A Freethought Icon

William Harwood

What Is Man? And Other Irreverent Essays by Mark Twain, edited by S.T. Joshi (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2009, ISBN 978-1-59102-685-3) 230 pp. Paper $16.97.


Many commentators have asserted that Mark Twain was essentially a theist who merely denounced elements of religion that failed to live up to its professed ideals. S.T. Joshi, editor of What Is Man? And Other Irreverent Essays by Mark Twain, does not agree. After asking if a passage in which Twain referred to “our Maker” implied an acknowledgement of God’s existence, he answers: “It seems doubtful: Twain is merely engaging in the rhetorical device of accepting a given position (that God is both omnipotent and benevolent) and showing that it leads to an untenable conclusion (that God is insane). It is certainly not a conclusion that any believer would want to accept” (p. 15).

All the chapters in this book are placed in chronological order by date of composition with one exception. The title item is placed out of chronology at the front because, as Joshi explains, it is considerably longer than any other essay in the collection. I must question the rationale of such a move. Even in nonfiction, it is usually sound practice to grip the reader’s attention from the first page, for both literary and economic reasons. “What Is Man?” is a slow-moving dialogue between a young man and an old man that has precisely the opposite effect. If this was not a book designed for persons who recognize Twain’s significance as a moral philosopher and are willing to plow through considerable straw in order to get to the wheat, many readers would give up after the first few pages.

As for those who do read the dialogue, they are likely to be as puzzled as I was about what point Twain was making. He argued for the nonexistence of free will or altruism, as if having one’s decisions dictated by a need for society’s favorable opinion or by one’s own sense of self-worth makes those decisions involuntary—a dubious rationale at best. Whether the statement by the “old man” who was Twain’s thinly disguised self that “I have not made man a machine, God made him a machine” (p. 90) indicates a belief in God’s existence or is a subtle hint that only an oxymoronic (and therefore nonexistent) God would require humans to violate the nature he gave them, every reader, theist or nontheist, is likely to choose the interpretation that would put Twain on his side.

The included essays, written between 1866 and 1871, indeed savage religious hypocrites, one of whom Twain describes as “this crawling, slimy, sanctimonious, self-righteous reptile” (p. 106). He also questions why an all-powerful God would enrich a nineteenth-century equivalent of Bernie Madoff while “leaving better men to dig for a livelihood” (p. 95). At the same time, however, several essays include favorable references to “God.” One can suspect that social and economic considerations prompted Twain to conceal that he already shared the opinion expressed much later by Clarence Darrow that “I don’t believe in God because I don’t believe in Mother Goose.” To conclude from these writings that Twain was already a nontheist, one would have to go beyond the evidence.

In contrast, Twain’s 1881 satire “The Second Advent” so demolished Christian myths that it could not have been written by anyone who viewed religion as anything other than a form of insanity. A committee appointed to investigate a virgin-birth claim concluded: “We have hearsay evidence that an angel appeared . . . that God is the father of this child and that its mother remains a virgin. . . . ‘Evidence’ like this could not affect even a dog’s case, in any court in Christendom. It is rubbish, it is foolishness. No court would listen to it; it would be an insult to judge and jury to offer it” (p.121). That judgment referred to a nineteenth-century virgin-birth claim, but every element of Twain’s satire is equally applicable to Christianity’s original such fable. The tale’s happy ending was that independent observers of its miracles reached the following conclusions:

Resolved, That whosoever shall utter his belief in special providences in answer to prayer, shall be adjudged insane and shall be confined.

Resolved, That the Supreme Being is able to conduct the affairs of this world without the assistance of any person in Arkansas; and whosoever shall venture to offer such assistance shall suffer death.

As if that were not enough, in 1906 Twain wrote:

Our Bible reveals to us the character of our God with minute and remorseless exactness. The portrait is substantially . . . a personage whom no one, perhaps, would desire to associate with now that Nero and Caligula are dead. . . . His acts expose His vindictive, unjust, ungenerous, pitiless and vengeful nature constantly. . . . It makes Nero an angel of light and leading by contrast. [p. 191]

Richard Dawkins could not have said it better.

Twain’s indictment of the Bible and its pushers was unrestrained. Consider the following:

During many ages there were witches. The Bible said so. The Bible commanded that they should not be allowed to live. . . . Then it was discovered that there was no such thing as witches, and never had been . . . and when the merciful legislature proposed to sweep the hideous laws against witches from the statute book, it was the parson who came imploring, with tears and imprecations, that they be suffered to stand. There are no witches. The witch text remains; only the practice has changed. . . . More than two hundred death penalties are gone from the law books, but the texts that authorized them remain.” [pp. 150–51]

A century later, he might have written much the same thing, with gays replacing witches as the target of religious persecution. He similarly condemned preachers for their endorsement of Bible-sanctioned slavery at a time when civilized people recognized slavery as a monstrous evil.

Twain capitalized all pronouns and possessive adjectives referring to the Christian deity. If a nontheist did that today, I would suspect him of covering his butt, showing respect to the most sadistic, evil, mass-murdering psychopath in all fiction on the off-chance that it does exist. Twain had a more defensible excuse. He wrote at a time when such policy was simply Correct English.

In a passage written in the 1880s, Twain declared:

I believe in God the Almighty. I do not believe He has ever sent a message to man by anybody, or delivered one to him by word of mouth, or made Himself visible to mortal eyes at any time or in any place. I believe that the Old and New Testaments were imagined and written by man, and that no line in them was authorized by God, much less inspired by Him. . . . If one man’s family is swept away by a pestilence and another man’s spared, it is only the law working: God is not interfering in that small matter, either against one man or in favor of the other. [p. 143]

There are two plausible explanations for Twain’s expressed belief in “God the Almighty.” One is expedience, what might be termed political correctness. In order to denounce religion as a product of the human imagination, he saw the advantage of postulating that God exists but was not the author of any of the revelations attributed to him. The other is that Twain was a deist, a believer in a theoretical creator god whose existence can be inferred but which has never revealed itself or intervened in human affairs. Whether deists (such as Jefferson and possibly Twain) should be considered theists is debatable. Since they reject any claim that “God said so” as a basis for belief or morality, it seems to me that they should not.

As for the suggestion that someone as clear-thinking as the author of The Mysterious Stranger, Letters From the Earth, and “The Second Advent” could have succumbed to moral cowardice and converted to He-who-must-be-obeyed religion when he knew he was approaching death, I find it untenable. Despite big lies to the contrary, Charles Darwin did not do so, Carl Sagan did not do so, and Mark Twain did not do so.

William Harwood

William Harwood has been published in skeptical and freethought journals around the world. The newest of his fifty books is titled Disinformation: Bullshit the Media Encourage You to Believe (World Audience, Inc., 2012).


What Is Man? And Other Irreverent Essays by Mark Twain, edited by S.T. Joshi (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2009, ISBN 978-1-59102-685-3) 230 pp. Paper $16.97. Many commentators have asserted that Mark Twain was essentially a theist who merely denounced elements of religion that failed to live up to its professed ideals. S.T. Joshi, editor of …

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