Agony for Agnostics Agony: God's Funeral by A N Wilson John Murray, Po Unds 20, 402pp as the Sea of Faith Receded, Late-Victorian Free-Thinkers Looked Forwa Rd to a Century of Peace and Truth. Little Did They Know. Christopher Hawtree Asks Why Reason's Victory Turned Sour
Hawtree, Christopher, The Independent (London, England)
Come that sad day when A N Wilson slots the front wheel into a cloud-capp'd cycle-stand and, crouched before St Peter, removes the clips from his shins, there will soon be a muttering from behind. Standard-issue humanity will have assumed this to be a five-items- or- fewer queue. They will not expect their entry into Paradise to be delayed by Wilson's metaphysical trolley-load.
No need to rehearse here his two decades of about-turns, in which one political party or other has won favour; Princess Diana has been the object of devotion and derision; and the pamphlet in which this Barbara Pym-buff announced a loss of faith was widely likened to Bob Dylan's going electric. Wilson should be appreciated for the multitudes he contains. He functions by being a contrary spirit.
That very contrariness makes Wilson leave in dusty obscurity his most jocular articles. In this study of the loss of faith and the rise of atheism in the 19th century, he prefers such observations as "there is perhaps no philosopher who has devoted a more agile or patient attention to the very bases of epistemology - that is, of how we can claim to know anything, the way that knowledge works - than Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)." Two pages on comes the assertion that "if you haven't read Kant before, I should strongly recommend that you avoid summaries or introductions to his work until you have given yourself a few weeks, let us say, to catch the quality of his mind at first hand." That said, Wilson's half-dozen pages are done with such panache that one can almost picture beaches upon which the Critique of Pure Reason will oust John Grisham this summer. As he notes, Kant's effect was such that "some of the problems of philosophy were unanswerable. There had to be another way than metaphysics of understanding the world. Inevitably, this was physical science." The 19th-century confrontation between science and religion is at the heart of a book which takes its title from a 1910 poem by Hardy. This dense, rueful mediation pictures the journey "toward our myth's oblivion,/ Darkling, and languid-lipped, we creep and grope/ Sadlier than those who wept in Babylon,/ Whose Zion was a still abiding hope." All those doubts a century and a half ago can now seem dry as dust, but Wilson - who describes this book as being "the story of bereavement as much as adventure" - can always bring ancient controversy alive. He would have failed in his duty, however, if he inspired anybody to read Herbert Spencer, whose one memorable phrase - "the survival of the fittest" - is invariably taken to be Darwin's. …