Twain on Religion: Asking the Ultimate Questions at Woodlawn Cemetery

Twain on Religion: Asking the Ultimate Questions at Woodlawn Cemetery
Mark Twain's Autobiography, Volumes 1 -3. Held at the Brighton Memorial Library.

The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volumes I – III.  [Held at the Brighton Memorial Library. Photo: David Kramer] Maria Popova says in Volume II (2 April 1906 to 28 February 1907), “Twain’s grievances with ‘God’ come fully ablaze.” ( From Wit and Repartee at Woodlawn: A Secular Pilgrimage to Mark Twain’s Gravesite in Elmira, NY.

Yesterday, in Wit and Repartee at Woodlawn: A Secular Pilgrimage to Mark Twain’s Gravesite in Elmira, NY., George Cassidy Payne looked at Mark Twain’s life and literary productions while living in Elmira, New York (later buried in the town’s Woodlawn Cemetery.)

Today, including a photo montage of Woodlawn Cemetery, George examines Twain’s religious beliefs. George has degrees from St. John Fisher College, Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, and the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. He is also an adjunct professor of philosophy at SUNY.

Twain on Religion: Asking the Ultimate Questions at Woodlawn Cemetery

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Mark Twain once said, “Man is the only animal that has the True Religion — several of them.”

That pretty much sums it up. Twain saw through the great guise of a single religion possessing absolute truth. Once that idea is shattered, the whole crystal glass pyramid comes undone. Twain was able to ask the simplest question about religion, and he expected a competent answer from theologians and clergy: Can they all be right? He knew that they could not — at least not while adhering to the basic rules of common sense and logic.

If anything can be said about Mark Twain’s religious beliefs, it is that he believed in the sacred power of common sense and logic. If there was a third virtue that connected this trinity, it was probably the God given capacity to doubt. As a holy doubter, only Twain could ask the following questions with complete and total sincerity: If they are not all right, how do we tell them apart? And if we can’t tell them apart, how do we know that it is not better to remain yourself? Why become something you are not? Besides, if God is perfect, why is there so much urgency to change what has been created as it is? As Twain put it:

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“The Christian Bible is a drug store. Its contents remain the same; but the medical practice changes.”

Twain also saw through the guise of freedom and liberty that every religion promises to deliver if their followers are obedient enough. With dripping sarcasm, the humorist remarked:

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“If a man doesn’t believe as we do, we say he is a crank, and that settles it. I mean it does nowadays, because now we can’t burn him.”

At its core, every religion — whether it is Christian or Buddhist — does not allow people to believe differently. You are either a Muslim or not. You are either a Jew or not. You are either a Hindu or not. It is an either or proposition — a hallmark feature of all dictatorships. Perhaps most disturbing to Twain was the violence engendered by organized religion through this need to be absolutely right and true. Way before Gore Vidal and Christopher Hitchens, Twain was exposing this peculiar yet dangerous inclination, one that hampers all religious thinking. As caustically as possible, he wrote:

4. Twain

“There was only one Christian. They caught and crucified him – early.” (

In Twain’s estimation, Jesus may have been the most anti-religious figure in the history of humanity. Maybe he could think this way because he knew the truth about who Jesus was. Jesus was not a Christian. Jesus was a Jew. What kind of Jew he was may never be known by contemporary seekers. From this core truth nearly every principle of Christianity is either sanctioned or tainted. Of course Twain knew full well that it is a truth which has caused a tremendous psychological schism in the heart and mind of the faith.

In a speech entitled, “Taxes and Morals,” he declared:

There are two kinds of Christian morals, one private and the other public. These two are so distinct, so unrelated, that they are no more akin to each other than are archangels and politicians.

Indeed, if ever there was a sinister hypocrisy at work, it is the tendency that Christians have to forgive themselves for the worst sins conceivable (slavery, war, and genocide) while crucifying its enemies (and they are legion) in public. Quick to accept salvation for themselves and their loved ones, they are even quicker to call for wars of imperialism and the death penalty for those who challenge their authority. Twain predicted that:

Two or three centuries from now it will be recognized that all the competent killers are Christians; then the pagan world will go to school to the Christian — not to acquire his religion, but his guns.

From The Mysterious Stranger, "Two or three centuries from now it will be recognized that all the competent killers are Christians; then the pagan world will go to school to the Christian -- not to acquire his religion, but his guns."

From The Mysterious Stranger: “Two or three centuries from now it will be recognized that all the competent killers are Christians; then the pagan world will go to school to the Christian — not to acquire his religion, but his guns.”

What a prognosis. This quote from The Mysterious Stranger captures the entire political history of the 20th century. Hitler was a Christian. Richard Nixon was a Christian. So were the Afrikaners in South Africa and the British armies that opened fire on unarmed Indians during their fight for independence. Reagan and Bush were Christians, too. I think Twain may have been thinking about people like them when he talked about schools of killing. Both former presidents funded some of the most highly sophisticated schools of assassins ever created in Latin America. George W. Bush and Barack Obama are also Christians. Both men executed wars of aggression against Afghanistan and Iraq in the name of democratic ideals masquerading in the form of Christian edicts. In Twain’s words:

Monarchies, aristocracies, and religions are all based upon that large defect in your race — the individual’s distrust of his neighbor, and his desire, for safety’s or comfort’s sake, to stand well in his neighbor’s eye.

That’s the bottom line. How often do religions fail at this simple task? Twain suspected he knew the answer:

Tyrannical, murderous, rapacious, and morally rotten as they [the nobility] were, they were deeply and enthusiastically religious.

Twain knew that at the same time we distrust the other, we want them to like us. This psychosis infects not just individuals, but entire religions as well. What you get is hugely violent religious movements led by the likes of a Calvin, Hitler, Nixon, Lyndon B. Johnson, Vladimir Putin, George W. Bush, and Osama bin Laden, just to name a few. All of these men were and still are deeply religious.

Twain pointed out that “the Church is always trying to get other people to reform; it might not be a bad idea to reform itself a little by way of example.” Yet has the “Church” ever existed? Which Church? There are so many, and so many different ways to worship. How can we know what religion is correct?

Regardless of their many differences, one idea unites all of them. They are not only inherently violent, they are also inherently anti-scientific. Again, predating such popular speakers on this topic as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, Mark Twain pinpointed the most notorious and far reaching flaw in all organized religions:


“The Church has opposed every innovation and discovery from the day of Galileo down to our own time, when the use of Anesthetics in childbirth was regarded as a sin because it avoided the biblical curse pronounced against Eve.”

As Twain understood better than any other novelist of his time, religion and science are at odds. Religious belief obstructs the scientific method. There is no way to make faith compatible with reason. Evidence is not wishful thinking. And the scientific method — although imperfect — is the best system devised to separate fact from fiction. Any attempt to compromise the two, is going to end in failure. Science can only advance at the expense of religion, and religion can only survive if science is proven incomplete.

Perhaps the following line is as good as any to end with. It was one of Twain’s most famous:

The preacher never charged nothing for his preaching, and it was worth it, too.

—  Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)

George Cassidy Payne

All photography taken on site at Mark Twain’s grave in Elmira, NY. All quotations taken from The Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain: A Book of Quotations by Dover Publications, Inc.








EDITORS NOTE: In its Dec. 26 2018 – Jan . 8 2019 DOUBLE ISSUE, the CITY printed George’s letter whose full version appeared here as George H.W. Bush: A Legacy of Honor and Hypocrisy

From the CITY's Dec. 26 2018 - Jan . 8 2019 DOUBLE ISSUE,

From the CITY‘s Dec. 26 2018 – Jan . 8 2019 DOUBLE ISSUE. See George H.W. Bush: A Legacy of Honor and Hypocrisy


Wit and Repartee at Woodlawn: A Secular Pilgrimage to Mark Twain’s Gravesite in Elmira, NY.

About The Author

Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.


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