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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

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 finds it easy to doubt Newton, but not Einstein; the domestic virtues, but not the political (colonialism being to our latter-day fundamentalists what fornication was to the Victorians); English parliamentarianism, but not participatory democracy; and surely not the importance of their own thoughts. “Nearly all the great Victorians were very emotional men,” we are told, “and it is impossible for a deeply emotional man to carry skepticism beyond a certain point.” Are our own apocalyptic nihilists any less emotional? Or those who are playing it cool and opting out—why do they go to such lengths, embark on such hazardous trips, if not because they take themselves so desperately seriously?

Curiously, too, even while reproaching the Victorians for the failure of their unbelief. Cockshut reveals some typically modern lapses of the same order. Not only, for example, is he himself incapable of entertaining any doubt about the proof or truth of the Darwinian theory; he cannot even credit the fact of someone else’s doubt. “Surely,” he remarks, “no one could possibly believe” what Butler professed to believe about Darwin. And he criticizes one of the most distinguished commentators on the Butler-Darwin controversy for “the simple error of believing that Butler meant what he said.” Nor is he more appreciative of Butler’s doubts about the prevailing social ethic. The parody of laissez-fairism in Erewhon, where the most bitter “facts of life” are not only accepted but approved, is disputed by Cockshut with the observation that Christians and agnostics alike thought it proper to “pity and relieve misfortune”—as if there had been no Irish famine! Having thus imposed his own beliefs upon Butler’s disbelief, Cockshut concludes that the reputation of Erewhon is totally undeserved because it contains “no meaning,” “no serious criticism or consistent view.”

ABOVE ALL, IT IS MORALITY that Cockshut points to as limiting the scope of unbelief. Here, of course, he is on safe ground. “The best among them,” Mill said of the unbelievers, “are more genuinely religious, in the best sense of the word religion, than those who exclusively arrogate to themselves the title.” And George Eliot wrote that “the idea of God, so far as it has been a high spiritual influence, is the ideal of a goodness entirely human.” We can see now how misleading is the familiar notion of the Victorians living on the moral capital of their ancestors, the diminishing capital of a religious inheritance. There was nothing diminished or impoverished about Victorian morality. If anything, the loss of religious zeal resulted sulted in an intensification of moral zeal. It is as if the Victorians, by giving to mankind what they could no longer give to God, hoped to atone for the gravity of their sin and the pain of their loss. Their morality was a displacement of religion—which may explain the fanatical quality of their morality, their need to create a Religion of Humanity.

Cockshut quotes an exchange in one of Ibsen’s plays: “Where I have sinned, it is right I should expiate.” “There is no judge over us. And therefore we must see to it that we judge ourselves.” This new atheistic morality, self-judging because if recognizes no external judge, evidently completes the process that started with Protestantism. We are accustomed to the old distinction between Catholic and Protestant morality—the Catholic variety laxer and more tolerant because it provided the ritualistic means of atonement; Protestantism more demanding because it internalized morality together with spirituality. By the same token, atheistic (or agnostic, or rationalist, or theist) morality is still more demanding, carries a burden of guilt still heavier. For here there is neither an objective ritual of atonement nor an objective measure of sin.

The desperate nature of the new morality, the internalization and subjectivization of sin, led also to the sexualization of morality. One thinks of Victorian morality as a morality of convention in which the flouting of the proprieties was the real sin. But it turns out that it was not sexual unconventionality that was judged to be immoral, but sex itself. The passage in Zola that caused most offense was one to which no conventional moral judgment could conceivably apply: It was simply a scene describing the mating of a bull and cow. Dickens could more easily allude to sexual relations between an unmarried couple than between a married one because in effect there was no licit sex; it was all illicit. Holyoake, the most belligerent atheist and radical of the century, made it one of his points in his indictment of the church that its marriage service “contains things no bride could hear without a blush if she understood them.” (The italics were his—expressive of relief that she could not understand them, or anxiety that she might?) And in general, a major complaint against orthodox religion was the physical, corporeal, and therefore degrading character of such doctrines as baptismal regeneration, the resurrection, and the eucharistic sacrifice.

ONE IS REMINDED of previous generations of agnostics who exhibited the same sexual fastidiousness. William Godwin, having vigorously denounced religion, marriage, and property (at least until Shelley ran off with his daughter), envisaged a utopia where the “cultivated and virtuous mind” would become progressively more cultivated and virtuous until sexuality would be eliminated entirely—thus incidentally solving the problem of overpopulation. And James Mill, his son observed with approval, favored a considerable increase of freedom in the relation between the sexes, in the hope that the imagination would then “no longer dwell upon the physical relation and its adjuncts, and swell this into one of the principal objects of life; a perversion of the imagination and feelings which he regarded as one of the deepest seated and most pervading evils in the human mind.”

It is odd that Cockshut should have neglected to include Francis Newman among his Unbelievers. The biography by William Robbins repairs this failure—and in the best possible way, by counterposing Francis to his more illustrious brother, John Henry Newman, later Cardinal Newman. A review in the Times Literary Supplement, with the obtuseness all too typical of that journal, suggests that the contrast between the two brothers was too great to justify a joint biography and that they would each have been better served by separate books. The criticism could not be more ill-advised. The brothers cannot, in fact, be understood except in reference to each other, their minds and careers being perfectly antithetical—and complementary.

Starting from a conventional Evangelical background, experiencing youthful “conversions” under the influence of the same parson, sharing in the ferment of Oxford, displaying equal intellectual capacity, and equally moved by spiritual crises, they ended up at opposite poles. And not only in the matter of religion. Francis was a radical democrat, anti-imperialist, feminist, humanitarian—all that which John inveighed against as the “great apostasy” of modern liberalism. The archetypical liberal, Francis was also the archetypical unbeliever, sustaining his unbelief with a multiplicity of beliefs. Cockshut quotes the description of one unbeliever by another: “an ardent Free Thinker and Radical, a teetotaller and non-smoker”—qualities presumed to be all of a piece. In Francis Newman one finds an even more variegated assortment of abnegations, that seemed to function as a single set of affirmations. He was a vegetarian of a peculiarly complicated and precise kind, in addition to being anti-liquor, anti-tobacco, anti-vivisection, anti-vaccination, anti-hunting, “anti-everything,” as he once, in a rare moment of irony, admitted. He was also anti-sex, for much the same reason that he was pro-woman. He denounced what he called the “Safe Harrlot “Providing Act” (the Contagious Diseases Act requiring the medical examination of prostitutes in garrison districts) as an insult to womanhood because it sanctioned sexual exploitation, and an insult to manhood because it implied that soldiers were incapable of continence: “We know that a shipcrew of young men, chiefly under the age of twenty-five, and picked for masculine vigor, may go to the Arctic regions for a year or two, and return in splendid condition without seeing a woman’s face.”

THE ULTIMATE ABNEGATION beyond food, dress, pleasure, even sex, was the abnegation of self; and this was the basic principle, the basic affirmmation, of the moral code of the unbeliever. George Eliot had defined “higher religion” as that which enabled the believer to “do without the consolations that his egoism would demand.” Similarly, Francis Newman invoked the “sacred moralities of Jew and Christian,” stripped of the “earthly husk” of creed and church, to “save cultivated Europe from Pantheism, Selfishness, and Sensuality.” This is why he regarded himself as a “theist” rather than “atheist”: “Our highest ideal is (whether we know it or not) a God to us; and if we devote ourselves to it, we are practical Theists, whatever our creed. He who worships no ideal at all, but lives for self, is the real atheist.” Yet most atheists, he admitted, were no less selfdenying. Holyoake’s atheism, for example, could only be a “transition towards a new and better religion” since it was his “moral goodness” that gave power to his doctrine.

Francis once taunted his brother with the news that “Holyoake, the Atheist Lecturer, is a great admirer of you—and of me!” To which John blandly replied that there was nothing remarkable about this: theist, atheist, and Catholic were all in search of the same thing—only it was the Catholic alone who found it. What they were in search of was described by Francis in words that could as well have come from John: “to show those who know not on what to rest their faith, to what quarter they must look for solid ground,” and so save them from the “desolating negations which are abroad.”

This finally, is the interesting aspect of Victorian morality—and unbelief. Contemporaries often said, and historians have for the most part agreed, that unbelief was a consequence of the obsessive concern with morality, that the unbelievers were repelled by the immoralities of the church, the dishonesties of the Bible, the grossness of religious doctrine. Yet the extravagance of their morality, the excessive spirituality they sought in life, suggests that the reverse was more often true—that Victorian morality was a consequence of unbelief. They went to such extremes not, as is generally thought, because they feared a breakdown of morality; morality was, in fact, never so secure as then, the moral consensus never so complete. The breakdown was, rather, metaphysical, a loss of certitude about being, meaning, nature, values. Nor is it true, as contemporaries and historians have conspired to make it seem, that the metaphysical crisis was significant only because it undermined the basis of morality, the assumption being that God was a precondition of virtue. In one of the essays in Cockshut’s volume of documents, Frederick Temple, criticizing the Darwinian theory of morality, argued that morality could not have evolved “out of anything but itself” since it was absolute and self-sufficient in exactly the same way as mathematical truth—thus neatly depriving morality of a necessary basis not only in evolution but also in religion. If the Archbishop of Canterbury could reason thus, so, obviously, could the unbeliever. It was not morality that required the security of religion; it was the unbeliever who required it, and who compensated, or overcompensated, for its lack by making the most of the morality he had.

THE VICTORIANS, in fact, were suffering from the modern malady—Angst. It was this that was the common denominator of belief and unbelief, the common bond between Francis Newman and John Henry Newman. As Francis sought respite, in reason and virtue, from the “desolating negations which are abroad,” so John sought sanctuary in a universal church boasting an assured apostolic succession, in a philosophy that derived metaphysical certainly from logical probability and objective knowledge from subjective belief, and in a religion based on theological science rather than mystical revelation. (He had never expected or experienced such a revelation, he once insisted.) One contemporary remarked, of John Newman: “I believe him to be at bottom far more skeptical than his brother Francis; and the extravagant credulity with which he accepts the wildest Popish legends is, as it appears to me, only another side of his bottomless unbelief.” The remark may be taken as a commentary not only on the Newman brothers but on all the extravagances of belief and unbelief—in our time as in theirs.

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