BY MATTHEW HERBERT
By the time Orwell wrote 1984, near the end of his life, he was very much over God. He had been for a long time. He recalls in a 1947 essay, “Till the age of about fourteen I believed in God, and believed that the accounts given of him were true. But I was aware that I did not love him. On the contrary, I hated him, just as I hated Jesus and the Hebrew patriarchs.”
Young Eric Blair was rebelling against the most outrageous commandment in Christianity–to love, fear, and worship the very God who had created him sick with sin. It was a crazy-making idea. A sane, whole person cannot love his tormentor, certainly not on command, and young Blair knew it. “[A]t the middle of one’s heart,” he believed, “there seemed to stand an incorruptible inner self,” and this self had to stay sane, even if it meant living with the consciousness that he was a mere mortal animal, mastered in the end by time, fate and chance, not bound for victorious, eternal glory.
Why did Orwell, a committed liberal, do so little to promote the cause of secularism, which seeks to pierce the very first authoritarian code we are taught as children and, in a sense, fathers all the rest? Orwell writes almost nothing in his maturity about the benefits of losing one’s religion. It seems that once he had outgrown the idea of God at the age of 14, he dropped it entirely.
Well, that’s not exactly true. He did write a whole novel about theism and atheism, A Clergyman’s Daughter, but it is remarkably thin stuff, theologically speaking. It pivots on no towering clash of ideas, is harrowed by no Dostoevskyan “furnace of doubt.” It is much more English than that. After Orwell’s heroine, Dorothy, stops believing, he describes her change in meteorological terms:
There was never a moment when the power of worship returned to her. Indeed, the whole concept of worship was meaningless to her now; her faith had vanished, utterly and irrevocably. It is a mysterious thing, the loss of faith–as mysterious as faith itself. Like faith, it is ultimately not rooted in logic; it is a change in the climate of the mind.
Today we might say it was Orwell’s “lived experience” as a liberal democrat that caused his faith to vanish without fuss or ceremony. Arguments and logic played no role in his mental liberation, so he made no point of promoting them. Just give people time to outgrow the myths and superstitions of religion, and they will do so, he seemed to be thinking.
Although this passivity, I believe, characterized Orwell’s abiding attitude most of his non-believing life, I was wrong to think he let A Clergyman’s Daughter express his last word on Christian theism. The closing chapters of 1984 aim a savage blow directly at the core imperatives of Christianity. Furthermore, it is clear that the dying Orwell still hates the very things that outraged him as a school boy: the commandment to love and worship a sadist who claims the power to bend reality itself and who demands the subject, under pain of torture, connive in this self-aggrandizing fraud.
Everyone who has read 1984 recalls the broad outline of what happens to Winston Smith in the Ministry of Love. O’Brien tortures him to the point where he believes–with apparent genuineness–that 2 + 2 = 5.
But I hadn’t noticed until my latest re-reading the specificity with which Orwell attacks certain Christian principles as inherently totalitarian.
Evangelical Christians’ belief in a “young earth” created by God and fully furnished with familiar animals is well known. The most literal interpretation of this dogma is the basis of James Ussher’s famous “calculation” that the earth was created on 23rd October 4004 BCE.
Although I’ve read 1984 a dozen times or more, I’d never paused at the episode where O’Brien propounds Big Brother’s version of the same theory. Winston cannot accept O’Brien’s claim that the party has fully mastered material reality and indeed “make[s] the laws of nature.” Winston objects that the party cannot even achieve military mastery of the whole planet, which is itself “a speck of dust” in the vast darkness of the universe. How could it possibly claim to make the laws of nature?
“Nonsense,” O’Brien replies, “The earth is as old as we are, no older. How could it be older? Nothing exists except through human consciousness.”
When Winston objects that the “rocks are full of bones of extinct animals” that were alive long before humans, O’Brien rebuffs him with words that could come straight from a creationist pamphlet, “Have you seen those bones, Winston? Of course not. Nineteenth century biologists invented them.”
It is not just the substance but mainly the logic of O’Brien’s argument that indicts Christian dogma. The human mind is a blank slate, according to both Christianity and Big Brother. Agents of good and evil contend to inscribe things on the slate. Inscribe enough things, and a narrative takes shape. If one side gains the power to blot out everything written by its opponent, that side completely and utterly controls the narrative. It might as well control all of reality.
Winston knows this. In his job at the Ministry of Truth, he blots things out for a living, revising old books and newspapers to reflect the ever-changing party line. If the party expels an official, the facts of the official’s life are edited to fit his status as an enemy and traitor. All evidence that he once was good goes down the memory hole. In the torture chambers of the Ministry of Love, O’Brien explains to Winston that revising books and newspapers is just the beginning of what the party can do. Controlling history is good, yes, but controlling all of reality is the party’s real objective.
Furthermore, there is a shortcut to achieving this control. There is no need to expand the Ministry of Truth to be able to revise all the world’s texts. “We control matter,” O’Brien intones, “because we control the mind. Reality is inside the skull. You will learn by degrees, Winston. There is nothing that we could not do.”
Christianity, and indeed most religions, make the same naked invitation to power that O’Brien is making. When O’Brien says that scientists “invented” the fossil record, he opens the field for the individual to believe any alternative facts or theories whatsoever. Convince the individual that objective, mind-independent reality has no authority to rule his thought, and you become that authority. This is the power of cults, conspiracy mongers, dictators, and, yes, religions. It puts the faith-bearer at the center of a universe that makes no sense without his consent.
But how do you get a sane, reasonable person to believe the impossible–really believe? Perversely, it all comes back to the “Christian” commandment to love one’s tormentor.
In the interrogation room, Winston is belted to something like a dentist’s chair; electrodes are attached to his body, and they are used to administer whatever strength of shock O’Brien chooses. O’Brien has a pain dial.
Even though Winston knows it will draw another shock, he cannot accept O’Brien’s philosophy that there is no earth without man, no reality without minds to shape it. Addled by prolonged torture, Winston cannot articulate his objection. O’Brien fills it in for him, and goes on to explain the articles of faith under duress:
“I told you, Winston,” he said, “that metaphysics is not your strong point. The word you are trying to think of is solipsism. But you are mistaken. This is not solipsism. Collective solipsism, if you like. But that is a different thing; in fact the opposition thing. “All this is a digression,” he added in a different tone. “The real power, the power we have to fight for night and day, is not the power over things, but over men.” He paused, and for a moment assumed again his air of a schoolmaster questioning a promising pupil: “How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?”
Winston thought. “By making him suffer,” he said.
“Exactly. By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing. Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating?”
The most pitiful scene in the terrifying next-to-last chapter in 1984 is when the emaciated, pain-wracked Winston accepts the comforting embrace of O’Brien, who has turned off the pain machine. In the moment of relief, the only thing that matters to Winston is that O’Brien–his tormentor over so many days that Winston can’t count them–is the author of his release from pain. In a foretaste of 1984‘s last horrible revelation–that Winston comes to love Big Brother, not just obey him–Winston in that moment loves O’Brien.
Any creed that invites us to love the author of our misery because he ipso facto has the power to relieve our misery is totalitarian. It expresses a wish to have our emotions invigilated and commanded by someone else. It tells us we would be better off if someone more powerful than us were to take control the seat of our privacy. Put us together again in new shapes of their choosing. Not our will but theirs be done.
Of course I’m not saying that just because Christianity is a gateway to the darkest of totalitarian attitudes that the faithful must follow that path. All the Christians I know are too decent and polite to believe the worst, privacy-canceling parts of their creed. But those worst parts are still there, an open invitation to power–a hideous strength, as C.S. Lewis might put it. For my part, I still believe, as Orwell did, that at the middle of one’s heart is an incorruptible self that must expose and stand up to such outrages.
One thought on “Orwell’s Attack on Christianity in “1984””
Some of your best work! I very much enjoyed the read.