Prophet: Harriet Martineau? William Tweed? John Tyndall? Auguste Comte? Robert G. Ingersoll? Karl Marx? Charles Darwin? Herbert Spencer? Henry George Atkinson? Paul Dirac? Felix Adler?
Critic: Mark Twain? Douglas William Jerrold? George Grote? J. P. Jacobsen? Isaac M. Wise? Wolfgang Pauli?
Dear Quote Investigator: The prominent physicist Paul Dirac was hostile toward religion, and sometimes he would lecture his colleagues on the topic. One fellow scientist responded with a humorous summary of Dirac’s metaphysical position:
There is no God and Dirac is His prophet.
Do you know who crafted this expression? Would you please explore its history?
Quote Investigator: Substantive evidence indicates that physicist Wolfgang Pauli coined the statement above, but this template has an extensive history, and many different names have appeared in analogous phrases in the past.
The earliest template matches located by QI referred to Harriet Martineau and Henry George Atkinson who together published a controversial work titled “Letters on the Laws of Man’s Nature and Development” in 1851. 1 Contemporaries believed that the duo was espousing atheism, and both faced tremendous criticism; in April 1851 a periodical about mesmerism printed a statement referring to Atkinson. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 2
A celebrated wit declares the great religious view of the book to be, There is no God, and Mr. Atkinson is his prophet.—Zoist.
In July 1851 a piece in “The Worcestershire Chronicle” of Worcestershire, England discussed an essay that analyzed the pair’s book. The following jest was aimed at Martineau: 3
Two valuable essays on “The History of Logic” and “Primitive Alphabets” are followed by one on “Materialism,” in which Miss Martineau and her tutor, “Henry George Atkinson, F.G.S.,” are treated to a little commonsense criticism. Her theory—so ably epitomised by a popular writer of the present day—”that there is no God, and that Miss Martineau is his prophet,” finds no quarter at the hands of the talented reviewer…
The “popular writer” was probably the dramatist Douglas William Jerrold as stated in a September 1851 newspaper item. Additional selected citations in chronological order appear below.
The comical statement under investigation employed wordplay based on the Muslim profession of faith: “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His Prophet.”
In August 1851 “Graham’s Magazine” printed an instance of the barb aimed at Martineau ascribed to an anonymous “London wit”: 4
The best criticism on Harriet Martineau’s late atheistical book is contained in the remark of a London wit, who was asked what was the doctrine which it inculcated. He replied, “The doctrine seems to be this; there is no God, and Harriet is his prophet.”
In September 1851 Martineau and Atkinson’s book was attacked again, and the jest was reprinted in “The International Magazine of Literature, Art, and Science”. “Douglass Jerrold” received credit for coinage although the first name contained a double “s” misspelling: 5
The shallow performance in which these persons displayed their atheism was treated by the learned with contempt. Douglass Jerrold said the sum of their doctrine was contained in the formula, “There is no God, and Miss Martineau is his prophet,”…
In 1857 a newspaper in Cumbria, England classified the remark as “Jerroldiana”, i.e., a witticism from Douglas Jerrold: 6
I shall set down here some Jerroldiana current in London,—some heard by myself, or otherwise well authenticated…
When the well-known “Letters of Miss Martineau and Atkinson” appeared, Jerrold observed that their creed was, “There is no God, and Miss Martineau is his prophet.”
In 1869 the saying continued to circulate, and Jerrold received credit for the Atkinson variant in “The Spiritual Magazine”: 7
Human Nature for March contains a most able article by Dr. F. Chance, on “Spiritualism and Science,” in answer to some theories propounded by Mr. H. G. Atkinson, of whom Douglas Jerrold said, “There is no God, and Atkinson is his Prophet.” We strongly commend this article to our readers.
In 1870 a newspaper in Perthshire, Scotland tentatively credited Jerrold with the Martineau variant: 8
Douglas Jerrold was very near being a foolish person, and was only saved from that awful result by his genius. He probably said one good thing, if he did say it. “There is no God and Miss Martineau is his prophet.”
In 1871 the acclaimed humorist Mark Twain published a satirical essay in the “New-York Tribune”. Twain proposed a new catechism in which the deity was money, and the prophet was a well-known corrupt politician: 9
THE REVISED CATECHISM
First class in modern Moral Philosophy stand up and recite:
What is the chief end of man?
A. To get rich.
In what way?
A. Dishonestly if we can; honestly if we must.
Who is God, the one only and true?
A. Money is God. Gold and greenbacks and stock—father, son, and the ghost of the same—three persons in one; these are the true and only God, mighty and supreme; and William Tweed is his prophet.
In 1873 a profile in “Macmillan’s Magazine” of the classical historian George Grote asserted that he employed a variant of the jibe aimed at the philosopher and proto-sociologist Auguste Comte: 10
He had no sympathy whatever with Comte’s “Religion of Humanity,” which he considered an entire departure from the principles of the Philosophie Positive; he told me of the good saying about the Comtist creed, “There is no God, and Auguste Comte is his prophet.”
In 1874 the Irish physicist John Tyndall became president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and delivered a contentious keynote address. Critics applied a variant of the statement under examination to Tyndall’s words: 11
“There is one God,” say the Arabians, “and Mahomet is his prophet.” May we not parody the saying, after becoming acquainted with the address of the President of the British Association, by announcing that there is but “one God, Matter, and Tyndall is its prophet”? For does not that natural philosopher say that Matter is always and everywhere—is infinite and eternal; leaving his hearers to the conclusion that there is no room for aught besides in this mysterious Universe?
In 1879 the important freethinker Robert G. Ingersoll attended a convention in Cincinnati, Ohio, and a newspaper in Chicago, Illinois constructed a variant jest aimed at him: 12
The convention would have done better if it had adopted the words that have been applied to another, and formulate its belief in the simple declaration that “There is no God, and Bob Ingersoll is his Prophet.”
In 1880 a woman named “F” writing an opinion piece in the pages of the “Boston Post” presented a negative variant using Darwin: 13
Women have not had the honor of inventing a philosophy which eliminates God from the universe yet. We have not said that there is no God but evolution, if Charles Darwin is his prophet—at least not many of us.
A religious lecture by Abraham Coles published in 1885 presented a variant quip aimed at the influential philosopher and biologist Herbert Spencer together with Darwin: 14
… its new formula of faith, proclaiming, There is no God but matter, and Spencer (or Darwin) is its prophet.
In 1886 James Howard Bridge published a science fiction and fantasy novel titled “A Fortnight in Heaven: An Unconventional Romance”. A variant using Marx was engraved on a building: 15
At length the captain and his bearer arrived at a massive palatial building, over the porch of which the usual legend of equality, brotherhood, and expunged liberty was supplemented by the mysterious motto,—
THE STATE IS THE TRUE GOD, AND KARL MARX IS HIS PROPHET.
This was the Temple of the State.
A 1912 book about socialism included a different variant mentioning Marx: 16
The Federation has virtually proclaimed that nobody shall be recognized as an orthodox socialist, unless he will profess as his creed: “There is no God, and Karl Marx is his prophet.”
In 1919 a novel by the Danish writer J. P. Jacobsen was translated into English, and it contained an instance of the expression in which mankind itself inhabited the role of prophet: 17
“There is no God, and man is his prophet,” replied Niels bitterly and rather sadly.
A 1937 biography of Rabbi Isaac M. Wise stated that he employed a variant when discussing Felix Adler, an important figure in the Ethical Culture movement: 18
There was also Felix Adler’s “Ethical Culture” movement, which sought to declare a new religion without the Bible as foundation. Of him, Dr. Wise said: “He appears to us the truly good apostle of the ‘goodness’ which he preaches, based on the dogma, ‘There is no God, and Felix Adler is His prophet.'”
In 1969 the top physicist Werner Heisenberg published a memoir in German titled “Der Teil und das Ganze”. The translation into English was released in 1971 under the title “Physics and Beyond: Encounters and Conversations”. Heisenberg described Paul Dirac lecturing to his colleagues about religion. Wolfgang Pauli responded with the following remarks: 19
He seemed a little surprised and then said: “Well, our friend Dirac, too, has a religion, and its guiding principle is: ‘There is no God and Dirac is His prophet.'” We all laughed, including Dirac, and this brought our evening in the hotel lounge to a close.
In conclusion, the earliest version of this joke located by QI appeared in 1851. Many names have been substituted into the quip over the years starting with Henry George Atkinson and continuing with Harriet Martineau, Auguste Comte, John Tyndall, Robert G. Ingersoll, Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, and others. Current evidence suggests that Douglas William Jerrold was the first person to perform this wordplay.
Image Notes: Portrait of Harriet Martineau by Richard Evans circa 1834; accessed via Wikimedia Commons. The Creation of Adam fresco painting by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling; accessed via janeb13 at Pixabay. Images have been cropped, retouched, and resized.
(Great thanks to Victor Steinbok whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Steinbok remarked that Wolfgang Pauli used an instance aimed at Paul Dirac. He also knew that an earlier instance named Robert G. Ingersoll. Thanks also to Ben Zimmer who mentioned the connection to the Islamic profession of faith.)
Update Notes: On January 22, 2017 two citations naming Atkinson were added with dates of April 1851 and 1869.
- 1851, Letters on the Laws of Man’s Nature and Development by Henry George Atkinson and Harriet Martineau, Published by Josiah P. Mendum, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1851 April, The Zoist: A Journal of Cerebral Physiology & Mesmerism and Their Applications to Human Welfare, Number 33, XVII: The Fire-away Style of Philosophy briefly Examined and Illustrated by Anti-Glorioso, Footnote, Start Page 65, Quote Page 67, Hippolyte Bailliere, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1851 July 23, Worcestershire Chronicle, Literary Notices: The Church of England Quarterly Review, Quote Page 6, Column 2, Worcestershire, England. (British Newspaper Archive) ↩
- 1851 August, Graham’s Magazine, Volume 39, Number 2, The Use and the Economy of Invective by P., Start Page 65, Quote Page 66, Column 2, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1851 September 1, The International Magazine of Literature, Art, and Science, Volume 4, Number 2, Section: Authors and Books, Quote Page 272, Stringer & Townsend, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1857 November 21, Westmorland Gazette, Miscellanea: Jerroldiana, Quote Page 3, Column 4, Cumbria, England. (British Newspaper Archive) ↩
- 1869 April, The Spiritual Magazine, Notes and Gleanings, Quote Page 184, James Burns, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1870 January 20, Perthshire Advertiser, Scotch Wit and Humour, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Perthshire, Scotland. (British Newspaper Archive) ↩
- 1871 September 27, New-York Tribune, The Revised Catechism by Mark Twain, Quote Page 6, Column 1, New York, New York. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1873 April, Macmillan’s Magazine, Recollections of Mr. Grote and Mr. Babbage by Lionel A. Tollemache, Start Page 489, Quote Page 492, Macmillan and Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1874 August 29, Leicester Chronicle, Professor Tyndall’s Address, Quote Page 10, Column 1, Leicestershire, England. (British Newspaper Archive) ↩
- 1879 September 16, The Inter Ocean, The Convention of Air-Guns, Quote Page 4, Column 4, Chicago, Illinois. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1880 August 6, Boston Post, The Greatness of Women by F., Quote Page 4, Column 2, Boston, Massachusetts. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1885 Copyright, Christian Thought: Lectures and Papers on Philosophy, Christian Evidence, Biblical Elucidation, Second Series, Edited by Charles F. Deems, A Half-Hour with The Evolutionists by Abraham Coles, (A paper read before the American Institute of Christian Philosophy, March 5th, 1885), Start Page 424, Quote Page 442, Wilbur B. Ketcham, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1886, A Fortnight in Heaven: An Unconventional Romance by Harold Brydges (James Howard Bridge), Chapter 2: The Crystal City, Quote Page 18, Henry Holt and Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1912, Socialism and the Ethics of Jesus by Henry C. Vedder (Henry Clay Vedder), Quote Page 219, The Macmillan Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1919, Niels Lyhne by J. P. Jacobsen (Jens Peter Jacobsen), Translated from Danish by Hanna Astrup Larsen, Series: Scandinavian Classics: Volume 13, Quote Page 160, American-Scandinavian Foundation, New York, Also: Oxford University Press, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1937, Sinai to Cincinnati: Lay Views on the Writings of Isaac M. Wise Founder of Reform Judaism in America by Dena Wilansky, Part 1: Chapter 3: Radicalism, Quote Page 58, Renaissance Book Company, New York. (Verified with scans; The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives; Hebrew Union College: Jewish Institute of Religion; americanjewisharchives.org) ↩
- 1971 Copyright, Physics and Beyond: Encounters and Conversations by Werner Heisenberg, Translator: Arnold J. Pomerans, German Title: Der Teil und das Ganze, Chapter 7: Science and Religion, Quote Page 87, Harper & Row, New York. (Verified with hard copy) ↩