December 14, 2011

“An atheist is a man who has no invisible means of support.”


There’s a famous quotation about atheists associated with the date December 14 that is widely attributed to Bishop Fulton J. Sheen:

       “An atheist is a man who has no invisible means of support.”

The source that’s usually cited for this quote is the December 14, 1955 issue of LOOK magazine.

Sheen did say this line in an article in LOOK magazine and his use of it may be the most famous.

But the record needs to be set straight about a couple of things.

First of all, Sheen’s use of the saying was definitely not in the December 14, 1955 issue of LOOK. There was no December 14, 1955 issue of LOOK.

The LOOK magazine published in mid-December of 1955 was dated December 13, 1955. And, Sheen wasn’t featured in that issue.

He was featured on the cover of the December 14, 1954 issue of LOOK and in an article in that issue titled “Religion’s Best Sellers.”

So, that appears to be the correct citation for Sheen’s use of the quip “An atheist is a man who has no invisible means of support.”

It should also be noted that Sheen didn’t coin this famous quotation.

In the book On Being a Real Person, published in 1943, American clergyman Harry Emerson Fosdick wrote:

       “An atheist, says John Buchan, is ‘a man who has no invisible means of support.’”

That’s apparently why many books and websites credit the line to John Buchan, the Scottish historian, Governor General of Canada and author of the book The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915).

However, Buchan didn’t coin the line either. His use, in a speech recorded in a law journal in 1935, was a reference to something he’d heard.

Buchan said:

       “I have heard an atheist defined as a man who has no invisible means of support.”

Who created the definition that Buchan heard? Sorry, I don’t know. At this point, the real origin of the line is still a mystery.

I do know that, in his wickedly funny Devil’s Dictionary (1911), the great American writer, curmudgeon and atheist Ambrose Bierce defined the word prejudice as: “A vagrant opinion without visible means of support.”

Of course, from an atheist’s perspective “an opinion without visible means of support” might also seem like a reasonably good definition of religion.

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