Study Guide

The Catcher in the Rye Religion

By J. D. Salinger

Religion

Chapter 3
Holden Caulfield

Where I lived at Pencey, I lived in the Ossenburger Memorial Wing of the new dorms. […] It was named after this guy Ossenburger that went to Pencey. He made a pot of dough in the undertaking business after he got out of Pencey. […] He made a speech that lasted about ten hours. He started off with about fifty corny jokes, just to show us what a regular guy he was. Very big deal. Then he started telling us how he was never ashamed, when he was in some kind of trouble or something, to get right down his knees and pray to God. He told us we should always pray to God—talk to Him and all—wherever we were. He told us we ought to think of Jesus as our buddy and all. He said he talked to Jesus all the time. Even when he was driving his car. That killed me. I just see the big phony bastard shifting into first gear and asking Jesus to send him a few more stiffs. (3.2)

Holden obviously doesn’t think too much of religion—and he make a good point. But isn’t the problem Ossenburger, not the religion?

Chapter 7
Holden Caulfield

"Listen. What's the routine on joining a monastery?" I asked him. I was sort of toying with the idea of joining one. "Do you have to be a Catholic and all?"

"Certainly you have to be a Catholic. You bastard, did you wake me just to ask me a dumb questions"

"Aah, go back to sleep. I'm not gonna join one anyway. The kind of luck I have, I'd probably join one with all the wrong kind of monks in it. All stupid bastards. Or just bastards."

When I said that, old Ackley sat way the hell up in bed.

"Listen," he said, "I don't care what you say about me or anything, but if you start making cracks about my goddam religion, for Chrissake–"

"Relax," I said. "Nobody's making any cracks about your goddam religion." I got up off Ely's bed, and started towards the door. I didn't want to hang around in that stupid atmosphere any more. (7.50-54)

Holden is right—he isn't making cracks about the religion itself, just like he doesn't really make cracks about education itself. What he's criticizing are the people inside the institutions, the phony people who use organizations for their own purposes.

Chapter 14

Finally, though, I got undressed and got in bed. I felt like praying or something, when I was in bed, but I couldn't do it. I can't always pray when I feel like it. In the first place, I'm sort of an atheist. I like Jesus and all, but I don't care too much for most of the other stuff in the Bible. Take the Disciples, for instance. They annoy the hell out of me, if you want to know the truth. They were all right after Jesus was dead and all, but while He was alive, they were about as much use to Him as a hole in the head. All they did was keep letting Him down. I like almost anybody in the Bible better than the Disciples. If you want to know the truth, the guy I like best in the Bible, next to Jesus, was that lunatic and all, that lived in the tombs and kept cutting himself with stones. I like him ten times as much as the Disciples, that poor bastard. […] I'd bet a thousand bucks that Jesus never sent old Judas to Hell. […] I think any one of the Disciples would've sent him to Hell and all—and fast, too—but I'll bet anything Jesus didn't do it. (14.2)

All Holden really understands and thinks about is people. He can't accept the disciples as symbols or an allegory because he judges them as real individuals—making up backstories, motivations, and rationales.

Holden Caulfield

In the first place, my parents are different religions, and all the children in our family are atheists. If you want to know the truth, I can't even stand ministers. The ones they've had at every school I've gone to, they all have these Holy Joe voices when they start giving their sermons. God, I hate that. I don't see why the hell they can't talk in their natural voice. They sound so phony when they talk. (14.2)

Since he doesn't like sermons, he's an atheist. Since he doesn't like Oral Expression classes, he isn't into learning. Hm. Sounds like Holden isn’t quite seeing the forest for the trees. As they say.

Chapter 15
Holden Caulfield

The one next to me, with the iron glasses, said she taught English and her friend taught history and American government. Then I started wondering like a bastard what the one sitting next to me, that taught English, thought about, being a nun and all, when she read certain books for English. Books not necessarily with a lot of sexy stuff in them, but books with lovers and all in them. Take old Eustacia Vye, in The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy. She wasn't too sexy or anything, but even so you can't help wondering what a nun maybe thinks about when she reads about old Eustacia. I didn't say anything, though, naturally. All I said was English was my best subject. (15.18)

We keep talking about how Holden sees people—not people's professions—yet here he has trouble getting past the fact that this woman is a nun. He might not have much respect for preachers or funeral directors, but he does seem to respect nuns.

I knew this one Catholic boy, Louis Shaney, when I was at the Whooton School. […] Then, after a while, right in the middle of the goddam conversation, he asked me, "Did you happen to notice where the Catholic church is in town, by any chance?" The thing was, you could tell by the way he asked me that he was trying to find out if I was a Catholic. He really was. Not that he was prejudiced or anything, but he just wanted to know. He was enjoying the conversation about tennis and all, but you could tell he would've enjoyed it more if I was a Catholic and all. That kind of stuff drives me crazy. I'm not saying it ruined our conversation or anything—it didn't—but it sure as hell didn't do it any good. That's why I was glad those two nuns didn't ask me if I was a Catholic. It wouldn't have spoiled the conversation if they had, but it would've been different, probably. I'm not saying I blame Catholics. I don't. I'd be the same way, probably, if I was a Catholic. It's just like those suitcases I was telling you about, in a way. All I'm saying is that it's no good for a nice conversation. That's all I'm saying. (15.29)

Okay, we kind of love the comparison of the Catholic stuff to the suitcase business from a few paragraphs earlier. First, it's structurally brilliant, as Salinger ties together two otherwise distinct portions of the chapter—it tells us that we’re not reading the ramblings of some teenage kid; we’re reading a carefully crafted novel. Second, it tells us that Holden sees religion as creating barriers—just like class differences. Maybe that’s why Holden resents religion (and maybe class as well): he's searching for personal connections, and these categories are "no good for a nice conversation."