Treatise on the Gods

by H. L. Mencken [Knopf, $2.50]
HOWEVER one may take H. L. Mencken, whether with a loud shout or a pinch of salt, there is no doubt that his strident words have had a bracing effect in our time. Originally a rebel voice crying in the American wilderness, he has seen the multitude assemble and his opinions become gospel for an articulate minority. And, with his zest for rushing in where angels fear to tread, he has inevitably arrived at the vestibule of the gods.
A BOOK on religion by Mr. Mencken was inevitable. It is difficult to hold a variety of prejudices and opinions upon a subject without finally classifying and arranging them and bringing to their support such scholarship as seems accessary to give them dignity and prestige. Mr. Mencken has long had his opinions about religion. It now appears that he has also engaged in considerable research in the history of religions, though it may be questioned whether his diligence or insight justifies his not too modest judgment upon himself: ‘I am myself a theologian of considerable gifts.’
It goes without saying that this treatise on the gods is interesting reading. The description of the fortuitous emergence of the first priest, an adventurous soul in some primitive tribe, who stopped a flood by spanking the waters in anger, and by his accidental success achieved the prestige of a magic worker among his fellows, is real literature. So also is the final chapter in which the author forgets his sneers to praise the ‘lush poetry ’of the Bible. In between there is a great deal of vigorous writing, but it hardly deserves the extravagant praise which eager devotees have given it, except one regards the use of the bludgeon as the mark of great literature. It is vigorous writing, ot course, in the same sense that Martin Luther’s fulminations against the Pope were vigorous. The gleam of fanaticism is in Mr. Mencken’s eye while he inveighs against the bigotry of the priests and the stupidity of their followers. It is only when dealing with moral and social issues that he achieves the heights of complete detachment, and in this case the detachment is that of the cynic rather than that of the scientist.
The main thesis of the treatise is that religion is magic. Religion is interested in bending the mysteries of the world to human ends. Whatever of ethical or æsthetic characteristics have developed in the life of religion are merely accretions and are not to be treated too seriously. Such a thesis covers a very considerable portion of primitive religion and an only slightly less considerable portion of the religion of the average religious person of this era. But it does not cover all of the facts of either this or the primitive day. In his study of primitive religions Professor Bronislaw Malinowski makes an interesting distinction between the early religious magic and the religious rite, which Mr. Mencken would have done well to consider. The appreciative attitude toward the beneficent mysteries of the world and of life revealed in the primitive religious rite is the seed out of which has flowered the whole side of religion which concerns itself, not with bending physical circumstances to the human will, but with the contemplation and appropriation of all the inner and outer beneficences of life as the ‘grace of God.’ Mr. Mencken knows nothing about the mystics who were engaged in the business of transcending physical circumstances rather than in coercing them to conform to human purposes and whose cry of victory was that they knew ‘how to be abased and how to abound.’ Nor does he know anything about the long line ot prophets whose ethical insights were nurtured in the religious experience and contributed mightily to the advancement of the race. To him all this is a closed book. The only qualification he makes on the rigor of his thesis is to regard the priest as something of a poet as well as magician on occasions.
All this does not help us much to analyze the complexities of religion and to ‘separate the precious from the vile,’ the ethical and the spiritual from the magical in the religion of our day. It really tells us little more than how one fanatic feels about other fanatics of a different stripe.