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Victorian Skeptics on the Road to Damascus
Former atheist Antony Flew's admission of the existence of God shocked believers and skeptics alike, but such a turnaround is far from unique. In the 19th century, many leading intellectuals who had once lost their faith ended up reconverting.
When I was growing up, the most famous atheist in America was Madalyn Murray O'Hair. A test case regarding her son, William Murray, occasioned the 1963 Supreme Court ruling banning prayer in public schools. As an adult, William Murray became the president of the advocacy organization, American Atheists. I was therefore amazed when he converted to Christianity in 1980, going on to become a conservative, ordained Christian minister and evangelist.
Many Christians have been equally stunned by the recent announcement that the eminent British philosopher Antony Flew, sometimes billed as "the world's most famous atheist," has come to affirm the existence of God after a lifetime of publicly arguing against such a belief (captionhough it should be noted that Flew has only converted to Theism, not Christianity).
But I wasn't. Between the conversion of Murray and the change of mind of Flew, I had done research on the history of religious skepticism in Victorian Britain, and this had taught me that intellectually rigorous, militant unbelievers convert to Christianity surprisingly often.
Skeptics in a crisis of doubt
The existing scholarship repeats endlessly a narrative of the "Victorian crisis of faith" and "loss of faith." Such an account is populated with figures who were devout Christians in their youth, but whose reading and intellectual honesty forced them to admit that Christianity was no longer credible. Leslie Stephen is an oft-cited example. captionhough he had received Anglican ordination, Stephen eventually concluded that Christianity had been disproved by modern learning and lost his faith. The move from the resolute evangelicalism of his grandfather, James Stephen, a prominent member of William Wilberforce's "Clapham Sect," to the atheism of his daughter, Virginia Woolf, Modernist novelist and member of the "Bloomsbury Group," is often portrayed as the inevitable by-product of the advance of human knowledge.
There is a whole captionernative set of life stories that do not get told, however, which show earnest skeptics and atheists eventually being overwhelmed by the intellectual cogency of Christian orthodoxy. Ironically, many of these people continue to be well known in Victorian studies as typifying the "crisis" and "loss of faith" by their skepticism, while scholars quietly ignore their later conversions as aberrations that signify nothing.
William Hone, for example, is made much of in a 1998 book from the University of Chicago Press as "the Arch Blasphemer." The author considers Hone's biblical and ecclesiastical parodies highly revealing of 19th-century developments but sets aside his subsequent evangelical conversion and life of orthodox faith as inconsequential.
captionhough the story has not been told, the "crisis of doubt" of leading Victorian skeptical thinkers was no less significant a trend than the "crisis of faith" of erstwhile Christians. Indeed, there was a veritable hemorrhage of conversions at the top leadership level of popular, organized free thought. Reading through the Reasoner, the leading journal of Secularists in the mid-Victorian period, it is striking to see how often two or more figures who would later reconvert are mentioned on a single page. When Thomas Cooper converted, the movement put up Joseph Barker to answer him, only to have Barker himself convert some years later! Repeatedly, the Reasoner would attempt to replenish the leadership supply by promoting an impressive, rising leader such as F. R. Young or J. H. Gordon, only to see that person convert.
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