In his TED talk, “Atheism 2.0,” School of Life co-founder Alain de Botton offers us a new kind of atheism.   He dismisses religious belief (a move he finds “as easy as shooting fish in a barrel”), but argues that we should harvest the best religious practices and simply “replace scripture with culture.”  Where Christians in the black Pentecostal tradition might greet a stirring sermon with, “Thank you Jesus; Thank you Christ; Thank you Savior,” inspired atheists need not miss out.  Responding to a 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?

1. Austen’s prayers

Austen’s sister, Cassandra, preserved three prayers Jane wrote for their family devotions.[1]  They voice an earnest devotion to God.[2]  One 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 another prayer, she intercedes for those who don’t yet know Christ:

“May thy mercy be extended over all mankind, bringing the ignorant to the knowledge of thy truth, awakening the impenitent, touching the hardened.”

For herself and her family, she asks “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 nominal Christian falls at this hurdle: it was precisely what she prayed against.

Any attempt to portray Austen as a nominal Christian falls at this hurdle: it was precisely what she prayed against.

2. Austen’s life

As Irene Collins puts it, “No biographer has seen cause to question the sincerity of [Austen’s] faith, to which she constantly bore witness, and from which she drew strength during her last, distressing illness.”[3]  She went to church twice on Sundays.  On the rare week when she missed the second service, she held evening prayers at home.  After her death, one of Austen’s brothers described her as “thoroughly religious and devout” and said of Winchester cathedral, where she was buried, “the whole catalogue of its mighty dead does not contain the ashes of a brighter genius or a sincerer Christian.”[4]

Austen’s brother described her as, “thoroughly religious and devout”

3. Austen’s works

Austen was quite willing to critique hypocritical religion.  Mr Collins – her most famous clergyman, due to the unrivaled popularity of Pride and Prejudice –  oozes self-righteousness, worship of class, and false humility.  Emma’s Mr Elton turns out to be not much better.  But these negative portrayals are counterbalanced by many positive examples: indeed, the heroes of three of her novels (Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and Northanger Abbey) are all pursuing careers in the church.

Austen’s works specifically resist the idea of replacing religion with literature.  For example, Anne Elliot recommends to the grieving and poetry-obsessed Captain Benwick that he read memoirs of “characters of worth and suffering” whose lives might provide “the strongest examples of moral and religious endurances.”  Likewise, Marianne Dashwood, who had grounded her worldview on romantic fiction, repents of that mistake and expresses her desire “to have time for atonement to [her] God.”  But perhaps the most suggestive evidence from Austen’s works for her rejection of Alain De Botton’s proposal comes at the start of her last completed novel.

Austen’s works specifically resist the idea of replacing religion with literature.

Persuasion was published six months after Austen’s death.  Its opening mirrors descriptions of puritanical piety – but with a twist:

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 — this was the page at which the favourite volume always opened — “ELLIOT OF KELLYNCH HALL.”

Substitute “Bible” for “Baronetage” and Sir Walter becomes a deeply religious man, who restricts his reading to the scriptures and finds consolation and enjoyment in the Bible alone.  But instead, our heroine’s father has built his life on a book that lists the names and bios of the nobility.  And the hero of Sir Walter’s bible is not a self-sacrificing savior, but a self-worshipping fool.[5]

Austen’s answer to Atheism 2.0?

Alain De Botton invites us to replace scripture with culture: “Thank you Plato; Thank you Shakespeare; Thank you Jane Austen!”  But Austen, who set the platonic ideal for prose, rejects the substitution.  For her, culture grew out of the fertile soil of a life grounded in faith.   While her cultural context was very different from that of black Pentecostal Christians in America, she would undoubtedly affirm their response: “Thank you Jesus; Thank you Christ; Thank you Savior.”

Rebecca McLaughlin holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from Cambridge University.  She serves as Vice President of Content for The Veritas Forum.  This article is copyrighted to The Veritas Forum and may not be reposted without prior written consent from The Veritas Forum  Please contact content@veritas.org with any questions.  

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[1]  See here for her first, second and third devotional prayers.

[2] Laura Moone White observes that, “there is more direct emotion in Austen’s invocations of God than in the prayerbook, for repeatedly the prayers are punctuated with an ‘Oh God!’” Laura Moone White, Jane Austen’s Anglicanism, (Ashgate, 2011), pp. 70-71.

[3] Irene Collins, Jane Austen and the Clergy, (Bloomsbury, 2002), p. 194.

[4] See Henry Austen’s preface to Persuasion and Mansfield Park here.

[5] Religious parallels hover behind the entire opening.  Austen’s summation that, “Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character” echoes Jesus’ claim in the last chapter of the Bible “I am…the beginning and the end” (Revelation 22:13).  And Austen paints the ingrown nature of Sir Walter’s mock-faith when she observes that, “He considered the blessing of beauty as inferior only to the blessing of baronetcy; and the Sir Walter Elliot, who united these gifts, was the constant object of his warmest respect and devotion.”  For Austen, as witnessed by her prayers, blessings prompt devotion to God.  But Sir Walter’s blessings heighten his devotion to himself.