Editor’s note: We are delighted to present a series by Neil Thomas, Distinguished Reader at Durham University, “Darwin and the Victorian Crisis of Faith.“This is the fourth article in the series. Watch here for the full series so far. Professor Thomas’ recent book is Saying goodbye to Darwin: A lifelong agnostic uncovers the case for design (Discovery Institute Press).
In terms of chronology, it is clear that the publication in 1859 of Darwin The origin of species does not have cause the Victorian crisis of faith, but rather served to confirm the skepticism of those who had already formed anti-theistic attitudes on other grounds. For example, Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach” with its famous evocations of a receding tide of faith, although not published until 1867, was first conceived in 1851. In memory where the poet describes himself as “tottering where once he walked firmly” in terms of his personal faith was also conceived before 1859.1
The closest chronological fit
Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909) provides the closest chronological correspondence with Darwin. Swinburne is not read by many today, and many people may only know him as a melodious versifier with a vague connection to the Pre-Raphaelite group of artists. It barely does justice to the iconoclastic stance of the “mid-19th century laureate of disbelief”2 who in his drama in verse Atalanta in Calydon has its classical chorus protesting against “the supreme evil, God”. Swinburne, an admirer of the ancient materialist philosopher Epicurus, is said to have lost his faith while studying at Oxford in 1858-9 (just before the publication of Origin November 24, 1859). He shared Epicurus’ disdain for the ancient Greek pantheon, seeing no good reason why humans should worship deities (pagan or Christian) who had not proven themselves worthy of their supposed creatures. Instead, he imaginatively returned in his pagan turn to ancient personifications of natural forces such as Proserpina, goddess of the seasons and natural cycles. Meanwhile, in his Laus Venéris (Eulogy of Venus) he takes up Tannhauser’s medieval legend in which his assertion of the processes of sex and procreation involves a critique of the sexual puritanism of contemporary denominations of the Christian Church.
A contrast with Robert Elsmere
Against what he saw as the morbidities of Christian asceticism (he refers to the figure of Christ as the pale Galilean who grays the world with his breath), he puts forward the robust life force represented by the ancient love godess. Bernard Schweizer even sees Swinburne as a precursor to Nietzsche since “they both saw in Christianity a religion in decline and both advocated the extermination of God” — theomachy3 — “in order to breathe new life into European culture”.4 Perhaps so, but what is certainly true is that, unlike the skeptical clergyman figure of Mrs. Humphry Ward, Robert Elsmere, who internalizes his problems with the Almighty by embarking on good works in London’s impoverished East End, Swinburne, exulting in his role as enfant terrible to mid-Victorian England,5 exteriorizes his disaffection by directing his anger directly at what he considered his real target.
following“Darwin and the Oscillating 1860s.”
- Michael Ruse points out that Tennyson knew what was in some ways Darwin’s intellectual precursor and even partial model. Originby Sir Charles Lyell Principles of geology (1830-3). Reading Lyell led Tennyson to see all meaning in life as confined to a sequence of endless Lyellian cycles (Ruse, Darwinism and religionp. 34-5).
- The phrase is that of AN Wilson, God’s burial (London: John Murray, 1999), p. 205.
- A term proven in classical studies meaning “fighting the gods” that I find preferable to Schweizer’s neologism of misotheism (hatred of God).
- p. 92.
- On Swinburne’s hell, see Philip Henderson, Swinburne: The Portrait of a Poet (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974).