Scrooge’s Atheism & Certain Problems of Writing “Imaginative” Fiction

lyWas Scrooge an atheist?  Was Dickens?  I suspect that the small heads (evangelicals and some others) would argue that the character in the story was “at least” agnostic, pointing to old Ebenezer’s miserliness and his apparent blasphemy in turning “Merry Christmas” into “Bah! Humbug!”  They might even argue that turning Christmas into a secular holiday is Scrooge-like, a joke considering most evangelicals are totally ignorant of the fact that “His” birthday once was that of Father Mithras, the religion Constantine sold out when, in 323  c.e., he convened his council of bishops (minus those he had slaughtered for their embrace of Arianism) and declared Christianity as the Official Religion of Rome.  Gibbon showed how Christianity’s conquest of paganism played a prominent role in the decline and fall of the empire.

 

If anyone posited that Scrooge is the alter ego of the author, I would argue to the contrary, that Dickens was a devout fellow who only wished to use his protagonist as an exemplary, typical miserly blasphemer.  Besides, there is absolutely nothing about Dickens to suggest that he would have resorted to hypocrisy to tell his tale.  It would be hypocritical of an atheist (if not an agnostic) to employ supernatural means to bring about Scrooge’s transformation into the Christmas-loving benefactor of the Cratchit family for the last of his days.  Anyone who has heard The Great Randi on supernatural phenomena knows how firmly convicted atheists are to the notion that ghosts, spirit travel, and such amount to nothing so much as pure bunk.  Hokum.

 

This creates a problem for writers who would like to try imaginative fiction.  I have such inclinations rather frequently, but each time some supernatural agent suggests itself, or some story line that depends upon supernatural means (as did the “Carol”), I immediately suppress my urge.  Perhaps I am caught in the vestiges of a former lifetime (that is, the one I once lived as a believer), a period when I accepted not only ghosts but all manner of psychic phenomena.  Perhaps I feel guilty about using supernatural elements because I no longer believe in that sort of thing.  In any case, having such misgivings doesn’t help combat writer’s block.  I stop before I can start.

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Replies to This Discussion

I think the best -- definitive, really -- is the one with Alastair Sim as Scrooge, directed by Brian Desmond Hurst.
I am glad you added, "...if he said this at all," because the small minds have been claiming for years that, e.g. Darwin said religulous things when he passed on.  All the atheists, Einstein, others.  These creeps always try to rewrite history as can be seen from their claims about the founding fathers all being Christers.

I don't know if you can put a lot of stock in last words.  My dad said he was going to the bathroom.  I agree with you about these death bed confessions no one hears but a hyper religious relative. 

 

My favorite is the George C. Scott version, but I also really like the Muppet Christmas Carol.

Did you see Scott in Islands in the Stream?  It's set in Bimini. In it, playing Hemingway character Thomas Hudson, he says, "the sea is the god for those of us who have none."  That may even be what Dickens meant.
No, I haven't.  That was definitely Hemmingway's opinion.  I visited his house in Key West once.  I wonder if it is still a  sanctuary for polydactyl cats.

I think this surmise is going about the matter the wrong way. Apart from "Christmas" and the occasional "God bless us," there is pretty much no religion in "A Christmas Carol," and the Christmas portrayed in the story has no religious overtones at all. Christmas is treated as a general, all-purpose holiday more like a descendant of the pagan harvest festival than a celebration of Jesus' birth. There is partying and feasting, but no praying as far as it goes. Scrooge's "bah, humbug" is a rejection of this festival feeling, a waste of working time as far as he is concerned, and not a rejection of Christianity. If Scrooge has a religion at all, it is the true religion of today's Republicans, the religion of money. Christmas of the 1850s was a distraction from obeisance to this money god. This is the source of Dickens' true social critique, a constant critique throughout his fiction. There is no statement for or against religion in anything Scrooge does or the story portrays.

 

As for Dickens himself, most modern biographers agree that he was probably borderline agnostic, broadly Christian in the sense that this was the socially accepted religion so one had better say one is Christian. Dickens detested the grandiose organized religion of C of E and Roman Catholicism. Dickens seems to like the ideas that Jesus expresses in the gospels, but probably had doubts about Jesus' divinity. As far as anyone can tell, he ignored most of the rest of the Bible. Some have speculated that he had Unitarian leanings, which makes some sense given his themes in his fiction. One must remember, though, that Dickens saw himself as a professional, popular writer, and so often his writings include materials meant to cater to the tastes of his audience. It would hardly do for him to make any denunciations of religion when most in his audience were devout and/or socially conservative.

True, but there are so many religious undertones there as well.  The ghost of Jacob Marley wanting to save Scrooge from an afterlife of hell, the ghosts, and then the "miracle" of Scrooge's transformation.  Although explicit mention of Christianity is missing, there are certainly more subtle nods.

I don't think it was the intention of Dickens to write a religious tale (as you mentioned, he was thought to be more of a skeptic), so perhaps this was just a sign of the Victorian times (or my own history I bring to my interpretation). 

Certainly, the religious nods are there. However, they are most probably there just because Dickens' audience would expect them. If there is a ghost in the story, then there must be a reason for the ghost, and that reason is probably based in Victorian Christian ideas. Marley is really a kind of literary echo of the ghost of Hamlet's father, "doomed" to walk a certain time on the Earth and to be a messenger. I am pretty certain that Dickens did not believe in ghosts any more than most modern science-fiction writers believe in ESP. These are simply useful devices for telling stories.
As you said earlier, he was a commercial writer and certainly his audience would have believed in ghosts.  A writer doesn't have to believe in a thing to write about it.  I doubt the creators of Scooby Doo believe dogs can talk, break dance and makes sandwiches either.

I'm surprised no one has suggested that you try out science fiction, fantasy, horror, or super-heroic fiction. A more-general catch-all label that is frequently used is 'speculative fiction', which also includes alternate history, as another example.

 

There is a wealth of ground-breaking story-telling that can involve just about any 'supernatural' (not really, but seeming) device you could imagine. There's even a sub-genre of fantasy called magic-realism which is characterized by blurring the lines between what we think we know and what we imagine. Characters and events are portrayed in often poetic and magical-seeming ways, but the writer (usually) keeps everything as plausibly realistic as possible.

 

I would even put fiction such as Fight Club in a kind of speculative fiction sub-category, perhaps which could be called 'just barely plausible, but wow! there's no f'ing way! And yet...'.

 

Watch the movie Being John Malkovich, as another example.

 

Perhaps your misgivings have more to do with your approach to the audience. Perhaps you feel like you cannot 'lie' to them, and you should be as 'honest' as possible. I could understand that. But there's a thing called suspension of disbelief, and it is your friend.

 

Think about it. Unless you're writing purely historical/documentary style, your reader is aware that your story is just a fictional work of your imagination, perhaps with bits of real-life thrown in, but sculpted into the story's fictional frame-work. The readers don't mind. They just suspend their disbelief temporarily and go along for the ride. It's not lying, it's story-telling. We've been doing it for probably millions of years since we began speaking as a species. It's wired into us at the DNA level, quite literally.

 

Speculative fiction just asks the reader for a little more lee-way with their disbelief. Science fiction is one of my favourite genres, precisely because the author is able to tell a plausibly realistic story with incredible levels of speculation thrown in to make a specific point which would be impossible to make in any other genre. The key is to use the speculative elements as part of the story-telling, not just as glitz. That's why nearly all Hollywood or TV 'sci-fi' shows are utter crap, because they hardly ever care about the story-telling. (Although there are some excellent SF movies and TV shows, to be sure; they are just exceedingly rare compared to the vast amounts of crap 'sci-fi'. Books are your best bet for inspiration.)

 

Bonus: Lots of SF authors are atheists, and either include atheistic elements in their story directly, or at least allude to the lack of any supernatural agents coming to the rescue.

 

So, if you perhaps re-frame the idea as pushing the envelope of suspension of disbelief, rather than as being dishonest or 'lying' to your readers, then you might be able to feel more comfortable letting yourself go.

There are also the budgetary considerations with SciFi on TV.  The sets for many an episode of Star Trek are just awful.  But at least many episodes had a very good story to tell -- and I know that, by story, you do not mean plot.  This was certainly true of The Twilight Zone and like shows, many following the old Serling formula, especially the surprise ending.  Someone once said that the essence of modern art is irony, and these programs specialized in that element.  I know of these subgenres you mention.  Where is such fiction being published these days?

Honestly, I haven't been keeping track of that for a few years now, as I've been focused on other things. But, to give you an example, a couple of days ago, I just re-bought one of Isaac Asimov's Foundation books and started re-reading it this morning. It's such a mind-blower, and so well written! Classic fiction, by any definition, and I would challenge anyone who spurns SF to read it and disagree. It happens to be published by Bantam (division of Random House).

 

So, I don't have any specific suggestions for publishers, but you could just walk into a nearby bookstore and find out who's publishing. Or google it maybe.

 

Authors I would recommend off the top of my head: Asimov of course, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert J. Sawyer, Walter M. Miller, Jr. (A Canticle for Liebowitz), Vernor Vinge, Octavia Butler, Connie Willis, Alfred Bester, etc. Pretty much anybody who's won an award such as a Hugo or Nebula is a good bet.

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