Home > Apologia, Atheist Arguments, Christianity > Mark Twain on Christianity

Mark Twain on Christianity

October 17, 2008 Leave a comment Go to comments

This will be quite a random post, as I haven’t posted in a while, but wanting to give something to read, in addition to making it on the subject of apologetics, I am posting a paper I wrote my senior year of college for my World Literature class.  Want to know the type of sarcasm that atheism employs when dealing with Christianity?  Read some Mark Twain.

When speaking of literary humor, one cannot help but mention the name of Mark Twain.  Whether discussing his works in children’s literature or his diverse views on life, one recognizes that Twain’s maxims have become classics.  Yet, many people are unaware of the negative religious views and undertones found within his writings.  Unbeknownst to many of his readers is a deep abhorrence for religion – especially Christianity.  The writings of Mark Twain reveal his deepest objections to religion, the Christian God, the Bible, and Christian people, due to a strong skepticism and belief in science and a conservative, Calvinist rearing.

One of the most obvious aspects of Twain’s writing is his objection to religion. Twain once said, “I cannot see how a man of any large degree of humorous perception can ever be religious – except he purposely shut the eyes of his mind and keep them shut by force.” Twain was reared in a conservative, Calvinist home.  After the death of his father John, his mother, Jane, then began to raise the family in Hannibal, Missouri, where she had recently joined the Presbyterian Church.  Twain said of his mother, “On coming to Hannibal, she

joined the Presbyterian Church, and her religion was that clean-cut, strenuous kind which regards as necessary institutions of hell and Satan, though she had been known to express pity for the latter for being obliged to surround himself with such poor society.” The influence from Twain’s mother was apparent later in his life as her strict adherence to church attendance and Bible study seemed to push Twain away from Christianity.  Twain claimed that he often had to attend Sunday evening services at church as punishment from his mother.  As a result, Twain often considered this to be the worst discipline he endured from his mother.

The influence modernism had on Twain is visible in all of his writings.  One such modernist, Charles Darwin, had a great impact on Twain.  Twain was very familiar with the writings of Darwin as he owned thirteen of his books. He also had a deep admiration for Darwin’s work and often referenced it within his own writings.  The majority of these references to Darwin are positive, and become even more favorable as his literary career progressed. It was through Twain’s acceptance of the Darwinian theory of evolution that his skepticism toward Christianity began to grow, leading to his lack of understanding as to why anyone would accept the Bible as literal.

Secondly, Twain had an obvious objection to the idea of the Christian God.  One such example of Twain’s objection is found within his work Letters from the Earth.  Within this writing Twain tells about the creation of man and about Satan being banished to earth as punishment.  While on earth, Satan secretly writes letters to the archangels Michael and Gabriel to inform them of how humans live and act on earth.  It is in this writing that readers are exposed to Twain’s diverse views regarding the thought of a Christian God, mostly presented in a negative tone.  The views expressed by “Satan” in his letters essentially present the thought that man is incorrect in all of his ideas about God and Christianity.  In the letter, Satan relates of how God tells humans, “Thou shalt not kill” and yet, “it is plain that he cannot keep his own commandments.” These same sentiments about the thoughts of God are echoed in other writings of Twain.  He writes in his autobiographical dictations:

In the Old Testament, [God’s] acts expose His vindictive, unjust, ungenerous, pitiless and vengeful nature constantly.  He is always punishing – punishing trifling misdeeds with thousandfold severity; punishing innocent children for the misdeeds of their parents; punishing unoffending populations for the misdeeds of their rulers; even descending to wreak bloody vengeance upon harmless calves and lambs and sheep and bullocks, as punishment for inconsequential trespasses committed by their proprietors.  It is perhaps the most damnatory biography that exists in print anywhere.  It makes Nero an angel of light and leading, by contrast.

In addition to Twain’s objection of God’s unjust punishment of men, he also rejected the concept of Christ being God.  The concept seemed too implausible for him to accept.  He wrote, “If Christ had really been God, He could have proved it, since nothing is impossible with God. . . . When God wants to prove that the sun and the moon may be depended upon to do their work every day and night, he has no difficulty about it. . . . It is only when He apparently wants to prove a future life to us that His invention fails, and He comes up against a problem which is beyond the reach of His alleged omnipotence.” In Little Bessie, one of his short, fictional stories, Twain expresses his views of skepticism through the medium of a three-year old asking her mother religious questions.  Bessie asks her mother if Christ is God.  After her mother explains that Christ is indeed God, Bessie answers, “I understand it, now, mamma, and it is quite simple.  One twin has sexual intercourse with his mother, and begets himself and his brother; and next he has sexual intercourse with his grandmother and begets his mother.  I should think it would be difficult, mamma, though interesting.” Again, Twain’s satirical voice shines through in a way that tries to completely shake the foundations of Christianity in a perverse way.

Further examinations of Twain’s writings reveal his objections to the Bible.  Twain was an extraordinarily knowledgeable person in Biblical literature, as he had read the Bible in its entirety at an early age, thus making him a “sharp critic” of the “Bible’s uncleanliness.” Twain felt that Christians were “credulous people who venerate the Bible but do not examine it carefully, preferring to rely on what preachers or biblical commentators want them to believe.” The same passages which reflect Twain’s objections to Christianity found within Letters From The Earth also reveal his attitude towards the Bible: “[The Bible] is full of interest.  It has noble poetry; and some clever fables; and some blood-drenched history; and some good morals; and a wealth of obscenity; and upwards of a thousand lies.  The Bible is built mainly out of the fragments of older Bibles that had their day and crumbled to ruin.  So it noticeably lacks in originality, necessarily.” Twain, though speaking through Satan, reveals his skepticism of the thought of God speaking to man through the Bible.  In his autobiographical dictations he wrote:

With a message to deliver to men which is of infinitely more importance than all those other messages put together, which [God] has delivered without difficulty, He can think of no better medium than the poorest of all contrivances – a book.  A book written in two languages – to convey a message to a thousand nations – which, in the course of the dragging centuries and eons, must change and change and become finally wholly unintelligible.  And even if they remained fixed, like a dead language, it would never be possible to translate the message with perfect clearness into any one of the thousand tongues, at any time.

A brief look into Twain’s writings reveals his obsession with the Bible.  The majority of Twain’s writing’s concerning the Bible was based on the book of Genesis, and the most famous of his writings on this subject were: The Diary of Adam, The Diary of Eve, and The Diary of Satan.  Twain’s writings on such subjects were often done in a satirical way in which he exaggerates the Biblical accounts to make them sound unbelievable. He laughed at the fact that someone would take the creation story as a literal account, and many people have attributed Twain as “indirectly helping release the Eden story from a literal interpretation.” Twain was also unable to accept the thought that “Adam is forbidden the fruit of a certain tree – and he is gravely informed that if he disobeys he shall die. . . . Adam was merely a man in stature; in knowledge and experience he was in no way the superior of a baby of two years of age; he could have no idea of what the word death meant.” It never resonated with Twain that such a punishment would come from a fair and just God.

Finally, Twain reveals his objections to the Christian people through many of his writings.  It appears his staunch Calvinist upbringing pushed him to be very critical of Christians in general.  Twain once “confessed that he resented adults who made him read, as a child, about the wickedness of David and Solomon in the Bible.” He often commented on the actions of Christians.  One such instance is found in Mark Twain’s Notebook, compiled by Alfred Paine in which Twain writes, “The first thing a missionary teaches a savage is indecency.  He makes him put clothes on.  He is as innocent and clean-minded up to that time as were our first parents when they walked naked before the Lord and were not ashamed.” Twain’s objections to Christian’s actions became more critical as his writings progressed.

Another writing of Twain which reveals his objections to Christians is The War Prayer.  In this book, Twain attacks Christians who pray to God for victory by reminding “all those who prayed for young patriots in battle what victory meant to the lives, lands, and homes of an enemy, or victims of imperialism.” In the writing, Twain uses sickening language to mock Christians prayers by stating, “O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded writhing in pain; . . . stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet!  We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek aid with humble and contrite hearts.”

In addition to The War Prayer, Twain states in section five of The Damned Human Race in an essay entitled  “The Lowest Animal” how all religious people, especially Christians, have committed horrible atrocities, thus making them lesser than actual animals.  He wrote, “Man is the Religious Animal.  He is the only Religious Animal.  He is the only animal that has the True Religion – several of them.  He is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself, and cuts his throat if his theology isn’t straight.” Thus, one can easily see that Twain’s attitude towards a Christian’s actions were usually very critical.

A small glimpse at Mark Twain’s writings reveals his sundry views on Christianity.  Whether it is his objection to a sovereign, personal Creator, or his skepticism concerning the Bible, his writings show his opposition to the core components of Christianity.  Though raised in a conservative, Calvinist family, his life would never bear the fruits of a Christian.  With his strong beliefs in science, skepticism of the supernatural comes naturally, thus influencing his negative tones regarding the Christian faith.  Though often merely remembered by many for his writings as a literary humorist, Twain’s anti-Christian writings will forever be recognized as a major part of his contribution to American literature.

Please comment and critique!

  1. October 18, 2008 at 9:39 am

    If you want to read someone with similar views of Twain but perhaps not as caustic (although I love him), check out Bertrand Russell. He is a lot more dry and intellectual sounding than Twain, not to say that Twain isn’t intellectual.

  2. October 18, 2008 at 11:33 am

    Twain is very surprising to me. I thoroughly enjoyed my research project. I’ll definitely have to pick up Russell’s writings soon, although I really just wanna finish Dawkins.

  3. Travis Bickle
    July 27, 2009 at 3:25 am

    Interesting. I don’t find Twain’s view of Christianity as an “anti-” type of view.
    I think your remarks on Twains remarks reveal more about your biases than his. He is making and taking careful review of what that christian bibble says; some of which does not make much sense.
    This is a simple truth wich he reveals through satire. His satire, does not neccesarily invalidate christian theocracy but asks relevant questions. It’s often funny to watch Christians check their brain at the door when it comes to answering questions like the ones Twain makes. They have to be answered. If one refuses to answer such questions then christianity becomes nothing more than an opiate. Yes, when you die, you will go to heaven; you will see long dead family members, pets, they will all be their. Sounds much better than when you die, your dead cold lifeless body will disintegrate into dust and you will forever be gone from life. Again, either answer the questions like twain honestly or pick the sentence above and go blindly on your way.

    • July 27, 2009 at 9:24 am

      Hey Travis, and thanks for responding.

      What you read was actually a term paper I wrote my senior year of college, so that will give you a bit of the history there.

      Secondly, I don’t know of a single question that Twain raises which has not been addressed by some sort of Christian apologist. By your own logic, your refusal to look at their arguments and accept it shows your own bias.

      Plain and simple, Twain completely had an anti-Christian view of the world. To say anything other than that is to put your fingers in your ears and sing “Lalalala…” You can read his writings, and if you choose to arrive at a different view, that’s fine, but I’ll just straight up tell you, you’re wrong.

      Again, I’m glad you came to my blog, but before you accuse me, I’d really love to see your views on issues of Christianity, other than simply coming in, telling me I’m biased and that Christianity is crap.

      • July 27, 2009 at 9:36 am

        “Secondly, I don’t know of a single question that Twain raises which has not been addressed by some sort of Christian apologist.”

        To say that something has been addressed is not to say that it was addressed accurately.

        “telling me I’m biased and that Christianity is crap.”

        Everyone is biased. The key is to control what it is that causes your biases.

  4. July 27, 2009 at 9:53 am

    Well, technically we could go in circles for hours. You know that as much as I do. Both sides have argued their point for CENTURIES and it will just continue.

    And yes, the bias was my point. He was telling me that I am biased, yet he is just as equally biased in his views toward Twain.

  5. Travis Bickle
    July 29, 2009 at 10:24 pm

    My apologies if you think I was accusing you of something. In addition, I have not “refused” to look at others who have drawn similiar conclusions. In fact, your article is the only article I have ever scene on the subject. However, my opinion is that he is not anti-christian and to draw that conclusion I think misses the point. But, then again, this is all highly subjectis
    Having said that. I have read much about the issues concerning Christianity made by Twain and others and yet to see any refute or answer the questins. This is simply because it can’t be done in an objectifiable reproducable way. Meaning, any answer pro-christian will have to in some way by nature require faith to believe and thus be circular in argument, begging the question. And without being specific, I think you know what I mean (I dont intend to argue the issue of christian valdity with you). My view. If there is a God, then he is the Christian God, with the requirement that you ask Jesus for forgivenes to be forgiven and reborn. But I’m not sure and currently ‘am probably an atheist hoping to be wrong but who knows really he’s right but could be wrong but will put off the decision till later. But I like Mark Twain’s comment. I think is questions and points were valid, have to be answered type questions. Intellectually honest Christians will answer the questions without running for the Bible. There are either correct or not without justification with faith. Thats not an opinion. Thats a fact, as you have allready point out they have been answered somewhere at some time. You write well. Your paper is pretty good. My only criticism is your biases show which is sometimes a good thing. Good talking with you. Have not talked about this stuff in long time.

  6. Travis Bickle
    July 29, 2009 at 10:26 pm

    I accidently erassed part of my post and now the above doesn’t make any sense. Oh well.

  7. Travis Bickle
    July 29, 2009 at 10:34 pm

    Hey, I missed the bottom portion of your reply till just now. I never said anywhere in my post that Christianity is crap. I don’t know where you got that. I think you have to be more carefull about the conclusions you draw. A fair reading of what I originally said does not apriori mean chistianity is crap!!

  8. Travis Bickle
    July 29, 2009 at 10:41 pm

    When I was taling about christians checking their brain at the door I was not refering to you.
    I was making a general statment refering to those people who refuses to be intellectually honest about their religeon in general, not you specificaly.

  9. July 29, 2009 at 10:53 pm

    Apologies for the reading into your post.

    The reason for the bias, besides my being Christian, is that I attended an evangelical Christian university, thus, it is obvious that my professor who encouraged me to write on the topic would agree with me.

    I’d love to discuss with you some time without me being in my office, early in the morning, in a bad mood… 😉 Feel free to email me with questions or discussions any time, Travis. I appreciate and value your comments and look forward to hearing from you. mrakers85@comcast.net

  10. Travis Bickle
    July 30, 2009 at 2:00 am

    OK, now thats funny! That you attended an evangelicl Christian university.
    I am pretty sure you touched on all this stuff above in school. Schools interesting.
    When I was younger 12, 13, 14 I was a very devout Christian. I used to prosilitize at the beach, go to bible study every night (literally every night except Sunday). And it kind of tappered off butt was still a firm believer. Then I got older more experienced. Then I did my under graduate work and recieved BS. During this time, school provided me with powerfull tools
    to ask questions and to disect the answers and check for validity; as you surely have learned also. These tools and experience unwound my belief system. As I asked harder and harder questions, it wasn’t that they could not be answered, it was the answer that was hard to get around (without be to specific). My buddy, who studied religeon at Michigan and recieved his degree there majojring in religeon, then went on to Harvard Law – this guy is a killer. He knows the questions to ask and he knows how to hammer home the answsers (again without being specific take to long). I am true, for the most part, to intellectual honesty in my beliefs. And the arguments and conversations we would have were difficult and still are. Thats why I believe whatf I believe. For instance, for all these people who say they actually HEAR or SEE or FELT a ghost, demon, Jesus, God… they could not still be a Christian after that Why? Grace is based and given on Faith for firgivenes of your sins; it HAS to be on FAITH. Anything short you can’t qualify for forgiveness and be reborn. Well someone who has actually SEEN, HEARD, FELT god jesus whatever, no longer needs faith to believe in his existent and therefore would not qualify for forgiveness – you woul deprive the contractual basis, the promise of forgiveness, of the deed, act needed to form and continue the contract. Brings up many, many probelms.

  11. July 30, 2009 at 8:07 am

    I do not even come close to seeing how your argument presents a problem. Faith is not blind faith. It never has been it never will be. Atheism for the most part has really distorted what faith is. Faith is built upon facts for me. I have “felt” God if you want to call it that. No doubt in my mind. But that never occurred until after I had faith from the beginning that He existed and thus asked Him to be the Lord of my life.

    Nonetheless, I once again argue that your statements do not create a single problem for Christianity.

    As you stated, grace is given based upon the faith for forgiveness of our sins. I don’t see how the other things you mentioned negate that fact in the least. Don’t take grace by faith and turn it into, if you ever see, feel, etc, anything regarding God, you’ve moved beyond faith….

    • Travis Bickle
      July 30, 2009 at 8:00 pm

      No the problem above does not create a problem for Chritianity. It creates a problem for those who claim to have had some physical, tangiable contact with the Christian God. But we are allready at an impass because you are not defining your terms. And this was just an example not even close to the “is their a sole” type arguments I am talking about. Faith is defined. Its defined in the new testment and unless your a contextual type Chistian your definition does not match. Faith is evidence of things not scene (I know your familiar with the verse). Well if you see the thing not scene you no longer need faith to know it or to believe he exists; and if you need faith for Grace to interceed you got a problem. Thats the argument above but it was just a small example. To be honest, I don’t discuss the arguments I have with other Christians. They are powerfull arguments that are hard to get around as I said above and I don’t wish to be a stumbling block to anyone who has invested in a religeon and firmly believes. I just don’t want to be that person. I know it sounds arrogant. But I know I could present a test for someone who doesnt have a firm hold intellectually on their beliefs and thus cause them to question it afterward.
      Its funny, you continue to agree with me in a most un-agreeable manner! But I will say this; in the end it is blind faith, it has to be. At some point you are actively asked in the new testment to “believe me” and it has to be that way. Blind faith is not blind its just faith (knwoledge of things unscene). Aestheist have distorted the term indeed to give it conotation that it is some how bad or wrong. You know I really don’t understand atheists as a group. Who goes around saying I don’t believe in god a a generzl belief. If you don’t believe you don’t believe; I dont understand the need to institutionalize the “non-believing” into an institution; and then actually go after others who do believe. Thats a little odd. It stries me as a little like someone who quite smokeing who then goes after people who still smoke. I have met plenny aetheist, self proclaimed, who cannot explain why god does not exist (this is different from proving) or even why they are not agnostic. Ive heard aethists proclaim god doesnt exist but the believe their is a greater power nontheless; which is of coarse an agnostic position. Tell me what you think of the sole…

  12. July 30, 2009 at 9:10 am

    “But that never occurred until after I had faith from the beginning”

    So you’re saying you started with blind faith, and then you got your experience that served as evidence to support it?

  13. July 30, 2009 at 2:37 pm

    In my case, yes. I was five. For me, I was raised in it, and I am the first to admit that. But, at the same time, I will say that I recognized personally what I was doing, though I didn’t know as much as I do now. I understood (to use the good ole evangelical Christian term) that I needed a Savior to forgive me of my sins. It was MY decision to make and I approached my parents about it, to which they happily obliged to help.

    But, my experience does not negate my point, as you know what I am getting at. It was blind faith in the point that I trusted that there was a God who cared about me enough to extend that grace to me.

    Other people work the other way and they have faith because they study and come to the conclusion in light of all of the arguments in the world, that there is a God, thus they can believe in that God and choose to receive the free grace.

    We can keep going in circles.

    • July 30, 2009 at 2:43 pm

      And you don’t think that, perhaps, having that blind faith to start may have colored all the rest of your experiences? And whatever experience you have had is only so certain to you because you looked at it through the lenses of that blind faith first?

      There was a time in my life when I believed in ghosts. Really believed. Had faith that they existed, if you will extend me the courtesy of using that word. And so whenever I was alone in my house, any little noises I heard where confirmation of that. Everything glanced out of the corner of my eye was an apparition.

      But without that faith, suddenly those little noises are the wind moving the frame of the house slightly, and apparitions are tricks of light and glanced reflections.

      The point being, it was never ghosts. But having faith in ghosts to start with, I could see them in all the places they didn’t exist.

  14. July 30, 2009 at 3:46 pm

    Which I would argue with you, that I can verify my faith is based on reality. When you dug deeper into ghosts, you realized that your faith was found in something that did not exist. You could not only easily see that the ghosts did not exist, but you found the source from which the “ghost” originated.

    This could be argued for both sides on the religion debate. But, I am on the side that I have studied deeper into the issue and have come out arguing and finding proof for the existence of God, thus verifying and justifying my belief in God. Thus, it is no longer blind faith, but it is faith that all of the things I can use to prove my faith are true, and I can rest assured because of the faith I have.

    I rest assured in the proof.

  15. July 30, 2009 at 8:42 pm

    If you don’t mind, in order to keep from having to sort through all of the other comments, can we carry the discussion of the soul to email?

  16. Tom
    July 8, 2010 at 4:42 am

    Hi there!

    I found what you wrote rather interesting. I’m not at all familiar with Mark Twain and so upon Googling his name, came to your page.

    I must say that I tend to agree with him. I’m currently reading the Bible, having read the NT first, I’m now read the OT, up to Numbers.

    ‘In the writing, Twain uses sickening language to mock Christians prayers..’
    Compared to the Old Testament, what Twain wrote is rather mild.

    I find it interesting that you’ve felt the presence of God. Does he talk to you or anything like that? When you pray, he’s there?

    Oh well. I can accept the possibility of a God, but I certainly don’t believe.

  17. December 6, 2010 at 3:22 pm

    interesting questions raised.to which there is always a circle full of questions that can not be answered.Good article on Mark Twain

  18. January 19, 2011 at 5:00 pm

    And yet Mark Twain devoted a decade of his life writing what he felt was his greatest work which was his biography about Saint Joan of Arc http://www.maidofheaven.com/joanofarc_mark_twain.asp
    My personal opinion is that Twain was anti-established religion and the Catholic Church instead of anti Christian

  19. Rambo's son
    January 24, 2011 at 3:30 pm

    One of his quotes were”If Christ were here now, there is one thing he would not be, a christian”

  20. January 11, 2013 at 5:53 pm

    Care to expound a bit further than simply that statement?

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