Ingersoll – The Great Agnostic

Freethought Today has an article on Robert Ingersoll titled Words of ‘Great Agnostic’ still ring true. I have a few of his writings in the library on this site, so it’s good to see a recognition of Ingersoll’s thoughts from the 1800’s that still ring true today. This is one of the agnostics that led to my preference for the label as the best designator for what I believe.

Robert G. Ingersoll

“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.”

“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.'”

It’s interesting that critiques of theistic belief and thought appear to be as universal and timeless as the religions present themselves to be. However, in reading religious text I often find myself thinking they are very much as primitive and dated as their time periods of origin. Freethought and alternatives to primitive religions need more presentations like Ingersoll’s discussing the limits of human knowledge. We need more “preachers” of truth to counter the preachers of blind faith in primitive writings. Any belief should welcome the critique and counterpoint if they truly believe they have the right answers, yet many religions present that critical thought itself is a dangerous endeavor and that their beliefs should be accepted without question.

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.

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.

I find it very hard to imagine an America with a Bill of Rights including the freedom of religion would ever prosecute people for blasphemy. Yet, Ingersoll was involved in defending such a case and lost:

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!”

I didn’t intend to quote so much of this article but these words of Ingersoll from the closing arguments deserve to be quoted again and again.

“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.”