What were Dickens's views toward religion?

In all his writings, Charles Dickens—a Christian of the broadest kind—is outspoken in his dislike of evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism, but, especially in his fiction, he is very reluctant to make professions of a specific faith beyond the most general sort of Christianity. Nothing more surely aroused his suspicions about a person's religious faith than a public profession of it, and this aversion formed a fundamental feature of his dislike of evangelicals and dissenters.

Dickens's parents were Anglican, but evidently entirely uninterested in the dogmas of the Church of England and probably not very regular in their worship. As a small boy in Chatham, Dickens seems to have attended services at a nearby Baptist chapel. There is little positive evidence about Dickens's religious thinking throughout the twenties and thirties, but it is in the latter decade, a period of significant reform in England, that he was at his most unrestrained in his religious satires—for example, upon sabbatarianism (in the pseudonymously published Sunday Under Three Heads [1836]) and upon hypocritical dissenting preachers (in the form of Mr. Stiggins in The Pickwick Papers [1837]). It is evident at the time of his first American trip in 1842 that he was hopeful of finding in the United States political and religious institutions more progressive and effective than Parliament and the Church of England. At the time he looked enthusiastically to the new nation's ideals of liberty and equality as promoting a future that might reward merit and free itself of ancient and hidebound class prejudices. He was, moreover, certainly attracted by the separation of church and state in the United States, and, while he was soon to be profoundly disappointed in American politics, he was very taken at least by the Unitarian circle that he encountered in Boston.

It was in these years too that Dickens first felt the need to impart some religious instruction to his children and, significantly, undertook to do this himself by writing a simplified version of the gospels designed for reading aloud (not published until 1934, when it was dubbed The Life of Our Lord). Given the intended audience, it is hardly fair to infer the specifics of Dickens's faith from this slight work, which is in any case theologically rather inconsistent. But it is often taken as expressing a Unitarian outlook, and certainly what Dickens stresses is Christ as model, teacher, and healer—the comforter of the distressed rather than the saviour of mankind through the crucifixion and atonement.

Immortality of the soul, a favourite rock upon which a Victorian's faith might founder, seems in fact to have constituted the one article of faith about which Dickens was troubled by no doubts. His notion of heaven, however, is notably worldly. It is "where we hope to go, and all to meet each other after we are dead, and there be happy always together" (LOL 1). Heaven is where the good go to be reunited with their friends, and heavenly bliss is thus rather like a permanent stay at the ideal Pickwickian inn. Although Dickens mentions Christ's coming again "to judge the world" (LOL 11), he seems never to have taken seriously the possibility of eternal damnation and is always bitterly critical of the harm done by those who hold out the threat of hellfire, especially over the young.

Note: The above is a slightly-edited excerpt from the entry for "Religion" in The Oxford Reader's Companion to Charles Dickens, Ed. Paul Schlicke (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

Further reading:

  • Dennis Walder, Dickens and Religion (1981)
  • Norris Pope, Dickens and Charity (1978)
  • Alexander Welsh, The City of Dickens (1971)
  • "Dickens and Religion," The Victorian Web