Saturday, May 07, 2005

Religion, Faith, Credulity, and Humbug

“The greatest humbug of all is the man who believes - or pretends to believe - that everything and everybody are humbugs. We sometimes meet a person who professes that there is no virtue; that every man has his price, and every woman hers; that any statement from anybody is just as likely to be false as true and that the only way to decide which, is to consider whether truth or a lie was likely to have paid best in that particular case. Religion he thinks one of the smartest business dodges extant, a first rate investment, and by all odds the most respectable disguise that a lying or swindling business man can wear. Honor he thinks is a sham. Honesty he considers a plausible word to flourish in the eyes of the greener portion of our race…. Poor fellow! he has exposed his own nakedness. Instead of showing that others are rotten inside, he has proved that he is.”

- Famous UU P.T. Barnum, in The Humbugs of the World

(courtesy of


At May 7, 2005 at 2:09:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Jeff Wilson said...

I'm actually presenting a paper on Barnum at the annual American Academy of Religion conference in Philly this November. Here's the abstract:

"There’s a Sucker Saved Every Minute: P.T. Barnum’s Theology of Humbug

"Phineas T. Barnum was an outspoken temperance advocate and promoter of Christian morality. And yet, Barnum worked his way into fame and fortune through the calculated use of deception. His promotion of such monstrosities as the Feejee Mermaid, Chang and Eng, and Jumbo was predicated on exaggeration and disguise. How then to reconcile the Janus-like nature of an upright Christian peddling hokum?

"For Barnum, his circus and museum acted as engines for generating wonder. He re-enchanted a rapidly industrializing world, populating it with unicorns and other marvels, creating a space within which more religious versions of awe and joy could emerge. As a Universalist, Barnum knew that his circus audience was destined for salvation. There was no need to preach to them about dogma. Instead, by provoking wonder, even if through dubious means, he invited them to remember the gift provided by their maker: life in a world of marvels."

There's already some interest on the part of journal editors in publishing the paper, so if the presentation goes well the rest of the public will probably have a chance to read it.


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