Vicarious Atonement
Helen H. Gardener
This is from a selection in Men, Women, and Gods, 1885.
Excerpted from Women Without Superstition
edited by Annie Laurie Gaylor


EVERY EARNEST THOUGHT, like every earnest thinker, adds something to the wealth of the world. Blind belief in the thought of another produces only hopeless mediocrity. Individual effort, not mere acceptance, marks the growth of the mind. The most fatal blow to progress is slavery of the intellect. The most sacred right of humanity is the right to think, and next to the right to think is the right to express that thought without fear....

Because I, a woman, have dared to speak publicly against the dictatorship of the Church, the Church, with its usual force and honor, answers argument with personal abuse. One reply it gives. It is this. If a woman did not find comfort and happiness in the Church, she would not cling to it. If it were not good for her, she in her purity and truth would not uphold it in the face of the undeniable fact that the present generation of thinking men have left it utterly.

You will find, however, that in every land, under every form of faith, in each phase of credulity, it is the woman who clings closest and longest to the religion she has been taught; yet no Christian will maintain that this fact establishes the truth of any other belief. ["Exactly the same thing may be said of the women in the harem of an Oriental. They do not complain.... They think our women insufferably unfeminine." -- Mill.]

They will not argue from this that women know more of and have a clearer insight into the divine will! If she knows more about it, if she understands it all better than men, why does she not occupy the pulpit? Why does she not hold the official positions in the Churches? Why has she not received even recognition in our system of religion? Who ever heard of a minister being surprised that God did not reveal any of the forms of belief through a woman? If she knows and does the Will of God so much better than man, why did he not reveal himself to her and place his earthly kingdom in her hands?

That argument won't do! As long as creed and Church held absolute power there was no question but that woman was a curse, that she was an inferior being, an after-thought. No Church but the Roman Catholic has the decency to recognize even the so-called mother of God! The Church has never offered women equality or justice. Its test of excellence is force. The closer a Church or creed clings to its spirit, the more surely does it assume to dictate to and control woman and to degrade her. The more liberal the creed the nearer does it come to offering individual justice and liberty.

The testimony of our own missionaries, as well as that of many others, assures us that it is not the Turk but his wives who hold fastest to their faith. The women of the harem, whom we pity because of the injustice of their religious training, are the last to relinquish their god, the most bitter opponents of the infidel or sceptic in their Church, the most devout and constant believers of the faith, and the most content with its requirements. They are the ones who cling to the form even when the substance has departed -- and it is so with us!

Among the "heathen" it is the women who are most shocked and offended by the attacks made upon their superstitions by the missionaries whom we pay to go to them and blaspheme their gods and destroy their idols.

Go where you will, read history as you may, and you will find that it is the men who invented religion, and the women who believed in it. They are the last to give it up. The physically weak dread change. Inexperience fears the unknown. Ignorance shuns thought or development. The dependent cannot be brave.

We are all prepared to admit, I think, that, with but few marked exceptions here and there, the women of most countries are physically and mentally undeveloped. They have had fear and dependence, the dread enemies of progress and growth, constantly to retard them. Fear of physical harm, fear of social ostracism, fear of eternal damnation. With rare exceptions a child with a weak body, or any other dependent, will do as he is told; and women have believed to order. They have done so not only in Christianity but in Buddhism, Mohammedanism, Mormonism, and Fetichism -- in each and all of them. Each and all of these religions being matter of faith, religion was the one subject in which every Church alike claimed ignorance as a virtue; and the women understood that the men understood it as little as they did. It was a field where credulity and a solemn countenance placed all on an intellectual level and the altitude of the level was immaterial.

Women have never been expected to understand anything; hence jargon about the "testimony of the spirit," the "three in one" absurdity, the "horns of the altar," or the widow's oil miracle was not more empty or unmeaning to her than a conversation about Bonds and Stocks, Political Economy, or Medical Science. She swallowed her religion just as she did her pills, because the doctor told her to, and said there was something wrong with her head -- and usually there was.

Beginning to Think

The past education of woman gave her an outlook which simply embraced a husband or nothing at all, which was often only a choice between two of a kind.

There are a great many women to-day who think that orthodoxy is as great nonsense as I do, but who are afraid to say so. They whisper it to each other. They are afraid of the slander of the Church.

I want to help make it so that they will dare to speak. I want to do what I can to make it so that a mother won't have to evade the questions of her children about the Bible.


I am sometimes asked, "What do you propose to give in place of this comforting faith? It makes people so happy. You take away all this blessing and you give no other in its place. What is your creed?"

It has never seemed to me that a creed was the staff of life. Man cannot live by creeds alone. I should not object, however, to one that should read something like this:

I believe in honesty.

I believe that a Church has no right to teach what it does not know.

I believe that a clean life and a tender heart are worth more to this world than all the faith and all the gods of Time.

I believe that this world needs all our best efforts and earnest endeavors twenty-four hours every day.

I believe that if our labors were needed in another world we should be in another world; so long as we are in this one I believe in making the best and the most of the materials we have on hand.

I believe that fear of a god cripples men's intellects more than any other influence. I believe that Humanity needs and should have all our time, efforts, love, worship and tenderness.

I believe that one world is all we can deal with at a time.

I believe that if there is a future life, the best possible preparation for it is to do the very best we can here and now.

I believe that love for our fellow-men is infinitely nobler, better, and more necessary than love for God.

I believe that men, women, and children need our best thoughts, our tenderest consideration, and our earnest sympathy.

I believe that God can get on just as well without any of these as with them. If he wants anything he can get it without our assistance. It is people with limitations, not gods without limitations, who need and should have our aid.

I believe that it is better to build one happy home here than to invest in a thousand churches which deal with a hereafter.

If a life that embraces this line of action does not fit a man for heaven, and if faith in vicarious atonement will, then such a heaven is not worth going to, and its god would be unworthy to make a good man's acquaintance.

But suppose that faith in a myth is destroyed and another mysticism be not set up in its place, what then? If a mother takes her child away from the fire, which it finds beautiful, and believes to be a nice toy, is it necessary for her to give it a kerosene lamp in its place? She destroys a pleasant delusion -- a faith and a delightful hope and confidence -- because she knows its danger and recognizes its false foundation. It is surely not necessary that she should give to the child another delusion equally dangerous and false. She gives it something she knows to be safe; something she understands will not burn; something which, though not so bright and attractive to the child at first, gives pleasure without pain, occupation without disaster. Is she cruel or only sensible? If I were to pretend to a knowledge of a divine creed, a superhuman system, I should be guilty of the same dishonesty, the same deception of which I complain in the Church.

I do not know of any divine commands. I do know of most important human ones. I do not know the needs of a god or of another world. I do not know anything about "a land that is fairer than day." I do know that women make shirts for seventy cents a dozen in this one. I do know that the needs of humanity and this world are infinite, unending, constant, and immediate. They will take all our time, our strength, our love, and our thoughts; and our work here will be only then begun.

Why not, if you believe in a God at all, give him credit for placing you where he wanted you? Why not give him credit for giving you brains and sympathies, as well as the courage to use them. Even if Eve did eat that apple, why should we insist upon having the colic?

What We Need.

I want to see the time come when mothers won't have to explain to their children that God has changed his mind about goodness and right since he used to incite murder; that eighteen hundred years ago he was a criminal with bloody hands and vile, polluted breath; that less than three hundred years ago his greatest pleasure was derived from witnessing the agony of pure young girls burning alive, whose only crime was beauty of face or honesty of thought. [See Gage, "History of Woman Suffrage," p. 766.]

I want it so that she won't allow her children to hear and believe such a statement as Bishop Fallows made not long ago. He said, in effect, that sins of omission are as heinous as those of commission; that Saul committed two sins in his life, and that one of them was a refusal to commit a coldblooded murder! He spared the life of a conquered enemy! Out of a whole nation he saved one life and that was a crime, a sin! Bishop Fallows said that God expressly commanded Saul to utterly exterminate that whole nation, and not only the nation but its flocks; and that God took Saul's kingdom from him because he saved the life of one fallen enemy.

That story, I think, is a libel; and I believe that if there is a God he was never such a fiend! And I want it so that no mother will allow her child to hear such an infamous travesty of the character of a Deity who is called good.

I want it so that all the lessons of the week, all the careful training of a wise father or a good mother, will not be antagonized on Sunday by such a statement as the Rev. Mr. Williamson made at a large church convention recently. Speaking of prayer, he said: "We should offer to God, by prayer, our virtue, our purity, and our pious aspirations" (so far I do not object, for if it means anything I fail to grasp it), "for by not doing so we claim self-control, which is displeasing to God!"

I object! The lesson of self-control is precisely what we need. And when we control ourselves and regulate our lives on principles of right and truth, instead of allowing a Church to regulate them through a fear of hell, we shall be a better people, and character will have a chance to grow.

Then this same gentleman added: "We should also give him our vices, our worry, our temper, and our passions, so that he may dispose of them."

Dispose of them yourselves! Don't try to shift your responsibilities on to somebody else. Don't drive your tack into the brain of justice, expecting to save your own soft skull. Don't enervate your strength to do right by accepting the fatal doctrine of vicarious atonement. It weakens every character that it touches.

Vicarious Atonement
Not A Christian Invention.

The doctrine of vicarious atonement is found in some form in most religions, and it is the body and soul of ours. The idea is not a Christian invention. It caused the Carthaginians to put to death their handsomest prisoners if a battle were won, the most promising children of their own nobility if it were lost. They were offerings to appease the gods.

In old times there were peoples who believed that if a chief was guilty of a misdemeanor it was just to punish or enslave any one of his tribe. That was their idea of liberty and justice. If a father committed a crime it could be expiated by the murder of his son. That was the doctrine of vicarious atonement in all its pristine glory. So they adopted that style of justice in our religion, and condemned the whole lot of us to the eternal wrath of God on account of that little indiscretion attributed to Eve. It seems a very little thing for anybody to get so mad at us all about, and stay mad so long! It doesn't seem to me that if one of you were to eat every apple I had in my orchard, I should want to murder and eternally damn all the folks that live [in] Asia Minor. Do you think you would?

In the 11th verse of the 12th chapter of the second book of Samuel it is claimed that God said he was going to be revenged for the crimes of some men by a vile punishment of their wives.

Only a short time ago a man tried that same style of justice in one of our Western towns. He claimed that Smith had alienated the affections of his wife, so he went over to Smith's house and whipped Mrs. Smith! And do you know that the judge who tried that case (not being a good Bible student) actually sent that good, pious man to the house of correction -- that man who not only believed in his Bible, but lived by it! And just as likely as not that judge will be elected again. Truly we have fallen on degenerate times!

Legal minds outgrew the idea of vicarious punishment long ago. Physical liberty came to have a new meaning, and punishment was awarded more nearly where it was due. But the religious mind never outgrows anything. It is born as big as it ever gets. Development is its terror. It abhors change. It forces you to sin by proxy, to be redeemed by proxy; and the only thing it does permit you to receive at first hand is Hell. That is the only one thing you can't delegate to somebody else.

If you commit no sin, you are responsible for the sins of other people -- dead people, too, that you can't look after. If you are good and true and noble -- even if you are a Christian -- you don't get any credit for it. If there is any one thing above another that God detests it is to have a man try to be grand and noble and true, and then get the credit of it. "To Christ belongs all the honor, the praise, and the glory -- world without end, Amen."

But when it comes to the punishment, the vicarious notion doesn't seem to work. There is the one point where you are welcome to your own, and no discount allowed to heavy takers. Hell is always at par and no bail permitted. Even ignorance of the requirements is no excuse. If you did not know any better, somebody else did, and you've got to pay for it.

Now if the vicarious principle is not big enough to go clear round, I'll leave my share off at the other end. If the Church wants to take my hell (vicariously) it is welcome to it. I will let it go cheap.

Awhile ago a man stayed some time at a hotel in New York, and when the time came for him to pay his bill he hadn't the money. Well, the proprietor felt sorry for him and said, "I tell you what I'll do about that bill, I'll throw off half." His guest was overwhelmed by this liberality, and with tears of gratitude said, "I cannot permit you to outdo me in generosity; I'll throw off the other half and we'll call it square."

So if the Church desires all the credit, it is also welcome to all the blame. I cannot permit it to outdo me in generosity. But I'd rather be responsible for just my own sins, and then I can regulate them better, and I can take care of my own reward when I get it. I shall not want to deposit it with the clergy. A profit and loss system that is chiefly loss will not pay me.

The doctrines of vicarious atonement and original or inherited sin are the most infamously unjust dogmas that ever clouded the brain of man.

Twin Monsters Inherited
From Intellectual Pigmies.

They are twin monsters inherited from intellectual pigmies.

Let me read you a little prayer based upon this idea of right. I heard it offered as a thanksgiving tribute. "Oh, God, we do thank thee that thou didst give thy only son to die for us! We thank thee that the innocent has suffered for the guilty, and that through the suffering and death of thy most holy son our sins are blotted out!"

Monstrous! How would that work in a court of justice? What would you think of a person who coolly thanked a judge who had knowingly allowed the wrong man to be hung? What do you think of a code of morals that offers as one of its beautiful provisions the murder of the innocent instead of the punishment of the guilty?

People ask what good I expect to come of an attack on Christianity. They ask me if I think Christianity does any direct harm. Yes! It makes a man unjust to believe in unjust doctrines. Any man who honestly believes in the righteousness of a system of vicarious rewards and punishments is ripe for any form of tyranny. And the more honestly he believes in it the less will he be a good man from principle.

I want men and women to be good and true because it is right towards each other, and not because they are afraid of Hell. Honor towards people in this world, not fear of a fiend in the next -- that is my doctrine. That is the way to make men and women strong and brave and noble. Stop telling them they can't be good themselves; teach them that they must do right themselves. Make them self-dependent. Teach them to stand alone. Honor towards others, kindness, and love -- these are what make a man a good husband, a noble father -- king in his household.

Fear never made any man a gentleman. Fear never made any woman a true wife or a good mother. Fear never covered the pitfalls of vice with anything stronger than the gloss of hypocrisy.

When Reason's torch burned low, Faith led her victims by chains of ignorance into the land of hopeless superstition, and built her temple there.

Graphic Rule