Art and Religion

While this seems true in the main, I am not sure it will hold in every

case. Please think it out for yourself, and if I happen to be wrong,

why, put me straight.

The proposition is this: the artist needs no religion beyond his work.

That is to say, art is religion to the man who thinks beautiful thoughts

and expresses them for others the best he can. Religion is an emotional

excitement whereby the devotee rises into a state of spiritual

sublimity, and for the moment is bathed in an atmosphere of rest, and

peace, and love. All normal men and women crave such periods; and

Bernard Shaw says that we reach them through strong tea, tobacco,

whiskey, opium, love, art or religion.

I think Bernard Shaw a cynic, but there is a glimmer of truth in his

idea that makes it worth repeating. But beyond the natural religion,

which is a passion for oneness with the Whole, all formalized religions

engraft the element of fear, and teach the necessity of placating a

Supreme Being. Our idea of a Supreme Being is suggested to us by the

political government under which we live. The situation was summed up by

Carlyle, when he said that Deity to the average British mind was simply

an infinite George IV. The thought of God as a terrible Supreme Tyrant

first found form in an unlimited monarchy; but as governments have

become more lenient so have the gods, until you get them down (or up) to

a republic, where God is only a president, and we all approach Him in

familiar prayer, on an absolute equality.

Then soon, for the first time, we find man saying, "I am God, and you

are God, and we are all simply particles of Him," and this is where the

president is done away with, and the referendum comes in. But the

absence of a supreme governing head implies simplicity, honesty,

justice, and sincerity. Wherever plottings, schemings and doubtful

methods of life are employed, a ruler is necessary; and there, too,

religion, with its idea of placating God has a firm hold. Men whose

lives are doubtful feel the need of a strong government and a hot

religion. Formal religion and sin go hand in hand. Formal religion and

slavery go hand in hand. Formal religion and tyranny go hand in hand.

Formal religion and ignorance go hand in hand.

And sin, slavery, tyranny and ignorance are one--they are never


Formal religion is a scheme whereby man hopes to make peace with his

Maker; and a formal religion also tends to satisfy the sense of

sublimity where the man has failed to find satisfaction in his work.

Voltaire says, "When woman no longer finds herself acceptable to man,

she turns to God," When man is no longer acceptable to himself he goes

to church. In order to keep this article from extending itself into a

tome, I purposely omitted saying a single thing about the Protestant

Church as a useful Social Club and have just assumed for argument's sake

that the church is really a religious institution.

A formal religion is only a cut 'cross lots--an attempt to bring about

the emotions and the sensations that come to a man by the practice of

love, virtue, excellence and truth. When you do a splendid piece of work

and express your best, there comes to you, as reward, an exaltation of

soul, a sublimity of feeling that puts you for the time being in touch

with the Infinite. A formal religion brings this feeling without your

doing anything useful, therefore it is unnatural.

Formalized religion is the strongest where sin, slavery, tyranny and

ignorance abound. Where men are free, enlightened and at work, they find

all the gratification in their work that their souls demand--they cease

to hunt outside themselves for something to give them rest. They are at

peace with themselves, at peace with man and with God.

But any man chained to a hopeless task, whose daily work does not

express himself, who is dogged by a boss, whenever he gets a moment of

respite turns to drink or religion.

Men with an eye on Saturday night, who plot to supplant some one else,

who can locate an employer any hour of the day, who use their wit to

evade labor, who think only of their summer vacation when they will no

longer be compelled to work, are apt to be sticklers for Sabbath-keeping

and church-going.

Gentlemen in business who give eleven for a dozen, and count thirty-four

inches a yard, who are quick to foreclose a mortgage, and who say

"business is business," generally are vestrymen, deacons and church

trustees. Look about you! Predaceous real estate dealers who set nets

for all the unwary, lawyers who lie in wait for their prey, merchant

princes who grind their clerks under the wheel, and oil magnates whose

history was never written, nor could be written, often make peace with

God, and find a gratification for their sense of sublimity by building

churches, founding colleges, giving libraries, and holding firmly to a

formalized religion. Look about you!

To recapitulate: if your life-work is doubtful, questionable or

distasteful, you will hold the balance true by going outside your

vocation for the gratification that is your due, but which your daily

work denies, and you find it in religion, I do not say this is always

so, but it is very often. Great sinners are apt to be very religious;

and conversely, the best men who have ever lived have been at war with

established religions. And further, the best men are never found

in churches.

Men deeply immersed in their work, whose lives are consecrated to doing

things, who are simple, honest and sincere, desire no formal religion,

need no priest nor pastor, and seek no gratification outside their daily

lives. All they ask is to be let alone--they wish only the privilege

to work.

When Samuel Johnson, on his death bed, made Joshua Reynolds promise he

would do no more work on Sunday, he of course had no conception of the

truth that Reynolds reached through work the same condition of mind that

he, Johnson, had reached by going to church. Johnson despised work and

Reynolds loved it; Johnson considered one day in the week holy; to

Reynolds all days were sacred--sacred to work; that is, to the

expression of his best. Why should you cease to express your holiest and

highest on Sunday? Ah, I know why you don't work on Sunday! It is

because you think that work is degrading, and because your sale and

barter is founded on fraud, and your goods are shoddy. Your week-day

dealings lie like a pall upon your conscience, and you need a day in

which to throw off the weariness of that slavery under which you live.

You are not free yourself, and you insist that others shall not be free.

You have ceased to make work gladsome, and you toil and make others

toil with you, and you all well nigh faint from weariness and disgust.

You are slave and slave-owner, for to own slaves is to be one.

But the artist is free and he works in joy, and to him all things are

good and all days are holy. The great inventors, thinkers, poets,

musicians and artists have all been men of deep religious natures; but

their religion has never been a formalized, restricted, ossified

religion. They did not worship at set times and places. Their religion

has been a natural and spontaneous blossoming of the intellect and

emotions--they have worked in love, not only one day in the week, but

all days, and to them the groves have always and ever been God's

first temples.

Let us work to make men free! Am I bad because I want to give you

freedom, and have you work in gladness instead of fear?

Do not hesitate to work on Sunday, just as you would think good thoughts

if the spirit prompts you. For work is, at the last, only the expression

of your thought, and there can be no better religion than good work.

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