God’s Funeral by A.N Wilson

We still despise the Victorians. They were narrow-minded, given to ostentation and vulgarity, and hopelessly confused when the discoveries of science violently came up against the religious teachings so many in the intelligentsia held dear.

Yet their times were fascinating, not least because of the plethora of great thinkers who sought to grapple with that last, difficult point. Inthis magnificently erudite and well-written book, A. N. Wilson explains what went wrong with the Victorians when it came to perhaps the central pillar of their society: religion.

It was a battle between the likes of Darwin and Huxley, who argued that scientific fact contradicted the Bible, and a selection of bishops – notably the revolting ‘Soapy Sam’ Wilberforce, whom Mr Wilson depicts brilliantly – and other churchmen who, their intellectual armoury depleted, ridiculed science.

In the wings were militant atheists such as Swinburne, for whom religion appears to have been just another psycho-sexual problem, theists such as Carlyle, who ceased to believe in the Christian miracles when his mother had to admit that the Lord Almighty had not, in fact, made the wheelbarrows in their village shop, and religious maniacs like Philip Gosse, who regarded Christmas as a Catholic abomination against the Protestant church and who buried a Christmas pudding because of its corrupting and heretical qualities.

Mr Wilson’s book fills a gap long apparent in the history of this period. He takes his readers through the philosophical minefield that led to the loss of faith among educated Victorians, relating variously the influences of Marx, Hume, Mill and others who made Darwin’s job easy for him. He shows how the utilitarianism of the age – the reliance on what Mr Gradgrind, in Hard Times, calls ‘facts’ – allowed a literalist deconstruction of the Bible, from which the sacred text has never, in many people’s eyes, recovered.

Although, on one level, this book might be seen to give great comfort to those who have already settled on a path of atheism, by using the finest minds of the 19th century to support them, Mr Wilson himself comes to a gentler conclusion.

He holds out hope to those who fight against unbelief that, if only they will look for other ways to believe rather than interpreting the Bible literally, they may salvage something from the intellectual battles of the 19th century.

However, the achievement of this book is how it brings to life the characters in those battles, their humbuggery and absurdity, and yet never lets us forget that the issues over which they were fighting have still to be properly resolved – and that science has not, for all its persuasiveness, yet had the crushing triumph the Victorian clerics feared, and which once seemed so probable…