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.
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.
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