A Word from George Eliot

A bit of old business I’ve been meaning to get to for several days. This question of religion and the focus of its public rhetoric and exhortation on a narrow view of sexual morality with a comparable neglect of social justice – of, if you prefer, poverty, oppression, exploitation, bad working conditions, injustice, and the like. One of our readers took issue with that view of the matter, and I thought I would offer one or two more places where I’d seen the idea discussed.

One is this piece by Ishtiaq Ahmed in the ‘Daily Times’ of Pakistan.

The Islamic position on life on earth was that Muslims should enjoy the good things of life within limits prescribed by Sharia…What is worrisome about such calculations is that promises of reward in the hereafter can be used to stifle protest and demands for justice on earth. This suspicion is confirmed when we remember that the Islamists almost never champion the rights of the exploited and dispossessed and spend most of their time giving vent to anger against the imagined liberation of women…Such fixation with moral chastity has meant that sprawling multitudes of hungry and neglected people, almost always the vast majority of them being Muslims, can be found all over the Muslim world. You will seldom find any Islamist devoting his sermon to the alleviation of their privations. Some change in such orientation took place between the mid 1950s and early 1970s when ideas of Islamic social justice found reception in parts of the Muslim world, but such movements were superseded by Islamism after the Iranian Revolution. No wonder economic development has been slowed down in the Muslim world ever since Islamism began to influence the political agendas of Muslim societies.

Whether he’s right or not, the point is, it’s not only irritable Western atheists who think such things. And he says Hindus have the same problem:

As regards Hindu culture, while the upper castes were allowed to own property the Dalits were denied it and told instead to fulfil their duty (dharma) of serving their superiors quietly and passively so that in their next birth perhaps their karma (fate) will be a better one…Later, the Brahmo Samaj and Arya Samaj movements tried to bring about social reform. The Nehruvian state tried to change attitudes in a progressive manner. However, the rise of Hindutva changed the agenda once again: it accepted neo-liberal ideas in the economic sphere but in the social and cultural spheres conservative values were strengthened.

Martha Nussbaum has an interesting quotation in chapter 1 of Sex and Social Justice, ‘Women and Cultural Universals’ (page 30):

Or, as a young Bangladeshi wife said when local religious leaders threatened to break the legs of women who went to literacy classes conducted by a local NGO, ‘We do not listen to the mullahs any more. They did not give us even a quarter kilo of rice.’

Short and to the point. Not so much of the threatening and preventing education, thanks, especially if you can’t and won’t even help us not starve to death. Or to put it another way, what is it about the mullahs that makes them prefer to threaten women and stop them becoming literate rather than give them food? And whatever it is, why on earth would anyone want to be bossed around by it? Or consider it somehow a good (‘spiritual,’ pious, etc) thing? Since what it looks like is just sheer bastard-like cruelty, bullying, and exploitation; treating people like so many brooms and cooking pots, as insensate things to be used.

So the problem seems to be one that fundamentalist Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism have in common at the moment: that they’re way too concerned with crushing people (especially women and Dalits) and way too little concerned with consoling or comforting or helping them.

Now, for your amusement, consider this passage from George Eliot’s brilliant essay from the Westminster Review in 1855, ‘Evangelical Teaching: Dr Cumming’:

Of Dr Cumming personally we know absolutely nothing: our acquaintance with him is confined to a perusal of his works, our judgment of him is founded solely on the manner in which he has written himself down on his pages…For aught we know, he many not only have the gift of prophecy, but may bestow the profits of all his works to feed the poor, and be ready to give his own body to be burned with as much alacrity as he infers the everlasting burning of Roman-catholics and Puseyites. Out of the pulpit he may be a model of justice, truthfulness, and the love that thinketh no evil; but we are obliged to judge of his charity by the spirit we find in his sermons, and shall only be glad to learn that his practice is, in many respects, an amiable non sequitur from his teaching.

There. She was one hell of a phrase-maker, Maryann Evans was. If you haven’t read that essay, I do recommend it. And she’s talking about the same phenomenon I was the other day – and the one Mary McCarthy was talking about when she said that religion is good only for good people; it makes bad people even worse.

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