Chances are, that word conjures in your mind either a bewhiskered chap laboring under several layers of wool as he adjusts his morality-enhancing penis chassis and dreams of imperialism, or a demure lady of unspeakable virtue dying in childbirth while putting the finishing touches to a devotional needlepoint.
Certainly, there was quite a bit of all that in mid to late 19th century Britain, but what we tend to forget is that the period gave birth to a flood of progressive thought without peer in the twentieth century, and which we are even now just starting to fumblingly approximate. Especially with regard to atheism, the Victorians already grasped many of the truths we believe we snatched from thin air by virtue of our Modern Genius, and in fact developed them with a subtlety that we could learn from if we are willing to put aside some of our prejudices about the intellectual sophistication of days past.
The leading light of Vicorian atheism was, without a doubt, the brilliant novelist George Eliot. During the last two decades of her life, she was flooded with mail from the world over asking for her guidance in how to live without religion or the consolation of an afterlife. Certainly, there were philosophers who had developed the principles of atheism more technically, and sociologists who sought to apply its lessons more exhaustively, but when it came to living examples of how one could do without god and still have a satisfying and moral life, none rivalled Eliot.
Largely because her story was so familiar to so many. Born in 1819, she was part of that generation who saw, day by day, the insights of geology and comparative biology hack away at the long-held assumptions of religion. What we tend to forget is that Darwin’s Origin of the Species was not a sudden light in the dark, but the crowning statement of decades of research and theorizing by the leading minds of England and the continent. The 1830s and 40s saw a lunging, country-wide crisis of faith. Eliot, who was the staunchest and most prudish of Evangelical Christians as a teenager, couldn’t ignore the growing mass of Biblical criticism coming from the continent or the mound of scientific data being amassed by the likes of Hutton and Lyell.
So, after much agonized soul-searching, she took the definitive step and decided to stop going to Church. It caused a rift in her family that would never really heal, but the amazing thing (at least to those who think of the Victorians as unilaterally united in their joyless religiosity) is that she quickly found others who shared her religious doubts – Charles and Cara Bray, who lived in a sexually open marriage and wrote philosophical tracts of their own, lived close by, and introduced the young Eliot to the hidden and varied world of Victorian non-belief.
She read David Friedrich Strauss’s Life of Jesus, which dissected the New Testament’s many contradictions and implausibilities, and spent years of her life translating the book into English, uncomfortable as she was with its surgical treatment of the hazy communal spirituality she still longed for. Later, she would also translate Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity, that foundational work of modern theological criticism, and also the basis for her mature and nuanced view of the irreligious life.
She sought, and largely found, an answer to the great question of modern times – Once you decide that God is unlikely and the afterlife impossible, what do you do with yourself? The solutions most Victorians came up with were often similar to our own. Just as we have atheists today who would make a positive atheism to replace the pleasant ritualistic aspects of religion, the Victorian era had the followers of Auguste Comte, people like Richard Congreve and Harriet Martineau, eager to create a church of humanity and to draft Eliot into the cause.
She was never comfortable with the idea of replacing one set of rituals with another, however, no matter how secularly laid out the replacement set might be. Nor was she terribly sympathetic to those who would impose freedom from religion through acts of top-down revolution, using either political or intellectual machinery to brow-beat a population into renouncing their belief. She knew, in a way that we have yet to uniformly grasp, that all such attempts would ultimately work in the favor of religion, not atheism. She had grown up in the country, and knew its ways better than the Londoners who would write to her of their grand revolutionary schemes. And so she believed that change had to be organic and gradual if freedom from religion was to be more than a passing intellectual fad, discarded at the first tremor of communal nostalgia.
This complicated dance between ultra-modern thought and organic change lies at the heart of her novels, and makes them both incredibly fascinating and frustrating. I remember reading Silas Marner when I was a teenager and hurling the book across the room out of a sense of betrayal. Here I was reading George Eliot, one of the most modern minds ever, and what did I see? A man only finding contentment in life once he (spoiler alert) renounces his hermit existence and rejoins the community church. It was such a let-down, such an unexpected turn towards religious conformity, that I took it entirely at face value and didn’t touch anything by Eliot for another decade.
Which was my loss, but I’m in good company. For a century and a half, philosophers, atheists, and feminists have all had to come to grips with Eliot’s tendency to begin her novels daringly and end them hyper-traditionally. If we’re not feeling particularly generous, we throw our hands up in the air and accuse her of selling out to Victorian values.
What we don’t realize is that Eliot had taken the measure of humanity more subtly than we give her credit for, that she experienced ostracism first hand, first by her family when she refused to attend church, and then by society at large when she decided to live with a married man. Having been outside of society, she realized what makes it, and its illusions, valuable. People, no matter who they are, are necessary. There is primal significance in the most trivial of our shared interactions. The Comteans grasped this, but made the mistake of thinking that you could just replace the peripheral significations and keep the inner significance.
Eliot knew it’s trickier than that, and that sometimes you have to pay the price of your intellectual pride to enter into the wider stream of humanity. It is possible, she is telling us, to be so comfortable of your own mind and opinion that you can freely enter any meeting of humans and find therein, not a collection of antagonistic viewpoints, but the empathy-worthy workings of our most basic needs.
It is a broad view of atheism in practice that I admit I am too hot-blooded for. I recognize the merit and greatness of spirit, and fully agree that, if atheists were in general more like George Eliot and less like, well, me, we’d all stand to benefit. Perhaps it’s something that will come with age – the fiery attachment to untarnished intellectual purity might loosen its grip a bit as the years wear on, and I’ll be able to contemplate the idea of quietly and happily attending a church event without my blood running cold. I am so used to intellectual rigor being the foundation stone of my identity that I find it hard to surrender, even when I see the greater wisdom in so doing. But perhaps the nuanced wisdom of the 1870s is just entirely too advanced for me.
In all events, there is no other time so worth our attention. The twentieth century was rightly deemed a wasteland, full of tragedy and the necessarily polar reactions that tragedy breeds. It’s where you go if you want to hear your already held opinions repeated back to yourself. I love the eighteenth century dearly, but it was so drunk on the newness of its ideas that it didn’t always see where they would end up. But the Victorians – Eliot and Froude, Lewes and Darwin, Congreve and Dickens, had the benefit of experience married to broad leisure, and the resulting crop of lusciously subtle ideas is one seemingly planted for our very generation to harvest.
So, let’s grab ourselves a copy of Middlemarch, a nice steaming cup of tea, and settle down to reacquaint ourselves with our philosophical parents, if only to see what we one day might be.
Notes on the Comic:
As is my wont, I have played fast and loose with some dates here for (one hopes) comedic effect. Comte’s Catechism was translated by Congreve in 1852, which was well before Mary Anne Evans took up the nom de plume of George Eliot, though she had already translated Strauss anonymously by that point. In fact, Comte died just as Eliot was beginning her career, so the two never actually met. To my knowledge, Comte never mentioned Hookeified votive candles, but the more I think about it, the more I kind of want to make one.
My return to Eliot’s work was largely shepherded by Kathryn Hughes’s marvelous biography, George Eliot: The Last Victorian. If, like me, your first foray into Eliot was somewhat jarring, I’d recommend a romp through Hughes before hitting up the novels again.