George Eliot and atheism

Jonathan Dyck

I regard these writings as histories consisting of mingled truth and fiction, and while I admire and cherish much of what I believe to have been the moral teaching of Jesus himself, I consider the system of doctrines built upon the facts of his life . . . to be most dishonorable to God and most pernicious in its influence on individual and social happiness.

–Mary Anne Evans (aka George Eliot) on the Bible, 1842

Decades after offering this passionate account of her disbelief in a letter to her father, Mary Anne Evans would move to London, become Marian Evans, and eventually assume her status as the Victorian literary giant, George Eliot. Contemporary treatments of George Eliot rightly celebrate her writing for its affirmation of everyday life, and more often than not invoke her self-proclaimed atheism as one of its key components. A recent example is an article in Salon called “Good without God” (originally published by the LA Review of Books), which argues that Eliot can teach modern atheists and skeptics how to be more inclusive and affirming of those who, for whatever reason, are still holding on to their religious beliefs. The article suggests that Eliot’s loss of faith can temper those like Dawkins or Harris who sacrifice dialogue and community for the smug certainty of their exclusively “rational” position. Not a bad corrective, but it still comes off sounding rather patronizing where religious belief is involved. Gone is the antagonism that seems to be fuelling most contemporary atheism and its religious rebuttals.   Continue reading

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