Charles Lyell Interviews H.L. Mencken: Religion, Evolution, and Dopamine Addiction

August 2, 2011

Charles Lyell: Hello! On behalf of the Dopamine Project and our readers I’d like to thank you for resurrecting for this interview. I know you’re busy being dead, so I’ll cut to the chase. How do you feel about people in general? And please, don’t hold anything back.

Henry Louis Mencken: …the great masses of men, even in this inspired republic, are precisely where the mob was at the dawn of history. They are ignorant, they are dishonest, they are cowardly, they are ignoble. They know little if anything that is worth knowing, and there is not the slightest sign of a natural desire among them to increase their knowledge.

Lyell: At the Dopamine Project we believe the behaviors you’re referring to can be attributed to dopamine-related safety, approval, and esteem addictions. How would you sum up the problem? 

Mencken: The most ignorant man… has at hand a thousand devices for making life less wearisome and more tolerable: the telephone, railroads, bichloride tablets, newspapers, sewers, correspondence schools, delicatessen. But he had no more to do with bringing these things into the world than the horned cattle in the fields, and he does no more to increase them today than the birds of the air.

Lyell: But at least he appreciates the benefits provided by others.

Mencken: On the contrary, he is generally against them, and sometimes with immense violence. Every step in human progress, from the first feeble stirrings in the abyss of time, has been opposed by the great majority of men… They have fought every new truth ever heard of, and they have killed every truth-seeker who got into their hands.

Lyell: Tell me about it. We’ve been trying to raise dopamine awareness for months and it’s an uphill battle. Can you give me an example of what you believe we’re up against?

Mencken: The so-called religious organizations which now lead the war against the teaching of evolution are nothing more, at bottom, than conspiracies of the inferior man against his betters. They mirror very accurately his congenital hatred of knowledge, his bitter enmity to the man who knows more than he does, and so gets more out of life… What they propose to do, at bottom and in brief, is to make the superior man infamous — by mere abuse if it is sufficient, and if it is not, then by law.

Lyell:  We now know that religion owes its popularity to an abundance of safety addicts who can’t handle their mortality, peer-approval addicts who love the instant approval they get from simply agreeing to believe in fairy tales, and esteem addicts who get off on the dopamine triggered delusion that they are somehow superior for picking “the one true God.” Tell me, why do you feel these so-called religious organizations are so dangerous?

Mencken: Such organizations, of course, must have leaders; there must be men in them whose ignorance and imbecility are measurably less abject than the ignorance and imbecility of the average. These super-Chandala often attain to a considerable power, especially in democratic states. Their followers trust them and look up to them; sometimes, when the pack is on the loose, it is necessary to conciliate them. But their puissance cannot conceal their incurable inferiority. They belong to the mob as surely as their dupes, and the thing that animates them is precisely the mob's hatred of superiority.

Lyell: Wow! Sounds like you’re describing Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, and the GOP. It’s only a question of time before brain scans will prove that these so-called leaders are late-stage esteem addicts who feed their insatiable dopamine needs by feeding the dopamine needs of the masses. Do you feel there‘s any hope for the few who are capable of using the reasoning areas of the new brain?

Mencken: Now and then the horde of barbarians outside breaks through, and we have an armed effort to halt the process. That is, we have a Reformation, a French Revolution, a war for democracy, a Great Awakening. The minority is decimated and driven to cover. But a few survive — and a few are enough to carry on.

Lyell: What would you say is the common man’s biggest shortcoming? 

Mencken: The inferior man's reasons for hating knowledge are not hard to discern. He hates it because it is complex — because it puts an unbearable burden upon his meager capacity for taking in ideas.

Lyell: Once again, we’re talking about dopamine flow. Safety addicts loathe the dopamine withdrawal from being frightened, approval addicts never risk dopamine-depriving rejection, and esteem addicts can’t handle the dopamine withdrawal associated with the esteem reduction triggered by people and concepts that leave them feeling stupid. 

Mencken: The popularity of Fundamentalism among the inferior orders of men is explicable in exactly the same way. The cosmogonies that educated men toy with are all inordinately complex… But the cosmogony of Genesis is so simple that even a yokel can grasp it. It is set forth in a few phrases. It offers, to an ignorant man, the irresistible reasonableness of the nonsensical. So he accepts it with loud hosannas, and has one more excuse for hating his betters.

Lyell: I’ve been told to keep blog posts to under 1,000 words, so do you think you can sum what you’ve been getting at in 100 words or less?

Mencken: What all this amounts to is that the human race is divided into two sharply differentiated and mutually antagonistic classes, almost two genera — a small minority that plays with ideas and is capable of taking them in, and a vast majority that finds them painful, and is thus arrayed against them, and against all who have traffic with them. The intellectual heritage of the race belongs to the minority, and to the minority only. The majority has no more to do with it than it has to do with ecclesiastic politics on Mars. In so far as that heritage is apprehended, it is viewed with enmity. But in the main it is not apprehended at all.

Lyell: Well, that helps explain why the Dopamine Project blog isn’t exactly the most popular site on the web. On that rather dopamine-reducing and depressing note, I’d like to thank you for your brilliant insights into what we refer to as dopamine-induced behavior.
 

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