Edgar Allan Poe? William Barton? John A. Joyce? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: The following remark has been ascribed to the master of mystery and the macabre Edgar Allan Poe
Religion evolved out of fraud, fear, and greed.
Is this quotation accurate?
Quote Investigator: A controversial remark of this type was included in a 1901 biography of Edgar Allan Poe published by Colonel John A. Joyce. Poe aficionados consider the biography unreliable and doubt the authenticity of the quotation. Joyce presented the remarks second-hand with the following introductory words: 1
The religious opinions of Poe may be found in the following conversation he had one night at the old Astor House with Mr. William Barton, who was a typo and foreman on the Broadway Journal when Poe was editor of that paper.
Mr. Barton told me this:
“One night when Poe and myself were mellowed with the fumes of the wine cup, I asked him his opinion of the hereafter. He said:
“‘I don’t bother myself about a thing of which I know nothing—just as much as anybody else!
According to Joyce, Barton inquired further about religion. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:
“‘Mr. Poe, what do you think of the religions of the world?’
“‘From the earliest dawn of creation man has worshipped something—sticks, stones, snakes, stars, suns, mountains, rivers, seas, myths, calves, popes, and preachers. He is largely an ape and mimics anything with glitter, pomp, and power.
“‘All the doctrines of the world, from the dawn of paganism, Buddhism, Mohammedism, and so-called Christianity, are but the conjurations of worldly sharpers, who make a splendid living by setting up themselves as agents of God and establishing rules and laws for fools and cowards to follow!
“‘The ass must still bear his burden, and fools build palaces and cathedrals for wise men to inhabit.
“‘No man who ever lived knows any more about the hereafter, Barton, than you and I, and all religion, my friend, is simply evolved out of chicanery, fear, greed, imagination and poetry!
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1906 a medical doctor named Rufus K. Noyes published a collection of quotations titled “Views of Religion”. The remark above attributed to Poe was included although “Allan” was misspelled as “Allen”: 2
Edgar Allen Poe.
No man who ever lived knows any more about the hereafter, Barton, than you and I; and all religion, my friend, is simply evolved out of chicanery, fear, greed, imagination and poetry.
In 1996 the collection “2000 Years of Disbelief: Famous People with the Courage to Doubt” by James A. Haught included a version of the statement with ellipses. Noyes was acknowledged: 3
“No man who ever lived knows any more about the hereafter . . . than you and I; and all religion … is simply evolved out of chicanery, fear, greed, imagination and poetry.”—Poe (Noyes)
In 2012 the operator of the website “The World of Edgar Allan Poe” published an article that included a discussion of the purported remark from Poe. Joyce’s biography and the quotation were harshly criticized as spurious: 4
A widely-circulated quote attributed to him, that “all religion is simply evolved out of chicanery, fear, greed, imagination, and poetry,” is apocryphal. It originated from a justifiably obscure 1901 biography by a noisy crackpot named John Alexander Joyce, which is full of outlandish and clearly fictional statements. (Of especial note is his chapter claiming that “The Raven” was stolen from an 1809 poem called “The Parrot”–a work which never actually existed outside of Mr. Joyce’s fevered mind.)
Joyce claimed to have received this quote from a “Mr. William Barton, who was a typo and foreman on the ‘Broadway Journal’ when Poe was editor of the paper.” I have not found any other indication this Barton even existed, and there is absolutely no reason to take this as evidence of Poe’s spiritual beliefs.
In conclusion, the statement appeared in a Poe biography by John A. Joyce, but Joyce noted that the evidence was second-hand. In addition, knowledgeable Poe enthusiasts believe that the biography was not credible. QI does not have the subject-matter expertise to evaluate the accuracy of the quotation.
Image Notes: Portrait of Edgar Allan Poe taken at the University of Virginia circa 1913. Illustration by Harry Clarke published in 1919 for Poe’s short story “The Descent into the Maelstrom”. Both images accessed via Wikimedia Commons.
(Great thanks to Neal Shepperson whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)
- 1901, Edgar Allan Poe by Colonel John A. Joyce (John Alexander Joyce), Quote Page 107 and 108, Published by F. Tennyson Neely Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1906, Views of Religion, Collected by Rufus K. Noyes (Rufus King Noyes), Quote Page 729, L. K. Washburn, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans via archive.org) ↩
- 1996, 2000 Years of Disbelief: Famous People with the Courage to Doubt by James A. Haught, Section: Other Figures of the Nineteenth Century, Quote Page 187, Published by Prometheus Books, Amherst, Massachusetts. (Google Books Preview) ↩
- Website: The World of Edgar Allan Poe, Article title: Marginalia, Article author: Undine, Date on website: May 21, 2012, Website description: Information and commentary about Edgar Allan Poe, (Accessed worldofpoe.blogspot.com on May 7, 2017) link ↩