Marx famously wrote that religion is a kind of drug constructed to keep the masses bovine (cow-like) and contented, chewing their cud comfortably and not confronting the true nature of life. Joyce delivers a similarly cynical and unflinchingly critical picture of religion in Portrait of the Artist; our hero, albeit in a markedly un-cow-like and intensely cerebral fashion, also latches on to religion as a system of definite explanation. However, religion is rejected as a solution to life’s unanswerable questions, both by Joyce and by Stephen, who realizes that life is not that simple, and that the strict rules and regulations of the Church can’t explain everything. The book implies that no religious doctrine, Catholic or otherwise, can provide universal solutions, and furthermore, that dogma often limits the possibilities of human accomplishment.
The defining feature or religion throughout the novel is a lack of passionate involvement in the world.
Stephen pursues Catholicism in an attempt to impose an external system of order on his life, and thus hopes to resolve the confusion of his home life, identity, and lack of purpose.