by Kenneth W. Krause.
Kenneth W. Krause is a contributing editor and “Science Watch” columnist for the Skeptical Inquirer. Formerly a contributing editor and books columnist for the Humanist, Kenneth contributes regularly to Skeptic as well. He may be contacted at email@example.com.
The abundantly celebrated authors featured is this column are well past their prime. Indeed, two of the three are dead. The essays collected in each text respond to no contemporary crisis, break no new intellectual ground, and rely upon no cutting edge research. One might dismiss such publications as literary frippery—of little more value, perhaps, than fictive masturbation.
In fact, I can enthusiastically recommend neither title by itself. Enjoyed as a group, however, the latest from Mark Twain (1835-1910), William F. Buckley Jr. (1925-2008), and Steven Weinberg (1933-) can illuminate in a way no single text—no matter how avant-garde—could. Each man, after all, was intensely engaged with the social movements, intellectual and technological achievements, and, of course, the politics of his respective era. And in quite distinctive ways, all were obsessed with religion. They were, in other words, not so different from frequent patrons of this column.
For reasons unclear to me—perhaps only for his self-effacing if somewhat passive-aggressive wit, or perhaps only for his audacity to say what countless others were surely thinking—various and sundry pundits of religion continue to war over Twain’s memory. Was he really the American Voltaire? An atheist restrained by 19th century mores? Or, as a true believer to the bitter end, were Twain’s piercing criticisms of religion aimed more toward individual and institutional hypocrisies than at the Christian faith itself?
Does his faith or lack thereof really matter? As S.T. Joshi observed, Twain’s denouncements of religion were “harsher than those of many atheists who would follow in his wake,” and that, as a consequence of “Twain’s tender mercies, religion has few garments left untorn.” Whatever he believed, Twain’s intensely personal writings betrayed a religious preoccupation that, at times, could penetrate as deeply as it could entertain.
In volume one of editor Harriet Smith’s Autobiography of Mark Twain (University of California, 2010), we find a mature intellect who, nonetheless, continued to struggle mightily with his contemporaries’ ever-present religious expressions.
Twain’s distaste for popular Christianity is well-represented by his 1906 recollection of John D. Rockefeller junior’s “adventures in theology.” A famous Bible-school preacher like his wealthy father, young Rockefeller instructed and apparently amused thousands of listeners across the nation every Monday morning. But when the nation laughed, Twain said, it was “laughing at itself.”
Young Rockefeller “never studied a doctrine for himself,” Twain groused, and “never examined a doctrine upon its real merits.” His sermons, in fact, were indistinguishable from those heard in church pulpits across the country every week, and his arguments were “already worn threadbare by the theologians of all the ages before [they] came in rags to him.”
The author’s scorn for the Christian ministry was as plain as a lion’s fangs. But here, perhaps, his choice of critical conduits betrayed a more intense appetite for carnage. Whatever his objections to the Rockefellers’ faith, the author utterly detested their money. Indeed, he seemed to resent young John’s sermons concerning the elimination of all obstructions to personal salvation precisely because he judged his father’s vast riches to epitomize such obstructions.
Also in 1906, Twain seized the opportunity to comment on a recent battle—or “slaughter,” as he stamped it—initiated by U.S. troops against the Moros of the Philippines. After a day and a half, the Americans had completely annihilated the tribe, “leaving not even a baby alive to cry for its dead mother.” Apparently, General Leonard Wood had given his soldiers the option to capture or kill, and, in the immoderate custom of “Christian butchers,” the soldiers chose the latter.
All of which prompted Theodore Roosevelt to pen a nippy letter of congratulations to Wood, who had lost only fifteen men during the affair, for their “brilliant feat of arms.” The president’s praise, of course, did not escape Twain’s attention. The battle “would not have been a brilliant feat of arms,” he scolded, “even if Christian America … had shot them down with Bibles and the Golden Rule instead of bullets.”
Once again, an angry Twain squandered a glaring opportunity to beset religion directly. Instead, he only used Christianity to shame those with whom he disagreed. Was he just being subtle? Unlikely, because he never even attempted to expose the Abrahamic faith’s central and most tragic flaw—it’s unique, inimitable power to inspire division, hatred, and violence through its unavoidable commitment to fixed scripture. To the contrary, Twain seemed to believe that Christians would behave better if only they would observe scriptural teachings more faithfully.
Nevertheless, his fiery contempt for the institutions of religion set him miles apart from Buckley. In editors Linda Bridges’s and Roger Kimball’s fittingly overstuffed and long-winded title, Athwart History: Half a Century of Polemics, Animadversions, and Illuminations: A William F. Buckley Jr. Omnibus (Encounter, 2010), we recollect a far less witty but, nevertheless, strangely blissful author who always offered his criticisms of the Catholic Church from the tapered perspective of an inveterate devotee.
In his 1997 essay, “Buggery in Church,” Buckley recalled the trial against Rudolf Kos, a pedophile priest, and the Diocese of Dallas, Texas. Eleven plaintiffs were awarded $120 million, and, although the Diocese claimed it had been duped, many were convinced that the bishop had, at the very least, been negligent in the supervision of his appointed underlings.
“The criminal and civil penalties should be severe and unrelenting,” Buckley agreed, but “most important is to remember to detach the sinner from the faith.” Which, I believe, is precisely what the bishop’s challengers said should have been done before these horrible crimes were committed against all eleven victims.
But not so surprisingly, politically liberal Catholicism seemed to vex Buckley even more than criminal Catholicism. In “The Catholic in the Modern World: A Conservative View,” the author asked in 1960, “Why is it that the liberal Catholic is on easy terms with everybody in America on his left, saving only the Communists?”
In an era of McCarthyism and widespread anxiety over the possible presidential election of John F. Kennedy, American Catholics had become politically paralyzed, said Buckley. For fear of association with the Inquisition, he professed, and to defend against accusations that Catholicism demanded an undemocratic union between church and state, conflicted liberal Catholics “grope[d] for reassurance by seeking a symbiotic relationship with the Left.”
And it might be true, as Buckley suggested, that no clear and direct lines could be drawn between the Inquisition and the House Committee on Un-American Activities, for example. But, really, can anything escape its history—especially a religion that relies so slavishly on its traditions and founding document?
As for the relationship between Rome and Catholic U.S. officials, Buckley seemed to recognize that such influence was not inconceivable. But he questioned any single Catholic’s ability to speak for all others, or at least for him. Most liberals in 1960 had evidently afforded Kennedy the benefit of any doubt. Yet, one wonders—are their modern counterparts similarly deferential to the likes of Supreme Court Justice Scalia? Should they be?
Before founding the roundly conservative National Review in 1955, and launching his thirty-year career as the charmingly eccentric host of television’s Firing Line in 1965, Buckley wrote in God and Man at Yale that “the duel between Christianity and atheism is the most important in the world”—an extremely bold decree with which non-believers by principle might not be inclined to disagree.
And although he believed generally that “man is a religious animal,” in 1968’s “Guru Bound,” he confessed as well to Christianity’s steady historical decline. In denouncement of the Beatles well-publicized dash to Rishikesh to commune with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Buckley moaned, “The truly extraordinary feature of our time isn’t the faithlessness of the Western people; it is their utter, total ignorance of the Christian religion.” What he missed entirely, of course, was the possibility that it was mounting rather than fading knowledge that caused the transformation.
Whereas Buckley lamented his creed’s gathering enfeeblement with every fiber of his alleged soul, in Lake Views: This World and the Universe (Belknap Harvard, 2009), Nobel Prize winning physicist, Steven Weinberg, celebrates the decay of Abrahamic faith with both personal relish and professional pride. From Galileo to Darwin and Dawkins, Weinberg writes in “A Deadly Certitude,” now-vindicated skeptics have fulfilled science’s crucial role in weakening religious dogmatism, “one of its greatest contributions to civilization.”
To those of more limited historical perspective who still doubt supernaturalism’s decline, the author points to the current proliferation of Christian tolerance for disbelief. Throughout the vast expanse of their ideological reign, Christians have insisted that there can be no salvation absent faith in Christ. Now, many if not most professed believers emphasize charity instead, for example, or the meaningless vagaries of the Golden Rule.
“Imagine trying to explain that to Luther, Calvin, or St. Paul!” Weinberg stabs. Such changes “show the massive retreat of Christianity from the ground it once occupied, a retreat that can be attributed to no new revelation, but only to a loss of certitude.” Hungry for answers, humanity will inquire of many potential sources. But while faith grows barren, Weinberg observes, science continues to expose religion’s bogus explanations, even as it moves forward to “get things done.”
Science simply must progress; arguably, it serves no other function. Religion, by contrast, must rely on unsupported authority, and, thus, cannot progress in any objectively meaningful way. In the process, the scientific enterprise has either supplied concrete answers in lieu of religion’s supposedly profound mysteries, or, more generally, laid bare the childish desire to shield a comforting mystery from the disruptive and penetrating lance of the impassioned search for truth.
Cognizant of this inherent (though, even among humanists, frequently denied) conflict, Weinberg is able to address a purportedly critical question that neither Twain nor Buckley could ever have seriously confronted. Absent religion, how can we be moral? In “Without God,” the book’s final essay, he offers a few agreeable but certainly less than satisfying suggestions.
First, “beware of substitutes.” Totalitarian societies of all stripes, while rejecting religious specifics, are infamous for their rituals, infallible leaders, persecutions, and “a sense of community that justifie[s] exterminating those outside the community.” Second, cultivate a sense of humor—a “sympathetic merriment at ourselves” that places life’s many misfortunes in perspective. Third, reap both the internal and worldly rewards of living an honorable life—of “facing up to our condition without despair and without wishful thinking.”
Sadly, the same ridiculous and tiresome question is implied throughout Twain’s and Buckley’s collections as well. But religion was never the source (or, certainly, the culmination) of morality. Rather, facilitation of the supernatural urge embodies only one among many ambitious, though ultimately ineffectual, attempts to define and control morality for everyone. So to, perhaps, is humanism. But the answer clearly lies elsewhere.
When pre-historic Homo sapiens discovered trade, for example, they embarked on a profoundly moral (and increasingly irreligious) journey. Since Twain’s time, strangers from all corners of the world have met, negotiated, exchanged, and learned to accept and even appreciate others’ tastes and idiosyncrasies. As Matt Ridley instructs, “There is a direct link between commerce and virtue.” Yet even today, many continue to denigrate the broad capitalist windfall for its few imperfections, as if to curse an orange for leaving a rind.
Here results a Weinberg moment. How funny we are to search so long and hard for something in a grove that has never produced anything but the most poisonous fruit. How terribly amusing to deny otherwise obvious solutions on grounds we’ve never bothered to fully articulate, let alone scrutinize.
And, now that I think about it, aren’t we silly to grope lazily backward in time for suggestions already considered and rejected, or in the erroneous name of “high culture” for titillating stories already heard in one hackneyed form or another a hundred times over. A rational, progressive community can and must do better.