IN THE OLD DAYS there were angels who came and took men by the hand and led them away from the city of destruction. We see no white-winged angels now. But yet men are led away from threatening destruction: a hand is put into theirs, which leads them forth gently towards a calm and bright land, so that they look no more backward; and the hand may be a little child’s.
— George Eliot, Silas Marner
A recent sociological study found that atheists are America’s least trusted minority. Americans, the researchers concluded, “construct the atheist as the symbolic representation of one who rejects the basis for moral solidarity.” Most Americans, that is, apparently think of atheists not just as people who don’t share their specific beliefs about the existence of a divine being, but as ethical recusants who cannot be trusted.
This is not an expert view, only a popular one: no preponderance of evidence supports it, and philosophers can readily explain how it is possible to be good without God (some have even argued it is impossible to be good with God). But prejudices are difficult to dislodge, and science and reason often, paradoxically, prove ineffective tools. Even those of us who tend to agree with “New Atheists” like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens can find their hectoring tone wearying. Perhaps what is needed to help move people past the differences they believe divide them — or, more precisely, past the different beliefs that do divide them — is neither a leap of faith nor a rule of logic, but an exercise of the imagination, a new construction of the atheist that would transform mistrust into sympathy, hostility into fellowship. One of our best allies in such a project is Marian Evans, who by her more familiar name of ‘George Eliot’ was (as noted by one of her contemporaries) “the first great godless writer of fiction.”
Eliot’s irreligion struck many of her contemporary readers as paradoxical. How could she be at once such a stringent moralist and an unbeliever? For, then as now, religion was popularly believed to be the essential foundation of ethics. And why was it, if she didn’t believe in God, that her fiction is deeply and often sympathetically attentive to people’s religious lives — or, at any rate, to their lives as religious people?
That seemingly fine distinction is actually a good clue about how these apparent inconsistencies resolve. A devout evangelical Christian in her youth, Eliot gave up her faith due to her studies in science and in the German “higher criticism” of the Bible, which examined it as a historical rather than a sacred text. The first conspicuous result of her changing perspective was the episode she called her ‘Holy War,’ in which she defied convention in general and her family in particular by refusing to attend church: “I could not without vile hypocrisy and a miserable truckling to the smile of the world,&rdqu...read more