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God's Funeral: The Decline of Faith in Western Civilization Hardcover – June 1, 1999

3.7 out of 5 stars 55 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

God's Funeral is A.N. Wilson's account of the decline of orthodox Christianity in Victorian Britain. The most popular explanation for this widely-recognized phenomenon is the acceptance by intellectuals of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. To disprove the notion that Darwin singlehandedly committed deicide, Wilson describes a host of secularizing predecessors and accomplices such as Hume, Gibbon, John Stuart Mill, Hegel, Marx, and Carlyle. All play major roles in Wilson's brilliantly staged reconstruction of the so-called death of God. God's Funeral also takes account of the pain and confusion these intellectuals brought upon themselves when their great achievements helped erode the social and intellectual foundations of their lives. Furthermore, Wilson shows how their crises of faith relate to our own. Like our Victorian forebears, contemporary readers still must ask, "Is our personal religion that which links us to the ultimate reality, or is it the final human fantasy...?" and, "Is there a world of value outside ourselves, or do we, collectively and individually, invent what we call The Good?" God's Funeral helps readers learn to ask these questions in smarter and sharper ways by giving them a clearer sense of how Western society reached its current state of confusion.

From Publishers Weekly

At the end of the 19th century, Christian theologian Ernst Troeltsch proclaimed that the sun was setting on Christianity, and poet Matthew Arnold declared that in the future poetry would replace religion. As Wilson (The Vicar of Sorrows) points out in this splendid book, the 19th century provided the context not only for theories of God's demise but also for the numerous challenges that political thinkers, scientists and artists posed to Christian belief. Yet, as he notes, while the battles between faith and doubt were raging, church attendance did not decline but remained constant. The famous debates between Thomas Huxley, Darwin's "bulldog," and Bishop Wilberforce contributed to an atmosphere of optimism about the perfectibility of humankind and the world. Wilson traces the development of this rise of unbelief from the 18th century to the early 20th century. He contends that Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, with its contempt of Christianity's "highest ideals," and David Hume's skeptical Dialogues Concerning National Religion, which challenges the very possibility of the existence of the supernatural, provide the groundwork for the demise of belief in the 19th century. Wilson explores some of the most explicit instances of the century's intellectual challenges to faith: George Eliot's translations of Feuerbach's The Essence of Christianity and David Friedrich Strauss's The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined; Darwin's evolutionary formulations calling into question the idea of a special creation; Marx and Engels's charge that bourgeois institutions used religion to enslave people and make them weak; William James's reading of various religious states in The Varieties of Religious Experience as psychological states of mind. Eliot's translations alone introduced into England both Strauss's contentions that the life of Jesus was clothed in myth pictures like the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection and Feuerbach's claim that God was nothing more than a projection of humanity's wishes. Wilson examines also how the Catholic Church responded to the Modernist thought of Alfred Loisy, who imported much of the skepticism of the 19th century into his religious writings and challenged conventional Catholic teachings on the Church and the Bible. With passionate prose and a lively style, Wilson narrates a first-rate intellectual and religious history.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (June 1, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393047458
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393047455
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.5 x 1.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (55 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #737,071 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By A Customer on December 27, 1999
Format: Hardcover
Several of the reviewers of this book suggest that its main focus is whether God exists or not, and that it argues that God does not exist. This is incorrect. It would be much more accurate to say that the subject of the book is the movement of atheism and agnosticism into the intellectual mainstream of Western Europe. While Wilson does suggest that the discoveries of Darwin et al. require a re-evaluation of religious faith (and especially of Christian fundamentalism), he does not argue that faith is obsolete or God non-existent.
I enjoyed the book very much- the breeziness and partiality that seem to have annoyed some of its reviewers made it, for me, a lively and amusing read. Though Wilson often comes across as snotty or condescending, both to his readers and his subjects, just as often he seems to have genuine regard for his readers, and genuine sympathy for his subjects. The result is a book refreshing in its clarity and vitality, one that made me want to go out and read the authors and philosophers it discusses (except for Herbert Spencer).
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As usual, Wilson is a little tough to read. He's an English intellectual, and his own struggles with faith and reason hide just between the lines here. Nevertheless, "God's Funeral" is an important contribution to the history of ideas. In a nutshell, the book details the struggles of 19th-century British intellectuals and theologians as they attempted to cope with advances in science and philosophy, particularly with the work of Darwin, Lyell, Marx and Freud. Brief profiles of Carlyle, Thomas Huxley, Matthew Arnold and many others are well-researched and enjoyable. You probably need a background in philosophy, literature or theology to fully appreciate "God's Funeral," but this book is worth it. Don't judge the book by its cover: while Wilson writes with what Americans will consider an elitist tone, no judgments or diatribes are offered here. Wilson works hard to be objective, and he achieves that goal.
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Format: Hardcover
Wilson tackles the Crisis of Faith that beset mid 19th century England in the wake of Enlightenment reasoning, devastating scientific advances, and German theology. This book will be hard going for readers without a grounding in, or a profound curiosity about, the notable thinkers (Newman, Carlyle, Spencer, Ruskin, et al) of the era, but Wilson's portraits are appropriately economical, lively, and wonderfully referenced to the great literature of the period. One comes away with an appreciation of the moral and intellectual struggles that engaged many Victorians as they re-examined the idea of a relationship to a personal God. Not much here for fundamentalists, but if you consider yourself a deist, an agnostic, an atheist, or a "sweetness and light' Christian a la Matthew Arnold (not a Wilson hero), this is a particularly rewarding book. As historian Gertrude Himmelfarb has pointed out, we still have much to learn from the Victorians and Wilson demonstrates vivedly yet another reason why this is so.
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I was engrossed by this book, not so much because the premise was worth studying, i.e., the Western and Victorian response to Darwin, the Documentary Hypothesis, etc., but rather to reaquaint myself with old friends from philosophy class. It was wonderful to sit with and enjoy the philosophical problems that truth engenders. However, if you do not have a good background in Western philosophy, parts of this book may be somewhat dry. Still, even if you don't you will gain much from this volume.
I have no problem with the premise of the book, namely, the challenge to faith that discovered truths create. As some background, please know that I am a rabbi but that never means that Biblical myths are taken by me to be literally true. In my mind, religion is a search for truth and not mere adherence to myths and stories that satisfy the imagination but not the intellect. Clearly Darwin, Kant, et al certainly opened our minds to these realities and truths. Wilson, the author, is the messenger of their message.
It is true that he has something of an axe to grind against blind and oft-times prejudicial religious faith but that should not interfere with your enjoyment of the book.
Read it and say 'hi' to some old friends you haven't spoken with since school!
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This book is basically a historical approach to the rise of atheism (or at least agnosticism) in the late 19th century through the early 20th century. The underlying theme that I as a Christian couldn't help but notice is the large part hypocrisy of the Christian community has played in this continuing saga of man versus God. This book does a fine job of taking various lives and writings and putting their major themes together in order to arive at general understanding of humankind's lack of faith. However, the author was open minded enough to finish with William James and thus not discount the notion of religion within the pages of his book. If you are a serious religious student or even a novice philosopher, this book will give you a better appreciation for the small things that we do that influence those that may someday influence the entire world. Whether negative or positive is in our hands. From a religious perspective this book should serve as a humbling experience, unfortunately people punish the basis of the religion because of the "followers." If you're looking for more ammo to discount religion you may be dissapointed, I don't believe that was the author's purpose.
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