The idea of God is really moral in its influence — it really cherishes all that is best and loveliest in man — only when God is contemplated as sympathizing with the pure elements of human feeling, as possessing infinitely all those attributes which we recognize to be moral in humanity. (Marian Evans, “Evangelical Teaching: Dr. Cumming,” 1856)
Probably the most famous comment about George Eliot and religion was made by her contemporary W. H. Mallock, who called her “the first great godless writer of fiction.” While it’s true that Eliot did not believe in a supernatural deity and for most of her life was also not a practising Christian, her views on religion were more complex and nuanced than this blunt statement suggests.
In her youth, Eliot was a devout Christian. Her views changed, however, partly due to the influence of friends she made in the 1840s who were “freethinkers” and proponents of the German “Higher Criticism” — a historical and anthropological approach to Biblical texts and history exemplified by works such as David Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu (The Life of Jesus, which Eliot translated into English). Her thinking was also affected by her readings in science and history. The result was what came to be known as her “Holy War”: in 1842, she refused to attend church with her family, a stunning rebellion against the social norms and expectations of the time. Though this “war” ended in compromise, Eliot’s break from Christianity as a system of belief was permanent and would eventually preclude her from burial in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey, though there is now a plaque there in her honor. (Her grave is in Highgate Cemetery.)
A key text of the Higher Criticism was Ludwig Feuerbach’s Das Wesen das Christenthums, or The Essence of Christianity (Eliot’s translation, first published in 1854, is the only of her books to bear the name “Marian Evans” on the title page). Feuerbach’s fundamental insight, one that resonates through all of Eliot’s fiction, is that religion must be understood as a human, rather than divine, phenomenon — as natural, rather than supernatural. Thus “God” is not an omniscient being but a projection of idealized human qualities, and good and evil in the world are the results of human actions and choices. The moral implications are significant: absent an omnipotent deity, we alone bear all moral responsibility, an idea brought home in all of her novels.
Despite Eliot’s disavowal of religious belief, her novels are rarely hostile to the church itself: she saw it as an institution of great historical, social, and moral significance, one that had often effectively channeled the human impulse to do good. Indeed, her first published fiction was called Scenes of Clerical Life, and far from coming across as a “godless writer,” the anonymous author was believed by many to be a clergyman. But the most important work her priests do has little specific connection to their doctrinal beliefs and everything to do with their common humanity and genuine charity. Mr. Farebrother in Middlemarch is a particularly good example; Dr. Kenn in The Mill on the Floss is another. Professions of faith, on the other hand, are no guarantee of benevolence and may indeed become a cover story for self-interest or neglect of people’s immediate needs. For all his public piety, how good a man (or a Christian) is Mr. Bulstrode? And even when its results are beneficial, religion can be a moral impediment by diverting attention away from the real source of aid and comfort: in Feuerbach’s words, “He is thankful, grateful to God, but unthankful to man. Thus is the moral sentiment subverted in religion!”