Did you get an invitation?;Books

2nd July 1999 at 01:00
GOD'S FUNERAL. By A N Wilson. John Murray pound;20

Oh, that I had faith!" Thomas Carlyle exclaimed, when told that his manuscript of The French Revolution had been accidentally burnt. Yet after years of work, poverty and grind, he sat down and wrote the book again.

This is one of the most courageous stories in 19th-century literary history, but it takes on fresh relevance in A N Wilson's account of the decay of religious belief in Victorian England. Carlyle's spontaneous reaction to the news of his loss is indicative of a widely-held tension between a continuing need for religion and the growing scepticism attendant upon modern knowledge.

For many people, acceptance of the Christian religion is hedged with intellectual difficulties. And many of the conflicts of thought that we live with have their origin in the 19th-century which produced not just new ideas, but also new facts that changed the way we see the world and ourselves. But faith, as Wilson comments, is not easily eradicated. Rather, it is "a vital component in the human make-up - personal and collective". Which is why Carlyle's cry has so often been repeated.

God's Funeral is a hugely ambitious undertaking, requiring the author to dig into the history of science, philosophy and theological debate in order to extract the many strands that collectively undermined accepted belief. The spectrum of argument is richly absorbing, and few authors could take us through so many complex shifts of thought with, on the reader's part, such a growing sense of pleasure. Wilson's skill lies in his ability to blend intellectual history with brief biographical sketches, anecdotes and idiosyncratic details.

Up until the Victorian period one of the most enduring arguments for the existence of God had been the "design" in Nature. The world is so full of design, it was argued, that there must be a designer in the same way that a watch found on a path indicates the existence of a watchmaker, and there must therefore be a purpose behind the design.

But this notion of a benign Creator was undermined by Darwin's discovery of the principle of natural selection. Nature suddenly seemed impersonal and less kindly disposed. Darwin robbed God of his role as the Creator of life, and robbed man of his divine origin. It was Darwin, according to Richard Dawkins, who made it possible to be "an intellectually fulfilled atheist".

And while it is more difficult nowadays to prove the existence of God, as Wilson points out in his conclusion, the God-idea agitates us still and has not been discarded with anything like the readiness that many of the late Victorians would have predicted.

Frances Spalding

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