Believe It Or Not

The Unbelievers

by A.O.J. Cockshut
New York University, 192 pp., $5.00

Religious Controversies of the Nineteenth Century: Selected Documents

edited by A.O.J. Cockshut
University of Nebraska, 265 pp., $5.50

Cardinal Newman
Cardinal Newman; drawing by David Levine

How can we take seriously the religious qualms of the Victorians now that the “Death of God” has been solemnized on the cover of Time magazine? How can we attend to their quarrel over the Thirty-Nine Articles while we are fatally quarreling with God himself? How can we be expected to appreciate the audacity of a rationalism that strikes many of us as being no less credulous than religion itself? How can we sympathize with the attempt to create a morality without religion when we are engaged in propounding an ethic without morality? How can we share their indignation at the absurdity of Biblical miracles when we have made a principle and philosophy out of absurdity itself? How can we be patient with doubts after being exposed to the most radical and total nihilism?

Yet the curious thing is that the Victorians are still accessible and meaningful to us. The best Victorian novels, even when they turn on a moral dilemma that no longer presents itself as either moral or a dilemma, are eminently readable, moral dilemma and all, and with no more suspension of belief than we bring to most modern novels. And the best Victorian thinkers are similarly readable, religious qualms and all. Indeed, it is often possible to respond more sympathetically and imaginatively to the Victorians than to the moderns. Modern forms of unbelief, like some modern novels, are so ingenious as to become tours de force, mechanical exercises in sensibility and form. In retrospect, the repudiation of the Thirty-Nine Articles may well prove to be a more serious affair than the current celebration of polymorphous perversity—particularly since the first was at the cost of job, career, social esteem, and personal tranquility, while the second, as often as not, is the making of reputation and fortune.

THE UNBELIEVERS who are the subjects of Mr. Cockshut’s work—John Stuart Mill, A.H. Clough, Matthew Arnold, T.H. Huxley, George Eliot, Herbert Spencer, and Samuel Butler—were of different temperaments, persuasions, capacities. Cockshut finds most of them alike, however, in the self-imposed limitations on their unbelief. Only Clough, he says, was a “real doubter,” doubting not only religion, but marriage, work, life itself. The others were content with smaller measures of doubt: “Denial of Christianity was common, denial of God was fairly common, but doubt was rare.” Even the celebrated Metaphysical Society, the debating forum of agnostics and clerics, had this in common: “All or almost all of its members were untroubled by personal doubts of the truth of what they maintained.” Nor did any of them question such basic tenets of the Victorian faith as Newton’s laws of motion, the domestic virtues, the English parliamentary system, or the “importance of his own thoughts.”

This is a curious assortment of beliefs that Cockshut takes to demonstrate the failure of Victorian unbelief. Can any unbelief withstand so rigorous a test? Our own generation of skeptics…

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