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Burroughs' Thoughts on Science and Religion
Readers and fans of the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs have been of every age and occupation, nationality and culture, faith and belief. It is quite amazing how each one so uniquely interprets ERB's themes and beliefs. He has been labelled as being ahead of his time in his progressive ideas on conservation, feminism, animal rights, free-thinking, reason vs. superstition, humanitarianism, championing of all races, writing trends (science fiction, adventure, fantasy), mechandising, artists' rights, fatherhood, creativity and imaginative thinking. 

On the other hand, there are those who see in him characteristics contrary to all of the forelisted: placing of women in subservient roles, butcher of wildlife, intensely religious and spiritual, shallow thinker, racist, hack, plagiarizer, business failure, homewrecker, opportunist, and a dreamer of wild and worthless fantasies.

I have noticed in my contacts with so many fellow-ERB fans that a great many of them like to cloak ERB in religious values and belief systems which are a reflection of their own. What follows is a probing into the thoughts of this popular writer, born in 1875, who seems to have done a remarkable job of presenting himself in a way that straddled his own free-thinking attitudes and the strict religious and traditional mores of his audience during the first half of the twentieth century. 

I have collated many of his thoughts on religion and science as presented in personal letters, journals, articles, and through a number of his very popular novels. Also included are a number of revealing thoughts presented by family members and ERB scholars.

In discussions with his sons Hulbert and Jack, Edgar Rice Burroughs stated his religious attitude clearly: he did not believe in the Bible, Christ, the Immaculate Conception or God. He called himself an atheist. To his sons, Burroughs, who did not attend church, had often expressed his dislike for any form of organized or sectarian religion.

At times, especially because of his efforts to be tolerant about other people's religious views, he gave the impression of being an agnostic. On occasion when he termed himself a "religious" man, he was referring to his objectives of following the moral or ethical precepts taught by Christ or found in the philosophies of the Greeks and the Romans.

Concerning the typical religious attitudes displayed by characters in his stories, both of his sons have maintained that these should not be interpreted as representing Burroughs' beliefs -- they are merely inserted as necessary elements in the story, or to create the particular effect he was seeking. In a letter of September 1927 ERB disagreed with Sinclair Lewis' forcing his anti-religious views on the public in Elmer Gantry. He felt a novelist's sole purpose should be to entertain.

Burroughs' father -- Civil War veteran, Major George Tyler Burroughs, expressed a strongly negative opinion about Roman Catholic authoritarianism and devotion, which he apparently interpreted as fanaticism, as quoted in the ERBzine 0942 Biography of Major George Tyler Burroughs, Sr.:

"The major belonged to three military societies, the Masons, the American League and was lifelong Republican. . . .  In 1887 he was an official witness to the execution of the convicted Haymarket bombers who had been arrested after the Haymarket Square riots, a mass labor protest in May of 1886. In 1889 he was even excused from jury duty for his prejudice against Roman Catholicism after declaring 'I have no prejudice against the individual, but I have against the religion. I do not believe in fanaticism anywhere.'"

A letter (December 10, 1929) from ERB to son Hulbert contained a severe condemnation of the church:
"I was pained to discover how sadly you misinterpreted my attitude toward religion. I have no quarrel with religion, but I do not like the historic attitude of any of the established churches. Their enthusiasms and sincerity never ring true to me and I think that there has been no great change in them all down the ages, insofar as the fundamentals are concerned. There is just as much intolerance and hypocrisy as there ever was, and if any church were able to obtain political power today I believe that you would see all the tyranny and injustice and oppression which has marked the political ascendancy of the church in all times."
This criticism of the established church, he stressed, "does not mean that I am not religious. I am a very religious man, but I do not subscribe to any of the narrow childish superstitions of any creed." In his letter he spoke of "the disgusting lust for publicity, which animates many divines. Since he was a man of science and a staunch believer in Darwin's theories, he held contempt for the church in its attitude toward scientific progress and "toward the promulgation of the truth in art and literature. . . ." 

Burroughs saw irreconcilable conflict between the established religions with their narrow beliefs, and the rationality of science:

"A man can be highly religious, he can believe in a God and in an omnipotent creator and still square his belief with advanced scientific discoveries, but he cannot have absolute faith in the teachings and belief of any church, of which I have knowledge, and also believe in the accepted scientific theories of the origin of the earth, of animal and vegetable life upon it, or the age of the human race; all of which matters are considered as basic truth according to the teachings of the several churches as interpreted from their inspired scriptures."
Burroughs, in expressing his views on God, could at times become jokingly irreverent. In a letter of October 28, 1920, to Father Dom Cyprian, a priest with whom he had previously corresponded, Burroughs' comments about the Lord's actions had a humorous tinge:
"I was very sorry to know that rheumatism has been bothering you. It seems to me that the Lord should look after you better than he does as you certainly must have earned more of his gratitude than a poor pagan such as I; yet, notwithstanding my ungodliness my neuritis has almost left me. Inscrutable indeed are the ways of Providence."
Father Cyprian's quoting of a remark by Dr. Barton brought a pointed reply:
"I do not understand your reference to Dr. Barton and his belief that I am a godless man. You have aroused my curiosity and now you must relieve it. My daughter is in a Catholic convent and I am smiled upon by the Reverend Mother and a number of the Sisters which would never be true were I so godless as your remark suggests." (On January 4, 1921, Joan enrolled in the Hollywood School for Girls, finding it a much happier place than the Convent. Her friends included the daughters of Jim Jeffries, Francis X. Bushman, and Cecil DeMille.)
In his stories Ed's depiction of nature as the all-wise creator of living things, the Great Perfectionist who demonstrated her perfection in her scheme of things -- the animals, plants, and their environments -- indicated that his religious philosophy at times tended toward pantheism. His further statement to Father Cyprian supports this view:
"Really, I think I have a more satisfactory God than Dr. Barton for I am not afraid of my God and I enjoy His company every day in sunshine and flowers and the beautiful hills and I do not have to crawl into a dark closet to pray to him."
Ed's skepticism about the church did not affect his attitude of good-humored tolerance and helpfulness; beneath his letter to Father Cyprian is his scrawled note: "$1.00 bill enclosed with this letter."

Through the years his comments about God continued to be in a jesting tone. To his brother Harry Ed revealed his happiness about his Tarzana ranch and wrote, 

"It took God millions of years to get Tarzana and me together but I can see now that He was evidently working to that end since it occurred to Him to create Earth, and I have to give Him credit for pulling off at least one very successful job."
His reply to the Reverend L. Eugene Wettling of Religious Films, Inc. New York, June 14, 1928, made clear his disapproval of the church:
"Permit me to assure you of my appreciation of the honor conferred upon me by election to your Honorary Advisory Board. My religious convictions are such, however, as to make such a connection incongruous, and as it might cause embarrassment to all concerned I sincerely hope that you will with draw my name. . . ."
Burroughs, attempting to be open-minded on matters of religion, was particularly careful to avoid influencing his children or dictating to them. He advised his son Hulbert (October 1, 1929), then at school, in this manner:
"You will be wise if you attend church occasionally, at least, if not regularly. It is a very necessary part of the education of all cultured men and women. Your own good judgment will tell you what to accept and what to reject."
However, individual rights in religious choice were quite different from any plan to introduce compulsory religion on a mass basis. In response to the query of Henry Goddard Leach, editor of The Forum "Shall We Force Religion into the Schools?," Ed was vehemently on the negative side (May 2, 1927):
"Compulsory religious training in any form in schools supported by taxpayers seems to me to be contrary to the highest ideals of American democracy." 
He noted that even in endowed colleges religious subjects should be electives, and about the Bible, could see no practical way of using it in the public schools. He conceded that the "historical and literary phases" might be of value for study, but insisted that if the Bible were used, equal time should then be devoted to the Talmud, The Koran, and other works. Since, in his opinion, the material was not needed, and the school hours were insufficient for all these religious works, it was best that these subjects should be excluded from the public school curricula.

ERB's conviction that evolution was a scientific fact influenced him in 1925 to issue a statement to the press at the time of the Scopes Trial at Dayton, Tennessee. It appeared in various papers across the country under headings such as: "Evolution held undeniable. Nature's law, says author."  Some of the ideas put forth were:

"It really does not make much difference what Mr. Scopes thinks about evolution, or what Mr. Bryan thinks about it. They cannot change it by thinking, or talking, or by doing anything else. It is an immutable law of Nature; and when we say that, it is just the same as saying that it is an immutable law of God — that is, for those who believe in God — for one cannot think of God and Nature as separate and distinct agencies. . . . If we are not religious then we must accept evolution as an obvious fact. If we are religious then we must either accept the theory of evolution or admit that there is a power greater than that of God. . . ." 
His arguments, in the remainder of the article, were based upon the evidences all around us — "the infant into the adult . . . the seed into the plant, the bud into the flower:" these illustrate that all organisms pass through preliminary stages of development to attain a final form. The "marvelous miracle of evolution" is that everything, the entire universe, follows a natural "unfolding." Concerning the human race, a simple consideration of the succession of the Piltdown man, Neanderthal man, and Cro-Magnon man, in progress up the scale of development, makes it clear "that Nature did not produce the finished product originally, but something that was susceptible of improvement. . . ."

Ed Burroughs did not attempt to deny God's connection with this evolutionary plan; the individual could view it as Nature's law or God's law, but above all, mankind must accept "the proofs that God, or Nature, has left for our enlightenment." On an obvious level, those who cannot understand Darwin's theories should be able to perceive how "the entire evolution of the human race" is reproduced "within the womb of every mother."

Burroughs also grew somewhat weary of many of the traditional religious events that our society has come to take for granted. In a letter of December 9, 1927, he wrote:

"We ceased sending Christmas cards last year. It grew to be a meaningless gesture. We had a list of names in a book, we ordered the Christmas cards a month ahead of time, some one else addressed the envelopes -- that is Christmas sentiment for you. All our friends were vying with each other to outdo everyone in the expense and elaborateness of their Christmas Greetings. We decided that it was vulgar, shoddy and bunk. Therefore, we cut it out."
Dr. Robert Zeuschner, an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Pasadena City College, and a  longtime ERB fan and scholar, wrote in a recent ERBzine 1120 article, Religious Themes in the Novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs:
The topic of religion was obviously something of concern to Edgar Rice Burroughs, because it is both implicit and explicit in Burroughs' works, sometimes with just a brief aside on one page, and sometimes with a fully worked out theology of a civilization.

It is clear to me that when he describes Tarzan as "intensely religious," ERB does not mean typical Western religions. In the realm of Tarzan and John Carter, there is constant rejection of any religion which is an institution or an organization which tends to stress belief in a supreme being who rewards and punishes, a rejection of a being who intervenes in human lives, who performs miracles, who enjoys sacrifices, and who demands obedience, devotion and faith. In his novels, ERB criticizes religions where a supreme being judges human beings, a being who is thought to send some to a heavenly realm and others to a hellish realm. Burroughs valued a personal freedom, and he had no use for religious organizations or institutions which claim to have the authority to control important parts of your life (thereby echoing the sentiments of his father). So, religion in Burroughs implies an intense subjective feeling of awe and amazement at the wonder and power of Nature.

I would conclude that this reflects the sense in which Tarzan is "intensely religious." I would also suggest that this reflects the religious view of Edgar Rice Burroughs, a man who never attended church, who never instructed any of his children in any religion, who rejected church services as he was dying, and asked to be cremated and buried under a friendly tree. None of these reflect any interest in anything that most of us associate with "religion."

From the Joan Burroughs Online Biography in ERBzine 1102:
"Dad never discussed religion at home. He said he wanted us to choose our own church when we were grown up and possessed of sufficient intelligence to make our own decision. He did not go to church and we didn't either. He lived by his own conscience, of which honesty and humility were important."
From "My Famous Father-In-Law" by son-in-law James Pierce in ERBzine: 0940:
"Mr. Burroughs was an agnostic, I believe, and unlike W. C. Fields, did not turn to the Bible toward the end of his life. A friend asked him, "What are you doing with the Bible, Ed?" "Looking for a loophole," was his reply. He did not believe in funerals. He requested no services and cremation. His wishes were granted. He requested his ashes rest beneath his favorite, very old oak tree, location of which is known only to his family."

Scopes trial report for the International Press Bureau & Universal Service
News article by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Los Angeles ~ July 5, 1925

It really does not make much difference what Mr. Scopes thinks about evolution, or what Mr. Bryan thinks about it.

They cannot change it by thinking, or talking, or by doing anything else. It is an immutable law of nature, and when we say that, it is just the same as saying that it is an immutable law of God -- that is, for those who believe in God -- for one cannot think of God and nature as separate and distinct agencies.

If we are not religious, then we must accept evolution as an obvious fact. If we are religious, then we must either accept the theory of evolution or admit that there is a power greater than that of God. And wy? Because if we are intelligent we must realize that we are constantly surrounded and influenced by manifestations of this universal law of nature.

We witness the evolution of the infant into the adult, of the seed into the plant, of the bud into the flower. If nature, or God, had seen fit to produce the adult, or the plant, or the flower without requiring them to pass through any preliminary stages of development, it would probably have been a no more remarkable feat for omnipotence than the marvelous miracle of evolution that has been slowly and laboriously unfolding -- not an individual, not a species, nor a world, nor a solar system alone, but an entire universe -- since omniscience conceived the thing called time.

I do not believe that the most ardent anti-evolutionist will question the existence of the Cro-Magnon man, or hesitate to admit the possibility of our descent from him; nor will he deny that man's mental attainments, unfolding from the savage brains of this primitive ancestor, have broadened and improve in the 25,000 years since the people of this extinct race drew in red ochre the mammoth, the bison and the lion upon the walls of their caves, and if he admits this, which is obvious, then he must admit that nature, or God, purposed that there should be improvement , or development, or unfoldment, or evolution in some slight degree.

If he admits the Cro-Magnon man, and he must-- if he has progressed beyond the moral attainments of the Cro-Magnon -- he must admit that the Neanderthal man was less developed both mentally and physically than the Cro-Magnon and that he existed prior to the latter.

If we have developed from the Cro-Magnon, then, of course, it is quite possible that the Cro-Magnon developed from the inferior Neanderthal, or at least from t he same anthropoid stem.


The Van Nuys News

Edgar Rice Burroughs, author of the Tarzan stories and managing director of El Caballero Club, last week wrote an interesting article on evolution for the Hearst newspapers in connection with the Scopes evolution  trial at Dayton, Tenn.

Mr. Burroughs received a flattering offer from teh Hearst newspapers to go to Dayton and write for the Hearst Sydicate his impressions of the trial. Not since Huxley faced the bishops of England have science and religion entered any such trial arean in teh modern world.

Mr. Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan is an authority on evolution.

Religion Themes in ERB Novels
Many of the following observations were made by Irwin Porges in his lengthy biography: ERB: The Man Who Created Tarzan

The Gods of Mars
"In one of his earliest fantasy works, The Gods of Mars, while exposing the Martian "Heaven," the priesthood, and the entire concept of the established church as a cruel and sadistic hoax, he was giving more than a hint about his own religious convictions. To begin with, here and in other works he made plain his distrust and rejection of organized religion. But the indirect presentation of his religious views, the inferences drawn from the statements or thoughts of his fictional characters, does not constitute the only evidence. Burroughs, as always, was not hesitant about stating his opinions bluntly and directly: "The whole fabric of our religion is based upon superstitious belief in lies that have been foisted upon us for ages by those directly above us, to whose personal profit and aggrandizement it was to have us continue to believe as they wished us to believe."

"The religious imagery is consistently richest in the Barsoom novels. The Gods of Mars is the locus classicus of most of the religious themes in ERB. The River Iss and the Valley Dor are metaphors which are difficult to overlook. The River is the image of life, and the Valley is the Garden of Eden. In the novels of Burroughs, there is no escape from the river of life, and when one relies on religion to try to give ultimate meaning to life, one finds that the Garden of Eden is just the valley of the grave and a final death. There is no deity. The god or goddess is no goddess at all. The wicked goddess (and her villainous priests who think themselves godlike) keep all the other Barsoomians from using the water of Eden which would enrich their lives. The religion is a false religion. One wonders whether ERB could have recognized any religion as a “true religion” and what the characteristics of such a religion would be.

"The hero of these novels, John Carter, reveals the falsehoods taught by the priests, the Therns, and the First Born, but old religions die hard. It was a common view about a hundred years ago to assume that as science further explained human existence, religion in general and Christianity in particular would wither away as facts replaced myths and superstitions. Clearly, this has not happened. Burroughs notes that many places in Barsoom still hold onto their faith, but he does not explore the religious dimensions of this. Instead, they are simply treated as ignorant and as enemies to be overcome or freed from the bonds of organized religion.

"There is another important dimension to the religiosity of Burroughs. Some of the most important themes of Christianity are simply irrelevant, or disregarded. Consider the Christian gospel which is one of the bedrocks of the church: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Now consider the Tarzan novels or any of the other tales. ERB’s gospel is neither "the meek shall inherit the earth" nor "Love they neighbor as thyself" nor "turn the other cheek." The actions which give meaning to life (and in Gods of Mars, the actions which bring about resurrection after symbolic death at the end of the river) result not from faith or meekness, but from standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a friend, sword in hand, fighting to the death. The gospel is courage and friendship.

"When it comes to religious symbolism, one stellar symbol is one of ERB’s two greatest heroes, John Carter (the symbolism in the initials “JC” has been noted by other writers). JC/John Carter is godlike in a very Christian sense. Carter has the life span of a god. Carter is godlike because he comes into the world of Barsoom from outside the world (he actually comes out of the heavens). JC incarnates into Barsoom. JC saves the world. In saving the world, JC dies in the process, giving up his life so all inhabitants of the planet can live (A Princess of Mars). In the cave in Arizona, he dies, and in so doing he is dying into a new life on Barsoom. There he destroys old religions and false beliefs. And he offers up his own life so that a world can survive. His life is sacrificed and not given up happily; he dies on Mars and is resurrected. But he does not gain a reward in heaven; after death his life is pain and incomprehensible grief; Carter feels that his god (Mars, the deity and the planet) has forsaken him.

"What religion did John Carter teach to the Barsoomians, and what religion does he establish? The simple answer is “none at all.” It might be argued that he replaces belief in Issus with a new recognition of the true religion which recognizes the inevitability of competition and violence, the scientific truth that only those who are most fit will survive to reproduce their kind. In this Barsoom, it is not faith in supernatural beings that gives meaning to life. It is friendship. It is not being meek or gentle. JC awakens gentle feelings of affection in Sola and even Woola, brings the recognition of friendship to the mighty Tars Tarkas, even Thuvia learns about true love from the love of JC. JC makes a friend of Xodar and then Talu. In a shallow reading, it just seems as if he is making friends. But, in the deeper meaning, he is teaching these people the deepest meaning of life which is friendship, loyalty, and love; these are the meaning of life, and the religious world-view of John Carter."

Jungle Tales of Tarzan
This book is made up of 12 Tarzan short stories. One, "The God of Tarzan," develops young Tarzan's attempt to discover some definite meaning behind the vague concept of God. His ape friends' superstitious belief that Goro, the Moon, is the all-powerful force causes Tarzan to hurl a challenge at the moon, but this brings no result and drives him to hunt elsewhere. In the native village he sees a grotesque figure with the head of a buffalo, a long tail, and the legs of a man. Tarzan does not know of the witch doctor's disguise and is ready to believe that this strange creature, half-man, half-animal, is the god he seeks. Once again, however, he is disappointed; he finds that the buffalo hide conceals a black man who cringes in terror before him. In a rage he kills the man. But later, as he is about to kill Mbonga, the native chief, he sees that he is clutching a helpless old man who "seemed to wither and shrink to a bag of puny bones beneath his eyes." Tarzan, for the first time, is seized by the sensation of pity; he leaves Mbonga unharmed.

Tarzan the Terrible
The concept of a primitive religion, one based upon superstition and fear, and one that resorts to human sacrifice, is developed within the same theme of reform or change, and the end of Tarzan the Terrible brings the destruction of the priests' power and the promise of a religion of love and humanity.

Ed's dubious view of religion is illustrated through Perry's fears and what follows:
"Perry was almost overcome by the hopelessness of our situation. He flopped down on his knees and began to pray. It was the first time I had heard him at his old habit since my return to Pellucidar, and I had thought that he had given up his little idiosyncrasy; but he hadn't. Far from it."

The Master Mind of Mars
As in The Gods of Mars, Burroughs cannot resist ridiculing a blind, superstitious belief in religion. The people of Phundahl worshipped the god Tur, and at the temple followed a ritual which they never presumed to question. Before various idols they might lie prone or bump their heads on the floor, or, on occasion, crawl madly in a circle. In all cases money was dropped in a receptacle.

Burroughs presents a significant aspect of his philosophy in the scene that follows. Paxton, upon hearing the worshippers recite "Tur is Tur, Tur is Tur" before two different idols, remarks that in both cases the sounds are identical. Dar Tarus corrects him, insisting that at first they said, "Tur is Tur," while at the second idol they reversed it. Dar Tarus asks, "Do you not see? They turned it right around backwards, which makes a very great difference." Paxton could not detect the "difference," and because of this, was again accused of a lack of faith.

Of course Burroughs' invention of the word "Tur" for the Phundahlian God is deliberate. The worshippers are really saying, "Rut is Rut." In this scene Burroughs is commenting upon the follies of all blind religious custom, whether on earth or on Mars. But in addition, he is emphasizing a danger. Through years of ritualistic behavior and unquestioning conformity, one may lose the power of seeing things rationally. Paxton, a stranger, not confined in the Phundahlians' particular rut, could apply simple reasoning. About religion as mere jargon chanted automatically, Burroughs is saying that whether one mumbles it backward or forward, it remains meaningless.

The final step in the Burroughs formula related to the new attitude toward religion. As the national intelligence improved, "the people laid aside the arbitrary dogmas of a dozen different religions and clove to the one religion that we all know today — the religion of service to the race." This endorsement of humanism came because all individuals recognized that the goal of God was "the welfare of mankind. . . . he who works to the same end as God works in the noblest field of religious endeavor."

Her people had no gods, only devils - which answer just as good  a purpose among the ignorant and superstitious as do gods among
 the educated and superstitious.  Tarzan and the Ant Men

Everyone was fooled except Obebe, who was old and wise and did not  believe in river devils, and the witch doctor who was old and wise and did not believe in them either, but realized that they were  excellent things for his parishioners to believe in. Tarzan and the Ant Men

The Letters of Edgar Rice Burroughs: ERB Online Bio Timeline ~
The Lost Words of ERB:
The Personal Letters and Journals of ERB: Danton Burroughs Tarzana Archive
Edgar Rice Burroughs: The Man Who Created Tarzan by Irwin Porges


Religious Themes in the Novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs by Robert B. Zeuschner, Ph.D.

Something Of Value Book II: Edgar Rice Burroughs, Evolution and Religion by R.E. Prindle

Something of Value II ~ Pt. 1
Something of Value II ~ Pt. 2
Something of Value II ~ Pt. 3
Something of Value II ~ Pt. 4

The Dale R. Broadhurst Sword of Theosophy Series

1: John Carter: Sword of Theosophy Revisited
2. Lupoff of Mars
3. ERB: Search for Ultimate Answers

The Exploring Fictional Religion Series by Dale R. Broadhurst

The Gods of ERB I
The Religions of  ERB Fiction 
The Gods of ERB II
Spectres of the Supernatural 
The Gods of ERB III
Beyond the Farthest Stars
Sword of Theosophy I
John Carter Beginnings?
Sword of Theosophy II
Lupoff of Mars
Sword of Theosophy III
The Search for Ultimate Answers
Den Valdron's Fantasy Worlds of ERB
Navigation Chart for the Whole Series
Religions of Barsoom I
Religions of Barsoom II


Reason vs. Supernatural Series
Free Thinkers Through History

I: A-D Quotes
Photos AB | Photos CD
II: E-H Quotes
Photos EF | Photos GH
III: I-O Quotes
Photos IL | Photos MO
IV: P-Z Quotes
Photos PR | Photos SZ
 V: Media Quotes
Photos I | Photos II
VI. Anonymous
VII. References
Cartoons I  |  II | III | IV
Words of the Pious
Photos I | Photos II
ERBzine Weekly Webzine

Bill Hillman
All original material copyright 2009 Bill Hillman