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George Eliot

January 11, 2011

First lecture of the new term last night, and the main thing to come out of it… Add George Eliot to your reading list.

George Eliot (or Mary Ann Evans as she was actually called) was touted last night as one of the “mothers” of “modern atheism”. I see her more as a mother of modern humanism. She lost her faith in her early 20s, and from then on advocated what most people would recognise as humanism, albeit with a large dose of religious language and practise.

For Eliot, the good life is lived by doing good for others, trying to further good for humanity as a whole. She saw the religion that was prevalent in England at the time she was writing as an effective vehicle for this good work. So whilst she didn’t agree with the idea that the religions held any metaphysical truth, she did see the moral character of religion as vital for her goals to be achieved. But, it is important to note that she didn’t think that religions shaped morality – quite the opposite. Religions are shaped by the morality that society, and humanity as a whole, creates for itself. This is why religion is such an effective vehicle for the furthering of Eliot’s humanistic vision.

…the idea of God, so far as it has been a high spiritual influence, is the idea of a goodness entirely human.

Eliot has some beautiful turns of phrase to describe the humanist vision, and it’s well worth reading her stuff. I don’t necessarily agree with her place for religion – it’s fine if we only care about moral actions, but what if we care about epistemic responsibility? But Eliot would be at home in the modern humanist movement, and part of an argument that is still going on.

So, Eliot is added the the pile of books to read. Not a bad addition though.

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