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The Age of Doubt

The Age of Doubt: Tracing the Roots of Our Religious Uncertainty

Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 160
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  • Book Info
    The Age of Doubt
    Book Description:

    The Victorian era was the first great "Age of Doubt" and a critical moment in the history of Western ideas. Leading nineteenth-century intellectuals battled the Church and struggled to absorb radical scientific discoveries that upended everything the Bible had taught them about the world. InThe Age of Doubt, distinguished scholar Christopher Lane tells the fascinating story of a society under strain as virtually all aspects of life changed abruptly.

    In deft portraits of scientific, literary, and intellectual icons who challenged the prevailing religious orthodoxy, from Robert Chambers and Anne Brontë to Charles Darwin and Thomas H. Huxley, Lane demonstrates how they and other Victorians succeeded in turning doubt from a religious sin into an ethical necessity.

    The dramatic adjustment of Victorian society has echoes today as technology, science, and religion grapple with moral issues that seemed unimaginable even a decade ago. Yet the Victorians' crisis of faith generated a far more searching engagement with religious belief than the "new atheism" that has evolved today. More profoundly than any generation before them, the Victorians came to view doubt as inseparable from belief, thought, and debate, as well as a much-needed antidote to fanaticism and unbridled certainty. By contrast, a look at today's extremes-from the biblical literalists behind the Creation Museum to the dogmatic rigidity of Richard Dawkins's atheism-highlights our modern-day inability to embrace doubt.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16881-5
    Subjects: History, Language & Literature, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. INTRODUCTION: Putting Faith in Doubt
    (pp. 1-13)

    “Why is it thought so very wicked to be an unbeliever?”¹ In Britain today, a question like this would probably generate surprise, even some confusion. With religious leaders debating whether Anglicanism should remain the country’s state religion and church attendance falling to record lows (at 15 percent), doubt and unbelief are no longer exceptional qualities in the country. They have become national hallmarks. Far from conveying wickedness or sin, they suggest that one is open to debate, leery of dogma, and focused on change.

    It wasn’t always so. The novel containing the above question,The Nemesis of Faith, was burned...

  4. ONE Miracles and Skeptics
    (pp. 14-35)

    The roots of Victorian doubt take us far into the eighteenth century, when scientists and philosophers began openly to question biblical accounts of the Earth’s creation. Geologists studying cliffs and ravines publicly doubted whether a single flood could have covered the entire planet, much less whether one man and his family could have rescued every species of animal on Earth from it. Philosophers, too, openly challenged the idea of the miraculous. In doing so, they also cast doubt on the truth and reliability of the Gospels and Old Testament.

    In 1781, after both lines of inquiry crossed, rattling the Established...

  5. TWO Stunned Victorians Look Backward and Inward
    (pp. 36-62)

    In the old Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, near the university’s some-what ramshackle collection of ancient coins, engravings, and zoological artifacts, crowds of boisterous undergraduates would gather to hear a local celebrity discuss fossils. The speaker was a vicar, but a most atypical one. A stout, balding man with a fondness for outlandish clothes, he was as renowned for his entertaining lectures as he was for keeping a hyena in his back garden. Even by Oxford standards, his reputation was hard to beat.

    A powerful cleric with Broad Church sympathies, the Reverend William Buckland became reader in mineralogy at the university...

  6. THREE Feeling Doubt, Then Drinking It
    (pp. 63-91)

    A few months before Carlyle’s doubt-drenchedSartor Resartusbegan circulating in England, John Henry Newman was wandering the streets of Leonforte, a small town in Sicily, berating himself for his “utter hollowness.”¹ Carlyle’s eccentric narrator had given a resounding “yea” to the universe, in hopes of combating his own relentless doubt. Newman—then a tutor at Oriel College, Oxford—had returned to Sicily alone to clarify exactly what he believed.

    For both Victorians, doubt turned out to be more than a serious preoccupation; it brought to a head concerns about the Anglican Church that Newman would pursue literally and figuratively...

  7. FOUR Natural History Sparks Honest Doubt
    (pp. 92-122)

    Few books are sufficiently influential to have a lasting impact on a nation’s culture. But in mid-Victorian Britain, two came close to achieving that effect, and both were written at least fifteen years before Darwin’sOn the Origin of Speciesappeared. In different ways, each concerned religious doubt and evolution. Neither book is a household name today, in part because one of them appeared anonymously and generated such heat that the identity of its author remained concealed until years after he had died. The other book, also the cause of serious controversy, was burned at Oxford University before its author,...

  8. FIVE Uncertainty Becomes a Way of Life
    (pp. 123-158)

    In the summer of 1860, England was awash with rain. The season was so wet and sunless that almost a century and a half would pass before another June would produce heavier rain.¹ In Oxford, however, amid the gloomy spires and sodden quadrangles, one bright spot stood out.

    On June 30, the British Association for the Advancement of Science gathered to meet. The papers presented that final morning of the assembly were given over to discussing Charles Darwin’s controversial best-seller,On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for...

  9. SIX Faith-Based Certainty Meets the Gospel of Doubt
    (pp. 159-186)

    Two paragraphs intoCivilization and Its Discontents, Freud’s 1929 treatise on man’s “unhappiness in culture,” a dilemma surfaced. Having described how a recent book of his treated religious ideas “as an illusion”—indeed, as “fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind”—Freud stopped almost dead in his tracks.¹ It was not that he failed to grasp the urgency of such wishes. A sense of their appeal simply was not in him.

    When his friend Romain Rolland (author of several religious biographies and a later winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature) insisted that religion gave him...

  10. NOTES
    (pp. 187-222)
    (pp. 223-224)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 225-233)