The great Irish playwright, critic, reformer and philosopher George Bernard Shaw died on this day in 1950. He was 94. In his lifetime Shaw was one of the most famous men in the world, and was embraced in America by highbrows and lowbrows and middlebrows alike. “Americans adore me,” Shaw said, “and will continue to adore me until I say something nice about them.”
In 1907, Shaw wrote a long essay called “The New Theology.” The aim of the essay was “to see whether there is any possibility of our arriving at a religion on which we can agree.” Shaw believed that “There is not a single established religion in the world in which an intelligent or educated man could believe.”
The trouble with almost all religions, Shaw said, is that they take it for granted that since God designed the universe, He must be omnipotent. This assumption is entirely unwarranted, because “If He is omnipotent, why did he create us…if He could have created anything better?”
Shaw’s conception of God was as a “life-force” behind the universe, engaged in a struggle to create something higher and higher, and proceeding by trial and error. Man should think of himself as the instrument to carry this out. “The object of the whole evolutionary process is to realize God…the aim of the New Theology is to conceive of the (life-) force…as working up through imperfection and mistake to a perfect, organized being, having the power of fulfilling its highest purposes.” In effect, there is no God…yet. But there is the life-force, abetted by us, trying to make one.
That God has not yet come about in a finished form explains, Shaw says, why there is evil and pain in the world. They were not brought about purposefully, out of malice or cruelty, but arose because the benevolent designer hadn’t figured out how to realize its benevolence. Eventually, they will be evolved out of the world.
This seems doubtful. Are we becoming better? Is the amount of evil in the world less than it ever was? And Shaw is vague about this fledgling God’s “highest purposes.” What will be the nature of this perfectly realized outcome?
That’s for God to know and us to find out, apparently. In Shaw’s new theology we are to be willing and cheerful guinea-pigs.