This article first appeared in the December 1986 issue of Chronicles.
In his novel 1984, George Orwell created a world devoid of freedom and justice, truth and goodness. But there is another void in the book that critics seldom notice: the utter lack of religious faith. The absence of any vestige of religion seems to Christianity’s advantage: The Orwellian world is such a desolate, inhuman, and horrifying place because, besides the self-evident reasons given in the narrative, its inhabitants lack the consolations that faith in God can give. When I first read it, I thought: Perhaps only a believer could bear this torture, and even, with God’s help, end it.
Certainly, the reader can have no doubts about Orwell’s rejection of such a world. Yet, the world of 1984 is, in every sense, an Orwellian world. It is the unwanted child, but child nevertheless, of Orwell’s own metaphysical assumptions. What is wrong with 1984 is exactly what was wrong with its author’s thought.
On March 3, 1944, Orwell wrote that “Western civilisation, unlike Oriental civilisations, was founded partly on the belief in individual immortality. If one looks at the Christian religion from the outside, this belief appears far more important than belief in God. The Western conception of good and evil is very difficult to separate from it.” Was Orwell taking down notes for his famous novel when he immediately afterwards added, “One cannot have any worthwhile picture of the future unless one realizes how much we have lost by the decay of Christianity”? In the world of 1984, Christianity is not decaying, it is dead; and George Orwell did not desire its being otherwise. “I do not want,” he said in the same article, “the belief in life after death to return, and in any case it is not likely to return. What I do point out is that its disappearance has left a big hole, and that we ought to take notice of the fact.”
Orwell’s vision of modern man is inspired in a rather “cruel trick” that he once played on a wasp:
He [the wasp] was sucking jam on my plate, and I cut him in half. He paid no attention, merely went on with his meal, while a tiny stream of jam trickled out of his severed oesophagus. Only when he tried to fly away did he grasp the dreadful thing that had happened to him. It is the same with modern man. The thing that has been cut away is his soul, and there was a period—twenty years, perhaps—during which he did not notice it.
After such definition one would say that it was tragic for modern man to have his soul cut away, very much as it was fatal for the wasp to be cut in two. Orwell’s commentary sounds more like a strong applause after a great scene: “It was absolutely necessary that the soul should be cut away.” One may always excuse him by saying that he was not condemning religious belief in another life but religious hypocrisy in this life. Yet, he could have easily distinguished one from the other in order to give man and religion their due.
According to Orwell, religion is gone, and it is not going to return. I was not surprised to read that Orwell enjoyed Hilaire Belloc’s The Servile State, and I suspect he may have had it in mind while writing his own vision of the future. Belloc’s book, wrote Orwell, “foretold with astonishing accuracy the things that are happening right now.” The surprise came when he added: “Unfortunately he had no remedy to offer.” Now, every reader of that book knows that Belloc did offer a remedy. It was, at least in part, a return to the full living of the Christian faith that had shaped Europe and Western civilization. For Orwell, religion, and especially the Catholic faith, is no remedy at all. It is something lost; or even better, something that had to be removed from modern times as a tumor is removed from the body. “The Kingdom of God, old style, has definitely failed; but on the other hand, ‘Marxist realism’ has also failed, whatever it may achieve materially.”
Orwell, as so many others before him, was wrong about the future of religion, the Judeo-Christian tradition, and the Catholic church. In only 20 years we, and Harvey Cox, too, have gone from “The Secular City” to “Sorry, I Should Have Said: Religion in the Secular City.”
Evelyn Waugh was one of the first readers to realize what was wrong with Orwell’s novel and, after finishing this depressing book, thought that his friend deserved a sermon:
The book failed to make my flesh creep as presumably you intended. For one thing I think your metaphysics are wrong. You deny the soul’s existence (at least Winston does) and can only contrast matter with reason and will. It is now apparent that matter can control reason and will under certain conditions. So you are left with nothing but matter. . . . I think it possible that in 1984 we shall be living in conditions rather like those you show. But what makes your version spurious to me is the disappearance of the Church. I wrote of you once that you seemed unaware of its existence now when it is everywhere manifest. Disregard all the supernatural implications if you like, but you must admit its unique character as a social & historical institution. I believe it is inextinguishable, though of course it can be extinguished in a certain place for a certain time. Even that is rarer than you might think.
“One cannot be really a Catholic & grown-up,” wrote Orwell among his notes for an essay that he was preparing on, precisely, Evelyn Waugh. These few words were his commentary on Lord Marchmain’s religious conversion at the end of Brideshead Revisited.
Bias blinded Orwell to any possibility of the Church’s survival. The revival of religion, at the very least as a powerful factor in the cause of freedom and human dignity, would have left him stunned: Poland, the Philippines, Central America. . . . Had Orwell lived another 30 years, would he have written Homage to Poland? In that country, he would have seen a people whose heroic struggle for freedom and justice is largely sustained by the Creed of the Catholic Church. Perhaps Orwell would have had to remember what Evelyn Waugh said in his letter: “Men who love a crucified God need never think of torture as all-powerful.”
In 1932, reviewing Karl Adam’s classic The Spirit of Catholicism, Orwell noticed that “very few people, apart from Catholics themselves, seem to have grasped that the Church is to be taken seriously.” Well, he did not take it very seriously, and as many others before and after him, Orwell buried the Church and the faith all too hastily. He failed to understand the most obvious lesson of its amazing history: that the Catholic Church seems to leave the cemetery just when its undertakers engrave its name on the tombstone.
It is true that there is no belief in the immortality of the soul, no supernatural faith, and no Church in the Orwellian world. But profound and universal religious belief continues to exist in the real world, in what is called a secularized world and that resembles more than we are willing to admit the features of Orwell’s nightmare. It has not ceased to exist even in those totalitarian regimes where long ago its extermination was decreed. It may be buried, but it is not dead. It may be underground, but for all we know, enriching the soil for a new resurrection.