Two months after the John Scopes “monkey” trial of July 1925, H.L. Mencken, writing for the Baltimore Evening Sun, took to task two prominent publications, the New York World and the New Republic, for castigating Clarence Darrow, chief defense counsel of Scopes, over his conduct during the trial. The World was infuriated by Darrow’s brutal cross-examination of William Jennings Bryan, the state’s star counsel against Scopes, an experience which humiliated Bryan and is thought to have contributed to his death later that same month. The New Republic objected to Darrow having made the issue of evolution vs. the Bible a national, rather than merely a local one, even though the trial was broadcast on radio.
What drew Mencken’s ire was the World’s position that one’s religious beliefs, should be respected and not subjected to criticism or satire.
Once more…I find myself unable to follow the best Liberal thought. 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. Is it, 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….*
Mencken, an agnostic — “Myself completely neutral in theology, and long ago resigned to damnation” — practiced what he preached. No religion was safe from his biting wit and unbridled contempt. He was an uncompromising enemy of blind belief in assertions, especially religious ones, that contradicted evidence and reason. When they showed their heads, he picked them off with all the skill of Alvin York picking off German soldiers during World War I. Mencken was an intellectual marksman.
Two things about the Scopes trial are noteworthy. First, Mencken wrote that Scopes should have been charged with teaching evolution in defiance of Tennessee’s ban. He argued that since Scopes (actually a high school gym teacher filling in for another teacher) was an employee of the public school, he should have obeyed the ban and the school‘s directives. The second thing is that the trial was intended to be a deliberate test of the state’s constitutional authority to impose such a ban, orchestrated by a businessman, George W. Rappleyea, as a means of boosting the fortunes of Dayton, where Scopes lived and taught. Scopes agreed with Rappleyea to discuss evolution in his classroom and to persuade students to report him to the authorities, and even volunteer as witnesses against him.
The state, Bryan, and other religionists took the bait.
Darrow, at the trial (working on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union), changed his strategy from one of defending Scopes’ and any other teacher’s right to teach evolution as a form of freedom of speech — the irony was that evolution was explained in the state-mandated textbook used by Scopes — to one of casting doubt on the veracity of the Bible. Bryan, a Presbyterian Fundamentalist, insisted that the Bible should be accepted as the literal truth, recorded verbatim by its saintly scribes as the word of God himself, regardless of evidence and reason.
Mencken covered the trial for the Evening Sun. Although Scopes was found guilty of teaching evolution (and was fined $100, which penalty was overturned by the state’s supreme court), Mencken applauded the airing of the conflict between science and religion. If any men deserved respect, he wrote, it should be the men of science who had expanded man’s knowledge of the universe and contributed to everyone’s well-being, and not the beliefs of those who reject the evidence of their senses in favor of the unprovable. He reserved a poignant disgust with men of science who upheld any brand of religion, and wasted no politeness on them.
What is there in religion that completely flabbergasts the wits of those who believe in it? I see no logical necessary for that flabbergasting. Religion, after all, is nothing but an hypothesis framed to account for what is evidentially unaccounted for. In other fields, such hypotheses are common, and yet they do no apparent damage to those who incline to them. But in the religious field they quickly rush the believer to the intellectual Bad Lands. He not only becomes anaesthetic to objective fact; he becomes a violent enemy of objective fact. It annoys and irritates him. He sweeps it away as something somehow evil.**
Mencken might have been less confounded by the appeal of religion, especially among prominent men of the mind, had he examined more closely the role of religion as a morality and not exclusively as a transparent hash of absurdities, whether in the Bible or in practice. To my knowledge, he never took that approach. So he remained an intellectual marksman, never becoming a general able to direct the battle against superstition, mysticism, and other brands of anti-intellectualism. He never solved the paradox of the power of belief to anaesthetize that part of the minds of otherwise rational men, the part which requires a morality by which to conduct one’s life, and render it reason-proof against all logic and evidence. (That task remained to be achieved by one of his admirers, Ayn Rand.)
That being said, Mencken would have found the whole phenomenon of modern political correctness intolerable, inexhaustibly amusing, perhaps even perilous. He was vehemently opposed to any suggestion that he be told what to think and what to write. Doubtless he would have excoriated those who claim that Islam should be respected and that Muslims be exempted from criticism or mockery of their creed, and lambasted the politically-correct as well as Islam and its practitioners. As he was able to, in his own time, cite chapter and verse of the Bible, he would have mastered the Koran and Hadith in order to expound on their irrational and heinous character.
As propinquity would have it, Muslims just the other day offered an example of what he would have burned holes his typewriter ribbon exposing as unnecessarily sacrosanct, “sacerdotal,” and a candidate for ribald and deserved offensiveness. The National Association of Muslim Police in Britain (NAMP) has lodged a complaint against the government for “stigmatizing” Islam and Muslims in its anti-terrorist program, one which, on one hand, “reaches out” to Muslim communities, but on the other uses it to ferret out real and potential terrorists. The London Daily Telegraph reported:
There have been growing concerns about the radicalization of Muslims in Britain. The failed Detroit bombing on Christmas Day was carried out by an al-Quaeda-inspired extremist who had studied in London.
Mencken might have asked: How can one “radicalize” a Muslim when he is already “radicalized” by his creed? The creed requires a follower to swallow the Koran and Hadith whole, or not at all, in which case he would become an apostate and subjected to some nasty thuggery, a la the Ku Klux Klan (Mencken was particularly hostile to the Klan and its religious mantra). There 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.
And, what is an extremist but a Fundamentalist of the Bryan kind? It is a believer who is consistent and carries out the tenets of his faith, just as hundreds of his ilk swarmed to Dayton in hopes of seeing Scopes roasted on the spit of righteousness and served up to God with the apple of Eve stuffed in his mouth. What could be a moderate Muslim, but someone who imbibes but a quarter measure of Islam, then, like a once-a-week Christian, gets on with the practical matters of living, leaving moral approval of his conduct to mullahs, priests, imams bishops, and other prestiditators?
The Daily Telegraph quoted from NAMP’s “memorandum”:
“The strategies of Prevent [the program’s name] were historically focused on so-called Islamist extremism. This has subjected the biggest black and ethnic minority community, and second biggest faith group, in an unprecedented manner, stigmatizing them in the process. Never before has a community been mapped in [such] a manner…It is frustrating to see this in a country that is a real pillar and example of freedom of expression and choice.”
Mencken would point out that, first, this is a hilarious instance of political ventriloquism. Having a knowledge of British-Muslim tensions, he would ask how these policemen could adhere to their creed’s diktats, proscriptions, and belligerencies against non-believers, and at the same time uphold “freedom of expression and choice.” He would connect that with how non-Muslim Britons can be charged with “hate speech” if they so much as insinuate in print any criticism of Islam, Muslim behavior and mores, and the dervish-like pirouettes of Sharia law.
How, he would ask, can they reconcile freedom of expression — which no one seems to dare take advantage of — with the campaign by various Muslim groups to smother it and leave non-believers with no choice but to comply and say nothing lest a howl of indignation be heard from the “persecuted“ minority? He would recall seeing signs, on the occasion of the Mohammad cartoon demonstrations, that read, “To hell with freedom of speech” and other placards which brandished similarly offensive and hateful imprecations that damned what the NAMP complaint cited as commendable “British values.” How is it that this band of Muslim brothers is so sensitive to the “insensitive” remarks of non-believers, yet is insensitive to the extinction of those “British values”?
He would then point out that the NAMP objection includes the implication that to “stigmatize” Islam and Muslims is to also to single out Muslims by race. This is a low tactic calculated to guarantee silence, and to leave the authorities sputtering denials and preemptive apologies.
Finally, Mencken would point out the glaringly obvious oversight — if oversight it was — that the overwhelming majority of terrorist attacks over the last twenty or so years were carried out by, well, Muslims, and that these manqués were obeying the nihilistic imperatives of the Koran, urged on with the advice and blessings of their parish sheiks and imams, and enabled by training and funds provided by sinister Middle Eastern regimes and organizations of a distinctly Islamic character. How is it, he would ask, that so many mosques, where the dullard faithful perform their degrading obeisances in the direction of a rock, also serve as dens of iniquity and crèches of crime? What means this “stigmatizing” recrudescence?
Mencken might have included a disquisition on the purported purity of Islam: “Islam is a creed not so pure as is alleged, certainly not as comparatively pure as the Christian and Hebrew varieties. It is a hodgepodge of the doctrines and practices of the Christian and Jew, as well as those of pre-Meccan pagan faiths of which little is known. Its essential content and color were borrowed liberally but surreptitiously from virtually every permanent and ephemeral species of animism in the region of its origin, and knocked together into the Koran and Hadith by Mohammad and his successors by sword and studied verisimilitude — somewhat in the way the Bible came down to us after centuries of casuist strife and Pecksniffian quibbling.”
Let Mencken, however, end this commentary in his own words, which could have been written about politically-correct speech and the attempted diminution of freedom of speech today by secular leftists, religious rightists, and Islamists. His subject was the desire of Christian Fundamentalists of his day to suppress all criticism of religion.
The common doctrine that religious ideas have a sacrosanct character and are not to be discussed freely and realistically, even when they take the form of schemes to oppress and intimidate those who reject them — in this doctrine I can see nothing save a hollow bombast. Whenever it is entertained human progress is immensely retarded. Nor is there any appreciable gain for religion itself. It becomes the common enemy of all enlightened men, and soon or late, watching their chance, they rise against it and try to destroy it utterly. History is full of examples — and there is not a single compensatory example, at least in civilization, of a theocracy that has endured….To swathe religion in immunities, either by law or by custom, is simply to prepare the way for its corruption and destruction.***
*H.L. Mencken, “Aftermath,” in H.L. Mencken on Religion (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2002), pp. 215-216.
** Ibid., “Fides ante Intellectum,” pp. 230-231.
*** Ibid., “On Religion and Politics,” p. 251.