200 years after her death, how would Jane Austen respond to the new, new atheism?
In his TED talk, “Atheism 2.0,” School of Life co-founder Alain de Botton offers us a “kinder, gentler” atheism. Belief in God is clearly implausible. But we should not, he argues, lose the baby with the doctrinal bathwater. We should retain the best aspects of church, and just replace scripture with culture. De Botton gives an example. Where Christians in the black, Pentecostal tradition might respond to preaching with an enthusiastic outburst - “Thank you Jesus; Thank you Christ; Thank you Savior” - inspired atheists need not miss out. After hearing a rousing secular message, atheists could invoke their heroes: “Thank you Plato; Thank you Shakespeare; Thank you Jane Austen!”
One wonders how Shakespeare, whose work and world were so shaped by scripture, would have felt about this cooption. But when it comes to Jane Austen, there is no doubt: she would be utterly appalled.
How do we know this?
First, we have the evidence of Austen’s prayers. Her sister, Cassandra, preserved prayers Jane wrote for their night-time devotions. They voice an earnest desire for God. One devotion begins,
Give us grace, Almighty Father, so to pray, as to deserve to be heard, to address thee with our Hearts, as with our lips. Thou art every where present, from Thee no secret can be hid. May the knowledge of this, teach us to fix our Thoughts on Thee, with Reverence and Devotion.
In the climax of this prayer, Austen implores God, “quicken our sense of Thy mercy in the redemption of the world,” and may we not “by our own neglect, throw away the salvation thou hast given us, nor be Christians only in name.” Any attempt to portray Austen as a cultural church-goer or nominal Christian falls at this hurdle: it was precisely what she prayed against.
Second, we have the evidence of Austen’s life. As Irene Collins puts it, “No biographer has seen cause to question the sincerity of her faith, to which she constantly bore witness, and from which she drew strength during her last, distressing illness.” 1 After her death, one of Austen’s two clergymen brothers described her as, “thoroughly religious and devout” and on the occasions when she missed going to church for both morning and evening services on a Sunday, she conducted evening worship in her house.
But we also have the evidence of her works. To be sure, Austen was not afraid to lampoon the clergy. Mr Collins oozes the self-righteousness, worship of class, and lack of self-awareness against which Austen herself prayed (“Oh! God, and save us from deceiving ourselves by Pride or Vanity.”) But while the unrivaled popularity of Pride and Prejudice makes Mr Collins Austen’s most famous clergyman, he is one among many more positive examples. Indeed, the heroes of three of her novels, Edward Ferrars (Sense and Sensibility) and Edmund Bertram (Mansfield Park), and Henry Tilney (Northanger Abby) are pursuing careers in the church.
But perhaps the most subtle and compelling evidence lies in the opening of Austen’s last completed novel. Persuasion was published posthumously – not long after her death on July 18th , 1817. Unlike her earlier novels, whose heroines are in their late teens and early 20s, Persuasion hinges around a woman in her late 20s. Anne Elliot’s early romance lies seven years in the past, she has refused a second suitor, and her marriage prospects are much diminished. But rather than beginning with Anne, Persuasion opens with a picture of self-worship:
Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; … and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed.
The first sentence parodies descriptions of puritanical piety; Anne’s father is described like a deeply religious man, who restricts his reading to the Bible and finds consolation, occupation and enjoyment in the scriptures alone. But instead of the Bible, Sir Walter has built his life on the Baronetage – the book that listed names and bios of the upper classes. Indeed, there was one baronet in particular in whom Sir Walter Elliot was fixated: “This was the page at which the favourite volume always opened: "ELLIOT OF KELLYNCH HALL.”
The hero of Sir Walter’s bible-substitute is not Jesus, but himself. Allan De Botton invites us to replace scripture with culture: “Thank you Plato; Thank you Shakespeare; Thank you Jane Austen!” But Jane Austen, who thrills our hearts, delights our minds, and sets the platonic ideal for prose, offers us a different path. She models the fertile growth of culture out of a life grounded in scripture: “Thank you Jesus; Thank you Christ; Thank you Savior.”
1. 1 Irene Collins, Jane Austen and the Clergy, p. 194.