What was the Victorian Loss of Faith?


Due to what historians refer to as the “Victorian Loss of Faith,” atheism became a far more widespread belief system for those living in Victorian England (the period 1837-1901). This observation might be a surprise given how many look back to Victorian England and note the religiosity of its time,

“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).

It was an era in which we find great churches, famous preachers like Charles Spurgeon, and the significant publicity afforded to Anglican personalities. But it would also be a time where there was a significant slide away from Christian belief, as famously captured by the British motto: “My mind is no longer a Christian even though my body is.” According to this motto, a person can continue to live as a Christian without actually believing the basic tenets of the faith, or even in the existence of God. One notable figure of the time was Reverend Leslie Stephen, an orthodox Anglican pastor who lost his faith, resigned from his orders, left the church, and became a symbol of the Victorian loss of faith within British intellectual thought. This loss of faith was also captured in poetry, as in Thomas Hardy’s poem aptly entitled 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). A significant sign of the Victorian loss of faith was mourning in the face of God’s perceived non-existence. Notable 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).

Although science, industry, and religion all played vital roles within the Victorian Era “religion felt a terrible decline.” The mourning that emerged due to this realization is conspicuously lacking in modern-day forms of irreligion or atheism. Unlike the atheists of old, such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Friedrich Nietzsche who saw the implications of rejecting God’s existence, the more recent atheist camp shows little sense of mourning something important that has been lost. On the contrary, the loss of faith in God is a cause to celebrate the reduction in superstition.


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.



  1. I read a book a while back, The Age of Atheists, by Peter Watson, which tried to chronicle how atheists sought meaning after declaring God to be dead. The earlier parts of the book described how the death of God really contributed to a sense of loss among a number of people, since religion did fill a void and give them meaning. Like you say, it’s interesting that there are many atheists today who rejoice at the absence of God (as they believe in it), rather than feeling any loss.

  2. True, Victorian faith took a hit not only due to the publication of Darwin’s work, The Origin (1859), but also Strauss’s work, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined (English ed. pub. 1846), that introduced critical historical scholarship of the Gospels to the public.

    There was also Essays and Reviews (pub. 1860). In that book Anglican theologians and scholars summed up the growing challenge to interpreting Genesis and other parts of the Bible in a literal fashion. One contributor wrotes, “The root [of raqia’] is generally applied to express the hammering or beating out of metal plates; hence something beaten or spread out. It has been pretended that the word raqia’ may be translated ‘expanse’ [or ‘firmament’] so as merely to mean empty space. The context sufficiently rebuts this” [C. W. Goodwin, “On the Mosaic Cosmology,” Essays and Reviews (West Strand, London: John W. Parker and Son, 1860), p. 220 n. 1]. Two contributors to Essays are indicted for heresy and lose their jobs, but are reinstated later. Published four months after Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, more copies of Essays are sold in two years than of Darwin’s Origin in its first twenty.

    There was also a highly controversial and talked about bestseller by Anglican Bishop Colenso in which he contested the divine inspiration and Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch along with the plausibility of its miracles, and the numbers involved in the Exodus. Colenso was excommunicated.

    Decades before Darwin’s Origin appeared there was even a book about evolution on a cosmic scale that disturbed many religious people immensely, titled, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844), published anonymously. Vestiges brought together various ideas of stellar evolution with the progressive transmutation of species in an accessible narrative that tied together numerous scientific theories of the age. The author used the recently developed “nebular hypothesis” as the backdrop for a theory of cosmic development or evolution. For the author all of nature was the unfolding enactment of deep natural laws that prescribed the evolution of the heavens, the ages of the earth, and the evolution of life. Not a story of “the Fall,” but rather all was progressing, according to the author, from swirling clouds of dust forming solar systems to organic life progressing ever onwards, an ongoing “creation” with inherent potential.

    See the book, Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation by James A. Secord. Vestiges sparked one of the greatest sensations of the Victorian era. More than a hundred thousand readers were spellbound by its startling vision. Prince Albert reads aloud to Queen Victoria from a book that preachers denounced as blasphemy vomited from the mouth of Satan. And we watch as Charles Darwin turns its pages in the flea-ridden British Museum library, fearful for the fate of his own unpublished theory of evolution. Vestiges even led, before Darwin, to debates between apprentices in factory towns concerning the consequences of an evolutionary ancestry. Scientific periodicals began flying off the stands after the book appeared. In addition, a plethora of outraged responses to the perceived sacrilege provide a printed microcosm of the West’s longstanding battle between science and religion. In Britain alone, it went through 14 editions and sold 40,000 copies.

    AFTER the Victorian era religious belief made a bit of a come back with the advent of World War 1, an event that churches on both sides of the war utilized to their advantage when it came to gaining possible converts. See the fascinating book, The Great and Holy War: https://edward-t-babinski.blogspot.com/2015/05/the-great-and-holy-war-how-world-war-i.html

    But one World War led to another, and people grew disillusioned again. Today’s disillusioned post-Christian Europe used to be the central continent in which Christian belief rested and sent forth evangelists to the other continents. Europe used to be the continent with the most churches and most prayers uttered, and most evangelists sent forth, yet Europe was blessed with endless wars, including the Thirty Years War, two World War, and Christianity could not maintain its large hold there after the scientific revolution and engineering revolutions beginning during the Victorian era, but even earlier than that came the works of European deists who questioned whether the prophecies were true, whether Christianity was true.

    INTERESTING FACTOID Some Victorian atheists did return to the Christian fold, but usually not to a belief in an inerrant Bible or eternal damnation.

  3. James, I’m going to be reading your piece in full for some research I’m doing, but the first thing that struck me was that you call atheism a ‘belief system’.. so if that is the case can I say that transparency is a colour?

    • I see atheism as a belief system in as far as the atheist believes God does not exist. In other words, when the atheist says that he is an atheist then i assume he believes atheism is true. The alternative does not make sense, namely, that atheism is a lack of belief in God lest it renders the atheist’s position to a psychological disposition. This renders the discussion pointless. I also hold that atheists can be both atheists and agnostic at the same time, though both are beliefs. But in this debate atheists and theists are always throwing arguments each others way as a means to provide rational basis for their positions. Moreover, atheism is undergirded by a philosophical beliefs system, usually philosophical naturalism.

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