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.