While his transition from Christian to Atheist reveals an interesting journey from believing to not believing and the precarious nuances that exist within and around those two categories, it is not, entirely, the focus of this post. Rather, the overall notion of his ‘living a year without God’ got me thinking about the idea in general, which further turned me toward the usual tangential logic that I find myself so often turning to.
In fact, something about this whole story got me thinking about the Cardiff Giant. Not so much as a criticism of Bell’s idea that a Christian might ‘live without God,’ which is mostly because it appears that his reasoning for doing so seems more like an attempt at testing a hypothesis which, if we hold to the predominant definitions of Modern Atheism, such as those promoted by Buckley (1990) or Hyman (2009, 2010), sounds like the objective turn from ‘God’ as subject to ‘God’ as testable object. Rather, it got me thinking about the ways in which his process might represent the larger transition from Theism to Atheism, and how that is equally representative of the ways in which we might use these sorts of transitions (or if nothing else the story of these transitions) in order to ‘define’ that which these things represent. This got me thinking about the Cardiff Giant not because it was a hoax perpetuated by an Atheist in order to make a fortune, but because of the way in which the public devoured the story, merely because they were told it was real. The product of George Hull’s imagination and entrepreneurial spirit, the Cardiff Giant was a fabulous hoax, carved from gypsum and buried for some time in a field only to be ‘discovered’ by some unexpecting well diggers in October of 1869. Shortly after, Hull’s partner, William Newell, placed a tent around the giant and began charging admission. Soon, people were lining up to see the Giant, regardless of the fact that it was almost immediately dubbed a hoax by scholars and scientists, such as Othniel March.
As the profits grew even higher, Hull sold his interest in the hoax to a ‘syndicate’ that put it on display in New York, drawing ever larger crowds, including the renowned showman, P.T. Barnum, who offered $50,000 for the Giant, only to be turned down. Never to be out done, he hired his own craftsmen to recreate it, which he then put on display, claiming that his was the ‘real’ Giant.
In regard to the crowds tricked into paying to see Barnum’s false fake Giant, Newell notorious commented, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
Eventually, the whole thing came down to court hearings and law suits about whose Giant was the genuine article until Hull finally confessed to the hoax in December of 1869. Barnum was exonerated from any plagiarism charges because, as it turned out, it wasn’t quite possible indict someone for forging a forgery.
So, how does this relate to Bell’s ‘year without God,’ aside from the somewhat obvious connection to the ways in which we might bicker over term assignment or the meaning of concepts between notions of ‘Atheism’ or ‘non-religion?’ Well, perhaps a truly critical assessment might argue that his ‘project’ was nothing more than an attempt at masking his scepticism and doubt into a larger consideration that would have gotten him air time on NPR or international news. Likewise, we might even contend that his ‘project’ was nothing more than a hoax perpetuated to gain some sort of notoriety. Why, after all, would we care about one pastor’s progression from Theist to Atheist? Which, I think, is why I connected these two stories.
Such a critical assessment might be useful, even healthy, for certain individuals, but I think it equally overlooks the fact that, like the story of the Giant, Bell’s progression demonstrates not only a public interest, but a discursive insight as well. After all, if we were intent on understanding how beliefs become solidified, such as the way a hoax is marketed and devoured by a demanding audience, or in Bell’s case, how identity becomes constructed, is this not the ideal set of data with which to study? That is, though it might look, through a certain lens, to be something designed or formed in such a way as to inspire criticism, is it not still something worth examining? Or, is all of this once again a reminder that no matter how cautious or critical we are, there’s never really a sure way of knowing if something is a hoax (such as discourse observed), so that we must continually remind ourselves, that in the study of ‘others,’ and regardless of objectivity, we might be nothing but ‘suckers.’
For more on the Giant:
For an excellent discussion of Bell’s ‘Year without God,’ as well as an incredible blog in general:
The three sources on Modern Atheism: