As I Please

October 31, 2011 at 10:44 pm (Orwell, religion, Rosie B)

Since Tribune is in the news, here’s an extract from one of George Orwell’s As I Please columns, which are proto blog posts.   This particular column goes to prove that Karen Armstrong and Terry Eagleton are not new phenomena.  Their cloud and vapour blowing at crude rationalists who coarsely ask them if the tenets of the religion they defend are true or not were around in 1944.

It . . . appears from my correspondent’s letter that even the most central doctrines of the Christian religion don’t have to be accepted in a literal sense. It doesn’t matter, for instance, whether Jesus Christ ever existed. ‘The figure of Christ (myth, or man, or god, it does not matter) so transcends all the rest that I only wish that everyone would look, before rejecting that version of life.’ Christ, therefore, may be a myth, or he may have been merely a human being, or the account given of him in the Creeds may be true. So we arrive at this position: Tribune must not poke fun at the Christian religion, but the existence of Christ, which innumerable people have been burnt for denying, is a matter of indifference.

……what my correspondent says would be echoed by many Catholic intellectuals. If you talk to a thoughtful Christian, Catholic or Anglican, you often find yourself laughed at for being so ignorant as to suppose that anyone ever took the doctrines of the Church literally. These doctrines have, you are told, a quite other meaning which you are too crude to understand. Immortality of the soul doesn’t ‘mean’ that you, John Smith, will remain conscious after you are dead. Resurrection of the body doesn’t mean that John Smith’s body will actually be resurrected – and so on and so on. Thus the Catholic intellectual is able, for controversial purposes, to play a sort of handy-pandy game, repeating the articles of the Creed in exactly the same terms as his forefathers, while defending himself from the charge of superstition by explaining that he is speaking in parables. Substantially his claim is that though he himself doesn’t believe in any very definite way in life after death, there has been no change in Christian belief, since our ancestors didn’t really believe in it either.
the Catholic intellectuals 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 suppose that the Fathers of the Church meant what they said, are simply raising smoke-screens to conceal their own disbelief from themselves.

Tribune, 3 March 1944


  1. Pinkie said,

    Yeah, George Orwell. Much as I admire much of his writing, I do think it is worth pointing out he died some 60 years ago. He was writing about his times as he saw them, not trying to build a grand theory of history or ideology.

    People love to pick and choose bits and pieces of Orwell’s writing in order to demonstrate how right they are in their politics. Much as I sympathise with the quote from Orwell, I can’t quite see who in the here and now it is to be applied to. (Apart from soppy Christians and the ‘spiritual but not religious’, but after all, they are of no account whatsoever.)

  2. Rosie said,

    I do think it is worth pointing out he died some 60 years ago. He was writing about his times as he saw them, not trying to build a grand theory of history or ideology.

    Yeah, which is why I find it interesting that this waffly take on religion which you get from the likes of Eagleton, Armstrong and Bunting existed in his time. I don’t get your point about a “grand theory” – he wasn’t trying to do that, and grand theories of that kind (eg Fukuyama’s, say) often fall on their faces in a decade or two. Meanwhile, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four still have something to say even though the political background they were written against has changed dramatically.

    As for the “soppy Christians” I think they are of some account. I think the mindset in the last three generations or so of soppy, “spiritual but not religious” finds it very hard to deal with ardent theocrats. People really don’t grasp that some ideologues literally and totally mean that the Qu’ran has all the answers and that apostates should be killed. I think that may account for the free pass Islamists have in the Guardian.

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