Mencken Week, day 5

May 23, 2012 • 8:00 am

This is from p. 333 of Minority Report: H. L. Mencken’s Notebooks:

Religion, of course, does make some men better, and perhaps even many men. There can be no doubt of it. But making them better by filling their poor heads with grotesque nonsense is an irrational and wasteful process, and the harm it does greatly outweighs the good. If men could be made better—or even only happier—by teaching them that two and two make five there would be plenty of fools to advocate that method, but it would remain anti-social nonetheless. If the theologians could only agree on their doctrines their unanimity might have some evidential value, just as the agreement of all politicians that the first duty of the citizen is to obey them and admire them has some evidential value. It may not be true, but it is at least undisputed by all save a small fraction of heretics, which is certainly something. Fortunately for common sense, the theologians are never able to agree. Even within the sects, and under the more rigid discipline, there is constant wrangling, as, for example, between the Jesuits and the Dominicans. Thus the cocksureness of one outfit is cancelled out by the ribald denial of all the rest, and rational men are able to consign the whole gang to statistics and the Devil.

In a day or two I’ll put up some of Mencken’s famous reportage from the Scopes Trial in 1925. It’s among the most amusing stuff he wrote.

12 thoughts on “Mencken Week, day 5

  1. Hmm, not sure where that reference to statistics in the last line comes from.

    Otherwise, more good stuff.

    1. I think it refers to the idea that the cocksure assertions of various groups are statistically cancelled out on the average by the equally certain denials by their adversaries. Statistically you can find a group of people willing to believe any foolishness, which doesn’t need to be taken seriously unless it can garner bigger numbers, so this sectarian split is what keeps religion from becoming even more powerful.

      I think these remarks recommend a strategy that atheists can follow: focus on publicizing and discussing the differences and disagreements between not only different religions, but between different Christian denominations and sects. This is an area full of details and contradictions that I’ve not seen discussed very much by atheists arguing against religion. It could be a very fruitful trove to mine.

      National polls always present a united front based on asking questions about belief in god or evolution on which all Christians can agree. What about polls that reveal the divides between Christians? How about asking questions on speaking in tongues, the literal truth of Genesis and other parts of the bible, trans-substantiation, the immaculate conception (which refers to the sinless conception and birth of Mary, not the virgin birth as is commonly assumed), specific questions about Jesus’ theology and what Jesus intends, and questions on eschatology and prophecy. A well researched and designed poll could reveal massive fragmentation and disagreement among Christians, which could be used to damage and diminish the certainty of truth claims made by Christians.

        1. I don’t know what the RD foundation is. I assume you aren’t talking about the one in the Thirurvar district of India, or Rural Development, or Robert Demes. There are quite a few that come up on a Google. Maybe you could save us some time and spell it out?

          1. Ah…Richard Dawkins…ok. He’s several pages back on Google when you look for “RD Foundation”.

  2. More items from the “New Atheism is older than dirt” dept.:

    Believing that the Vedas to be an absolute authority,

    Believing in a Creator for the world, Bathing in holy waters for gaining merit,

    Having vanity about one’s caste,

    Performing penance to absolve sins,

    Are the five symptoms of a shattered intellect.

    Dharmakirti, Buddhist philosopher, 7th century CE.

    In original Sanskrit (from Wikipedia):

    वेद प्रामाण्यं कस्य चित् कर्तृवादः स्नाने धर्मेच्छा जातिवादाव लेपः|
    संतापारंभः पापहानाय चेति ध्वस्तप्रज्ञानां पञ्च लिङगानि जाड्ये||

    1. I can understand and sympathize with Dharmakitri’s comment, even with the cultural differences and the span of centuries. I almost know the people he’s arguing against. A person trying to find the truth rather than propagate a dogma makes some sense to others on similar paths, even if our specific concerns and many ideas may be different.

      Conversely, religious people seem to often have trouble sympathizing with the folks in the church, mosque or temple down the street (even if it’s nominally the same religion). I think rationality tends to unite where religion fosters sectarianism and mutual distrust.

    2. Just to hit you all over the head with it — look just how familiar these issues are, following a bit of tweeking:

      Believing the Bible to be an absolute authority,

      Believing in a Creator for the world,

      Baptism with holy waters for gaining purity/salvation,

      Having vanity about one’s sect/race,

      Performing penance to absolve sins,

      Are the five symptoms of a shattered intellect.

  3. To: Jerry Coyne

    Once you’re done with your postings of Mencken quotes, would it be possible to collect them all into one posting, called whatever you like, “Mencken on Religion”, etc… ?
    You could even add a few more that have not been posted.

    It would be exceedingly interesting to have all those views of Mencken in one posting, as screened by your sense of objectivity and authenticity.
    I am sure many scholarly-inclined readers among this crowd would welcome such a collection.

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