PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Books

'The Age of Doubt' Is a Call for Others to Examine This Material

Christopher Lane's book on the theological and philosophical debates of 19th-century Great Britain contains some interesting anecdotes, but is too broad and too short to completely fulfill its promise.


The Age of Doubt

Publisher: Yale University Press
Length: 248 pages
Author: Christopher Lane
Price: $26.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2011-03
Amazon

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.

5

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.

Music

20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.

Film

Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.

Film

The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.

Television

Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).

Music

Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.

Music

Aalok Bala Revels in Nature and Contradiction on EP 'Sacred Mirror'

Electronic musician Aalok Bala knows the night is not a simple mirror, "silver and exact"; it phases and echoes back, alive, sacred.

Music

Clipping Take a Stab at Horrorcore with the Fiery 'Visions of Bodies Being Burned'

Clipping's latest album, Visions of Bodies Being Burned, is a terrifying, razor-sharp sequel to their previous ode to the horror film genre.

Music

Call Super's New LP Is a Digital Biosphere of Insectoid and Otherworldly Sounds

Call Super's Every Mouth Teeth Missing is like its own digital biosphere, rife with the sounds of the forest and the sounds of the studio alike.

Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.