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Subjects (abstracts): I Believe; Treatise on the Gods; A Mencken Chrestomathy; Living Philosophies

from: [my photocopy, 10/22/89] I Believe, edited by Clifton Fadiman, Simon and Schuster, 1939.

'I believe that there are a number of questions that it is no use our asking, because they can never be answered. Nothing but waste, worry, or unhappiness is caused by trying to solve insoluble problems. Yet some people seem determined to try. I recall the story of the philosopher and the theologian. The two were engaged in disputation and the theologian used the old quip about a philosopher resembling a blind man, in a dark room, looking for a black catwhich wasn't there. "That may be," said the philosopher: "but a theologian would have found it."'

[Sir Julian Huxley 1887 - 1975]. [128].

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from: [my photocopy, 5/20/90] Treatise on the Gods, H.L. Mencken [1880 - 1956], Knopf, MCMXXX.

"If its [Koran] authors had been born in the North instead of in the Levant, they would have given Paradise less boskage and more sunlight. The same wish neurose shows itself in all apocalyptic writings. HEAVEN IS ALWAYS RICH IN WHAT IS LONGED FOR, AND HELL HAS AN INFINITE ABUNDANCE OF WHAT IS ALREADY TOO ABUNDANT. The Tibetan Buddhists, inhabiting the cold and windy roof of the world, reject the 136 hot Hells of orthodox Buddhism, and substitute eight of their own, in which the grateful fires are displaced by geysers of icy glacier water, and the damned are so thoroughly refrigerated that their jaws freeze tight, their tongues are so paralyzed that only the exclamations, Kyi-u and Ha-ha, are possible, and their bodies are dissolved in horrible chilblains, with the flesh falling away like the withering petals of the sacred lotus." [198-199].

'As James H. Leuba says, religion is "a way of dismissing the worrying complications of this world, of entering into a circle of solacing and elevating thoughts and feelings, of forgetting and surmounting evil." In brief, it is a flight from reality—and it has this plain advantage over all other flights: that it is along familiar and well-worn paths, trodden always in company. THE TRUE BELIEVER DIES IN A GANG, LIKE A SOLDIER: he escapes that paralyzing sense of aloneness which must inevitably overtake the skeptic in the end, however sturdy his philosophy. This common pattern of religion, like the similar pattern of government, has been impressed upon the human consciousness for uncounted thousands of years, and it is no wonder that erasing it is an inordinately difficult matter, and, in the great majority of cases, impossible.

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People in the mass fear to be singular. Their dominant desire is to be put down as safe, correct, reliable; to be let alone; to avoid challenge.

....and MORE IMPORTANT THAN ANYTHING ELSE, IS THE PRIMARY MOTIVE OF FEAR. Theology has sought to refine it away, but it remains today, as it was in the beginning, the be-all and end-all of religion. Remove it, and there is nothing left save a few behavior patterns and a series of dubious propositions in metaphysics. What is unknown is incurably terrifying, even to the best of men; to the majority it is unendurable. What they demand is a way out, a road to security, to peace, to such poor happiness as miserable men may hope for in this world. The road that religion offers may not be the most beautiful, but it is at least the widest, and so it is the most trod.' [329-330].

"The devotee [of religion] somehow feels that he has lifted himself up—that he has established connections with a power that is superior, not only quantitatively but also qualitatively, to those of this world. His ego glows under the thought; he has demonstrated his significance in the cosmic scheme; he has put himself clearly ABOVE THE BRUTES, BRAYING THERE IN THE MEADOW against a fate they cannot comprehend and in protest to powers they cannot even imagine." [331].

"the masses of humankind, in accepting the answer that religion offers to the intolerable riddle of existence, have not been wholly lacking in intelligent self-interest, for they have really got something valuable for their devotion.

It would be unwise, therefore, to set down religion as a mere sport of fools. The reasoning which leads most men to accept it may be puerile, but the conclusion that they come to yet shows a certain homely rationality. Are all the fruits of faith illusions? Then let us not forget that illusions also have their useseven, on occasion, to the most intelligent and self-sufficient of men. It is thus no wonder that the scent of ancient sacrifice lingers in the world, on the topmost levels of society a well as at the bottom. Few men, in truth, are sturdy enough in spirit to face a hostile cosmos, day after day, year in and year out, without an occasional tremour of trepidation, a sudden overwhelming feeling, ever and anon, of inadequacy, helplessness, forlornness. It is disarmingly easy, at such times, to slip comfortably into the immemorial patterns. It saves wear and tear of the ego; it is a device of mental economy; it sets up a barrier between character and disaster. One often observes analogous phenomena in other fields. There is, for example, the case of the Humanists I was discussing some time back. The Humanism that they preach so eloquently but so vaguely is essentially a movement of poets against the intolerableness of science—in William James's terms, a revolt of the tender-minded against tough-mindedness. The Humanists try to make the world bearable by representing it to be something that it is not. Christianity, at least in some of its phases, is too silly for them, but neither can they accept the harsh axioms of science. So they go back, poet-like, to a mythical Golden Age, and find comfort in the sonorous nothings of Greek metaphysics. Thus they dispose of an unbearable present by denying that it is real. They shrink from Zola and Ibsen, Hardy and Shaw, Dreiser and Lewis, to wallow in dreams. They loathe and fear Whitman, not because of his over-lush fancies, but because of his occasional fornications with the dreadful truth." [331-332].

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'There is yet something: the powerful pull of inherited superstition. Here I speak with biological inexactness, but my meaning, I hope, will be sufficiently clear. Man may not inherit his concrete ideas, but he at least inherits his leaning toward them, his capacity for them. It takes time to breed belief out and skepticism intime, and a great deal of effort and grief. THE ONLY REALLY SAFE SKEPTIC IS OF THE THIRD GENERATION [see #4, 121]: his grandfather must have taken the Devil's shilling as a bachelor. THE REST, HOWEVER LOFTY THEIR PRETENSIONS, ARE ALL MORE OR LESS UNRELIABLE: no sensible man would trust them in the face of a Japanese invasion or after forty days and forty nights of rain. "The TRADITION of all the generations of the past," said Karl Marx, "weighs down like an Alp upon the brain of the living." Especially in the field of religion, where the weight of ancient credulities is reinforced by the even greater weight of decorum and sentimentality. NOT MANY MEN LIKE TO BE ACCUSED OF TREASON TO WHAT THEY WERE TAUGHT AT THEIR MOTHERS' KNEES. So the tendency is to handle religion in a careful and even gingery manner—to avoid discussing it as much as possible. Thus in most cases, as James Harvey Robinson has shrewdly observed, "it does not tend to mature." Men otherwise highly enlightened cling maudlinly to ideas that go back to the infancy of the human race. Worse, they assume that what they thereby permit themselves to believe, irrationally and against all the known facts, is a kind of knowledge.' [333-334].

"To dissent from the principal Christian formularies becomes, in Christendom, as hazardous as to dissent from the prevailing axioms of politics, as many a Jew has discovered to his sorrow. The church, as the most august of all going concerns, acquires vast and complicated interests, an immense prestige, an almost irresistible power. It seizes a rôle of importance in every capital event—birth, marriage, death. It penetrates to the legislative chamber and the court of law. It demands and gets a quid pro quo for its tender solicitude for emperors and presidents, exploiters and despoilers. In times of peace it takes over charity, and makes it a billboard for theology. In times of war it drags out its artillery of anathema ["accursed, or consigned to damnation", etc.] and maranatha [complex! "anathema maranatha": "intensified form of anathema". "maranatha": "A terrible curse." (O.E.D.)] to harry and damn the public enemy. It knows how to put political, social and economic pressure upon its more open foes, and how to relax its rigours for those who waver.

In brief, it ["The church"] takes on all the characters of a powerful, ambitious and unscrupulous governmental machine, a deliriously imperialistic state. Naturally enough, all this involves a long series of compromises with its own integrity; it must sacrifice principles in order to achieve effects....

In order to be a tolerable Catholic it is sufficient, in the last analysis, to keep out of the Freemasons and remember one's Easter duty. To be a good Baptist it is sufficient to go into the water bravely, head and all. And to be a sound Methodist it is sufficient to vote and talk dry: how one drinks is a matter of private conscience." [334-335].

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'The truly civilized man, it seems to me, has already got away from the old puerile demand for a "meaning in life." It needs no meaning to be interesting to him. His satisfactions come, not out of a childish confidence that some vague and gaseous god, hidden away in some impossible sky, made him for a lofty purpose and will preserve him to fulfill it, but out of a delight in the operations of the universe about him and of his own mind. It delights him to exercise that mind, regardless of the way it takes him, just as it delights the lower animals, including those of his own species, to exercise their muscles. If he really differs qualitatively from those lower animals, as all the theologians agree, then that is the proof of it. It is not a soul that he has acquired; it is a way of thinking, a way of looking at the universe, a way of facing the impenetrable dark that must engulf him in the end, as it engulfs the birds of the air and the protozoa in the sea ooze.' [351-352].

"Thus he faces death the inexorable—not, perhaps, with complete serenity, but at least with dignity, calm, a brave spirit. If he has not proved positively that religion is not true, then he has certainly proved that it is not necessary. Men may live decently without it and they may die courageously without it. But not, of course, all men. The capacity for that proud imperturbability is rare in the race—maybe as rare as the capacity for honour. For the rest there must be faith, as there must be morals. It is their fate to live absurdly, flogged by categorical imperatives of their own shallow imagining, and to die insanely, GRASPING FOR HANDS THAT ARE NOT THERE." [352].

[See: Chapter V: "Its State Today" (291-353 (end))].

[See (and compare (especially Chapter V)): 2nd edition, "corr. and rewritten" (Nat. U.C.), 1946 (see 832)].

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from: H.L. Mencken, A Mencken Chrestomathy, edited and annotated by the Author, Knopf, 1949.


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....

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"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 peculiarity 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.'


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from: Treatise on The Gods, H.L. Mencken, Knopf, 1959 (1946).

"Preface to the Revised Edition

This book was first published early in 1930. The first and second printings were sold out before publication, and during the years following there were eight more, including a cheap edition for victims of the prevailing Depression...." [v].

"Naturally enough, I give more attention to Christianity than to any other faith, for I was myself educated in its doctrines in youth, though not urged to believe them, and most readers, I assume, are in the same case. I try to rid it of the metaphysical flummery that has so long encased it, and to consider it realistically and dispassionately, as one might consider any other human artifact. The notion that it ["Christianity"] differs from the rest, and is somehow superior to them, is one that seems to me to be very dubious. RELIGION WAS INVENTED BY MAN JUST AS AGRICULTURE AND THE WHEEL WERE INVENTED BY MAN, AND THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NOTHING IN IT TO JUSTIFY THE BELIEF THAT ITS INVENTORS HAD THE AID OF HIGHER POWERS, WHETHER ON THIS EARTH OR ELSEWHERE. It is, in some of its aspects, extremely ingenious and in others it is movingly beautiful, but in yet others it is so absurd that it comes close to imbecility. What the faithful Christian professes to believe, if put into the form of an affidavit, would be such shocking nonsense that even bishops and archbishops would laugh at it, but as a practical matter he need not bother about any such test, for it is enough, when doubts assail him, if he hold his tongue, leaving the rest to the professional theologians—a class of men for whom I have an unashamed partiality, as I have for politicians. They are the most adept logicians in the modern world, and once their premises are granted the rest is easy sailing. All I venture to hint in the pages following is that their premises are probably unsound, and this, I assume, will also be the position of nine-tenths of those who undertake to read me. There is no purpose here to shake the faithful, for I am completely free of the messianic itch, and do not like converts....

It would be folly to underestimate the power of religion upon the unhappy Simidiiae [Simiidae (Pongidae)] known as man, even today. That its grip is lessening I show by plain evidence, but this lessening is to be seen only in relatively small minorities, admittedly damned. The great masses of people still follow theologians as they follow politicians, and seem doomed to be bamboozled and squeezed by both for many long ages to come...." [vi-"vii"].

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"Religion, in its essence, is thus not a scheme of conduct, but a theory of causes. What brought it into the world in the remote days that I try to conjure up by hypothesis in Section I were man's eternal wonder and his eternal hope. It represents one of his boldest efforts to penetrate the unknowable, to put down the intolerable, to refashion the universe nearer to his heart's desire. My belief is that it is a poor device to that end—that when it is examined objectively it testifies to his lack of sense quite as much as to his high striving. But that belief is only a belief. The immense interest and importance of the thing itself remain. [End of "Preface to the Revised Edition"]


Baltimore, January 1, 1946" ["viii"].

from: Living Philosophies, Simon and Schuster, 1931.

'Albert Einstein [1879 - 1955]

Strange is our situation here upon earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to divine a purpose.

From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: that man is here for the sake of other men—above all for those upon whose smile and well-being our own happiness depends, and also for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by a bond of sympathy. Many times a day I realize how much my own outer and inner life is built upon the labors of my fellow-men, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received. My peace of mind is often troubled by the depressing sense that I have borrowed too heavily from the work of other men.

I do not believe we can have any freedom at all in the philosophical sense, for we act not only under external compulsion but also by inner necessity. Schopenhauer's saying—"A man can surely do what he wills to do, but he cannot determine what he wills"—impressed itself upon me in youth and has always consoled me when I have witnessed or suffered life's hardships. This conviction is a perpetual breeder of tolerance, for it does not allow us to take ourselves or others too seriously; it makes rather for a sense of humor.

To ponder interminably over the reason for one's own existence or the meaning of life in general seems to me, from an objective point of view, to be sheer folly. And yet everyone holds certain ideals by which he guides his aspiration and his judgment. The ideals which have always shone before me and filled me with the joy of living are goodness, beauty, and truth. To make a goal of comfort or happiness has never appealed to me; a system of ethics built on this basis would be sufficient only for a herd of cattle.' [3-4].

"I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, whose purposes are modeled after our own—a God, in short, who is but a reflection of human frailty. Neither can I believe that the individual survives the death of his body, although feeble souls harbor such thoughts through fear or ridiculous egotism. It is enough for me to contemplate the mystery of conscious life perpetuating itself through all eternity, to reflect upon the marvelous structure of the universe which we can dimly perceive, and to try humbly to comprehend even an infinitesimal part of the intelligence manifested in nature." [End of essay] [6-7].

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