An Atheist Who Wants to Believe in God! What Would Mr. Mencken Say?

September 16, 2009

in Bookish Babble

Every year around this time I get up from my chair, walk over to the bookshelf, pull down a volume by H. L. Mencken, pick out a passage, read a few sentences, and start laughing out loud. It’s an odd old habit, I know, and one that I’ve been repeating for many years now. But I can’t help myself, and I wouldn’t want to if I could.

Or does he...?

You see, September 12th mark’s Mencken’s birthday, and I like to celebrate “Der Tag” by thumbing through his 5,000,000-plus published words (that’s his lifetime estimate, though I’m sure with his several hefty, posthumous collections that number looms even larger). Reading through Mencken’s books is my way of pleasing his unruly ghost — an albeit more modest approach than, as was his request, to “forgive some sinner or wink your eye at some homely girl.” It’s also cathartic and edifying for me.

Mencken, an early-20th century journalist and cultural critic, is largely unknown to an American public that needs him now more than ever. With a caustic wit and a penchant for scathing commentary, Mencken challenged big government spending tactics, ridiculed the behavior of self-righteous politicians, fought hypocrisy, beat the drum for civil liberties — like free speech and freedom of the press — and continually (on purpose) underestimated the intelligence of his fellow citizens. Even though he’s been dead since 1956, his words still ring true today and often reverberate whenever someone invokes the spirit of one of his attacks.

To someone like me, however, who’s been a fan for several decades, the so-called “Sage of Baltimore” is a perennial supplier of great, guffaw-inducing entertainment, on any number of subjects. Which is why earlier this month, when I received a review copy of a new book — provocatively titled An Atheist Defends Religion: Why Humanity Is Better Off With Religion Than Without It — I raced for a shelfful of Menckeniana with even greater interest. How could I resist?

For one thing, Mencken was a lifelong, devout, and often outspoken, atheist. Religion and especially the religious were two of the biggest targets for his double-barreled typewriter (you can read some choice quotes here). As was often the case with the many mountebanks he sought to bring down, Mencken was unambiguous about his reasons for attacking the church: “Religion is fundamentally opposed to everything I hold in veneration — courage, clear thinking, honesty, fairness, and above all, love of the truth.” You can’t be more direct than that.

For another thing, being irreligious myself, I was intrigued by the argument implied in the book’s subtitle and thought it might be fun to speculate how Mencken might have reacted to it. I am not an atheist, I’m an agnostic — which just means I don’t know (or care) enough to take a stance in the great debate over the existence of God. Frankly, I can make a compelling argument on both sides, but I’m just too full of doubt to accept either doctrine. Religiously speaking, I’m a flip-flopper.

And that’s precisely the point that author Bruce Sheiman, the self-proclaimed atheist in the book’s title, seems to be making. He asserts that the debate about the existence of God is useless precisely because it can never be resolved to anyone’s satisfaction. It’s time for “hard-core believers” and “militant atheists” alike to move on, he says; it’s not important to figure out who’s right and who’s wrong. What matters more, Sheiman insists, is discovering “the value of religion” itself. In fact, he argues, you don’t have to believe in the existence of God to understand that “religion provides a combination of psychological, moral, emotional, existential, communal, and even physical health benefits that no other institution can provide.”

See, I told you it was provocative. And, I have to admit, it’s a fairly compelling read, especially to someone on the fence like myself. Sheiman eruditely breaks down his argument, chapter by chapter, piece by piece, to make the point that, despite an increasing dependence on science to generate the facts and information needed to fuel modern society, more and more people turn to religion to find fulfillment in their lives. In other words, the more we humans discover about “the basic formulations of biological value” in our lives — the imperatives of a full belly and compatible mates, for example — the more we seem to need expressions of “absolute worthiness” beyond ourselves: aka, the stuff of religion.

More to the point, to Sheiman at least, the need to believe in a God — or, more important, to repudiate God — is irrelevant and even meaningless. Rather, it’s the enduring value of religion, as a “cultural institution” (his emphasis), that is most beneficial to humanity. That seems like rickety scaffolding to me — can you really separate God from religion and still have it hold up? (See, I told you I was a doubter.)

So, I wondered, what would Mencken think of such a stance? Well, on the one hand I think it would make him smile. Although he despised religion, he couldn’t live without it. Like democracy, to which he also publicly denied an allegiance, religion served as an endless source of amusement for Mencken. Consider this postulate: “I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world.” Sassy, but sound.

What about 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.” Zing, again! And I could proffer many, many more.

On the other hand, I think Mencken would be howling mad over this book’s thesis, drubbing it mercilessly with reams of newsprint. Why? Because he was a rationalist, in the great tradition, and never prescribed value on (let alone believed in) anything he couldn’t see or touch. Truth-seeking was a deadly serious undertaking to Mencken, and the defense of any intangible, like love or religion, as he observed, is full of “logical imbecilities.”

Hear him out: “It is often argued that religion is valuable because it makes men good, but even if this were true it would not be proof that religion were true. … Santa Claus makes children good in precisely the same way, and yet no one would argue seriously that the fact proves his existence.” (Sorry, Virginia.)

Worse, he wrote, history continually points out the real beneficiaries of religion: “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”

Of course, the truth of the matter is, religion isn’t to blame — faith is. And Mencken defined faith as “an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable.” Therefore, the true believer, in his eyes, is “pathological,” “ill,” and “incurable.” Simply put, a believer (or even an atheist who is, in Sheiman’s words, “sympathetic to religious aspirations”) is “one who has lost (or never had) the capacity for clear and realistic thought.” As I said, Mencken could be scathing — and funny.

But I do think that there may be some merit in Sheiman’s argument, a “truth” that Mencken could not have foreseen. Yes, much has changed over the past century — from the Industrial Revolution to the rise of Modernism and the birth of the Information Age — to alter the way we view Man’s place in the universe and the role of God. Yet, as Sheiman points out, secularism is on the decline and atheism is dying. A Gallup survey showed that less than 5% of the American population say they don’t believe in some form of God, while the Economist predicts that the proportion of people belonging to the world’s top religions will rise from 67% in 1900 to 80% by 2050.

Why the change? As Sheiman says, science may explain why we exist, but religion shows us how to exist. And that, it seems, is far more comforting to most people.

So, the reality is, the world is filling up with all kinds of incurable believers, and you’ll either want to join them, as Sheiman seems to be doing, or beat them, as Mencken tried. I suggest you read this book, along with one of Mencken’s, to be able to decide for yourself how to act.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with one of the birthday boy’s characteristically tightly packed bombshells:

To sum up:
1. The cosmos is a gigantic flywheel making 10,000 revolutions a minute.
2. Man is a sick fly taking a dizzy ride on it.
3. Religion is the theory that the wheel was designed and set spinning to give him the ride.

As always, let us know what you think. Have you read Bruce Sheiman’s book? Is it plausible, or even reasonable, for an atheist to defend religion? How do you think Mencken or any other critic might react to this argument?  Let us know by leaving a comment below.

And be sure to visit (and join) the Scribbleskiff page on Facebook (find it here), where you can partake in wall-to-wall conversations, find additional information and suggestions from readers, and more.

It is often argued that religion is valuable because it makes men good, but even if this were true it would not be a proof that religion is true. That would be an extension of pragmatism beyond endurance. Santa Claus makes children good in precisely the same way, and yet no one would argue seriously that the fact proves his existence. The defense of religion is full of such logical imbecilits.

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Scott Graham September 18, 2009 at 6:13 am

Chip:

I liked reading the quotes. Do we have someone filling the Mencken role today?

I jumped into this argument many times. It is a time waster unless there is something really on the line. Since the economy has tanked no one cares, but once the glut returns it will be important again.

Two separate domains + one flawed device for understanding = 0 chance of agreement. My proof, try to get the debaters to agree on the simplest terms. That will take decades.

MORE BLOGS on literature!

Bruce Sheiman September 30, 2009 at 11:42 am

Sir:

Given that Mencken famously made up the history of the bathtub, only to see it propagated in encyclopedias for decades thereafter, he knows a few things about making things up. And he had little use for the made-up stories of religion. Neither do I.

But as I say in my book, religion is more about meaning and purpose than facts and events. And I want to congratulate you on offering the best interpretation of my book’s reason for being compared to other reviewers.

Religion has value despite its being scientifically false. And after living more than half a lifetime, I would rather live the “inauthentic life” of a believer than in the stark, naked atheistic reality that we are all “food for worms” and that the universe cares not for my existence. That makes me an “unhappy atheist.” And I assert that most atheists are unhappy with their creedless belief system.

It is so much more fulfilling to believe in something than nothing – or, worse — to believe in an anti-belief, i.e., to base my existence on the antithesis of someone else’s belief. Atheists can try to make that into a virtue (“free-thinkers living life courageously”). But as Dr. Phil asks, Would you rather be right or happy?

Given the choice, I would choose the latter. But as I make clear in my book, it is rarely a choice. Atheism or theism is what one is; it is not what one chooses. And that is precisely why the “debate” is a useless exercise: if belief or unbelief is not a choice, then all the argumentation in the world cannot change one’s position.

Alas, I remain an atheist.

Bruce Sheiman

noisician November 10, 2009 at 10:45 am

This is a telling statement from Bruce “And I assert that most atheists are unhappy with their creedless belief system. ” Oh good. An assertion. That’s easy to counter: I assert that most atheists are happy.

Bruce, have you actually looked into atheism at all? Of course there is no creed. Atheism is not a belief system. Just like there is no creed or system of beliefs for those who don’t believe in the Tooth Fairy. If you want to know what an atheist’s creed is, you’d need to ask because “atheist” alone only tells you one thing (try to guess what!).

Many atheists are skeptics, rationalists, and humanists. Maybe utilitarians. Maybe communists. Maybe libertarians. Now we’re starting to talk creeds!

And this one is just painful: “It is so much more fulfilling to believe in something than nothing – or, worse — to believe in an anti-belief, i.e., to base my existence on the antithesis of someone else’s belief.”

Should I assume here you are talking about the anti-belief in Santa, Easter Bunny, Loch Ness Monster, Alien Visitations, Leprechauns, the Greek gods, Fairies, the Cthulhu pantheon, Unicorns, Vampires, etc? Oh, you meant God, didn’t you? But if we don’t believe in all those other things, won’t we still be leading empty, unfulfilled lives? Won’t our sad little lives based on an anti-belief in those things?

Further, because every sci-fi and fantasy novel ever written is actually fiction, isn’t this reality is just a bland, grey, dried-out old husk?

Atheists don’t base their lives on anti-belief and more than Christians base their lives on the anti-belief in Bigfoot.

Rational atheists base their lives ON WHAT IS. That is a positive, fulfilling, and successful way to go. Basing your life on fictions not corresponding to reality will eventually lead to problems or to correcting your beliefs to match reality. If you haven’t understood this, maybe you’ve been doing atheism wrong.

The only reason a lot of atheists talk about gods so much is that believers can’t seem to stop doing stupid things because of their faith.

PS: Is this the level of analysis we can expect from the book?

Bruce Sheiman November 10, 2009 at 2:15 pm

To Noisician:

What you say about a-theism is true. To the extent that we are referring to a-theism, you are correct. But Hitchens and Harris, Dennett and Dawkins are not a-theists; they are anti-theists. And as such, they are certainly in the thrall of a creed. And it is certainly a creed that is predicated on the negation of a positive creed. Do you understand the difference. If anti-theism were not a creed, why can the four aforementioned me write a combined 2000 pages about a non–creed?

Bruce

ralph mcrae November 18, 2009 at 6:09 am

I have no beef with Bruce’s contention about the value of religion as long as it is understood that not everyone considers religion (practice and/or dogma) to be of value! For me personally, religion does not show me “how to exist.”

A recent non-religious identification survey conducted by prof. Luke Galen, published in Free Inquiry magazine, showed that the sure believers aren’t the only ones who are happy. The atheists at the other end of the belief spectrum posted the same numbers on life satisfaction and emotional stability. Bad news is it’s the agnostic and doubting believers in the middle who are more likely to be depressed:

“The study suggests that those who are absolutely sure, one way or the other, about the existence of God are most likely to be satisfied with their lives and emotionally stable.”

It’s the spiritual seekers who tend to be unstable, according to the report.

“Confident nonbelievers such as atheists were more emotionally well-adjusted relative to tentative nonbelievers,” Galen’s report says.
http://www2.journalnow.com/content/2009/aug/15/report-atheists-can-be-content/living-religion-story-list/

Bruce said: “I would rather live the “inauthentic life” of a believer than in the stark, naked atheistic reality that we are all “food for worms” and that the universe cares not for my existence. That makes me an “unhappy atheist.” And I assert that most atheists are unhappy with their creedless belief system.”

I don’t know how to help you here Bruce! It seems to me that you have a real problem, since you don’t accept the authenticity of religious beliefs, but cannot be happy unless we live in a purposeful universe that has a special place for us. You’re not going to be able to force yourself to believe something you don’t think is real, so the meaning and purpose that the believers get from their religion won’t be of any benefit to you! On the other hand, I don’t know why your personal life and relationships are not enough to provide meaning and purpose in life.

It seems to be enough for me, and I suspect most convinced atheists. I have only sought out other atheists in the last few years, but I haven’t talked to any yet who feel the same sense of existential angst that you do. I would agree that many Christians or members of other religions who fear death and an uncaring universe are better off practicing some sort of religion (hopefully one that’s not fighting scientific progress and discovery).

I think this is the crucial difference in perspective between many of us long time secular humanists and the new atheists who believe that everyone would be happier deconverted to atheism. A lot of believers would react as if they’d been kicked out of the garden of eden if it was possible if it was possible to deconvert believers en mass.

For myself, I just want a secular alternative to religion, where those who don’t believe in gods and supernatural realms can have a community that provides many of the benefits of religious communities, without the absurd beliefs.

Bruce Sheiman November 20, 2009 at 9:03 am

Ralph:

I largely agree with you. I know not all atheists feel existential angst, but I do. And I would like to believe in an Absolute Value, rather than relative values. But I am glad that this is not an obstacle for you.

Regarding the happiness issue. That is interesting, and it makes sense. I should revise my point: It is “extremists” who are happier than “moderates,” regardless of the belief system. Extremists are more certain of their beliefs and, by extension, more certain about their lives.

Thanks for you comments.

Bruce

ralph mcrae November 20, 2009 at 4:54 pm

I’m not saying I don’t feel angst, I would contend that everyone does, even born again Christians — they just drive it down deeper and away from conscious deliberation. I’ve heard a rebuttal to the “no atheists in foxholes” that goes something like “no believers at funerals,” and when I had to attend a string of funerals awhile back, I also noticed that no matter how devoutly religious the families of the deceased were, there was no apparent difference in how they coped with their loss — generally, the younger the deceased was, the harder it was for the family regardless of how strongly they believed in a hereafter. Why aren’t believers overjoyed that their loved ones have left early for the trip to heaven? I suspect that it is mainly because the belief in personal immortality is not held with as much conviction that most believers would like to think they have.

Personally, I am beginning to feel that most people are better able to come to terms with the end of life the closer they get to the finish line. My first realization that I would die came when I was about 6 or 7, and I’m not sure what precipitated the realization — I was taught about souls and heaven and such at Sunday School, but for some reason, it didn’t come to mind at that time. For some reason death is less scary now, in my 50′s, than it was at an earlier age when I had most of my life ahead of me.

A lot of people are also bothered by the prospect that we live in a universe that may have no purpose in a way that’s meaningful for us. We are born to look for purpose behind everything that happens in nature, and realizing that a incomprehensibly vast, empty universe has been around for billions of years before we arrived, and will continue long after our demise, creates a search for anthropic coincidence. But just because we are here now, does not necessarily entail that the universe was designed for us, or even for life to form.

I think these problems that create a desire for purpose and immortality are why I take a dim view to the new atheist doctrine of people like Richard Dawkins — that we should be part of a team of enlightened atheists who take part in a sort of reverse evangelism — deconverting all theists, and the even more grand claim, that they will be happy as atheists. I guess you’re demonstrating the problem with that claim.

In a way, new atheism is the doppleganger of religious fundamentalism — two groups that are certain they have the truth, and that everyone else needs to believe their truth to be happy. But apparently you are already aware of this! I wondered where I had seen your name before, so I searched Atheist Nexus and stumbled upon an old discussion about you that did not go over well with many of the atheist true believers. I only stayed three months before the realization that A|N’s mission statement of gathering together all atheists regardless of other beliefs, is an unworkable premise right from the start. Us “older atheists” are chided for not considering atheism important enough to organize a movement around, and I have never known very many atheists in my personal life (it seems to be rare unless you work in Academia), but being in an online atheist community introduced me to many atheists I have nothing in common with (like libertarians for example) other than a naturalist worldview — so, I would rather ally myself with people share my beliefs about what’s important in this world, regardless of whether or not they believe in some unseen hidden world.

Bağlama büyüsü April 13, 2010 at 11:36 am

Regarding the happiness issue. That is interesting, and it makes sense. I should revise my point: It is “extremists” who are happier than “moderates,” regardless of the belief system. Extremists are more certain of their beliefs and, by extension, more certain about their lives.

Joseph December 3, 2012 at 10:55 am

It might come as a surprise to some that in a posthumously published letter Mencken actually wrote that atheism is a nonsensical belief, since nobody could claim to know the non existence of the gods, and he even appealed to the argument of the “first cause”. Also, re. the question of who might be able to fill the shoes of Mencken today, my thought is that such world-historic comedic geniuses as Aristophanes, Rabelais, Voltaire and HLM aren’t likely to find such quick replacements. Strangely many Americans compare him with Jon Stewart, when despite obvious differences the writer Ann Coulter is far closer to Mencken in style and ideas.

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