Crises of Faith or Doubt and Annie Besant
- Published: Saturday, 11 July 2009 03:00
Catherine Wathen – USA
The nineteenth century, everybody knows, was an age when faith was lost and scientific skepticism came to the fore. It was, after all, the age of Darwin, the saint of faithless skeptics. Yet, what “everybody knows” has been challenged in a recent book by Timothy Larsen: Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in Nineteenth-Century England (Oxford University Press, 2006). In this book, Larsen argues that the view of the century of Darwin as a time when faith was on the wane is wrong, or at least incomplete. He cites examples of skeptics who rediscovered faith in traditional religion and maintains that they represent a “crisis of doubt” in the secular values of skepticism.
It is relevant that Timothy Larsen took his first two academic degrees at Wheaton College, a nonsectarian but fundamentalist college in the same town that incongruously harbors the national center of the Theosophical Society in America. Furthermore, he currently holds the Chair of Christian Thought at Wheaton College. Considering the author’s background, the thesis of his book is not much of a surprise.
What is something of a surprise is that one his “reconverts” (skeptics who rediscovered faith in religion) is Annie Besant. It is true that AB was early on an Anglo-Catholic who became a leader of the skeptic movement in England and then rediscovered religious values and practices. However, AB’s rediscovery was not the sort of most of Larsen’s other “reconverts”; she did not go back to conventional Christianity but became an advocate and leading exponent of Theosophy, which is hardly the kind of faith that “Wheaties” (i.e., students of Wheaton College) are encouraged to explore, much less adopt.