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Word of the Day: Poe’s Law

About a month ago, I wrote a post titled, “A Powerful Defense of Reason … or Maybe Not.”  It was a letter from a pastor arguing both sides of the question of reason—that reason is a gift from God … but that it steers the honest Christian man or woman away from faith.  That reason eliminated disease like smallpox … but that Martin Luther called it “the greatest enemy of faith.”

The pastor who wrote it was Rev. Phineas P. Stopgauge—a made-up name for a made-up letter.  Though it was a parody (and had decent clues that it was), I received feedback from someone who seemed to have thought it real.

And this brings up Poe’s Law:

Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of Fundamentalism that someone won’t mistake for the real thing.

Is Landover Baptist Church a parody?  Apparently so.  How about Fred “God Hates Fags” Phelps?  Apparently not.  It’s hard to tell.  This shows the versatility of the (supposedly) immutable religion that it can morph into any form, even as parody, and still be mistaken for earnest Christianity.

We see an early example in the Cardiff Giant, a giant petrified man discovered by well diggers near Syracuse, NY in 1869.  But the entire thing was a hoax, commissioned by atheist George Hull and planted where it would be accidentally “discovered.”  Hull’s goal was to show how easy it was to fool Americans, especially Christians who believed that “There were giants in the earth in those days” (Gen. 6:4).

Even after scientists rejected the find and Hull admitted to the hoax, the Giant was still a popular tourist attraction.  P.T. Barnum offered the modern equivalent of millions of dollars, but the owners wouldn’t sell.  He created his own Giant to display and argued that his was the real fake and the other one was the fake fake.  Barnum’s conclusion: “The American people love to be humbugged.”

A recent example was the “GOD IS SO GOOD!!!!” video by TamTamPamela, an earnest 20-something woman from Florida talking about how fantastic it was that, in the lead-up to Easter, God showed himself to atheists through the March 11 Japan earthquake and tsunami (find more details about this event at the ThinkAtheist blog).

A few days later, after her address and phone number had been publicized and she received the obligatory delivery of unwanted pizza, she publicly stated that the whole thing had been just a provocation.

That this wasn’t obvious to begin with, and that a Christian could plausibly make this statement, makes this a classic example of Poe’s Law.

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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