America's best kept secret about Mark Twain (1835-1910) is that he was an agnostic with a strong contempt for religion. His critiques of supernaturalism and religious dogma are scathing, as this selection shows. In "Letters From the Earth," he asks us to imagine that Satan visits the Earth to survey the inhabitants and writes to his fellow angels in heaven to report the folly he beholds.
I have told you nothing about man that is not true." You must pardon me if I repeat that remark now and then in these letters; I want you to take seriously the things I am telling you, and I feel that if I were your place and you in mine, I should need that reminder from time to time, to keep my credulity from flagging.
For there is nothing about man that is not strange to an immortal. He looks at nothing as we look at it, his sense of proportion is quite different from ours, and his sense of values is so widely divergent from ours, that with all our large intellectual powers it is not likely that even the most gifted among us would ever be quite able to understand it.
For instance, take this sample: he has imagined a heaven, and has left entirely out of it the supremest of all his delights, the one ecstasy that stands first and foremost in the heart of every individual of his race - and of ours - sexual intercourse!
It is as if a lost and perishing person in a roasting desert should be told by a rescuer he might choose and have all longed-for things but one, and he should elect to leave out water!
His heaven is like himself: strange, interesting, astonishing, grotesque. I give you my word, it has not a single feature in it that he actually values. It consists - utterly and entirely - of diversions which he cares next to nothing about, here in the earth, yet is quite sure he will like in heaven. Isn't it curious? Isn't it interesting? You must not think I am exaggerating, for it is not so. I will give you details.
Most men do not sing, most men cannot sing, most men will not stay where others are singing if it be continued more than two hours. Note that.
Only about two men in a hundred can play upon a musical instrument, and not four in a hundred have any wish to learn how. Set that down.
Many men pray, not many of them like to do it. A few pray long, the others make a short cut.
More men go to …