The following is an essay from the new book Against Religion, a compilation H.P. Lovecraft’s writings on atheism and religion. Thanks to Sporting Gentlemen for giving permission to publish this essay on the site. If you like this essay, check out the book! And thanks be to Vorjack for editing the article and adding headings.
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[The following is a series of extracts from letters to the "Kleicomolo," (October 1916 and April 1917). a round-robin correspondence group that included Lovecraft, Rheinhart Kleiner, Ira A. Cole ("Mr. Co") and Maurice W. Moe ("Mr. Mo"). Lovecraft argues that the standard Christian conception of God is full of implausibilities and paradoxes, but goes on to say that widespread disbelief would probably be harmful to society. Lovecraft also engages in a vigorous defense of the pursuit of “absolute truth.”
Editor's note: These selections make for a long blog post. For the sake of readability, I have separated the solid block of text into sections and paragraphs. The section headings are my own. -Vorjack]
Pullquote: “The whole structure of our chieftain’s orthodox Christianity is built upon the relation of Deity with the one crawling atom we call man; and no theologian can sustain his religion unless he can prove that this speck in infinity is the central point of all creation.”
Concerning the ultimates of time and space, I fear no philosopher would be quite satisfied with Mr. Mo’s light rejection of considerations beyond our own terrestrial globe. The whole structure of our chieftain’s orthodox Christianity is built upon the relation of Deity with the one crawling atom we call man; and no theologian can sustain his religion unless he can prove that this speck in infinity is the central point of all creation. Mr. Mo leaves us in perplexity whether his God is absolutely omnipotent, or whether he is a local deity, presiding over this particular little world or universe as some minor hamadryad presides over some particular tree or grove.
The latter conception, of a God who is confined in action to our visible universe, leaves us to speculate as to what God or forces may preside over the rest of creation—or if we adhere to the commandment of Scripture, and believe only in one God, we must assume that the rest of space is godless; that no personal loving father-deity is there to bless his sons and subjects. But then, if this be so, why did the personal all-wise parent select this one particular little universe wherein to exercise his beneficence? I fear that all theism consists mostly of reasoning in circles, and guessing or inventing what we do not know.
If God is omnipotent, then why did he pick out this one little period and world for his experiment with mankind? Or if he is local, then why did he select this locality, when he had an infinity of universes and an infinity of eras to choose from? And why should the fundamental tenets of theology hold him to be all-pervasive? These are monstrous uncomfortable questions for a pious man to answer, and yet the orthodox clergy continue to assert a complete understanding of all these things, brushing inquiry aside either by sophistry and mysticism, or by evasion and sanctified horror.
Pullquote: “The word “Christianity” becomes noble when applied to the veneration of a wonderfully good man and moral teacher, but it grows undignified when applied to a system of white magic based on the supernatural.”
Why must men of sense thus delude themselves with notions of personal and “loving” gods, spirits, and demons? All this sort of thing is good enough for the rabble, but why should rational brains be tormented with such gibberish? It is perfectly true that the conception of a personal force is a vast help in managing the millions, and in giving them much hope and happiness that truth does not convey. Viewing the question in that light, I am a friend of the church, and would never seek to disturb or diminish its influence among those who are able to swallow its doctrines.
I even wish I could believe them myself—it would be so comfortable to know that some day I shall sprout wings and go up to Heaven for a talk with Alexander Pope and Sir Isaac Newton! But, provided a man cannot believe in orthodoxy, why grate on his sensibilities by demanding that he believe? We cannot do what we cannot—at least this has been the general idea since the abolishment of the Popish Inquisition.
It is only the forcible propagation of conventional Christianity that makes the agnostic so bitter toward the church. He knows that all the doctrines cannot possibly be true, but he would view them with toleration if he were asked merely to let them alone for the benefit of the masses whom they can help and succour. The agnostic becomes bitter only when someone presumes to affront his reason by demanding that he believe the impossible, under penalty of censure and ostracism.
The word “Christianity” becomes noble when applied to the veneration of a wonderfully good man and moral teacher, but it grows undignified when applied to a system of white magic based on the supernatural. Christ probably believed himself a true Messiah, since the tendencies of the times might well inculcate such a notion in anyone of his qualities. Whether his mind was strictly normal or not is out of the question. Very few minds are strictly normal, and all religious fanatics are marked with abnormalities of various sorts. It is well known that psychologists group religious phenomena with other and less divine disturbances of the brain and nervous system.
Whether, as the novel of Mr. Moore implies, Christ was alive after his nominal execution; or whether the whole Resurrection legend is a myth, is immaterial. Very little reliable testimony could come from so remote a province as Judaea at that time. For the sensitive mind to harass itself over ancient and mediaeval conceptions, to strain over such questions as how many angels can stand on the point of a needle, (this was actually debated in the Middle Ages) or to wear itself to fragments trying to accept that which it can never accept, is as cruel and reprehensible as to deprive the masses of their spiritual and orthodox solace.
Pullquote: “..can thinking men ever be satisfied with a truth short of the ultimate and absolute? Dangerous and hurtful as may be this particular brand of truth, mankind has a shockingly perverse way of chasing after it!”
I think that Mr. Mo really has the same basic conception of creation that I have, save that his long grounded orthodoxy forbids him to express or even to think consciously the stark, bald facts. Mr. Mo’s great argument for orthodoxy is that it accomplishes vast good; an argument which neither affirms nor denies its foundation in absolute truth. Many false beliefs have wrought incalculable good—the observed effects are the effects of the belief; not of the possible truth or untruth that may lie behind the belief. Because a certain preacher has helped reform a drunkard, we have no grounds for acclaiming him as vice-regent of some other person or conscious spirit for whose existence we have no other evidence.
Mr. Mo’s summing up of his own case may be adopted without change as the summing up of my case. “In the face of these phenomena, what does the nature of absolute, ultimate truth matter to you and me? Christianity pure and undefiled is the truth to this world, for it works!” That is, Christianity is “truth to this world”. All men may perfectly agree when they admit the existence of more than one kind of truth. Christianity is not necessarily logical or actual truth, but it is “terrestrial truth”, and that is enough for the majority. Let us be thankful if anything can govern such an unruly race as man.
My point of issue with Mr. Mo is, can thinking men ever be satisfied with a truth short of the ultimate and absolute? Dangerous and hurtful as may be this particular brand of truth, mankind has a shockingly perverse way of chasing after it! An arch-pessimist like myself would naturally wish to avoid the true kind of truth, yet it has the same fascination for me that it had for Copernicus and Galileo! But this is the fault of the age. Why are philosophical studies permitted if their result is so disastrous? We may say of true truth what Mr. Pope said of Vice:
“But seen too oft, familiar with its face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace!”
[. . .]
Value of Orthodoxy
Pullquote: “Truth is of no practical value to mankind save as it affects terrestrial phenomena, hence the discoveries of science should be concealed or glossed over wherever they conflict with orthodoxy.”
To conclude this weighty discourse, I shall state my attitude toward orthodox theism and Christianity in my own cold-blooded words. I truly believe that Mr. Mo’s opinion, if spoken with equal directness, would be precisely the same:
(1) Orthodox Christianity, by playing upon the emotions of man, is able to accomplish wonders toward keeping him in order and relieving his mind. It can frighten or cajole him away from evil more effectively than could reason. Because of its hypnotic and auto-hypnotic power, this faith should be preserved as long as it can be propped up with arguments or diffused through rhetoric.
It is a crime publicly to attack the church, since upon that institution rests more than half of the responsibility for maintaining the existing social order. On this account, it is well to refrain from open utterances concerning religion, and at times even to pretend belief. Truth is of no practical value to mankind save as it affects terrestrial phenomena, hence the discoveries of science should be concealed or glossed over wherever they conflict with orthodoxy.
It is wisest to invent an artificial sort of “truth” which conforms to the well-being of man. It will never do us any good to know the dimensions of space or the aeons of time, so let us forget all about the universe and the infinity outside the universe. The notion of personal, affectionate Godhead works best with the masses, so let us gently adapt what we know, to what we ought to think. Anything is justifiable in the interests of humanity.
Pullquote: “We know that yesterday in time our universe and race did not exist. We have no reason for assuming that it will remain in existence save for another moment of eternity.”
(2) As to naked reality—we only know that we are a speck in the engulfing vortices of infinity and eternity. We know that all creation obeys certain laws or principles whose source we know not, but which apparently result from the interaction of material particles, or modes of motion. It is utter quibbling to differentiate betwixt Nature, and a Deity immanent in nature. The distinction is purely one of words.
We know that yesterday in time our universe and race did not exist. We have no reason for assuming that it will remain in existence save for another moment of eternity. Of our relation to all creation we can never know anything whatsoever. All is immensity and chaos. But, since all this knowledge of our limitations cannot possibly be of any value to us, it is better to ignore it in our daily conduct of life. It is dangerous, and therefore, should not be spread broadcast. But every man has a right to think what he thinks and to believe what he believes.
I am interested in Mr. Co’s researches concerning the occult and the supernatural; particularly so since I have encountered several reviews of poor Oliver Lodge’s book “Raymond”—a work which I confess I have not perused at first hand. It may be well to state that Sir Oliver, as well as Sir William Crookes, have received little faith since they turned their attention to [the] fallacy-ridden realm of the supernatural. Their speculations in this direction may well be taken as evidences of freakishness—and in Sir William’s case, of senility; since he is now eighty-five years of age.
It is Lodge, however, who is under consideration, and he cannot plead old age, since he was born in 1851. Of his reported phenomena, and of other cases of a like nature, it is safest to say that insufficient evidence throws them out of court. Disturbed mentality, auto-suggestion, and deliberate charlatanry will be found at the base of most alleged spiritualistic and telepathic manifestations. They most generally occur amongst the ignorant, or amongst those who ardently wish to have them occur.
Skepticism and Imagination
Pullquote: “The very vagueness of human reason, and the very subjectivity of human thought, should warn the student to pay scant attention to the fleeting fancies of the mind. Imagination is a very potent thing, and in the uneducated often usurps the place of genuine experience.”
Many of the most plausible cases resolve themselves into the most deliberate imposture upon impartial and authentick investigation. More than one “broad-minded” dupe of spiritualism felt the throes of sheepishness when the exceedingly clever Eusapia Palladino was exposed as a fraud; yet each victim might have known that such magic as she exhibited was impossible according to the recognised principles of Nature. Open-mindedness becomes a fault when it fails to take into account the fundamental probabilities of things.
I abhor the sickly attitude of a certain soft-headed class of investigators, who so fear the imputation of bigotry, that they will make fools of themselves by wasting serious thought over obvious cheats and impostors. The very vagueness of human reason, and the very subjectivity of human thought, should warn the student to pay scant attention to the fleeting fancies of the mind. Imagination is a very potent thing, and in the uneducated often usurps the place of genuine experience.
I have encountered many instances of children who, without conscious falsification, confuse the real with the unreal, and relate in good faith experiences through which they have not passed. It is reasonable to assume that many apparent instances of supernatural manifestations were devised subconsciously in the brains of the narrators. Atavism hath implanted many dark fancies in man; it needs but a little relaxation of intellectualism to bring up the old ghosts of the past, and revive that intense faith, or tendency to have faith, in the supernatural, which originally grew out of our ancestors’ attempts to explain nature.
The progress of science will eventually, I believe, enunciate at least two laws, which will forever put an end to spiritualism amongst the educated and even the half-educated. They are:
(1) Life, animal and vegetable, including human life, is a mode of motion which ceases absolutely upon the death of the body containing it.
(2) The future, so far as organic beings are concerned, can never be predicted, since individual and unfathomable caprice has power to direct events into any of the innumerable channels possible under the natural law.
[. . .]
Effects of Science on Religion
Pullquote: “Not that science positively refutes religion—it merely makes religion seem [so] monstrously improbable that a large majority of men can no longer believe in it.”
As the Mo-Lo theological controversy narrows down to fewer points of difference, it may be correspondingly given a smaller and smaller space in each successive epistle. I perceive that my erudite opponent challenges my assumption that scientific progress must be “concealed or glossed over” in order to ensure the preservation of religious belief. He declares that the church is willing to admit all the discoveries of science, reconciling them to some increasingly vague theistical plan—that is, to use plainer language, altering religion to suit science, and making of God a plastic character to be remodelled whenever obvious truth disproves one of His original legendary attributes.
This I am willing to admit; but I am not equally willing to abandon the basic idea of my statement, that it will be found necessary in the end to minimise science in order to preserve faith. Not every man is as happily incurious as Mr. Mo; and for many persons, a mere knowledge of the approximate dimensions of the visible universe is enough to destroy forever the notion of a personal godhead whose whole care is expended upon puny mankind, and whose only genuine and original Messiah was dispatched to save the insignificant vermin, or men, who inhabit this one relatively microscopic globe. Not that science positively refutes religion—it merely makes religion seem [so] monstrously improbable that a large majority of men can no longer believe in it.
And to go a step further—sooner or later the relation betwixt organic and inorganic life will be discovered. It will be clearly demonstrated how carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and other elements combine to form substances possessing vital energy. Probably the chemist or biologist will be able to create in his laboratory some very primitive sort of animal or vegetable organism. This will be the death knell of superstition and theology alike; and unless it be sacredly concealed, the church will cease to exist save amongst the very ignorant. But of course, since this has not yet come to pass, I am aware that it forms no truly legitimate part of my case against orthodoxy. However—the probability is strong!
When Mr. Mo charges me with inconsistency in asking whether thinking men can ever be satisfied with make-shift terrestrial truth as opposed to stark absolute fact, I fear he misapprehends my meaning. I did not ask, can a thinking man be so satisfied; my question relating to thinking men as a class—to the majority of the scientists and philosophers of today and tomorrow. Surely Mr. Mo does not deem me so ignorant as not to know that many men of vast culture and attainments are devoutly orthodox.
Indeed, there is much in pure humanitarian culture, as opposed to rigid scientific training, which encourages absorption in the affairs of mankind, and more or less indifference to the unfathomed abysses of star-strown space that yawn interminably about this terrestrial grain of dust. Perhaps I am a barbarian at heart—sometimes I believe I am—to be so anxious to know what is, and not what ought to be. I cannot attach so much importance to mere mankind as I should—the “Homo sum” sort of enthusiasm never appealed greatly to me.6 I am not very proud of being an human being; in fact, I distinctly dislike the species in many ways. I can readily conceive of beings vastly superior in every respect. But to be orthodox, one should have less imagination!
Pragmatism and Absolute Truth
Pullquote: “The pages of history are red with the blood of those who have died for their intellectual convictions. Truth-hunger is a hunger just as real as food-hunger—it is equally strong if less explicable;”
Mr. Mo’s frank admission that he is satisfied with the empirical “truth” which results from an evasion of astronomical facts, is in a way surprising to me; yet after reflection I can understand the mental attitude, the direct opposite of my own, which enables him to make such a statement. He is to some extent, consciously or unconsciously, a disciple of that not unknown Oxford don, Prof. Schiller, concerning whom an article lately appeared in THE INDEPENDENT. This philosopher, like our Appletonian comrade, has a rather elastic notion of Truth, giving that supposedly inflexible abstraction a curiously adaptable nature. In a word, he is a pragmatist of extreme type.
Until I read of Prof. Schiller, I was unable to understand how such theories could be held; but I now perceive that there is a not inconsiderable school of pragmatists, who hold to similar ideas. This controversy has taught me many things, foremost among them being my own comparative ignorance of formal philosophy and its subdivisions. I intend to give some attention to this subject in future, in an endeavour to comprehend views which seem to me now too absurd for credence on the part of thinkers. I have a notion that I shall become ardently interested in this subject, for I am a born speculator. (In the academic, not the financial sense!)
Mr. Mo’s final statement: “All your argument has not shown me why it (absolute truth) interests you,” brings to my mind an interesting train of thought. Is there, then, no genuineness in that instinct of truth-seeking which we commonly suppose to reside in the human mind? Does nothing matter which has no direct bearing on our daily life? Were the Papists right in torturing men who believed in the Copernican system? Verily, it matters little to man whether the earth revolve around the sun, or the sun around the earth! No one has really shewn why this matter should interest us! It is sufficient if we eat, sleep, and worship!
But with all due respect to Mr. Mo, I must reiterate my belief in the necessity of truth to the human mind. [M]y argument does not need to show why truth interests me […] The fact remains that it does interest me, as it has interested thousands of other men. The pages of history are red with the blood of those who have died for their intellectual convictions. Truth-hunger is a hunger just as real as food-hunger—it is equally strong if less explicable; indeed, who can assign a direct reason for any of the obscurer desires and aspirations of man? It is all according to the plan of Nature.
In flouting the absolute truth because of its lack of application of the affairs of mankind, Mr. Mo reminds me of the Florentine astronomer Sizzi, who thus argued against the existence of Jupiter’s satellites: “Moreover”, quoth this sage in the course of his argument, “the satellites are invisible to the naked eye, and therefore can exert no influence on the earth, and therefore would be useless,and therefore do not exist!” ‘Twas vastly inconsiderate of Galileo to see these troublesome orbs, after they had been conclusively demonstrated not to exist at all! How complex is the mortal brain!