Jane Austen’s Answer to Atheism 2.0

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In his TED talk “Atheism 2.0,” School of Life co-founder Alain de Botton offers us a new, new atheism. Actual belief in God is clearly implausible; but we should not, he argues, lose the baby with the doctrinal bathwater. Instead, 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 such cooption. But when it comes to Jane Austen, there is no doubt: she would be utterly appalled.

Austen’s Prayers

How do we know?

First, we have the evidence of Austen’s prayers. Her sister, Cassandra, preserved prayers Jane wrote for their nighttime 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 churchgoer or nominal Christian falls at this hurdle: it was precisely what she prayed against.

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

Austen’s Life

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.”

After her death, one of Austen’s two clergymen brothers described her as “thoroughly religious and devout,” and on the occasions she missed both morning and evening services on a Sunday, she conducted evening worship in her house.

Austen’s Works

But we also have the evidence of her published works. To be sure, Austen was not afraid to lampoon the clergy. Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice 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), Edmund Bertram (Mansfield Park), and Henry Tilney (Northanger Abbey)—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—published posthumously not long after Austen’s death on July 18, 1817—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, in which he finds consolation, occupation, and enjoyment. But instead of the Bible, Sir Walter has built his life on the Baronetage—the book that listed the names and bios of the upper classes. Indeed, there was one baronet in particular on 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.

Anxiety of Self-Worship

In his TED talk on success, de Botton observes that we are “the first society to be living in a world where we don’t worship anything other than ourselves.” He notes that this creates anxiety: we cannot sustain the pressure of our self-worship. Jane Austen, one of the most successful writers of all time, routinely prayed, “Incline us, O God, to think humbly of ourselves” and routinely acknowledged, “We are helpless and dependent.”

Alain 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 a different path. She models the fertile growth of culture out of a life grounded in Scripture and gratitude: “Thank you Jesus, thank you Christ, thank you Savior.”

Editors’ note: A version of this article appeared at rebeccamclaughlin.org

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