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It pleases me to stand in silence here;
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground…

—Philip Larkin, “Church Going”

The “hunger” Philip Larkin talks about is the urge to move beyond the ordinary phenomena of the world, deriving from an often inchoate sense of what William James called an “unseen order” transcending ordinary things. Larkin says that this hunger is what returns people to churches—and surely to temples, mosques and synagogues too—and he suggests that this is why they will not become obsolete. Larkin is surely right that this impulse is responsible for the persistence of religious belief and religious institutions. It seems to be a combination of psychological attitudes: the attempt to understand, a sense of the mystery of the world, the feeling that there must be more to it all than just what we see around us. But why do people who have this urge for the transcendent also tend to participate in social rituals and practices? Why should this impulse, these attitudes, lead to church?

Part of the answer is that the church answers to another deep human need—the need to identify and belong. A church provides a common framework in which these impulses can be engaged together with others, and a common vocabulary and set of ideas in terms of which they can be articulated. A full account of religious belief must, I believe, take account of these two elements: both the religious impulse (the “hunger”) and identification with an existing social group. Of course, these two elements can come apart in the lives of individual religious believers. There can be people who have the religious impulse but do not participate in any practices; and there can be people who participate but lack any sense of the transcendent, or any interest in pursuing it. But in full religious belief and in the major religious traditions, the two elements tend to go together.

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