Book Review: The Age of Doubt

Englewood Review of Books Featured Review

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

By Christopher Lane

Review by Bryan Berghoef.

AGE OF DOUBT - Christopher Lane
Hardback: Yale University Press, 2011.
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The Victorian era was the first great “Age of Doubt” and a critical moment in the history of Western ideas.  In The Age of Doubt: Tracing the Roots of Our Religious Uncertainty, scholar Christopher Lane tells the story of the dramatic struggles of scientific discovery, philosophical inquiry and religious wrestling that enveloped nineteenth century Britain.

As the cultural battle between faith and reason continues to gather steam in our own day, we would do well to pay heed to the stories recounted here.  In the United States, questions of faith and doubt continue to swirl – the number of people claiming no faith tradition has risen, and the number of traditional ‘believers’ has been shrinking.  Yet many raised in a Christian environment even today continue to be protected from the writings and discoveries from this century of doubt.  As a result, they are presented with the illusion that those who question traditional faith and doctrines are ‘new.’  This book dispels that illusion.  As the vocal animosity between representatives on both sides escalates, Lane’s book becomes a welcome and timely entry into the discussion.  (This volume is a great companion to A.N. Wilson’s earlier work,God’s Funeral: The Decline of Faith in Western Civilization, 1999, Norton).

The discoveries of Charles Darwin, Charles Lyell and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck appeared to upend everything the Bible had taught, and debates between science and religion sprang up everywhere, creating what Lane describes as ‘the defining tension’ within Victorian society.  By focusing on the lives of several key individuals, Lane creates a very readable volume in which these struggles of faith and doubt come to life.

One such individual was the geologist Charles Lyell, who began to grasp that if geology was to advance, its practitioners must “free the science from Moses.”  Yet this was easier said than done, as nearly all of England’s epistemological foundations took for granted the veracity of the Scriptural accounts as reliable – even regarding scientific and cosmological issues.  This struggle was not just external.  It was not merely about convincing a religious public what science was now discovering.  It was also intensely internal and personal.  Lyell himself was a man divided, as his public scientific statements did not always square with his private religious doubts.

Lane describes such internal anguish as ‘intensely Victorian,’ encapsulating much of what Lyell and contemporaries such as Thomas Carlyle and Leslie Stephen underwent.  And this struggle was not just in the realm of science – it found its way into literature and pamphlets and pulpits, invading conversation on the streets, in homes, and of course, in the church.  Lane writes, “In the process of following their journals, letters and works, we witness a fascinating set of relays between science and literature, where fiction transforms – as it tries to make sense of – the scientific theories that detractors and supporters fiercely contested at the time.”  And this influence was not just one way – from science to literature.  Lane notes that it is also worth considering how science itself was influenced by the metaphors and messages that Victorian culture popularized, in literature and by other means.

It is compelling reading as Lane shows how the sparks of the debate of human origins were fanned prior to and subsequent of the publishing of Darwin’s Origin of the Species. These ideas were hotly debated in homes, universities and churches, and often it was the vociferous opponents of new scientific discoveries who published and preached their way into the public consciousness.  Yet these folks would not prevail in the end, as the scientific, literary and intellectual icons of the day continued to challenge the prevailing religious orthodoxy.  Lane demonstrates how figures such as George Eliot, Anne Brontë, and Thomas Huxley succeeded in turning doubt from a religious sin into an ethical necessity.

The adjustments happening in Victorian society echo many of the struggles happening today in America.  We, too, live in an age of technological and scientific discovery, and more and more people find traditional religious thinking difficult to square with unfolding cosmological models and philosophical approaches.  Yet these arguments today, whether pushed forward by religious fundamentalists such as biblical literalists, or by the dogmatic rigidity of the ‘new atheists’, too infrequently embody the nuance, depth, and embrace of uncertainty as well as the discourse in nineteenth century Britain.

Lane includes a chapter highlighting some parallels to recent happenings in the past decade in the United States.  I was pleasantly surprised to see this chapter included in the book, but was disappointed that it failed to move much beyond a summary.  It lacked the substantive analysis his earlier work promised, and left me wanting more.

That said, The Age of Doubt is important reading for all who want to better understand the way our culture has unfolded while uncovering the roots of our religious skepticism.  One may even discover that doubt does not have to be an enemy of faith.  In our culture of easy answers and short-term memory, we would do well to dig our roots a little deeper. May we refrain from the easy polarizations which are all too prevalent today, and – whatever our views, embrace doubt as a necessary companion.


Bryan Berghoef is a pastor, writer, and pub theologian.  You can read his thoughts at pubtheologian.wordpress.com, or follow him on Twitter.

This was a featured review originally published by the Englewood Review of Books.

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