Bierce on God


Col 1

Osama bin Laden

Ambrose Bierce
God and the American Taliban

His Own Words

interviewed by Don Swaim

Col 3

Jerry Falwell

After the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, there was a resurgence of religious patriotism as Americans vigorously waved the flag with one hand and raised high the Bible in the other. In Kentucky, the religious screed known as the Ten Commandments was posted in the Greenup and Lewis county courthouses. The exhortation called The Lord's Prayer was recited over the public address system at Waxahachie, Texas, during publically-financed high school football games. A group of free-thinkers in North Dakota, tremulously abandoned a campaign to remove a Ten Commandments marker from City Hall Plaza. Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee issued a proclamation declaring October as Student Religious Liberty Month, a decree which claimed it was constitutional for students to engage in personal or group prayers in public schools. The school board in Maryville, Tennessee, revived a custom and voted to open its meetings with prayer. The Hamilton County Commission in Chattanooga, Tennessee, decided to post the Ten Commandments in city and county government buildings. The city council in Ringgold, Georgia, approved the posting of three plaques -- one with the Ten Commandments, one with the Lord's Prayer, and a blank one for non-believers. After an elementary school in Rocklin, California, erected a God Bless America sign, the U.S. Congress, by a vote of 404-0, gave its blessing to the religious-patriotic slogan, and urged public schools to display it. The sponsor, Rep. Henry E. Brown, R-SC, declared, "This kind of message is what makes this country great." Concerned about the resurgence of this mostly Christian religious fervor, I tempted, with a flask of cognac, Ambrose Bierce, who came forward to share his thoughts about the issue.

SWAIM: Mr. Bierce, I hope you don't think I'm a fool for asking this...

BIERCE: Young man, the number of men known to me who are not in some important respects fools does not exceed half dozen. And you are not among them. But ask your question anyway.

SWAIM: As an atheist, you obviously believe there is no God, so...

BIERCE: Stop. It is apparent, sir, you do not understand the nuance of the term atheist. It is the peculiar distinction of atheism to be nothing at all. The atheist, as such, has no belief. To say he believes there is no God is inaccurate. He takes no position that there is a God because there is no proof, none, that God exists. Atheism is a non-belief, a word without a corresponding thing; to object to its recognition and pre-eminence is the same thing as to be jealous of a vacuum.

SWAIM: I suspect, Mr. Bierce, that, in instead of being an atheist, you might be an agnostic, a term that may not have been around in your day.

BIERCE: You are foolish, sir. An agnostic is a namby pamby who is willing to believe in something, anything, if some annointed enlightened shows him the way. You've got your Falwells and Robertsons and half the leadership of the Catholic Church and their imitators willing and anxious to supply witlessness and superstition, and who are either too venal or too ignorant to do the opposite. They feast on a cumulative plate of fear and irrationationality. There are so many of them there is, for them, safety in numbers; so many believe; so many are, to put it generously, unknowledgeable as they shout their hosannas, kneel in prayer like camels, cross themselves in fear, and burn candles to non-virgin virgins. Yes, they believe in something, and perhaps that's more comforting than believing in, as I do, nothing. Yet, I have so much such contempt for them. So much...

SWAIM: Sir, I'll let the debate rest. In Afghanistan, a pack of Islamic fanatics called the Taliban took over that poor nation, and established an oppressive theocracy, which gave haven to anti-American terrorists. While we in the United States are ostensibly protected by a constitutional separation of church and state, there are those who worry that our precious safeguard is being weakened by a patriotic and religious resurgence.

BIERCE: Mr. Swaim, it is through the people's religion that a wise government governs wisely. Even in our own country we make only a transparent pretense of officially ignoring Christianity, and a pretense only because we have so many kinds of Christians, all jealous and inharmonious. Each sect would make a theocracy if it could, and then would make short work of any missionary from abroad. Happily, all religions but ours have the sloth and timidity of error. Christianity alone, drawing vigor from eternal truth, is courageous enough and energetic enough to make itself a nuisance to people of every other faith. The Jew not only does not bid for converts, but discourages them by imposition of hard conditions; and the Muslem's simple, forthright method of reducing error is to cut off the head holding it.

SWAIM: Doesn't this new religious fervor in America disturb you, Mr. Bierce?

BIERCE: No. God's elect are always irritating us. They take a fiendish delight in torturing us with tantrums, galling us with gammon, and pelting us with platitudes. We cannot walk out on a pleasant Sunday without being keeled over by a stroke of pious lighting flashed from the tempestuous eye of an irate churchman at our secular attire.

SWAIM: You seem to take a casual attitude about all this. I happen to know that God's elect, as you call them, were mighty unhappy with you back in your day.

BIERCE: The clergy, poor devils, cannot divest themselves of the hallucination that we bear malice to the church. 'Tis sweet to be remembered in their prayers, albeit we do suspect there is a mental reservation of profound significance behind their touching appeals for mercy on our behalf. May the Lord forgive us, for we know not what we do! Nor, in good sooth, do we much care.

SWAIM: You're not worried about an American Taliban then?

BIERCE: Missionaries constitute, in truth, a perpetual menace to peace. They believe, and from the way that they interpret their sacred book have some reason to believe, that in meddling uninvited with the spiritual affairs of others they perform a work acceptable to God -- their God. For Christianizing the heathen, the Bible and the brick-bat go hand in hand.

SWAIM: The vast majority of people in our country believe in the power of prayer, Mr. Bierce.

BIERCE: Do they now? I don't believe that when God is asked to do something that he had not intended to do he counts noses before making up his mind whether to do it or not. God probably knows the character of his work, and knowing that he has made this a world of knaves and dunces, he must know that the more of them that ask for something, and the more earnestly they ask, the stronger the presumption they ought not to have it. And I think God is perhaps less concerned about his popularity than some good folk seem to suppose.

SWAIM: Then it's rather foolish of me to ask you, as a man who by his own admission, is theologically nothing at all, about the issue of prayer.

BIERCE: You said it, Mr. Swaim. If prayer is answered Christians ought to pray all the time. Why is it that although two pious chaplains ask almost daily that goodness and wisdom may descend upon Congress, Congress remains wicked and unwise? Why is it that although in all the churches and many dwellings of the land God is continually asked for good government, good government remains what it always and everywhere has been, a dream? From earth to heaven in unceasing ascension flows a stream of prayer for every blessing that man desires, yet man remains unblessed, the victim of his own folly and passions, the sport of fire, flood, tempest and earthquake, afflicted with famine and disease, war, poverty, and crime, his world an incredible welter of evil, his life a curse and his hope a lie. Is it possible that all this praying is futilized and invalidated by lack of faith? That the "asking" is not credentialed by the "unbelieving?" When the anointed minister of heaven spreads his palms and uprolls his eyes to beseech a general blessing or some special advantage, is he the celebrant of a hollow, meaningless rite, or the dupe of a false promise? One does not know, but if one is not a fool one does know that his every resultless petition proves him by the inexorable laws of logic to be one or the other. Doubtless there are errors in the record of results -- some things set down as "answers" to prayer, which came about through the orderly operation of natural laws and would have occurred anyhow. I have myself known a minister to pray for rain, and the rain came. I fear he knew that the weather bureau had predicted a fair day.

SWAIM: That's a joke, of course. On the weather bureau.

BIERCE: I never joke.

SWAIM: Mr. Bierce, I understand you to have said that the religious mind is not logical.

BIERCE: Indeed. A mind congenitally gifted with the power of logic and accessible to its light and leading does not take to religion, which is a matter, not of reason, but of feeling -- not of the head but of the heart. Religions are conclusions for which the facts of nature supply no major premises. They are accepted or rejected according to the original make-up of the person to whom they appeal for recognition.

SWAIM: There is a phrase known as "the mortal soul," which presupposes the Christian belief in immortality.

BIERCE: So there is. The question of human immortality is the most momentous that the mind is capable of conceiving. If it is a fact that the dead live, all other facts are in comparison trivia and without interest. The prospect of obtaining certain knowledge with regard to this stupendous matter is not encouraging. In all countries but those in barbarism, the powers of the profoundest and most penetrating intelligences have been ceaselessly addressed to the task of glimpsing a life beyond this life; yet today no one can truly say that he knows. It is as much a matter of faith as ever it was.

SWAIM: We just die then. No heaven.

BIERCE: Ah, but there is a heaven, Mr. Swaim. It is wholly uninhabited except by the angels who were born there; for only a limited number of human beings have ever been good enough to go there, and these do not wish to spend an eternity of useless indolence.

SWAIM: And hell?

BIERCE: There is also a hell; but its climate has undergone such a change in the last one hundred years that it may be called salubrious. Heaven is a prophecy uttered by the lips of despair, but hell in an inference from analogy.

SWAIM: Genesis, in the Bible. Obviously, it's a fairy tale that God created the earth in less than a week.

BIERCE: I believe the world was created out of nothing, Mr. Swaim, but I don't know how the nothing was held together, and don't think it can be done again.

SWAIM: Mr. Bierce, all across the nation, religious zealots are trying to compel public schools to require the recitation of a Christian devotion known as the Lord's Prayer.

BIERCE: As they did in my day. The Lord's Prayer has been brought into disrepute about long enough by being snarled through the dirty noses of a hundred bad boys and preposterous girls. I attribute every wicked action of my next door neighbor's children directly to this barbarous practice. Down with the Lord's Prayer! In schools.

SWAIM: I suspect, Mr. Bierce, that you only half meant what you said.

BIERCE: Rally round the cross, O leathern-lunged elect, for the recognition of Christianity, and its relentless enforcement by law! Let us jam our holy religion down the protesting throats of the heathen and the infidel, so that they shall be brought to know God, and to love him as we do; yea, that they may hanker after him, even as a baby craveth rhubarb, or a cat lusteth after soft soap.

(Note: These actual words by Ambrose Bierce on God and religion were minimally edited for form or style, and most of them can be found in his Collected Works. Disclaimer: I did, in a rare instance, make an interpretation, which I believe to be true, of Bierce's opinion regarding asnosticism. The questions are my own.)

© 2001 by Don Swaim

Ambrose Bierce in the News
Ambrose Bierce on the Notion of God
Ambrose Bierce on Terrorism
Ambrose Bierce on Politics
Ambrose Bierce & Pancho Villa
The Wickedest Man in San Francisco, 1870
Love & Kisses: Bierce & Wilde
Bierce Duels with H.L. Mencken
Bierce & Jack London
Ambrose Bierce Resources on the Web

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