“If there really is a God, I dare Him to strike me dead in the next fifteen minutes!” Sounds pretty nervy, doesn’t it? But has anyone ever actually said it—and lived? The answer turns out to be an agreeably complicated story, featuring a number of central figures in the history of secularism—and a consistent failure of the Divinity to rise (or descend) to the challenge.
Let’s start with a well-documented case of “The Dare,” involving the Nobel Laureate novelist Sinclair Lewis (1885–1951) and set in early twentieth-century Kansas City. Lewis was doing research for Elmer Gantry, his scathing depiction of the venality of Midwestern fundamentalist preachers. As part of that preparation, he held Wednesday lunchtime sessions of what was called “Sinclair Lewis’s Sunday-School Class,” and he even gave talks in the churches of some sympathetic pastors. That process reached a peak on April 18, 1926, when Lewis was speaking at a forum in the Linwood Boulevard Christian Church. Reports differ on what he said, but given his position as one of America’s preeminent writers, it’s no surprise that a national uproar ensued.
A contemporary magazine article quotes Lewis as follows, responding to a letter-writer’s claim that God had caused the death of the elderly agnostic Luther Burbank: “Let us make a real test,” he said in an almost apologetic manner. “I am going to suggest something that I know is cheap and theatrical but nevertheless has its point. If God strikes agnostics dead as a warning to the world, let him take a man in the full strength of his physical powers and not an old man with high blood pressure. I am healthy and my death will prove something.” Lewis supposedly had put his watch on the lectern and, when he finished speaking, held it up; in a letter to the Kansas City Times in 1953, a woman who was on the platform with him reported that he then said, “Well, the fifteen minutes are up. I am still alive, and the writer is wrong. God is not as he pictures Him.”
Richard Lingeman’s biography asserts that Lewis knew of some predecessors of this challenge, specifically, Robert Green Ingersoll (1833–1899) and George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950). However, Lingeman offers no references for that claim, and I have found no evidence that Ingersoll ever made such a provocative statement; Shaw undoubtedly did—or tried to. The story, found in a long prefatory essay to Shaw’s play Back to Methuselah, is so entertaining that it deserves quotation at length.
Defying the Lightning: A Frustrated Experiment
One evening in 1878 or thereabouts, I, being then in my earliest twenties, was at a bachelor party of young men of the professional class in the house of a doctor in the Kensingtonian quarter of London. They fell to talking about religious revivals; and an anecdote was related of a man who, having incautiously scoffed at the mission of Messrs. Moody and Sankey, a then famous firm of American evangelists, was subsequently carried home on a shutter, slain by divine vengeance as a blasphemer. A timid majority, without quite venturing to question the truth of the incident—for they naturally did not care to run the risk of going home on shutters themselves—nevertheless shewed a certain disposition to cavil at those who exulted in it; and something approaching to an argument began. At last it was alleged by the most evangelical of the disputants that Charles Bradlaugh, the most formidable atheist on the Secularist platform, had taken out his watch publicly and challenged the Almighty to strike him dead in five minutes if he really existed and disapproved of atheism. The leader of the cavillers, with great heat, repudiated this as a gross calumny, declaring that Bradlaugh had repeatedly and indignantly contradicted it, and implying that the atheist champion was far too pious a man to commit such a blasphemy. This exquisite confusion of ideas roused my sense of comedy. It was clear to me that the challenge attributed to Charles Bradlaugh was a scientific experiment of a quite simple, straightforward, and proper kind to ascertain whether the expression of atheistic opinions really did involve any personal risk. It was certainly the method taught in the Bible, Elijah having confuted the prophets of Baal in precisely that way, with every circumstance of bitter mockery of their god when he failed to send down fire from heaven. Accordingly I said that if the question at issue were whether the penalty of questioning the theology of Messrs. Moody and Sankey was to be struck dead on the spot by an incensed deity, nothing could effect a more convincing settlement of it than the very obvious experiment attributed to Mr. Bradlaugh and that consequently if he had not tried it, he ought to have tried it. The omission, I added, was one which could easily be remedied there and then, as I happened to share Mr. Bradlaugh’s views as to the absurdity of the belief in these violent interferences with the order of nature by a short-tempered and thin-skinned supernatural deity. Therefore—and at that point I took out my watch.
The effect was electrical. Neither sceptics nor devotees were prepared to abide the result of the experiment. In vain did I urge the pious to trust in the accuracy of their deity’s aim with a thunderbolt, and the justice of his discrimination between the innocent and the guilty. In vain did I appeal to the sceptics to accept the logical outcome of their scepticism: it soon appeared that when thunderbolts were in question there were no sceptics. Our host, seeing that his guests would vanish precipitately if the impious challenge were uttered, leaving him alone with a solitary infidel under sentence of extermination in five minutes, interposed and forbade the experiment, pleading at the same time for a change of subject. I of course complied, but could not refrain from remarking that though the dreadful words had not been uttered, yet, as the thought had been formulated in my mind, it was very doubtful whether the consequences could be averted by sealing my lips. However, the rest appeared to feel that the game would be played according to the rules, and that it mattered very little what I thought so long as I said nothing. Only the leader of the evangelical party, I thought, was a little preoccupied until five minutes had elapsed and the weather was still calm.
Shaw’s reference to the famed atheist Charles Bradlaugh (1833–1891) takes us deeper into the nineteenth century, when such a piece of brazen impudence would have been considered even more outrageous. It comes as no surprise, therefore, to find Bradlaugh’s daughter very emphatically insisting that her father never said such a thing—no matter how often it was ascribed to him, especially by his enemies. The story loomed so large in his career that her biography has an entire chapter, “The ‘Watch’ Story,” devoted to the subject. In that chapter, Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner assembles an impressive who’s who of freethinkers who had supposedly issued the challenge. After noting that the earliest ascription to her father came in 1867, she cites others who had it attached to their names—although each one, just as her father had done, steadfastly denied doing anything so outré: Abner Kneeland (1774–1844), said to be the first person to do it; Emma Martin (1812–1851), a precocious critic of religion and early supporter of women’s rights; George Holyoake (1817–1906), who reportedly began denying the story in 1854; Harriet Law (1831–1897), whose outspoken unbelief drew her into this elite club in the 1860s; and Annie Besant (1847–1933), whom Bonner quotes as commenting
that such accusations never come from contemporary sources—instead, “the pious Christian always heard about it twenty years ago and has kept it locked in his bosom ever since.”1
In 1880, Bradlaugh himself sued a writer and a publisher for libel because they had printed the story and refused to retract it; at trial, the defendants asserted that the episode had taken place repeatedly, almost two dozen times in different places over the preceding two decades, beginning in 1860. But they, like Besant’s accusers, were unable to produce persuasive evidence for even one of those instances. Their case fell apart, and Bradlaugh, distracted by other concerns and satisfied that their claims had been shown to be baseless, eventually let the matter drop.
In retrospect, it seems likely that the dramatic increase in such accusations against unbelievers was an almost reflexive response to the wave of secularism that had intensified with the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859—as if one could discredit the movement by pinning a truly offensive act on one of its leaders. That campaign of course did not succeed: secularism has had its ups and downs in the last century and a quarter, but the overall trend is very encouraging—in particular, laws against blasphemous statements have pretty well disappeared from the landscape.
And “The Dare” itself is still alive and well in our own day. Applying a characteristic twist in his stand-up comedy shows, the late George Carlin routinely prayed to God to strike his audience dead: “See? Nothing happened. Everybody’s okay? All right, tell you what, I’ll raise the stakes a little bit. If there is a God, may he strike me dead. See? Nothing happened.”2 Finally, not wanting to be left out of this merry apostate crew, I myself have “dared God”—at the beginning of a recent lecture to the Secular Student Alliance chapter in Austin (“The X-Rated Stories about Jesus: Weird Tales from the Apocryphal Gospels,” April 9, 2013). I added a further variation by asking the Divine Being to wait forty-five minutes until I finished the talk—and to zap me personally rather than the entire audience (a necessary refinement, given the Being’s well-known propensity for hitting the wrong target). Obviously, I’m still here, writing these words—although if you see a superscript obelus (dagger-symbol) in front of my name on the first page, it might be a sign that you can push the Divinity only so far. Seasoned theologians, of course, will not be impressed by what they might regard as calculated but empty theatrics—or be dismayed by the absence of divine response. The formulaic line of defense is, “You cannot tempt God,” although there are quite a few passages in the Hebrew Bible where the Divinity was indeed tempted into employing violence by a wide variety of alleged offenses.3 It’s not my purpose in this short essay to argue fine points of theology; but it should be clear that “The Dare” does have an interesting history. More important, it does seem to demonstrate, as Sinclair Lewis observed three-quarters of a century ago, that “the God of the Bible,” when challenged in a very direct (and biblical) way, simply fails the test.
1. For informative summaries of the lives of these remarkable individuals, see The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (Prometheus Books, 2007), edited by Tom Flynn. Our particular theme is mentioned only in the article on Sinclair Lewis, which is one reason for gathering these less-familiar stories here.
2. A Google search on the appropriate terms will bring up a YouTube video (tjVLJKR6g7U) and a transcript of that performance (rense.com/general69/obj.htm).
3. Cheryl A. Kirk-Duggan, of the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley, estimates that there are about a thousand acts of divine violence in the Old Testament alone (Eerdmans Dictionary 1357–1358).
References and Further Reading
Bonner, Hypatia Bradlaugh. Charles Bradlaugh: A Memoir by His Daughter. London: T. Fisher Unwin, Vol. II, 1898.
Bucco, Martin. “Bernard Shaw in Sinclair Lewis.” Shaw, 2001.
Flynn, Tom, ed. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007.
Kirk-Duggan, Cheryl A. “Violence.” In Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, edited by David Noel Freedman. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000.
Lingeman, Richard. Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street. New York: Random House, 2002.
Moffitt, John C. “A Lion in the Daniels’ Den.’ McNaught’s Monthly, May 1927.
Schorer, Mark. Sinclair Lewis: An American Life. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961.
Shaw, George Bernard. “The Infidel Half Century,” Preface to Back to Methuselah: A Metabiological Pentateuch. London: Constable, 1921.
Whitehead, Fred. “Sinclair Lewis,” The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007.
James H. Dee retired from the Classics Department of the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1999 and has been writing and lecturing on secular humanist topics since 2001.