The conversation that I had with Wauna gave me so much uneasiness that I sought her mother. I cannot express the shock I felt at hearing such youthful and innocent lips speak of the absurdity of religious forms, ceremonies, and creeds. She regarded my belief in them as a species of barbarism. But she had not convinced me. I was resolved not to be convinced. I believed she was in error.
Surely, I thought, a country so far advanced in civilization, and practicing such unexampled rectitude, must, according to my religious teaching, have been primarily actuated by religious principles which they had since abandoned. My only surprise was that they had not relapsed into immorality, after destroying church and creed, and I began to feel anxious to convince them of the danger I felt they were incurring in neglecting prayer and supplication at the throne to continue them in their progress toward perfection of mental and moral culture.
I explained my feelings to the Preceptress with great earnestness and anxiety for their future, intimating that I believed their immunity from disaster had been owing to Divine sufferance. “For no nation,” I added, quoting from my memory of religious precepts, “can prosper without acknowledging the Christian religion.”
She listened to me with great attention, and when I had finished, asked:
“How do you account for our long continuance in prosperity and progress, for it is more than a thousand years since we rooted out the last vestige of what you term religion, from the mind. We have had a long immunity from punishment. To what do you attribute it?”
I hesitated to explain what had been in my mind, but finally faltered out something about the absence of the male sex. I then had to explain that the prisons and penitentiaries of my own land, and of all other civilized lands that I knew of, were almost exclusively occupied by the male sex. Out of eight hundred penitentiary prisoners, not more than twenty or thirty would be women; and the majority of them could trace their crimes to man’s infidelity.
“And what do you do to reform them?” inquired the Preceptress.
“We offer them the teachings of Christianity. All countries, however, differ widely in this respect. The government of my country is not as generous to prisoners as that of some others. In the United States every penitentiary is supplied with a minister who expounds the Gospel to the prisoners every Sunday; that is once every seven days.”
“And what do they do the rest of the time?”
“Are they ignorant?”
“Oh, yes, indeed;” I replied, earnestly. “You could not find one scholar in ten thousand of them. Their education is either very limited, or altogether deficient.”
“Do the buildings they are confined in cost a great deal?”
“Vast sums of money are represented by them; and it often costs a community a great deal of money to send a criminal to the penitentiary. In some States the power to pardon rests entirely with the governor, and it frequently occurs that a desperate criminal, who has cost a county a great deal of money to get rid of him, will be pardoned by the governor, to please a relative, or, as it is sometimes believed, for a bribe.”
“And do the people never think of educating their criminals instead of working them?
“That would be an expense to the government,” I replied.
“If they would divide the time, and compel them to study half a day as rigorously as they make them work, it would soon make a vast change in their morals. Nothing so ennobles the mind as a broad and thorough education.”
“They are all compelled to listen to religious instruction once a week,” I answered. “That surely ought to make some improvement in them. I remember hearing an American lady relate her attendance at chapel service in a State penitentiary one Sunday. The minister’s education was quite limited, as she could perceive from the ungrammatical language he used, but he preached sound orthodox doctrine. The text selected had a special application to his audience: ‘Depart from me ye accursed, into everlasting torment prepared for the Devil and his angels.’ There were eight hundred prisoners, and the minister assured them, in plain language, that such would surely be their sentence unless they repented.”
“And that is what you call the consolations of religion, is it?” asked the Preceptress with an expression that rather disconcerted me; as though my zeal and earnestness entirely lacked the light of knowledge with which she viewed it.
“That is religious instruction;” I answered. “The minister exhorted the prisoners to pray and be purged of their sins. And it was good advice.”
“But they might aver,” persisted the Preceptress, “that they had prayed to be restrained from crime, and their prayers had not been answered.”
“They didn’t pray with enough faith, then;” I assured her in the confidence of my own belief. “That is wherein I think my own church is so superior to the other religions of the world,” I added, proudly. “We can get the priest to absolve us from sin, and then we know we are rid of it, when he tells us so.”
“But what assurance have you that the priest can do so?” asked the Preceptress.
“Because it is his duty to do so.”
“Education will root out more sin than all your creeds can,” gravely answered the Preceptress. “Educate your convicts and train them into controlling and subduing their criminal tendencies by their own will, and it will have more effect on their morals than all the prayers ever uttered. Educate them up to that point where they can perceive for themselves the happiness of moral lives, and then you may trust them to temptation without fear. The ideas you have expressed about dogmas, creeds and ceremonies are not new to us, though, as a nation, we do not make a study of them. They are very, very ancient. They go back to the first records of the traditionary history of man. And the farther you go back the deeper you plunge into ignorance and superstition.
“The more ignorant the human mind, the more abject was its slavery to religion. As history progresses toward a more diffuse education of the masses, the forms, ceremonies and beliefs in religion are continually changing to suit the advancement of intelligence; and when intelligence becomes universal, they will be renounced altogether. What is true of the history of one people will be true of the history of another. Religions are not necessary to human progress. They are really clogs. My ancestors had more trouble to extirpate these superstitious ideas from the mind than they had in getting rid of disease and crime. There were several reasons for this difficulty. Disease and crime were self-evident evils, that the narrowest intelligence could perceive; but beliefs in creeds and superstitions were perversions of judgment, resulting from a lack of thorough mental training. As soon, however, as education of a high order became universal, it began to disappear. No mind of philosophical culture can adhere to such superstitions.
“Many ages the people made idols, and, decking them with rich ornaments, placed them in magnificent temples specially built for them and the rites by which they worshipped them. There have existed many variations of this kind of idolatry that are marked by the progressive stages of civilization. Some nations of remote antiquity were highly cultured in art and literature, yet worshipped gods of their own manufacture, or imaginary gods, for everything. Light and darkness, the seasons, earth, air, water, all had a separate deity to preside over and control their special services. They offered sacrifices to these deities as they desired their co-operation or favor in some enterprise to be undertaken.
“In remote antiquity, we read of a great General about to set out upon the sea to attack the army of another nation. In order to propitiate the god of the ocean, he had a fine chariot built to which were harnessed two beautiful white horses. In the presence of a vast concourse of people collected to witness the ceremony, he drove them into the sea. When they sank out of sight it was supposed that the god had accepted the present, and would show his gratitude for it by favoring winds and peaceful weather.
“A thousand years afterward history speaks of the occurrence derisively, as an absurd superstition, and at the same time they believed in and lauded a more absurd and cruel religion. They worshipped an imaginary being who had created and possessed absolute control of everything. Some of the human family it had pleased him to make eminently good, while others he made eminently bad. For those whom he had created with evil desires, he prepared a lake of molten fire into which they were to be cast after death to suffer endless torture for doing what they had been expressly created to do. Those who had been created good were to be rewarded for following out their natural inclinations, by occupying a place near the Deity, where they were to spend eternity in singing praises to him.
“He could, however, be persuaded by prayer from following his original intentions. Very earnest prayer had caused him to change his mind, and send rain when he had previously concluded to visit the country with drouth.
“Two nations at war with each other, and believing in the same Deity, would pray for a pestilence to visit their enemy. Death was universally regarded as a visitation of Providence for some offense committed against him instead of against the laws of nature.
“Some believed that prayer and donations to the church or priest, could induce the Deity to take their relatives from the lake of torment and place them in his own presence. The Deity was prayed to on every occasion, and for every trivial object. The poor and indolent prayed for him to send them food and clothes. The sick prayed for health, the foolish for wisdom, and the revengeful besought the Deity to consign all their enemies to the burning lake.
“The intelligent and humane began to doubt the necessity of such dreadful and needless torment for every conceivable misdemeanor, and it was modified, and eventually dropped altogether. Education finally rooted out every phase of superstition from the minds of the people, and now we look back and smile at the massive and magnificent structures erected to the worship of a Deity who could be coaxed to change his mind by prayer.”
I did not tell the Preceptress that she had been giving me a history of my own ancestry; but I remarked the resemblance with the joyous hope that in the future of my own unhappy country lay the possibility of a civilization so glorious, the ideal heaven of which every sorrowing heart had dreamed. But always with the desire to believe it had a spiritual eternity.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57