An Apostle of Reason

Robert Ingersoll
On the Gods and Other Essays
Prometheus Books, 1983

Robert Ingersoll
Some Mistakes of Moses
Prometheus Books, 1986
270 pages

Roger E. Greeley, ed.
The Best of Robert Ingersoll
Prometheus Books, 1983
175 pages
Reviewed by Gary McGath
Originally published in Thomas Paine Review, July 1992. Copyright 1992 by Gary McGath.

Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899) is nearly forgotten today, to our detriment. A man who said that "Government cannot by law create wealth" while also declaring that "Religion has not civilized man -- man has civilized religion" cannot find a constituency in the modern world; he was too consistent. But just for that reason, his works are very much worth looking at.

His complete works numbered twelve volumes. He was the subject of seven biographies. He was a widely known orator -- in 1876, he presented the nominating speech for James Blaine -- and immeasurably promoted the cause of religious liberty in America. Yet very few people now living have ever heard of him.

Every reader interested in free thought and liberty should take a look at The Best of Robert Ingersoll, edited by Roger E. Greeley. It includes several speeches -- curiously, all on the subject of death -- a complete essay, some brief biographical notes, and a vast array of quotations grouped by topic. His views as presented in this collection aren't completely libertarian, but he is on the side of freedom far more often than not. Here are a few samples:

The framers of our Constitution wished forever to divorce church and state.

The Fugitive Slave Law is the most infamous enactment that ever disgraced a statute book.

Bismarck should have lived several centuries ago. He belongs to the Dark Ages. He is a believer in the sword and the bayonet -- in brute force.

I am an individualist instead of a Socialist. I am a believer in individuality and in each individual taking care of himself. I want the government to do just as little as it can consistently with the safety of the nation. I want as little law as possible.

He was not fully consistent in his individualism; for example, he believed that the government should run hospitals, that people should not be permitted to rent out their lands to others, and that authors of "obscene" books should be imprisoned and their books destroyed. But he was on the side of liberty more often than not.

Ingersoll was an agnostic; he regarded the questions of the existence of a god and of life after death as beyond our knowledge. Regarding deities, he said, "I do not say there is no God. I do not know." Regarding death, "We cannot say that death is not a good. We do not know whether the grave is the end of this life, or the door of another, or whether the night here is not somewhere else a dawn."

On strict philosophical grounds, we might take issue with Ingersoll for constructing possibilities out of mere speculations; but it is more important that he did not accept unsupported doctrines which the large majority of Americans took as fact. He did not accept the mass of superstition and bigotry which is found in Christian doctrine. He was contemptuous of the notion that salvation depends on right belief and appalled by the massacres which the Bible credits to holy men.

Yet in rejecting widely held dogmas, Ingersoll did not become a cynic. The contrast between him and Mark Twain is instructive. Twain could find no hope in people who would glorify the Supreme Sadist as "Our Father." But Ingersoll was able to take a more optimistic view of humanity:

From Copernicus we learned that this earth is only a grain of sand on the infinite shore of the universe; that everywhere we are surrounded by shining worlds vastly greater than our own, all moving and existing in accordance with law. True, the earth began to grow small, but man began to grow great.
The Best of Robert Ingersoll is worth having simply as a rich source of quotations. Here are a few worth citing simply for their beauty:
Niagara fills the heavens with its song. Man will arrest the falling flood; he will change its force to electricity, that is to say, to light...

The hands that help are better far than the lips that pray.

Intellectual freedom is only the right to be honest.

Two other readily available books by Ingersoll -- On the Gods and Some Mistakes of Moses -- are also of interest, though in a more specialized way. Some Mistakes of Moses is a detailed critique of the Pentateuch, which Ingersoll calls "a record of a barbarous people, in which are found a great number of the ceremonies of savagery, many absurd and unjust laws, and thousands of ideas inconsistent with known and demonstrated facts." The only problem with the book is that it seems to belabor the obvious.

If it were generally accepted today that the Bible should be judged on rational grounds, Ingersoll's book would be unnecessary; Genesis through Deuteronomy would be recognized as a mixture of mythology and history, with passages ranging from the admirable to the monstrous. But Ingersoll was addressing a different time, one in which acceptance of the literal truth of the Bible was the intellectually orthodox position. For today's reader, it may seem excessive to remind the reader that the story of creation in Genesis is ludicrously geocentric, to prove in detail that the Ark couldn't hold all the species in the world, and to point out that the plagues of Exodus killed the same cattle three times over. Anyone who literally believes these stories today is beyond reason. But in Ingersoll's time, it was necessary to challenge them. In his day there were still laws on the books making it a crime to deny Christian doctrine. If Some Mistakes of Moses is dated today, the reason is its own success, and the success of other writings like it.

The book is also a rather slight one, in spite of its 270 pages. It appears to be set from old plates, with large amounts of white space, and can be read in two or three hours.

More interesting is the collection On the Gods and Other Essays. The introduction, by Paul Kurtz, gives a brief biographical sketch. The five articles in the book are splendid pieces but somewhat repetitious, all relating to Ingersoll's criticism of religion. I would love to see some of his essays on other subjects, which must have taken up a large part of that twelve-volume set of his works.

One of the essays simply can't go by without comment in this newsletter [Thomas Paine Review]: His essay on Thomas Paine, subtitled "With his name left out, the history of liberty cannot be written."

Paine, Ingersoll wrote, "did more to cause the Declaration of Independence than any other man. Neither should it be forgotten that his attacks upon Great Britain were also attacks upon monarchy; and while he convinced the people that the colonies ought to separate from the mother country, he also proved to them that a free government is the best that can be instituted among men."

On Paine's role in the French Assembly, he wrote, "Search all the records of the world and you will find but few sublimer acts than that of Thomas Paine voting against the king's death. He, the hater of despotism, the abhorrer of monarchy, the champion of the rights of man, the republican, accepting death to save the life of a deposed tyrant -- of a throneless king."

Of course, Paine did not die as a result of casting this vote, though he might well have. Instead, he went on to publish Age of Reason, as a result of which he is relegated to the second or third rank of Founding Fathers even today. Of this book, Ingersoll wrote:

The "Age of Reason" did more to undermine the power of the Protestant Church than all other books then known. It furnished an immense amount of food for thought. It was written for the average mind, and is a straightforward, honest investigation of the Bible, and of the Christian system...

The "Age of Reason" has liberalized us all. It put arguments into the mouths of the people; it put the church on the defensive; it enabled somebody in every village to corner the parson; it made the world wiser, and the church better; it took power from the pulpit and divided it among the pews.

In summation,

Thomas Paine was one of the intellectual heroes -- one of the men to whom we are indebted. His name is associated forever with the Great Republic. As long as free government exists he will be remembered, admired, and honored.

Another essay deserving special notice is "Individuality." Its subject is the glory of thinking for oneself.

"Surely," he declares,

there is grandeur in knowing that in the realm of thought, at least, you are without a chain; that you have the right to explore all heights and all depths; that there are no walls nor fences, nor prohibited places, nor sacred corners in all the vast expanse of thought; that your intellect owes no allegiance to any being, human or divine; that you hold in all fee and upon no condition and by no tenure whatever; that in the world of mind you are relieved from all personal dictation, and from the ignorant tyranny of majorities.

He indicts the churches as enemies of this freedom. "Religion does not, and cannot, contemplate man as free. She accepts only the homage of the prostrate, and scorns the offerings of those who stand erect." In his time, the power of the churches was a genuine, major barrier to freedom. He claims that "Although we live in what is called a free government, -- and politically we are free, -- there is but little religious liberty in America. Society demands either that you belong to some church, or that you suppress your opinions."

In contrast with the spirit of fear and suppression, he extols the joy of knowing "that all the cruel ingenuities of bigotry can devise no prison, no dungeon, no cell in which for one instant to confine a thought; that ideas cannot be dislocated by racks, nor crushed in iron boots, nor burned with fire."

Ingersoll's single-mindedness may put even the most irreligious reader off at times; no matter what subject he is discussing, it always seems to lead him back to the evils of faith. His efforts to be kind may also be a factor in weakening his essays; his villains aren't particular individuals, but abstractions such as "religion" and "the Church." As a result, his complaints often lack concretization. But taken in small doses, Ingersoll's rhetoric is very effective; on almost every page there is a passage worth excerpting and framing.

The madness of creeds goes on. Americans are no longer jailed or burned for heresy, but many religious groups still fan the flames of hatred for all whose beliefs differ from their own. Just today as I write this, I picked up a free booklet which declares that the plagues of Revelation are reserved for people who go to church on Sunday, instead of Saturday as they should. We need more Ingersolls to dig the grave of this kind of nonsense and bury it beyond any resurrection.

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