‘1984,’ Orwell and religion

I haven’t read George Orwell’s “1984” since high school, but I decided this week would be a good time to re-read it. One gets dozens of new insights re-reading this classic, but one thing that interested me, post-conversion, is Orwell’s relationship with God. Like many atheists or humanists, such as Carl Sagan in the book “Contact,” Orwell unwittingly makes the case for why God exists and why He is necessary.

Let me be clear here: I don’t think there is any reason to believe Orwell was religious or believed in God. He makes fun of Judeo-Christian belief in “Animal Farm” and he is famously quoted as saying that a “totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy.” He is a hero for many atheists and in “1984” he says “God is Power.” What the Big Brother totalitarian state wants in “1984” is to achieve complete and absolute power over everything its Party members feel and think, not just what they do. You can almost imagine Orwell thinking about the “Sermon on the Mount” when writing (although he clearly misunderstands the message of free will inherent in the “Sermon on the Mount,” but smart people have been misunderstanding Jesus’ messages for centuries).

But there are some fascinating exchanges near the end of the book, when Winston is being interrogated by O’Brien, that indicate to me that Orwell left a huge whole in his world and moral view, and readers can fill that whole with God. In fact, many readers may have had the same reaction I had, which was, “the only way Winston can be saved is through believing in God and his absolute morality.”

The totalitarian Big Brother state is, in fact, the kind of government that Satan wanted to achieve. It is a state where people are not allowed to have negative thoughts about the Party and are forced to love Big Brother (which Winston finally does at the very end of the book) through submission to pain and suffering. Orwell sees a Pavlovian response where people are forced through torture to associate any negative thought about the regime with suffering, and therefore they self-censor themselves and become slavish drones. This seems to me a perfect description of how Satan planned on setting up society in the pre-mortal existence. Satan’s secret plan, it seems to me, was to set himself up as the only object of love (HE is Big Brother) and therefore gather absolute power to himself. In O’Brien’s speeches you can almost hear Satan speaking, justifying that the only way to save everybody is through absolute loyalty to the Party (which really means absolute loyalty to him).

What Orwell does not understand is that true Christianity is the opposite of this reality and relies completely on free will. Winston’s yearning for Truth and Freedom are the exact same yearnings that all human beings have because we were born with these desires. Christianity is about achieving and understanding absolute Truth and absolute Freedom.

There is a telling passage near the end of “1984” (p. 270 in my edition) where we read the following exchange between O’Brien and Winston:

“Do you believe in God, Winston?”
“Then what is it, this principle that will defeat us?”
“I don’t know. The spirit of Man.”
“Do you consider yourself a man?”
“If you are a man, Winston, you are the last man. Your kind is extinct; we are the inheritors. Do you understand that you are alone? You are outside history, you are nonexistent.”

What O’Brien is doing here is trying to snuff out the last resistance to Big Brother that Winston carries. It is not enough that Winston act like a loyal Party member — he wants to change his thoughts and feelings so he actually begins to love Big Brother (using torture, of course). The reader is meant to root for Winston to overcome these totalitarian tactics and affirm at the end of the day that his thoughts and feelings cannot be controlled. We are meant to think: “he can kill his body, but he can’t kill his Spirit.”

In fact, Judeo-Christian history and the Book of Mormon are filled with heroes who allow their bodies to be tortured and destroyed but keep on delivering the messages of Truth and Freedom. Jeremiah was imprisoned and tortured repeatedly, Joseph suffered unjustly at the hands of tyrants, as did Stephen, Peter, Paul and Abinadi. And of course the ultimate example of a hero standing up to the destruction of his body but not his Spirit it he Savior himself.

But Orwell misses this opportunity to reaffirm a way of achieving absolute Truth and Freedom. Instead, Winston becomes a total slave, cheering for the regime and losing his ability to love anything except Big Brother. In the end he even completely betrays his one true love, Julia. Again, we have the potential to see here how Heavenly Father’s plan (by loving your spouse perfectly you love Christ and Heavenly Father even more) contrasts completely with Satan’s plan (you can love only Satan).

Orwell’s Spirit of Man is, although he would never describe it this way, a description of God’s absolute morality, what CS Lewis called the “Tao.” Why is killing and torture and lying and stealing universally bad? Because breaking God’s law will inevitably lead to chaos and eventually totalitarianism, imposed by imperfect men. The thing that makes Winston not alone is the fact that God is there for him, and Winston’s appeals to goodness are really an appeal to God. Winston is not nonexistent — he has always existed and he always will exist. No man-made torture can snuff him out, nor can it overcome the rules by which the universe is governed. Good really will win in the end.

To me, Orwell’s vision of the world, relying only on the Spirit of Man, is an incredibly pessimistic one. Man has a long history of continually messing things up. It is only when the Spirit of God enters man that he creates truly good societies. But Orwell had a very imperfect knowledge of the Gospel and therefore would not have been able to even grasp this message. His writings leave a huge gap that should be filled by God.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

19 thoughts on “‘1984,’ Orwell and religion

  1. Very nice review. I enjoyed reading 1984 a few years ago.

    I have often wondered about Satan and his plan, and I have a different take than many members. We read in the scriptures that Satan sought to take away man’s agency. Most have assumed that this means taking away his freedom. I wonder if what Satan was really intending to take away was man’s acountability, and thus saying there is no sin.

    You do make a fairly compelling case here, however.

  2. If the only two religions I’d had exposure to were the early twentieth century Church of England and Stalin’s cult of personality, I’d probably feel the same way as Orwell. I always found the end of 1984 really depressing — the only thing you can rely on is the spirit of man, and Winston’s the only one saying it, and then he falls at the end, and there’s just nothing. Ugh.

  3. I’m not trying to be contrary, just making a few observations.

    It seems that you’re confusing Orwell with his characters. You say that Orwell says “God is power,” but it isn’t Orwell who says this, it’s Goldberg (I think, though it’s been a while). It’s not “Orwell’s spirit of Man,” it’s Winston’s. You say “Orwell misses this opportunity to reaffirm a way of achieving absolute Truth and Freedom.” I don’t think this is a missed opportunity at all, I see it as a conscious choice, and the right one. Turning Winston into a martyr would defeat the whole purpose of the novel, which is to expose the horror of what happens when power and evil come together. The horror of the party is its totality. Martyrdom would be a cop-out in this case.

    I also have to disagree with your characterization of Julia as Winston’s “one true love.” Julia and Winston did not truly love each other, in my view. They were not committed to each other, which they both admit multiple times throughout the novel, Winston even highlighting Julia’s promiscuity as desirable. The only things that bring Julia and Winston together is mutual hatred of the party and lust.

    I’m a little confused, though, because on the one hand you say that Orwell’s spirit of man is a description of God’s morality, but on the other hand you say that relying on it is pessimistic. What do you mean?

    I agree with you that 1984 (perhaps unwittingly) makes a persuasive argument for God, though. For one, as you’ve noted, the it demonstrates the inability of “the spirit of man” to resist evil. But there’s another one, I think, and one that is even more particularly Mormon. The fascinating thing about 1984 is that Winston knows from the beginning that he won’t succeed. He knows he will be caught. Orwell lets the reader deceive himself into having some hope for Winston and Julia, but the hope is not with Winston and Julia. The hope, if it exists, is in the proles. And Winston’s vision of the proles is his fascination with the image of the washerwoman. This corresponds to Winston’s memories of his mother, closely connected with the memory of the only idea of family that his can conceive. Hope in 1984 is an image of maternity, the very essence of family (at least in 1984), and the family is ultimately, our closest approximation to God.

    I love 1984. But I don’t it accurately represents Satan’s plan. Satan rarely works by submission to pain and suffering. The whole point of temptation, his favorite tool, is that it is enticing. Under Satan’s plan, as I understand it, we would not be allowed to sin, not because we would fear to sin (that sounds more like Old Testament than Satan), but because the ability to sin would simply be denied us. Sin wouldn’t be available. Submission is a human tactic, and 1984 shows us to what lengths the “natural man” will go. I think Brave New World is a more accurate picture of the way Satan works—distraction, materialism, lack of discipline and commitment, etc. In some ways, it is even more horrifying because in 1984 there are at least still people who have to be submitted. In BNW, nobody even cares about truth and freedom anymore.

  4. JKC, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I would like to pick one nit with you and Clark, however. I stand by my comment that Julia is Winston’s “one true love.” Now, she is not his love in the same sense that we might recognize as a temple marriage love or even a “happily ever after” type of love. When I first read “1984,” I thought like you did that it was a dirty kind of love, which indeed it is at the beginning when he revels in her having been with other men and their love-making is a political gesture. But over time they begin to fantasize about getting married. She dresses up for him as a “wife” and their relationship is no longer just about sex. It is just about spending time together. And, most important of all, there is the crucial, climactic scene with O’Brien when O’Brien recognizes that Winston has never really betrayed Julia. Now remember that he has betrayed her in every possible external way — he has told all the details of their liaisons, admitted her guilt, etc. But what he has not done is to stop loving her. And this is what O’Brien is doing in Room 101 with the rats — he is destroying Winston’s last strong emotion that is not directed at Big Brother. When Winston says, “let them eat Julia, not me,” O’Brien has succeeded in destroying the last bit of love Winston had in him. And at the end Winston only loves Big Brother. And remember the flashback he has to the meeting with Julia after they both leave the Ministry of Love — she was forced to betray Winston in the same way, which implies she had love for him also that was squashed by the Thought Police.

    So, their relationship is not perfect of course. But I do think it is accurate to describe her as Winston’s “one true love.”

  5. JKC: “I love 1984. But I don’t it accurately represents Satan’s plan. Satan rarely works by submission to pain and suffering. “

    Look outside the US. I don’t think you’re taking a global or historical perspective. The history of totalitarianism, specifically the Soviet Union and China in the 20th century are counter-examples to your point.

    “The whole point of temptation, his favorite tool, is that it is enticing. Under Satan’s plan, as I understand it, we would not be allowed to sin, not because we would fear to sin (that sounds more like Old Testament than Satan), but because the ability to sin would simply be denied us. Sin wouldn’t be available. Submission is a human tactic, and 1984 shows us to what lengths the “natural man” will go. I think Brave New World is a more accurate picture of the way Satan works—distraction, materialism, lack of discipline and commitment, etc. In some ways, it is even more horrifying because in 1984 there are at least still people who have to be submitted. In BNW, nobody even cares about truth and freedom anymore.”

    Totalitarian societies have and do exists as described in 1984. The correclation of BNW to how Satan operates, might be an effective comparison in the western world, but 1984 literally came to life in other parts of the world. It not only described his day, but was prophetic.

    Prophetic about the totalitarian states, but also about political correctness. Political correctness is also about conforming to what others want you to think.

    Totalitarianism and thought control is how Satan has often worked outside of the Western world in modern times.

    The unrigteous dominion of the government in 1984 is not merely the “natural man” gone amok. In real life, totalitarianism is satanically inspired, and it has played out in modern totalitarian states such as the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, Vietnam.

    Please read more history of the Soviet Union, China, and Vietnam. Read about the “re-education” and purges, etc. China has been more big-brotherish than Russia/Soviet Union.

    Orwell saw the seeds of totalitarianism in Western Society. PC-ism (political correctness) and thought control, which are part-and-parcel of 1984, are rampant among the 60’s liberals who are now part of much of western establishment.

    Note how the proponents of the idea of man-caused global warming are trying to stifle debate. Are they not pretty much the same group as those who told us 30 to 40 years ago to always question and challenge authority?

    Aren’t the proponents of gay marriage the same who have been telling us for 30 to 40 years that marriage is just a piece of unnecessary paper?

    I also think you’re conflating what Satan _wanted_ to do as part of the plan he presented with what he _is_ doing in the temporal world as the devil. His goals drastically changed when he was kicked out of heaven.

  6. I wanted to follow up on Eric’s comment about how Satan wanted to take away man’s agency.

    I’m an early-morning Seminary teacher down here in Arizona, and when we went through the lesson on Agency, there was some interesting materials in the manuals about agency; principally that there are four components to agency:

    First, there must be laws that define right and wrong.
    Second, there must be an alternate choice to what is defined as good.
    Third, a person must have a knowledge of what the choices and consequences are.
    Fourth, a person must have compete freedom to choose between the two choices.

    If any of those elements is taken away, then agency is destroyed. If agency is destroyed, then accountability is also destroyed. As you look at the lies that Satan spreads throughout the world, each of them tries to discredit one or more of these elements.

    So, yes, we as LDS do tend to focus more on the fourth item, but Satan could just as easily have taken away any of the other items to destroy our agency.

  7. I was fairly surpised to hear of people getting a pro-theocratic vibe from 1984. To me Orwell’s idea of “double think” beautifully describes the way that people manage the inherant contradictions present in organised religion. Furthermore Orwell seems to point out a number of parallels between organised religion and the party although these are normally focussed on the Roman Catholic religion. In parts I think if you had replaced just a couple of words like party for religion then you could easily be forgiven for thinking you were reading Richard Dawkins book.

  8. James, I would encourage you to re-read this entire post. You seem to have misunderstood it completely. “Pro-theocratic?” Huh? Who ever said anything about that? Theocratic means a religious-run state. That is not even discussed in this post at all.

    Again, if you will re-read this I make it very clear that Orwell himself is an atheist/agnostic and is not pro-religion and he did not intend 1984 to be pro-religion in any way.

    My point is that he has a huge hole in his guiding philosophy. That hole is that when O’Brien finally destroys Winston the most devastatingly sad part about it is that he does succeed in destroying his last vestige of individual thought. For religious people, including many of those who read this blog, we talk a lot about “you can destroy the body but not the spirit.” The Bible and the Book of Mormon are filled with heroes who never abandon God despite their bodies being broken. Think of Paul, Stephen, Abinadi, etc, etc. So, my point is that Orwell unwittingly is offering a religious argument, which is: the horrible totalitarianism of O’Brien may destroy Winston’s body and even turn him into a slave, but the “Spirit of God” will live on inside of him. So, Orwell’s story really offers no hope at all, whereas religion, and, in my opinion especially the religion of Latter-day Saints, offers a wonderful, bright future for those who overcome evil. Orwell’s vision is empty and will leave you thirsty, whereas if you drink the water of the Savior you will never be thirsty again.

  9. I apologise for my misue of terminology. I believe I meant pro-theism rather than pro-theocracy (I feel pretty, I silly should definately read over my posts in future!).

    I did note from your post that you mentioned Orwell was an atheist however you did say that he “…unwittingly makes the case for why God exists…” and it was this that I dissagreed with. I don’t think there really is any huge hole in Orwell’s guiding philosophy primarily because I don’t think there is any guiding philosophy in the book in the first place. I certainly get the feeling that Orwell doesn’t approve of the world he has created in 1984 and I suspect the book was more of a warning than anything else, he doesn’t seem to present any solutions apart from avoiding creating a world comparable to that described.

    I agree with you that it was tremendously sad seeing Winston’s ability for individual thought being beaten out of him however at least Winston had individual thought to begin with. In my opinion Paul, Stephen and Abinadi (your examples) were no better off than Winston. They had already lost their ability to think, forced by fear of eternal death to incant the “party” line similar to Winston after he had been “cured”. Winston was left with the spirit of the “party”, Paul, Stephen and Abinadi were left with the spirit of “God” (sounds like the same thing to me). Religion has to be one of the greatest “bellyfeels” of all time. Combined with the perpetual hatred interpretable as war between various religions (muslim vs christian), religion seems very nicely to be creating the world described in Goldsteins manifesto.

  10. I would like to add that I hope i don’t offend anyone by my comments. I’ve only just realised this is a Mormon website (found it via google having just read 1984). I don’t have much experience with people from the Mormon faith being from the UK although a couple of guys from the US (Mormon missionaries) did come and chat to me and my housemates the other day who were really nice guys and great embassadors for your church.So no disrespect meant.

  11. James, thanks for visiting, and I wish you all the best. We Mormons have heard much worse. I encourage you to read the Book of Mormon some day. I used to be an agnostic/religious skeptic myself, but I’ve undergone a lot of changes in the last decade or so. Good luck in your own journey, wherever it takes you.

    One thing we can agree on: “1984” is a great, great book!

  12. You should think more carefully before trying to appropriate 1984, and Orwell into the Mormon faith. You have selected a view of the novel I think is very shallow and self serving. You state in your introduction, “Like many atheists or humanists, such as Carl Sagan in the book “Contact,” Orwell unwittingly makes the case for why God exists and why He is necessary.”
    Really? If anything 1984 is a plea to all to think as broadly and widely as they can, Its a plea for objecivity, to question everything in society and within oneself, to discard assumptions, obfuscation, doublespeak, to question tradition and social, poliical and religious authority structures in all forms.Most importantly Orwell makes the point that humans are highly fallible and knowing the truth, exercising freedom is one of mans bigggest challenges. Its a masterpiece of writing and to imagine orwell would have accidently made a case for the existace of a necessary god(?) is odd if not arrogant! 1984 is a challenge to the individual to think, not to find justification in ones own belief systems.
    The concept of Big Brother isnt just a political figurehead of Winstons society he is the illusion of truth and totalitarian benevolence. Big brother exists only in the propoganda machine, he lives and controls everything because it is an internal mental state of fear and confusion within all of that societys subjects. If you think someone is watching you, (even if you think they love you) perpetually then you will feel compelled to watch and self censor yourself all the time, Its a battle for rightiousness you can never win because it is so oppressive and stifling. Thats how religion works, You can replace the big brother concept with god, allah, isis, yahweh etc,because you can never question his existance and you can never escape his power over you . Children are brainwashed into communities of big brother religions ,sorry mormons no exception. These communities/families regulate the repetitive doubespeak of religion, The Storymyth is perpetuated as fact. God exists as a generational process and its repetative and ultimately very boring intelectually.

    There is no proof of the necessary existance of god in 1984, (and from memory satan never gets a mention), …read it again and take the religious blinkers off this time, you just might get what Orwell was getting at.

  13. Ben, you have managed to completely misunderstand this post and its purpose. I would encourage you to read it again and then all the comments. Good wishes, Geoff B.

  14. People, this book illustrates the fact that ALL forms of gov’t and religion are evil. Think about it
    religion tells you do this or do that. If you don’t listen to God/Big Brother, you’ll be tortured and beyond
    recognition til you repent. You can mask it any way you want, but it goes back to gov’t and religion
    thinkin their right all the time.

  15. It took me a while to fully comprehend this, I caught glimpses of it while reading the book, but held judgement out until i read this article, which put all the rest of the pieces in the puzzle for me. and i say this as a statement of fact, and, not with the uninformed superstitions which caused my mother to believe that Harry Potter was satanic. 1984 is a book that was written by the influence of satan to confuse and pollute those who otherwise would come to understand the nature of the battle of satans plan vs Gods plan. Being a work of Satans hands it is an imitation, or in other words, it is close to, something that could really be a wonderful work, but it has enough perversion in it in just the right quantities and in just the right places to take it from being a tale of the ultimate power of hope and freedom and love to twist it into a sick demented commentary on a false interpretation of human nature and to portray a hopeless landscape for mankinds future. Satan wants nothing more than to destroy our hope. Im not going to go through the whole book citing evidences that it was created by satan. If you have enough knowledge of the gospel and you go back and read the book looking for the evidence you will find it and it will REALLY surprise you. you will also find it when you see just how this book has influenced the world, that it has NOT taken power away from those who would form a one world totalitarian society, but it has actually given them much, much more power than they would have had without the existence of this book. You see, it has allowed atheists to believe that they are working for freedom, all whilst hating religion which they see as a type of big brother. This allows them to continue unwittingly working for satan by undermining the faith of our youth through the use of the College system while thinking they are serving the greater good and also by believing in and teaching a form of modern moral relativism and hedonism that really serves satans ultimate purposes whilst thinking its a good thing because big brother wants to destroy sex. this perversion of atheists minds around the subjects of religion, freedom, morality, and sexuality that are drawn directly from this book cause a big split in the forces of those who see what is really happening in the world and keep MANY people from accepting the gospel. I will just say that I began to realize this when i noticed 3 things. 1. Winston and Julias relationship and resistance is NOT based on any principle of love or freedom. it is based on SIN. Winston is commiting adultery. Julia is a whore. they even say many times that they have no love for each other, only lust. no revolution against evil could be based on such inherently evil principles and evil people and evil actions and 2. the party did not, and does not ever act like a totalitarian regime run by MORTAL HUMANS ever would act, rather, it acts very similarly to the way satan himself would run the world if he were a human being in direct control of it, but its just different enough that it allows people to make a case for “free love” which is in itself a VERY damaging principle. Its also not a commentary on human nature at all. but a statement of Satans plan, and a world in which it is achieved along with the complete and final victory by the destruction of the very last rebel. 3. the party successfully gets Winston to VOLUNTARILY love bb. this is such an allusion to satans plan its incredible. the only way we can become sons of perdition is by willfully choosing satans plan after seeing the light. Winston, at the end of this book, becomes a type of son of perdition. He achieves ultimate damnation. Never has a book ended on a more pessimistic note, and never COULD a book even end on a more pessemistic note, than that which this book ends on.
    re read it. you will be surprised. this book is pure evil.
    *DISCLAIMER* should you burn the book? no
    should you refrain from reading it because of some boogey man superstition? no
    is satan going to steal your soul if you read it? no. be like moses. realize that you are far more powerful than satan as long as you are righteous
    in fact you SHOULD read it so you can understand a little more about how Satan twists the truth.

  16. in response to jake johnson:
    really? think about what you just said. no seriously think about it. you will realize just how little sense you are making. The only explanation from your comment is that it comes from an uninformed and ignorant bias, the exact bias satan WANTS you to have. There is so much proof that democracy, capitalism, and religion are good forces it practically couldnt be clearer. Do people pervert those good forces for evil? yes, but those forces of themselves have produced just about every good thing in existence on this planet. think about it. you enshrine science as the ultimate force for good and the cause for the ascendancy of man (all atheists do) could there be science without capitalism? couild there be capitalism without democracy? could there be democracy without religion? (the founding fathers would quite resoundingly say no to all three….actually, there are many documented cases of them stating exactly that)

  17. After having read many of the comments above, I am amazed at the many different viewpoints, levels of passion, and ways to express them. What a great conversation! Having said that, I recently wrote an essay on 1984 (http://romyblystone.com/random/1984-essay/) and would greatly appreciate any feedback your followers may have to offer. Please keep in mind that the questions were static and the essay needed to be edited to fit within the parameters set by my instructor. I readily admit that I do not know the truth of Orwell’s work… I simply wanted to share my thoughts with your community. Thank you in advance. Peace and grace to all of you 😉

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