Jane Austen certainly was a devout Christian; a believer in the Anglican Church. Yet in her novels she is silent on the need for organised religion in one’s life. She seems very modern in not promoting religious observance per se. Very little happens in or around churches in the Austen Six, especially given the number of clergymen that are in the novels. Indeed she seems more critical of the church as an institution and its hypocrisies. In Pride and Prejudice, Clawing Mr Collins, in particular, tries to preach his brand of Christian forgiveness and she holds him up to ridicule. When Typical-Teen-Lydia, runs off with Bad Boy Predatory Wickham, Mr Collins suggests that the couple should be “forgiven” but not allowed into the house or even to have their names spoken! Jane Austen lampoons such hypocrisy.
All ages have their hypocrites. Yet we especially abhor the hypocrites in the church. It would be delicious if it was not so shocking and sad that the Catholic priest who told me I wasn’t good enough to go out with the local alter boy, I discovered as an adult, was convicted of pedophilia. There seems an unwritten Murphy’s type law: that those who dictate to others how to live will be found out with their pants down.
In the Austen Six it is strong values that help the characters to live a happy life, not any organised type of religion. Respecting others, treating them with decency, having compassion for the less fortunate are all Austen ideals that we can adopt for ourselves. Fundamentalism, of any persuasion, is the problem. Diversity is the key and I feel sure that Jane Austen today could equally recommend a Buddhist life, a Christian life, a Jewish life, a Muslim life, or even a secular life, as long as it was grounded in love, honesty, respect and self knowledge. I think she might quite like Allain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists as it has a very Austen view of the place of Religion: Religion may have its uses but beware of those who preach and have all the answers. She was very much a writer of the enlightenment who espoused using your own reason and your own conscience to come to your own understanding of life’s dilemmas. (Although, she did question moral relativism in regard to some characters who seemed to think they were the fount of all wisdom!)) To judge others is a common crime in the Austen Six and those characters that set themselves above others are the ones who fall.