“We make a cage for air with holes, I thought, and 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. My wife had found her cage with holes and sometimes I envied her. There is a conflict between sun and air: I lived too much in the sun
Fowler uses this metaphor after entering the Caodaist cathedral during his day trip to Tanyin in part two, chapter 2. Fowler’s use of the cage imagery in this passage indicates his feeling that religion is a form of imprisonment, sequestering the believer from the outside world. Fowler also describes this cage as being perforated by doubts, creating little holes that let in the air from the outside world. This outside world, with its sun and its represents reality. The cage of religion keeps its faithful prisoners ignorant of this reality, and their doubts allow just enough air to circulate through the cage, allowing them to stay alive. When Fowler expresses that “there is a conflict between sun and air,” he means that there is a fundamental difference between people who remain in the airy cage of religion and people who live in the sunny world of reality.
What makes this quotation so strange is less the metaphor Fowler uses and more the conclusion he reaches through it. As he looks around the cathedral, Fowler contemplates the nature of religion and the commitment that his own wife, Helen, has made to her faith. Unsurprisingly, given that Fowler considers himself an atheist, he concludes that he has no need for faith because no event or phenomenon proves inexplicable. For Fowler, it seems like a badge of honor not to resort to religion and to remain firmly grounded in secular reality. It is therefore surprising that Fowler concludes his metaphor of the cage of religion by declaring that he “has lived too much in the sun,” meaning that he has lived too much of his life without faith. At this moment, the cage seems less like a prison and more like a protective enclosure. Exposure to the sun and the weather can be harsh, and Fowler has long endured the harshness of reality. He, too, longs for reprieve from the elements, and he thinks that he might not suffer as much if he could find faith in a higher power. His tragedy, of course, is that he cannot.