13 December 2008

Religious studies for the admittedly damned

Recently I reread a book published at the brink of the Great Depression on the history and nature of religion. On the surface, this is a very odd choice for me, as I have no more religious impulse than an alley cat and what religious thought is today is of no more interest to me than the politics of UFO seekers. However, this particular book, Treatise on the Gods, was written by H.L. Mencken, one of my favorite authors. For me, only someone with Mencken's wry wit, lucid style, and cynical eye could make such a subject worth reading.

Mencken was best known as a cynic and critic, and I suspect he doubted his own doubts. Religion and the overly-religious were some of his favorite targets; he was one of the primary people behind the scenes at the Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee. (He was, in fact, the one who recommended Clarence Darrow for the defense.) One might suspect that Treatise on the Gods would be filled with some of Mencken's most fiery prose against the entire institution, but in fact it is quite cool and scholarly. He looks at religion as a force and an institution and a way of thought through a clinical eye. He starts with the best guesses and surmises of its murkiest beginnings, based on theological research and common themes and ideas in religions. Mencken also examines religions from around the globe, from all the continents and many times, to show that the commonality is far greater than the differences. The Spanish, for example, were shocked to find the Aztecs practicing baptism.

Ultimately he focuses on the Judeo-Christian forms of religion; no surprise, since this was (and still is) the dominant form of religion in the United States. It may also be the most-researched religion in the world, thus allowing keener insight into the workings and thought processes of theologians and the religious. Be forewarned, though, that Mencken does say some things about the Jews that are pretty unflattering, though in this they are no different than any group to whom Mencken turned his attention. Born in 1880 in Baltimore, he was unable to entirely escape the prejudices and tastes of his time (who is?) and anti-semitism was more common then, and more tolerated. (It is interesting to note that when Alfred Knopf, Mencken's friend and publisher and himself a Jew, was asked if Mencken was anti-semitic, Knopf's reply was "probably no more than many Jews"; it was a different world. And for all the discussion these last few years about Mencken's anti-semitism, his greatest invective was directed to the poor southern white, whose religion he examines closely and without positive results.)

On the whole, the book is well-researched, well thought-out, an easy read and very moderate in tone. Mencken being Mencken, though, there are a few barbs being hurled, all the more painful and funny for being so true. What stands out most is how little religion has changed. The outward forms and ceremonies have a tendency to drift and alter as time passes, but nothing at the core in any modern religion cannot be found, and documented, in some religion of 2000 BCE. The book may have been first published in 1930, and there may be whole libraries of books on the subject published since then, but in essence nothing has changed, except for new information based archeological research into the gods and religions of the ancients. Even here, from what I've seen, the basics are still the same and some ideas and what are seen as modern developments have proven to be older and more widespread among our distant ancestors than was previously thought.

It is, in fact, this clinging to ideals, some plainly wrong, coupled with a hideboud hyperconservatism, which marks all religions. They may change on the surface, such as the Catholic Church's recent opening up to groups in America it shunned earlier, but that was due to nothing theological, rather to finances: their membership and cashflow ebbed tremendously after the scandals of the late nineties and early aughts, and they needed new blood. In spite of being nearly eighty years old, Treatise on the Gods is still worth reading and still is, as far as I know, the best critical look at the whole field of religion and the religious available.

A Guest Blogger Post by Richard Burton