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Alice Roberts declines to take Bible to BBC’s desert island

Professor Alice Roberts, anatomist, author, broadcaster, and Vice President of Humanists UK, was interviewed by Lauren Laverne for BBC Radio Four's Desert Island Discs programme in March. She shared the eight tracks, book and luxury item she would take with her if cast away to the fictional desert island. Her favourite tracks included Cherub Rock by the Smashing Pumpkins and Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence by Phoebe Stevens. Almost invariably, every guest is given the complete works of Shakespeare and the Bible, in addition to a book of their choice, to take with them to the desert island. As a mark of cultural and religious sensitivity, Muslims are typically offered a copy of the Quran instead of the Bible, but the BBC's diversity department did not have the wit to stop presenter Lauren Laverne from trying to foist the Bible on Alice, even though her humanist beliefs had been discussed during the programme. They could have at least offered her a copy of Anthony Grayling's The Good Book: a Secular Bible. Alice politely declined her free copy of the Bible. For her own choice of book, she opted for George Eliot's Middlemarch – a humanist classic.


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Why is George Eliot's Middlemarch a humanist classic?

George Eliot's Middlemarch has long been celebrated as a pinnacle of English literature and a profound exploration of human life. Published serially in the early 1870s, it is often lauded for its intricate plot, its vast panorama of Victorian society, and its depth of psychological insight. What makes Middlemarch particularly significant for humanists, however, is its embodiment of humanist ideals – making it a true humanist classic.


Humanism, in its broadest sense, focuses on human values and concerns, emphasising the potential for individual growth and the importance of reason, empathy, and the pursuit of knowledge. In Middlemarch, Eliot interweaves these themes through an expansive narrative that delves into the lives, ambitions, frustrations, and reconciliations of the residents of a provincial English town.


The quest for self-fulfilment and knowledge

At the heart of Middlemarch is Dorothea Brooke, a young woman whose intellectual and spiritual aspirations are stifled by the societal constraints of her time. Dorothea's initial marriage to Edward Casaubon – a scholarly cleric whose work is as dry and barren as their relationship – symbolises the conflict between youthful idealism and the disappointing realities of adult life. Eliot uses Dorothea’s journey not only to critique the limited roles available to women in Victorian society but also to explore the universal human desire for purpose and understanding. Dorothea's eventual realisation that a meaningful life can be achieved through small acts of kindness and support within her own community reflects a humanist affirmation of the potential for personal growth and societal contribution outside traditional pathways of power and prestige.


Empathy and interconnectedness

Eliot's narrative technique in Middlemarch allows her to enter the minds of characters from all walks of life, from the idealistic doctor Tertius Lydgate to the self-serving banker Nicholas Bulstrode. This narrative strategy serves a dual purpose: it showcases Eliot's deep empathy and also underscores the interconnectedness of human experiences. Eliot does not merely invite readers to understand her characters; she insists on the moral importance of doing so, suggesting that empathy itself is a vehicle for moral and social progress.


Rational thought and moral complexity

Eliot was heavily influenced by the intellectual currents of her time, including the writings of Spinoza and the debates surrounding Darwinism and religious scepticism. Her intellectual background informs Middlemarch not only in its ideas but in its approach to those ideas. The novel does not offer easy answers but instead presents life’s moral complexities. Characters such as Lydgate and Dorothea grapple with their ideals in a world that is often unyielding and indifferent. Eliot's insistence on portraying these struggles without resorting to sentimental simplification reflects a humanist commitment to intellectual honesty and rational inquiry.


Conclusion

Middlemarch is a humanist classic not merely because it explores humanist themes but because it enacts a humanist methodology. Eliot’s compassionate yet rigorous narrative invites readers to engage critically and empathetically with the world around them. The novel's enduring appeal lies in its ability to mirror the complexity of life, encouraging a reflective and humane response to the challenges of human existence. In doing so, it embodies the essence of humanist thought – affirming the dignity of life and the continuous, often arduous, quest for meaning and connection.


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Eric Hayman
Eric Hayman
May 01

"Empathy and interconnectedness".


"Inter" means "together". "con" means "together". "nect" means "bind". "interconnectedness" - "together together binding". Are you a nontheist humanist?

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