Mencken week, day 4

May 22, 2012 • 4:11 am

Another quote from Mencken (p. 380 in the Notebooks) showing that he was indeed the first New Atheist:

One of the most irrational of all the conventions of modern society is the one to the effect that religious opinions should be respected. …[This] convention protects them, and so they proceed with their blather unwhipped and almost unmolested, to the great damage of common sense and common decency. that they should have this immunity is an outrage. There is nothing in religious ideas, as a class, to lift them above other ideas. On the contrary, they are always dubious and often quite silly. Nor is there any visible intellectual dignity in theologians. Few of them know anything that is worth knowing, and not many of them are even honest.

The young Henry. Note that he has a pipe rather than a cigar.

30 thoughts on “Mencken week, day 4

  1. What’s the difference between a new atheist and an old atheist? And what’s the difference between a neo-Darwinist and a Darwinist? What, exactly, is a Darwinist or Darwinian? Are there new or neo theists or theologians? If so, what’s the difference between them? Who came up with all the new and neo stuff, and why?

    1. Well, there are different differences.

      “New atheists” was the term coined by opponents of the vocal critics of religion such as Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens. And partly because “new atheism” isn’t new, the term was subverted by us “new atheists” as “gnu atheism”.

      “Neo-Darwinism” is different from “Darwinism” in that it accommodates mechanisms for heredity and evolution (genes; e.g., genetic drift) that Darwin wasn’t aware of. (IIRC; an evolutionary biologist, if there’s one around, might correct me on this.)

      There a no new/neo- theists or theologists because Snoopy.


      1. Some “credit” Gary Wolf with coining the term. (It appeared in his Nov. 2006 Wired magazine article about Harris, Dennett and Dawkins and their recent bestsellers.) I think he intended “New Atheism” as descriptive/shorthand – not a pejorative.

    2. I think it was Hitchens who said (something like):

      The difference between and old atheist and a new atheist is that the Church is not legally allowed to burn us anymore.

  2. I believe the technical term for that is, “Oh snap.”

    Seriously, though, some of this shit is even more “strident” than what the gnus get all beat up about. I still think the term “New Atheist” is useful, because it delineates a particular historical segment of a particular social movement — but it’s clear as day that there’s nothing at all “new” about the most controversial parts!

  3. Hmm… I’ll grant you that Mencken would be consider a new atheist if alive today, but “the first new atheist”? What about Robert Ingersoll? (If not others.)


    PS. “H. L. Mencken: The First New Atheist” puts me in mind of Captain America: The First Avenger, which suggests a sequel (based on the UK name for the current movie):

    New Atheists Assemble!

      1. By the way, Alistair Cooke edited a Mencken collection, & profiled him in one of his books, Six Men. Mencken was not without fault, (he was quite racist) but still I like him for being outspoken. We are often too quick to take offence these days.

      1. I’m sure even if you go all the way back to the dawn of religion, there was some Neandertal living in a cave who said, “Ug think sun-god not really tell us when hunt mammoth. Ug think that silly. Ug think witch doctor just say hunt mammoth when priest see mammoth, then say sun-god told him so he keep job. Ug think witch doctor big liar. Also, Ug wonder what going on when witch doctor go in cave with cauldron boy…”

  4. Not enough is made of the criticism those like Thomas Paine and Mark Twain, as well as Mencken himself, leveled against the institution of organized religion (in some cases, such as Thomas Jefferson, believers even try to claim these people as their own). Many of these great thinkers and writers whose other works are now taken as received wisdom have chastised and denounced religion just as vociferously as Richard Dawkins does today. At least in this context, there is really nothing new about new atheism*. I suspect the difference is that now the criticism is actually having an impact on the mainstream discourse in a way that it never did in the past, when it could simply be ignored or dismissed, and this is upsetting for the people who see virtue in religion.

    *One doesn’t have to be an atheist to criticize religion, which is why I’ve included people like Thomas Paine, who was otherwise a deist.

    1. There’s practically no meaningful difference between a deist like Thomas Paine and a modern scientist like Darwin, Einstein, Feynman, Dawkins. All of them repudiate the supernatural and put their trust in the laws of nature, including human nature.
      It’s just too bad nobody reads The Age of Reason any more, except for a school paper.

      1. Maybe today they are “New Agnostics” because few read as atheist? Most hail to some theological principle like NOMA.

      2. There is a qualitative difference in that Thomas Paine believed in a deity from whom mankind, acting in imitation of god’s works, could derive moral and scientific systems of thought. I agree that Paine shares the spirit of a modern scientist, which is why his writings can still resonate with the most dyed in the wool non-believer today, and his Age of Reason is a particularly powerful bit of religious criticism and biblical exegesis that is sadly underrepresented in discussions about his works. In fact, if he were alive now, I’m pretty sure that Paine would shed the last vestiges of his belief in god. His deism seems to me like an artifact of his age, when practically everyone believed in god and atheists had difficulty explaining the nature of the world without a supernatural force.

  5. Jefferson wrote: “Ridicule is the only weapon that can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them: and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is the mere abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus.”

    When reason, respect and politeness do not work in resolving problems, ridicule may. What else do secularists have to defend the rights of all citizens?

  6. If we agree that there is nothing “new” about New Atheism, then the first “New Atheist” would likely be the first modern atheist–and that would be Baron d’Holbach (1723–1789). Though the authors of antiquity laid the groundwork for atheism as we know it, d’Holbach is the first to have written a work that directly argued for atheism by promulgating a strictly materialist/naturalist view of the world based on scientific reasoning. Never before in Christendom had someone published such an upfront and uncompromising book of atheism.

    That book is “The System of Nature,” which was The God Delusion of the 18th century. Like Dawkins’ tome, it was an immensely popular and notorious work that garnered scores of rebuttals and howls of outrage from clerics and from accommodationists like Voltaire and Rousseau. Public domain translations of “System,” and its shorter recap “Good Sense,” are easy to find. If Jerry is in need of beach reading, I think d’Holbach will hit the spot. New translations of d’Holbach’s “Portable Theology” and “Christianity Unveiled” are also circulating, and the good Baron has a prominent place in Jonathan Miller’s documentary “Atheism: – A Rough History of Disbelief,” which is essential viewing for any atheist.

      1. Voltaire was a deist, and despite his anticlerical leanings he publicly criticized d’Holbach’s work, thus making him something like the first New Accomadationist. He wrote a refutation of “The System of Nature” and said “Christianity Unveiled” was “entirely opposed to my principles. This book leads to an atheistic philosophy that I detest.” Philipp Blom’s book “A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment” makes the case (first proposed by Jonathan Israel) that d’Holbach and Diderot represented the radical or “hard” enlightenment, due to their atheism and desire for widespread social reform, whereas Voltaire and Rousseau represented the more mainstream face of the enlightenment, since they were deists and had differing ideas for society (Voltaire made money lending immense sums to royalty, and thus didn’t want to shake things up too much). While d’Holbach and Diderot were sidelined, Voltaire and Rousseau influenced the French revolution and later intellectual/political history (often for the worse in Rousseau’s case).

  7. Damn, that’s good. I’m so sick of the whiny faux entitlement of demanding/deserving respect just because. What a bunch of crap. I think we owe each other civility, but respect? Give me a f*cking break.

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