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God and Sherlock Holmes

August 8th, 2013by Dan Andriacco

The archetypical fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, who made his debut in the late Victorian age, is showing new life in the 21st century as the hero of a series of films and TV shows on both sides of the Atlantic.

I have more than a passing interest in Holmes, having written a book of essays about him as well as five published detective novels of my own. This long-time fascination with the sleuth isn’t as unrelated to my day job as communications director of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati as one might think.

Because Holmes is a scientific and rational man, numerous commentators have attempted to portray him as an atheist. But his words in the stories just don’t support that. There’s even a book called The Gospel According to Sherlock Holmes.

Several moving passages from the stories in particular make it clear that Holmes did believe in God, although he may not have embraced an organized religion.

At the end of an especially sad case called “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box,” Holmes breaks out with this cry of the heart:
“What is the meaning of it, Watson? What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever.”

That is, of course, a problem that has challenged people of faith for centuries. And the great detective doesn’t offer a solution. In another story, however, he does give his viewpoint on how to deal with some of the challenges of life. In “The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger,” he advises the horribly disfigured title character against taking her own life. She wonders what use it is to anyone. “How can you tell?” he responds. “The example of patient suffering is in itself the most precious of all lessons to an impatient world.”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote the Sherlock Holmes tales, was a spiritualist. But he had been reared a Catholic, and it seems that the Catholic understanding of the redemptive value of suffering never left him – or his most famous creation.

His very realistic view of the world did not leave Holmes a pessimist or an atheist. At a decisive point in “The Naval Treaty,” he pauses to pick up a rose and muse about its meaning to his friend Dr. Watson.

“There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion,” he says. “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.”

I’m not sure that bit of deduction would convince an atheist or satisfy a systematic theologian, but it makes sense to me.

Photo credit: Statue of Sherlock Holmes in Switzerland. Juhansen photo, used under Creative Commons License.

Dan Andriacco

Dan Andriacco has been communications director of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati since 1997. He holds a Master of Arts degree in Religion from the Athenaeum of Ohio and a Doctor of Ministry degree from Columbia Theological Seminary. He has written five published mystery novels and three other books.