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Adding confusion to honest doubt

27 June 2011

A. O. J. Cockshut on a fallible guide


The Age of Doubt: Tracing the roots of our religious uncertainty
Christopher Lane

Yale University Press £18
Church Times Bookshop £16.20

THERE are several reasons why this is a disappointing book. A short book on a large subject needs to stick to the point. But suppose a reader happened to open the book at page 178. He or she would find a detailed analysis of President Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008.

Then he needs to have a sense of time. The English intellectual class was very different in 1840 from what it had become in 1865. The au­thor does not proceed either chron­olo­gically or themat­ically. He often does not grasp who influenced whom.

In his account of Victorian intellectuals reading the Bible (especially Genesis), he seems to think everything is clear: it is like reading the multiplication table. It is easy to see what the text means; and then, by comparing it with scientific theories, to decide on its truthful­ness. He assumes that the perverse literalism introduced for the first time into biblical interpretation by 16th-century Protestants had held sway in the preceding 1500 years. A glance at Origen or Augustine would have corrected this mistake.

I was startled to find two Roman Catholic converts, W. H. Mallock and G. M. Hopkins, suspected of agreeing with agnostic views that they invariably opposed.

The standard of intellectual rigour in certain current writers of pseudo-science is so much lower than that of their Victorian predecessors that it seems perverse to drag the former into the argu­ment. Darwin was a clear thinker and knew perfectly well that his theory had no religious or meta­physical consequences, as he told Tennyson on a famous occasion. Huxley’s key text Evolution and Ethics is not even mentioned. Then the subject calls out for exact defini­tion of terms. What is creationism? To scatter such terms about in the manner of a leading article can be no assistance to clear thinking.

The author notes that Huxley invented a word, “agnostic”, that would become very popular; but does not seem aware of the sly comic twist he made to the real meaning of the term “Gnosticism”. At times, he equates orthodox Christianity with Gnosticism, in the first three centuries, its opposite. Nor does he clearly see that Huxley’s argument is packed with unargued assumptions.

The reader who relies mainly on this book for information will be left in a thoroughly confused state.

A. O. J. Cockshut is an Emeritus Fellow of Hertford College, Oxford.

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