George Bernard Shaw: Man of the Century

By Archibald Henderson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4
Ireland's Irreligion and Religion

WITH CHARACTERISTIC INVERSION, Shaw MADE A WITTY AND MEMORABLE OBSERvation concerning his early life in Dublin:

If religion is that which binds men to one another, and irreligion that which sunders, then must I testify that I found the religion of my country in its musical genius and its irreligion in its churches and drawing rooms.

As a lad, Shaw developed an attitude of criticism, of skepticism, towards religion. His father made a point of reproving him for his major irreverences; but usually ended the reproof with an even more outrageous irreverence in a mood of high comedy. The elder Shaw had a devastating sense of anticlimax which he transmitted to his son in full flower; and this irreverence towards the conventions, of religion as well as of society, was absorbed, undiluted, by the impressionable George. This in great measure explains the famous play- wright's disposition, throughout life, to regard any sacrosanct convention or tradition as an irrestibly tempting "jumping-off place for a plunge into laughter."

To his maternal uncle, Walter Gurly, a surgeon on the Inman Liners, he listened, with the admiration of the young for an elder's artistic skill and knowledge of the world, to Rabelaisian stories and Biblical extravaganzas. While these stories, deftly told, left Shaw's nature untainted with vulgarity, they were completely effective in destroying all his "inculcated childish reverence for the verbiage of religion, for its legends and personifications and parallels." The delightful irreverence of his uncle appealed to him as pellucid acuteness and common sense freed of all religious superstition. On one occasion during his childhood, on inquiring of his father what a Unitarian was, he was told that the Unitarians believed that Jesus was not crucified but was seen running away down the other side of the Hill of Calvary. Shaw afterwards confessed that he believed this for thirty years. An even more perfect illustration is afforded by one of the many heated religious controversies to which Shaw as a lad was frequently treated. His father, his uncle and G. J. V. Lee were discussing the raising of Lazarus. The entire tone of the discussion was that of Mark Twain's old sea captain elucidating the reasons for Elijah's victory over the other prophets in the classic altar contest. Shaw's father held the

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