Study Guide

The Quiet American Religion

By Graham Greene

Religion

Relations with the colonel in charge of the French and Vietnamese troops had always been strained since the day when the authorities had disbanded the Bishop's private army. This year the colonel – who had some sympathy with the Bishop, for to each of them his country was more important than Catholicism – made a gesture if amity and walked with his senior officials in front of the procession. (1.4.1.4)

True to the complexities of life, Greene paints a blurred picture of church and state relations. The bishop here is a religious leader who cares more about matters of state than matters of God. He even had his own personal army, until it was taken from him. We sure God just loved that.

He was a European, but not a Frenchman, for the Bishop would not tolerate a French priest in his diocese. (1.4.1.6)

The irony here is that Catholicism is supposed to be a global community that rises above and can include all nations and peoples. The word catholic means universal. The Bishop is supposed to put Catholic identity above national identity, but national dislike overrides any sentiments he has towards solidarity.

They believed, whatever their religion, that here [in the Cathedral] they would be safe. (1.4.1.8)

A Cathedral is a big, impressive structure, built to last generations, even centuries. No wonder it's a symbol of security. Too bad bombs and napalm don't seem to care.

"It's a strange, poor population God has in his kingdom, frightened, cold, starving…" (1.4.1.8)

Fowler's complaints with Catholicism are not original. Like many others, he cannot reconcile a loving God with the prevalence of suffering in the world.

"If I believed in any God at all, I should still hate the idea of confession. Kneeling in one of your boxes. Exposing myself to another man. You must excuse me, Father, but to me it seems morbid – unmanly, even." (1.4.1.22)

By the novel's end, Fowler hasn't stepped any closer to belief in God, but he has perhaps begun to review his antagonism toward confession. He longs for somebody to whom he can apologize for his wrongdoing.

Wouldn't we all do better not trying to understand, accepting the fact that no human being will ever understand another, not a wife a husband, a lover a mistress, nor a parent a child? Perhaps that's why men have invented God – a being capable of understanding. Perhaps if I wanted to be understood or to understand I would bamboozle myself into belief, but I am a reporter; God exists only for leader-writers. (1.4.2.86)

Leader-writers are editorialists or opinion writers.

I was certain he knew that all of us were there to laugh at his movement; our air of respect was as corrupt as his phoney hierarchy, but we were less cunning. Our hypocrisy gained us nothing – not even a reliable ally, while theirs had procured arms, supplies, even cash down. (2.2.1.8)

Fowler isn't one to thumb his nose at religion. He thinks religious is a fiction, but a useful one.

We make a cage for air with holes, I thought, and a man makes a cage for his religion in much the same way – with doubts left open to the weather and creeds opening on innumerable interpretations. (2.2.1.49)

Fowler observes that religion needn't be locked into an immovable prison. Even those most dogmatic beliefs can evolve with the times by being understood in new contexts or in light of new information. We're not sure quite everyone will agree with that conclusion though…

I had never desired faith. The job of a reporter is to expose and record. I had never in my career discovered the inexplicable. The Pope worked his prophesies with a pencil in a moveable lid and the people believed. In any vision somewhere you could find the planchette. I had no visions or miracles in my repertoire of memory. (2.2.1.50)

Is Fowler too enclosed in his identity as a reporter? Does his self-understanding prevent him from seeing or appreciating "beliefs" he cannot simply report as factual occurrences? Or is his profession the right way to seek knowledge of the universe?

'You don't believe in Him, do you?'
'No.'
'Things to me wouldn't make sense without Him.'
'They don't make sense to me with him.' (2.2.3.196-199)

Pyle's and Fowler's senses of God in a nutshell: for Pyle, God is necessary to make sense of life; for Fowler, adding God to the mix makes the world even more absurd. Whose team are you on?