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

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

Among the Believers
July 1981
by V. S. Naipaul

In 1979, in the midst of the Islamic revolution, the novelist V. S. Naipaul set out for Iran to try to gain an understanding of the Islamic world. Two years later, he chronicled his observations in The Atlantic. In the passage below, he recalls walking through the city of Tehran with his nonreligious Iranian interpreter, Behzad.

On the pavement outside the Turkish embassy two turbaned, sunburned medicine men sat with their display of different-colored powders, roots, and minerals. I had seen other medicine men in Tehran and had thought of them as Iranian equivalents of the homeopathic medicine men of India. But the names these Iranians were invoking as medical authorities—as Behzad told me, after listening to their sales talk to a peasant group—were Avicenna, Galen, and “Hippocrat.”

Avicenna! To me only a name, someone from the European Middle Ages: it had never occurred to me that he was a Persian. In this dusty pavement medical stock was a reminder of the Arab glory of a thousand years before, when the Arab faith mingled with Persia, India, and the remnant of the classical world it had overrun, and Moslem civilization was the central civilization of the West.

Behzad was less awed than I was. He didn’t care for that Moslem past; and he didn’t believe in pavement medicines. He didn’t care for the Shah’s architecture, either: the antique Persian motifs of the Central Bank of Iran, and the Aryan, pre-Islamic past that it proclaimed. To Behzad that stress on the antiquity of Persia and the antiquity of the monarchy was only part of the Shah’s vainglory.

He looked at the bank, at the bronze and the marble, and said without passion, “That means nothing to me.”

We turned once more, as we walked, to the revolution. There were two posters I had seen in many parts of the city … One showed a small peasant group … The other … a crowd raising rifles … But what was the Persian legend at the top?

Behzad translated: “‘Twelfth Imam, we are waiting for you.’”

“What does that mean?”

“It means they are waiting for the Twelfth Imam.”

The Twelfth Imam was the last of the Iranian line of succession to the Prophet. That line had ended over eleven hundred years ago. But the Twelfth Imam hadn’t died; he survived somewhere, waiting to return to earth. And his people were waiting for him; the Iranian revolution was an offering to him.

Vol. 248, No. 1, pp. 28–48

Kicking the Secularist Habit
March 2003
by David Brooks

A year and a half after 9/11, the columnist David Brooks construed the attacks as proof of the resurgence of religious fervor in modern life.

Like a lot of people these days, I’m a recovering secularist. Until September 11 I accepted the notion that as the world becomes richer and better educated, it becomes less religious. Extrapolating from a tiny and unrepresentative sample of humanity (in Western Europe and parts of North America), this theory holds that as history moves forward, science displaces dogma and reason replaces unthinking obedience. A region that has not yet had a reformation and an enlightenment, such as the Arab world, sooner or later will.

It’s now clear that the secularization theory is untrue. The human race does not necessarily get less religious as it grows richer and better educated. We are living through one of the great periods of scientific progress and the creation of wealth. At the same time, we are in the midst of a religious boom.

Islam is surging. Orthodox Judaism is growing among young people, and Israel has gotten more religious as it has become more affluent. The growth of Christianity surpasses that of all other faiths …

The recovering secularist has to resist the temptation to treat religion as a mere conduit for thwarted economic impulses … There’s obviously some truth to this observation. But it’s not the whole story: neither Mohammed Atta nor Osama bin Laden, for example, was poor or oppressed. And although it’s possible to construct theories that explain their radicalism as the result of alienation or some other secular factor, it makes more sense to acknowledge that faith is its own force.

Vol. 291, No. 2, pp. 26–28