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Saint Mencken? February 26, 2007

Posted by smiffy in Religion.

A funny little piece by Stuart Jeffries in today’s Guardian G2 section caught my eye earlier.  Entitled Faith, it’s essentially an unoriginal rehash of the same argument that’s been turning up over and over on Comment is Free and elsewhere: aren’t secularists like Dawkins, Hitchens et al really just a mirror image of the fundamentalist religious fanatics they claim to oppose.  Indeed, Colin Slee, the Dean of Southwark, is quoted in the article as saying

You have a triangle with fundamentalist secularists in one corner, fundamentalist faith people in another, and then the intelligent, thinking liberals of Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism, baptism, methodism, other faiths – and, indeed, thinking atheists – in the other corner.

Wow, even the ‘thinking atheists’? Cheers for the inclusivity, Colin. Very decent of you (asssuming you weren’t coming out of the Embassy of Ireland in London’s Christmas Party, like the unfortunate Bishop of Southwark, when you were quoted).

I’m not going to bother getting into the flaws of the argument, and the misrepresentation of the atheist position it contains. The same points have been made, albeit less elegantly, in the same paper by arch-goon Theo Hobson and poor, mad Madeleine Bunting, as well as featuring in Rod Liddle’s fatuous The Trouble with Atheism. Those arguments have been refuted on numerous other occasions as a simple Google search will reveal.

What I did find interesting, though, was Jeffries’ opening statement:

The American journalist HL Mencken once wrote: “We must accept 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.” In Britain today, such wry tolerance is diminishing.

Now maybe Jeffries doesn’t know much about Mencken, or maybe he’s deliberately misunderstanding the quote above to suit his purpose, but the idea that Mencken was any kind of beacon of religious tolerance (wry or otherwise) is ludicrous. If the ‘why can’t we all just accept that there’s merit in every view’ religious relativists think Dawkins is harsh, they would do well to avoid the work of Mencken. If, on the other hand, you’re fond of brilliantly written, while often politically grotesque, journalistic misanthropy, you could do worse than seeking out his work, particular the collection of his pieces on the Scopes Monkey Trial, entitled A Religious Orgy in Tennessee.  In it Mencken writes:

 The meaning of religious freedom, I fear, is sometimes greatly misapprehended.  It is taken to be a sort of immunity, not merely from governmental control but also from public opinion.  A dunderhead gets himself a long-tailed coat, rises behind the sacred desk, and emits such bilge as would gag a Hottentot.  Is it to pass unchallenged?  If so, then what we have is not religious freedom at all, but the most intolerable and outrageous variety of religious despotism.  Any fool, once he is admitted to holy orders, becomes infallible.  Any half-wit, by the simple device of ascribing his delusions to revelation, takes on an authority that is denied to all the rest of us.

I do not know how many American enterain the ideas defended so ineptly by poor Bryan [Note: this is taken from Mencken’s infamously withering obituary of William Jennings Bryan – smiffy], but probably the number is very large.  They are preached once a week in at least a hundred thousand rural churches, and they are heard too in the meaner quarters of the great cities.  Nevertheless, though they are thus held to be sound by millions, these ideas remain mere rubbish.  Not only are they not supported by the known facts; they are in direct contravention of the known facts.  No man whose information is sound as whose mind functions normally can conceivably credit them.  They are the products of ignorance and stupidity, either or both.

What should be a civilised man’s attitude towards such superstitions?  It seems to me that the only attitude possible to him is one of contempt.  If he admits that they have any intellectual dignity whatever, he admits that he himself has none.  If he pretends to a respect for those who believe in them, he pretends falsely, and sinks almost to their level.  When he is challenged he must answer honestly, regardless of tender feelings.  That is what Darrow did at Dayton, and the issue plainly justified the act.  Bryan went there in a hero’s shining armor, bent deliberately upon a gross crime against sense.  He came out a wrecked and presposterous charlatan, his tail between his legs.  Few Americans have ever done so much for their country in a whole lifetime as Darrow did in two hours.

That, in three paragraphs, encapsulates the essence of what Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Grayling and all the rest have to say on religion.  If the self-pitying sky-worshippers are upset that The God Delusion says some nasty things about them, they should thank whichever imaginary superbeing takes their fancy that Menckenian ‘tolerance’ isn’t as widespread as Stuart Jeffries might like.


1. Jim Denham - March 1, 2007

It is obvious to me that Jeffries either doesn’t understand Mencken, or is deliberately misrepresenting him. I think, the former. BTW: Menken, though a most witty guy, was also a thoroughgoing anti-semite.

Another point about the Jeffries article: he fails to mention that the “Tamimi” he quotes, going on about how “fundamentalist” atheists are…is a leading member of Hamas: just thought it might be worth mentioning.


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