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July 26: George Bernard Shaw

George Bernard Shaw (1856)

George Bernard Shaw

It was on this date, July 26, 1856, that playwright George Bernard Shaw was born to Protestant parents in Dublin, Ireland. It is said the young Shaw attended a revival service by Dwight Moody and Ira Sankey in Dublin, and in one of his first critical notes wrote, "if this sort of thing is religion, then I am an atheist." In 1876, after moving to London with his mother, Shaw made great strides in self-education at the British Museum. There Shaw became a music and theater critic, a novelist (with little success), and finally a playwright.

A vegetarian who neither smoked nor drank, Shaw saw human society as reformable. In 1884 he co-founded the Fabian Society, on the belief that capitalism had created an unjust and inefficient social order. He promoted Socialism instead. Shaw was a freethinker, but he equally despised Rationalism and religion. His idea of God was as another name for the cosmic Vital Principle, an idea he learned from Samuel Butler. He rejected the idea of immortality.

Shaw's first serious notice as a playwright came with his 1894 play, Arms and the Man, but he achieved international acclaim with Man and Superman in 1903. In his Major Barbara (1905), Barbara, an officer in the Salvation Army, learns that money and power are better weapons against evil than religion and love. In his Pygmalion (1913) which has been filmed twice and made into the musical, My Fair Lady, Shaw treats morality as a luxury of the rich: "Have you no morals, man?" asks Pickering. "Can't afford them, Governor," replies the dustman, Doolittle.

Shaw addressed many of his social causes in the prefaces to his 50-plus plays. The Preface to Androcles and the Lion (1912) runs over 36,000 words, about 66 times the length of this commentary, and has its own Table of Contents. In it, Shaw thoroughly dissects Jesus and Christianity, saying, "The fact that a believer is happier than a sceptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one." Shaw considered the purpose of the Eucharist laughable, the miracles of Jesus irrelevant to his mission, and thought Pilate was right for agreeing to his execution because Jesus was mentally unbalanced:

...if I had been Pilate I should have recognized as plainly as he the necessity for suppressing attacks on the existing social order ... by people with no knowledge of government and no power to construct political machinery to carry out their views, acting on the very dangerous delusion that the end of the world was at hand. ... It is not disbelief that is dangerous to our society, it is belief.

In his 1920 play, Heartbreak House, Shaw shows his Rationalist-Materialist side when he has the character Ellie say, "We know now that the soul is the body, and the body the soul. They tell us they are different because they want to persuade us that we can keep our souls if we let them make slaves of our bodies." Shaw accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature, but rejected the cash award, in 1925. A Socialist to the last, he died on 2 November 1950. Shaw was known to quip, "Christianity might be a good thing if anyone ever tried it."

Originally published July 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

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