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Belief In Mencken
Old HL was nobody's fool. Here are a few of his quotes to prove it:

* Faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable.
* A man full of faith is simply one who has lost (or never had) the capacity for clear and realistic thought. He is not a mere ass; he is actually ill. Worse, he is incurable.
* We must respect 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.
* Say what you will about the Ten Commandments, you must always come back to the pleasant fact that there are only ten of them.
* Theology is the effort to explain the unknowable in terms of the not worth knowing.
* The believing mind is externally impervious to evidence. The most that can be accomplished with it is to induce it to substitute one delusion for another. It rejects all overt evidence as wicked...
* It is often argued that religion is valuable because it makes men good, but even if this were true it would not be a proof that religion is true. That would be an extension of pragmatism beyond endurance. Santa Claus makes children good in precisely the same way, and yet no one would argue seriously that the fact proves his existence. The defense of religion is full of such logical imbecilities.
* I believe that religion, generally speaking, has been a curse to mankind -- that its modest and greatly overestimated services on the ethical side have been more than overcome by the damage it has done to clear and honest thinking.
* Sunday: A day given over by Americans to wishing that they themselves were dead and in Heaven, and that their neighbors were dead and in Hell.
* Sunday School: A prison in which children do penance for the evil conscience of their parents.
* The Christian church, in its attitude toward science, shows the mind of a more or less enlightened man of the Thirteenth Century. It no longer believes that the earth is flat, but it is still convinced that prayer can cure after medicine fails.
* The theory seems to be that so long as a man is a failure he is one of God's chillun, but that as soon as he succeeds he is taken over by the Devil.
* Why assume so glibly that the God who presumably created the universe is still running it? It is certainly perfectly conceivable that He may have finished it and then turned it over to lesser gods to operate. In the same way many human institutions are turned over to grossly inferior men. This is true, for example, of most universities, and of all great newspapers.
* It is impossible to imagine the universe run by a wise, just and omnipotent God, but it is quite easy to imagine it run by a board of gods. If such a board actually exists it operates precisely like the board of a corporation that is losing money.
* Creator - A comedian whose audience is afraid to laugh.
* Imagine the Creator as a low comedian, and at once the world becomes explicable.

Posted by aalkon at January 9, 2005 7:45 AM

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Sunday School: A prison in which children do penance for the evil conscience of their parents.

The theory seems to be that so long as a man is a failure he is one of God's chillun, but that as soon as he succeeds he is taken over by the Devil.

Posted by: Lena at January 9, 2005 4:33 PM

Even though the realms of religion and science in themselves are clearly marked off from each other, nevertheless there exist between the two strong reciprocal relationships and dependencies. Though religion may be that which determines the goal, it has, nevertheless, learned from science, in the broadest sense, what means will contribute to the attainment of the goals it has set up. But science can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration towards truth and understanding. The source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion. To this there also belongs the faith in the possibility that the regulations valid for the world of existence are rational, that is, comprehensible to reason. I cannot conceive of a genuine scientist without that profound faith. The situation may be expressed by an image: Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.
-- Albert Einstein

The faith that stands on authority is not faith.
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Skepticism is the beginning of faith.
-- Oscar Wilde

Posted by: Peter Fisk at January 9, 2005 6:01 PM

"Skepticism is the beginning of faith."

Now what the fuck is THAT supposed to mean?

"Christ died for somebody's sins, but not mine."
-- Patti Smith

"He who fart in church sit in his own pew."
-- Lena Cuisina

Posted by: L.C. at January 9, 2005 7:06 PM

Sh! Lena, grown-ups are talking.

Posted by: Peter Fisk at January 10, 2005 2:40 AM

Okay, this is one of my pet peeves: theists quoting Einstein out of context to make it appear he believed in God. (At least, I assume that was the intent of the quote above.) Actually, he was an atheist. He avoided using that word publicly, but his writings make it clear that he was one, regardless. He became an atheist at the age of 12 and remained so for the rest of his life.

The confusion stems in part from his philosophy, a form of natural pantheism. He wrote of something he called God, but made it clear this entity was in no way personal or supernatural. He also wrote of religion and spirituality, but made it clear that for him, these things did not involve belief in life after death, or any sort of transcendent reality. By redefining common religious terms, he created a form of atheism that was more palatable to people from religious backgrounds.

If you read what he wrote on the subject, you'll see that he considered the ideas of a personal God or an afterlife absurd. He thought that otherwise rational people could only believe in such things due to weakness of character - "fear and ridiculous egotism", as he put it.

For an honest overview of Einstein's religious views, see here:

Here is a representative sampling of Einstein's writings on religion and science:

And of course, his books are easy to track down.

All the Best,

Posted by: GodlessRose at January 10, 2005 5:26 AM

Thanks so much, Charles -- I'll post the link to Einstein's religious views tomorrow as a blog item.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at January 10, 2005 5:48 AM

While those quotes are colofrul, it's important to bear in mind that Mencken was a notorious racist, anti-Semite and American Firster of the worst sort.

Posted by: Mao C. Tongue at January 10, 2005 6:18 AM

“He wrote of something he called God, but made it clear this entity was in no way personal or supernatural.”

Right. Thanks. That’s not atheism.

1a. Disbelief in or denial of the existence of God or gods. b. The doctrine that there is no God or gods.

1. A doctrine identifying the Deity with the universe and its phenomena.

Charmed, I'm sure,

-- Peter

Posted by: Peter Fisk at January 10, 2005 6:28 AM

I've got a lot of work to do, so I'll just address the "Mencken was an anti-Semite" tripe, and leave the remaining tripe for others to address. I do have help -- Gore Vidal -- from his intro to a Mencken bio:

GORE VIDAL WRITES: ... A babble of words that no one understands now fills the airwaves, and language loses all meaning as we sink slowly, mindlessly, into herstory rather than history because most rapists are men, aren't they?

Mencken is a nice antidote. Politically, he is often right but seldom correct by today's stern standards. In a cheery way, he dislikes most minorities and if he ever had a good word to say about the majority of his countrymen, I have yet to come across it. Recently, when his letters were published, it was discovered that He Did Not Like the Jews, and that he had said unpleasant things about them not only as individuals but In General, plainly the sign of a Hitler-Holocaust enthusiast. So shocked was everyone that even the New York Review of Books' unofficial de-anti-Semitiser, Garry Wills (he salvaged Dickens, barely), has yet to come to his aid with An Explanation. But in Mencken's private correspondence, he also snarls at black Americans, Orientals, Britons, women, and WASPs, particularly the clay-eating Appalachians, whom he regarded as subhuman. But private irritability is of no consequence when compared to what really matters, public action.
Far from being an anti-Semite, Mencken was one of the first journalists to denounce the persecution of the Jews in Germany at a time when the New York Times, say, was notoriously reticent. On November 27, 1938, Mencken writes (Baltimore Sun), "It is to be hoped that the poor Jews now being robbed and mauled in Germany will not take too seriously the plans of various politicians to rescue them." He then reviews the various schemes to "rescue" the Jews from the Nazis, who had not yet announced their own final solution."

Posted by: Amy Alkon at January 10, 2005 7:02 AM

Amy, when you post the link to Einstein's religious views as you promised, do please be sure to highlight this one:

“However, it must be admitted that our actual knowledge of these laws is only imperfect and fragmentary, so that, actually, the belief in the existence of basic all-embracing laws in Nature also rests on a sort of faith. All the same this faith has been largely justified so far by the success of scientific research. But, on the other hand, every one who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe - a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is indeed quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive.”
(Thanks again to Charles for the link.)

Okay now, pop quiz: How many atheists believe that “a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe - a spirit vastly superior to that of man”?

By the way, I really don’t care a whole lot whether anyone wants to classify Einstein as an atheist, and I certainly have no more time to waste arguing the point. But it seems obvious to me that Einstein believed that some sort of God exists in some form. And if anybody wants to distort the definition of “atheist” to mean something like: “rejecting all organized, dogmatic religions that are based on literal interpretations of purportedly sacred books,” well: a) That’s your business; b.) You’re wrong.

-- Peter

Posted by: Peter Fisk at January 10, 2005 7:49 AM

Einstein was not an ass, but a scientist, so, like me, he didn't BELIEVE in anything without evidence of its existence. It's only the distortions of the tenderheaded and those desperate to have their faith somehow "confirmed" as valid by the notion that somebody very smart had it, too. Einstein, like me, thought the world was pretty marvy, but had no idea of whether there was or wasn't a god. Much god talk on his part was simply pandering to those who saw no reason to use their capacity to reason.

PS You seem desperately concerned to classify Einstein as a believer. He wasn't. He was a speculator, if anything.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at January 10, 2005 9:23 AM

First, I should clarify the definition of atheism. It is, as atheists define it, the absence of belief in a God or gods. It therefore encompasses both the belief that no God/gods exist (sometimes called strong or positive atheism), and indecision regarding the existence of a God/gods (weak or negative atheism). Agnosticism is a form of weak/negative atheism, though some agnostics find it convenient to deny this.

The definition of God/gods is more problematic. Theists often define it as the omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent creator of the universe, but this is not universally accepted. Michael Martin, probably the most respected of the atheist philosophers, has written that a God need not even be personal. Some atheist writers dispute this, however, and I find his position on this questionable myself. Nevertheless, even Martin agrees that to define God as anything other than a supernatural entity is "most peculiar and misleading." ("Atheism: A Philosophical Justification", pp. 470.)

For someone to claim to be a theist who believes in a non-supernatural God is nonsense, even though it is a marketable sort of nonsense. It is like claiming to be a cat lover, but one who can only stand the cats that bark and wag their tails. Einstein believed in something that he called God, but his "God" was neither personal nor supernatural. Therefore his views were compatible with atheism.

But of course, you needn't accept my arguments or anyone else's. You can just read what Einstein wrote. "From the viewpoint of a Jesuit priest I am, of course, and have always been an atheist." In another letter he wrote that he preferred to be called an agnostic. (Recall that an agnostic is a type of atheist.) He apparently understood that his "God" was a very different animal from that promoted by theists, and his philosophy was compatible with atheism. Follow the first Einstein link, above, for more on that.

Einstein sometimes used the word God in a poetic sense, pretending that it had personal attributes (e.g., "God is cunning but He is not malicious." "I want to know how God created the world.") But elsewhere, he made it clear that he did not believe in the literal existence of such an entity ("I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly.") The quote you offer is, once more, misleading when viewed out of context. His "spirit vastly superior to that of man" was simply the mindless, natural order of the universe. And the scientific study of the universe evoked in him a sense of wonder and awe, which he called "a religious feeling of a special sort, which is indeed quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive." The broader context makes his meaning clear.

He states his views less poetically elsewhere:

"If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it."

"The religious feeling engendered by experiencing the logical comprehensibility of profound interrelations is of a somewhat different sort from the feeling that one usually calls religious. It is more a feeling of awe at the scheme that is manifested in the material universe. It does not lead us to take the step of fashioning a god-like being in our own image-a personage who makes demands of us and who takes an interest in us as individuals. There is in this neither a will nor a goal, nor a must, but only sheer being."

"The more a man is imbued with the ordered regularity of all events the firmer becomes his conviction that there is no room left by the side of this ordered regularity for causes of a different nature. For him neither the rule of human nor the rule of divine will exists as an independent cause of natural events."

His style of expression makes his thoughts hard to follow at times, but I think it safe to say his "cosmic religion" was at its heart an atheistic philosophy.

All the Best,

Posted by: GodlessRose at January 10, 2005 12:19 PM

Charles -- That was great. You obviously know your shit. Lena

Posted by: Lena-doodle-doo at January 10, 2005 1:17 PM

"From the viewpoint of a Jesuit priest I am, of course, and have always been an atheist."
Einstein was obviously not identifying himself as an atheist in that statement.

Charles, all of the evidence that you’ve cited above is widely used by pantheists (convincingly, I think) in support of their claim to Einstein.

For that matter, deists use the same quotes to “prove” that he was a deist.

In my opinion, none of that evidence offers solid support to the hypothesis that Einstein was an atheist.

-- Peter

Here’s an atheist who argues adamantly that Einstein was “probably more of a pantheist than anything else":

Didn't I say I wasn't going to waste any more time on this?

Anyway, y'all seem like nice people. Even Lena.

Posted by: Peter Fisk at January 10, 2005 2:48 PM

Peter, that link does anything but prove your point.

The same goes for your selective quoting of pantheism. Here's the whole definition:

NOUN: 1. A doctrine identifying the Deity with the universe and its phenomena. 2. Belief in and worship of all gods.

Einstein did not believe in god. Einstein did not believe in god. Einstein did not believe in god. Occasionally he pandered to the religious -- believe me, people they don't get it now, they got it slightly less then. He also talked of how marvelous the universe was -- which doesn't indicate an irrational BELIEF in anything. Charles said it most eloquently above.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at January 10, 2005 4:13 PM


1.) When a word has more than one definition, citing the only pertinent one is not some sort of sneaky “selective quoting." The second, far less common definition of “pantheism” that was listed is not relevant to this discussion. That’s just how words are.

2.) Einstein did not believe in YOUR CONCEPTION of God. That doesn’t make him an atheist. Frankly, your assumptions on this matter seem to be mined from the same vein of fallacious thinking that fuels religious zealotry.

Posted by: Peter Fisk at January 10, 2005 8:58 PM

I'll ignore the ad hominem comment. I expect that from a Mencken lover/liker. He was good at that.
Citing the probity of a Gore Vidal defense of Mencken is like endorsing Pat Buchanan's even-handed reading of Mein Kampf. How easy for elitist Gore to tip his effete chapeau to Mencken's colorful excoritation of all things and people non-blanc. As for that newspaper citation, well, too obscure, too little, too late. Even the diction of the paragraph sounds like ol' HL was uncharacteristically writing with a mouthful of mush.
Mencken's remarks about the English language are interesting if dated. However his take on world affairs and his disdain of anything and anyone he isn't bespeaks the kind of insufferable arrogance that traces a wavy throughline all the way to the Bushies. I'm sure HL wa on George HW's bedroom reading table. Not Junior tho. Kinda rough goin' fer a guy who doesn't read papers.

Posted by: Mao C. Tongue at January 11, 2005 12:53 AM

"A doctrine identifying the Deity with the universe and its phenomena."

That's not a bad definition of God at all! In fact, it reminds me of the work of yet another overweight, short Jewish man. Not Einstein, though...

"Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy!
Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy!
The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy!
The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand
and asshole holy!
Everything is holy! everybody's holy! everywhere is
holy! everyday is in eternity! Everyman's an
The bum's as holy as the seraphim! the madman is
holy as you my soul are holy!
The typewriter is holy the poem is holy the voice is
holy the hearers are holy the ecstasy is holy!
Holy Peter holy Allen holy Solomon holy Lucien holy
Kerouac holy Huncke holy Burroughs holy Cassady
holy the unknown buggered and suffering
beggars holy the hideous human angels!
Holy my mother in the insane asylum! Holy the cocks
of the grandfathers of Kansas!
Holy the groaning saxophone! Holy the bop
apocalypse! Holy the jazzbands marijuana
hipsters peace & junk & drums!
Holy the solitudes of skyscrapers and pavements! Holy
the cafeterias filled with the millions! Holy the
mysterious rivers of tears under the streets!
Holy the lone juggernaut! Holy the vast lamb of the
middle class! Holy the crazy shepherds of rebellion
Who digs Los Angeles IS Los Angeles!
Holy New York Holy San Francisco Holy Peoria &
Seattle Holy Paris Holy Tangiers Holy Moscow
Holy Istanbul!
Holy time in eternity holy eternity in time holy the
clocks in space holy the fourth dimension holy
the fifth International holy the Angel in Moloch!
Holy the sea holy the desert holy the railroad holy the
locomotive holy the visions holy the hallucinations
holy the miracles holy the eyeball holy the
Holy forgiveness! mercy! charity! faith! Holy! Ours!
bodies! suffering! magnanimity!
Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent
kindness of the soul!"

Allan Ginsberg
Berkeley, 1955

Posted by: Lena-doodle-doo at January 11, 2005 1:49 AM

Thanks for the compliment, Lena. There's nothing like a bit of reading on an obscure subject and some copy-and-pasted quotes to make a person seem intelligent. :) I try to avoid subjects I don't grasp, which is why I don't post here often.

And Amy, I'm glad you found the link blogworthy. You're welcome, and thanks for the interesting blog.

Regarding Deism, I was under the impression that Deists believed in a personal deity which is separate from the universe. (I haven't read a lot on Deism, though. Please correct me if I'm wrong.) Since Einstein's God was neither personal nor transcendent, I don't see how it could be considered Deistic.

Einstein was in fact a pantheist. But he was a natural pantheist, or scientific pantheist as some say. This is a philosophy that is compatible with atheism. I don't see how he could be considered any sort of pantheist but the natural kind, though. Here's a good site on natural pantheism:

It's true that Einstein's statement that he was an atheist from the perspective of a Jesuit priest isn't conclusive by itself, but he also wrote "You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist..." He thereby affirmed an absence of belief in God, though he rejected the term "atheist" because he associated it with a "crusading spirit." (In my experience that mentality seems just as common among those who call themselves agnostics, but I'm wandering off topic.) Regardless, I'm not staking the claim that he qualified as an atheist on any one particular quote, but on a convergence of evidence.

One thing I forgot to mention before is that Einstein was a member of the American Humanist Association, according to Fred Edwords. This is notable since the AHA is an atheist organization, though they avoid using that precise term. The organization's bylaws state that the humanism they stand for is "a nontheistic world view that rejects all forms of supernaturalism." The AHA site is here:

Einstein's philosophy was a form of religious humanism. Note that while this term is sometimes used as a synonym for Christian humanism, I am not using it in that sense here. Religious humanism is very closely related to secular humanism, as odd as that may sound. You could say that secular humanists come from Athens, while religious humanists come from Jerusalem. But they both travel the same road. Secular humanists express their views using the language of science and philosophy, and tend to view humanism as something that stands in opposition to religion. But religious humanists use the language of religion, and tend to view humanism as simply a more advanced form of religion. For more on religious and secular humanism, see this essay by Fred Edwords. He also makes a passing mention of Einstein's membership in the organization near the bottom of the essay:

Anyway, it's been nice to exercise my brain a little. Now to vegetate some more...

All the Best,

Posted by: GodlessRose at January 11, 2005 10:11 AM