Monday, March 21, 2011

Christopher Lane's "The Age of Doubt"

Christopher Lane is the Pearce Miller Research Professor of Literature at Northwestern University and a recent Guggenheim fellow. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, Slate, and many other newspapers and periodicals. He is the author of numerous essays and several books on literature, belief, and psychology, including Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Age of Doubt: Tracing the Roots of Our Religious Uncertainty, and reported the following:
Page 99 of my book reproduces a portrait of the Victorian journalist and philosopher Robert Chambers, so there’s not much text on the page, but what is there definitely sums up my argument in the rest of the book.

Chambers, to give some background, was the Scottish author of an anonymous book on evolution and Christianity that became a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic and across Europe. It did so, it’s striking to recall, fifteen years before Darwin set off a firestorm with On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859.

Chambers called his book Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, and when the well-written tome appeared in 1844 it drew astonished and fascinated reactions from readers as diverse as Queen Victoria and Abraham Lincoln, Alfred Tennyson and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Florence Nightingale and Benjamin Disraeli, Fanny Kemble and Charles Darwin. It’s no exaggeration to say that the book was almost single-handedly responsible for making evolution a widespread topic of conversation, putting religious doubt at the forefront of countless public, household, and church-based discussions.

Because Chambers argued that the progressive evolution of species was fully compatible with God-given laws, Vestiges let middle-class readers in Britain and North America consider evidence for evolution without automatically condemned as irreligious. The Victorians took to the book warmly, allowing it to spark one of the most significant cultural discussions of the nineteenth century. As a result, evolution left the Ivory Tower and streets and entered the home. Owing to Chambers, Darwin, and several other key figures, my book argues, the Victorians came as close as they ever would to publicly debating their beliefs and their doubts.

The Age of Doubt tackles this and related controversies over science and faith that roiled Victorian England and forever altered its assumptions and cultural landscape. While many Victorians experienced an intense crisis of faith, which I detail carefully and I hope sensitively in the book, their culture also was responsible for turning doubt from a religious sin into an ethical necessity. The implications of that shift in emphasis are enormous. For that reason alone, their lively, thoughtful, and sometimes-pugnacious debates are well worth revisiting. They speak to us even as we continue discussing their merits and accuracy.

Their debates, I argue in the book, also generated a far more searching engaging with religious belief than the “new atheism” that has evolved today. More profoundly than any generation before them, the Victorians came to view doubt as inseparable from belief, thought, and debate, as well as a much-needed antidote to fanaticism and unbridled certainty. By contrast, a look at today’s extremes—from the biblical literalists behind the Creation Museum to the dogmatic rigidity of Richard Dawkins’ atheism—highlights our modern-day inability to embrace doubt.

My book, then, is a robust defense of doubt. It argues that good things come from it—including moderation, creativity, reflection, and freethought—and that doubt is necessary whatever one believes, precisely to clarify those beliefs and whether they risk being misplaced. With religious extremism on the rise in many parts of the world, including ours, I consider the Victorians’ debates about faith and doubt to be part of a profoundly humanistic impulse that we need now, more than ever.
Learn more about The Age of Doubt at the Yale University Press website and Christopher Lane's website.

--Marshal Zeringue