Mark Twain on religious intolerance

by David Safier

The recent Koran burning by Terry Jones and the killing of UN workers by enraged Afghan Muslims in reaction led me back to one of the finest statements on religious fanatism and intolerance I have ever read, in Mark Twain's essay, "The Lowest Animal." Most people have heard the most famous quote from the essay:

"Man is the Animal that Blushes. He is the only one that does it or has occasion to."

But there is much more in the essay about our tendency toward greed, violence and religious intolerance ("He is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself, and cuts his throat if his theology isn’t straight."), all written with Twain's inimitable wit in his inimitable style.

Here is Twain's take on religion in the essay:

Man is the Religious Animal.  He is the only Religious Animal.  He is the only animal that has the True Religion, several of them.  He is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself, and cuts his throat if his theology isn’t straight.  He has made a graveyard of the globe in trying his honest best to smooth his brother’s path to happiness and heaven.  He was at it in the time of the Caesars, he was at it in Mahomet’s time, he was at it in the time of the Inquisition, he was at it in France a couple of centuries, he was at it in England in Mary’s day, he has been at it ever since he first saw the light, he is at it today in Crete (as per the telegrams quoted above) he will be at it somewhere else tomorrow.  The higher [non-human] animals have no religion.  And we are told that they are going to be left out, in the Hereafter.  I wonder why?  It seems questionable taste.

Here is the capper that ends the essay:

In truth, man is incurably foolish.  Simple things which the other animals easily learn, he is incapable of learning.  Among my experiments was this.  In an hour I taught a cat and a dog to be friends.  I put them in a cage.  In another hour I taught them to be friends with a rabbit.  In the course of two days I was able to add a fox, a goose, a squirrel and some doves.  Finally a monkey.  They lived together in peace; even affectionately.

Next, in another cage I confined an Irish Catholic from Tipperary, and as soon as he seemed tame I added a Scotch Presbyterian from Aberdeen.  Next a Turk from Constantinople; a Greek Christian from Crete; an Armenian; a Methodist from the wilds of Arkansas; a Buddhist from China; a Brahman from Benares. Finally, a Salvation Army Colonel from Wapping.  Then I stayed away two whole days.  When I came back to note results, the cage of Higher Animals was all right, but in the other there was but a chaos of gory odds and ends of turbans and fezzes and plaids and bones and flesh not a specimen left alive.  These Reasoning Animals had disagreed on a theological detail and carried the matter to a Higher Court.

The last paragraph makes me long for a day when the intolerants of all creeds fight it out among themselves and stop using the rest of us as proxies.

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