Mencken on Theology

There is, in fact, nothing about religious opinions that entitles them to any more respect than other opinions get. On the contrary, they tend to be noticeably silly. If you doubt it, then ask any pious fellow of your acquaintance to put what he believes into the form of an affidavit, and see how it reads… . “I, John Doe, being duly sworn, do say that I believe that, at death, I shall turn into a vertebrate without substance, having neither weight, extent nor mass, but with all the intellectual powers and bodily sensations of an ordinary mammal; . . . and that, for the high crime and misdemeanor of having kissed my sister-in-law behind the door, with evil intent, I shall be boiled in molten sulphur for one billion calendar years.” Or, “I, Mary Roe, having the fear of Hell before me, do solemnly affirm and declare that I believe it was right, just, lawful and decent for the Lord God Jehovah, seeing certain little children of Beth-el laugh at Elisha’s bald head, to send a she-bear from the wood, and to instruct, incite, induce and command it to tear forty-two of them to pieces.” Or, “I, the Right Rev._____ _________, Bishop of _________,D.D., LL.D., do honestly, faithfully and on my honor as a man and a priest, declare that I believe that Jonah swallowed the whale,” or vice versa, as the case may be. No, there is nothing notably dignified about religious ideas. They run, rather, to a peculiarly puerile and tedious kind of nonsense. At their best, they are borrowed from metaphysicians, which is to say, from men who devote their lives to proving that twice two is not always or necessarily four. At their worst, they smell of spiritualism and fortune telling. Nor is there any visible virtue in the men who merchant them professionally. Few theologians know anything that is worth knowing, even about theology, and not many of them are honest. One may forgive a Communist or a Single Taxer on the ground that there is something the matter with his ductless glands, and that a Winter in the south of France would relieve him. But the average theologian is a hearty, red-faced, well-fed fellow with no discernible excuse in pathology. He disseminates his blather, not innocently, like a philosopher, but maliciously, like a politician. In a well-organized world he would be on the stone-pile. But in the world as it exists we are asked to listen to him, not only politely, but even reverently, and with our mouths open.

Henry Louis “H. L.” Mencken — 12 September, 1880 – 29 January, 1956

I am a day late in marking Mencken’s birthday. Yesterday I visited several of London’s large and celebrated book emporia hoping to find anything by the great satirist, but without luck. Fortunately Wikiquote has a good selection of characteristic excerpts, which I may well be pillaging from time to time in coming months.


2 Responses to “Mencken on Theology”

  1. Well now that’s a particularly interesting view. Certainly if one is only acquainted with the caricature of the religious, or the fundamentalist, this could be the case, but that comprises a small minority. I don’t think that, so far as human enterprises are concerned, the theologian demands any more respect than any other voice, but she/he does ask the same respect. Religion predates the metaphysicians, and must certainly be well acquainted with other areas of study for theology is only useful so far as it is able to speak to the non-theological. As far as the usefulness of the theologian, why don’t you ask about Bonhoeffer or the signers of the Barmen declaration in Nazi Germany. Or why don’t we examine the role of Desmond Tutu in South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (the nature of which could only have been motivated from religious concerns). Simply because one dislikes it, or disagrees with it, does not mean that it has no voice.

    • Dylan Thomas Hayden Says:

      Thank you for commenting Trey, although your arguments are very familiar to me and I think you have missed, perhaps intentionally, Mencken’s point. The problem is not that the theologian claims more respect than others but that he claims respect for unsupported and absurd assertions which deserve no respect at all. I will grant however that there is somewhat less unthinking respect for religious notions in our times, at least in the West, than there was in Mencken’s, and so the passage is, thankfully, slightly out of date.

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