For many ages religion has been tried. For countless centuries man has sought for help from heaven. To soften the heart of God, mothers sacrificed their babes! but the God did not hear, did not see, and did not help. Naked savages were devoured by beasts, bitten by serpents, killed by flood and frost. They prayed for help, but their God was deaf. They built temples and altars, employed priests and gave of their substance, but the volcano destroyed and the famine came. For the sake of God millions murdered their fellow-men, but the God was silent. Millions of martyrs died for the honor of God, but the God was blind. He did not see the flames, the scaffolds. He did not hear the prayers, the groans. Thousands of priests in the name of God tortured their fellow-men, stretched them on racks, crushed their feet in iron boots, tore out their tongues, extinguished their eyes. The victims implored the protection of God, but their god did not hear, did not see. He was deaf and blind. He was willing that his enemies should torture his friends.
Nations tried to destroy each other for the sake of God, and the banner of the cross dripping with blood floated over a thousand fields--but the god was silent. He neither knew nor cared. Pestilence covered the earth with dead, the priests prayed, the altars were heaped with sacrifices, but the god did not see, did not hear. The miseries of the world did not lessen the joys of heaven. The clouds gave no rain, the famine came, withered babes with pallid lips sought the breasts of dead mothers, while starving fathers knelt and prayed, but the god did not hear. Through many centuries millions were enslaved, babes were sold from mothers, husbands from wives, backs were scarred with the lash. The poor wretches lifted their clasped hands toward heaven and prayed for justice, for liberty--but their god did not hear. He cared nothing for the sufferings of slaves, nothing for the tears of wives and mothers, nothing for the agony of men. He answered no prayers. He broke no chains. He freed no slaves.
The miserable wretches appealed to the priests of God, but they were on the other side. They defended the masters. The slaves had nothing to give.
During all these years it was claimed by the theologians that their God was governing the world, that he was infinitely powerful, wise and good--and that the "powers" of the earth were "ordained" by him. During all these years the church was the enemy of progress. It hated all physicians and told the people to rely on prayer, amulets and relics. It persecuted the astronomers and geologists, denounced them as infidels and atheists, as enemies of the human race. It poisoned the fountains of learning and insisted that teachers should distort the facts in nature to the end that they might harmonize with the "inspired" book. During all these years the church misdirected the energies of man, and when it reached the zenith of its power, darkness fell upon the world.
In all nations and in all ages, religion has failed. The gods have never interfered. Nature has produced and destroyed without mercy and without hatred. She has cared no more for man than for the leaves of the forest, no more for nations than for hills of ants, cared nothing for right or wrong, for life or death, for pain or joy.
Man through his intelligence must protect himself. He gets no help from any other world. The church has always claimed and still claims that it is the only reforming power, that it makes men honest, virtuous and merciful, that it prevents violence and war, and that without its influence the race would return to barbarism.
Nothing can exceed the absurdity of these claims. If we wish to improve the condition of mankind--if we wish for nobler men and women we must develop the brain, we must encourage thought and investigation. We must convince the world that credulity is a vice,--that there is no virtue in believing without, or against evidence, and that the really honest man is true to himself. We must fill the world with intellectual light. We must applaud mental courage. We must educate the children, rescue them from ignorance and crime. School-houses are the real temples, and teachers are the true priests. We must supply the wants of the mind, satisfy the hunger of the brain. The people should be familiar with the great poets, with the tragedies of AEschylus, the dramas of Shakespeare, with the poetry of Homer and Virgil. Shakespeare should be taught in every school, found in every house.
Through photography the whole world may become acquainted with the great statues, the great paintings, the victories of art. In this way the mind is enlarged, the sympathies quickened, the appreciation of the beautiful intensified, the taste refined and the character ennobled.
The great novels should be read by all. All should be acquainted with the men and women of fiction, with the ideal world. The imagination should be developed, trained and strengthened. Superstition has degraded art and literature. It gave us winged monsters, scenes from heaven and hell, representations of gods and devils, sculptured the absurd and painted the impossible in the name of Art. It gave us the dreams of the insane, the lives of fanatical saints, accounts of miracles and wonders, of cures wrought by the bones of the dead, descriptions of Paradise, purgatory and the eternal dungeon, discourses on baptism, on changing wine and wafers into the blood and flesh of God, on the forgiveness of sins by priests, on fore-ordination and accountability, predestination and free will, on devils, ghosts and goblins, the ministrations of guardian angels, the virtue of belief and the wickedness of doubt. And this was called "sacred literature."
The church taught that those who believed, counted beads, mumbled prayers, and gave their time or property for the support of the gospel were the good and that all others were traveling the "broad road" to eternal pain. According to the theologians, the best people, the saints, were dead, and real beauty was to be found only in heaven. They denounced the joys of life as husks and filthy rags, declared that the world had been cursed, and that it brought forth thistles and thorns because of the sins of man. They regarded the earth as a kind of dock, running out into the sea of eternity,--on which the pious waited for the ship on which they were to be transported to another world.
But the real poets and the real artists clung to this world, to this life. They described and represented things that exist. They expressed thoughts of the bran, emotions of the heart, the griefs and joys, the hope and despair of men and women. They found strength and beauty on every hand. They found their angels here. They were true to human experience and they touched the brain and heart of the world. In the tragedies and comedies of life, in the smiles and tears, in the ecstasies of love, in the darkness of death, in the dawn of hope, they found their materials for statue and song, for poem and painting. Poetry and art are the children of this world, born and nourished here. They are human. They have left the winged monsters of heaven, the malicious deformities of hell, and have turned their attention to men and women, to the things of this life.
There is a poem called "The Skylark," by Shelley, graceful as the motions of flames. Another by Robert Burns, called "The Daisy," exquisite, perfect as the pearl of virtue in the beautiful breast of a loving girl. Between this lark and this daisy, neither above nor below, you will find all the poetry of the world. Eloquence, sublimity, poetry and art must have the foundation of fact, of reality. Imaginary worlds and beings are nothing to us.
At last the old creeds are becoming cruel and vulgar. We now have imagination enough to put ourselves in the place of others. Believers in hell, in eternal pain, like murderers, lack imagination. The murderer has not imagination enough to see his victim dead. He does not see the sightless and pathetic eyes. He does not see the widow's arms about the corpse, her lips upon the dead. He does not hear the sobs of children. He does not see the funeral. He does not hear the clods as they fall on the coffin. He does not feel the hand of arrest, the scene of the trial is not before him. He does not hear the awful verdict, the sentence of the court, the last words. He does not see the scaffold, nor feel about his throat the deadly noose.
Let us develop the brain, civilize the heart, and give wings to the imagination.