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Commentary Journal

Divine Indifference

When I was a kid, I could be assured of several sources or reading material in my parent’s bathroom: The Reader’s Digest, The National Enquirer, several catalogs, and –later– a volume of essays and short stories by Mark Twain. He was a hero in my home state of Missouri, and I recall vividly when my family made a pilgrimage to his boyhood home in Hannibal.

The book showed up sometime after I was ten and stayed until I was in high school. I don’t know why the book stayed there so long –my dad (the least religious person in the house back then), hated it. He called it sacrilegious and blasphemous. But it sat there just the same, calling to me.

I would crack it open and feel a rush of guilt as intense (if less salacious) as that I’d feel when perusing the lingerie section of the Montgomery Ward catalog.

I loved his unapologetic, withering critiques of religion and religiosity; his courageous and unbending attacks on social and religious norms. The things that horrified my dad thrilled me and made me question my surroundings and upbringing.

Some people love Mark Twain because they know him for Tow Sawyer and schmaltzy Americana.

I love Mark Twain because he was the first atheist I ever read, and he lit a fire in me. Some people’s Mark Twain is an inoffensive tale-teller, spinning yarns about jumping frogs and painting fences and pirate treasure and river rafts.

My Mark Twain? He’s punk rock. He said “It’s all bullshit, and we should tear it down.”

If there was ever a man who endorsed a wall of separation between Church and State, it was him.

“So much blood has been shed by the Church because of an omission from the Gospel: ‘Ye shall be indifferent as to what your neighbor’s religion is.’ Not merely tolerant of it, but indifferent to it. Divinity is claimed for many religions; but no religion is great enough or divine enough to add that new law to its code.”
-Mark Twain