Mark Twain

From RationalWiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search
On a good hair day.
Going One God Further
Icon atheism.svg
Key Concepts
Articles to not believe in
Notable heathens
This might be
Icon skepticism.svg
But we're not sure
Who's asking?
Truth is the most valuable thing we have. Let us economize it.
—Mark Twain

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, commonly known as Mark Twain (1835–1910), was an American author and satirist. He was also best buds with notorious inventor and scientist Nikola Tesla for a number of years; being an avid science enthusiast himself, Twain even participated in a number of experiments with Tesla.[1]


Twain had multiple careers throughout his life, but he had his greatest success as a prolific writer. He first gained notice with his humorous story "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" in 1865. His later books, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) brought him fame as well as fortune. Huckleberry Finn was first banned in 1885 by the Concord, Massachusetts library.[2] The early bannings were mostly because of what was called, "backwards talking", that is writing dialogue as people actually spoke rather than in refined English.[2] Bannings and attempted bannings of the book have continued apace to the present day, but the rationale changed at some point. Most objections to the book in modern times, including by the NAACP in the 1950s, are because it uses the word 'nigger' frequently (213 times) and for its alleged racism.[2][3] The book itself is set in the antebellum South, and is actually about escaping slavery, escaping an abusive father, racism, and the meaning of freedom.[2]


Through his writings, Twain appears to have been a Presbyterian, a deist, and an atheist, as his views changed over time.

Christian Science[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Christian Science

Mark Twain was a staunch opponent of Christian Science. He wrote an essay called (appropriately enough) Christian Science, which criticized the religion and explains its "miracles" as the results of the placebo effect (many of the essay's points are also relevant to much of modern alternative medicine). As can be judged by the essay and Twain's biographers, Twain apparently did have some belief that mental healing could work but disclaimed Christian Science over its charging money, which he logically pointed out conflicts with their doctrine, as humorously shown from this dialogue the narrator has with a Christian Scientist woman who "treated" him:

"Nothing exists but Mind?"

"Nothing," she answered. "All else is substanceless, all else is imaginary."

I gave her an imaginary check, and now she is suing me for substantial dollars. It looks inconsistent.
Christian Science

He also objected to the way Christian Science forbade its users from using actual medicine and "claim[ed] ability to cure every conceivable human ailment through the application of [its] mental forces alone." Being well aware that the placebo effect could only work for "imagination-manufactured disease" (that is, subjective symptoms, but not physical causes), Twain noted: "There would seem to be an element of danger here."


See the main article on this topic: Mormonism

Passing through Utah in his trip to the American West, Twain came in contact with a number of Mormons during a fairly early stage of their history. He found the religion mostly harmless, if somewhat odd.

All men have heard of the Mormon Bible, but few except the "elect" have seen it, or, at least, taken the trouble to read it. I brought away a copy from Salt Lake. The book is a curiosity to me, it is such a pretentious affair, and yet so "slow," so sleepy; such an insipid mess of inspiration. It is chloroform in print. If Joseph Smith composed this book, the act was a miracle — keeping awake while he did it was, at any rate. If he, accourding to tradition, merely translated it from certain ancient and mysteriously-engraved plates of copper, which he declares he found under a stone, in an out-of-the-way locality, the work of translating was equally a miracle, for the same reason.[4]

The book seems to be merely a prosy detail of imaginary history, with the Old Testament for a model; followed by a tedious plagiarism of the New Testament. The author labored to give his words and phrases the quaint, old-fashioned sound and structure of our King James's translation of the Scriptures; and the result is a mongrel — half modern glibness, and half ancient simplicity and gravity. The latter is awkward and constrained; the former natural, but grotesque by the contrast. Whenever he found his speech growing too modern — which was about every sentence or two — he ladled in a few such Scriptural phrases as "exceeding sore," "and it came to pass," etc., and made things satisfactory again. "And it came to pass" was his pet. If he had left that out, his Bible would have been only a pamphlet.[4]

The Mormon Bible is rather stupid and tiresome to read, but there is nothing vicious in its teachings. Its code of morals is unobjectionable — it is "smouched" from the New Testament and no credit given.[4]


See the main article on this topic: Creationism

Twain's Extracts from Adam's and Eve's Diaries humorously recounted the adventures of the first people in the Garden of Eden/Niagara Falls Park. Adam notes of Eve, "Nothing ever satisfies her but demonstration; untested theories are not in her line, and she won't have them."[5] Adam mentions that Eve thinks the buzzard "was intended to live on decayed flesh" and that she vows "to study out why the animals called lions and tigers live on grass and flowers, when, as she says, the sort of teeth they wear would indicate that they were intended to eat each other."[6]

In a 1903 article titled "Was the World Made for Man?" Twain argues that it was not.[7]

Creation quote[edit]

Where was the use, originally, in rushing this whole globe through in six days? It is likely that if more time had been taken in the first place, the world would have been made right, and this ceaseless improving and repairing would not be necessary now. But if you hurry a world or a house, you are nearly sure to find out by and by that you have left out a towhead, or a broom-closet, or some other little convenience, here and there, which has got to be supplied, no matter how much expense or vexation it may cost.[8]


Twain was a believer in telepathy. In his essay Mental Telegraphy Again, Twain recounted a few experiences of his which he believed supported the existence of ESP.


See the main article on this topic: Homeopathy

Some homeopathists claim that Twain was a supporter of homeopathy, and cite the quote: "The introduction of homeopathy forced the old school doctor to stir around and learn something of a rational nature about his business. You may honestly feel grateful that homeopathy survived the attempts of allopathists to destroy it."

The quote is from his essay A Majestic Literary Fossil, which is about old-fashioned forms of quackery, and this is it in context:

Aqua Limacum. Take a great Peck of Garden-snails, and wash them in a great deal of Beer, and make your Chimney very clean, and set a Bushel of Charcoal on Fire; and when they are thoroughly kindled, make a Hole in the Middle of the Fire, and put the Snails in, and scatter more Fire amongst them, and let them roast till they make a Noise; then take them out, and, with a Knife and coarse Cloth, pick and wipe away all the green froth: Then break them, Shells and all, in a Stone Mortar. Take also a Quart of Earth-worms, and scour them with Salt, divers times over. Then take two Handfuls of Angelica and lay them in the Bottom of the Still; next lay two Handfuls of Celandine; next a Quart of Rosemary-flowers; then two Handfuls of Bearsfoot and Agrimony; then Fenugreek; then Turmerick; of each one Ounce: Red Dock-root, Bark of Barberry-trees, Wood-sorrel, Betony, of each two Handfuls.—Then lay the Snails and Worms on the top of the Herbs; and then two Handfuls of Goose Dung, and two Handfuls of Sheep Dung. Then put in three Gallons of Strong Ale, and place the pot where you mean to set Fire under it: Let it stand all Night, or longer; in the Morning put in three Ounces of Cloves well beaten, and a small Quantity of Saffron, dry'd to Powder; then six Ounces of Shavings of Hartshorn, which must be uppermost. Fix on the Head and Refrigeratory, and distil according to Art.

There. The book does not say whether this is all one dose, or whether you have a right to split it and take a second chance at it, in case you live. Also, the book does not seem to specify what ailment it was for; but it is of no consequence, for of course that would come out on the inquest.

Upon looking further, I find that this formidable nostrum is "good for raising Flatulencies in the Stomach"—meaning from the stomach, no doubt. So it would appear that when our progenitors chanced to swallow a sigh, they emptied a sewer down their throats to expel it. It is like dislodging skippers from cheese with artillery.

When you reflect that your own father had to take such medicines as the above, and that you would be taking them to-day yourself but for the introduction of homeopathy, which forced the old-school doctor to stir around and learn something of a rational nature about his business, you may honestly feel grateful that homeopathy survived the attempts of the allopathists to destroy it, even though you may never employ any physician but an allopathist while you live.[9]

In other words, he says that, thankfully, homeopathy pushed medicine to evolve beyond the remedies of traditional medicine[note 1] – which is not quite the same thing as saying that homeopathy itself is any good.

The essay also includes this interesting passage about the recent progress of science (and medicine in particular):

If I were required to guess offhand, and without collusion with higher minds, what is the bottom cause of the amazing material and intellectual advancement of the last fifty years, I should guess that it was the modern-born and previously non-existent disposition on the part of men to believe that a new idea can have value. [...] The prevailing tone of old books regarding new ideas is one of suspicion and uneasiness at times, and at other times contempt. By contrast, our day is indifferent to old ideas, and even considers that their age makes their value questionable, but jumps at a new idea with enthusiasm and high hope—a hope which is high because it has not been accustomed to being disappointed. [...]
So recent is this change from a three or four thousand year twilight to the flash and glare of open day that I have walked in both, and yet am not old. Nothing is to-day as it was when I was an urchin; but when I was an urchin, nothing was much different from what it had always been in this world. Take a single detail, for example—medicine. Galen could have come into my sick-room at any time during my first seven years—I mean any day when it wasn't fishing weather, and there wasn't any choice but school or sickness—and he could have sat down there and stood my doctor's watch without asking a question. He would have smelt around among the wilderness of cups and bottles and vials on the table and the shelves, and missed not a stench that used to glad him two thousand years before, nor discovered one that was of a later date. He would have examined me, and run across only one disappointment—I was already salivated; I would have him there; for I was always salivated, calomel [mercuric chloride] was so cheap. He would get out his lancet then; but I would have him again; our family doctor didn't allow blood to accumulate in the system. However, he could take dipper and ladle, and freight me up with old familiar doses that had come down from Adam to his time and mine; and he could go out with a wheelbarrow and gather weeds and offal, and build some more, while those others were getting in their work. And if our reverend doctor came and found him there, he would be dumb with awe, and would get down and worship him. Whereas if Galen should appear among us to-day, he could not stand any body's watch; he would inspire no awe; he would be told he was a back number, and it would surprise him to see that that fact counted against him, instead of in his favor. He wouldn't know our medicines; he wouldn't know our practice; and the first time he tried to introduce his own we would hang him.


See the main article on this topic: Imperialism

Twain strongly opposed US involvement with the Spanish-American War, and the Philippine-American War which followed when the Filipinos rebelled against the US taking possession of their country following its "liberation." He was a member of the American Anti-Imperialist League. Some of his anti-war writings remained unpublished until after his death due to controversy.[10] An example of his criticism of American imperialism regarding the Philippine-American War can be seen below, in which he likens it to a "robbing expedition":

I am not finding fault with this use of our flag; for in order not to seem eccentric I have swung around, now, and joined the nation in the conviction that nothing can sully a flag. I was not properly reared, and the illusion that a flag was a thing which must be sacredly guarded against shameful uses and unclean contacts, lest it suffer pollution; and so when it was sent out to the Phillippines to float over a wanton war and a robbing expedition I supposed it was polluted, and in an ignorant moment I said so. But I stand corrected. I conceded and acknowledge that it was only the government that sent it on such an errand that was polluted. Let us compromise on that. I am glad to have it that way. For our flag could not well stand pollution, never having been used to it, but it is different with the administration.

He wrote a short story at the time as well called "The War Prayer" which harshly criticized Christians who supported wars in a way Twain thought to be blatantly contradiction of their own supposed principles (such as the Golden Rule). In this, after a sermon where the minister praises a war going on at the time and calls on young men to participate, an angel in the form of an old man enters the church. He tells them God is going to answer their prayer, but they don't really understand its whole import. The angel says that when they pray for victory, they're praying for injuries and deaths to enemy soldiers, along with the devastation of their loved ones. If they really still want that, the angel says to pray on. They dismiss him once he leaves, thinking that he's just a crazy man.


Like some public intellectuals of the 19th century and later eras, Mark Twain believed in the widely-discredited hogwash that William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon did not in fact write any of the works attributed to him. This is of course utter and complete rubbish, but sadly many cranks who believe similar nonsense like to quote him. Now there is only one question: How could such a half literate Southerner like Samuel Langhorne Clemens whose business ventures all ended in disaster possibly have written the elaborate works of Mark Twain with their exotic locales, their sympathetic portrayal of black people and Native Americans and several things Samuel Langhorne Clemens cannot possibly have known about?[11]

Criticism of religion[edit]

Late in his life, Twain became increasingly critical of belief in gods, Christianity and religion generally. He wrote, for instance:

Strange… A God who could make good children as easily as bad, yet preferred to make bad ones; who could have made every one of them happy, yet never made a single happy one; who made them prize their bitter life, yet stingily cut it short; who gave his angels eternal happiness unearned, yet required his other children to earn it; who gave his angels painless lives, yet cursed his other children with biting miseries and maladies of mind and body; who mouths justice, and invented hell — mouths mercy, and invented hell — mouths Golden Rules and forgiveness multiplied by seventy times seven, and invented hell; who mouths morals to other people, and has none himself; who frowns upon crimes, yet commits them all; who created man without invitation, then tries to shuffle the responsibility for man's acts upon man, instead of honorably placing it where it belongs, upon himself; and finally, with altogether divine obtuseness, invites his poor abused slave to worship him!

This line was from his book The Mysterious Stranger—admittedly it's said by Satan (who is a character in the story). In another book, he writes about a man who attempts to be "like God", inflicting all manner of injuries, diseases and misfortunes on people. He deemed faith "believing what you know ain't so", in general disdaining religion as a negative force.[12]

External links[edit]


  1. Which is ironic, given that homeopathy nowadays is mainly associated with and used together with traditional remedies.


  1. "The Electricity between Mark Twain and Nikola Tesla" by the Irish Times
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Banned: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, conversation with Jocelyn A. Chadwick (September 2017) PBS.
  3. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Elizabeth R. Purdy (2009) The Free Speech Encyclopedia, Middle Tennessee State University.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Roughing It (1872) by Mark Twain. Courtesy of Project Gutenberg
  5. "Eve's Diary." World Wide School.
  6. "Adam's Diary." World Wide School.
  7. Babinski, Edward T. "Mark Twain Questions the Intelligent Design (I.D.) Hypothesis."
  8. Life on the Mississippi (1883) by Mark Twain. Courtesy of Project Gutenberg
  9. Wikisource
  10. Mark Twain - The World of 1898: The Spanish American War from the Hispanic Division of the Library of Congress
  11. Shakespeare's Knowledge of Italy, the Classics, and the Law
  12. The Mysterious Stranger courtesy of Wikisource