HL Mencken on Christianity and Agnosticism Part II

From DAMN! A Book of Calumny

XXXVIII

THE ROAD TO DOUBT

The first effect of what used to be called natural philosophy is to fill its devotee with wonder at the marvels of God. This explains why the pursuit of science, so long as it remains superficial, is not incompatible with the most naif sort of religious faith. But the moment the student of the sciences passes this stage of childlike amazement and begins to investigate the inner workings of natural phenomena, he begins to see how ineptly many of them are managed, and so he tends to pass from awe of the Creator to criticism of the Creator, and once he has crossed that bridge he has ceased to be a believer. One finds plenty of neighborhood physicians, amateur botanists, high-school physics teachers and other such quasi-scientists in the pews on Sunday, but one never sees a Huxley there, or a Darwin, or an Ehrlich.


XXXIX

A NEW USE FOR CHURCHES

The argument by design, it may be granted, establishes a reasonable ground for accepting the existence of God. It makes belief, at all events, quite as intelligible as unbelief. But when the theologians take their step from the existence of God to the goodness of God they tread upon much less firm earth. How can one see any proof of that goodness in the senseless and intolerable sufferings of man—his helplessness, the brief and troubled span of his life, the inexplicable disproportion between his deserts and his rewards, the tragedy of his soaring aspiration, the worse tragedy of his dumb questioning? Granting the existence of God, a house dedicated to Him naturally follows. He is all-important; it is fit that man should take some notice of Him. But why praise and flatter Him for His unspeakable cruelties? Why forget so supinely His failures to remedy the easily remediable? Why, indeed, devote the churches exclusively to worship? Why not give them over, now and then, to justifiable indignation meetings?

Perhaps men will incline to this idea later on. It is not inconceivable, indeed, that religion will one day cease to be a poltroonish acquiescence and become a vigorous and insistent criticism. If God can hear a petition, what ground is there for holding that He would not hear a complaint? It might, indeed, please Him to find His creatures grown so self-reliant and reflective. More, it might even help Him to get through His infinitely complex and difficult work. Theology has already moved toward such notions. It has abandoned the primitive doctrine of God’s arbitrariness and indifference, and substituted the doctrine that He is willing, and even eager, to hear the desires of His creatures—i. e., their private notions, born of experience, as to what would be best for them. Why assume that those notions would be any the less worth hearing and heeding if they were cast in the form of criticism, and even of denunciation? Why hold that the God who can understand and forgive even treason could not understand and forgive remonstrance?


XL

THE ROOT OF RELIGION

The idea of literal truth crept into religion relatively late: it is the invention of lawyers, priests and cheese-mongers. The idea of mystery long preceded it, and at the heart of that idea of mystery was an idea of beauty—that is, an idea that this or that view of the celestial and infernal process presented a satisfying picture of form, rhythm and organization. Once this view was adopted as satisfying, its professional interpreters and their dupes sought to reinforce it by declaring it true. The same flow of reasoning is familiar on lower planes. The average man does not get pleasure out of an idea because he thinks it is true; he thinks it is true because he gets pleasure out of it.


XLI

FREE WILL

Free will, it appears, is still a Christian dogma. Without it the cruelties of God would strain faith to the breaking-point. But outside the fold it is gradually falling into decay. Such men of science as George W. Crile and Jacques Loeb have dealt it staggering blows, and among laymen of inquiring mind it seems to be giving way to an apologetic sort of determinism—a determinism, one may say, tempered by defective observation. The late Mark Twain, in his secret heart, was such a determinist. In his “What Is Man?” you will find him at his farewells to libertarianism. The vast majority of our acts, he argues, are determined, but there remains a residuum of free choices. Here we stand free of compulsion and face a pair or more of alternatives, and are free to go this way or that.

A pillow for free will to fall upon—but one loaded with disconcerting brickbats. Where the occupants of this last trench of libertarianism err is in their assumption that the pulls of their antagonistic impulses are exactly equal—that the individual is absolutely free to choose which one he will yield to. Such freedom, in practise, is never encountered. When an individual confronts alternatives, it is not alone his volition that chooses between them, but also his environment, his inherited prejudices, his race, his color, his condition of servitude. I may kiss a girl or I may not kiss her, but surely it would be absurd to say that I am, in any true sense, a free agent in the matter. The world has even put my helplessness into a proverb. It says that my decision and act depend upon the time, the place—and even to some extent, upon the girl.

Examples might be multiplied ad infinitum. I can scarcely remember performing a wholly voluntary act. My whole life, as I look back upon it, seems to be a long series of inexplicable accidents, not only quite unavoidable, but even quite unintelligible. Its history is the history of the reactions of my personality to my environment, of my behavior before external stimuli. I have been no more responsible for that personality than I have been for that environment. To say that I can change the former by a voluntary effort is as ridiculous as to say that I can modify the curvature of the lenses of my eyes. I know, because I have often tried to change it, and always failed. Nevertheless, it has changed. I am not the same man I was in the last century. But the gratifying improvements so plainly visible are surely not to be credited to me. All of them came from without—or from unplumbable and uncontrollable depths within.

The more the matter is examined the more the residuum of free will shrinks and shrinks, until in the end it is almost impossible to find it. A great many men, of course, looking at themselves, see it as something very large; they slap their chests and call themselves free agents, and demand that God reward them for their virtue. But these fellows are simply idiotic egoists, devoid of a critical sense. They mistake the acts of God for their own acts. Of such sort are the coxcombs who boast about wooing and winning their wives. They are brothers to the fox who boasted that he had made the hounds run….

The throwing overboard of free will is commonly denounced on the ground that it subverts morality and makes of religion a mocking. Such pious objections, of course, are foreign to logic, but nevertheless it may be well to give a glance to this one. It is based upon the fallacious hypothesis that the determinist escapes, or hopes to escape, the consequences of his acts. Nothing could be more untrue. Consequences follow acts just as relentlessly if the latter be involuntary as if they be voluntary. If I rob a bank of my free choice or in response to some unfathomable inner necessity, it is all one; I will go to the same jail. Conscripts in war are killed just as often as volunteers. Men who are tracked down and shanghaied by their wives have just as hard a time of it as men who walk fatuously into the trap by formally proposing.

Even on the ghostly side, determinism does not do much damage to theology. It is no harder to believe that a man will be damned for his involuntary acts than it is to believe that he will be damned for his voluntary acts, for even the supposition that he is wholly free does not dispose of the massive fact that God made him as he is, and that God could have made him a saint if He had so desired. To deny this is to flout omnipotence—a crime at which, as I have often said, I balk. But here I begin to fear that I wade too far into the hot waters of the sacred sciences, and that I had better retire before I lose my hide. This prudent retirement is purely deterministic. I do not ascribe it to my own sagacity; I ascribe it wholly to that singular kindness which fate always shows me. If I were free I’d probably keep on, and then regret it afterward.


XLII

QUID EST VERITAS?

All great religions, in order to escape absurdity, have to admit a dilution of agnosticism. It is only the savage, whether of the African bush or the American gospel tent, who pretends to know the will and intent of God exactly and completely. “For who hath known the mind of the Lord?” asked Paul of the Romans. “How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!” “It is the glory of God,” said Solomon, “to conceal a thing.” “Clouds and darkness,” said David, “are around him.” “No man,” said the Preacher, “can find out the work of God.” … The difference between religions is a difference in their relative content of agnosticism. The most satisfying and ecstatic faith is almost purely agnostic. It trusts absolutely without professing to know at all.


XLIII

THE DOUBTER’S REWARD

Despite the common delusion to the contrary the philosophy of doubt is far more comforting than that of hope. The doubter escapes the worst penalty of the man of hope; he is never disappointed, and hence never indignant. The inexplicable and irremediable may interest him, but they do not enrage him, or, I may add, fool him. This immunity is worth all the dubious assurances ever foisted upon man. It is pragmatically impregnable…. Moreover, it makes for tolerance and sympathy. The doubter does not hate his opponents; he sympathizes with them. In the end, he may even come to sympathize with God…. The old idea of fatherhood here submerges in a new idea of brotherhood. God, too, is beset by limitations, difficulties, broken hopes. Is it disconcerting to think of Him thus? Well, is it any the less disconcerting to think of Him as able to ease and answer, and yet failing?…

But he that doubteth—damnatus est. At once the penalty of doubt—and its proof, excuse and genesis.


XLIV

BEFORE THE ALTAR

A salient objection to the prevailing religious ceremonial lies in the attitudes of abasement that it enforces upon the faithful. A man would be thought a slimy and knavish fellow if he approached any human judge or potentate in the manner provided for approaching the Lord God. It is an etiquette that involves loss of self-respect, and hence it cannot be pleasing to its object, for one cannot think of the Lord God as sacrificing decent feelings to mere vanity. This notion of abasement, like most of the other ideas that are general in the world, is obviously the invention of small and ignoble men. It is the pollution of theology by the sklavmoral.


XLV

THE MASK

Ritual is to religion what the music of an opera is to the libretto: ostensibly a means of interpretation, but actually a means of concealment. The Presbyterians made the mistake of keeping the doctrine of infant damnation in plain words. As enlightenment grew in the world, intelligence and prudery revolted against it, and so it had to be abandoned. Had it been set to music it would have survived—uncomprehended, unsuspected and unchallenged.


XLVI

PIA VENEZIANI, POI CRISTIANI

I have spoken of the possibility that God, too, may suffer from a finite intelligence, and so know the bitter sting of disappointment and defeat. Here I yielded something to politeness; the thing is not only possible, but obvious. Like man, God is deceived by appearances and probabilities; He makes calculations that do not work out; He falls into specious assumptions. For example, He assumed that Adam and Eve would obey the law in the Garden. Again, He assumed that the appalling lesson of the Flood would make men better. Yet again, He assumed that men would always put religion in first place among their concerns—that it would be eternally possible to reach and influence them through it. This last assumption was the most erroneous of them all. The truth is that the generality of men have long since ceased to take religion seriously. When we encounter one who still does so, he seems eccentric, almost feeble-minded—or, more commonly, a rogue who has been deluded by his own hypocrisy. Even men who are professionally religious, and who thus have far more incentive to stick to religion than the rest of us, nearly always throw it overboard at the first serious temptation. During the past four years, for example, Christianity has been in combat with patriotism all over Christendom. Which has prevailed? How many gentlemen of God, having to choose between Christ and Patrie, have actually chosen Christ?


XLVII

OFF AGAIN, ON AGAIN

The ostensible object of the Reformation, which lately reached its fourth centenary, was to purge the Church of imbecilities. That object was accomplished; the Church shook them off. But imbecilities make an irresistible appeal to man; he inevitably tries to preserve them by cloaking them with religious sanctions. The result is Protestantism.


XLVIII

THEOLOGY

The notion that theology is a dull subject is one of the strangest delusions of a stupid and uncritical age. The truth is that some of the most engrossing books ever written in the world are full of it. For example, the Gospel according to St. Luke. For example, Nietzsche’s “Der Antichrist.” For example, Mark Twain’s “What Is Man?”, St. Augustine’s Confessions, Haeckel’s “The Riddle of the Universe,” and Huxley’s Essays. How, indeed, could a thing be dull that has sent hundreds of thousands of men—the very best and the very worst of the race—to the gallows and the stake, and made and broken dynasties, and inspired the greatest of human hopes and enterprises, and embroiled whole continents in war? No, theology is not a soporific. The reason it so often seems so is that its public exposition has chiefly fallen, in these later days, into the hands of a sect of intellectual castrati, who begin by mistaking it for a sub-department of etiquette, and then proceed to anoint it with butter, rose water and talcum powder. Whenever a first-rate intellect tackles it, as in the case of Huxley, or in that of Leo XIII., it at once takes on all the sinister fascination it had in Luther’s day.


XLIX

EXEMPLI GRATIA

Do I let the poor suffer, and consign them, as old Friedrich used to say, to statistics and the devil? Well, so does God.

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  • http://n/a adan flores

    Ah, good old H.L. To leave you with my favorite quote: “If you wish to please my shade, forgive some sinner and wink at a homely girl.”