Tuesday, December 30, 2003

An "Atheist" Reader Takes Exception

Early last week --barely three days before Christmas Day, of all times!-- a self-styled "atheist" sent us an e-mail to let us "know" something he had apparently already determined we did not know, namely that our "patron saint," early 20th century pundit and skeptic H. L. Mencken, was "agin" religion (as we Virginia gentlemen would put it).

Of course, anyone with more than two brain cells working can tell just by reading a good cross-section of Mencken's writings, the Bard of Baltimore was no friend to the "established" religions of his time --Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish-- and disdained religious belief and theology in general.

No argument there.

The problem, and point of departure with our "atheist" interlocutor, comes when some folks with ideological axes to grind hijack Mencken to make him appear to be one of their crowd. Just do a Google search with "Mencken" and "atheism," and up will pop more "atheists" on the internet than Hosts in Heaven selectively quoting Mencken's most bombastic and less mature statements about religion and religious persons as "proof" that Mencken was an extremist unto their own image and likeness.

Never mind that Mencken at times had some complimentary things to say about some religious persons (cf., his obituary of the scholarly Presbyterian theologian J.Gresham Machen), and even some religious institutions (cf., his comparison of the Catholic and Protestant churches of his time).

And never mind that Mencken never once called himself an atheist, preferring instead to be seen as a "doubter" or a "skeptic," and only because "sound thought," he wrote in 1921 to his then-girlfriend Marion Bloom, cannot take us further than that:

...No sane man denies that the universe presents phenomena quite beyond human understanding, and so it is a fair assumption that they are directed by some understanding that is superhuman. But that is as far as sound thought can go. All religions pretend to go further. That is, they pretend to explain the unknowable...

In other words, to Mencken, both theism and, by implication, atheism (which also "pretends to go further ...[and] explain the unknowable," namely by denying that category en toto) were presumptuous, so he embraced neither camp although he was more sympathetic to the latter. Catholic journalist and Mencken scholar George Weigel puts it this way in his thoughtful First Things article, "God, Man, and H. L. Mencken":

Throughout his mature life, Mencken insisted that he was not an atheist (for such a judgment would require a knowledge that was beyond "sound thought") but rather an agnostic. Asked once what he would do if on his death he found himself facing the twelve apostles, he answered (and in this instance we may be sure that beneath the humor lay deep convictions about intellectual honesty), "I would simply say, 'Gentlemen, I was mistaken.'" Imagine Carl Sagan saying such a thing about the possibility of his encounter with a postmortem minyan, and you begin to understand the difference between the agnostic Mencken and the true village atheist.

Noted essayist and Mencken scholar Joseph Epstein, as cited by Weigel, presents a more nuanced interpretation of Mencken's relationship to religion than the simplistic militant atheist P-R image both Protestant Fundamentalists and Atheist Fundamentalists like to promote:

...[Mencken's] objection to religion is that it represents an effort by ignorance to account for a mystery that knowledge simply puts aside as intrinsically impenetrable...

None of this is to deny that Mencken regularly made mock of religious convictions and practices. But he did it with a deftness and, in most cases, a good humor in which was rarely found the arrogance of sheer contempt. Moreover, Mencken was not insensible to the allure of religion or to religious contributions to what he regarded as the world's meager stock of decency. Thus Mencken on Roman Catholicism in 1923 (and in what some will regard as virtually a prophetic mode):

"The Latin Church, which I constantly find myself admiring, despite its frequent astonishing imbecilities, has always kept clearly before it the fact that religion is not a syllogism, but a poem. . . . Rome, indeed, has not only preserved the original poetry in Christianity; it has made capital additions to that poetry-for example, the poetry of the saints, of Mary, and of the liturgy itself. A solemn high mass must be a thousand times as impressive, to a man with any genuine religious sense in him, as the most powerful sermons ever roared under the big-top by a Presbyterian auctioneer of God. In the face of such overwhelming beauty it is not necessary to belabor the faithful with logic; they are better convinced by letting them alone. . . .

"[But the Roman] clergy begin to grow argumentative, doctrinaire, ridiculous. It is a pity. . . . If they keep on spoiling poetry and spouting ideas, the day will come when some extra-bombastic deacon will astound humanity and insult God by proposing to translate the liturgy into American, that the faithful may be convinced by it."

In summary, as in the areas of politics, economics, social criticism, journalism, and culture Mencken was "a party of [his] own" when it came to religion. Neither atheist nor theist can squeeze him into their prefabricated pigeonholes. He was simply too big for them.

Of course, such "inconvenient" facts serve only to irritate those who prefer caricatures and fantasies over reality, and who --like our "atheist" interlocutor-- prefer to call those who present them "liars" and "sophists" for having the temerity to cast doubt upon those caricatures and fantasies.

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