The Descent Into Unbelief, Part II
Last week, I shared the introduction of the article, The Descent Into Unbelief: When Christendom Produces Cultists, Mockers and Atheists, by Jonathan Rice which originally appeared in the SCP Journal (29:2-29:3) . (Reprinted with permission). In the portion reprinted below, Mr. Rice begins to touch more on the heart of the problem. When I shared some of my concerns about my children rejecting the faith despite homeschooling, some commented that living out my faith before my children was a key component. I agree with this completely, but I cannot help but think that some of these model Christians of the Victorian Era accomplished that in an exemplary fashion. Yet a remarkably high number did lose their children and grandchildren to atheism, agnosticism and the occult. In fact, Aleister Crowley (the "wickedest man in the world") was son to two Plymouth Brethren members. This article fascinates me most because it deals with issues within the Christian church which have long bothered me, but the solutions aren't so easy.

In spite of the book’s many inspiring narratives, it ends on a tragic note, for many of those history-making Christians lost their children and grandchildren to agnosticism or atheism. Throughout the book we see premonitions of this in the glimpses of British Evangelicalism’s most serious weakness: anti-intellectualism. It comes forth in the many accounts of their petty legalisms and sometimes pharisaic separatism; how they terrorized their children with stories of juvenile Sabbath-breakers, who actually had a little fun on a Sunday and then died and went to Hell for it; and how they forbade their members to read “secular” novels or enjoy “secular" art and music (Mozart and Beethoven were completely out!). In short, they grew out of touch with the society around them, running from it rather than facing its challenges.

Their intellectual weakness becomes even more pronounced in their understanding of what they termed “practical religion.” True spirituality, they believed, did not involve entering the marketplace of ideas. They didn’t think it worth their while to intelligently engage the skeptics, hostile biblical critics, agnostics, and atheistic philosophers of their day. Instead, they claimed, God had called them to an exclusively practical faith: to send forth missionaries, to help the poor and downtrodden, and to better peoples’ manners. These were the things pleasing to God, not intellectual debate or true apologetics.

Even worse, a popular belief of theirs was that the only way to demonstrate the existence of God was by looking deep within one’s own conscience (pietism at its worst!). When, by the mid-1800s, much of Evangelicalism became influenced by the rise of proto-fundamentalist groups (Darbyism, etc.), any fading hope of a “life of the mind” was finally blighted.

Which brings us to the tragic last chapter of Bradley’s book, the story of the new generation: the children and grandchildren of the nineteenth-century British Evangelicals. While some of them kept the faith, “an alarmingly high number deserted the Evangelical fold.”[1] Some still remained Christians. For example, three of William Wilberforce’s sons became Roman Catholics and the fourth became a non-Evangelical Anglican. Thomas Macauley also forsook Evangelicalism, though he still considered himself a Christian. The real tragedy is not in these cases, but in the many others who abandoned the Christian faith altogether. Bradley notes that, “Samuel Butler, George Eliot, Leslie and James Fitzjames Stephen, and Francis Newman renounced Christianity altogether and became atheists.”[2] There are many others, whom he doesn’t mention. For example, what about Margaret Noble, the Wesleyan pastor’s daughter, who as a child “loved Jesus very much” and wanted to be a missionary when she grew up? As an adult she came under the spell of Swami Vivekananda, converted to Hinduism, and was renamed Sister Nivedita. She then wrote a book entitled Kali the Mother, in which she attributed some of Christ’s saying to the South Asian goddess Kali, because, she claimed, the goddess was living and speaking through Jesus Christ.[3] The list of defectors from the Christian faith goes on and on. It is heart breaking considering the Christian lights from whom they descended one or two generations away.

Homeschoolers are often accused of attempting to isolate their children. While this is not generally true, that segment of the conservative Christian community does exist and my guess is that they homeschool as well. It is interesting how often in casual conversation, intelligence, reason and education are spoken of in perjorative terms. As if such characteristics are a hinderance rather than an asset to maintaining faith. Where does this come from? It seems to me, the separation occured in the late 18th century with the French Revolution and works such as Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason. Rather than combat this false dichotomy, it appears as if certain movements within the church accepted it, separating our faith from our intellect.

[1] Ian C. Bradley, The Call to Seriousness: The Evangelical Impact on the Victorians (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co, 1976, p. 194).
[2] Ibid.
[3] Pravrakika Atmaprana, The Story of Sister Nivedita (Calcutta: Ramakrishna Sarada Mission, 1992); Sister Nivedita (Margaret E. Noble), Kali the Mother (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1992), p. 108.

The photo above is of Sister Nivedita.

Previous posts on this article:
The Descent Into Unbelief: The Promise and Failure of Victorian Christianity

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