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                    H. L Mencken on Religion  



                                                    H. L. Mencken Bio


Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956) was one of the giants of American journalism in the first half of the 20th century. As a journalist, editor, columnist, essayist, author and social commentator, his topics covered a wide spectrum of socio-economic issues. He had a particular flair for pointing out the foibles of politics and organized religion.

Mencken was not one for pulling his punches when it came to religion. In Mencken’s day, as it is today, religion was a sacred cow that was granted general immunity from criticism and skeptical scrutiny. Mencken once wrote: "The most curious social convention of the great age in which we live is the one to the effect that religious opinions should be respected. Its evil effects must be plain enough to everyone. All it accomplishes is (a) to throw a veil of sanctity about ideas that violate every intellectual decency, and (b) to make every theologian a sort of chartered libertine. No doubt it is responsible for the appalling slowness with which really sound notions make their way in the world."

Mencken did not however declare himself an atheist but rather had chosen the more politically correct appellation of agnostic. "What I believe," he wrote, "is mainly what has been established by plausible and impartial evidence, e.g., that the square on the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the squares of the other two sides, that water is composed of oxygen and hydrogen, and that man is a close cousin to the ape. Further than that, I do not care to go. Is there a life after death, as so many allege, wherein the corruptible puts on incorruption and the mortal immortality. I can only answer that I do not know."

On the other hand, in the short essay "Immortality," he stated: "Immortality without consciousness would obviously be absurd, and I can imagine no consciousness without the integrity of the physical organism."

As for God, on the subject of an intelligent designer in the universe Mencken said: "The argument by design, once the bulwark of Christian apologetics, is so full of holes that it is no wonder that it has been abandoned. The more, indeed, the theologian seeks to prove the acumen and omnipotence of God by His works, the more he is dashed by evidence of divine incompetence and irresolution. The world is not actually well run; it is very badly run, and no Huxley was needed to point out the obvious fact. The human body, magnificently designed in some details, is a frightful botch in other details; every first-year student of anatomy sees a hundred ways to improve it... If He could contrive so efficient and durable a machine as the human hand, then how did He come to make such dreadful botches as the tonsils, the gall-bladder, the uterus and the prostate gland? If He could perfect the hip joint and the ear, then why did He boggle the teeth?"

Mencken is perhaps best remembered for his articles on the "Scopes Monkey Trial" held in Dayton, Tennessee, 1925, where the great "American Atheist" Clarence Darrow and the "Fundamentists' Pope" William Jennings Bryan battled over the right of schoolteacher John T Scopes to teach the theory of evolution in a high school science classroom. The infamous court trial subsequently inspired the play and Stanley Kramer film Inherit the Wind.

What amazed Mencken and others was the depth of ignorance displayed by Bryan who denied during the trial that man is a mammal. "I'm glad I heard it," Mencken wrote, "for otherwise I'd never believe it. There stood the man who had been thrice a candidate for the Presidency of the Republic... there he stood in the glare of the world, uttering stuff that a boy of eight would laugh at!"




 Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956) U. S. Editor and Critic.                               Freelance Days


                                                                               The Essays


The Cosmic Secretariat  


1924, pp. 61-65.

First printed in the American Mercury, Jan., 1924, pp. 75-76

The argument from design, once the bulwark of Christian apologetics, has been shot so full of holes that it is no wonder it has had to be abandoned. The more, indeed, the theologian seeks to prove the wisdom and omnipotence of God by His works, the more he is dashed by the evidences of divine incompetence and stupidity that the advance of science is constantly turning up. The world is not actually well run; it is very badly run, and no Huxley was needed to labor the obvious fact. The human body, very cunningly designed in some details, is cruelly and senselessly bungled in other details, and every reflective first-year medical student must notice a hundred ways to improve it. How are we to reconcile this mixture of finesse and blundering with the concept of a single omnipotent Designer, to whom all problems are equally easy? If He could contrive so efficient and durable a machine as the human hand, then how did He come to make such botches as the tonsils, the gallbladder, the ovaries and the prostate gland? If He could perfect the elbow and the ear, then why did He boggle the teeth?

Having never encountered a satisfactory - or even a remotely plausible - answer to such questions, I have had to go to the trouble of devising one myself. It is, at all events, quite simple, and in strict accord with all the known facts. In brief, it is this: that the theory that the universe is run by a single God must be abandoned, and that in place of it we must set up the theory that it is actually run by a board of gods, all of equal puissance and authority. Once this concept is grasped the difficulties that have vexed theologians vanish, and human experience instantly lights up the whole dark scene. We observe in everyday life what happens when authority is divided, and great decisions are reached by consultation and compromise. We know that the effects at times, particularly when one of the consultants runs away with the others, are very good, but we also know that they are usually extremely bad. Such a mixture, precisely, is on display in the cosmos. It presents a series of brilliant successes in the midst of an infinity of failures.  

I contend that my theory is the only one ever put forward that completely accounts for the clinical picture. Every other theory, facing such facts as sin, disease and disaster, is forced to admit the supposition that Omnipotence, after all, may not be omnipotent - a plain absurdity. I need toy with no such blasphemous nonsense. I may assume that every god belonging to the council which rules the universe is infinitely wise and infinitely powerful, and yet not evade the plain fact that most of the acts of that council are ignorant and foolish. In truth, my assumption that a council exists is tantamount to an a priori assumption that its acts are ignorant and foolish, for no act of any conceivable council can be otherwise. Is the human hand perfect, or, at all events, practical and praiseworthy? Then I account for it on the ground that it was designed by some single member of the council - that the business was turned over to him by inadvertence or as a result of an irreconcilable difference of opinion among the others.. Had more than one member participated actively in its design it would have been measurably less meritorious than it is, for the sketch offered by the original designer would have been forced to run the gauntlet of criticisms and suggestions from all the other councilors, and human experience teaches us that most of these criticisms and suggestions would have been inferior to the original idea - that many of them, in fact, would have had nothing in them save a petty desire to maul and spoil the original idea.

But do I here accuse the high gods of harboring discreditable human weaknesses? If I do, then my excuse is that it is impossible to imagine them doing the work universally ascribed to them without admitting their possession of such weaknesses. One cannot imagine a god spending weeks and months, and maybe whole geological epochs, laboring over the design of the human kidney without assuming him to have been moved by a powerful impulse to express himself vividly, to marshal and publish his ideas, to win public credit among his fellows - in brief, without assuming him to be egoistic. And one cannot assume him to be egoistic without assuming him to prefer the adoption of his own ideas to the adoption of any other god’s. I defy anyone to make the contrary assumption without plunging instantly into clouds of mysticism. Ruling it out, one comes inevitably to the conclusion that the inept management of the universe must be ascribed to clashes of egos, i.e., to spites and revenges, among the gods, for any one of them alone, since we must assume him to be infinitely wise and powerful, could run it perfectly. We suffer from bad stomachs simply because the god who first proposed making a stomach aroused thereby the ill-nature of those who had not thought of it, and because they proceeded instantly to wreak that ill-nature upon him by improving, i.e., botching, his work. We must reproduce our species in the familiar arduous, uneconomic, indecent and almost pathological manner because the god who devised the excellent process prevailing among the protozoa had to be put in his place when he proposed to extend it to the Primates.


                                                          The Nature of Faith

                                                         From the same, pp. 65-76

Many years ago, when I was more reckless intellectually than I am today, I proposed the application of Haeckel’s biogenetic law - to wit, that the history of the individual rehearses the history of the species to the domain of ideas. So applied, it leads to some superficially startling but probably quite sound conclusions, for example, that an adult poet is simply an individual in a state of arrested development - in brief, a sort of moron. Just as all of us, in utero, pass through a stage in which we are tadpoles, and almost indistinguishable from the tadpoles which afterward become frogs, so all of us pass through a stage, in our nonage, when we are poets. A youth of seventeen who is not a poet is simply a donkey: his development has been arrested even anterior to that of the tadpole. But a man of fifty who still writes poetry is either an unfortunate who has never developed, intellectually, beyond his teens, or a conscious buffoon who pretends to be something that he isn’t - something far younger and juicier than he actually is.

At adolescence large numbers of individuals, and maybe even most, have similar attacks of piety, but that is only saying that their powers of perception, at that age, outrun their knowledge. They observe the tangled and terrifying phenomena of life, but cannot account for them. Later on, unless their development is arrested, they gradually emerge from that romantic and spookish fog, just as they emerge from the hallucinations of poetry. I speak here, of course, of individuals genuinely capable of education - always a small minority. If, as the Army tests of conscripts showed, nearly 50 per cent of American adult males never get beyond the mental development of a twelve-year-old child, then it must be obvious that a much smaller number get beyond the mental development of a youth at the end of his teens. I put that number, at a venture, at 10 per cent. The remaining 90 per cent never quite free themselves from religious superstitions. They may no longer believe it is an act of God every time an individual catches a cold, or sprains his ankle, of cuts himself shaving, but they are pretty sure to see some trace of divine intervention in it if he is struck by lightning, or hanged, or afflicted with leprosy or syphilis.

All modern religions are based, at least on their logical side, on this notion that there are higher powers which observe the doings of man and constantly take a hand in them, and in the fold of Christianity, which is a good deal more sentimental than any other major religion, the concept of interest and intervention is associated with a concept of benevolence. In other words, it is believed that God is predominantly good. No true Christian can tolerate the idea that God ever deliberately and wantonly injures him, or could conceivably wish him ill. The slings and arrows that he suffers, he believes, are brought down upon him by his own ignorance and contumacy. Unhappily, this doctrine of the goodness of God does not fit into what we know of the nature and operations of the cosmos today; it is a survival from a day of universal ignorance. All science is simply a great massing of proofs that God, if He exists, is really neither good nor bad, but simply indifferent - an infinite Force carrying on the operation of unintelligible processes without the slightest regard, either one way or the other, for the comfort, safety and happiness of man.

Why, then, does this belief survive? Largely, I am convinced, because it is supported by that other hoary relic from the adolescence of the race, to wit, the weakness for poetry. The Jews fastened their religion upon the Western world, not because it was more reasonable than the religions of their contemporaries - as a matter of fact, it was vastly less reasonable than many of them - but because it was far more poetical. The poetry in it was what fetched the decaying Romans, and after them the barbarians of the North; not the so-called Christian evidences. No better has ever been written. It is so powerful in its effects that even men who reject its content in toto are more or less susceptible. One hesitates to flout it on purely esthetic grounds; however dubious it may be in doctrine, it is nevertheless almost perfect in form, and so even the most violent atheist tends to respect it, just as he respects a beautiful but deadly toadstool. For no man, of course, ever quite gets over poetry. He may seem to have recovered from it, just as he may seem to have recovered from the measles of his school-days, but exact observation teaches us that no such recovery is ever quite perfect; there al-ways remains a scar, a weakness and a memory.

Now, there is reason for maintaining that the taste for poetry, in the process of human development, marks a stage measurably later than the stage of religion. Savages so little cultured that they know no more of poetry than a cow have elaborate and often very ingenious theologies. If this be true, then it follows that the individual, as he rehearses the life of the species, is apt to carry his taste for poetry further along than he carries his religion - that if his development is arrested at any stage before complete intellectual maturity that arrest is far more likely to leave hallucinations. Thus, taking men in the mass, there are many more natural victims of the former than of the latter - and here is where the artfulness of the ancient Jews does its execution. It holds countless thousands to the faith who are actually against the faith, and the weakness with which it holds them is their weakness for poetry, i.e., for the beautiful but untrue. Put into plain, harsh words most of the articles they are asked to believe would revolt them, but put into sonorous dithyrambs the same articles fascinate and overwhelm them.

This persistence of the weakness for poetry explains the curious growth of ritualism in an age of skepticism. Almost every day theology gets another blow from science. So badly has it been battered during the past century, indeed, that educated men now give it little more credence than they give to sorcery, its ancient ally. But squeezing out the logical nonsense does no damage to the poetry; on the contrary, it frees, and, in a sense, dignifies the poetry. Thus there is a constant movement of Christians, and particularly of newly-intellectual Christians, from the more literal varieties of Christian faith to the more poetical varieties. The normal idiot, in the United States, is born a Methodist or a Baptist, but when he begins to lay by money he and his wife tend to go over to the American out-house of the Church of England, which is not only more fashionable but also less revolting to the higher cerebral centers. His daughter, when she emerges from the finishing school, is very High Church; his granddaughter, if the family keeps its securities, may go the whole hog by embracing Rome.

In view of all this, I am convinced that the Christian church, as a going concern, is quite safe from danger in the United States, despite the rapid growth of agnosticism. The theology it merchants is full of childish and disgusting absurdities; practically all the other religions of civilized and semi-civilized man are more plausible. But all of these religions, including Islam, contain the fatal defect that they appeal primarily to the reason. Christianity will survive not only Modernism but also Fundamentalism, a much more difficult business. It will survive because it makes its first and foremost appeal to that moony sense of the poetic which lingers in all men - to that elemental sentimentality which, in men of arrested mental development, which is to say, in the average men of Christendom, passes for the passion to seek and know beauty.,,

1 The reader fetched by this argument will find more to his taste in my Treatise on the Gods, second edition, 1946, pp. 286-89.


                                        The Restoration of Beauty

                                                      From the same, pp. 77-78

The Christians of the Apostolic Age were almost exactly like the modern Holy Rollers - men quite without taste or imagination, whoopers and shouters, low vulgarians, cads. So far as is known, their public worship was wholly devoid of the sense of beauty; their sole concern was with the salvation of their so-called souls. Thus they left us nothing worth preserving - not a single church, or liturgy, or even hymn. The objects of art exhumed from the Catacombs are inferior to the drawings and statuettes of Cro-Magnon man. All the moving beauty that adorns the corpse of Christianity today came into being long after the Fathers had perished. The faith was many centuries old before Christians began to build cathedrals. We think of Christmas as the typical Christian festival, and no doubt it is; none other is so generally kept by Christian sects, or so rich in charm and beauty. Well, Christmas, as we now have it, was almost unknown in Christendom until the Eleventh Century, when the relics of St. Nicholas of Myra, originally the patron of pawnbrokers, were brought from the East to Italy. All this time the Universal Church was already torn by controversies and menaced by schisms, and the shadow of the Reformation was plainly discernible in the West. Religions, in fact, like castles, sunsets and women, never reach their maximum of beauty until they are touched by decay. 


                                                         Holy Clerks

       From the same, pp. 79-84. First printed in the American Mercury, June, 1924, p. 183

Around no class of men do more false assumptions cluster than around the rev. clergy, our lawful commissioners at the Throne of Grace. I proceed at once to a crass example: the assumption that clergymen are necessarily religious. Obviously, it is widely cherished, even by clergymen themselves. The most ribald of us, in the presence of a holy clerk, is a bit self-conscious. I am myself given to criticizing Divine Providence somewhat freely, but in the company of the rector of my parish, even at the Biertisch, I tone down my animadversions to a level of feeble and polite remonstrance. I know the fellow too well, of course, to have any actual belief in his piety. He is, in fact, rather less pious than the average right-thinking Americano, and I doubt gravely that the sorceries he engages in professionally every day awaken in him any emotion more lofty than boredom. I have heard him pray for the President and Congress, the heathen and for rain, but I have never heard him pray for himself. Nevertheless, the public assumption that he is highly devout, though I dispute it, colors all my intercourse with him, and deprives him of hearing some of my most searching and intelligent observations.

All that is needed to expose the hollowness of this ancient delusion is to consider the chain of causes which brings a young man to taking holy orders. Is it, in point of fact, an irresistible religious impulse that sets him to studying exegetics, homiletics and the dog-Greek of the New Testament, and an irresistible religious impulse only, or is it something quite different? I believe that it is something quite different, and that that some-thing may be described briefly as a desire to shine in the world without too much effort. The young theologue, in brief, is commonly an ambitious but somewhat lazy fellow, and he studies theology instead of osteopathy, salesmanship or the law because it offers a quicker and easier route to an assured job and public respect. The sacred sciences may be nonsensical, but they at least have the vast virtue of short-circuiting, so to speak, the climb up the ladder of security. The young medical man, for a number of years after he is graduated, either has to work for nothing or to content himself with the dregs of practise, and the young lawyer, unless he has unusual influence or complete atrophy of the conscience, often teeters on the edge of actual starvation. But the young divine is a safe and distinguished man the moment he is ordained; indeed, his popularity, especially among the faithful who are fair, is often greater at that moment than it ever is afterward. His livelihood is assured instantly. At one stroke, he becomes a person of dignity and importance, eminent in his community, deferred to even by those who question his magic, and vaguely and pleasantly feared by those who credit it.

These facts, you may be sure, are not concealed from aspiring young men of the sort I have mentioned. Such young men have eyes, and even a certain capacity for ratiocination. They observe the nine sons of the police sergeant: one a priest at twenty-five, with a fine house to live in, invitations to all the birthday parties for miles around, and plenty of time to go to the ball-game on Summer afternoons; the others struggling desperately to make their livings as furniture-movers, tin-roofers and bus-drivers. They observe the young Protestant dominie in his Ford sedan, flitting about among the women while their husbands labor down in the yards district, a clean collar around his neck, a solid meal of fried chicken in his gizzard, and his name in the local paper every day. Only crazy women ever fall in love with young insurance solicitors, but every young clergyman, if he is so inclined, may have a whole seraglio. Even if he is celibate, the gals bathe him in their smiles; in truth, the more celibate he is, the more attention he gets from them. No wonder his high privileges and immunities propagate the sin of envy. No wonder there are still candidates for the holy shroud, despite the vast growth of atheism among us.

The daily duties of a professional man of God have nothing to do with religion, but are basically social or commercial. In so far as he works at all, he works as the general manager of a corporation, and only too often it is in financial difficulties and rent by factions among the stockholders. His specifically theological hocus-pocus is of a routine and monotonous nature, and must needs depress him mightily, as a surgeon is depressed by the endless opening of boils. He gets rid of spiritual exaltation by reducing it to a hollow formality, as a politician gets rid of patriotism and a lady of joy of love. He becomes, in the end, quite anesthetic to religion, and even hostile to it. The fact is made distressingly visible by the right rev. the bench of bishops. For a bishop to fall on his knees spontaneously and, begin to pray to God would make almost as great a scandal as if he mounted his throne in a bathing suit. The piety of the ecclesiastic, on such high levels, becomes wholly theoretical. The servant of God has been lifted so near to the saints and become so familiar with the inner workings of the divine machinery that all awe and wonder have oozed out of him. He can no more undergo a genuine religious experience than a veteran scene shifter can laugh at the wheezes of the First Gravedigger. It is, perhaps, well that this is so. If the higher clergy were actually religious some of their own sermons and pastoral epistles would scare them to death.


                                                    The Collapse of Protestantism

 From PROTESTANTISM IN THE REPUBLIC, PREJUDICES: FIFTH SERIES, 1926, PP. 104-19                      First printed in the American Mercury, March, 1925, pp. 286-88

That Protestantism in this great Christian realm is down with a wasting disease must be obvious to every amateur of ghostly pathology. One half of it is moving, with slowly accelerating speed, in the direction of the Harlot of the Seven Hills: the other is sliding down into voodooism. The former carries the greater part of Protestant money with it; the latter carries the greater part of Protestant libido. What remains in the middle may be likened to a torso without either brains to think with or legs to dance - in other words, something that begins to be professionally attractive to the mortician, though it still makes shift to breathe. There is no lack of life on the higher levels, where the more solvent Methodists and the like are gradually transmogrified into Episcopalians, and the Episcopalians shin up the ancient bastions of Holy Church, and there is no lack of life on the lower levels, where the rural Baptists, by the route of Fundamentalism, rapidly descend to the dogmas and practises of the Congo jungle. But in the middle there is desiccation and decay. Here is where Protestantism was once strongest. Here is the region of the plain and godly Americano, fond of devotion but distrustful of every hint of orgy - the honest fellow who suffers dutifully on Sunday, pays his tithes, and hopes for a few kind words from the pastor when his time comes to die. Today, alas, he tends to absent himself from pious exercises, and the news goes about that there is something the matter with the churches, and the denominational papers bristle with schemes to set it right, and many up-and-coming pastors, tiring of preaching and parish work, get jobs as the executive secretaries of these schemes, and go about the country expounding them to the faithful.

The extent to which Protestantism, in its upper reaches, has succumbed to the lascivious advances of Rome seems to be but little apprehended by the majority of connoisseurs. I was myself unaware of the whole truth until a recent Christmas, when, in the pursuit of a quite unrelated inquiry, I employed agents to attend all the services held in the principal Protestant basilicas of an eminent American city, and to bring in the best reports they could formulate upon what went on in the lesser churches. The substance of these reports, in so far as they related to churches patronized by the well-to-do, was simple: they revealed a head-long movement to the right, an almost precipitate flight over the mountain. Six so-called Episcopal churches held midnight services on Christmas Eve in obvious imitation of Catholic midnight masses, and one of them actually called its service a solemn high mass. Two invited the nobility and gentry to processions, and a third concealed a procession under the name of a pageant. One offered Gounod’s St. Cecilia mass on Christmas morning, and another the Messe Solennelle by the same composer; three others, somewhat more timorous, contented themselves with parts of masses. One, throwing off all pretense and euphemism, summoned the faithful to no less than three Christmas masses, naming them by name - two low and one high. All six churches were aglow with candles, and two employed incense.

But that was not the worst. Two Presbyterian churches and one Baptist church, not to mention five Lutheran churches of different synods, had carol services in the dawn of Christmas morning, and the one attended by the only one of my agents who got up early enough - it was in a Presbyterian church - was made gay with candles, and had a palpably Roman smack. Yet worse: a rich and conspicuous Methodist church, patronized by the leading Wesleyan wholesalers and moneylenders of the town, boldly offered a “medieval” carol service. Medieval? What did that mean? The Middle Ages ended on July 16, 1453, at 12 o’clock meridian, and the Reformation was not launched by Martin Luther until October 31, 1517, at 10.15 a.m. If medieval, in the sense in which it was here used, did not mean Roman Catholic, then I surely went to school in vain. My agent, born a Methodist, reported that the whole ceremony shocked him excessively. It began with trumpet blasts from the church spire and it concluded with an Ave Maria by a vested choir. Candles rose up in glittering ranks behind the chancel rail, and above them glowed a shining electric star. God help us all, indeed! What next? Will the rev. pastor, on some near tomorrow, defy the lightning bolts of Yahweh by appearing in alb and dalmatic? Will he turn his back upon the faithful? Will he put in a telephone booth for auricular confession?

Certainly no one argues that the use of candles in public worship would have had the sanction of the Ur-Wesleyans, or that they would have consented to Blasmusik and a vested choir. Down to sixty or seventy years ago, in fact, the Methodists prohibited Christmas services altogether, as Romish and heathen. But now we have ceremonies almost operatic. As I have said, the Episcopalians - who, in most American cities, are largely ex-Methodists or ex-Presbyterians, or, in New York, ex-Jews -  go still further. In three of the churches attended by my agents Holy Communion was almost indistinguishable from a mass - and in every one there was a good house and what the colored pastors call a good plate. Even the Methodists who remain Methodists begin to wobble. Tiring of the dreadful din that goes with the orthodox Wesleyan demonology, they take to goings-on that grow more and more stately and voluptuous. The sermon ceases to be a cavalry charge, and becomes soft and pizzicato. The choir abandons “Throw Out the Life-Line” and “Are You Ready for the Judgment Day?” and toys with Handel. It is an evolution that has, viewed from a tree, a certain merit. The stock of nonsense in the world is sensibly diminished and the stock of beauty augmented. But what would the old time circuit riders say of it, imagining them miraculously brought back from Hell?

So much for the volatilization that is going on above the diaphragm. What is in progress below? All I can detect is a rapid descent to mere barbaric devil chasing. In all those parts of the Republic where Beelzebub is still real - for example, in the rural sections of the Middle West and everywhere in the South save a few walled towns -the evangelical sects plunge into an abyss of malignant imbecility, and declare a holy war upon every decency that civilized men cherish. They have thrown the New Testament overboard, and gone back to the Old, and particularly to the bloodiest parts of it. What one mainly notices about the clerics who lead them is their vast lack of sound information and sound sense. They constitute, perhaps, the most ignorant class of teachers ever set up to guide a presumably civilized people; they are even more ignorant than the county superintendents of schools. Learning, indeed, is not esteemed in the evangelical denominations, and any literate plow-hand, if the Holy Spirit inflames him, is thought to be fit to preach. Is he commonly sent, as a preliminary, to a training camp, to college? But what a college! You will find one in every mountain valley of the land, with its single building in its bare pasture lot, and its faculty of half-idiot pedagogues and broken-down preachers. One man, in such a college, teaches oratory, ancient history, arithmetic and Old Testament exegesis. The aspirant comes in from the barnyard, and goes back in a year or two to the village. His body of knowledge is that of a bus driver or a vaudeville actor. But he has learned the clichés of his craft, and he has got him a black Sunday coat, and so he has made his escape from the harsh labors of his ancestors, and is set up as a fountain of light and learning.



                          From the American Mercury, March, 1930, p. 289. 

                  First printed, in part, in the Baltimore Evening Sun, Dec. 9, 1929

The most curious social convention of the great age in which we live is the one to the effect that religious opinions should be respected. Its evil effects must be plain enough to everyone. All it accomplishes is (a) to throw a veil of sanctity about ideas that violate every intellectual decency, and (b) to make every theologian a sort of chartered libertine. No doubt it is mainly to blame for the appalling slowness with which really sound notions make their way in the world. The minute a new one is launched, in whatever fields, some imbecile of a theologian is certain to fall upon it, seeking to put it down. The most effective way to defend it, of course, would be to fall upon the theologian, for the only really workable defense, in polemics as in war, is a vigorous offensive. But convention frowns upon that device as indecent, and so theologians continue their assault upon sense without much resistance, and the enlightenment is unpleasantly delayed.

There is, in fact, nothing about religious opinions that entitles them to any more respect than other opinions get. On the contrary, they tend to be noticeably silly. If you doubt it, then ask any pious fellow of your acquaintance to put what he believes into the form of an affidavit, and see how it reads... . “I, John Doe, being duly sworn, do say that I believe that, at death, I shall turn into a vertebrate without substance, having neither weight, extent nor mass, but with all the intellectual powers and bodily sensations of an ordinary mammal; . . . and that, for the high crime and misdemeanor of having kissed my sister-in-law behind the door, with evil intent, I shall be boiled in molten sulphur for one billion calendar years.” Or, “I, Mary Roe, having the fear of Hell before me, do solemnly affirm and declare that I believe it was right, just, lawful and decent for the Lord God Jehovah, seeing certain little children of Beth-el laugh at Elisha’s bald head, to send a she-bear from the wood, and to instruct, incite, induce and command it to tear forty-two of them to pieces.” Or, “I, the Right Rev._____ _________, Bishop of _________,D.D., LL.D., do honestly, faithfully and on my honor as a man and a priest, declare that I believe that Jonah swallowed the whale,” or vice versa, as the case may be. No, there is nothing notably dignified about religious ideas. They run, rather, to a peculiarly puerile and tedious kind of nonsense. At their best, they are borrowed from metaphysicians, which is to say, from men who devote their lives to proving that twice two is not always or necessarily four. At their worst, they smell of spiritualism and fortune telling. Nor is there any visible virtue in the men who merchant them professionally. Few theologians know anything that is worth knowing, even about theology, and not many of them are honest. One may forgive a Communist or a Single Taxer on the ground that there is something the matter with his ductless glands, and that a Winter in the south of France would relieve him. But the average theologian is a hearty, red-faced, well-fed fellow with no discernible excuse in pathology. He disseminates his blather, not innocently, like a philosopher, but maliciously, like a politician. In a well-organized world he would be on the stone-pile. But in the world as it exists we are asked to listen to him, not only politely, but even reverently, and with our mouths open.


                                             A New Use for Churches  

                                               From DAMN! A BOOK OF CALUMNY, 1918, pp. 88-89

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?

If God can hear a petition, there is no ground 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, in fact, 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?  

 Free Will

  From the same, pp. 91-94

Free will, it appears, is still an essential dogma to most Christians. Without it the cruelties of God would strain faith to the breaking point. But outside the fold it is gradually falling into decay. Men of science 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. 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 egoists devoid of a critical sense. They mistake the acts of God for their own acts. 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 go to the same jail. Conscripts in war are killed just as often as volunteers.

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 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.

Sabbath Meditation   

In part from the American Mercury, May, 1924, pp. 60-61, and in part

from the Smart Set, Oct., 1923, pp. 138-42


My essential trouble, I sometimes suspect, is that I am quite devoid of what are called spiritual gifts. That is to say, I am incapable of religious experience, in any true sense. Religious ceremonials often interest me esthetically, and not infrequently they amuse me otherwise, but I get absolutely no stimulation out of them, no sense of exaltation, no mystical catharsis. In that department I am as anesthetic as a church organist, an archbishop or an altar boy. When I am low in spirits and full of misery, I never feel any impulse to seek help, or even mere consolation, from supernatural powers. Thus the generality of religious persons remain mysterious to me, and vaguely offensive, as I am unquestionably offensive to them. I can no more understand a man praying than I can understand him carrying a rabbit’s foot to bring him luck. This lack of understanding is a cause of enmities, and I believe that they are sound ones. I dislike any man who is pious, and all such men that I know dislike me.

I am anything but a militant atheist and haven’t the slightest objection to church going, so long as it is honest. I have gone to church myself more than once, honestly seeking to experience the great inward kick that religious persons speak of. But not even at St. Peter’s in Rome have I sensed the least trace of it. The most I ever feel at the most solemn moment of the most pretentious religious ceremonial is a sensuous delight in the beauty of it - a delight exactly like that which comes over me when I hear, say, “Tristan and Isolde” or Brahms’ fourth symphony. The effect of such music, in fact, is much keener than the effect of the liturgy. Brahms moves me far more powerfully than the holy saints.

As I say, this deficiency is a handicap in a world peopled, in the overwhelming main, by men who are inherently religious. It sets me apart from my fellows and makes it difficult for me to understand many of their ideas and not a few of their acts. I see them responding constantly and robustly to impulses that to me are quite inexplicable. Worse, it causes these folks to misunderstand me, and often to do me serious injustice. They cannot rid themselves of the notion that, because I am anesthetic to the ideas which move them most profoundly, I am, in some vague but nevertheless certain way, a man of aberrant morals, and hence one to be kept at a distance. I have never met a religious man who did not reveal this suspicion. No matter how earnestly he tried to grasp my point of view, he always ended by making an alarmed sort of retreat. All religions, in fact, teach that dissent is a sin; most of them make it the blackest of all sins, and all of them punish it severely whenever they have the power. It is impossible for a religious man to rid himself of the notion that such punishments are just. He simply cannot imagine a civilized rule of conduct that is not based upon the fear of God.

Let me add that my failing is in the fundamental religious impulse, not in mere theological credulity. I am not kept out of the church by an inability to believe the current dogmas. In point of fact, a good many of them seem to me to be reasonable enough, and I probably dissent from most of them a good deal less violently than many men who are assiduous devotees. Among my curious experiences, years ago, was that of convincing an ardent Catholic who balked at the dogma of papal infallibility. He was a very faithful son of the church and his inability to accept it greatly distressed him. I proved to him, at least to his satisfaction, that there was nothing intrinsically absurd in it - that if the dogmas that he already accepted were true then this one was probably true also. Some time later, when this man was on his deathbed, I visited him and he thanked me simply and with apparent sincerity for resolving his old doubt. But even he was unable to comprehend my own lack of religion. His last words to me were a pious hope that I would give over my lamentable contumacy to God and lead a better life. He died firmly convinced that I was headed for Hell, and, what is more, that I deserved it.


The Immortality of the Soul

From the American Mercury, Sept., 1932, pp. 125-26

When it comes to the immortality of the soul, whatever that may be precisely, I can only say that it seems to me to be wholly incredible and preposterous. There is not only no plausible evidence for it: there is a huge mass of irrefutable evidence against it, and that evidence increases in weight and cogency every time a theologian opens his mouth. All the common arguments for it may be reduced to four. The first is logical and is to the effect that it would be impossible to imagine God creating so noble a beast as man, and then letting him die after a few unpleasant years on earth. The answer is simple: I can imagine it, and so can many other men. Moreover, there is no reason to believe that God regards man as noble: on the contrary, all the available theological testimony runs the other way. The second argument is that a belief in immortality is universal in mankind, and that its very universality is ample proof of its truth. The answer is (a) that many men actually dissent, some of them in a very violent and ribald manner, and (b) that even if all men said aye it would prove nothing, for all men once said aye to the existence of witches. The third argument is that the dead, speaking through the mouths of gifted mediums, frequently communicate with the living, and must thus be alive themselves. Unfortunately, the evidence for this is so dubious that it takes a special kind of mind to credit it, and that kind of mind is far from persuasive. The fourth and final argument is based frankly on revelation: the soul is immortal because God hath said it is.

I confess that this last argument seems to me to be rather more respectable than any of the others: it at least makes no silly attempt to lug in the methods of science to prove a proposition in theology. But all the same there are plenty of obvious holes in it. Its proponents get into serious difficulties when they under-take to say when and how the soul gets into the body, and where it comes from. Must it be specially created in each in-stance, or is it the offspring of the two parent souls? In either case, when does it appear, at the moment of conception or somewhat later? If the former, then what happens to the soul of a zygote cast out, say, an hour after fertilization? If the death of that soul ensues, then the soul is not immortal in all cases, which means that its immortality can be certain in none: and if, on the contrary, it goes to Heaven or Hell or some vague realm between, then we are asked to believe that the bishops and archbishops who swarm beyond the grave are forced to associate, and on terms of equality, with shapes that can neither think nor speak, and resemble tadpoles far more than they resemble Christians. And if it be answered that all souls, after death, develop to the same point and shed all the characters of the flesh, then every imaginable scheme of post-mortem jurisprudence becomes ridiculous.

The assumption that the soul enters the body at some time after conception opens difficulties quite as serious, but I shall not annoy you with them in this hot weather. Suffice it to say that it forces one to believe either that there is a time when a human embryo, though it is alive, is not really a human being, or that a human being can exist without a soul. Both notions revolt me - the first as a student of biology, and the second as a dutiful subject of a great Christian state. The answers of the professional theologians are all inadequate. The Catholics try to get rid of the problem by consigning the souls of the un-baptized to a Limbus Infantum which is neither Heaven nor Hell, but that is only a begging of the question. As for the Protestants, they commonly refuse to discuss it at all. Their position seems to be that everyone ought to believe in the immortality of the soul as a matter of common decency, and that, when one has got that far, the details are irrelevant. But my appetite for details continues to plague me. I am naturally full of curiosity about a doctrine which, if it can be shown to be true, is of the utmost personal importance to me. Failing light, I go on believing dismally that when the bells ring and the cannon are fired, and people go rushing about frantic with grief, and my mortal clay is stuffed for the National Museum at Washington, it will be the veritable end of the noble and lovely creature once answering to the name of Henry.



                                From the American Mercury, May, 1924, p. 61

Has it ever occurred to anyone that miracles may be explained, not on the ground that the gods have transiently changed their rules, but on the ground that they have gone dozing and forgotten to enforce them? If they slept for two days running the moon might shock and singe us all by taking a header into the sun. For all we know, the moon may be quite as conscious as a poet or a realtor, and extremely weary of its monotonous round. It may long, above all things, for a chance to plunge into the sun and end the farce. What keeps it on its track is simply some external will - maybe not will embodied in any imaginable being, but nevertheless will. Law without will is quite as unthinkable as steam without heat.


                                                  Quod est Veritas?

                                 From DAMN! A Book of CALUMNY, 1918, p. 95

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 Ro-mans. “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.


                                              The Doubter’s Reward

                                    From DAMN! A Book OF CALUMNY, 1918, p. 96

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 faith and 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?


                                                                    Memorial Service

From PREJUDICES: THIRD SERIES, 1922, pp. 232-37

First printed in the Smart Set, March, 1922, pp. 41-42


Where is the graveyard of dead gods? What lingering mourner waters their mounds? There was a time when Jupiter was the king of the gods, and any man who doubted his puissance was ipso facto a barbarian and an ignoramus. But where in all the world is there a man who worships Jupiter today? And what of Huitzilopochtli? In one year-and it is no more than five hundred years ago - 50,000 youths and maidens were slain in sacrifice to him. Today, if he is remembered at all, it is only by some vagrant savage in the depths of the Mexican forest. Huitzilopochtli, like many other gods, had no human father; his mother was a virtuous widow; he was born of an apparently innocent flirtation that she carried on with the sun. When he frowned, his father, the sun, stood still. When he roared with rage, earthquakes engulfed whole cities. When he thirsted he was watered with 10,000 gallons of human blood. But today Huitzilopochtli is as magnificently forgotten as Allen G. Thurman. Once the peer of Allah, Buddha and Wotan, he is now the peer of Richmond P. Hobson, Alton B. Parker, Adelina Patti, General Weyler and Tom Sharkey.

Speaking of Huitzilopochtli recalls his brother Tezcatilpoca. Tezcatilpoca was almost as powerful: he consumed 25,000 virgins a year. Lead me to his tomb: I would weep, and hang a couronne des perles. But who knows where it is? Or where the grave of Quitzalcoatl is? Or Xiehtecutli? Or Centeotl, that sweet one? Or Tlazolteotl, the goddess of love? Or Mictlan? Or Xipe? Or all the host of Tzitzimitles? Where are their bones? Where is the willow on which they hung their harps? In what forlorn and unheard-of Hell do they await the resurrection morn? Who enjoys their residuary estates? Or that of Dis, whom Caesar found to be the chief god of the Celts? Or that of Tarves, the bull? Or that of Moccos, the pig? Or that of Epona, the mare? Or that of Mullo, the celestial jackass? There was a time when the Irish revered all these gods, but today even the drunkest Irishman laughs at them.

But they have company in oblivion: the Hell of dead gods is as crowded as the Presbyterian Hell for babies. Damona is there, and Esus, and Drunemeton, and Silvana, and Dervones, and Adsalluta, and Deva, and Belisama, and Uxellimus, and Borvo, and Grannos, and Mogons. All mighty gods in their day, worshipped by millions, full of demands and impositions, able to bind and loose - all gods of the first class. Men labored for generations to build vast temples to them - temples with stones as large as hay wagons. The business of interpreting their whims occupied thousands of priests, bishops, archbishops. To doubt them was to die, usually at the stake. Armies took to the field to defend them against infidels: villages were burned, women and children were butchered, cattle were driven off. Yet in the end they all withered and died, and today there is none so poor to do them reverence.

What has become of Sutekh, once the high god of the whole Nile Valley? What has become of:

Resheph Anath Ashtoreth Nebo Melek Ahijah Isis Ptah Baal Astarte Hadad Dagon Yau Amon-Re Osiris Molech?

All these were once gods of the highest eminence. Many of them are mentioned with fear and trembling in the Old Testament. They ranked, five or six thousand years ago, with Yahweh Himself; the worst of them stood far higher than Thor. Yet they have all gone down the chute, and with them the following:

Arianrod Morrigu Govannon Gunfled Dagda Ogyrvan Dea Dia luno Lucina Saturn Furrina Cronos Engurra Belus Ubilulu U-dimmer-an-kia U-sab-sib U-Mersi Tammuz Venus Beltis Nusku Aa Sin Apsu Elali Nuada Argetlam Tagd Goibniu Odin Ogma Marzin Mars Diana of Ephesus Robigus Pluto Vesta Zer-panitu Merodach Elum Marduk Nin Persephone Istar Lagas Nirig Nebo En-Mersi Assur Beltu Kuski-banda Mami Zaraqui Zagaga Min-azu Qarradu Ueras

Ask the rector to lend you any good book on comparative religion: you will find them all listed. They were the gods of the highest dignity – gods of civilized peoples – worshipped and believed in by millions. All were omnipotent, omniscient and immortal. And all are dead.

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