H. L. Mencken: the first New Atheist

May 19, 2012 • 9:10 am

Where, oh where, are the journalists who can not only tell it like it is about faith, but do so with humor and invective?  I’d give a million Krista Tippetts for one H. L. Mencken.  This quote, from Minority Report, H. L. Mencken’s Notebooks (Knopf, 1956, p. 232), was brought to my attention by alert reader Eli. If you think that in-your-face atheism and mockery of religion was invented by the New Atheists, you haven’t read Mencken.

We’ll have a nice Mencken quote every day for a week. Here’s the first, about accommodationism.

The effort to reconcile science and religion is almost always made, not by theologians, but by scientists unable to shake off altogether the piety absorbed with their mothers’ milk. The theologians, with no such dualism addling their wits, are smart enough to see that the two things are implacably and eternally antagonistic, and that any attempt to thrust them into one bag is bound to result in one swallowing the other. The scientists who undertake this miscegenation always end by succumbing to religion; after a Millikan* has been discoursing five minutes it becomes apparent that he is speaking in the character of a Christian Sunday-school scholar, not of a scientist. The essence of science is that it is always willing to abandon a given idea, however fundamental it may seem to be, for a better one; the essence of theology is that it holds its truths to be eternal and immutable. To be sure, theology is always yielding a little to the progress of knowledge, and only a Holy Roller in the mountains of Tennessee would dare to preach today what the popes preached in the Thirteenth Century, but this yielding is always done grudgingly, and thus lingers a good while behind the event. So far as I am aware even the most liberal theologian of today still gags at scientific concepts that were already commonplaces in my schooldays.

Thus such a thing as a truly enlightened Christian is hard to imagine. Either he is enlightened or he is Christian, and the louder he protests that he is the former the more apparent it becomes that he is really the latter. A Catholic priest who devotes himself to seismology or some other such safe science may become a competent technician and hence a useful man, but it is ridiculous to call him a scientist so long as he still believes in the virgin birth, the atonement or transubstantiation. It is, to be sure, possible to imagine any of these dogmas being true, but only at the cost of heaving all science overboard as rubbish. The priest’s reasons for believing in them is not only not scientific; it is violently anti-scientific. Here he is exactly on all fours with a believer in fortune-telling, Christian Science or chiropractic.


*Robert A. Millikan, who won the Nobel Prize for measuring the charge of the electron here at the University of Chicago and later became an ardent accommodationist.)

39 thoughts on “H. L. Mencken: the first New Atheist

  1. This Mencken quote surely is one that provides affirmation for my New Atheist viewpoint. But am I really obligated to think Millikan was not a scientist because he was a believer? Am I as a science teacher now obligated to remove Millikan from the list of scientists about whom I teach? What of all other scientists, past and present, who were or are believers? Am I now to think them not scientists because they believed? What criteria do we use to assign the label “scientist”? Is not this label deserving based on one’s discoveries and achievements rather than his or her beliefs?

    1. My interpretation of that passage was different.

      “. . . ;after a Millikan* has been discoursing five minutes it becomes apparent that he is speaking in the character of a Christian Sunday-school scholar, not of a scientist.”

      I’d have to search for the wider context to be sure, but it sounds to me like Mencken is simply pointing out that Millikan includes religious drivel in his talks. I’m not sure how you get from that passage that Mencken is saying that because Millikan (or any person) is sympathetic to religion, or even a believer, that therefore any science they have done should be disregarded for that reason.

      1. ” A Catholic priest who devotes himself to seismology or some other such safe science may become a competent technician and hence a useful man, but it is ridiculous to call him a scientist so long as he still believes in the virgin birth, the atonement or transubstantiation.”

        While he specifically refers to a Catholic priest, why should this not be interpreted as a rebuke and characterization of any scientist who is a believer? And what of a self-described scientist who rejects the mythological beliefs Mencken mentions, but still chooses to believe in the existence of God? Is not such a scientist also undeserving by Mencken’s standard of the label “scientist”? Mencken is, I think, clearly saying that it is “ridicuilous” to call any scientist who is a theist a scientist. I wish not to be thought ridiculous. Thus I am forced by this standard to reject as a scientist anyone who is a theist regardless of his or her achievements. But I cannot agree to this standard. Am I missing something here? Have I somehow misread Mencken here? I like Mencken and have a great deal of respect for his thinking. But I find it hard to accept this particular point as true.

        1. Mencken is somewhat hyperbolic here, but the point is telling nevertheless. The key distinction is between a ‘technician’, someone with a specific set of skills, and a ‘scientist’, by which I take Mencken to mean ‘someone who conducts inquiry in the spirit of the scientific enterprise’: think scientist as vocation, rather than data gatherer.

          Now, you may say that no one – and no scientist – approaches everything they do scientifically, and you’d be right. I don’t approach listening to music ‘scientifically’, for example. But if, while aspiring to be a scientist, you accept some foundational existence claims about the nature of reality on grounds that simply wouldn’t pass scientific muster, then it seems legitimate to point out that, to say the least, you are not conducting yourself like a scientist.

          None of this means that a believing scientist’s work shouldn’t be read, taught or used: their results, their ‘technician’s’ output, can be just as valuable as anyone else’s. But it does mean they are selective in adhering to their claimed vocation.

          1. A good example would have been Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit evolutionist no less! Mencken is surely right that such a man is really either a Jesuit whose science is flawed or a scientist whose religious commitment is flawed: but he coud still do effective technical, as opposed to theoretical, science.

    2. It’s easy. Mencken was wrong because he couldn’t conceive of scientific enterprise as being part-time. Millikan was an outstanding part-time scientist, and the rest of the time he was just another run-of-the-mill god botherer. Personally, I think Mencken can be forgiven for his error.

  2. H. L. Mencken was a lifetime resident of Baltimore, and I, having lived here for the past 22+ years, could hardly have escaped reading a number of his writings. I have always found him to irreverent, provocative and downright funny. Next to Twain, probably my 2nd most favorite American author, especially regarding religion.

  3. Millikan also presided over Caltech in its earliest decades after its metamorphosis from the Throop Institute of Technology.

    Mencken wrote an obituary of William Jennings Bryan that appeared in the first issue of Mencken’s magazine, the American Mercury, in (iirc) 1930. He assigns to Bryan the sin of having been the first American politician to play the religion card in the late 1800s.

    Where is Menchken’s like today?

    1. The Throop Institute of Technology? TIT? Really?

      Not quite as bad as the erstwhile Sam Houston Institute of Technology…but pretty close!

  4. Mencken’s “Treatise on the Gods” is a book well worth the time, even if it could stand revision at some points after all these decades. Along with “Some Mistakes of Moses” by Robert Ingersoll, this is a classic that deserves a much wider audience today, both for what it says and for Mencken’s style.

  5. There are so many spicy quotes by Mencken that you could go on for far longer than a week.

    I always liked this one:
    We must respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.

    It would make a good motto for the New Atheists.

    1. Hey, that’s my theory too (the Mencken quote I mean). It is not up for discussion and, in the interests of continuing domestic bliss, I believe it implicitly. However, I’m not going to push my luck and insist that everybody else subscribe to it. 😉

      Nice quote, btw.

  6. Indeed, Mencken, while a great satirist who did not spare the pen against dogmatic tomfoolery, he was opposed to neither honest faith nor honest doubt. Ironically, he considered the Bible itself a worthwhile, albeit widely misused book. What twisted his top most was use of the implausible beliefs of religion to manipulate the gullible (though he likewise gave no quarter to the gullible). As for the Bible, he wrote:

    “For the Bible, despite all its contradictions and absurdities, its barbarisms and obscenities, remains grand and gaudy stuff, and so it deserves careful study and enlightened exposition. It is not only lovely in phrase; it is also rich in ideas, many of them far from foolish. One somehow gathers the notion that it was written from end to end by honest men—inspired, perhaps, but nevertheless honest. When they had anything to say they said it plainly, whether it was counsel that enemies be slain or counsel that enemies be kissed. They knew how to tell a story, and how to sing a song, and how to swathe a dubious argument in specious and disarming words. They were privy to all the tricks of poets, orators, evangelists, politicians, historians, college presidents, insurance solicitors, executive secretaries. They had everything except humor, and maybe they had humor too, as I have often suspected after reading 2 Kings 2:23-24, and Matthew 1:1-16.12 No secular authors have ever surpassed them in cunning and address, not even Shakespeare, not even Homer, not even Dr. Henry van Dyke or Edgar A. Guest, or Dr. Irving Babbitt. Seeking to save the world from Hell, they failed; but they at least gave it a superb literature. This literature is now taught to the young by a corps of solemn and unintelligent pedagogues of both sexes, themselves dependent for light upon glosses composed by theological eunuchs. It is an absurdity almost without parallel in human history. The Bible deserves to be taught by teachers who are not afraid of it, and have actually read it. It deserves to be set before the young, not as a bugaboo for enforcing the moral ideas of nitwits, but as the rich storehouse of human wisdom and folly, strength and weakness, hope and despair that it really is. But where are the teachers for the job? How are they to be recruited and trained? Once more I can only advise a resort to prayer.” [American Mercury, July 1930]

    1. But they probably had no choice but to write grandiose. IIRC some recent science on religion shows that such specious and disarming words moves everyone, include atheists, towards considering supernatural explanations.

      We just can’t help ourselves, it is a brain (dys)function. I would rather stay away from such a tar pit.

      As for idea literature, religious texts don’t hold a candle to some of the best scifi literature out there in my honest opinion. It is interesting that skeptics and atheists often seem to be ardent scifi readers, and thus likely to find religious texts boring.

      I remember being fascinated by some religious texts at eight. Today, not so much.

    2. The bible is brimming with beautiful language, and anyone who lacks a working familiarity with it is the poorer for it. Much of that language undoubtably comes directly from the bible’s original authors, whoever they were, as Mencken seems to assume in the quotation you’ve provided. But a good deal of the credit for the phraseology language lovers cherish must go as well to the Englishmen who produced, back in the 1600s, the translation known as the King James Version, as Christopher Hitchens pointed out in his Vanity Fair article “When the King Saved God.”

  7. Well they might actually claim that Mencken was also a “new” atheist, and they might have a point there. Here is a quote attributed to Denis Diederot:

    Wandering in a vast forest at night, I have only a faint light to guide me. A stranger appears and says to me: “My friend, you should blow out your candle in order to find your way more clearly.” This stranger is a theologian.

    And here is a quote right from the Sanskrit epic Ramayana, which apart from it literary value, is also held as one of the holiest texts in Hinduism:

    These people say, ‘The eighth day should be given up to sacrifices for the spirits of our ancestors.’ See the waste of food. What will a dead man eat? If food eaten by one here, reaches another’s body, then let a sacrifice be offered for those who are setting out on a distant journey. Will it not become a food on their path? Perform sacrifices, distribute gifts, consecrate yourselves, practise austerity and renunciation’ – These writings are composed by learned men for the sake of inducing others to give. O, the highly wise! Arrive at a conclusion, therefore, that there is nothing beyond this Universe. Give precedence to that which meets the eye and turn your back on what is beyond our knowledge. Honour the judgment of the wise and regarding that which is approved by all, accept the kingdom as propitiated by Bharata.

    1. Whenever I hear anyone complain about the tone of a Dawkins or a Hitchens, I think of Diderot’s most famous quote:

      “Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.”

      No Gnu ever got more hardcore than that!

  8. Mencken was not an atheist despite his vigorous anti-clericalism. I will have to dig up the exact quote from his biography, but he wrote that atheism is just as intellectually defective as religion.

    And he’s certainly not a New Atheist even in spirit. He would have hated the anti-Muslim interventionism and authoritarianism of Harris and Hitchens (on the latter point consider their support for the burka ban for instance and in the case of Harris his deplorable support for profiling and NDAA).

    Mencken bore a closer kinship to the Old Atheists like Russell and Twain in opposing both the Church and the State especially in matters of international politics. He was a convinced anti-imperialist who fought to keep America out of both world wars.

    He was no more a New Atheist than his libertarian co-thinker Ayn Rand who trashed religion with no less vigor. But I suspect that you’ve latched on to Mencken because unlike Rand who bellowed her anti-liberal views from the roof and has become something of a hate figure among the Left, his politics remains obscured to the point where even quote-mongers have forgotten that he was not an atheist.

    1. “Mencken bore a closer kinship to the Old Atheists like Russell and Twain in opposing both the Church and the State especially in matters of international politics. He was a convinced anti-imperialist who fought to keep America out of both world wars.”

      Several Gnu Atheists share those views – PZ Myers for example.

  9. And he’s certainly not a New Atheist even in spirit. He would have hated the anti-Muslim interventionism and authoritarianism of Harris and Hitchens

    And other prominent new atheists oppose that, too. Does that mean that being a new atheist is limited to those who support anti-Muslim interventionism and authoritarianism, and that the label is unfairly applied except in the cases of Hitchens and Harris?

    1. Remember how this game is played.

      If you call yourself a New Atheist, you are held morally responsible for everything that any prominent New Atheist has ever said on any topic. Because New Atheism is an echo chamber where everybody moves in lockstep, etc.

      If you protest that you don’t agree with, say, Harris on profiling, or Hitchens on the Iraq War, etc., well, now there are DEEP RIFTS in the atheist movement.

  10. Mencken’s opposition to American entry into the Second World War had an unfortunate tendency to slide into a vague, unappetising pro-fascism (something those of us who are huge fans of his writing prefer to overlook). He was certainly no populist (which made him a sort of anti-Will Rodgers). Mencken was, instead, an unabashed elitist (and not always in the good sense). But there is nothing else in American letters quite like him when he got to wailing on a deserving enemy!

  11. Here’s hoping your week’s worth of Mencken includes his “obituary” of his Scopes Trial punching-bag, William Jennings Bryan. It is unmatched for invective against the departed –except maybe for Hunter Thompson’s post-mortem shredding of Richard Nixon, which paid open homage to Mencken’s take-down of Bryan, although Thompson’s lacked the religious component (in that Nixon’s Quakerism, or any religious inclination, was nearly invisible, save for ocassionally trotting it out as a sop to the ur-Religious Right, or when swapping anti-Semitic bon mots with buddy Billy Graham).

  12. Hey Jerry,

    Thank you for posting this and thanks in advance for your promised weeks worth of Mencken quotes. I spent twelve years in Maryland, beginning with four years at the University of Maryland studying English and Psychology, so of course I’ve read some of Mencken’s writings, but he somehow disappeared from my radar screen. Now he’s back and I will probably devour everything I can find that he ever wrote in the next couple of months.

    Every day you bring me at least one interesting thing to read, watch or simply think about. You have become a great friend as a result. Other than continuing my skepticism and making my way through this life as an avowed atheist, what can I do for you?


    Larry Cook

    1. Or how about Georges Lemaitre, Catholic priest and cosmologist and who could fairly be called one of the founders of the Big Bang model. (Lemaitre specifically drew a line between his scientific work and his religious beliefs).

      I suppose, as always, there are exceptions to every ‘rule’.

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