A N Wilson John Murray, 402pp, £20
I recently found myself in the Trafford Centre, a huge, overlit shopping mall next to the Manchester Ship Canal. It was the morning after Manchester United had won the FA Cup, and every second male, it seemed, was wearing the team's red shirt - a kind of secular worship. Later, as I sat in a cavernous food hall, overlooked by Egyptian pyramids, marble statues of pharaohs and a giant sphinx, an old man wandered by, parading a banner: "If God is dead then we are on the road to Hell. Go to church."
As it happened, I had spent the previous afternoon in church, at a wedding. In common with most of the guests, I was not a regular churchgoer. It showed: bereft of a choir to guide us, we were awful when it came to the hymns, singing the unfamiliar words tunelessly if at all. The vicar did his best, the big boom of his voice filling the great open spaces that God had left behind. Yet the longing for transcendence was palpably there; more than one young person spoke afterward of their sadness at the absence of religious ritual in their lives, of how moved they had been by the service, of their postmodern perplexity: in whom or what to believe, if anything?
A N Wilson once believed in God; indeed he considered taking holy orders. Then, in 1991, he published Religion: why we should try to live without it (Chatto, Counterblasts), in which he polemically teased that the "love of God is the root of all evil. Religion is the tragedy of mankind." So that, you thought, was that: no more priestly sermons from the man with two initials. But no - Wilson has seemingly been worrying away ever since over the God question: biographies of Christ and St Paul are testament to that. And now we have God's Funeral, a long, distinguished survey of the great 19th- century conflicts between religion and doubt. They are all here: the unhappy Philip Gosse, who refused to believe his own zoological investigations, potentially so calamitous were they for his faith; T H Huxley, the pioneering Darwinist who makes even Richard Dawkins seem moderate; the sceptical Thomas Carlyle, who despaired at how man's natural will to worship was so easily displaced by material greed; the metaphysical (and sexual) anguish of Ruskin; the Messianic economics of Marx and Engels.
God's Funeral can be read as a work of concentrated mourning. Wilson seems haunted by our refusal to sever the frayed thread that ties us to God, even when there remains no logical defence of faith. He writes about his tortured Victorians, his clerics, philosophers and thinkers with solemn sympathy. I understand your plight, he seems to say, I know how lost you were without belief. His portrait of their hushed, cloistered world is fascinating. He discusses the regular meetings, from 1869 to 1880, of the Metaphysical Society, at which Gladstone, Cardinal Manning and the then editor of Another Magazine debated theology and ethics with unbelievers such as Huxley and Herbert Spencer. How absurd a comparable meeting would seem today between, say, Tony Blair, George Carey, Dawkins and Frank Johnson.
If Wilson stumbles when explicating the ideas of Marx, Freud or Kant (the philosopher Gilbert Ryle once joked that anyone attempting to summarise Kant invariably ended up adopting his famously opaque style), he regains his stride when discussing biblical scholarship, or when offering up vignettes of the lives of near-forgotten figures. If his book has a weakness, it is that he peers largely through an English lens. There is little on Nietzsche, the great slayer of Christianity, and nothing on Schopenhauer, whose World as Will and Representation (1818) was such an influence on the young Wittgenstein. Schopenhauer, while agreeing with Kant that the human mind is pre-programmed to perceive the world in certain ways, and with his distinction between the world of appearances and things as they actually are independent of experience, between phenomena and noumena, nevertheless persuasively argued that empirical reality is all we can know but not all there is. Nor are we absolute prisoners in the material world; for Schopenhauer, the disinterested appreciation of art can serve as a bridge between the temporal and ultimate reality.
This is an admirably old-fashioned work, its pages having the musty odour of an attic. Edmund Gosse, author of Father and Son, is described by Wilson as a "late Victorian/Edwardian man of letters, snob, man-about(-literary)-town". It would do as a decent self-description, for Wilson remains an enigma. A talented belletrist, he is also the pedlar of shaggy dog stories and literary gossip; an unbeliever, he retains a religious temperament; a scholar, he also operates as a journalistic populist. His prose similarly sways between a heightened exactitude, as when discussing the schism between modernists and literalists in the Roman church, and a kind of elevated cliche. So we encounter people who "turn deaf ears" to problems, who take them with a "pinch of salt", who are "hoisted with their own petard" or whose books "hit the spot" with readers. Still, you cannot fault his sincerity or scholarship.
Christianity, wrote Nietzsche, is the "one great curse, the one enormous and innermost perversion . . . the one immortal blemish of mankind". At times you feel that Wilson shares this Nietzschean disgust at the enfeebling potential of so much superstition.
Yet what is left when we have nothing to conclude but the death of God? Not politics, here at least. Thatcherism, with its zeal and fervour, is coming to be seen as perhaps the last vigorous belief system to demand any kind of actual radical engagement. Small wonder, then, that it appealed to so many former Marxists, since Marxism is itself a quasi-religious belief system where the importance of laws, universal validity and necessity are apparent and human society is perceived as moving towards some promised-but-never-arrived-at end: a stateless utopia, a heaven down here on earth.
Today there is a vacuum at the centre of our culture, a vacuum where once religion and then progressive politics used to be; and into this vacuum flows that which once occupied the margins but which now commands the centre: celebrity, sport, the media, entertainment. We may no longer have a common culture, but we all know whom David Beckham is marrying and we all know that a magazine paid £400,000 to photograph the marriage of John Major's son to a woman with bleached hair and breast implants. Perhaps the old man in the Trafford Centre was right after all: we are on the road to hell.
But hold on. The yearning for something better, for adoration, for a more complete understanding of the underlying nature of reality will surely never leave us, so long as what there is beyond the edge of the universe remains, as it always must, an intractable mystery. As the molecular biologist Michael Barrett has written, astrophysicists may be able to trace the universe back to its first microseconds after the big bang, but what happened before that? Nothingness is something, even if that something necessarily resides on the other side of language, on the other side of silence - the eternal silence of God Himself which A N Wilson once so poignantly longed to hear.