February 23, 2013 2:54:11 PM
It is impossible to imagine that these days we could ever have a public figure like Robert Ingersoll. He was the very first American that most other Americans had ever heard of who publically declared, "I don't believe in God." That would not be surprising nowadays; there is a strong "New Atheist" movement, and there are statistics to show that the number of people who do not go to church and the number of people who claim to have no religion are increasing. Ingersoll, however, was popular; he was a genial man who got enormous audiences during a time when conventional Christianity was taken for granted, audiences who came to hear their beliefs critiqued and gently derided, and enjoyed having some fun at their own expense. Susan Jacoby, who has written on American secularism before, maintains that the current secularists have needlessly forgotten Ingersoll, and wants to bring his thinking back to our attention in The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought (Yale University Press), an accessible account of Ingersoll's thinking and influence. Jacoby's book is a biography, and Ingersoll has deservedly had those before, but here she places him as a secularist hero for our own age. He does deserve to be better known, as an American original, by the devout and by the unbelievers.
Ingersoll was called "The Great Agnostic" in his own time, one of the reasons that he may not be so much of a hero to atheists today, who consider agnostics wishy-washy. It may be a point of philosophical confusion, but Ingersoll himself didn't see the difference between the two groups, since the main thing that characterized both was a lack of belief in gods: "The Agnostic is an Atheist," he said. "The Atheist is an Agnostic. The Agnostic says: 'I do not know, but I do not believe there is any god.' The Atheist says the same. The orthodox Christian says he knows there is a God: but we know that he does not know. The Atheist cannot know that God does not exist." Another point of contention current "New Atheists" might have with Ingersoll is his eagerness to build bridges between secularism and moderate Christianity, the Christianity that accepted geological science and liberal social views.
One such Christian was Ingersoll's father, a Presbyterian minister who had trouble making a go of his profession because of his outspoken opposition to slavery. At a time when a minister might count on being stationed in one church for life, John Ingersoll was constantly moving from one dissatisfied congregation to another. Ingersoll's peripatetic early life forced him to be in charge of his own education, and like many children who have a surfeit of religious reading at home, he found it necessary to be skeptical of what he read. Those who said Ingersoll's disbelief was a rebellion against his excessively strict father were off the mark, Ingersoll himself said. He thought his father a man of tenderness who loved his children, and had little severity toward them except as sparked by his religion. "Like most men of his time," Ingersoll wrote, "he thought Solomon knew something about raising children. For my part, I think he should have known better than to place the least confidence in the advice of a man so utterly idiotic as to imagine he could be happy with seven hundred wives."
Ingersoll was admitted to the bar in 1854, a practice he continued all his life, even after his oratorical shows began. He was a colonel in the Union Army during the Civil War, was captured in Tennessee by the forces of Nathan Bedford Forrest, and was allowed to return home and resign his commission. His clerical enemies tried to sully his memory by claiming he had been a coward, but never had any evidence. He spoke against slavery, linking his disbelief in religion to his disdain for priests who insisted that slavery was right in the eyes of God. He had been appointed as Illinois attorney general, and in 1868 sought the Republican nomination for governor. He lost, at least partially because he was not going to keep silent about his religious views. (Nothing changes much; you would still hand your opponent a dagger if you ran for office as an infidel.) His political influence, however, remained considerable. His distaste for religion might have made it impossible for him to be elected, or even appointed, to office, but his fellow Republicans sought him out for his rhetorical gifts. There were also more freethinkers among the Republicans, and more respect for contemporary science, than in the Democrats. His capacity for oratory in the courtroom or on the political dais made him more famous than if he were only a loud infidel, and, says Jacoby, "...piqued the interest of Americans who were not freethinkers but were interested in being entertained by a witty talker."
Jacoby allows some of that talk to come through in wonderful chunks of quotations. Everyone who has heard discussions about evolution and intelligent design has heard of Paley's argument from design, but listen to Ingersoll have a go at it: "A man finds a watch and it is so wonderful that he concludes that it must have had a maker. He finds the maker and he is so much more wonderful than the watch that he says he must have had a maker. Then he finds God, the maker of the man, and he is so much more wonderful than the man that he could not have had a maker. This is what the lawyers call a departure in pleading." To the religious argument that evolution degraded humans, Ingersoll said, "The church teaches that man was created perfect and that for six thousand years he has degenerated. Darwin demonstrated the falsity of this dogma. He shows that man has for thousands of ages steadily advanced; that the Garden of Eden is an ignorant myth; that the doctrine of original sin has no foundation in fact; that the atonement is an absurdity; that the serpent did not tempt, and that man did not 'fall.'" This type of optimism was attractive to many Americans, who had an inherent belief in progress.
Ingersoll's lack of religious belief was his foundation for his own system of beliefs. "While I am opposed to all orthodox creeds," he said, "I have a creed myself; and my creed is this. Happiness is the only good. The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here. The way to be happy is to make others so." He never allied himself with the Social Darwinists, who, freethinker or Christian, thought that the poor, the immigrants, and the darker races were inferior. He insisted that women were the worst-paid and worst-treated workers in America, and that birth control was essential in liberating women from servitude. He believed, like Voltaire, and like Paine (whose obscurity as a patriot and anti-biblical polemicist Ingersoll spent a lifetime correcting) that human rights were universal and indivisible. He believed this precisely because of his disbelief in religion; you could not find ringing principles of free speech or free press, let alone the prohibition of religious requirements for office, by studying the ancient writings of any faith.
Ingersoll's clerical enemies, some of whom called him Robert Injure-Soul, were eager to paint him as a coward in the war, or a man in rebellion against his father. They would have liked to have had some purchase that would show how evil Ingersoll was, but there just wasn't any; he was in all aspects an amiable fellow. Ingersoll loved literature, especially that of Shakespeare and of his friend Walt Whitman (who also the clerics did not like), he loved music, and he was always a soft touch for anyone who needed financial help. He adored his wife and two daughters. Ingersoll knew that, just as happened at the death of Voltaire and Paine, there would be those who, when he himself died, would want to make sure that the story was told of how he was writhing in agony or even better, that he had committed suicide or had a deathbed conversion. Indeed, those stories circulated, but only from spite. The night before he died in 1899, Ingersoll played billiards, and smoked a cigar, and looked out from his porch and said, "This is a beautiful world." He took a nap the next day, and was talking with relatives when someone made a joke, he laughed, closed his eyes, and ceased breathing. The headline of his obituary in the Chicago Tribune was, "Ingersoll Dies Smiling."
Jacoby has written a fine introduction to an American thinker. There are bigger biographies of Ingersoll, but the timing of this one when Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and others are making atheism more apparent to theists (if not more acceptable) is excellent. Indeed, she ends the book with "A Letter to the 'New' Atheists," exhorting them to remember Ingersoll for his devotion to science and reason, his disgust for religious oppression, and his insistence on reminding Americans that our founders had explicitly rejected any sort of theocracy. There is one characteristic none of the current atheist stars have to the degree Ingersoll did: humor. There are plenty of quotations here to show how he slyly turned a phrase or an idea that could even have believers laughing at the contradictions of their beliefs. We do not have his stage presence anymore, but Jacoby's book is an invitation to read his good-humored, serious lectures like "The Gods" or "The Ghosts." I have turned to them myself again in the past few days, with great pleasure, and from the latter I find: "Sir Thomas More declared that to give up witchcraft was to throw away the sacred Scriptures. In my judgment, he was right." And Jacoby is right to stir contemporary enthusiasm for her subject.