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The Sin of the Churches

ISSUE:  Spring 1927

Religion is to me the most personal thing in the world, the most inviolably intimate, the one phase of human life with which no one else has any right to meddle. For this reason, talking about it in public seems almost to smack of indecency. And yet it must be done. The present trend of public opinion in this country makes it imperative, lest we lose for ever that freedom of the spirit which beckoned the founders of our nation, and without which all other freedom becomes meaningless and unthinkable.


Most people would probably deem me irreligious, and many of them would undoubtedly do so with severe disapproval, if not with actual horror. I can hear them calling me atheist, agnostic, or whatever else may be held equally reprehensible, and thereby, of course, judging the whole problem of my position settled once for all. Superficially considered, and from their own point of view only, they may be granted a certain justification. Yet they are wrong . . . utterly wrong . . . both in their diagnosis and their epithets. I have a religion of my own, and I venture to assert that it is as fervent, as vital, as valid, as any of theirs. Furthermore, the character of it has little to do with my external non-conformity. If only my own attitude were concerned, and not that of others, I could and would gladly join my fellow men in consecrated surrender at any shrine symbolizing the Supreme Power sensed in and through all existence. In fact, my heart has often pined with longing to do so. My main object at this moment is to make clear why, nevertheless, I stay apart.

It is true that, of my own free choice, I have not attended church services for so many years that long ago I ceased to count them. I claim community in no religious sect, organization, or institution. As far back as I can recall, I have made no direct contribution to any purpose or cause held religious by the average man. Toward ministers and priests of every faith I feel a slightly amused distrust, though individual wearers of the cloth have won my unreserved sympathy by evidencing as much humility about their supposedly exceptional position as does the honest physician about his ability to heal, or the true critic about his ability to lead an esthetically and intellectually innocent public past the lures of literary fashion. I could go on for quite a while enumerating similar points of difference between myself and the average church-going American. But what I have said already will suffice for my present purpose. And now, in order to make my position more comprehensible, I must trace the main outlines of the road that has led me to it.

I was born and raised in Sweden, where state and church have not yet been separated, the king being the nominal head of both. It seems to be a rule that religion is taken less seriously in countries with an established, state-supported church. This was certainly true in Sweden in the days of my youth, and, as usual, indifference had paved the way for tolerance. My parents were conforming Protestants, who, like everybody else, seemed to take their religion more or less for granted. My father in particular was averse to any discussion of matters concerning faith, except on one point. He refused to believe in Hell, and he did not hesitate to say so. To him, apparently, such a conception was not only emotionally repulsive, but irrational. It was the sole registration on his part of a certain tendency toward dissent, which otherwise remained suppressed, partly by inherited habits, and partly by consideration for my mother, whose religious impulses were always more accentuated than his.

It was from my mother that I got my first religious ideas. She was a gentle, loving, clinging creature, with a largely unappeased thirst for joy and beauty, a twinkling mind, and a poorly poised nervous system. If she shared my father’s disbelief in a place of eternal punishment, that was mainly because her tender soni could not face the cruelty of such an idea. Otherwise she was little troubled by dogmas or articles of faith. The authority of the church into which she had been born was never questioned because it never really touched her. Her own religion was all emotion. God was at the heart of it, and God to her was, above all, love. To believe in Him, to trust Him, and to commune with Him; that was all there was to her religion. Everything else did not matter. Gradually this emotional preoccupation of hers increased, particularly after my father’s death, until, toward the end, it took on the slightly unbalanced aspect of a fixed idea. But when that happened, thousands of miles and many years of independent growth had placed me beyond the possibility of any hostile reaction to this unwholesomely one-sided attitude.

In the days of my boyhood no signs of that later morbid development had yet appeared. Religiously, I grew up in an atmosphere that many people over here would hold too tepid, but that certainiy contained no elements conducive to rebellion. My mother had an old Bible which she had received as a girlhood gift from her father and which was full of charming illustrations. It became one of my earliest sources of entertainment, and out of it I learned to read when still in my fifth year. She read it, too, but oniy occasionally. To cherish and venerate it as the Word of God seemed natural to her, but with her as with my father, I think this was mostly a result of tradition and habit. The real source of her faith rested within herself and had little need of outside re-enforcement or inspiration.

My parents were not regular church attendants. They talked frequently of going, but they always talked of it as a duty, and they rarely went. Once a year, at Easter, they received communion, and i remember being taken by them to the early mass on Christmas Day which forms, one of the few picturesque features of the rather severe and tedious rites maintained by the Swedish established church. I must have accompanied them on other occasions, but not often, and I was never compelled to go if I did not wish to do so. The whole thing had no real meaning to me, and there was nothing in church to interest me. The dragging monotony of the Swedish hymns carried no esthetic appeal, and to a mind as agile as a squirrel the slow and ponderous sermons could be nothing but sources of agonized boredom. Such belief as I had in the things preached was superficial and un-questioningly accepted from my mother.

When, at the age of nine, I entered a public school, I found myself compelled by educational discipline to attend church services with my class (or grade) every other Sunday uniess I could bring written proof on Monday of having worshipped elsewhere with my parents. It is typical of religious conditions in Sweden at the time, that practically the whole class invariably turned up in full, and that the only regular absentees were a couple of Jewish boys, who became objects of bitter envy to the rest of us. That these might be attending some other form of service seemed quite inconceivable. I, on my part, dreaded those Sunday mornings in church as I dreaded few other things. They were dull beyond all expression, and for nearly two hours I suffered excruciating ennui, while my mind strayed longingly toward my beloved books at home. It is a strange fact, however, that those enforced Snnday tortures never became associated in my mind with whatever I possessed of religious ideas or impulses. They appeared to me as a particularly irksome part of the school routine and nothing else. Subconsciously, they must have left some sort of impression behind, but consciously their memory played no part when, in the year following my confirmation, at the age of sixteen, I passed through a serious religious crisis, ending in my refusal to attend another communion with my parents as well as in my complete rejection of the faith to which they clung passively but tenaciously.

An analysis of the origin and development of that crisis would make too long a story. It took me through a sincere search for inspired gnidance in the Bible to a state of passionate despair and self-contempt caused by the utter refusal of my reason to find any connection between the primitive mythology of the Jews and my own spiritual needs. One phase of this struggle I recommend to the special attention of those who are now fighting so stubbornly on behalf of the sacred character of the Bible as a whole. My earlier reading of the Gospels in the confirmation class was submerged and obliterated by my later independent study of the Genesis. Yet I was only a boy of sixteen who had never heard the word evolution mentioned in his presence.

When I had reached the lowest depths of misery and had come to regard myself as an outcast, a freak of nature rejected by God and man, chance brought into my hands a couple of works by Max Nordau and Robert Ingersoll. Before I had read more than a small part of them, my spiritual troubles dropped away from me like outworn garments. The discovery that other minds had passed along the same road of questioning and doubt before me, arriving at the same point of rebellion without loss of self-respect or soul-peace, filled me with an exhilaration so intense that I wonder whether the equal of it has been produced by any subsequent experience. From that ordeal I emerged as an atheist in the f nil sense of the term, and glorying in the name of it.

Shortly afterwards, however, another lucky chance brought me into contact with the positivistic ideas of Au-guste Comte, and what I drew out of these was not an additional dose of purely negative scepticism, but a first glimmering of the historic and evolutionary comprehension of human beliefs and practices. Christianity lost its appearance of a wholly outlived and discredited theological system and became instead the living creed of past and present multitudes not yet troubled by minds demanding a less mythological and more scientific interpretation of the ultimate riddles that confront all mankind. It was my first lesson in spiritual tolerance . . . a lesson never forgotten . . . and from a somewhat arrogant atheist I turned into a quite humble-minded agnostic. I had learned that direct denial is merely another form of arbitrary assertion, and that the first step toward relative knowledge lies in a frank profession of ignorance.

During the rest of my stay in Sweden, religion played no part in my life except as an object of disinterested study. The church might have ceased to exist as far as I was concerned, and no sense of loss was left behind. The same was true of my first three years in this country. During that period, however, as well as later, I was frequently told, both by Swedes and by Americans of other racial strains, that I would make far better headway, materially and socially, if I joined a church, and more than once I received friendly hints as to which denomination might prove most advantageous. At the time such advice struck me as funny rather than offensive, and I cannot recall having ever reflected on it seriously.


The situation changed when I joined the news staff of the Minneapolis Times. Once more I was forced to go to church. For three years I had to report at least one sermon practically every Sunday, and my weekly tasks included frequently the gathering of news and opinions from the leading preachers of the city. I had occasion to watch the various congregations and their shepherds both in full dress and in undress, so to speak. And I think it safe to assert that, in spite of my personal indifference, all my observations were made in a spirit of strict impartiality. What I saw and heard and surmised out there was later confirmed in a larger field, when i moved to New York. Thirteen years in all I spent in the service of the American daily press, and I cannot imagine a better opportunity for the study of any phase of our national life.

Some of my impressions were favorable and others unfavorable. All of them were concerned with institutions rather than with individuals. Gradually certain conclusions, certain general impressions, were distilled out of the totality of my observations and speculations. They applied primarily to the churches, to the various religious organizations, and not to the faiths these organizations were created to serve. They were quite dispassionate for the very reason that no religious feelings had yet been awakened within myself. The first signs of such an awakening came toward the end of my newspaper career, when my sentimental interest in two young women brought me into fairly close contact with doctrines and practices so widely divergent as those of Catholicism and Swedenborgianism. These incidents taught me two things: first, that within me existed a need of some kind that could not be satisfied by work or study, love or companionship; and secondly, that, in my particular case, the means of filling this need could not be obtained ready-made from any institution, creed, or philosophy.

The whole problem remained very vague and puzzling and disturbing until, in the forty-first year of my life, a nervous breakdown, following right on the heels of my withdrawal from journalism, brought me an enforced leisure of more than a year, during which I could do nothing but read and think. I set out with the avowed purpose of gathering material for a book on Ibsen. In the course of that pursuit, I dipped into every science, philosophy, and literature that I could reach. The book that set me off was never written. Instead that exciting chase through all the realms of human thought and achievement netted me a life-view and a faith, which, if not original in any other aspect, were at least quite of my own making. In a single afternoon, during the sum* mer of 1908,1 managed to get the essence of that year’s intense mental and emotional struggle crystallized into what I called “An Evolutionist’s Creed” . . . for, strange as it may sound to some people, it was chiefly my increasing preoccupation with the minutely co-ordinated development of all fife which had made me realize that all human thinking, if carried to its utmost consequences, must lead beyond the borders of reason into the mystic realms of the unknowable, where emotion becomes the more trustworthy guide.


That creed is still mine. At the time of its conception, it was almost wholly intellectual in its origin and bearing. The emotional undertone giving it vitality and actuality came little by little after I had gone back to work and human contact with a desire to shape my living in accordance with that new inner light. The details of my creed belong to some other time and place. Here and now I am concerned only with certain general results which it produced quite unexpectedly. Suddenly the agnostic found himself an ardent believer . . . a believer in life itself and in the spirit made manifest by its every form and phase. I, who had walked through the years of my youth and early manhood as if religion were a thing of the buried past, found myself equipped with a faith of compelling power that entered as an impulse and a motive into my every act and word and feeling and thought. Different as it was from most other religions recognized as such, it did not quarrel with what I now saw at the heart of all of them . . . an instinctive, impassioned, irresistible expression of man’s relationship to the force, or spirit, or agency that produces and prompts every form of universal existence, however humble or impressive.

In my view, it mattered comparatively little what shapes that expression took, or what ideas were entertained concerning its objective. The mere fact that a man recognized the presence everywhere of that force, that Supreme Power, that Spirit of Life, and tried sincerely to get into contact with it, was enough for me. On the ground of such orientation alone, I could feel at one with any other man or group of men, and any other differences between them and me were human differences, rendered totally insignificant by the fundamental community of our worship and our service. What did I care whether a man or a temple be stamped as Christian, Buddhist, or Mohammedan, as Catholic, Methodist, or Unitarian, knowing, as I did, that the eternal principle at the heart of all such evanescent labels was one and the same?

To me, though springing from my own head and heart, it was a revelation more valid than any one found in books held sacred by other men. But in spirit and bearing it was as free from pride as anything connected with a human brain could be. Not for one moment did I think myself above other men because of that flame newly lighted within me. Where all are servants of the same cause, it boots little to prattle about rank or superiority. And if, perchance, the light vouchsafed me should burn a little less smokily than that of my neighbor, what could be the use of boasting as long as the dimness of both failed equally to reveal the real inwardness of the Unknowable? That is why, at the start, I declared my ability and willingness to worship in any temple. And had I met with a true counterpart of my own spirit in any such place sacred to my fellow men, this challenge would never have been issued.


Thus, at last, I have circled back to my point of departure, which was also my goal. Why, if any church be good enough for me, should I find myself beyond the pale of all?

There are more reasons than one, I must admit . . . their jealous institutionalism, for instance, which helps to keep them split up into a multitude of insignificant sects, and which gives us ugly little lecture halls and mongrelized skyscraper edifices in place of the glorious domes of the past; their polemic or hortatory sermons that strike me as the least satisfying form of religious expression devisable; their meddling missions that carry implied insults to all other confessions; their quaint belief that the Almighty may be bribed by the sacrifice of one day a week to unmitigated dullness and gloom; and so on. But one reason stands out as more potent than all of these, and it is the only one that cannot be overlooked by me. At the core of any religious conception resting on an evolutionary basis must always be found endless humility and tolerance. The sin of all churches devoted to a religion based on an alleged supernatural revelation is intolerance, pride, arrogance . . . all of these being but different names for the same unwarranted presumption of exclusive authority. This sin is inseparable from the very nature of their institution. Back of it lie other sins still more fatal . . . selfishness and vanity and ignorance, by which each flock, puny or legion-headed, is lured into thinking itself the only chosen people and the sole repository of all ultimate verities.

What has kept and still keeps me away from the Christian churches of this country is not the particular symbolism employed by any one of them for the expression of a faith that, after all, is common to all of them. No, it is that claim, also common to all (with the possible exception of the Unitarians and the Quakers), that each one of them has an exclusive monopoly on a truth which, even according to their own teachings, can never be fully grasped by mortal man. It is the false assumption of superiority growing out of such claims, and the pharisaical holier-than-thou attitude to which it gives rise. It is the perennial raising of issues and straining of points more petty in comparison with the subject to which they refer than the tiniest grain of dust when balanced against all the solar, planetary, and lunar bodies forming the Milky Way. It is the blasphemy of conceptions ascribing to the moving power of the entire universe an interest of any kind in the words or gestures or actions employed by the ephemeral inhabitants of this globe to express their groping recognition of its existence and omnipresence!

No matter what disclaimers may be entered from whatever quarters, my experiences and observations, past and present, here and abroad, have proved to my complete satisfaction that the spirit I have just described is the spirit still animating practically all churches called Christian, and that nothing but the presence everywhere of this anything but Christ-like spirit can explain the absence of a truly Catholic Christian Church, capable of holding within its spiritual and material walls not only professed Christians of any type, but any man or Woman who, like myself, has come to a clear realization both of the infinitesimal importance of any human being and of the inseverable connection nevertheless existing between every such being and the infinite force we call Life . . . or God.

Like most men, I crave at times to feel shoulder to shoulder with other human beings in awed and reverent submission to this all-pervading power, of which we are but flitting shadows. Now and then, at rare intervals; I have experienced precious moments of such fellowship during the brief periods of silence with which our church services are too infrequently interpolated. But no sooner did the voices of the ministrant or of the congregation burst forth once more than my ear caught anew the strident, strutting note of megalomaniacal self-assertion, whereupon my soul fled in dismay from what it cannot but sense as a denial of the quintessential mood of all genuinely religious expression, which is humility before the overwhelming. There are signs of an impending change, here and elsewhere, but they are still faint and timid. Until they have grown marked enough to render possible a Christian church that aims at inclusive-ness instead of exclusiveness, it would be sheer hypocrisy for any man feeling and thinking as I do to leave the seclusion pressed on him not by any preference of his own, but by the ignorantly egotistic presumptions of the dominant majority.


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