[19 June 2011]
The last decade has seen an increase of books written from both sides of the religious divide. On one hand, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins represent the “God is Dead” camp, with their books criticizing religion and promoting atheism. But with these arguments also comes a large push in the other direction, books written as direct refutations of the atheists’ claims, arguing that the beliefs of Hitchens and Dawkins constitute their own type of extremism.
The current set of issues is quite thorny, and as both sides dig their trenches and prepare for years of theological arguments, one might think that the most sensible position is to adopt some sort of middle ground, between the dogmatism of religious zealots and the haughty arrogance of the so-called New Atheists.
This is the position that Christopher Lane attempts to take in his new book, The Age of Doubt: Tracing the Roots of Our Religious Uncertainty. Lane’s text tackles the theological debates of 19th-century Britain, but he means for it to apply to the arguments of the present. He proposes that the discussions that took place during the Victorian era, in which the powerful influence of the Anglican Church slowly gave way to the naturalist and materialist claims made by scientists such as Lyell and Darwin, can teach us a lot about our current discussion about God.
In his introduction, Lane writes that, “Like many of their peers, Darwin and Lyell remind us that doubt offers a productive, even hopeful way of ‘being in two minds’, a way of ultimately reaching hard-won conviction that permits dissent, sharpens insight, and inspires creativity in the place of dogma and rote learning. Among its other qualities, doubt tends to be progressive, forward-looking, and nonproselytizing, allowing the coexistence of contraries that the adamant reject in the search for quick fixes and yes-or-no answers.” Translation: both sides in the current battles over God should take a deep breath and examine their own beliefs before making such rigid assertions.
A close investigation into the philosophical and scientific controversies of the 19th-century would make for interesting reading. Lane’s claim to cover this material, however, is disingenuous. It’s clear that the author doesn’t want to get his hands dirty by actually delving into these old texts. There are a few pithy quotes provided from The Origin of Species, or Lyell’s Principles of Geology. But more often than not, Lane relies on extensive secondary literature and the claims of others, neatly summarizing thorny questions that shouldn’t necessarily be wrapped up so easily.
The Age of Doubt does tackle the church’s reaction to Lyell’s claims that the earth is just over 6,000 years old, or to Darwin’s assertions about evolution. But Lane provides no more than the most cursory glance at many of these debates. Far more time is spent discussing the theological implications of Victorian literature, and it’s clear that this is where Lane’s true interest lies. Pages upon pages are spent analyzing the works of the Brontes, George Eliot and Alfred, and Lord Tennyson, among others.
This doesn’t make for bad reading, but when Lane spends more time discussing the character motivations in The Mill on the Floss than he does discussing Nietzsche, Feuerbach or David Strauss, it’s unclear where The Age of Doubt‘s focus truly lies. Lane simply lacks a compelling theory of history to tie everything together.
It seems that he’s making the argument that the debates spurred on by Lyell and Darwin led to many Victorian writers having sincere and agonizing doubts about the role of religion in the universe. But, instead of connecting the dots of intellectual history, The Age of Doubt reads more as a quick who’s who of Victorian England, dropping in on figures, briefly discussing their religious outlook, and moving on. Little to no time is spent providing a cohesive outlook of the entire culture, and important trends like the rise of literacy and schooling are given very little treatment.
For such a heavy subject, the book is remarkably short—the main text occupies only 186 pages, and 27 of these are spent explaining how the doubt and agnosticism of the Victorians applies to the present day. This chapter is by far the weakest, as Lane fails to make a compelling argument as to how these 19th-century battles affect us in 2011.
His claim that religious extremism is on the rise is backed with only anecdotal evidence; a visit to the Creation Museum is interesting, but does it need to be in a book that supposedly is about Victorian England? The final chapter feels like Lane’s desperate attempt to demonstrate the relevance of his research interests, but he ends up hammering home a point that wasn’t that well-developed to begin with.
To be fair, Lane has hit upon something interesting. While many people believe that human history is the story of 2,000 years of blanket Christianity followed by a recent emergence of atheism, the book stresses the very important fact that theological and philosophical squabbles over these subjects are nothing new (and indeed, far more fierce than some of our debates today). But the best books of intellectual history leave it to the reader to understand how the subject applies to the present day. Lane lacks this subtlety; his admiration for Victorian agnostic writers is not hidden at all, as if he already concluded this was the proper theological outlook, and then looked back into the past to find his evidence.
The subject matter of The Age of Doubt is interesting. But Lane was not the author to write this book. Incoherent despite its short page count, overly-didactic while lacking a solid argument, The Age of Doubt should be read as a call for others to examine this material. This book is not riveting history it could have been.