George Bernard Shaw: Mystic or Atheist?
by Gary Sloan (e-mail: [December 24th, 2004]


Shaw (1856-1950) was one of the world’s most celebrated playwrights.  Via such plays as Man and Superman, Major Barbara, Caesar and Cleopatra, Arms and the Man, Saint Joan, Mrs. Warren’s Profession, Heartbreak House, Candida, The Doctor’s Dilemma, The Devil’s Disciple, Back to Methuselah, and Pygmalion (an adaptation of which became the movie My Fair Lady), the expatriate Irishman forged a grand repertoire in English second only to Shakespeare’s.  Awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1923, long after his days as a struggling artist, Shaw refused the £7000 prize, commenting that “the money is a lifebelt thrown to a swimmer who has already reached the shore in safety.”  At his behest, the money was given to the Anglo-Swedish Literary Alliance. 


“While Jesus fared better than Yahweh, Shaw impugned the doctrines of atonement and universal love. Atonement he deemed a demoralizing and unchristian doctrine...”

In his waning years, he became an international icon.  In George Bernard Shaw: His Life and Personality, Hesketh Pearson describes the adulation:  “Whatever he said or did was treated with respect, tinged with awe. When he clowned people laughed dutifully, when he cut a caper they applauded reverentially.  Every word he uttered was cabled across several continents.  Every nonsensical joke he made was gratefully accepted as the garnered wisdom of a profound thinker.”  Though Shaw was susceptible to bouts of megalomania, he was capable of viewing his apotheosis with amused detachment.  “I am the most extraordinary man in London,” he informed writer Ernest Rhys, “and you are quite welcome to give this fact on my authority.”   


Shaw was an indefatigable crusader for social amelioration.  At a time when the English stage trafficked in romantic fripperies, he awakened complacent audiences to a host of social ills abetted by conventional morality, bourgeois respectability, and ossified institutions.  “I was a social reformer and doctrinaire first, last, and all the time,” he wrote.  “I saw a way through the Valley of the Shadow and believed that when men understood their predicament they could and would escape from it.”  Enlivening didacticism with mordant wit, he dissected slum landlordism, prostitution, marriage, free love, politics, militarism, nationalism, jingoism, capitalism, evangelism, and other isms steeped in hypocrisy, cant, and deceit.


            He was a lifelong socialist, vegetarian, and pacifist.  His first public speech, made in 1885 before the Industrial Remuneration Conference in London, scorched capitalism.  The speech opened:  “I hope any shareholders and landlords who may be present will accept my assurance that I have no more desire to hurt their feelings than to give pain to burglars.  I merely wish to point out that all three inflict on the community an injury of precisely the same nature.”  As a leading pundit for the Fabian Society, Shaw was instrumental in the formation of the Labor Party, which assimilated the genteel form of Marxism espoused by Fabians. 


His vegetarianism was actuated by an egalitarian view of species and concern for humanity.  He envisioned a cortege of animals paying him posthumous homage:  “My will contains directions for my funeral, which will be followed not by mourning coaches, but by herds of oxen, sheep, swine, flocks of poultry, and a small traveling aquarium of live fish, all wearing white scarves in honor of the man who perished rather than eat his fellow-creatures.  It will be, with the exception of the procession into Noah’s Ark, the most remarkable thing of the kind ever seen.”  A carnivorous lifestyle, he believed, coarsened sensibilities, squandered natural resources, and debased workers in the meat industry 


            Shaw was reviled for his intransigent pacifism.  During the First World War, his Common Sense About the War earned him the epithet Most Hated Man in England.   Having averred that the British were as crass and pugnacious as the Germans, he was ostracized throughout the land, even by erstwhile friends.  On the eve of World War II, in a talk broadcast by the B.B.C., the octogenarian defended pacifism by citing the Gospels:  “The pacifist movement against war takes as its charter the ancient document called ‘The Sermon on the Mount.’  The sermon is a very moving exhortation, and it gives you one first-rate tip, which is to do good to those who despitefully use you and persecute you.  I, who am a much hated man, have been doing that all my life, and I can assure you that there is no better fun; whereas revenge and resentment make life miserable and the avenger hateful.  The lesson we have to learn is that our dislike for a certain person, or even for the whole human race, does not give us any right to injure our fellow-creatures, however odious they may be.”


            Until he was thirty or so, Shaw called himself an atheist.  He became one, he later quipped, before he could think.  He adjudged the doctrines of the Church of Ireland, which he attended as a child, unintelligible or absurd.  Since the first of its Thirty-nine Articles describes God as “without body, parts, or passions,” he waggishly theorized that the church was atheistic.  An incomprehensible god, he opined, was tantamount to no god.  In 1875, he blazoned his atheism abroad.  In a letter to Public Opinion, a Dublin newspaper, he “announced with inflexible materialistic logic, and to the extreme horror of my respectable connections, that I was an atheist.”  In Immaturity, the first of five novels he wrote in his twenties, the young protagonist, obviously Shaw’s alter ego, walks pensively in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey:  “His hushed step, impressive bearing, and reflective calm, marked him as a confirmed freethinker.”


            At a bachelor party, when someone alleged that a local infidel had been slain by a wrathful god, Shaw proposed to demonstrate “the absurdity of the belief in violent interferences with the order of nature by a short-tempered and thin-skinned supernatural deity.”  Pulling out his watch, he announced he would dare the Almighty to strike him dead within five minutes.  “The effect,” he later recounted, “was electrical.  Neither skeptics nor devotees were prepared to abide the result of the experiment.  In vain did I urge the pious to trust in the accuracy of their deity’s aim with a thunderbolt, and the justice of his discrimination between the innocent and the guilty.  In vain did I appeal to the sceptics to accept the logical outcome of their scepticism.  It soon appeared that when thunderbolts were in question there were no sceptics.”  The host, fearing the impious challenge would precipitate a stampede of guests, forbade the experiment.


            To save Shaw from hell-fire, a friend prevailed on a Roman Catholic priest to catechize the upstart atheist.  Having repaired with his catechumen to a church cell, the priest began: 


“The universe exists; somebody must have made it.” 


“If that somebody exists,” interposed Shaw, “somebody must have made him.”

                 “I grant that for the sake of argument,” said the priest.  “I grant you a maker of God.  I grant you a maker of the maker of God.  I grant you as long a line of makers as you please; but an infinity of makers is unthinkable and extravagant; it is no harder to believe in number one than in number fifty thousand or fifty million; so why not accept number one and stop there, since no attempt to get behind him will remove your logical difficulty?”


                 “By your leave,” Shaw replied, “it is as easy for me to believe that the universe made itself as that the maker of the universe made himself, in fact much easier; for the universe visibly exists and makes itself as it goes along, whereas a maker for it is a hypothesis.”


            Fifty years later, Shaw stuck to his guns.  He told an interviewer for a church magazine:  “A First Cause is a contradiction in terms, because in causation every cause must have a cause; and therefore there can no more be a First Cause than a first inch in a circle.  If you once admit a cause that is uncaused, you give up causation altogether.  And if you do that, you may as well say that everything makes itself.  I daresay every black beetle thinks it must have a complete explanation of the world as one of the indispensable qualifications of a respectable cockroach.”


Congenitally deprived, he liked to say, of the phrenologist’s “bump of veneration,” Shaw scoffed at superstition, churches, ecclesiastics, rituals, ceremonies, and creeds.  In The Adventures of the Black Girl in Search for God, a sardonic tale published in 1933, he derided the myopic sectarianism that strews dissension among Christians.  In an African forest, the girl meets a stooped and disheveled fisherman (St. Peter) bearing on his shoulders a huge paper cathedral.  As he is leaving, several more bedraggled wayfarers appear, each carrying a smaller paper church.  They implore the girl:  “Do not believe the fisherman.  Do not listen to those other fellows.  Mine is the true church.”  As the girl hastens away, the sojourners throw stones at one another.   


Shaw favored parliamentary legislation to abrogate the Church of England.  In “The Church Versus Religion,” he depicted the average rector as a bigoted toady of secular power and privilege:   “He claims and exercises all the liberties of a country gentleman, and wallows openly in class prejudices.  Often he snubs the poor and sides with the squire against them; he sees to it that servility and imperialist militarism are inculcated in the Church schools; he pitches the emblems of Christian peace into the cellar and waves the Union Jack the moment there is any question of war; he supports the way of the police as God’s appointed way of dealing with crime.”


Shaw depicted the god of Abraham and Moses as a boastful, imperious, and sanguinary fiend.  When the black girl finds him, he commands:  “Kneel down and worship me this very instant, or dread my wrath.  I am the Lord of Hosts: I made the heavens and the earth and all that is in them.  I made the poison of the snake and the milk in your mother’s breast.  In my hand are death and all the diseases, the thunder and the lightning, the storm and the pestilence.  On your knees, girl; and when you next come before me, bring me your favorite child and slay it here before me as a sacrifice; for I love the smell of newly spilled blood.”


While Jesus fared better than Yahweh, Shaw impugned the doctrines of atonement and universal love.  Atonement he deemed “a demoralizing and unchristian doctrine, a means by which we cheat our consciences, evade our moral responsibilities, and turn our shame into self-congratulations by loading all our infamies on to the scourged shoulders of Christ.”  Vicarious remissions of guilt were inherently ignoble and unjust. 


Notwithstanding his paean to “The Sermon on the Mount,” Shaw considered it psychologically impossible to obey “the commandment to love one another.”  Humans weren’t lovable animals:  “If you tell me to be perfect as my Father in Heaven is perfect, I can only say that I wish I could.  That is more politic than telling you to go to the zoo and advise the monkeys to become men and the cockatoos to become birds of paradise.”


 Even when he no longer thought of himself as an atheist, Shaw lauded atheists for clearing minds of theological rubbish:  “The real religion of today was made possible only by the materialistic-physicists and atheistic critics who performed the indispensable preliminary operation of purging us thoroughly of the ignorant and vicious superstitions which were thrust down our throats as religion in our helpless childhood.”  Against an atheism born of despair and anger, Shaw counterposed “the youthful atheism with which every able modern mind begins, an atheism that clears the soul of superstitions and terrors and servilities and base compliances and hypocrisies, and lets in the light of heaven.” 


 In the 1890s, Shaw renounced atheism and repackaged himself as a mystic.  He also tinkered with his past.  Now, his atheism had not really been atheism.  He had called himself an atheist only “because belief in God meant belief in the old tribal idol called Jehovah; and I would not pretend I did not know whether it existed or not.”  While atheists still cleaned the Augean stables of superstition, they were now deemed “superficial and light-minded.”  They overrated reason:  “I exhausted rationalism at the age of twenty-four,” Shaw told his friend Dame Laurentia McLachlan, an abbess, “and should have come to a dead stop if I had not proceeded to purely mystical assumptions.”  The roots of his mysticism stretched deeper and deeper:  “I am, and I always have been, a mystic,” he informed an audience in 1911.  As an Irish Protestant, he was born to the manner:  “The true Protestant is a mystic, not an Institutionalist.”


Shaw’s renunciation of atheism was accompanied by sallies against scientific materialism.  By undermining teleological conceptions of the cosmos, science eviscerated joy and hope:  “If there is no purpose or design in the universe,” Shaw told an audience, “the sooner we all cut our throats the better, for it is not much of a place to live in.”  At a toast to Einstein in 1930, Shaw polarized science and religion:  “Religion gives us certainty, stability, peace.  It gives us absolutes which we long for.  Science is always wrong and never solves a problem without raising ten more problems.”  


 Shaw skewered Darwinism  “When its whole significance dawns on you,” he wrote in the Preface to Back to Methuselah, “you heart sinks into a heap of sand within you.  There is a hideous fatalism about it, a ghastly and damnable reduction of beauty and intelligence, of strength and purpose, of honour and aspiration, to such casually picturesque changes as an avalanche may make in a mountain landscape, or a railway accident in a human figure.”  Darwinism sabotaged morality.  It “proclaimed that our true relation is that of competitors and combatants in a struggle for mere survival, and that every act of pity or loyalty is a vain and mischievous attempt to lessen the severity of the struggle and preserve inferior varieties from the efforts of nature to weed them out.”  Apparently, it never occurred to Shaw that natural selection might favor altruism and cooperation.  


Victorians, Shaw contended, initially embraced Darwinism because it resolved the metaphysical problem of evil.  In an undesigned world, plague, pestilence, famine, diphtheria, cancer, tuberculosis, and other natural ills no longer had to be reconciled with the sovereignty of an omnipotent and benevolent deity.  People could say:  “All this wonderful adaptation of means to end, all this design which seems to imply a designer is an illusion; it may have all come about by the operation of what we call blind chance.”  Good riddance to “a spiteful, narrow, wicked, personal God, who was always interfering and doing stupid and cruel things.”  Later, after the flush of relief had subsided, the world “felt the void.”


To fill the void, real or imagined, Shaw began to spread “the Gospel of Shawianity.”  He evangelized for an idiosyncratic version of Henri Bergson’s creative evolution, stripped of the Frenchman’s ruminations on space, time, duration, memory, and mind.  Shaw’s gospel also has affinities with evolutionary notions propounded by Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck, Alfred Russel Wallace, Petr Kropotkin, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.  From the first decade of the 20th century to the end of his life, in speeches, essays, stories, letters, and plays, Shaw expatiated on the life force—a mysterious power, immanent in living matter, that supposedly drove evolution.  Shaw reified the power as an inchoate deity struggling to actualize itself in organisms.  Every species had been an instrument of its effort to acquire power, knowledge and understanding.  Through trial and error, at a laggard pace, it inched its way upward:  “Conceive of the force behind the universe,” Shaw said in “The New Theology,” a 1907 speech, “as a bodiless, impotent force, having no executive power of its own, wanting instruments, something to carry out its will in the world, making all manner of experiments, creating reptiles, birds, animals, trying one thing after another, rising higher and higher in the scale of organism, and finally producing man, now and then inspiring that man, putting his will into him, getting him to carry out his purpose.”


The life force exhorted humans to seek signs of cosmic intent:  “Remember, you are not here merely to look after yourself.  I have made your hand to do my work; I have made your brain, and I want you to work with that and try to find out the purpose of the universe.”  The life force esteemed self-sacrifice.  In The Shewing-Up of Blanco Posnet, a play, the life force infiltrates the conscience of a disreputable horse thief who risks his life to save a child.  Afterwards, the homespun thief edifies his cohorts:  “You bet the Lord [aka the life force] didn’t make us for nothing; and He wouldn’t have made us at all if He could have done His work without us.  By gum, that must be what we’re for!  He’d never have made us to be rotten drunken blackguards like me.   He made me because he had a job to do.  He let me run loose till the job was ready; and then I had to come along and do it.   And I tell you it didn’t feel rotten; it felt bully, just bully.”


Like Darwinism, creative evolution demystified evil.  It was an inevitable byproduct of the life force’s quest for self-realization:  “Many of the earlier efforts of this force—for example, the tiger—remain, and the incompatibility between them and man exists in the human being himself as the result of early experiments, so that there are certain organs in the body which are perishing away, and are of no use and actually interfere with our later organs.  And here you have the explanation of that great riddle which used to puzzle people—evil and pain.  A number of things which are at present killing and maiming us in our own organism have got to be evolved out of us and the process is painful.”


In Shawianity, God was a work in progress, not a fait accompli.  In a 1909 letter to Leo Tolstoy, Shaw explained:   “To me God does not yet exist; but there is a creative force struggling to evolve an executive organ of godlike knowledge and power; that is, to achieve omnipotence and omniscience; and every man and woman born is a fresh attempt to achieve this object.  We are here to help God, to do his work, to remedy his whole errors, to strive towards Godhead ourselves. ”  In its odyssey to achieve fruition, the life force would create ever-higher forms of humanity--supermen, super-supermen, supermen to the third power:  “When one instrument is worn out, I will make another, and another, and another, always more and more intelligent and effective.” 


Shaw fused the life force with the instrument.  In “The New Theology,” he prepped his audience:   “When you are asked, ‘Where is God?  Who is God?’ stand up and say, ‘I am God and here is God, not as yet completed, but sill advancing towards completion, just in so much as I am working for the purpose of the universe, working for the good of the whole society and the whole world, instead of merely looking after my personal ends.’”  God “would provide himself with a perfectly fashioned and trustworthy instrument.  And such an instrument would be nothing less than God himself.”


The concept of a life force, vital force, élan vital, res naturae (Shaw considered the terms interchangeable) scarcely needs a critique.  That ghostly impresario was exorcised long ago from mainstream biology.  In the 1930s, the Encyclopedia Britannica set forth the standard model of life:  “A living organism, from the point of view of the scientific observer, is a self-regulating, self-repeating, self-repairing, physico-chemical complex mechanism.  What we call ‘life’ is the sum of its physico-chemical processes, forming a continuous interdependent series without break, and without the interference of any mysterious extraneous force.”  Today, the mind itself is being elucidated in the language of nerve cells, neurotransmitters, hormone surges, and repetitive neural networks.  Despite the protests of die-hard vitalists, the life force remains a superfluous will-o’-the wisp.                       


According to Hesketh Pearson, “Shaw’s most sympathetic friends agreed that he had a hopelessly unscientific mind, and to discuss biology with him was impossible and ridiculous.”  Shaw adduced no evidence in favor of the life force, other than an extraneous insistence that Darwinism was incompatible with hope, aspiration, and altruism.  He merely postulated the existence of the force and described its modus operandi.  When Shaw invoked the life force to explain the course of evolution up to the present, he violated Occam’s Razor, the principle of parsimony in hypotheses, since what the life force purports to illuminate can be illuminated without it.  When Shaw described the future course of evolution, he ratcheted up his propensity for wild surmise.  


Shaw’s motive for believing in the life force was more emotional than intellectual.  The conviction that virtue and wisdom will ultimately vanquish wickedness and ignorance justified his humanitarian zeal, bulwarked his native optimism, and quieted his inner demons.  Shaw, someone said, was a mixture of Mephistopheles and Jesus Christ.  Though he ridiculed churches, clerics, orthodoxy, and anthropomorphic gods, he retained the moral fervor of his Protestant heritage.  When hawking the life force and socialism, he was a holy prophet pitching the Kingdom of Heaven.


Ironically, despite his repudiation of atheism, Shaw may have died an unwitting atheist.  Though he called himself a mystic, his credentials were suspect.  He had had no mystical visitation, he didn’t believe that the ultimate reality is ineffable, that the material world is illusory, or that all is well despite appearances to the contrary.  He didn’t deny the reality of space and time, nor did he think a beneficent spirit suffuses every nook and cranny of the universe.  He didn’t believe in the god of the Bible or the god of the philosophers.  He altogether rejected the concept of a transcendent creator, “a somebody behind the something.” 


In truth, Shaw didn’t believe in an existing God at all.  What he believed was that evolution, eons hence, will produce a godlike race in which the life force will consummate its quest for godhead.  If, as theologians and philosophers have traditionally maintained, current existence is a necessary attribute of god, Shaw qualifies as an atheist, albeit an involuntary one.


Resources and Avenues for Further Study

·  Google: George Bernard Shaw

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