evolutionism cannot be reconciled with Genesis, or that German scholars had shown that neither the Old nor the New Testament are reliable, and thereby leading to the abandonment of Christianity, is an altogether false impression. “Contemporary developments in geology, biology, and Biblical scholarship provided indispensable ammunition,” to be sure, “but they did not generate the attack.” According to H.R. Murphy, in his “The Ethical Revolt Against Christian Orthodoxy in Early Victorian England” (1955),  “the attack was generated by a sensed incongruity between a vigorous and hopeful meliorism and the doctrinal legacy of the Christian tradition.”

Murphy goes on to show that it was on these grounds, and not on account of natural science or biblical criticism, that Francis William Newmen (1805-1897), James Anthony Froude (1818-1894), and George Eliot (1819-1880) abandoned Christian orthodoxy.

This is not to say that the new science caused no stir among Victorians. The publications of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830-1833) and Robert Chambers’ Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844) caused a sensation, decades before Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859). When Darwin did finally publish his great work, Samuel Wilberforce (1805-1873) publicly attacked him in the Quarterly Review. Yet there was some Christian believers, both scientists and theologians, who were not at all alarmed by Darwin, and some even came to his defense. The eminent American botanist, Asa Gray (1810-1888), for instance, saw no conflict between the theory of evolution and orthodox Christianity. Richard William Church (1815-1890), Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, claimed that the theory was compatible with a “higher and spiritual order.” Even F.J.A. Hort (1828-1892) and B.F. Westcott (1825-1901), who, working in cooperation, published a revised text critical edition of The New Testament in the Original Greek in 1881, found Darwin’s Origin a “treat to read.”

Wanting the draw secularists back into the church, sermons were even preached in favor of the new science. Stewart D. Headlam (1847-1924), for example, preached a sermon in 1879 declaring:

Thank God that the scientific men have…shattered the idol of an infallible book, broken the fetters of a supposed divine code of rules; for so they have helped to reveal Jesus Christ in his majesty…[who] is the wisdom in Lyell or in Darwin…[Evolution ultimately] gives us far grander notions of God to think of him making the world by his Spirit through the ages, than to think of him making it in a few days.”

There were many others who preached in favor of Darwin and the new science. It suffices to say that accommodating science was one possible response. The other impression, that biblical criticism shattered Victorian belief in Christianity, is also overstated. But there is indeed more truth in this impression than the other. The publication of Essays and Reviews in 1860 by publisher John William Parker (1792-1870) caused much turmoil. The Essays and Reviews was a collection of seven essays by seven “broad churchmen,” H.B. Wilson (1803-1888), Benjamin Jowett (1817-1893), Frederick Temple (1821-1902), Rowland Williams (1817-1870), Baden Powell (1796-1860), C.W. Goodwin (1817-1878), and Mark Pattison (1813-1884). The essays were an attempt to adapt the Church of England to the critical and historical study of the biblical text pioneered by German thinkers some fifty years earlier. The essays were relentlessly attacked—and for disparate reasons—in the press. Deposed High Anglican Frederic Harrison (1831-1923), for example, writing in the Westminster Review in October of 1860, decried against the essayists, saying “you have no business to adopt this reasonable view of the Bible and to remain in the Church.” Wilberforce, again in the Quarterly Review, argued that the essayists presented a “scarcely veiled atheism.” A more moderate position came from English churchmen A.P. Stanley (1815-1881) in the Edinburgh Review, arguing that the church would benefit from such critical insights, endorsing the remark made by Jowett that “doubt comes in at the window when inquiry is denied at the door.” But perhaps the best response came from Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900), in a letter to The Times newspaper in 1861:

What we all want is, briefly, not a condemnation, but a refutation. The age when ecclesiastical censures were sufficient in such cases has passed away. A large portion of the laity now, though unqualified for abstruse theological investigations, are yet competent to hear and decide on theological arguments. These men will not be satisfied by en ex cathedra shelving of the question, nor terrified by a deduction of awful consequences from the new speculations. For philosophy and history alike have taught them to seek not what is ‘safe’, but what is true.

That refutation came through the writings of Westcott, Hort, and, especially, Joseph Lightfoot (1828-1889). When the Essays and Reviews appeared, Westcott wrote to Hort that “it is needful to show that there is a mean between Essays and Reviews and Traditionalism.” Westcott agreed that the Bible should be studied and interpreted like other books, but he also wanted to pay the greatest attention to “every detail, every syllable of the text,” and “all the resources of scholarship must be employed and focused upon each sentence, each clause, each word.” Lightfoot’s commentaries on various New Testament books, furthermore, undermined the Tübingen school of biblical scholarship. A severely critical and historical study did not lead to the same conclusions of German critics.

This leads us back to Murphy’s argument, that the decline of faith was not due to any skepticism raised by evolutionary theory or biblical criticism, but rather Christianity’s failure to reach the poor in the inhumanity of the industrialized age.

The Late-Victorian Agnostic Popularizers

Charles Albert WattsBernard Lightman’s “Ideology, Evolution and Late-Victorian Agnostic Popularizers” in Moore’s  History, Humanity and Evolution (1989) deserves special mention. He argues that agnosticism was presented as a religious creed that had evolved out of Christianity by agnostic propagandists such as Charles Albert Watts (1858-1946), William Stewart Ross (1844-1906), Richard Bithell (1821-1902), Frederick James Gould (1855-1938), Samuel Laing (1811-97), and others.

In the 1880s and 1890s, Victorian agnostics were facing mounting tensions. On the one hand, some agnostics wanted to appeal to the masses, and therefore had to attune their message to Victorian sensibilities. On the other hand, other agnostics were committed to the full force of their message, and therefore would not “debase” it, contenting themselves to the few who could grasp their complex scientific and philosophic concepts.

Yet during this time a new form of agnosticism emerged that would appeal to a wider English audience. It chief popularizer was Charles Albert Watts, son of English secularist Charles Watts (1836-1906). Both father and son were “immersed in the world of radical publishing,” particularly the writings militant atheist Charles Bradlaugh (1833-91). The elder Watts however had dissociated himself from Bradlaugh over the publication of atheist Charles Knowlton’s (1800-1850) pamphlet on birth control, The Fruits of Philosophy (1832). Watts was prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act when his printing company, Watts & Co., published the pamphlet. In court Watts claimed he had never read the document. After breaking ties with Bradlaugh over his increasing militancy, Watts later he joined George Jacob Holyoake (1817-1906) in forming the British Secular Union (BSU) in 1877, a dissident group from Bradlaugh’s National Secular Society (NSS).

The son Watts respected his father’s non-militant approach. He also had a high regard for T.H. Huxley (1825-1895), Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), John Tyndall (1820-1893), and other scientific naturalists, who were “at the peak of their power during the 1880s.” According to Lightman, “Watts thought he could use elements of the successful strategy adopted by the scientific naturalists in combination with non-militant methods previously adopted by his father” in order to appeal to a wider audience, and to subvert the growing influence of the NSS. Unlike the “atheist,” “infidel,” and “freethinker,” Watts saw agnosticism as representing the “most up-to-date phase of scientific unbelief.” Watts thought that the best way to increase the influence of the BSU and other dissident secular groups was through the press, by “inundating the reading public with material on agnosticism and [particularly] evolution.” Watts thus focused “on reaching likely converts through the publication of quality pamphlets, books and periodicals.”

Watts took over his father’s publishing business in 1884. That same year he began publishing The Agnostic Journal, its aim was to establish “a monthly periodical of cultured liberal thought, which, by its moderation and ability shall commend itself to the attention and support of advanced thinkers of every grade.” The following year Watts published Albert Simmon’s Agnostic First Principles (1885), a summary of Spencer’s First Principles (1862). Also in the same year Watts published Watt’s Literary Guide, a publisher’s circular, “advertising publications of Watts & Co., reviewed current books, and, beginning in 1893, added a monthly supplement condensing important works on progressive thought and science.” Right before the turn of the century, Watts, in his continued collaboration with Holyoake, founded the Rationalist Press Association (RPA), an organization that acted as a “propaganda machine for freethought and agnosticism that would outdo any of Bradlaugh’s publication efforts and would rival the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and the Religious Tract Society.” Its central aim, as Lightman puts it, was the transform “dissident Secularism into a respectable, middle-class organization.”

Watts also had other collaborators. William Stewart Ross, who “belonged to the Holyoake tradition of non-militant dissident Secularism,” joined Watts in transforming The Secular Review of the 1880s, which he assumed full editorship in 1877 from Holyoake. Ross agreed with Watts that an “advanced thinker” is “like a scholar and a gentlemen, [and] that the best arguments for Secularism were drawn from philosophy and modern science, and that the less said about party politics the better.” Another collaborator was Richard Bithell, who through Watts & Co. published a number of agnostic tracts, including The Creed of Agnosticism (1883), Agnostic Problems (1887), The Worship of the Unknowable (c. 1889) and A Handbook of Scientific Agnosticism (1892). Another important collaborator and popularizer of dissident secularism was Frederick James Gould, who, along with Bithell, helped Watts found the Propaganda Press Committee, which later came to be known as the RPA. Samuel Laing was yet another collaborator and popular author, his repertoire included Modern Science and Modern Thought (1885), A Modern Zoroastraian (1887), Problems of the Future (1889), and Human Origins (1892), and was also a consistent contributor to Watts’ The Agnostic Review.

This “stable of agnostic propagandists” aimed their writings to younger readers and the working classes. They had a “missionary zeal” and “desired to demonstrate that modern science could present an integrated and rational world view, encompassing every realm of thought.” This world view was governed by the belief in “fixed and uniform laws” of nature. Evolution was “applied to the development of both the organic and the inorganic worlds; it applied to man as a physical being and to the products of man’s so-called spiritual being, including religion and ethics.” Indeed, as Lightman aptly observes, “the new agnostics were…primarily attracted to the cosmic evolutionism of Herbert Spencer, and they often ranked him as Darwin’s superior.” Evolution manifested the “power of the Unknowable.” Engaging the emotions and religious sensibilities of the Victorian reader, the new agnostics often exaggerated theistic themes found in Spencer, Huxley and other elite scientific naturalists. They even “tried to establish,” Lightman tells us,  “an Agnostic Temple in southwest London.”

They were also rather politically conservative. With their increasing popularity, the new agnostics “entered the bourgeoisie.” They wanted to eliminate both radicalism and socialism from the social order. Most interestingly, they “used evolutionary theory to legitimate a conservative vision of social order.” Socialism, as they saw it, was maladaptive, contrary to nature and science. The political creed of Darwinism could only be Individualism. They developed an evolutionary theodicy to answer the problem of evil, seeing its existence as “part and parcel of the evolution process, an inevitably by-product of the laws of nature.” But evil would ultimately disappear, they maintained, with the progressive course of evolution. This theodicy appealed to those with either religious or from religious backgrounds, as it created a sense of “contentment in the current stage of a dynamic, self-adjusting, divinely sanctioned process.” It was indeed a “theodicy designed to engage the religious sensibilities of a lower middle-class audience.”

This undoubtedly religious agnosticism was often referred by Laing as a “reverent and devout agnosticism.” According to Lightman, this new agnosticism was thus not a “negation of Christianity, but as the next step in its orderly progressive development.” Interestingly, there was also a penchant for “Eastern thought, mysticism, spiritualism and theosophy” among these agnostic propagandists. Ross described evolution as “the upward passing through Karma to Nirvana.” Laing attempted to “rehabilitate the old Persian religion of Zoroastrianism.” But elite agnostics, such as Huxley, could not stomach the increasingly religious and liberal element in the new agnosticism. Huxley saw Laing’s agnostic creed as unscientific. In turn, the new agnostics saw Huxley as insensitive to the “religious and mystical dimension of the doctrine of evolution.” This eventually lead to the acute controversy between Laing and Huxley in 1890 over the politics of democracy and aristocracy. Laing read Huxley’s “On the Natural Inequality of Men” (1890) as an example of an elite naturalist using “scientific arguments against democracy.” Laing went so far as to accuse Huxley of propounding Tory principles. “The Laing/Huxley controversy,” Lightman concludes, “shows graphically how readily evolution could be adapted to suite the new agnostics’ social aspirations.” In the end, “the flexibility of evolutionary theory as a social dynamic made it a potent weapon for attacking elite scientific naturalists who temporized about democratic reforms, as well as for criticizing unscientific socialists and radical Secularists who were too impatient to wait for the inevitable.”

What was Victorian Doubt?

Butler - Victorian Doubt“There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.”

So writes Tennyson in his In Memoriam. According to Lance St John Butler, in his Victorian Doubt: Literary and Cultural Discourses (1990), Victorian doubt was not some “mere shadow of faith, a ghost prowling at the feast of the believers, but as the very condition of there being faith at all.” “Above all,” he continues, “doubt came to be seen, especially later in the century, as a corrective that religion offered to mere theology.” While Enlightenment skepticism seemed to put religion in jeopardy, doubt, after Romanticism, “became something positive as is apparent not only in an honest doubter such as Tennyson but also in many of the ‘deconversion narratives’ of Harriet Martineau and F.W. Newman, William Hale White, Samuel Butler and others,” including Lesile Stephen’s Agnostic Apology (1876) and A.J. Balfour’s Defense of Philosophic Doubt (1879). Numerous metaphors were used to express these “deconversions”:

“Mankind have outgrown old institutions and old doctrines, and have not yet acquired new ones” (Mill);

“The old has passed away, but, alas, the new appears not in its stead” (Carlyle);

“Wandering between two worlds, one dead The other powerless to be born” (Arnold).

There was much religious ambiguity during the Victorian period. It was “a puzzle to many Victorians how unbelief seemed to gain ground in spite of the greatly increased evangelistic effort.” The advances of science began to cause distress only later in the century, “after Buckle, Darwin and Colenso.” Evolution was not the problem. According to Butler, “religion quickly took on board the whole of evolution, at least in intellectual circles…[it had] no effect in halting the imminent decline in religious practice.”

“We need an account of the Victorians,” Butler argues, “that does not rely too heavily on our belief that we know the end of the story.” Butler’s purpose in the following chapters is to demonstrate that the “avowedly religious discourse of the Victorians is shot through with the lexicon, the syntax and the imagery of doubt while the avowedly unreligious or antireligious discourse of the period is shot through with metaphysical assumptions, and with vocabulary and imagery that betray the cultural pervasion of religion.” “The point at issue,” he goes on, “seems more to have been which religion (taking this word in its broadest sense) to pursue, or how to deal with the religious cultural baggage loaded onto the Victorian mind, rather than whether to both with religion at all.”

“Doubt is ubiquitous in the discourse of the Victorians.” An endemic doubt, a prevalence of metaphysical anxiety, is present in the vast majority of Victorian writers. But Victorian doubt should not be confused with unbelief or despair, “the prelude to atheism.” It is, as in the case of the honest doubter Tennyson, the faintly trusting of a “larger hope.” Many Victorian writers saw themselves as “living without God in the world.” This was not a personal choice; rather, it was a sense of “God’s absence from the world.”  The writings of Antony Trollope (1815-1882), George Eliot (1819-1880), Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855) and Emily Brontë (1818-1848) seem, at first glance, to be a radical secularization of the English novel. But according to Butler, they actually display a religious ambiguity, or, more generally, a deep desire for religion to work. Charles Dickens’ (1812-1870) Bleak House (1852-53), for example, treats the clergy as secular and strained: “Churches tend to be either decaying or out of place in some other way wrong.”

Even John Henry Newman (1801-1890), in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845), and then in his Apologia (1864), displays a move from relative optimism to a “black pessimism.” Man needs God. But he also needs a “guide to lead him to a knowledge of God and that that guide must be the Catholic Church.” As Butler surmises, “for Newman the fallen world is, per se, utterly bereft of the divine and man is encircled by gloom…Newman is working perilously closely alongside the classics of Victorian doubt.”

Many other Catholic poets shared Newman’s “metaphorical system of Victorian doubt.” G.M. Hopkins (1844-1889) “felt that God hid Himself from the world.” Francis Thompson’s (1859-1907) Hound of Heaven (1893) depicts the believer as wanting “escape not from the consequences of sin but from the consequences of unbelief. He tries to escape God in his own mind and by hiding under laughter (scoffing?) and by finding other ‘hopes’ and by plunging into despair, evidently a despair based on the fear that God does not exist.”

The loss of faith pervades Victorian poetry. The mourning, this nostalgia for lost love, is “a metaphor for another, deeper loss,” Butler tells us: “the loss of a more general certainty.” “Any anthology of Victorian poetry quickly reveals the obsession with loss, with death, with endings and with yearnings for greener grass elsewhere.”

Images of light in darkness are found in several places in the novels of Dickens. The darkness in, for example, Great Expectations (1860-61), Bleak House (1852-53) is a symbol that something has “gone terribly wrong with the world.” “[H]ell has risen and engulfed the earth.” As Butler astutely writes, “The fog, the mud, the nightmares, the darkness, the squalor, the disease, the poverty—these are not only social problems (they they are that), they are also emblems of spiritual wreck and images of a devilish possession of man’s abode.” This is the “infernalisation of the earth,” the “dark Satanic mills” of William Blake’s (1757-1827) Milton (c. 1804-10). Was this “hell-on-earth” the result of industrialization? Or was it punishment? Or the  spiritual condition of Victorian humanity? Whatever it was, the central question on the minds of Victorian writers: Where is God? The answer: “God is absetn from the world as currently organised, he has disappeared; we are, are Hardy will put it, ‘God-forgotten’; the light is available only beyond the tomb or behind a veil.”

According to Butler, such imagery and language is first hinted at in Romanticism; but “in Carlyle and Dickens hell takes on its full industrial panoply of horrors and dominates the world.” Both authors had been inspired by Henry Mayhew’s (1812-1887) Labour and the London Poor, published as a series of articles in the Morning Chronicle in the 1840s. After reading these articles, one reader commented: “We live in a mockery of Christianity that, with the thought of its hypocrisy, makes me sick.”

Carlyle’s Latter-Day Pamphlets of 1850 added a “spiritual dimension to Mayhew’s sociological and economic picture.” The degradation of slums is a symbol for the moral degradation of England; the mud of the poison-swamp is London’s dirt and cosmic filth, “a symbol for the dire state of English society. Dragon and devils emerge from the mud; hypocrisy has come to dominate the nineteenth century; the gates of hell are prevailing. According to Butler, although the images of hell-on-earth are undoubtedly social commentary on the “poverty and injustice of the social system and its concrete effects,” Carlyle emphasizes the “inner man”: “Something must be wrong in the inner man of the world, since its outer man is so terribly out of square!”

Dickens had borrowed many aspects of the Carlylean mythology. In Dickens, too, hell is rampant among us and dominant on the earth, while “heaven has become a distant and highly speculative possibility.” Like other Victorians, Dickens is a radical doubter. Organized religion is “unable to combat either the physical or moral nightmares that surround it.” This world is damned. Images of decay, mud, fog, brutes, labyrinths, prisons, and hell-flames were, for Dickens and other Victorians, symbols “that could simultaneously asserts man’s abandonment by God (loss of faith, doubt) and remind him of his need to try to ward off the devil and become something like fully human (faith that there was somewhere a metaphysical guarantee, ‘behind the veil’, that the universe might still be ‘read’ as a morally significant structure even if the readings were almost universally negative).”

This “metaphysical guarantee,” this “surer basis for harmony,” was initially sought in the salvation of science. But the application of science only brought more questions and the relativising of European culture. Victorian geologists not only “demonstrated the uncomfortable longevity of the earth, they also prognosticated a catastrophic future for the planet, now in its ‘decrepitude.'” Astronomy had revealed a vast universe, but at the same time “you feel human insignificance too plainly.” One Victorian reader of the astronomy comments: “It makes me feel that it is not worthwhile to live; it quite annihilates me.”

Many negative images were, however, balanced with positive ones. What is important to note, and quite paradoxical, says Butler, is that “among the novelists at least, the more believing writers reach for the Satanic while the ‘unbelievers’ will reach for the figure of Jesus Christ.”

Victorian belief, writes Butler, was “shot through with elements of doubt or cosmic depression,” a “world cut off from God.” And in the work of Victorian writers, there is an “unmistakable fear that God has abandoned the earth and that it has been handed over to the forces of darkness.” But in writing about God’s abandonment, Victorians continued using the language of Christian tradition. In this sense, Christian vocabulary and symbolism were “hijacked” for other purposes. Indeed, Robert Owen (1771-1858), Carlyle, Arnold, and many other Victorian writers employed religious discourse in their writings.

Butler in chapter four, “the discourses of religion among Victorian doubters,” focuses on a few such writers. The influence of Auguste Comte (1798-1857) here is central. “Comte’s work was utterly (and deliberately) imbued with religious elements,” Butler tells us. Claimed to be the first female sociologist, Harriet Martineau (1802-1876), translated Comte’s The Positive Philosophy in 1853. British secularist George Jacob Holyoake (1817-1906) “welcomed her English version of Comte as his ‘Bible’ and said that it gave him his ‘creed.'”

Reaction to Comte and his Positivism was not as severe as one might expect. Many recognized that it “showed that orthodoxy had failed the people and that the earnest efforts of Comtists were going in the right spiritual direction.” With the alleged decline of Christianity, many sized upon a metaphysical replacement. This was readily admitted. When British liberal politician, William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898), wrote to Holyoake in 1897, he said this much. He also “pointed out that the latter’s secularism (and secularism in general) could never have existed without a precedent Christianity and the ‘atheist’ Holyoake hinted at the possibility of immortality not only in this late correspondence with Gladstone (who was dying at the time) but also in his pamphlet of earlier and more fiery years, The Logic of Death of 1849.” Other so-called atheists or agnostics, including John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), in his posthumous essay on “Theism” (1874), “had not quite discounted personal survival.”

The employment of religious language among the religiously skeptical is so self-conscious that one must conclude that Victorian secularists were often Janus-faced. T.H. Huxley (1825-1895), for instance, in a letter to Kingsley in 1870, refers to his “sins,” the “sanctity of human nature,” the “sacredness” of human duty. Huxley also refers to Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (1836) as leading him “to know that a deep sense of religion was compatible with the entire absence of theology.” “Above all,” writes Butler, “the faith in science and in the new post-Darwinian ‘truth’ was strongly asserted, with a fervour not unlike that of the evangelicals.”

Returning to Comte, Butler reminds us that many contemporaries saw his “Religion of Humanity” as Catholicism minus Christianity. Unitarian minister John Trevor (1855-1930) formed the Labour Church in the 1890s, for instance, and modeled it after Comte’s principles. Although a short-lived failure—apparently disappearing shortly after World War I—its first principle declared “That the Labour Movement is a Religious Movement.”

Interestingly enough, when the Labour Church disappeared, so did Comte’s “Churches of Humanity.” According to Butler, with the “departure of Victorian religion went the departure of Victorian unbelief too. The two were intimately bound together by their possession of a common discourse.”

Butler argues his case by focusing on two main examples, Victorian doubters Leslie Stephen (1832-1904) and Mary Anne Evans (1819-1880), otherwise known by her pen name as George Eliot.  Stephen’s Agnostic’s Apology (1874) seems to model itself after Puritan autobiographies and conversion narratives. His doubt is a doubt expressed religiously. In her various writers, from the 1840s to the 1850s, Eliot imagined herself as either  rationalist, theist, pantheist, or positivist. Her husband, English philosopher and critic of literature and theater George Henry Lewes (1817-1878) was, however, “Comte’s most ardent British disciple.” They first meet in the early 1850s, and by 1863, Eliot describes herself as “swimming in Comte.” According to Butler, Eliot had “turned not so much from religion to infidelity as from the religion of her father to the religion of her husband.” Butler follows Eliot’s religious development throughout a number of works, including the novella “The Lifted Veil” (1859), a poem “The Choir Invisible” (1867), supplied to Positivists for use as a hymn in their new liturgy, and her more well-known novels Middlemarch (1874) and Daniel Deronda (1876). According to Butler, Eliot’s writings is “dominated by religious discourse to the point that it cannot be read separately from the vocabularly, the symbolic systems, the codes and the narrative syntax of the Judaeo-Christian tradition.” This should come as no surprise, for the “Comtean religion is, after all, a lonely and elevated affair with little to cheer a soul still trying to wrap about itself the Hebrew old clothes.”

The period between 1869-74 is known for a number of important events, from the Franco-Prussian war, the rise of Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898), the revolutionary and socialist Paris Commune (18 March-28 May, 1871), the unification of Italy, and the Pastor aeternus, or the proclamation of Papal infallibility (1870). Indeed, Butler sees the 1870s as a “fulcrum or watershed” moment for Victorian doubt.

Besides these important political events, there was a “surge of science publications in the 1870s.” Tyndall published his Lectures on Sound (1867) and his Lectures on Light (1873). Darwin not only published his Descent of Man (1871), but also his essays on “Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication” (1868) and “Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals” (1872). Wallace published his Natural Selection (1870), The Geographical Distribution of Animals (1876), and his Tropical Nature (1878). Spencer published his Principles of Psychology (1870). Huxley published his Lay Sermons (1870) and spent the whole period from circa 1871-1880 as Secretary to the Royal Society.

The “scientific” study of religion was also gaining greater currency. Friedrich Max Müller (1823-1900), for instance, published in 1873 his Introduction to the Science of Religion and subsequently his 1878 Origin and Growth of Religion. Although Müller distrusted Darwin, Huxley, and Spencer, he was convinced that religion had “progressed” from the days of the Rig Veda. Higher Criticism was ever so popular in the 1870s. Besides Strauss and Renan, J.R. Seeley published his Ecce Homo in 1865, followed by George Macdonald’s Miracles of Our Lord (1870), Henry Ward Beecher’s Life of Jesus (1871), Eliza Lynn Linton’s “historical” novel The True History of Joshua Davidson (1872), F.W. Farrar’s Life of Christ (1874), and many others.

According to Butler, “religious novels were popular throughout the Victorian period…but whereas before 1870 these are mostly novels of inter-sectarian controversy, after 1870 the preponderant question is the question of doubt.”

Butler then goes on to show that the decade of 1870 is marked by “non-religious” novels. For example, he mentions the work of George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, Thomas Hardy, and Matthew Arnold. Butler also wants to point out that during this decade “religion had reached a high water mark.” It is indeed the decade of Dwight L. Moody (1837-1899) and his revivalism. It was also the decade of the Metaphysical Society (1869-1880), founded by James Knowles (1831-1908). Its membership included Tennyson, W.K. Clifford, Huxley, Stephen, but also many prominent clergymen. These men were to meet in London “nine times a year to discuss the problems of the coexistence of religion and science.” Knowles’ journal, The Nineteenth Century, published many of the writings of the members.

According to Butler, all this points to a growing “new consensus, a compromise.” This new “spirit of compromise” is apparent in Victorian literary works. John Morley’s On Compromise (1874) and Arnold’s St Paul and Protestantism (1870) and Literature and Dogma (1873) are case examples Butler provides the reader. Although religion is still dead for Morley, Butler’s point in including him is that more optimistic view is beginning to “creep into the sense of loss.” Morley calls “all forms of frivolity, all weak convictions, all vapidity and nihilism,” for example, “forces of darkness.”  One should hold strongly to either belief, atheism, or agnosticism, and refuse to wallow in despair. What is more, each point of view “should learn to tolerate the other’s point of view.” Arnold’s God and the Bible (1875) sums up Morley position: “Two things about the Christian religion must surely be clear to anybody with eyes in his head. One is, that men cannot do without it; the other, that they cannot do with it as it is.” This, says Butler, the “compromise of disbelieving religiously.”

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