As a result of, what historians now call, the “Victorian Loss of Faith” atheism became far more widespread as a belief system of a great many people who lived in Victorian England. This is somewhat surprising because we often tend to look back at Victorian England and note the religiosity of its time, especially since “Victorian England was extremely religious. Families during this time period were usually large, hard-working, respectable, and were taught religion at home. They were frequent church goers and read the Bible regularly.” (1). For example, in that era we find great churches, famous preachers like Charles Spurgeon, and the publicity given to Anglican personalities. But it would also prove to be a time where there was a significant slide from Christian belief, as famously captured by the widely known British motto: “My mind is no longer a Christian even though my body is.”
This motto essentially says that a person can continue to live as a Christian without actually believing in the basic tenets of the faith, even in the existence of God himself. One notable figure of the time was Reverend Leslie Stephen, an orthodox Anglican pastor who lost his faith, resigned his orders, left the church, and thus became a symbol of the Victorian loss of faith within British intellectual thought. Similarly, loss of faith would also be captured in poetry as in, for example, Thomas Hardy’s poem God’s Funeral. One commentator writes that “the Victorians were a people who suffered through an internal crisis of faith… this crisis was reflected in their literature…” (2).
Also significant is that one of the most notable signs of this Victorian loss of faith was a sense of mourning in the face of God’s non-existence. Particularly notable in this regard was Matthew Arnold’s poem Dover Beach that “seems to talk about the lack of spiritual values during that the era and the loss of faith due to existentialism, materialism, socialism, and Darwinism caused a downward spiral in the Christian faith” (3).
Unfortunately for many although science, industry, and religion all played vital roles in the Victorian Era “religion felt a terrible decline.” This mourning, captured by Arnold, is conspicuously lacking in modern-day New Atheism, though atheists like Sartre and Nietzsche would see the ramifications of dispelling God’s existence. However, in the contemporary New Atheist camps there is no sense of mourning something that is lost. Instead, contemporary New Atheists find it a cause to celebrate whenever and wherever belief in God is buried and left behind. However, for those within the Victorian era the God who had once been there and who had defined reality was now gone. This God was no longer accessible and no longer existent.
1. Victorian Era Crisis of Faith. Available.
2. Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and The Victorian Crisis of Faith: A Critical Reading of Dover Beach. Available.