What is Religion? Why do you shy from saying you are “religious?” A good question for so many of us who prefer to see ourselves as “spiritual” rather than “religious.” Here’s a good analysis of what the word used to mean which gives a good indication of what all those “spiritual” folks are fleeing from: stuff like commitment, vows, humbling ourselves in the presence of almighty God.
Stevenson, I think in Virginibus Puerisque, has preserved for us a letter written to a man by his aunt, on the subject of a young lady who would, she thought, be a good person for this nephew of hers to marry. And she goes through a list of the various talents and accomplishments the young lady has, mentioning among others, “about as much religion as my William likes”.
I think in any discussion of religion it is important to rule out that idea of it from the first. It is not a kind of accomplishment, like painting on china, of which it is important that the débutante should have a smattering so as to increase her value in the matrimonial market. It is fair to mention that I think “my William” is a rather common figure in the non-Catholic world; he rather prefers it if the girl he wants to marry is mildly religious in that sort of way; and it is our fault if we let that idea of what religion means become current.
It is because we practice religion in a rather languid, external way that people get the impression it is a sort of bloom on the surface of our lives which makes us more attractive people; a sort of added grace of character which some people have, some haven’t. Whatever else it is — let us be clear about that from the outset — religion is something we belong to, not something which belongs to us; something that has got hold of us, not something we have got hold of. It is something which determines our whole approach and our whole relation to life; if it is not that, if it is to be a mere fad or a mere pose, it had better be cut out altogether.
That you can see even from its derivation. I don’t think there can be any real doubt that it is derived from the Latin verb religare, to bind, to tie down. I don’t apologize for inflicting Latin verbs on you, because in a curious way you can say that religion is both a Latin word and a Latin thing, whereas theology is a Greek word and a Greek thing. The Greeks liked to talk about the gods, bring them into speeches and lend a tone to literature with them, but they didn’t like doing anything about them; they lived by their philosophy, if they lived by any rule at all.
Whereas the Romans, till they began to go Greek, were forever worrying about taboos and ceremonies and omens; they lived a life haunted by the unseen, and they were always trying to dodge the implications of it. Above all, religion meant that if you swore an oath you had got to keep it; it bound you. That predominating sense has survived in modern ecclesiastical language. When we talk about monks or nuns as “religious” what we are saying is not that they are holier people than ourselves, though no doubt they usually are holier people than ourselves. What we are saying is that they are bound by vows, and we are not. They can’t go out and get drunk even if they want to.
When we have said that, we have said enough to make ourselves feel that religion is a rather unpleasant thing. In the first place because it seems to be no better, at least in its origins, than a kind of magic. And in the second place because it is something merely negative; it is a drag upon one’s life, not an inspiration to live by. Let us take those two objections in that order.
I think I am right in saying that it is bad anthropology to regard magic as the ancestor of religion. It would be truer to say that magic is the ancestor of science. The medical man of today comes down to us from the medicine man of centuries ago; but the centuries have been centuries of trial and error, so he knows his stuff better. The business of the scientist, as of the magician, is first to discover the causes of things and then to avoid their effects. He is trying to exploit man’s surroundings in the interests of man.
But religion, you see, is just the other way up; its object, if you can put the thing as crudely as that, is to exploit man in the interest of his surroundings. The magician tries to see how much he can get out of God for man; the priest tries to see how much he can get out of man for God. Of course, in any primitive society the two things are always getting mixed up, and it isn’t easy to say where religion begins and magic ends. In setting out to make amends to the god you have somehow offended, you are also trying to get rid of the drought or the cholera which he has sent to punish you. But in idea the two things are separate.
And not only are they separate in idea, but they develop as time goes on in opposite directions. Magic thins out into scientific research; tabooism thins out into a religion of personal holiness. One pedigree ends in Rutherford, the other in Gandhi. Science gets more and more externalized; drops the spells and the incantations, sticks to the lancet and the pills. Religion gets more and more internalized, comes to regard the action of worshipping the image as less important than the attitude of the worshipper towards his god, the lustral water as less important than purity of life.
I have been talking so far of unrevealed, and therefore of false, religions; but those of you who know anything about the Old Testament will realize that much of what I have been saying goes, also, for the partial revelation which Almighty God made to the Jews. The chief mission and the chief difficulty of the Jewish prophets was to persuade their fellow-countrymen that it wasn’t much good trying to appease God with the blood of bulls and goats if you went on bearing false witness and oppressing the poor at the same time. Religion wasn’t meant to tie you down from touching a dead body or seething a kid in its mother’s milk. It was meant to tie you down to a rule of right living, a rule of love towards God and towards your fellow man.
And now we have to consider the other objection, that religion is by its very definition, and therefore in its very nature, a purely negative thing, always telling you not to do something, never telling you to do something. All these taboos which you find in the old Roman religion, and also in most savage religions, are not, after all, the stuff of which they are made. One can imagine some primitive set of people who were bound by a whole code of regulations as negative and as meaningless as the instinct which makes some people always want to walk on the paving-stones, never setting foot on the cracks between the paving-stones.
But as a matter of fact you don’t find that. The whole point of religion is to believe in the existence of some power or powers behind the scenes, and believe that it is important for you to keep on the right side of them. They haunt a particular spot; there is, as the Romans would have said, a religio loci; it is up to you to avoid that spot, because it would be blundering in on a set of powers who are too big for you; and you do avoid it, just as you would avoid the cracks between the paving-stones if you thought that some deity inhabited the cracks between the paving-stones.
There is a particular day of the month which is for some reason held sacred to one of those powers; and it may be you observe that day in a negative way — say, by not going out to battle; but once more the prohibition implies something positive; you don’t unaccountably avoid that day in the first instance and invent a deity afterwards to account for your reluctance. No, you have the feeling that you are hedged about by majestic presences belonging to another world than this world which you see, and the nearer you come in contact with them, the more you have to be on your good behavior; that is all.
If you do go near the sacred spot, you must somehow mark the difference by your own behavior; you must take your shoes off, for example. Not wearing your shoes is something negative; and so natural is it to mark the difference by not doing something, that you are led to describe your attitude towards these powers as an attitude of negation; it is a religio, something which restrains you.
But your reason is not a negative one, it is a positive one; you feel you are not alone — there is Somebody just behind that tree. How far this feeling of the uncanny, this sense that certain places, for example, are haunted by supernatural presences, can be used to prove the truth of religion, I don’t know. It is fashionable, I believe, to argue that this sense of awe, this sense of the “numinous”, is a thing which could not be explained if there were not something real behind it. I am never very fond of that kind of argument myself.
But I do think you can say this; that if mankind generally, for thousands of years, has been in the habit of recognizing, and living up to, the presence of an unseen spiritual world, it is likely that this attitude of worship is part of man’s natural make-up. He is the only animal that finds it comfortable to remain on bent knees. Dis to minorem quod geris, imperas; if we are lords of creation, it is only as the vassals of an Overlord higher than ourselves — if it were not so, how could we be so ludicrously incomplete, so undignified, so dissatisfied as we are?
Say, if you like, that our habit of addressing worship to Powers whom we think of as reigning above us is an inference, perhaps an unconscious inference, from that feeling of inferiority. Say, if you will, that it is an instinct, which neither has nor demands an explanation, apart from the obvious explanation that a supernatural world really exists, containing Powers that are worthy of worship. What seems evident in either case is that we are built to be a half-way house between the natural and the supernatural; that adoration is a congenital posture with us. If we try to rise above our own level we immediately sink beneath our own level, for we lose our place in creation.
And that is, to my mind, I won’t say the most important answer, but the most interesting answer to the next question that comes up to be considered. The question, I mean, “What is the advantage of having a religion, as opposed to having none?” There are all sorts of answers, obviously, that can be given. You can treat it as a mere question of happiness; point out how much fuller life is if you believe that Man has a tangible end to fulfill, and is doing so under the eyes of a benign Task-master — still more if you believe, as our religion teaches and many others teach, that there will be a reward for us, in another world, if the task is well done.
You can treat it as a question of intellectual satisfaction; point out that all the riddles which our thought comes up against, as it tries this avenue of speculation or that, become less of a nightmare to us if we believe that there is a supreme Intelligence which knows the answer to them all, even where it is hidden from us. You can treat it as a question of general human wellbeing: how long would it be before we threw over all the restraints of morality, if we did not believe that there were supernatural sanctions at the back of all our ideas of right and wrong? Oh, to be sure, we all know good atheists.
But we all have the feeling about them that they are, as it were, chewing the cud of that Christianity in which their ancestors believed; they are living up to a code which is in fact Christian, although they do not acknowledge it. Construct a godless civilization and you do not have to wait long before you find out whether the children bred in it acquire pretty habits or not. All that is true; that the world would be very much poorer if it had no leaven of religion in it, and that a great many of us, who haven’t got good digestions to start with, would find life a pretty poor show if there were no elements in the make-up of it besides those which we meet with in the daily experience of our senses.
But, as I say, I think the most interesting answer to the question, “What difference does religion make?” is just to point at the people who haven’t got any, and leave it to be solved by inspection. I don’t mean the happy-go-lucky people who don’t seem to bother about religion or anything else much; they can be quite good company. But your professionally irreligious person, if I may use that phrase, is such a bad advertisement, I think, for his absence of religion.
I don’t want to put a name to it, to describe their atmosphere as one of bumptiousness, or as one of priggishness, or as one of shocking bad manners; I would prefer to say that there is something definitely subhuman about it; there’s a blind spot in them which makes all human commerce with them difficult, which makes the room seem more comfortable when they have gone out of it. But that may be only a personal fad of mine, so I won’t go on about it.
But no, there’s a very important point to be raised which we haven’t raised yet. Granted that religion is all we say, that it makes people happier, makes them less bewildered, makes them better citizens, makes them (if I am any judge of the matter) more comfortable people to meet — is it necessary that the religion one holds should be true? Or will a bogus one do? You see, we have been treating religion, after all, as if it were a mere attitude one can adopt towards life, and as we think a worthwhile attitude.
But surely it would be equally effective if, as a matter of fact, there were no supernatural realities behind it. The peace of Europe can be preserved as long as this country thinks that country has a secret weapon capable of finishing any war in forty-five minutes; the existence of the weapon doesn’t matter as long as it is thought to be there. The question, I need hardly say, is not often raised in that form. But it is often raised in the subsidiary form, “Does it matter what a man believes, or how much he believes, as long as it gives him that religious attitude towards life which, everybody agrees, is so valuable?”
You meet that doubt in any number of forms; people telling you that one kind of Christianity is as valuable as another, as long as it makes people good and happy, and therefore we Catholics oughtn’t to proselytize. Public men getting up and telling us that England is finished unless we can introduce some religion into the Youth Movement, without saying what religion.
People like Aldous Huxley making out that mysticism is the only thing which is worth having, and whether it is Christian or Buddhist mysticism is only a matter of detail. People like his brother wondering if we couldn’t make do with a kind of synthetic religion — “emotion tinged with morality”, the Victorians used to call it — based not on any belief in the supernatural world but on a conspiracy to behave as if the supernatural world was there. All that happens, you see, the moment you start going about saying that religion is a good thing. You are understood, not unreasonably, to mean that the religious attitude is a good thing. Is religion just that, or something more? Where does the Credo come into it?
The truth is that the word “religion” under the Christian dispensation has changed its meaning. It does not stand for a mere attitude, it stands for a transaction; if you will, for the paying off of a debt. Religion, in our sense, means the offering up of a man’s self to God; for us Christians, it means the offering up to God of Jesus Christ, the perfect Victim once for all immolated in our stead, and of ourselves in union with that sacrifice. It means an adoration which aims, if that were possible, at annihilating our own creaturely existence so as to give God the honor which is his due.
Religion in our sense is a claim; the claim which God has upon us for worship of whatever kind, and in whatever currency, he demands. The Jews under the old dispensation were not making a foolish mistake in offering up bulls and rams, however primitive, mechanical and messy that kind of sacrifice may seem to us. They were doing what he told them to do, acknowledging their creatureliness and mystically immolating it to him by taking the life of dumb creatures. He has done us a greater honor; he demands of us, more explicitly and more stringently than of them, that we should offer up ourselves, souls and bodies, as a reasonable sacrifice; that is, a human sacrifice, not one of brute beasts. Religion is adoring God.
Incidentally, it does claim from us a conditioning of our behavior; we are to live the Christ-imitating life. That demand still ties us down; or shall we rather say that it ties us up? That is integrates us, makes of our souls a unity, in which reason governs the other faculties, and reason itself is subject to God? But equally, religion claims from us the adherence of our intellect to truths which God has revealed; a Christ-imitating life which still denies him the homage of believing what he tells us is a life imperfectly Christian.
Don’t let us sit down, then, under descriptions of “religion” or “Christianity” which imply that it is simply a dodge to keep you straight at school. The world around us is all too ready to talk in that way, and to rejoice if we allow it to be assumed that we agree with the description. God knows we have to be careful, in a censorious society, not to let it be said that we Catholics don’t bother much about the moral, or the civic, virtues.
But don’t let us imagine that any code of conduct, keeping our word, or controlling our senses, or being kind towards our neighbors, is itself the Christian thing. It is only the flower springing from the root; and the root is humbling ourselves, offering ourselves, annihilating ourselves, in the presence of Almighty God.