The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought by Susan Jacoby

According to The Great Agnostic, there were two great opponents of religion and proponents of naturalism in American history: Thomas Paine and Robert Ingersoll. Strangely, hardly anyone today has heard of Ingersoll. (For that matter, few Americans today know that Tom Paine had anything to say about religion.)

Robert Ingersoll was a world-famous lawyer and lecturer who lived from 1833 to 1899. He was considered perhaps the greatest orator of his day. He had an extremely successful career traveling all across the country, lecturing to large, appreciative crowds, among whom were many ordinary, religious Americans. He was a member of the social and political establishment, but his public statements opposing religion insured that he never held political office.

In Susan Jacoby’s words, Ingersoll “explained the true meaning and value of science … in a more understandable fashion than any scientist, even the brilliant popularizer Thomas Henry Huxley … Second, Ingersoll made the connection between repressive religion and everyday burdens and injustices as no one had before him.” 

Among the targets of Ingersoll’s scorn were slavery, capital punishment, the subjugation of women, debtor’s prisons, the mistreatment of animal and Social Darwinism. He believed that “there were no social injustices in which religion did not play a major role” — for example, in the belief that the existence of the poor was God’s will, and the idea that men should exert authority over women. 

Jacoby suggests that Ingersoll’s primary purpose was to remind his countrymen that the United States was founded by men who rejected the idea of theocracy: “the glory of the founding generation was that it did not establish a Christian nation”. Ingersoll rejected all supernatural explanations for human behavior and the world around us, while hoping that science and reason would eventually lead us to a world of peace, justice and prosperity. Quoting him: “Man through his intelligence must protect himself. He gets no help from any other world…. Let the ghosts go. We will worship them no more”.

Ingersoll came to be known as the “Great Agnostic”, even though he saw no significant difference between agnosticism and atheism. It isn’t clear why his fame diminished over the years. Although his collected works comprise 12 volumes, perhaps his written words weren’t as powerful as his oratory. Maybe if he had written a good summary of his views, he would be as famous today as Thomas Paine is for writing “The Age of Reason” (which, unfortunately, isn’t very famous at all).

One of the virtues of The Great Agnostic is how it shows that our current cultural battles over religion are hardly new. The 19th century featured the same kinds of conflict, on topics like evolution, birth control and government support for religious education. We haven’t made as much progress as we should have. If there had been someone with Ingersoll’s convictions and abilities speaking out during the 20th century, and now in the 21st, we might be a better country today.

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