Art And Religion by Elbert Hubbard

Story type: Essay

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.

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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 separated.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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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