In Tess of the d'Urbervilles, we gain insight into Hardy's view on religion as he uses his characters to make observations that may have been quite disconcerting to his Victorian readers. This is not to say that Hardy abandoned his views on religion, instead, he "became an agnostic, [and] he remained emotionally involved with the Church." Hardy's greatest dispute was with the dogma or beliefs of the church.
Hardy had once wanted to become a minister but abandoned that idea when he could no longer afford to attend the university. Robert Schweik, a Hardy critic, relates that Hardy became interested in religion on a personal level — that the subject of infant baptism particularly affected him. Hardy could see no harm in baptizing an infant if doing so makes the family of the child feel better about their child's salvation. This position is made clear in the scenes with Tess and Sorrow.
The scene is played out in Chapter 14 when Tess baptizes Sorrow. She learns that her own ceremony is the same as if it were performed in church; however, on the subject of a proper Christian burial, the local vicar replies, "Ah — that's another matter." In the true sense of charity, Hardy argues, Tess should have been allowed to bury Sorrow in a proper manner, not be relegated to the part of the cemetery that has unbaptized infants, drunks, and the damned. The burial is carried out under the cover of darkness, not during the daylight hours, to protect Tess and to shield her from the scorn of churchgoers. Hardy's point is that Sorrow's burial should have been treated as any other burial. The position of the church is too harsh, Hardy seems to argue, when Sorrow is christened in the proper manner, but is not given a proper Christian burial.
Also, the positioning of pagan and Christian rituals makes for an interesting look at the dichotomy that exists in the smaller rural areas. Some rituals, now obscured by the passage of time, were assimilated into Christian ceremony. The May Dance, for instance, in Chapter 1, celebrated the end of the winter and the beginning of summer. Druids and other pagans of the area would have celebrated that date with a ceremony of sorts. Also, Tess, before she is literally sacrificed for the good of society, journeys to Stonehenge, the temple of monoliths used for sun worship and possibly human sacrifice. Tess says to Angel about the pantheon, "And you used to say at Talbothays that I was a heathen. So now I am at home." Also, Hardy recollects the earlier ancient Greek tragedies by invoking the name of Aeschylus, the principal writer of Greek tragic drama, to close his work, not biblical or modern sagas, as we would have imagined a nineteenth-century writer to do.
Hardy quite possibly sees religion abandoning the people, with dogmas that do not mesh with a modern society. In Tess, with few exceptions, Hardy's portrayal of the "traditionally" religious people is not particularly complimentary. Take the casual remarks by Angel's brothers, Felix ("all Church") and Cuthbert ("all College"). They are quite involved in themselves, changing their beliefs and values to match the times. Both brothers are clerics without compassion, possibly in the same mold as the Vicar in Marlott.
If religion is as shallow as Hardy predicts, then the sign painter and his art are the worst form of shallowness. The sign painter who wanders the countryside uses the simplest texts he can find to put on his religious signs. When Tess asks if he believes in the text about "sin not your own seeking," he replies, "I cannot split hairs on the burning query." Essentially, he is not educated enough to think of a reasonable answer, and his perspective on religion is limited. Hardy saw this in the common folk he knew and was loathe to think that their religious beliefs were so shallow that they did not understand the deeper meanings of the texts they had read. Also, the sign painter saves the hottest sign messages for rural districts, where the ordinary folk would be frightened and cowed into submission. These seem to be "religious views on a poker chip" — philosophical entreaties to urge folks to turn to the Bible for aid. But these signs seem to miss the deeper meanings of the scriptures, which Tess seems to understand, not just the superficial meanings espoused by others. Likewise, Alec is the worst kind of convert, a sinner who renounces his former ways but becomes a sinner again at the slightest hint of temptation. The signs put up by the sign painter and Alec's conversion all point to a faith that is fleeting at best.
However, not all clergy are poor representations of religion, nor all believers false. Tess, for example, has an uncomplicated religion, a simpler and deeper understanding than her education would allow. She is as powerful as any clergyman when she baptizes Sorrow, but realistic when she realizes that she must pay for her sins when confronted by the police. Similarly, Angel's father, Reverend Clare is a good man, with good intentions, and a good message. He is part of the evangelical movement who practices what he preaches. He is described as Paulist or Pauliad, from Paul of Tarsus, who believed that salvation came through grace and belief, which came through emotional responses rather than intellectual ones. Thus we see Hardy from two separate perspectives, one who uses biblical allusion with the knowledge of a believer, but the skepticism of an outsider.