The Quotable Morse Peckham
On Literature, Life, and Beyond


"Although I was a publicly declared atheist at the age of seven—inspired by the now forgotten but once nationally scandalous Atheists' Club at the University of Rochester, which I had read about in the now almost equally forgotten Literary Digest—I have often been assured that mine is a fundamentally religious personality. This assurance has usually come from those converted to some religious sect from a secular humanism, and my own conversion to Roman Catholicism, or Anglicanism—rarely anything else, though once to Buddhism—has been frequently and freely prophesied more often than I care to remember."
["Religion as a Humanizing Force," Southern Humanities Review 4/3 (1970): 217.]

"What then is the religious experience? I believe it is the sense of value. I do not mean values, such as moral or philosophical or artistic or scientific values; nor do I mean the sense of personal worth or value. Rather, I mean the psychic experience that can perhaps be talked about in the sentence that life is worth the trouble it takes to live it. ... It may, then, be said to be the experience of meaningfulness abstracted from the conventionalized meaning functions of the sign which triggers it. Hence it is easily conventionalized within a culture to be triggered by specific signs, and for the innovative individual it is just as easily separated from those signs. The more complex the culture, and the more necessarily various and incoherent its value system, the greater the range of religious signs. In a very advanced culture such as ours, they become increasingly privatized and oddly pervasive within the culture. Secularism is the cultural transcendence of conventionalized religious signs. It is the most religious of religious sects in the sense that it allows both the greatest range of religious signs and the greatest innovation of privately conventionalized religious signs, as well as privately conventionalized rituals."
["Religion as a Humanizing Force," Southern Humanities Review 4/3 (1970): 218-19.]

"When [Anthony] Wallace says that science is displacing religion, he should say that correcting a theoretical construct is displacing the mere reinforcing of it. But, of course, to correct such constructs, or myths, is part of the history of religion also, and the first great overhauling of Christianity, the Reformation, coincided with the emergence of modern science. Speaking very broadly, religious beliefs validate the explanatory and social management systems of a culture. When the culture is faced with a challenge which those two systems cannot manage, religion is necessarily affected and requires a radical overhauling, a resynthesis."
[Victorian Revolutionaries: Speculations on Some Heroes of a Culture Crisis (New York: George Braziller, 1970), 216.]

"Ever since the Revolution and the Napoleonic cultural reorganization, Europe has experienced a permanent measle-like rash of strange religions."
["Browning and Romanticism" (1973), in Romanticism and Ideology (Greenwood, FL: The Penkevill Publishing Company, 1985), 109.]

"One of the consequences of the Enlightenment was the displacement of the word 'God' by the name for a country (a 'nation'). Wars between nations have taken the place of wars between religions."
[Explanation and Power: The Control of Human Behavior (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1979), 197-98.]

"The history of the gods is the history of the central task of human life, the continuous endeavor to stabilize cultural instructions and the equally continuous and equally important endeavor to destabilize them."
["Valuing," Pre/Text 10/3-4 (1989): 218.]