Book Review: George Orwell and Religion by Michael G. Brennan

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It’s become a stock refrain of intellectual history to say that George Orwell answered all three of the big questions of the twentieth century correctly: that the master-slave relationship of colonialism degraded both master and slave; that Soviet Communism replaced the capitalist with the commissar and harassed the worker with the same secret police as the czar used; and that the fascist systems of Germany and Italy weren’t just wicked for the sadistic measures they applied to increase returns on capital, but for the psychological pandemics of racial mysticism, vicarious masculinity, and fraudulent military braggadocio they unleashed.

Orwell’s views on more perennial questions regarding death, religion, and morality have, however, garnished less notoriety for reasons that are partly political and partly circumstantial. Circumstantial because for nearly the whole period of Orwell’s adult life, the world was either at war or preparing to be. This left him little time to pontificate on much else but matters of immediate concern. They’re political because since his death there’s been an attempt to appropriate Orwell as an ideological descendant of those who, had they been his contemporaries, would’ve derided him in print or shot at him from an opposing trench. For them, Orwell’s secularism, atheism, and internationalism have always been regarded as nasty inconveniences that are better handled with ellipses than with arguments.

Renaissance Professor of Leeds University Michael G. Brennan’s latest book, George Orwell and Religion, is an enthralling and valuable piece of scholarship on Orwell’s near-lifelong antipathy toward religion, in particular what he called “political Catholicism,” which in many ways he saw as just the softer side of European fascism.

Orwell’s concern over the displacement of religious sensibilities brought on by modernity was at the center of most of his social and political thinking. The profane literature of the Enlightenment had shown the ridiculousness of Christian tenets such as eternal damnation and personal immortality, but Orwell feared that nothing substantive had been put in their place that both encouraged our egalitarian and spiritual impulses as well as depressed our natural inclinations toward violence and greed. Other modern writers either mistook the general despair caused by the psychological absence of religious convictions as a sign of progress—the broken eggs for the omelet—or they relished the moral chaos. Orwell, on the other hand, knew that a victory over religion wasn’t the same thing as a victory over the credulous and superstitious mindset. In place of God in the twentieth century there came the state, the race, and the political party.

Not that this meant Orwell believed a return to religion was the proper way forward. In fact, he saw in religion (especially Catholicism) many of the precursors of totalitarianism. Both had their churches, their holy books, their orthodoxies, and their spiritual disciplinarians. Most disturbing to Orwell, both were more interested in turning heretics into glad converts rather than into despised martyrs. It wasn’t enough for them to have the power to force dissenters to repudiate their own beliefs—they had to be able to capture and control their victim’s thoughts. At the end of the torturing, the victim had to really believe their own repudiation. As O’ Brien informs Winston in Nineteen-Eighty Four after he wakes him up from being captured:

When finally you surrender to us, it must be of your own free will. We do not destroy a heretic because he resists us; so long as he resists us we never destroy him. We convert him, we capture his inner mind, we reshape him….we bring him over to our side, not in appearance, but genuinely, heart and soul.

While Stalin’s terror state of the 1930s and ’40s was clearly the main historical basis for the novel’s “interrogation” scenes, it’s also clear, given the language Orwell uses (“we burn all evil and all illusion out of them”), that he had the Inquisition on his mind as well.

British literary critic V.S. Pritchett said that Orwell wrote his dystopian satire “like some dour Protestant or Jansenist who sees his faith corrupted by the ‘doublethink’ of the Roman Catholic Church and who fiercely rejects the corrupt civilizations that appear to be able to flourish even under this dispensation.” It’s true, as Pritchett suggests, that Orwell had a paradoxical (some might say ironic) attitude toward Protestantism. He found much to value in the Protestant tradition—its spirit of free expression and of autonomy of the individual—although he still presumed that its theological positions were as absurd as any other religious sect’s. He went so far as crowning the novel a “Protestant form of art,” and named many of the secondary characters  in Nineteen-Eighty Four after historically significant anti-Catholic British Presbyterians, Anglicans, and nonconformists. As Professor Brennan makes clear in the book, to Orwell all religions were equal, but Protestantism was more equal than others.

Orwell certainly wasn’t the first radical to associate Protestantism with the revolutionary spirit. Marx, for example, called it a “theoretical” revolution and said that even if it wasn’t “the true solution, it was at least the true setting of the problem.” Nor was Orwell the first to notice how well the Vatican kept up friendly relations with the fascist powers (particularly Spain) throughout the various continental conflicts. Orwell fought in the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side, which in that case meant against the Catholic Church and the big landowners. It was during his defense of the Spanish Republic that he experienced first-hand the Catholic hierarchy openly siding with the ruling class over the down-trodden and disposed who regularly filled its pews (not to mention its collection plates).

Brennan is brilliant in his contextualization of Orwell’s “strangely intense and long-expressed hostility toward Roman Catholicism.” In his early writings, Orwell was suspiciously hostile toward Jews but later became a champion of Jewish immigration to England. If Brennan is disappointed in Orwell for not reasoning himself out of his anti-Catholic prejudice like he did his anti-Semitic one, he need only be encouraged to re-read his own book to understand why Orwell found some of his instinctual prejudices against the nostalgic and the reactionary and the hatefully mundane worth preserving, and even worth purifying.

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