Mark Twain And Religion:
Some More Notes
Robert Slotta

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From: "Positive Atheism" <>
To: "Robert Slotta"
Subject: Re: Mark Twain And The Patent Medicine Ad
Date: Thursday, July 20, 2000 3:14 PM

Thanks for this! Every little piece you've sent has brought a world of joy. I come a little closer to relating to my all-time favorite author, who has meant a lot to me since childhood and still plays a powerful role in my life today.

When I was engaged to Pam earlier this year, the new fiancée would sit and read the "Adam's Diary" piece to me as I'd fall asleep. (We both have sleep-pattern disorders and would only occasionally sleep at the same time.) We would then incorporate bits from this and other Twain pieces into our daily banter (which was profuse, as her mouth was constantly in gear). After I had to send her packing over her violent streak, I still cry when I think of that one line in the final paragraph: "At first I thought she talked too much; now I should be sorry to have that voice fall silent and pass out of my life." (Indeed, I had to go wipe my eyes and regain my composure after writing this paragraph!)

I'd had many problems starting in the second grade over our family's atheism; and when the fourth grade teacher read Tom Sawyer aloud to us, I was able to come to terms with my atheism: I was no longer a freak in my own eyes. It was Twain who initially helped me to come to grips with how the other kids were treating me, and it was Twain's Letters From The Earth that inspired me to put up this website. So, you can only imagine how exciting it is to begin making some of these new discoveries about Twain. I joined the Twain forum several years ago in hopes of finding more about his views on religion. He is difficult to pin down -- tougher, I think, even than Abraham Lincoln.

American Atheists put out a rather disturbing article showing how Twain was very two-faced about religion -- at times waxing religious and on other occasions becoming indistinguishable from an atheist of the dogmatic variety. I have it somewhere and eventually intend to post it (perhaps this is a good opportunity to dig it out and get busy). I'm sure they'll grant me permission, as mine is the only outside website that American Atheists recommends to its members and readership. I have also been in on some discussions encouraging the new AA to move away from the acrimonious approach to atheistic activism that was popularized by AA's founder, the late Madalyn Murray O'Hair. I think I know where this article from the early 1980s is, and will dig it out and convert it to HTML soon.

I am only recently coming to terms with this, but wrote about this trait in some people in May, 1988, in a piece called "Reflections On The 'A' Word." More recently (immediately after I left Pam, actually) I found myself in the company of a most lovely Filipino woman. She knew I am an atheist, but later asked my what my astrological sign is. I told her my birthday (acting stupid) and she said, "You're Sagittarius!" Then she proceeded to tell me the character traits of Sagittarians, explaining the various ways one should never treat people in this sign. For the first time in years, I chose not to remind someone that I am not superstitious. Instead, I added to her list by running down the various ways one ought not treat me, and telling her that these also are ways never to treat a Sagittarian!

Immediately after I did this, I was reminded of my ex-radio partner at XTRA in Tijuana, who called himself "Chris Anderson": He would pretend to read the Tarot to people, but what he was really doing was using the Tarot as an opportunity to tell his friends and associates things that he could never get away with in ordinary conversation.

Even though Positive Atheism encourages atheists to come out of the closet and stop pretending, I realize that getting along is crucial to survival sometimes, and it certainly makes day-to-day life a lot easier. The question is, Where do we draw the line? Do we, at all times, duck out of any conversation involving superstition? or perhaps simply let our views be known? Or are we better off going, "Yeah, sure!" and pretending to go along with the religious and superstitious elements in casual conversations?

The reason I brought this up is that I am wondering how much of Twain's superstitious talk may have been along these lines? Lincoln constantly threw the religious public a bone by inserting god-talk into his speeches and communications, even though his personal philosophy was virtually indistinguishable from the brand of atheism that I practice. Jefferson consoled Adams after the latter's wife died, seeming to tolerate his hopes for an afterlife; once Adams's grief began to fade, they were back on track with their now-famous dialogues criticizing religion and superstition.

Do you think Twain might have acted similarly, occasionally giving lip-service to the religious and superstitious notions held by so many? Or, is it possible that Twain was an agnostic in the classic sense, having his doubts about both sides of the discussion, and going sometimes this way and sometimes that? Certainly one would need to collect all Twain's statements on the notion of the afterlife before concluding that he either entirely believed it or flat-out disbelieved it. Perhaps he never held either extreme, but was somewhere (or everywhere) in-between.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

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