Religion: A Function or a Phase of Human Life?

A poetic approach to religion

Cecil Rhodes, the great Anglo-Saxon imperialist, who founded university scholarships in order to bring into closer touch with one another the possible future leaders of thought and culture in America and Great Britain, in said to have once remarked that the Church of England did not interest him. During the last general convention of a religious body in this country, while a discussion of Unction for the Sick was in progress, one of the deputies, an important man of affairs, arose and left the hall. The incident was at once seized upon by the public press, and commented on as a significant evidence of lay opinion on the subject discussed. The deputy was quoted as having said that such discussion was pure nonsense.

An English bishop lately watched a number of working-men file out of their shops, and stopping one of the more intelligent of them, inquired as to the sentiments of his class toward the Church. 'It don't touch us, sir, no more than the moon,' was the reply. This incident, also, has figured frequently is recent sermons and addresses to religious gatherings.

The accuracy or inaccuracy of these reported incidents does not affect the purpose of my allusion to them. What I wish to illustrate concerns rather the inferences such anecdotes commonly suggest to most modern-minded people, and the significant intention with which they are frequently quoted, and seldom without a sensitive response, especially in circles where religious problems are discussed. It is characteristic of the mental atmosphere that surrounds present-day religion, to sound notes of warning to organized religion, by quoting the opinions and sentiments of the active men of the world in regard to religious systems, doctrines, and methods. The phrase 'man-in-the-street' has a peculiar religious connotation. It suggests an ominous judicial being whose leisure moments, snatched in the midst of a life of clearly demonstrable productiveness, are sometimes spent in weighing all ecclesiasticism in the balance and finding it wanting as an asset to human society.

It is not that the man-in-the-street is arrogant. On the contrary, he is usually modest -a 'plain business man,' a 'common working-man,' a 'mere layman,' who merely betrays his distaste for various aspects of organized religion. But just for this reason his attitude is given vital importance. His indifference, or his distaste, or his humbly confessed inadequacy to see what it is all for, is urged upon the consideration of religious leaders as the pressing reason for a thorough reconstruction of religious teaching, methods, formularies.


Now Christianity would never have spread beyond Jerusalem, or Mohammedanism beyond Arabia, except by acting upon the assumption that the religious needs of the man-in-the-street were more important than his existing religious views, and that it was possible to bring his views into harmony with his needs. The religions that have been an actual force in human life have operated as communications assumed to have been delivered by God to man, to be preserved and propagated from man to man. This involves tradition, written or institutional, or both; and tradition is certain to become more and more complex, as the original communication interacts with the experience and thought of succeeding generations of believers. The more varied the thought and experience with which the believers come into contact, the more clearly defined will be the position of the belief they hold in common, sometimes involving very subtle distinctions, provided the communication survives the stress of thought and experience of many ages. Worship will become complex as well as doctrine; forms of devotional expression, and of reverence, will become varied. And all this will require the sanction and discipline of legislation, forbidding or permitting, so as to keep all the developments self consistent with the organic whole. Thus, after many centuries, a communicative or traditional religion will present a complex phenomenon which can be understood only by those who, in some sympathy with it, give it a thorough study. Its adherents, to avoid the danger of estrangement from it (and the whole assumption of a consistently traditional religion is that estrangement would be the gravest catastrophe to a believer), must preserve a receptive attitude of mind toward the whole tradition, for the sake of the importance of the original message. They must be willing to grant that the institution which has brought them the vital message they believe, and has for centuries treasured that message, knows more about their religious needs than they do. Fearing to be cut off from communication with the assumed source of the message, they believe and worship according to the law of the historical medium through which that message came to them.

But on the other hand, suppose that in some way the believer is detached from the influence of the organic tradition, its teachings and institutions, and yet habitually believes the original communication. Suppose he has come to regard his own judgment as the only guide in determining how the original message applies to him. He will naturally view the whole matter differently.

The way in which the message has' been preserved and transmitted to him seems to him an irrelevant consideration; the fact that the message has reached him is more important; and so, being a busy man, and confident of his own ability to decide his own religious problems, he makes a rough and ready application of the message to his own case, and devotes his main energies to solving the practical problems of his life in the world.

From this point of view, elaborate and complex religious institutions and doctrines will seem to be more or less cumbersome and useless, and the persistence of their effort to win influence will be irritating. Feeling more or less detached from them, yet still allied to them by his reverence for the original message they represent, he finds them constantly interfering with and contradicting his private interpretations, and demanding of him more attention to religion as a specific department of activity, than he deem necessary. Religious energy should be devoted rather to solving practical social problems, than to preserving and guarding its own heritages.

And something like this is the attitude of the modern man, whose sentiments are so frequently quoted, who is so often placed in the chair of judgment in religious matters. There is a curious analogy between his situation and that of the Roman Pontiff. The Pope for many centuries has regarded himself as responsible for the control and regulation of Christian society. Recognizing no true legitimacy in secular life unless arbitrated by religious authority, he finds his problem very complicated in modern times. Secular life is everywhere asserting independence of ecclesiastical control. At the same time the Papacy is dependent upon its own religious leadership for whatever political or social influence it is able to exert. The Papacy is therefore bound to foster and encourage the development of popular devotional life, whether or not it take forms consistent with traditional doctrine.

Modern conditions have brought about in the Roman communion an arrest of doctrinal development and consequent abnormal developments of devotional life. On an issue between popular cults and theologians, the Pope cannot afford to sacrifice his popularity to theology. Backed by the loyal support of the multitude of devotees, he is able to close, by his own word in favor of popular devotional cults, any questions that are likely to occasion discussion in scholastic circles, and to concentrate all the forces under his leadership for meeting the practical problem of 'secularism.' There is a real relation between His Holiness the leader of the cause of Italian emancipation, and His Holiness subsequently proclaiming the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and of Papal Infallibility. Pope Pius IX abandoned the national cause because its aspect of 'secularism' proved inevitable, and the forces of religion must be solidified to resist 'secularism' there and throughout Western Europe. The supreme issue which the Pope sees steadily throughout is political and social.

Religious devotion and doctrine are to him the indispensable though adjustable means to a supreme end the subjection of earthly kingdoms to the spiritual kingdom.

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