In Defense of Women

Author: H. L. Mencken

40. Piety as a Social Habit

What remains of the alleged piety of women is little more than a social habit, reinforced in most communities by a paucity of other and more inviting divertissements. If you have ever observed the women of Spain and Italy at their devotions you need not be told how much the worship of God may be a mere excuse for relaxation and gossip. These women, in their daily lives, are surrounded by a formidable network of mediaeval taboos; their normal human desire for ease and freedom in intercourse is opposed by masculine distrust and superstition; they meet no strangers; they see and hear nothing new. In the house of the Most High they escape from that vexing routine. Here they may brush shoulders with a crowd. Here, so to speak, they may crane their mental necks and stretch their spiritual legs. Here, above all, they may come into some sort of contact with men relatively more affable, cultured and charming than their husbands and fathers—to wit, with the rev. clergy.

Elsewhere in Christendom, though women are not quite so relentlessly watched and penned up, they feel much the same need of variety and excitement, and both are likewise on tap in the temples of the Lord. No one, I am sure, need be told that the average missionary society or church sewing circle is not primarily a religious organization. Its actual purpose is precisely that of the absurd clubs and secret orders to which the lower and least resourceful classes of men belong: it offers a means of refreshment, of self-expression, of personal display, of political manipulation and boasting, and, if the pastor happens to be interesting, of discreet and almost lawful intrigue. In the course of a life largely devoted to the study of pietistic phenomena, I have never met a single woman who cared an authentic damn for the actual heathen. The attraction in their salvation is always almost purely social. Women go to church for the same reason that farmers and convicts go to church.

Finally, there is the aesthetic lure. Religion, in most parts of Christendom, holds out the only bait of beauty that the inhabitants are ever cognizant of. It offers music, dim lights, relatively ambitious architecture, eloquence, formality and mystery, the caressing meaninglessness that is at the heart of poetry. Women are far more responsive to such things than men, who are ordinarily quite as devoid of aesthetic sensitiveness as so many oxen. The attitude of the typical man toward beauty in its various forms is, in fact, an attitude of suspicion and hostility. He does not regard a work of art as merely inert and stupid; he regards it as, in some indefinable way, positively offensive. He sees the artist as a professional voluptuary and scoundrel, and would no more trust him in his household than he would trust a coloured clergyman in his hen-yard. It was men, and not women, who invented such sordid and literal faiths as those of the Mennonites, Dunkards, Wesleyans and Scotch Presbyterians, with their antipathy to beautiful ritual, their obscene buttonholing of God, their great talent for reducing the ineffable mystery of religion to a mere bawling of idiots. The normal woman, in so far as she has any religion at all, moves irresistibly toward Catholicism, with its poetical obscurantism. The evangelical Protestant sects have a hard time holding her. She can no more be an actual Methodist than a gentleman can be a Methodist.

This inclination toward beauty, of course, is dismissed by the average male blockhead as no more than a feeble sentimentality. The truth is that it is precisely the opposite. It is surely not sentimentality to be moved by the stately and mysterious ceremony of the mass, or even, say, by those timid imitations of it which one observes in certain Protestant churches. Such proceedings, whatever their defects from the standpoint of a pure aesthetic, are at all events vastly more beautiful than any of the private acts of the folk who take part in them. They lift themselves above the barren utilitarianism of everyday life, and no less above the maudlin sentimentalities that men seek pleasure in. They offer a means of escape, convenient and inviting, from that sordid routine of thought and occupation which women revolt against so pertinaciously.


Download Options

Title: In Defense of Women

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options

Title: In Defense of Women

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: H. L. Mencken, "40. Piety as a Social Habit," In Defense of Women, ed. Hawthorne, Julian, 1846-1934 in In Defense of Women (New York: Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons, 1906), Original Sources, accessed July 20, 2024,

MLA: Mencken, H. L. "40. Piety as a Social Habit." In Defense of Women, edited by Hawthorne, Julian, 1846-1934, in In Defense of Women, Vol. 22, New York, Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons, 1906, Original Sources. 20 Jul. 2024.

Harvard: Mencken, HL, '40. Piety as a Social Habit' in In Defense of Women, ed. . cited in 1906, In Defense of Women, Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 20 July 2024, from