Charlotte Brontë on Faith and Atheism
By Maria Popova
“People wish to be settled,” Emerson wrote in his spectacular 1841 essay on character and the key to personal growth, “[but] only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” Exactly a decade later, Charlotte Brontë (April 21, 1816–March 31, 1855) — a mind at least as brilliant as Emerson’s and a spirit at least as expansive — tussled with this vital and vitalizing interplay of hope and unsettlement as she faced one of the most momentous frontiers of the human experience.
In an 1851 letter to her friend James Taylor, found in Elizabeth Gaskell’s altogether indispensable 1857 biography The Life of Charlotte Brontë (public library), 35-year-old Brontë urges Taylor to read a book that had just unsettled her worldview in a most profound way — Letters on the Nature and Development of Man, a collection of correspondence between English social theorist Harriet Martineau and American missionary George Henry Atkinson.
After enthusing about the book’s impact, Brontë writes to Taylor:
Of the impression this book has made on me, I will not now say much. It is the first exposition of avowed atheism and materialism I have ever read; the first unequivocal declaration of disbelief in the existence of a God or a future life I have ever seen. In judging of such exposition and declaration, one would wish entirely to put aside the sort of instinctive horror they awaken, and to consider them in an impartial spirit and collected mood. This I find difficult to do. The strangest thing is, that we are called on to rejoice over this hopeless blank — to receive this bitter bereavement as great gain — to welcome this unutterable desolation as a state of pleasant freedom. Who could do this if he would? Who would do this if he could?
Brontë was perhaps more sensitive than most to the anguish of this “hopeless blank” — nine years earlier, she had experienced one of its sharpest and most personal permutations in the heartbreak of unrequited love, the ultimate devastation of hope for communion met with blankness. (One wonders where Taylor stood on this most intimate continuum of hope and hopelessness — he had proposed marriage to Brontë three times, to no avail. Indeed, the beloved author received a fair share of marriage proposals, which she declined with great psychological mastery.)
And so, with sturdy self-awareness and crystalline coolness, Brontë goes on to articulate the reason so many people believe — choose to believe — in the truth of “God” even when it clashes with the facts of reason and reality:
Sincerely, for my own part, do I wish to know and find the Truth; but if this be Truth, well may she guard herself with mysteries, and cover herself with a veil. If this be Truth, man or woman who beholds her can but curse the day he or she was born.
But Brontë, a woman of intense intellect, decides not to dwell on the unsettling notion of this “hopeless blank” and instead approaches the issue like a scientist — by seeking out alternative hypotheses and subjecting her theories to an objective peer review:
I wish to hear what some other person thinks, — someone whose feelings are unapt to bias his judgment. Read the book, then, in an unprejudiced spirit, and candidly say what you think of it. I mean, of course, if you have time — not otherwise.
Taylor did find the time to read the book and seems to have vehemently dismissed its premise, for Brontë wrote to him in another letter five weeks later:
I do most entirely agree with you in what you say about [the] book. I deeply regret its publication for the lady’s sake; it gives a death-blow to her future usefulness. Who can trust the word, or rely on the judgment, of an avowed atheist?
Brontë’s response, of course, is to a rather crude conception of atheism equating the absence of belief with the very sense of “unutterable desolation” she so feared. But if, as Richard Dawkins reasoned in coining the word “meme,” our ideas evolve much like our genetic material does, then Brontë’s primitive interpretation of faith and materialism is a necessary step in the evolution of our more nuanced contemporary ideas. Having come of age in a deeply religious era as the daughter of a clergyman, she belongs to that pivotal species of ideological amphibians who first emerged from the oceans of religion to step tentatively onto the solid land of reason and secular thought — even if by merely questioning dogmas that had been accepted for eons and being unsettled by alternative views of reality.
It is in no small part thanks to such unsettled ponderings, however primitive, that a century and a half later we can afford to speak of spirituality without religion and watch our scientists turn to Dante for answers and heed Carl Sagan as he whispers posthumously: “If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed.”
Published May 14, 2015