Some of you may be asking yourselves, “Robert who?” So allow me to explain: Colonel Robert Green Ingersoll is not a household name these days, but back in the mid-1800’s he was considered one of the greatest orators of the Golden Age of Freethought. Ingersoll was born on August 11, 1833 and would be 173 years old if he were still alive today. Alas he passed away on July 21, 1899 of heart failure at the age of 65.
The thing that makes him so amazing is that he was very much a freethinker and skeptic who devoted a good portion of his lectures to the defense of agnosticism and yet he was regarded as a superstar by the general public and could fill theaters and lecture halls to capacity wherever he made an appearance. Can you imagine someone these days being held in such high regard while making comments like this:
- 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 amens. 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 mouldy wonders and your stale miracles. We want a 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 Gods (1872)
- Churches are becoming political organizations….
It probably will not be long until the churches will divide as sharply upon political, as upon theological questions; and when that day comes, if there are not liberals enough to hold the balance of power, this Government will be destroyed. The liberty of man is not safe in the hands of any church. Wherever the Bible and sword are in partnership, man is a slave.
All laws for the purpose of making man worship God, are born of the same spirit that kindled the fires of the auto da fe, and lovingly built the dungeons of the Inquisition. All laws defining and punishing blasphemy—making it a crime to give your honest ideas about the Bible, or to laugh at the ignorance of the ancient Jews, or to enjoy yourself on the Sabbath, or to give your opinion of Jehovah, were passed by impudent bigots, and should be at once repealed by honest men. An infinite God ought to be able to protect himself, without going in partnership with State Legislatures. Certainly he ought not so to act that laws become necessary to keep him from being laughed at. No one thinks of protecting Shakespeare from ridicule, by the threat of fine and imprisonment. It strikes me that God might write a book that would not necessarily excite the laughter of his children. In fact, I think it would be safe to say that a real God could produce a work that would excite the admiration of mankind. Surely politicians could be better employed than in passing laws to protect the literary reputation of the Jewish God. —Some Mistakes of Moses
And then there’s my favorite Ingersoll quote that is as relevant today as it was when he first uttered it…
- It is contended by many that ours is a Christian government, founded upon the Bible, and that all who look upon the book as false or foolish are destroying the foundation of our country. The truth is, our government is not founded upon the rights of gods, but upon the rights of men. Our Constitution was framed, not to declare and uphold the deity of Christ, but the sacredness of humanity. Ours is the first government made by the people and for the people. It is the only nation with which the gods have had nothing to do. And yet there are some judges dishonest and cowardly enough to solemnly decide that this is a Christian country, and that our free institutions are based upon the infamous laws of Jehovah.—Individuality (1873)
We could use someone like Ingersoll these days though I’d imagine his reception would be much different than it was back when he was alive. A lot of what he wrote in the past is just as applicable today—if not even more so given the shift towards religious belief the majority of people in this country have undertaken since Ingersoll’s time. He’s second only to Mark Twain on my list of writers who have been influential contributers in my eventual transition to atheism. If you’ve not read much of his writings then I heartily recommend that you spend some time getting to know him. In particular I’d point to his Christmas Sermon of 1892 along with An Address to the Colored People of 1867 and, just for good measure, also God in the Constitution. The latter from which we get the following brief passage:
- The Government of the United States is secular. It derives its power from the consent of man. It is a Government with which God has nothing whatever to do—and all forms and customs, inconsistent with the fundamental fact that the people are the source of authority, should be abandoned. In this country there should be no oaths—no man should be sworn to tell the truth, and in no court should there be any appeal to any supreme being. A rascal by taking the oath appears to go in partnership with God, and ignorant jurors credit the firm instead of the man. A witness should tell his story, and if he speaks falsely should be considered as guilty of perjury. Governors and Presidents should not issue religious proclamations. They should not call upon the people to thank God. It is no part of their official duty. It is outside of and beyond the horizon of their authority. There is nothing in the Constitution of the United States to justify this religious impertinence.
For many years priests have attempted to give to our Government a religious form. Zealots have succeeded in putting the legend upon our money: “In God We Trust;” and we have chaplains in the army and navy, and legislative proceedings are usually opened with prayer. All this is contrary to the genius of the Republic, contrary to the Declaration of Independence, and contrary really to the Constitution of the United States. We have taken the ground that the people can govern themselves without the assistance of any supernatural power. We have taken the position that the people are the real and only rightful source of authority. We have solemnly declared that the people must determine what is politically right and what is wrong, and that their legally expressed will is the supreme law. This leaves no room for national superstition—no room for patriotic gods or supernatural beings—and this does away with the necessity for political prayers.
If you’re a freethinker then reading Ingersoll’s writings will inspire and thrill you. To imagine that at one time he commanded the attention of this nation gives one hope for a future where rationality and reason might gain their proper status in the minds of Americans. In a day and age when superstition and credulity seem to dominate the minds of the majority it helps to remind ourselves that this hasn’t always been the case in the past.
Update: Ebonmuse over at Daylight Atheism has his own tribute to Ingersoll’s birthday up for your reading pleasure. Check it out.