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Letters from Earth

It’s an old trick in writing. You put the things that you would like to say but are afraid of any possible repercussions into the mouth of the villain, or a character that you aren’t supposed to like anyway. Plato did this in the Republic when he explains that justice is in the interest of the most powerful. While the truth of the statement is debatable Plato can’t say it himself, he puts it into the mouth of a character that is going to lose an argument with Socrates.

So Mark Twain decides to put his sharpest criticisms of religion into the mouth of Satan, history’s greatest villain. The letters come from Earth as Satan is observing the unfolding of history, having been temporarily exiled from heaven for a some minor trifle–his “too flexible tongue” he is stuck on Earth for a day. The celestial day which is a long time to us.

Satain is writing to Michael and Gabriel the archangels, this whole episode apparently happening before the “battle of the titans” like upheaval in heaven. He watches humans develop and form various religions each built from the ashes of the previous one.

Twain continues his vitriol against human conceptions of heaven: “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 race–and of ours–sexual intercourse!” Satan remarks that human heaven is either very hypocritical or very naive. In one letter he explains to his friends that people don’t like church, don’t like hearing other people sing for hours on end, yet when they picture heaven that’s exactly what they imagine singing in church for eons. What fools these mortals be…well that’s not Twain.

The brilliance of the writing is that it doesn’t stoop to pointing out the various inconsistencies of facts, or that one part of the bible contradicts another part. Or as Reverend Lovejoy pointed out to Lisa, “Have you ever read this thing (the bible)? Technically were not allowed to go to the bathroom.” Twain attacks the philosophical foundations of religion. He attacks the names given to God, “Father Of Mercy,” “Prince of Peace,” then points out how this god character in the bible is none of these things.

He points out that the Midianites who offended God for something, we don’t know what, were slaughtered by God’s chosen people. That is all the men, all the women who were not virgins, all the boys, with the exceptions of the babies and virgin women who were then capture for slavery and then they call him “Merciful.” Satan points out.

The book while dealing with a serious subject is very lighthearted. Satan is completely dismissive of the achievements of man, and instead of being smug about it merely looks at it with a sense of humor. He ridicules the concept we have of God, but understands that the real God is nothing like this. Our god, “commits a fearful crime, continues that crime unbroken for 6,000 years, and is then entitled to praise because he suggests to somebody else to modify its severities” this is when science cures a disease that god has been letting loose on the poor (hookworms). Not only does he kill the poor en masse with diseases he is then called “friend of the poor,” by them. One could almost picture Satan sitting on a rock laughing as he writes the letters.

I love the tongue in cheek nature of this section of the book. It challenges the religious to somehow justify the role of this cruel god that they claim is compassionate and loving. To which the religious always have an answer, “the plan” that somehow takes all of this into account and still excuses the responsible party from any wrongdoing. Think about it, would you hang out with this god?

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