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Freethinker Mark Twain

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James A. Haught
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Wonderfully funny, sad, exuberant, sardonic and human, Mark Twain is perhaps America's most beloved writer. He is a familiar national fixture, like the Grand Canyon or the White House.

Mark Twain by AF Bradley.
Mark Twain by AF Bradley.
(Image by (From Wikimedia) A.F. Bradley, New York, Author: A.F. Bradley, New York)
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Less known, however, is the scorn Twain felt for religion. His contempt for supernaturalism was kept secret for half a century after his death, lest it ruin his stature in Christian America. Even now, his agnosticism is never mentioned in public schools, and rarely in the public media.

Born Samuel Langhorne Clemens, Mark Twain grew up in Hannibal, Mis souri, on the bank of the mighty Mississippi, where he soaked up the boisterous, bawdy, colorful life of a river town. He quit school at thirteen to become an apprentice printer, and soon was writing sketches for a newspaper published by his older brother. When Twain was seventeen, one of his humorous pieces was printed in a Boston journal.

At eighteen he became a roving printer, working in St. Louis, New York, Philadelphia and Washington before rejoining his brother in Iowa. At twenty two, Twain headed for South America - but on the steamboat down the Mississippi, he decided to become a river pilot. He plied the trade for four years, until the Civil War halted river traffic. Then he headed West, prospected for gold, and wrote for a Nevada paper.

In 1863 he adopted the pseudonym Mark Twain, from a shout uttered by rivermen when they measure two fathoms of water depth. Two years later, the rowdy tale "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," published in the New York Evening Press, launched Twain to national fame. Twain's journalistic travels took him to South America, Europe and the Middle East, from where he sent back humorous accounts. His writings gained ever-greater acclaim, and he became a popular lecturer.

In 1870 Twain married an upstate New York woman; was briefly part owner of a Buffalo newspaper; and then, on the strength of his earnings, built a huge home in Hartford, Connecticut, where both his family life and his writing career flowered. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Prince and the Pauper, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court immortalized him in American literature. His depth was especially revealed in Huckleberry Finn, as the white urchin grows to respect a runaway slave.

Amid his success, Twain encountered tragedy. A son died in infancy. Unlucky investments put Twain into bankruptcy. As he wrote and toured to earn money to repay creditors, his oldest daughter died, then his wife, then his youngest daughter. Late in life, deeply bitter, Twain unleashed the religious disbelief he had revealed only in hints before. He wrote stark fantasies such as The War Prayer, in which fervent patriots beg God for a massacre of the enemy. He scoffed at religion in Letters From the Earth, a spoof in which Satan visits the planet, examines its people, and writes accounts to fellow angels in heaven.

After Twain's death in 1910, his only survivor, his daughter Clara, and his publishers suppressed Letters From the Earth and several other anticlerical stories. The Mysterious Stranger, which denies the existence of a beneficent Providence, was first published only in 1916. And it was not until 1962 that Clara allowed the Letters to be released.

Twain's views on religion

"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 & keep them shut by force." - Mark Twain's Notebooks and Journals, edited by Frederick Anderson, 1979, notebook 27, August 1887-July 1888

"No church property is taxed, and so the infidel and the atheist and the man without religion are taxed to make up the deficit in the public income thus caused." - ibid., notebook 21

"Faith is believing what you know ain't so." - "Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar," in Following the Equator, 1897

"In religion and politics, people's beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other nonexaminers, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing." - Mark Twain's autobiography

"In prayer we call ourselves 'worms of the dust,' but it is only on a sort of tacit understanding that the remark shall not be taken at par." - "Does the Race of Man Love a Lord?" in North American Review, April 1902

"It ain't those parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand." - Peter's Quotations: Ideas for Our Time

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James A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia's largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail.  Mr. Haught has won two dozen national news writing awards. He has written 12 books and hundreds of magazine essays and blog posts. Around 450 of his essays are online. He is a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine, a weekly blogger at Daylight Atheism, (more...)

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