Attributed to Mark Twain on Facebook and elsewhere: “Religion was invented when the first con man met the first fool.”
Mark Twain was the pen name of American author Samuel Clemens (1835-1910). Quite a few quotations disparaging religion came from Twain, though he was apparently a Presbyterian. So what about the above quotation that often accompanies a picture of a seated Twain?
As we've previously emphasized, it's not practical to absolutely prove that a given person didn't say a quotation attributed to them. On the other hand, it's not justifiable to attribute any old phrase to a person on the off chance they happened to say it. Proper attribution requires some reasonable evidence to back the claim.
In this case, the evidence is lacking.
We were poised to interview experts on Mark Twain and do searches of available databases of the author's works, but the patterns in simple Google searches suggested an easier alternative. All the Google hits for our set of keywords lacked a source attribution, a classic symptom of spurious quotations, and more importantly the hits were recent. We revised our search criteria to look for an origin of the quotation. It didn't appear before 2002 on the Web. Anti-religious quotations from famous people just don't go unused over that length of time. If Twain wrote or said it, somebody would have quoted it online before the year 2000.
The quotation is almost certainly not from Mark Twain.
If not from Twain, then where did it come from?
We found almost all of the occurrences of the quotation before Nov. 14, 2008 came from message boards. The quotations came from the signature lines of message board participants. Since those might have changed since the messages posted, we deemed it very likely that they did not represent early occurrences of the quotation.
The lone exception came from an undated blog post. Google dated the post from 2002. We left a message asking about the date of the post and the source of the quotation.
As we find the earliest evidence for the quotation dubious, we're inclined to identify the origin of the quote from near its initial increase in popularity: 2009.
In 2009, California schoolteacher James Corbett lost a suit filed by a former student alleging that Corbett violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution with comments disparaging religion. The court found Corbett guilty of that violation with respect to only one statement. One of Corbett's other statements represents the origin of the bogus quotation of Mark Twain. From the OC Register account of the trial:
For the other disputed statement – in which Corbett was accused of saying religion was “invented when the first con man met the first fool” – the judge ruled in Corbett's favor, arguing Corbett may have been simply attempting to quote American author Mark Twain.
Corbett's full statement was, “What was it Mark Twain said? ‘Religion was invented when the first con man met the first fool.””
News accounts and other discussions of the trial created for some the impression that the quotation came from Twain.
We investigated one other possibility, that new material from Twain was published recently. It happens that Twain instructed that 100 years should pass before publishers would release his autobiography. That occurred in 2010, close to the time frame in question. We failed to find evidence of the quotation in either volume of Twain's autobiography, however.
We're not sure what statement of Twain's Corbett was trying to quote. But we're confident Twain was not responsible for the quotation Corbett used and subsequently many others attributed to Twain.
Addendum Jan 11, 2021:
We received comments via email from Hans Havermann regarding the possibility that Voltaire served as the ultimate source for the quotation and sentiment often attributed to Twain. Havermann shared a quotation of Voltaire from 1736 as evidence. I don't understand French so I'm not fact-checking that. Here's Havermann's follow-up:
By the way, the “quelqu'un a dit” that precedes the French version of the quotation means (I think) “someone has said”, so apparently removing it from his own authorship. But…
The footnote for this part says “Voltaire lui-même; voyez tome XI, page 88.” In other words, Voltaire himself. And indeed, it appears here:
“Mais qui fut celui qui inventa cet art? ce fut le premier fripon qui rencontra un imbécile.” The “cet art” refers presumably to “les divinations, les augures” that begins the paragraph. Alas, I have no clue when this (presumably) even earlier reference might have been written.
As far as a translation, John Morley's 1878 (third edition) monograph on Voltaire suggests “the first prophet or diviner having been the first rogue who met the first fool.” Morley's first edition was 1872. We have of course “knave”, “rascal”, or “scoundrel” (perhaps “con-man” is not that far off) as possible translations for “fripon” (instead of “rogue”) and “imbecile” or “idiot” instead of “fool”.
Our thanks to Havermann for his interest and contributions.