The Great Agnostic

Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought

by Susan Jacoby

The Great Agnostic

Hardcover, 246 pages, Yale Univ Pr, List Price: $25 | purchase


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Book Summary

Restores America's foremost 19th-century champion of reason and secularism to our still contested 21st-century public square.

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Afterword: A Letter to the "New" Atheists

There is no such thing as a new atheist. You know this, of course, and are usually careful to give ample credit to your predecessors. They made you possible, by waging the battle for reason and freedom of conscience at considerable risk to their own lives and liberty — whether by speaking out against the received opinion of their times or by the scientific investigation that led to a natural rather than a supernatural explanation of how our entire universe, including human beings, came to be. The names of Copernicus, Galileo, Giordano Bruno, Spinoza, Voltaire, Paine, Humboldt, and, of course, Darwin are frequently on your lips and in your books, as well they should be. Upon the shoulders of these giants rest the efforts of all whose aim is to make gentle the life of this world rather than to seek paradise in some hidden world beyond nature. So why is Robert Green Ingersoll usually absent from your honor roll?

I would not expect you to mention Ingersoll if you were promoting the idea that America is, after all, a Christian nation founded by Christians who intended to establish a Christian government. But you are all dedicated to the advancement of the same secular values that Ingersoll advocated in a much more religious era. Had there been no Ingersoll to continue Paine's work of laying the foundation for future, unassured, yet eminently possible ages of American reason, there would be a much smaller audience today not only for you but for liberal religious believers who, instead of caving in to right-wing myths about America having been established as a quasi-theocracy, have fought and are still fighting efforts to impose parochial religious dogma on public policy.

Sometimes I suspect that Ingersoll's nineteenth-century designation as the Great Agnostic — not the Great Atheist — is the real reason why so many prominent twentyfirst century atheists have placed scant emphasis on his role in American history. A neutral descriptive term in Europe today, atheist remains a pejorative to many religious Americans. I would not be surprised if some of you imagine that Ingersoll was trying to fudge his real beliefs to attain greater public respectability, as some American agnostics do today. Not so. When offered the opportunity many times by journalists to distinguish his agnosticism from atheism, Ingersoll never took the bait and always replied that there was no difference between the two. Whether one called oneself an atheist or an agnostic, Ingersoll emphasized, it was impossible to "prove" a negative such as the nonexistence of God. Ingersoll would cheerfully accept being called an atheist by those who considered the word a worse epithet than agnostic. That ought to be good enough for any outspoken atheist today — especially since there are still so many Americans whoembrace the misapprehension that all atheists claim to"know" that God does not exist. Such people will often state, with an air of moral superiority, that they are agnostics because they do not subscribe to "atheist fundamentalism." They do not understand that fundamentalism (if what is meant by fundamentalism is belief in the literal truth and divine authorship of ancient books) has nothing to do with atheism, and that the atheist, like the self-described agnostic, regards proofs of the existence of God in the same light that David Hume regarded proofs of miracles. With Hume, the atheist says, "No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish."

Many of you (including those, like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, born and educated in England) have devoted a good deal of your proselytizing energy to the United States because this is the only developed country whose inhabitants still cling, in significant numbers, to the idea that their nation and their way of life was ordained by God. What these particular Americans mean by God is not some vague, overarching providence but a particular god who shed his divinity to walk the earth some two thousand years ago and died on a cross to redeem us (including you heretics) from the original sin committed in the Garden of Eden. And so, you rightly emphasize one of the great paradoxes of American history — the founding of the world's first secular government at a time when the American people were even more overwhelmingly Christian, specifically Protestant, than they are today. In the pantheon of American freethinkers, you rarely fail to mention, at some point, the role played in the establishment of our secular government by the many Enlightenment rationalists among the founders. You always single out Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison not only as the founders of the new nation but also as the progenitors of an American tradition that enshrines no religion — unless intellectual liberty is considered religion. Again I ask: Where is Ingersoll in your accounts of subsequent chapters in the story of American secularism?

The nineteenth-century media identification of Ingersoll with agnosticism is not the only reason for his obscure standing in the atheist pantheon today. Another explanation can be traced to the criticism of Ingersoll, both before and after his death, on grounds that he was not an "original thinker" but merely a synthesizer and popularizer of other people's ideas. He was certainly not a scientist, a philosopher, or a historian recognized by scholarly institutions. But that was precisely Ingersoll's strength: He believed that reason was available to and attainable by the many and not restricted to the educated few. He saw the writings of Shakespeare, Spinoza, Voltaire, Paine, Jefferson, and Humboldt as comprehensible to all; a degree in the natural sciences, philosophy, or literature was not required to enter Ingersoll's house of reason. This is hardly a moot argument today, given that a continuing feature of our political culture is the denigration of reason itself as an "ivory tower" phenomenon that could not possibly be important to anyone but a professor in his or her study. There is no "merely" about Ingersoll's role as a popularizer of freethought, because when the cause is reason itself, and the capacity of reason to alter human lives for the better, nothing can be accomplished without widespread dissemination among members of the public from diverse educational backgrounds and social classes. Ingersoll left a priceless legacy not only to committed atheists but to secularists who — like many of the American founders — may believe in some form of Providence but are convinced that any universal spirit has left it up to humans to solve earthly problems through our own reason.

Ingersoll labored mightily to cut through the layers of religious treacle that separated Americans of his country's second century, for all their more advanced technology, from the Enlightenment rationalists who wrote a founding document beginning with the words "We the People" rather than with acknowledgment of gratitude and servitude to some divinity. He was the missing link between the revolutionary generation and millions of late nineteenthcentury Americans, whether born in the New World or the Old, who had forgotten or never knew that their nation was built on the premise of human, not divine, authority.

None of this history is far removed from the task of twenty-first-century atheists and secularists. The audience for the new-old atheists includes a good many Americans in their thirties whose great-grandparents might well have heard Ingersoll invite them to join him and other freethinkers in "laying the foundations of the grand temple of the future — not the temple of all the gods, but of all the people." My own grandfather, born in 1872, attended many of Ingersoll's lectures. Does his interest in one of the two greatest freethinkers in American history have anything to do with the fact that I, and my two nieces in their twenties, are atheists? I cannot be certain, but I do know that doubt, like faith, is generally transmitted over generations; there is rarely a single moment, the equivalent of Saul falling off his horse on the road to Damascus, in which people slap their heads and say, "Eureka, Christ is the Lord!" or "Eureka, there is no all-powerful, loving God!" Faith and reason are always in the air we breathe: Ingersoll was one of the grand doubters who labored to clear the environment of poisonous certitude for future generations.

First, he explained the true meaning and value of science as a system of inquiry whose tentative conclusions were always open to modification by new evidence. He explained this in a more understandable fashion than any scientist, even the brilliant popularizer Thomas Henry Huxley, did at the time and in more lucid fashion than any scientist, with the possible exception of Dawkins, is doing right now. It may even have been better that Ingersoll was not a scientist, because the notion that there is some vast divide between the "mysteries" of science and ordinary human intelligence, that science and religion or, for that matter, science and the humanities, must occupy "separate magisteria" was one of the most pernicious intellectual fashions of the second half of the twentieth century. In Ingersoll's time, specialization had not yet triumphed, and the idea that one had to be a scientist to understand the scientific method, or to talk about it, was considered highly suspect by most Americans. Science is not a mystery, Ingersoll told his audiences, and scientists are not priests, bishops, or popes. The latter half of the proposition was arguably as important as the former, because some in his generation were led by their passion for science into pseudosciences that took on some of the characteristics of religious orthodoxy. These late nineteenth-century scientific-seeming byways ranged from the prevailing social Darwinism of many Gilded Age intellectuals and business leaders to the arrogance of the vivisectionists, whose claims that they had a perfect right to torture lower animals in the name of science were not all that far removed from the biblical assertion that God had created man with dominion over the birds of the air and the beasts of the field.

Second, Ingersoll made the connection between repressive religion and everyday burdens and injustices as no one had before him. The Enlightenment rationalists, especially Paine and Voltaire, understood and excoriated the role of religion, coupled with state power, in large issues that included slavery, torture, and capital punishment. Ingersoll spoke out on the same issues but moved farther and deeper into the most intimate injustices sanctioned by society. As far as he was concerned, there were no social injustices in which religion did not play a major role – from the prevalent belief, well into the nineteenth century, that God had created the poor for a reason and that only those who could pay deserved to be educated, to the religiously based laws and customs that sanctioned marital violence, deemed it a moral disgrace for a woman to leave her husband for any reason, and denied women access to education and the means of making a living. Debtors' prisons, cruelty to children and animals, inhumane treatment both of the insane and of criminals: All were justified by biblical precepts that formed the original basis for mistreatment of the powerless by the powerful. Ingersoll did not live to see twentieth-century totalitarianism, but there is little doubt, given his contempt for the idea that "tooth and claw" should be the rule for man in a state of civilization, that he would have had equal contempt for secular ideologies that took on the anti-rational, anti-evidentiary characteristics of orthodox theology.

Finally, Ingersoll's primary civic aim was the restoration of the historical memory of a founding generation that had explicitly rejected theocracy as the basis for a national government. His American patriotism was inseparable from his valorization of the separation of church and state. To him, the glory of the founding generation was that it did not establish a Christian nation. There is no establishment figure who says anything of the kind in America today. Even though Ingersoll was denied the opportunity for public office because of his antireligious beliefs, he was nevertheless very much a part of the social and political establishment. Yet he placed his principles, and his determination that Americans not forget the secular side of their own history, above his considerable political ambitions — something that no aspirant to high office has been willing to do in the United States since . . . well, since Ingersoll himself. There ought to be some sort of Atheist Hall of Fame — it would not be large — for those who refuse to engage in religious hypocrisy to further their political ambitions.

Ingersoll belongs there. Eliminate a few Victorianisms, and everything he had to say in his time is just as relevant to a nation in which religious censors are still trying to eliminate the very idea of the separation of church and state from school history texts and a world in which radical Islamist theocrats still want blasphemers to die for their "crimes."

Like atheists of this generation, Ingersoll was constantly charged by his religiously orthodox contemporaries with the crime of attempting to destroy comforting beliefs in divine guidance while replacing them with nothing, leaving forlorn men and women to roam the earth in a state of fear because nothing can make this life worthwhile in the absence of faith in an afterlife. To this Ingersoll replied, as atheists do today, that nothing in a putative eternity could possibly justify suffering in this world and that the reduction of suffering in one, finite lifetime is a high goal for any human being. Given the existence of evils long attributed to gods, Ingersoll saw no reason for humans to be intimidated by the idea that they were on their own in the task of building a better future. "Man through his intelligence must protect himself," Ingersoll said equably. "He gets no help from any other world." What would be left when the men and women banished the ghosts of gods who destroyed or ennobled humans on the basis of divine whim? "The world remains," Ingersoll replied, "with . . . homes and firesides, where grow and bloom the virtues of our race. . . . Let the ghosts go. We will worship them no more. Let them cover their eyeless sockets with their fleshless hands and fade forever from the imaginations of men."

You "new" atheists should consider it your special duty and privilege to work tenaciously for the restoration of the memory of this old American freethinker. You owe him. So does every American, religious or nonreligious, who enjoys and takes for granted that liberty of conscience is meant for thee as well as for me — the greatest secular idea of all.

Excerpted from The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought, by Susan Jacoby, published January 2013 by Yale University Press. Copyright 2013 by Susan Jacoby. Reprinted by permission of Yale University Press.

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