150 Years Of The Atlantic March 2007

Religion & Faith

This is the thirteenth in a series of archival excerpts in honor of the magazine’s 150th anniversary. For the full text of these articles, visit www.theatlantic.com/ideastour.
Religion and Insanity
December 1857

By Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.

In the magazine’s second issue, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., the son of a Calvinist clergyman, poked fun at the rigid orthodoxy of Calvinism and similar religions, suggesting that intelligent people subjected to such harsh beliefs tended to go crazy in self-defense.

Insanity is often the logic of an accurate mind overtasked … Stupidity often saves a man from going mad. We frequently see persons in insane hospitals, sent there in consequence of what are called religious mental disturbances. I confess that I think better of them than of many who hold the same notions, and keep their wits and appear to enjoy life very well, outside of the asylums. Any decent person ought to go mad, if he really holds such or such opinions. It is very much to his discredit in every point of view, if he does not. What is the use of my saying what some of these opinions are? Perhaps more than one of you hold such as I should think ought to send you straight over to Somerville [the local psychiatric hospital] if you have any logic in your heads or any human feeling in your hearts. Anything that is brutal, cruel, heathenish, that makes life hopeless for the most of mankind and perhaps for entire races,—anything that assumes the necessity of the extermination of instincts which were given to be regulated,—no matter by what name you call it,—no matter whether a fakir, or a monk, or a deacon believes it,—if received, ought to produce insanity in every well-regulated mind.

Vol. 1, No. 2, pp. 175–184

The Persistence of Faith
February 1948

by Reinhold Niebuhr

As the twentieth century neared its midpoint, the Protestant theologian and political thinker Reinhold Niebuhr argued that however much humanity might advance technically, scientifically, and intellectually, it would never outgrow its need for religious sustenance.

Mankind is always progressing, but the essential needs of man remain the same. Life continues to be fragmentary and to be challenged by death no matter how powerful men become. The fear of death prompts men to complete life falsely and to express their frustration in lust for power, envy of one another, and a sense of false security in material comfort and power. These corruptions are rooted in the very center of personality and can therefore be uprooted only by a radical change at the heart of personality. The renewal of life through repentance is therefore a message of hope and judgment for every age. It will yet prove its relevance and power to an age which imagined that intellectual progress would obviate the necessity of religious renewal.

Vol. 181, No. 2, pp. 57–62

The Efficacy of Prayer
January 1959

by C. S. Lewis

In 1959, the British scholar and novelist C. S. Lewis—a devout Christian and the author of The Screwtape Letters and The Chronicles of Narnia, among other books—took up the question of whether prayer really works.

Some years ago I got up one morning intending to have my hair cut in preparation for a visit to London, and the first letter I opened made it clear I need not go to London. So I decided to put the haircut off too. But then there began the most unaccountable little nagging in my mind, almost like a voice saying, “Get it cut all the same. Go and get it cut.” In the end I could stand it no longer. I went. Now my barber at that time was a fellow Christian and a man of many troubles whom my brother and I had sometimes been able to help. The moment I opened his shop door he said, “Oh, I was praying you might come today.” And in fact if I had come a day or so later I should have been of no use to him.

It awed me; it awes me still. But of course one cannot rigorously prove a causal connection between the barber’s prayers and my visit. It might be telepathy. It might be accident …

The question then arises, “What sort of evidence would prove the efficacy of prayer?” The thing we pray for may happen, but how can you ever know it was not going to happen anyway? …

“God,” said Pascal, “instituted prayer in order to lend to His creatures the dignity of causality.” But not only prayer; whenever we act at all He lends us that dignity. It is not really stranger, nor less strange, that my prayers should affect the course of events than that my other actions should do so …

For He seems to do nothing of Himself which He can possibly delegate to His creatures. He commands us to do slowly and blunderingly what He could do perfectly and in the twinkling of an eye. He allows us to neglect what He would have us do, or to fail. Perhaps we do not fully realize the problem, so to call it, of enabling finite free wills to coexist with Omnipotence … This is how (no light matter) God makes something—indeed, makes gods—out of nothing.

Vol. 203, No. 1, pp. 59–61

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