Sherlock Holmes on Religion

by Drew R. Thomas

When Dr. John H. Watson first resided with Sherlock Holmes in the rooms at 221B Baker Street, he became so intrigued about Holmes's enigmatic character that he was preoccupied for a time.

Contrasting Holmes's wealth of knowledge on certain obscure subjects against his apparent lack of knowledge on better-known topics, Watson wrote, "His zeal for certain studies was remarkable, and within eccentric limits his knowledge was so extraordinarily ample and minute that his observations have fairly astounded me." (A Study in Scarlet, chapter 2.) Watson continued, "His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing."

When Holmes professed ignorance of the Copernican Theory, Watson tells us, "That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it."

This led to the following conversation between Holmes and Watson:

"You appear to be astonished," he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. "Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it."

"To forget it!"

"You see," he explained, "I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones."

"But the Solar System!" I protested.

"What the deuce is it to me?" he interrupted impatiently; "you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work."

--A Study in Scarlet, chapter 2

As true to Holmes's precepts as this explanation may be, one can't help but consider that Holmes may well have been employing a tad bit of hyperbole simply to make a point. When one later observes Holmes quoting from literature, as in the following examples, one becomes convinced that Holmes told Watson his "brain-attic" theory with a nod and a wink.

  • Holmes said to Watson, "You may remember the old Persian saying, 'There is danger for him who taketh the tiger cub, and danger also for whoso snatches a delusion from a woman.' There is as much sense in Hafiz as in Horace, and as much knowledge of the world."

--"A Case of Identity"

  • Compare Ecclesiastes 10:8 from the Bible ("He that diggeth a pit shall fall into it; and whoso breaketh an hedge, a serpent shall bite him." King James Version [KJV]) and Psalm 7:16 ("His mischief shall return upon his own head, and his violent dealing shall come down upon his own pate." [KJV]) with the following:

    "It is a swamp adder!" cried Holmes; "the deadliest snake in India. He has died within ten seconds of being bitten. Violence does, in truth, recoil upon the violent, and the schemer falls into the pit which he digs for another. Let us thrust this creature back into its den, and we can then remove Miss Stoner to some place of shelter and let the county police know what has happened."

--"The Speckled Band"

  • Holmes's knowledge of the Bible extends to the story of David and Bathsheba, as the following passage shows:

    "Come, Watson, I don't think we shall be wanted in Aldershot any more."

    "There's one thing," said I, as we walked down to the station. "If the husband's name was James, and the other was Henry, what was this talk about David?"

    "That one word, my dear Watson, should have told me the whole story had I been the ideal reasoner which you are so fond of depicting. It was evidently a term of reproach."

    "Of reproach?"

    "Yes; David strayed a little occasionally, you know, and on one occasion in the same direction as Sergeant James Barclay. You remember the small affair of Uriah and Bathsheba? My biblical knowledge is a trifle rusty, I fear, but you will find the story in the first or second of Samuel."

--"The Crooked Man"

In The Sign of the Four, Holmes reveals that his reading extends beyond the scope of knowledge of immediate concern to his work. At the beginning of his investigation into the Mary Morstan case, Holmes remarks to Watson, "...I am going out now. I have some few references to make. Let me recommend this book,--one of the most remarkable ever penned. It is Winwood Reade's 'Martyrdom of Man.' I shall be back in an hour." (Chapter 2). Watson tells us, "I sat in the window with the volume in my hand, but my thoughts were far from the daring speculations of the writer."

Toward the end of the Morstan case, Holmes, Watson and police inspector Athelney Jones are on a stakeout. Watson writes:

"That is Jacobson's Yard," said Holmes, pointing to a bristle of masts and rigging on the Surrey side. "Cruise gently up and down here under cover of this string of lighters." He took a pair of night-glasses from his pocket and gazed some time at the shore. "I see my sentry at his post," he remarked, "but no sign of a handkerchief."
"Suppose we go down-stream a short way and lie in wait for them," said Jones, eagerly. We were all eager by this time, even the policemen and stokers, who had a very vague idea of what was going forward.
"We have no right to take anything for granted," Holmes answered. "It is certainly ten to one that they go down-stream, but we cannot be certain. From this point we can see the entrance of the yard, and they can hardly see us. It will be a clear night and plenty of light. We must stay where we are. See how the folk swarm over yonder in the gaslight."
"They are coming from work in the yard."
"Dirty-looking rascals, but I suppose every one has some little immortal spark concealed about him. You would not think it, to look at them. There is no a priori probability about it. A strange enigma is man!"
"Some one calls him a soul concealed in an animal," I suggested.
"Winwood Reade is good upon the subject," said Holmes. "He remarks that, while the individual man is an insoluble puzzle, in the aggregate he becomes a mathematical certainty. You can, for example, never foretell what any one man will do, but you can say with precision what an average number will be up to. Individuals vary, but percentages remain constant. So says the statistician...."

--The Sign of the Four, chapter 10

Holmes's reference to "some little immortal spark" smacks of at least an acquaintance with the "Divine spark" belief of early Greek Gnostic religion.

In a remarkable passage in "The Naval Treaty," Holmes interrupts his investigation of a case to speculate on the nature of religion and the goodness of Providence. Watson describes the scene as Holmes concludes his interview with Percy Phelps and Miss Annie Harrison:

"Thank you. I have no doubt I can get details from Forbes. The authorities are excellent at amassing facts, though they do not always use them to advantage. What a lovely thing a rose is!"
He walked past the couch to the open window, and held up the drooping stalk of a moss-rose, looking down at the dainty blend of crimson and green. It was a new phase of his character to me, for I had never before seen him show any keen interest in natural objects.
"There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion," said he, leaning with his back against the shutters. "It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner. Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its color are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers."
Percy Phelps and his nurse looked at Holmes during this demonstration with surprise and a good deal of disappointment written upon their faces. He had fallen into a reverie, with the moss-rose between his fingers. It had lasted some minutes before the young lady broke in upon it.
"Do you see any prospect of solving this mystery, Mr. Holmes?" she asked, with a touch of asperity in her voice.
"Oh, the mystery!" he answered, coming back with a start to the realities of life. "Well, it would be absurd to deny that the case is a very abstruse and complicated one, but I can promise you that I will look into the matter and let you know any points which may strike me."
"Do you see any clue?"
"You have furnished me with seven, but, of course, I must test them before I can pronounce upon their value."
"You suspect some one?"
"I suspect myself."
"Of coming to conclusions too rapidly."
"Then go to London and test your conclusions."
"Your advice is very excellent, Miss Harrison," said Holmes, rising.

--"The Naval Treaty"

Holmes's professed lack of interest in philosophy (and religion) is belied by his words and actions. Watson's earlier presumptions are at least partially erroneous. As he came to know Holmes better, Dr. Watson was more able to understand the hidden depths of the master detective's personality.

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