Dunstan Ramsey’s account of his life involves at almost every stage questions about religion, faith, and morality. Can one have faith without religion (or religion without faith)? Does being faithful or religious make us morally upright?
Families in Dunstan’s small hometown of Deptford, Ontario are divided by religion: one’s social life and community is determined by whether one is Presbyterian, Baptist, Anglican, etc. Though Dunstan’s family is Presbyterian, they provide help to the Baptist Mrs. Dempster when a snowball (meant for Dunstan) hits her in the head and causes her to prematurely give birth to her son Paul. Dunstan’s exposure to Mr. Dempster, a Baptist preacher, teaches him that “deeply religious” men are not always faithful or moral men. Dunstan believes Mrs. Dempster—though she is aloof and far too trivial for this hardened protestant town’s taste, and ultimately is discovered having consensual sex with a tramp—is more godly than her devout husband. In fact, Dunstan becomes convinced that Mrs. Dempster is a saint, and perceives her to perform three miracles: bringing Dunstan’s brother Willy back from the dead, reforming the tramp with whom she has sex that night, and appearing to Dunstan in a kind of vision when he is an injured soldier during WWI. Dunstan’s interest in saints (which is regarded by others as an illegitimate interest, since he is a protestant) drives the course of his whole life—he becomes a scholar of sainthood, and travels the world to better learn the stories of saints, allowing these stories to inform his faith and his moral decision-making.
The religion, faith, and morality of other main characters in the novel are also investigated at length. Paul grows up to be a magician—and his belief in the power of illusion is described as a kind of faith by Dunstan, who in many ways shares this belief. Boy Staunton (who threw the snowball that hit Mrs. Dempster, but doesn’t remember doing so) is in many ways an investigation of moral and religious failure. He is indecisive about religion, ultimately declaring himself an atheist. Dunstan maintains that Boy only became an atheist because he worshipped himself as God, and was disappointed.
The book concludes decisively that there is nothing inherently moral about religion, though it does stress the importance of faith to a person’s moral fiber as well as his self-knowledge, self-love, and self-discovery. In other words, the book posits that in coming to find and know our own personal faiths, we come to find and know ourselves. In many ways the novel (structured as a letter from an old man, desperate to reveal that his life has significance) is an investigation of how our lives come to have meaning; Davies’ conclusion is that faith (whether it be in saints, God, magic, or anything else) is crucial to this sense of meaning.
Religion, Faith, and Morality ThemeTracker
Religion, Faith, and Morality Quotes in Fifth Business
Nobody—not even my mother—was to be trusted in a strange world that showed very little of itself on the surface.
In later life I have been sometimes praised, sometimes mocked, for my way of pointing out the mythical elements that seem to me to underlie our apparently ordinary lives.
I cannot remember a time when I did not take it as understood that everybody has at least two, if not twenty-two, sides to him.
I felt that everything was good, that my spirit was wholly my own, and that though all was strange nothing was evil.
I was rediscovering religion as well…The Presbyterianism of my childhood had effectively insulated me against any enthusiastic abandonment to faith
I rather liked the Greek notion of allowing Chance to take a formative hand in my affairs.
“A fool-saint is somebody who seems to be full of holiness…but because he’s a fool it all comes to nothing…because it is virtue tainted with madness, and you can’t tell where it’ll end up.”
Now I should be able to see what a saint was really like and perhaps make a study of one without the apparatus of Rome, which I had no power to invoke. The idea possessed me that it might lie in my power to make a serious contribution to the psychology of religion.
“What good would it do you if I told you she was indeed a saint? I cannot make saints, nor can the pope. We can only recognize saints when the plainest evidence shows them to be saintly.”
Why do people all over the world, and at all times, want marvels that defy all verifiable facts?...The marvelous is indeed an aspect of the real.
“Life is a spectator sport to you.”
“You created a God in your own image, and when you found out he was no good you abolished him. It’s a quite common form of psychological suicide.”
“Come to Switzerland and join the Basso and the Brazen Head. We shall have some high old times before The Five make an end of us all.”