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.  

Despite moving beyond the rigid Methodism of her youth, Eliot, in fact, kept attending church ceremonies, in part because she simply appreciated the form of the service and its liturgies. I’m sure I’m not alone when I confess that when I attend church it’s often for precisely the same reason. It’s an aesthetic and at times intellectual experience — calling it “bourgeois” wouldn’t be too far off the mark. Here, religion is carved into manageable categories. In this schema, faith hovers like an apparition while Christ serves as a model for empathy, an ideal that one must strive after, with or without the church. As Eliot would later suggest, we go wrong when we confuse institutionalized ritual with what is most important: cultivating a sense of “sympathy with the difficulty of the human lot.”

For Zadie Smith, one of many contemporary novelists who has celebrated Eliot’s ability to embrace the faithful from a faithless position, Middlemarch gives us the story of Dorothea (a work of brilliant self-parody for Eliot), who begins as a self-effacing servant of lofty principles untempered by actual living. After a disappointing marriage, she is finally able to recognize the importance of emotional experience as a form of knowledge that is perhaps even more valuable than that of the intellect.

Henry James once complained that Middlemarch seemed too diffuse and disorganized, but he seems to miss its point. He wanted more of Dorothea and less of those who should have been minor characters, like Fred Vincy and Dr Lydgate. Like many others before her, Smith claims this as the novel’s great strength: it is a novel about “everybody.” For Smith, Fred is “Eliot’s ideal Spinozian subject” because his “moral luck is all encounter, arrangement, combination,” and the love that he is continuously striving for throughout the novel–that of Mary Garth– “is that encounter; she is Fred’s reason to be good.” Smith’s point is well-made, but then she goes and says this: “This is not biblical morality but practical morality.” Here, in Eliot’s novel, Smith writes, “Love is a kind of knowledge.” Again, I’m left wondering how Smith’s categories work. It all sounds incredibly biblical and damn near Augustinian to me. Smith argues that “Eliot has replaced metaphysics with human relationships,” but this kind of humanism, this opening to earthly relations in all their practicality, seems like the point of most Christian literature as well. “What is universal and timeless in literature is need,” she claims. “Forms, styles, structures . . . should change like skirt lengths. They have to; otherwise we make a rule, a religion, of one form.” She’s taking her cue from Spinoza, but this claim about “need” is also there in Augustine; of course, the two philosophers go off in significantly different directions, but Smith’s reading doesn’t go further than a simple affirmation of desire as such. An ontology of desire, in other words, runs up against the stale forms of tradition and ritual. Nothing new here, especially when you look at the history of Christianity.

But back to the “Good without God” article, which is a good example of modern attempts to “rescue” the energy of religious belief from an absent projection of transcendence. It closes with what should an inspiring claim: “people can be their own salvation.” (Perhaps a statement like this would be a bit more inspiring if it affirmed a collective politics as something more consequential.) I’ve since come across another article of the same name about Eliot’s atheism, this time in the American Catholic publication First Things, this time by the Christian literary critic Alan Jacobs. It provides a good contrast to the Salon piece because it recognizes that modern atheism is often simply a watered down version of Christian morality. Jacobs also does us the service of highlighting Nietzsche’s brief dismissal of George Eliot, which is, like most of Nietzsche’s writing, to be taken with a grain of salt. Still, the point is well-made. Nietzsche’s certainty is our ambivalence.

G. Eliot.—They have got rid of the Christian God, and now feel obliged to cling all the more firmly to Christian morality: that is English consistency, let us not blame it on little bluestockings la Eliot. In England, in response to every little emancipation from theology one has to reassert one’s position in a fear–inspiring manner as a moral fanatic. That is the penance one pays there. With us it is different. When one gives up Christian belief one thereby deprives oneself of the right to Christian morality.

Jonathan Dyck blogs at Church Going.

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