As a result of what historians refer to as the “Victorian Loss of Faith,” atheism became far more widespread as a belief system for those living in Victorian England.
This might be surprising for 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 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. 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.
This loss of faith would also be captured in poetry, for example, Thomas Hardy’s poem aptly titled 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. Notable in this respect 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.” This mourning upon this realization is conspicuously lacking in modern-day new atheism, although 19th and 20th century atheists intellectuals like Jean Paul Sartre and Friedrich Nietzsche would see the implications of dispelling God’s existence. However, in the far more recent and contemporary new atheist camp there has been no sense of mourning something that is lost. Instead, the loss of faith in God and wherever belief in God is buried it is a cause to celebrate. However, for those within the Victorian era the God who had once been there and who had defined reality was now gone.
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.