Words of ‘Great Agnostic’ still ring true: George White

Jen McCreight offers a view of the official club shirt worn by the Society of Non-Theists at Purdue University.Read these quotes and imagine:

“It may be that ministers really think that their prayers do good and it may be that frogs imagine that their croaking brings spring.”

“If there be an infinite Being, he does not need our help — we need not waste our energies in his defense.”

“The inspiration of the Bible depends upon the ignorance of the gentleman who reads it.”

Imagine an auditorium, filled to capacity to hear an orator known worldwide discuss atheism and question Christian tenets. Imagine thousands of people willing to pay a substantial admission to hear his eloquence and irreverent wit. Ingersoll, “The Great Agnostic,” would speak extemporaneously for three hours.

He was a lawyer and former colonel in the army. He was called the “most brilliant speaker of the English tongue of all the men on the globe.” Who could this be — Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens? You may be surprised to learn this remarkable speaker was popular over 130 years ago!

Robert Green Ingersoll, born Aug. 11, 1833, in Dresden, N.Y., was a major entertainment figure before the advent of motion pictures, radio and television. Between 1865 and 1888, he traveled the country on many speaking engagements. While he is not well-known today outside the freethought community, it has been said that, at the time, no human had been seen or heard by more Americans.

He was the son of an abolitionist-leaning Presbyterian preacher, whose radical views forced his family to move frequently. John Ingersoll eventually moved to Illinois and was admitted to the bar in 1854. He served as a Union Army colonel in the Civil War.

(Left: Jen McCreight offers a view of the official club shirt worn by the Society of Non-Theists at Purdue University.)

It is amazing that 130 years ago, the topic of atheism could draw crowds of people, when today’s politicians and leaders rarely mention the word. At a time when people were still being prosecuted for blasphemy, Ingersoll spoke on religion, woman’s suffrage and science, much to the chagrin of adherents of religious orthodoxy. Among his famous lectures were “The Gods” (1872), “Orthodoxy” (1884), “Some Mistakes of Moses” (1879), “Why I Am an Agnostic” (1896), and “Superstition” (1898).

His lectures are still relevant. From “The Gods”:

• We have heard talk enough. We have listened to all the drowsy, idealess, vapid sermons that we wish to hear. We have read your bible and the works of your best minds. We have heard your prayers, your solemn groans and your reverential amen’s. All these amount to less than nothing. We want one fact. We beg at the doors of your churches for just one little fact. We pass our hats along your pews and under your pulpits and implore you for just one fact. We know all about your moldy wonders and your stale miracles. We want this year’s fact. We ask only one. Give us one fact for charity. Your miracles are too ancient. The witnesses have been dead for nearly two thousand years.
• The notion that faith in Christ is to be rewarded by an eternity of bliss, while a dependence upon reason, observation and experience merits everlasting pain, is too absurd for refutation, and can be relieved only by that unhappy mixture of insanity and ignorance, called “faith.”
• The book, called the bible, is filled with passages equally horrible, unjust and atrocious. This is the book to be read in schools in order to make our children loving, kind and gentle! This is the book they wish to be recognized in our Constitution as the source of all authority and justice!

Ingersoll, ‘The Great Agnostic,’ would speak extemporaneously for three hours.

Today’s nonbelievers are often accused of unfairly attacking and lacking compassion for religionists. Ingersoll was direct in saying what he thought. From “Orthodoxy”:

• The clergy know that I know that they know that they do not know.
• Is there an intelligent man or woman now in the world who believes in the Garden of Eden story? If you find any man who believes it, strike his forehead and you will hear an echo. Something is for rent.

Ingersoll was an attorney. In 1887, he agreed to defend C.B. Reynolds, who was charged in New Jersery with blasphemy for distributing a pamphlet with an argument against the infallibility of the bible. Ingersoll delivered a 20,000-word closing argument that addressed the blasphemy charge and the bigger issue of free speech. The New York Times reported that an old man approached Ingersoll after the closing argument and said, “Colonel Ingersoll, I am a Presbyterian pastor, but I must say that was the noblest speech in defense of liberty I ever heard!”

Some amazing passages from his closing argument had to have shocked believers:

• For thousands of years, people have been trying to force other people to think their way. Did they succeed? No. Will they succeed? No. Why? Because brute force is not an argument.
• No orthodox church ever had power that it did not endeavor to make people think its way by force and flame.
• It seems to me that if there is some infinite being who wants us to think alike, he would have made us alike.
• How has the church in every age, when in authority, defended itself? Always by a statute against blasphemy, against argument, against free speech. And there never was such a statute that did not stain the book that it was in and that did not certify to the savagery of the men who passed it.
• Now, gentlemen, what is blasphemy? Of course nobody knows what it is, unless he takes into consideration where he is. What is blasphemy in one country would be a religious exhortation in another.

Ingersoll lost the case. Reynolds was found guilty and ordered to pay a $25 fine and $50 in costs, which Ingersoll paid, and provided his services for free. It was still a victory for freethought because very few blasphemy charges were brought in the ensuing years. Reynolds, who obviously had not learned his lesson, spent the rest of his life on atheist and state-church separation issues.
Ingersoll died in 1899 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery (Section 3, Lot 1620, Grid S-16.5). His Dresden birthplace home is now a museum. (I recommend What’s God Got To Do With It?, edited by Tim Page, which includes short excerpts from Ingersoll speeches, interviews and newspaper articles.)
We live in a time when we are very lucky to have many authors such as Christopher Hitchens, Susan Jacoby and Richard Dawkins promoting the freethought cause. We also need to remember the pioneers, like Robert Ingersoll, who spent his life promoting science and reason.

Right: The Second Commandment in Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary is this: “No images nor idols make/for Robert Ingersoll to break.”

George White is an FFRF member, computer programmer, writer and ex-Catholic. He lives in Shawnee Mission, Kan., with his heathen wife and children.

Freedom From Religion Foundation