Write to the Point!

A Neighborhood Studios Program at the Mark Twain House

Mark Twain: An Estrangement with Religion

By Rae Martin

Writing Apprentice

Twain Studios

     It’s no secret that throughout Western history – before the rationalist and secular movements of the past few centuries – organized religion has held massive sway over humankind.

By Rae MartinMark Twain, for his time, was quite progressive in some of his views on religion – and obliquely depressing in others.

It’s surprising, on both accounts, considering he was born in a conservative small town, which typically leads to a strong sense of faith.

Being born in Florida, Missouri today would be hard enough, but during the 19th century? Unfathomable. It’s simply stunning that Mark Twain grew to criticize religion, an establishment still venerated by some today.

“If you think something is important, and it’s going the wrong way, you get really passionate,” said Steve Courtney, publicist and publications editor of the Mark Twain House & Museum,

Passionate is a meek word for some of Twain’s last writings on religion and life.

If his appreciation of the importance of religion comes from his social environment growing up, then his amiability in terms of differing beliefs comes from his mother, Jane Clemens.

She was not a puritan in any sense, but a sampler of religion who brought her son along for a taste of faith at different houses of worship.

And from church, to cathedral, to synagogue; she sampled religious tastes. And if you can’t already tell, that kind of thing simply didn’t happen.

“His attitude toward religion changed considerably,” said Courtney.

With that history in mind, it now seems unlikely that Twain would have grown up to be anything other than open-minded when it came religion and slavery, the two biggest social conventions of the day.

Patti Philippon, chief curator of The Mark Twain House & Museum, described Twain as “very spiritual.”

It’s clear to me that Twain did believe in some sort of god, and his rants against that god is more to disparage the church of the day and as an expression of feelings stirred by the deaths of three of his four children.

The untimely deaths of all but one of his children, coupled with increasing American imperialism, the hypocrisy of Gilded Age culture and immense worldwide fame built up a mocking critique of bullshit dogma from religious institutes.

If Twain was alive and writing today, he would probably be agnostic.

Mark Twain “gravitated between two views,” said Courtney, either believing that God didn’t exist, or thinking God is a sadist.

He’d have possibly railed against the contemporary church even more than he did against the church of his time, due to a surge in anti-religious and anti-church thought that has swept through the Western world.

If he had been born in contemporary times, he would be a Christopher Hitchens-type figure, relentlessly questioning and challenging organized religion.

Twain was not only a magnificent writer of prose but a well-versed public speaker on all issues of culture and society. Not only jabbing at religion, but also foreign policy, class warfare, social and economic dispositions.

His provocative inquiries would likely ignite hatred and threats of personal violence as his distinct boldness in the oral and literary arts is marked by a refusal to back down in the face of cultural taboo.

Another parallel is the surprising friendship that the atheist Hitchens found with Pastor Douglas Wilson. Twain found close counsel in the Rev. Joseph Twichell of Asylum Hill Congregational Church in Hartford, where the Clemens family attended.

In today’s extremely polarized society, Twain’s caustic demeanor would certainly have been drawn out even more than in his day. He would have been right at home in contemporary pop culture, a place ripe for the pickings of a satirist of Twain’s caliber.

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