George Eliot on God and the Good
Well known for her atheism, Eliot maintained a serious concern with morality and community throughout her life, evidenced in her novels and personal letters. She was persistently concerned with how to live a moral life outside organised religion, and how to maintain a sense of personal and community responsibility. First I’ll look at some influences on the development of her atheism, (and the limits of their influence), then at the kind of religion she rejected.
Eliot existed in a society where knowledge of the world was expanding at a startling pace. Scientific discoveries offered an understanding of how species evolved, and how man emerged. Early psychology and sociology offered insights into the workings of the mind and development of the individual, and attempted to view human society and behaviour from the outside. Feuerbach’s work was translated by Eliot , and he was an important influence on the development of her thought.
Feuerbach saw religion as deriving from human consciousness. Chrisitan doctrines were, for him, a projection of human aspirations, needs and fears. In creating God, man objectified aspects humanness and made them into a supreme other being. In religion, man ‘contemplates his own latent nature’. This leads to alienation of man from his species and potential; focus on the divine leads to a loss of ‘species consciousness’ (McDade 3) Theology was understood as mis-directed anthropology. For Feuerbach, religion ‘is the childlike condition of humanity…What was formerly contemplated and worshipped as God is now perceived to be something human..The divine being is human nature purified, freed from the limits of the individual man, made objective – ie, contemplated as another..All the attributes of the divine nature are..attributes of the human nature (McDade, 2) With this objectification of the best of human nature, religion had set up a false division of humanness, apportioning only negative attributes to man because all goodness and perfection was with God. As such, he said, religion is ‘an illusion..profoundly injurious in its effect on mankind; which deprives man as well of the power of real life..even love..becomes by means of religiousness merely ostensible, illusory..given only in appearance to man, but in reality to God.’ (74 The Essence of Christianity)
Feuerbach rejected the possibility of any reality beyond this world that a soul might be inclined towards, and this rejection of the transcendent was utter: ‘Experience is the limit of knowledge’ and metaphysical approaches merely ‘convert the internal into the external’. (Paris 20) For Feuerbach the ‘religious mind..does not distinguish between the subjective and objective – it has no doubts..The essence of faith ..is the idea that that which man wishes actually is.’ (Paris 21) Feuerbach saw no irony in the certainty with which he rejected theism, and expressed no doubts about his own convictions. This confidence in the future without the vestigial beliefs and practices of religion was not shared by Eliot.
Eliot was influenced by him but was wary of the tendency of modern German philosophy, (says J Rignall in the Oxford Companion to George Eliot), to return ‘the interpreter from absolutes like Truth and The Word back to the finite systems of human meaning and value.’ (111) Feuerbach explains away religion as something like the Dodo – an unlikely and inferior creature left behind by higher forms of life. Eliot has a more complex appreciation of the needs of people and the function of religion. Her focus is on the way real people live satisfying lives, with responsibility towards their neighbour. She is an insider looking around at her fellows, concerned with how to achieve human progress, with great sensitivity to the needs of the individual and the good of society. In Scenes From a Clerical Life she observes: ‘The first condition of human goodness is something to love; the second, something to...
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