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The Age of Doubt: Tracing the Roots of Our Religious Uncertainty Hardcover – March 29, 2011
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"Lane has hit upon something interesting. While many people believe that human history is the story of 2,000 years of blanket Christianity followed by a recent emergence of atheism, the book stresses the very important fact that theological and philosophical squabbles over these subjects are nothing new (and indeed, far more fierce than some of our debates today)... The Age of Doubt is a call for others to examine this material."--Christopher Holden, PopMatters
"As Christopher Lane argue[s] in The Age of Doubt, the explosion of questioning among Christian thinkers in the Victorian era transformed the idea of doubt from a sin or lapse to necessary exploration."--Julia Baird, New York Times
"The charm of The Age of Doubt is that it returns us to Victorian England, when the absence of God was a new idea--a new idea, at any rate, to a number of intelligent people raised in the Anglican Church who would happily have continued subscribing to their realm's official faith if science hadn't lately posed so many inconvenient contradictions."--Michael Miner, The Chicago Reader
"A welcome and timely entry into the discussion ... The Age of Doubt is important reading for all who want to better understand the way our culture has unfolded while uncovering the roots of our religious skepticism. Lane creates a very readable volume in which these struggles of faith and doubt come to life ... compelling reading."--Bryan Berghoef, Englewood Review of Books
"The story of Victorian doubt is both fascinating and important for understanding why we continue to be mired in fierce cultural battles over the status of evolution and the value of religious faith. This provocative book is well worth the read."--Bernard Lightman, York University
"Lane's stimulating analysis asks whether acknowledging how science, religion, and society have produced a growing chasm between faith and doubt, and even destroyed belief, can offer a way forward."--Keith Thomson, author of Before Darwin and The Young Charles Darwin
"In this elegantly written book, Christopher Lane tells the story of Victorian doubt by exploring the public and private writing of figures such as Thomas Carlyle, Charles Lyell, Robert Chambers, J. A. Froude, Alfred Tennyson, George Eliot, Herbert Spencer, and Leslie Stephen... In each case Lane finds something insightful to say about the nature of belief and 'what it felt like to lose one's religious faith--as an individual and, more broadly, as a people and society'"--Mark Knight, Victorian Studies
"A well-written work, stylistically speaking: very clear and honest. The argument is well-structured and ... never loses its thread for a moment. The hardcover is beautifully published, ... providing a feast for the eye and the mind. Highly recommended, without hesitation."--Karel D'huyvetters, Kroniek
"Lane asks the right questions of the doubting pundits, past and present. Easy to read and rendering complicated ideas accessible, his book is an altogether admirable study."--Edward Norman, Literary Review.
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The problem I had with this book is that Lane's portrait of the Victorian doubters never really became the indictment of today's scientistic church militant that Lane meant it to be. I heard him say it (and rightly so), but I never really saw it. The religious figures in Lane's Victorian narrative were always the "bad" guys with the exception of Newman, although he never actually makes a case for Newman's Catholicism as respectable. Indeed, the picture I saw displayed today's Bright British Atheism as a fairly natural consequence of yesterday's Hard-nosed British Agnosticism.
This brings me to the one very useful thing I learned from this book: Dawkins and his movement (including its American wanna-bes) is very British. His way of talking about God comes straight out of a Victorian script. His God is the God isolated by Victorians struggling to deal with geological time and evolution. The similarity of language is striking. At bottom, the God of Dawkins--like that of Lyell, Chambers, Darwin, Huxley and others--is the God who drew up a blueprint of the earth and its fixed species, assembled it the way your or I would assemble a garden, and frequently prunes and waters it for the pleasure of his darlings. This is all Victorian British stuff. It is as if the essence of religion were actually Bad Natural History with a dash of Kindly Uncle. Clinging too tightly to this one view of religion betrays, in my opinion, a lack of imagination, literacy, or experience. Worst of all, it equates religion--a dynamic, living, historical thing--with one particular religious image, which is like arguing for fixed species because you haven't personally seen one change. (It may also show, as Schleiermacher passionately argued at the beginning of the 19th century, the deleterious effects of a nationalized, bureaucratized church.)
The most interesting thing about the book was trying to make sense of the author. He seems (as far as I could tell) to basically agree with Dawkins on all key theoretical points; "doubt" does not open any religious or metaphysical doors for him personally. What is "doubt" then really? Instead of an openness to, or a feeling for ontological possibilities (i.e an honest: "Do I follow Huxley or James?"), it seems to be an excuse for peaceableness. And this is fantastic. For Lane, the thing is not to declare war on anybody, not to be an ideologue. He doesn't see any reasonableness in the religion of his American audience--he seems to suggest in his final chapter that the Creationist museum is a passable representation of most American faith--but he doesn't think that "evisceration" is the proper response. (I was delighted that Lane also noticed this singularly peaceable, civilized lexical choice in Dawkins. Clearly no place for primal aggression in science, with all its "bayonets"!) In the end, I thought that Lane was just a very decent, humane version of Dawkins, a Dawkinsian alter-ego, one that speaks up but never, never shouts. He's a perfect guest (and he is, in fact, a British transplant to America).
Finally, the book filled in my sketchy knowledge of Lyell, Chambers, Huxley, Eliot, and a few others, and strung the whole lot of these "doubters" into a coherent narrative, which was quite valuable.