H. L. Mencken, Treatise on the Gods. Second edition, corrected and rewritten. Reprint Edition. Maryland Paperback Bookshelf Series. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. Originally published as a Borzoi Book by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York; first edition, 1930, second edition, 1946.
Review by Keith Otis Edwards, September, 1998.
This is generally regarded as Mencken’s finest book. It is a satisfying combination of the scholarly Mencken of The American Language and the acerbic iconoclasm for which he was best known. It sets out to be an objective and dispassionate examination of religion, one which neither argues for or against it but studies it as a subject.
The book is divided into five sections, but these sections form three general parts. In the first Mencken does a very interesting thing. Most texts on religion and its history cover only what is known starting with the earliest records which survive. But here Mencken delves far beyond that into the earliest pre-history when human consciousness first became distinguishable from that of the animals. In this terrifying world of volcanoes and storms and floods, the causes of which were bewildering and unknowable, humans devised religion as a means to explain and cope with these awful forces and events.
Obviously these dim beginnings can only be speculation on Mencken’s part. However, the reader will soon agree that this speculation is so well thought out and eloquently stated that it forms a very cogent proposition. From it comes the book’s central thesis: that religion’s “single function is to give man access to the powers which seem to control his destiny, and its single purpose is to induce those powers to be friendly to him.” The two sections which form the first part of the book proceed to explain how religion grew from such a beginning and evolved into an organized form.
The second part of the book also has two sections. The first is a succinct text on comparative religion which shows how all religions have in common the central thesis of persuading the powers to be kind. There are descriptions of various heavens and hells, and of course Mencken spends more time detailing the terrors of each hell. Contained in this part of the book is a separate section which discusses Christianity. Out of curiosity, I once showed passages from this section to a very intelligent friend who is also a fundamentalist Christian and Bible scholar just to see what the opposition had to say about it. I was pleased that he acknowledged the apparent discrepancies and contradictions between the various Gospels which Mencken mentions, and that the given order of the writing of them was agreed to as well. My friend further said that Christian historians now know more about the early days of the faith than was known in Mencken’s time, but that in general Mencken’s research is admirable.
Unfortunately, this much of the book has a concealed flaw: namely, who would want to read it? It seems to me that a religious person will have little interest in this book as no appeal to reason or demonstration of contradictions will shake him from his beliefs which are based on faith. Mencken’s dissection of Christianity can only test that faith and serve to remove whatever comfort it provides. On the other hand it seems unlikely that agnostics and atheists who are expecting something on the order of Lord Russell’s Why I Am Not A Christian will be interested in the dispassionate discussion of details of various religions. In this respect the book at this point falls between two altars. But something is about to explode.
Whatever merit Treatise on the Gods has in the intelligent speculation and worthy scholarship shown thus far, I am of the opinion that the book’s real appeal lies in its final part which consists of one short section entitled, “Its State Today.” Here Mencken contradicts the goal of objectivity stated in the introduction as he takes off the soft gloves, grabs the subject by the neck and begins to handle it roughly.
He declares that religion is a vestige of that dark and frightened past when man had to dream up explanations for the world around. This manner of thinking is obsolete as we now have science to account for the details of our universe. Whatever effect prayer has as a treatment for disease has been displaced by the highly effective means of scientific medicine. The decline of Christianity began in the Renaissance which “was a reversion to the spacious paganism of Greece and Rome,” but it was not until the Seventeenth Century when enough facts and exact knowledge were able to convince intelligent men that “Christian theology was a farrago of absurdities.” Of course, the benefits of skepticism have not been limited to the modern era—in every society of every era human progress has not come from the faithful with their capacity to worship, but from those with a capacity to doubt and flout the gods. “Everything that we are we owe to Satan and his bootleg apples."
Why then is there usually a religious revival in progress? It is because the growth of scientific knowledge has been too rapid for “the ignorant and ignoble” to comprehend. And with the introduction of those of meager intelligence into the ring what began as a dispassionate examination of religion has turned into a battle royale with Mencken taking on all comers. Along with Christianity, censorship, Prohibition and American democracy each are pummeled, as according to Mencken they are not separate topics but merely different manifestations of the same disease: the mass of stupid and foolish people obstructing the freedom of those capable of independent thought.
This is classic Mencken at his most ferocious. Those who are unfamiliar with Mencken’s work and want to discover what he is all about will do well to look here.
Those who wonder why devotees of Mencken are so zealous will find the answer here as well. Those who’ve been entertained by Mencken quotes at various web sites and want to read something more substantial by him should likewise start here—this goes far beyond entertainment. Those who’ve been misled into thinking of Mencken as merely a humorist should read this as it is decidedly serious. Those who harbor doubts about their religion owe it to themselves to read this book. It is impossible to live one day in this society without being deluged by religious sentiments—even our money bears the legend “In God We Trust”—isn’t it about time you considered a voice from the opposition? And even aside from the content this is writing at its vivid and truculent best.
Other discussions of Treatise on the Gods attempt to describe the book’s awful and terrible ending and thereby spoil its shock on the unsuspecting reader. Instead, I urge you to experience it yourself, then decide what Mencken’s motivation was for ending what began as a mild discussion of the phenomenon of religion in such a grotesque manner. Was it a a supreme act of cynicism? Or humanism? Reading this last section and its ending will be a test of your mettle. You may then resolve to never read Mencken again hellip;
… or nothing but.