CLOSE and constant relationship with other boys, who like myself are preparing for college in a famous boarding-school, has suggested to me the possibility of presenting through the Atlantic to a wide circle of intelligent, and I trust sympathetic, people a boy’s ideas on religion. I am convinced of the need among older people for a better understanding of the boy’s viewpoint on this vital subject, and to present as best I can our side of the matter is the purpose of this article. Personally, religion means no more to me than it does to thousands of boys just like me. My parents are devoted to my welfare, and I have been given every advantage for mental and spiritual growth. I was sent to Sunday School when I was smaller, and I go to church now. I have absolutely no intention of studying theology, or of ever regarding religion otherwise than from the layman’s point of view. In other words, I believe my opinions to be as far as possible unbiased, and my ideas representative of a large group of boys. Otherwise I should not attempt to discuss the matter.
Most boys hate to show their feelings on religion. It embarrasses them to talk about it. They will discourse on football, or politics, or camping, but if the conversation is turned to religion they retire within themselves, fortified by an adamant barrier of reserve. Why is this? Perhaps because they are afraid of being laughed at, or because they don’t want to be thought prudish. At any rate, religion among boys is rarely, if ever, discussed, except by small groups of exceptionally deepthinking fellows or between very intimate friends.
Now the unjust conclusion drawn — perhaps naturally — by many older people is that the boy, because he never says anything about religion, never thinks of it: that he utterly ignores it except when he has to go to church, and that he has no personal feelings on the subject.
Here is the secret. Deep within himself a boy may have a strong and fine religious sense. He may be just as truly religious in his own way as the minister is in his, but he shrinks from the thought of exposing it. His religion is his, and his alone. He is unwilling to share or display it, but he treasures it nevertheless. He merely lacks the outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace. To a boy, all religious manifestation ‘goes against the grain.’ The minister in clerical clothes could not sound the depths of a boy’s religion as well as a minister in flannel shirt and overalls. A boy dislikes all the visible trappings of faith. Again, why? I can answer only that it is part of a boy’s nature, which no one can explain — a temporary feeling perhaps, but very intense.
According to our present social system it is the proper thing to go to church. Accordingly, we boys in school, who are being taught by our elders to do the proper thing, are made to go to church. Some of us do this reluctantly. Now I shall not be so unreasonably radical as to condemn compulsory churchor chapel-attendance for boys of my age. I should merely like to point out, if possible, some of the reasons why we don’t altogether enjoy it. Being no longer of Sunday School age, we cease to be thrilled by the story of David and Goliath. We are no longer interested in Joseph and his brethren. We wish Moses had stayed in the bulrushes. Neither have we bridged the gap between childhood and maturity sufficiently to enjoy the serene faith of older people. We are in a state of religious adolescence.
Boys of my age are extremely critical. For us the dignity of a church service may be entirely lost through the unfortunate mannerisms of a minister or of someone in the choir who is singing amusingly. I know from my own experience how the boys in our church time the minister’s prayers with great accuracy, their chief interest being in whether or not he will break his previous record of endurance. They know exactly what is coming. The Lord is thanked weekly for the beauty of the morning, the singing birds, the sunshine on the hilltops, and so forth. One Sunday the minister began his usual ‘thank you’ category, this time specializing in plants, the swelling buds and so on. He ended by asking God’s blessing on ‘every blooming thing,’ and naturally the boys, in spite of agonized efforts at self-control, exploded.
I once asked a fellow if he said any prayers at night. He told me that since he had stopped saying ‘Now I lay me,’ he had substituted no other prayer, realizing that God in his goodness knew better than he did what was best for him, and would provide. Another boy of sixteen once told me his own daily prayer, which I know came from his heart. It was: ‘O God, help me to be this day in every way a man; to govern my thoughts and actions according to the highest standards of unselfish manhood; to do nothing of which I should be ashamed to have those dear to me know; and to ever keep before my eyes the goal of a life of service, and of fitness to serve.’ Surely this is more to a boy’s taste than that which few boys desire, ‘ to live a godly, righteous, and sober life.’ Still another boy, condensing his prayer in favorable contrast to the long-winded minister, told me these few words, his daily message to his Creator: ‘Dear God from whom all blessings flow, I trust in Thee; thy power I know.’ That is faith.
It is hard for a boy to realize that he can get as much good from going to church as he can from taking a walk or ride in the hills, or some place where he can be alone and think things out for himself. Church is called ‘the Lord’s house,’but He did n’t build any churches. He did make the hills and valleys, however, and it seems to the boy that in loving Nature he can come closer to his God. He realizes, however, that if he had never gone to church he would n’t know enough about God to think that he could get closer to Him by taking a walk in the country, rather than by sitting in the family pew.
A boy does n’t always believe all he hears in church, but Nature’s interpretation of God is never disturbing to him. I once asked a fellow what he thought about going to church. After a second he said, ‘ I suppose it is a good thing.’ ‘But,’ I said, ‘do you believe everything you hear there?’ ‘No,’ said he, ‘I try to remember only what seems good to me, and let the rest go.’ Of course if that boy had never gone to church he would n’t be able to discriminate for himself between ‘what seems good’ and ‘the rest.’
In spite of their critical attitude toward comparatively unimportant things, boys on the whole are more tolerant in a religious way than the majority of their elders. They may belong to distinct denominations, but they do not condemn another fellow who belongs to a different sect, or feel in the least that they stand a better chance in the next world than he does. A boy is not devoted to the particular division of the Church to which he and his parents may belong. To him the important thing is his own private relations with God, which take place within himself. Consequently he considers the various explicit forms of belief, the dogma and the ritual in the usage of which denominations vary, of little importance in comparison with the personal religion which he has formed for himself, and to which he clings. The boy regards another fellow who belongs to a different denomination in much the same way that he might think of him if he went to another school or college. He has different cheers, a different atmosphere, and slightly different teaching, but he is there for the same purpose, so what he calls himself is of small matter.
After all, what is the greatest thing we boys can hope to achieve in this life? It is to live so that at the end of our lives we may confidently say that we have ‘fought a good fight,’ and that the world was in some way, no matter how small, improved by our having lived in it. Pudd’nhead Wilson said ‘It is a noble thing to do right.’ If we can do right, — not always, for that is too much to expect, — but if we can always try to do right, we shall have no pangs of regret when the time comes for us to sum up our lives, and see what we have done, and what we have left undone. At present we boys are being taught so that we may live rightly when we become men, and it is because religion helps us to do what is right that we are given religious instruction.
If, then, we seem to our elders to be lacking in appreciation of the value of religion, I would respectfully beg them to realize what I have tried to explain: that a boy’s real religion is deeply personal, and that he does n’t like to show it. I believe that I am speaking for a large group of boys of boarding-school age when I say that at heart we mean to do what is right. We may put buttons in the collection-plate, or occasionally take the name of the Lord in vain. But at heart we have our finer feelings, our personal religions; and when the time comes for us to bear the torch, we shall not fail.