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Mencken & Dawkins

Published by marco on

Though it sometimes seems that religion always has the upper hand in public debate, there is usually at least one crusader per generation willing to come out strongly in favor of the Enlightenment and against superstition. The article Mencken, Islam, and Political Correctness (Capitalism Magazine) cites the early 20th-century journalist H.L. Mencken on the subject of religion and other closely related superstitions.

“What the World’s contention amounts to, at bottom, is simply the doctrine that a man engaged in combat with superstition should be very polite to superstition. This, I fear, is nonsense. The way to deal with superstition is not to be polite to it, but to tackle it with all arms, and so rout it, cripple it, and make it forever infamous and ridiculous.”

Note that Mencken railed against “superstition” and not just religion. Superstition is that which one believes despite a lack of any supporting evidence or even despite strong evidence to the contrary. Superstition is that which is taken on faith and used as a guiding principle. It is entirely acceptable in a post-Enlightenment world for superstitions—and their supporters—to have to defend themselves on the basis of provable, reproducible facts. It does not suffice to point to a text more than two millenia old and of dubious origin to “prove” that miracles occurred at some point. Even if they did, that they no longer do and seem to be wholly unpredictable in that regard makes them irrelevant as tools in the modern world.

And the only way to go after an idea is to go after its supporters. In the case of religion—and in the specific case of the U.S.—every politician is a supporter. It is, in fact, hard to imagine anyone being elected in the U.S. to a high office with an explicitly non-religious platform. And aspirants would do well to stick to high-falutin’ Christianity, if they want to have any chance whatsoever. But Mencken would not approve of this; why let fools who believe in unprovable fairy tales and superstitions anywhere near the levers that control our society? We wouldn’t let these buffoons anywhere near anything important (like a nuclear power plant, Homer Simpson notwithstanding), so why do we so blithely let them God Bless America their way into office time and again?

Again, Mencken:

“Is [a superstition], perchance, cherished by persons who should know better? Then their folly should be brought out into the light of day, and exhibited there in all its hideousness until they flee from it, hiding their heads in shame. True enough, even a superstitious man has certain inalienable rights. He has a right to harbor and indulge his imbecilities as long as he pleases, provided only he does not try to inflict them upon other men by force.”

Would that that were the case. Instead an airing of their fantastical opinions only seems to strengthen the support they enjoy from their equally fanatical base.

Despite the many counterexamples in modern American politics, Mencken is, factually, right, and the superstition and misinformation to which he refers lurks everywhere…not just in religion. It seems even the most careful of us make assumptions about subjects in which we are not adequately educated. It’s the embodiment of the principle that “a little bit of knowledge is dangerous”: We learn just enough to convince ourselves that we know everything and start espousing opinions based on that knowledge.

As a case in point, the author of the Mencken article himself avers about 2/3 of the way through the article that “[t]here is no pick and choose, or mix and match, no half-doses of belief in Islam, as there is Christendom, as the numerous varieties of faiths and sects in it attest.” This is just a silly thing to believe, regardless of how “numerous” the “varieties of faiths and sects” he interviewed. There is just as much discussion over the true meaning of sections of the Koran—ranging from basic translation to determining whether something was intended as metaphor or literally or whether a particular Sura is considered canon or not—as there are of the Bible. Just because some people interpret the Koran as ordering all believers to kill non-believers (having perhaps, but not necessarily, failed to convert them first) doesn’t mean that a given practicing Muslim actually believes this or is likely to act on it. Certainly no more so than their Christian counterparts are likely to actually believe that their non-Christian friends will end up in hell. It is only our all-too-human love for alienation of the other that lets us believe some obviously preposterous lines of reasoning (or to be swayed by them when employed by others). Most people who identify as Christian probably interpret that whole Judgment Day/Heaven/Hell thing a little more abstractly than their own particular sect dictates. But, the Muslim is the other and so we feel perfectly comfortable ascribing to him an otherworldly discipline—especially when it comes to wishing for all of our deaths.

Richard Dawkins enthusiastically takes up Mencken’s mantle in the 21st-century; in Haiti and the hypocrisy of Christian theology by Richard Dawkins (Washington Post), he discusses Pat Robertson’s putatively horrendous reaction to the earthquake in Haiti (he blamed it on the Haitians having angered the one true God by practicing Voodoo):

“Loathsome as Robertson’s views undoubtedly are, he is the Christian who stands squarely in the Christian tradition. The agonized theodiceans who see suffering as an intractable ‘mystery’, or who ‘see God’ in the help, money and goodwill that is now flooding into Haiti, or (most nauseating of all) who claim to see God ‘suffering on the cross’ in the ruins of Port-au-Prince, those faux-anguished hypocrites are denying the centrepiece of their own theology. It is the obnoxious Pat Robertson who is the true Christian here.”

It is Dawkins at his finest, simply citing the Christians’ own scripture back at them. To which most will scratch their heads and proclaim that they do not believe this, that they instead believe in turning the other cheek and being the Good Samaritan and all that rot. For those, Mr. Dawkins elucidates further, making his point quite crystal-clear:

“Dear modern, enlightened, theologically sophisticated Christian, your entire religion is founded on an obsession with ‘sin’, with punishment and with atonement. […] Educated apologist, how dare you weep Christian tears, when your entire theology is one long celebration of suffering: suffering as payback for ‘sin’ − or suffering as ‘atonement’ for it? You may weep for Haiti where Pat Robertson does not, but at least, in his hick, sub-Palinesque ignorance, he holds up an honest mirror to the ugliness of Christian theology. You are nothing but a whited sepulchre. (Emphasis added.)”

It takes a Dawkins to shake the agnostics out of their rut and remember (realize?) that Christianity does not involve too many sunny moments, actually. Christianity is very firmly about slogging through a sin-encrusted mortal life in the hope that things get better in an unconfirmable beyond. And, with the recent idiocy about the anti-choice commercial aired during the Super Bowl, Dawkins also has something to say about the highly specious reasoning employed to justify not having aborted said Tim. The argument goes something like this: since the mother decided against all logic not to abort her fifth child and, since he grew up to play football really well, all abortions are wrong. Dawkins cites the idiotic faux-syllogism about Beethoven happily bandied about by the anti-choice crowd and then concludes (from the article The Great Tim Tebow Fallacy by Richard Dawkins (Washington Post)):

“If you follow the ‘pro-life’ logic to its conclusion, a fertile woman is guilty of something equivalent to murder every time she refuses an offer of copulation. […] As far as anything that matters is concerned, an aborted fetus has exactly the same mental and moral status as any of the countless trillions of unconceived babies.”

An abortion is just one way of not conceiving a potential genius, though perhaps that’s the reason Catholics are not to spill their seed wastefully (a topic most thoroughly covered by Monty Python in The Meaning of Life with Michael Palin leading off with “The Sperm Song”[1]). Bill Hicks also already covered this ground long ago in his comedy routine.[2] Dawkins is certainly not alone—and should be proud to be in such august company—but he’s one of the few (like Mencken) with enough gravitas to get published in a halfway mainstream newspaper…and thank goodness for that.


Here are some of the lyrics to Every Sperm Is Sacred:

Every sperm is sacred.
Every sperm is great.
If a sperm is wasted,
God gets quite irate.

Let the heathen spill theirs
On the dusty ground.
God shall make them pay for
Each sperm that can’t be found.

Let the Pagan spill theirs
O’er mountain, hill, and plain.
God shall strike them down for
Each sperm that’s spilt in vain.”


Hicks actually gets across the same point as Dawkins, but is much funnier. Here is the partial text of the routine (see the link for the full text):

“Here’s another idea that should be punctured, the idea that childbirth is a miracle. I don’t know who started this rumor but it’s not a miracle. No more a miracle than eating food and a turd coming out of your butt. It’s a chemical reaction and a biological reaction. You want to know a miracle? A miracle is raising a kid that doesn’t talk in a fucking movie theater . . . I’ll go you one further, and this is the routine that has virtually ended my career in America. If you have children here tonight—and I assume some of you do—I am sorry to tell you this. They are not special. I’ll let that sink in. Don’t get me wrong, folks. I know you think they’re special. You think that. I’m telling you—they’re not. Did you know that every time a guy comes, he comes 200 million sperm? Did you know that? And you mean to tell me you think your child is special? Because one out of 200 million sperm connected . . . that load? Gee, what are the fucking odds? Do you know what that means? I have wiped entire civilizations off of my chest, with a grey gym sock. That is special. Entire nations have flaked and crusted in the hair around my navel. That is special.”