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Orwell vs God

A very Christian atheist

11 June 2011

12:00 AM

11 June 2011

12:00 AM

No one will be amazed that George Orwell disliked Roman Catholicism; it is odd, though, that he seemed unable to leave the subject alone. Even his left-wing cronies found this obsession tedious. The Marxist journalist Jon Kimche, who shared a flat with him in the mid-1930s, complained that his conversation amounted to little more than a series of diatribes against Rome. In print, Orwell might show some forbearance towards socially concerned Catholics such as Jacques Maritain and Georges Bernanos, or towards an apologist such as Frank Sheed, whom he considered exceptionally fair-minded. Even this tolerance, however, was in notably short supply.

Clearly, by all the canons of amateur psychology, the fellow did protest too much. Curiously, though, Orwell never showed any interest in arguing about doctrinal detail, almost as though he understood the necessity of an act of faith. What did outrage his flinty integrity was that so many intellectual Catholics hardly seemed to believe in their own creed. ‘If you talk to a thoughtful Christian, Catholic or Anglican,’ he wrote in 1944, ‘you often find yourself laughed at for being so ignorant as to suppose that anyone ever took the doctrines of the Catholic Church literally… [Those] who cling to the letter of the Creeds while reading into them meanings they were never meant to have, and who snigger at anyone simple enough to believe that the Fathers of the Church meant what they said, are simply raising smokescreens to conceal their own disbelief from themselves.’

Similarly, in his review of Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter (1948), Orwell observed that among certain clever Catholics, the idea had taken root that there was something rather distingué about being damned. ‘When people really believed in Hell,’ he witheringly concluded, ‘they were not so fond of striking graceful attitudes on its brink.’

Not that Orwell seemed any more favourably inclined towards Catholics such as Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton, who most certainly did believe and uphold the doctrines of the Church. These were men, he maintained, who had prostituted their intellectual integrity in order to turn out propaganda for their faith. In particular, the solid Englishman in Orwell recoiled from Belloc’s and Chesterton’s idealisation of Latin countries, especially France, which they presented as ‘a land of Catholic peasants incessantly singing the Marseillaise over glasses of red wine’.

With his penchant for seeing every question through a political eye, Orwell fastened upon what he discerned as a marked pro-fascist streak within the Church. In his mind religious dogmatics and right-wing dictatorships were indissolubly linked. He also drew attention to the visceral loathing which Catholic writers felt for atheistic communism, whether in Spain, Russia or anywhere else. ‘No one who has studied Catholic literature during the last ten years,’ he wrote in August 1941, shortly after Hitler’s invasion of Russia, ‘can doubt that the bulk of the hierarchy and the intelligentsia would side with Germany as against Russia if they had a quarter of a chance. Their hatred of Russia is really venomous, enough even to disgust an anti-Stalinist like myself.’

Orwell took an equally jaundiced view of the Church’s role in domestic politics. The Catholic quest for salvation implies liberty of choice, which is extended to include the right to hold property. Certainly the rich are called to repentance; in sober reality, however, they do not repent: ‘in this matter,’ Orwell drily observed, ‘Catholic capitalists do not seem to be perceptibly different from the others.’ Indeed he suggested that, where a surfeit of worldly goods is concerned, ‘religious belief is frequently a psychological device to avoid repentance’.

Orwell, then, presented Catholics as either stupid or blinkered, dishonest or self-deceived. Yet he was very far from denying the need for religion. In his opinion socialists were quite wrong to assume that when basic material needs had been supplied, spiritual concerns would wither away. ‘The truth,’ Orwell wrote in 1944, ‘is the opposite: when one’s belly is empty, one’s only problem is an empty belly. It is when we have got away from drudgery and exploitation that we shall really start wondering about man’s destiny and the reason for his existence. One cannot have any worthwhile picture of the future unless one realises how much we have lost by the decay of Christianity.’

For nearly two thousand years, Orwell pointed out, the western concept of good and evil had been tied up with the idea of personal immortality. The hope of heaven and the threat of damnation had seemed real enough to foster altruism and self-sacrifice. But if death extinguishes the individual, what incentive could there be to cling to moral principle against worldly interest? Orwell, who feared that in his own times the worship of power was proving infinitely more seductive than the cult of virtue, was haunted by the nightmare of a boot smashing into the human face, forever.

Somehow, he wrote in June 1945, just before the publication of Animal Farm, the religious attitude to life must be restored. Christian thinkers were right to believe ‘that if our civilisation does not regenerate itself, it is likely to perish — and they may be right in adding that, at least in Europe, its moral code must be based on Christian principles’. Like T.S. Eliot, Orwell saw the delusion of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.


It was, however, a sterile exercise to prescribe Christian principles when he himself had set his mind — his act of faith — against any possibility of an afterlife; and when he believed, moreover, that the overwhelming majority of the English nation shared his scepticism. In his view, Christianity was at once necessary and unbelievable, a contradiction which may go some way to explaining the tension engendered in his mind by Roman Catholicism.

Yet, like many English public schoolboys afflicted by religious doubt, Orwell retained a weak and wavering affection for Anglicanism. At his prep school, he recalled, he had believed in God, even while hating Jesus; after all, he had been directed ‘to be at once a Christian and a social success, which is impossible’. At Eton he had become a thoroughgoing sceptic, albeit one especially well versed in the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. Indeed, Peter Davison, the editor of Orwell’s complete works, has pointed out that he might have taken his moral code from the sixth chapter of St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, which he would have heard at the beginning of every Lent term. ‘Abhor that which is evil, cleave to that which is good… [be] not slothful [but] fervent in spirit… Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate.’ As much as any self-flagellating anchorite, Orwell was consumed by guilt at having been cast among the fortunate in a singularly unfortunate world.

In 1932, when he was teaching at Hayes in Middlesex, he fell in with the local curate, Ernest Parker, who was keenly concerned to help the unemployed. Writing to Brenda Salkeld, a clergyman’s daughter after whom he pined, Orwell described Parker as ‘a high Anglican, but not a creeping Jesus, and a very good fellow’. The letter continues: ‘I shall have to go to Holy Communion soon, hypocritical tho’ it is, because my curate friend is bound to think it funny if I always go to Church but never communicate… It seems rather mean to go to H.C. when one doesn’t believe, but I have passed myself off for pious & there is nothing for it but to keep up the deception.’

Years later, however, Ernest Parker’s widow indignantly rejected the suggestion that Orwell’s religion had been a sham, remembering not only hi
s regular attendance at Communion twice a week, but also how ‘on several occasions [he] went ahead to prepare the sick to receive the sacraments’. It seems that Orwell, while maintaining a sceptical front to Brenda Salkeld, whom he liked to shock, may have been dabbling, in another part of his being, with the possibility of a Christian solution to the problem of making life on earth worth living.

If so, the trial was short-lived. Though he might acknowledge the necessity of religion in theory, in practice his attitude hardened again into unblinking hostility. Clear-sighted, pragmatic, and determinedly disenchanted — not least in his joyless pursuit of women — he confined his romantic instincts to the English countryside, the rearing of chickens, and the growing of vegetables. If he had any mystical impulses, they were sternly repressed. ‘Our job,’ he wrote shortly before his death, ‘is to make life worth living on this earth, which is the only earth we have.’

Prescriptive worldly counsel and other worldly ideals were both anathema. ‘No doubt alcohol, tobacco and so forth are things that a saint must avoid,’ Orwell wrote in his essay on Gandhi, ‘but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid.’ ‘The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals.’

Or, in the words of St John’s Gospel: ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’ In spite of himself, the shadow of Christianity lay deep in Orwell. Very few Christian writers have associated themselves with the cause of the exploited to the extent that he did; and very few have shown such disdain for the comforts of this world.

Perhaps Evelyn Waugh divined something of Orwell’s buried spirituality when he wrote to congratulate him on Nineteen-Eighty-Four, and subsequently visited him in the nursing home at Cranham in Gloucestershire. On the other side, one of Orwell’s last attempts at writing was to draw up notes for an essay on Waugh, who, he considered, ‘is abt as good a novelist as one can be (i.e. as novelists go today) while holding unacceptable opinions’.

Yet as Orwell approached death, his intolerance of religion seemed to relax. In his last year he was delighted to receive a letter from Jacintha Buddicom, whom he had met at the age of 11, and who had become, during his teenage years, the first girl seriously to attract him — though his urgent desire was never returned. In her memoir, Eric and Us (1974), Jacintha Buddicom recalled how the young Eric Blair had loved ghost and horror stories, and how — jokingly, of course — he had given her a crucifix to keep away the vampires. Half the people walking the streets, he had speculated, were ghosts.

As long as his appetite for horror had been confined to imaginary worlds, he had been able to retain a capacity for joy in the real one. Jacintha Buddicom remembered him as a notably happy boy, and her memoir shows him full of kindness and fun, vastly different from the image he later purveyed of the miserable schoolboy at St Cyprians, and still further removed from the misanthropic cynic who emerged at Eton.

But then in his first year at Eton Orwell had suffered a severe trauma. Infuriated by the bullying of an elder boy called Philip Yorke, brother of the novelist Henry Green, Blair and his friend Steven Runciman had constructed a wax model of their persecutor, and torn off one of the legs. Shortly afterwards Yorke broke his leg; a few months later he died of leukaemia. Sheer coincidence, no doubt, but deeply disquieting for the boys who had created the model. Runciman remained all his life an enthusiast for the occult; Eric Blair, perhaps more profoundly shocked, thenceforward shied away from any suggestion of the supernatural. Evil was clearly rampant, whereas ‘the good and the possible never seem to coincide’. It was at about 14, he later confessed, that he had abandoned his belief in God.

Yet seven months before Orwell died, he wrote to Buddicom, insisting that there must be some sort of afterlife. The letter, unfortunately, is lost, but Buddicom remembered that he had seemed to be referring not so much to Christian ideas of heaven and hell, but rather to a firm belief that ‘nothing ever dies’, that we must go on somewhere. This conviction seems to have stayed with him to the end: even if he did not believe in hell, he chose in his last weeks to read Dante’s Divine Comedy.

In his will Orwell had left directions that he should be buried according to the rites of the Church of England. Of course no one was better qualified to appreciate the beauty of the Book of Common Prayer; nevertheless the request surprised some of his admirers. A funeral was duly held at Christ Church in Albany Street; and David Astor, responsible for the arrangements, asked if his friend’s body might be interred in a country churchyard, at Sutton Courtenay, in Berkshire.

There was, however, a hitch. One of the churchwardens at Sutton Courtenay, a farmer, seemed doubtful that permission should be given. Had this fellow Orwell, or Blair, or whatever, really been a sound Christian? Fortunately the vicar had the inspired idea of showing the agricultural churchwarden a copy of Animal Farm. It was a title which instantly removed all scruples.

David Astor had surely been right to choose for his friend this hallowed ground, where he himself now lies nearby. As Orwell had once scribbled:

A happy vicar I might have been
Two hundred years ago,
To preach upon eternal doom
And watch my walnuts grow.
But born, alas, in an evil time,
I missed that pleasant haven,
For hair has grown on my upper lip
And the clergy are all clean-shaven.


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