Ingersoll Against Blasphemy Laws

As PZ pointed out, Rebecca Watson took the opportunity yesterday, on International Blasphemy Rights Day, to highlight some choice selections from Robert G. Ingersoll’s magnificent closing argument in defense of C.B. Reynolds, who, on May 19 and 20, 1887, was being tried for blasphemy in the state of New Jersey. You should read Ingersoll’s whole speech and maybe even buy The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll, Volume 11, in which it is has been published with hundreds of pages more of his writings.

Below the fold is an unedited, representative selection from early on in the text to give a flavor of its reasoning:

No orthodox church ever had power that it did not endeavor to make people think its way by force and flame. And yet every church that ever was established commenced in the minority, and while it was in the minority advocated free speech — every one. John Calvin, the founder of the Presbyterian Church, while he lived in France, wrote a book on religious toleration in order to show that all men had an equal right to think; and yet that man afterward, clothed in a little authority, forgot all his sentiments about religious liberty, and had poor Serviettes burned at the stake, for differing with him on a question that neither of them knew anything about. In the minority, Calvin advocated toleration — in the majority, he practiced murder.

I want you to understand what has been done in the world to force men to think alike. It seems to me that if there is some infinite being who wants us to think alike he would have made us alike. Why did he not do so? Why did he make your brain so that you could not by any possibility be a Methodist? Why did he make yours so that you could not be a Catholic? And why did he make the brain of another so that he is an unbeliever — why the brain of another so that he became a Mohammedan — if he wanted us all to believe alike?

After all, maybe Nature is good enough and grand enough and broad enough to give us the diversity born of liberty. Maybe, after all, it would not be best for us all to be just the same. What a stupid world, if everybody said yes to everything that everybody else might say.

The most important thing in this world is liberty. More important than food or clothes — more important than gold or houses or lands — more important than art or science — more important than all religions, is the liberty of man.

If civilization tends to do away with liberty, then I agree with Mr. Buckle that civilization is a curse. Gladly would I give up the splendors of the nineteenth century — gladly would I forget every invention that has leaped from the brain of man — gladly would I see all books ashes, all works of art destroyed, all statues broken, and all the triumphs of the world lost — gladly, joyously would I go back to the abodes and dens of savagery, if that were necessary to preserve the inestimable gem of human liberty. So would every man who has a heart and brain.

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. Never. By making a statute and by defining blasphemy, the church sought to prevent discussion — sought to prevent argument — sought to prevent a man giving his honest opinion. Certainly a tenet, a dogma, a doctrine, is safe when hedged about by a statute that prevents your speaking against it. In the silence of slavery it exists. It lives because lips are locked. It lives because men are slaves.

If I understand myself, I advocate only the doctrines that in my judgment will make this world happier and better. If I know myself, I advocate only those things that will make a man a better citizen, a better father, a kinder husband — that will make a woman a better wife, a better mother — doctrines that will fill every home with sunshine and with joy. And if I believed that anything I should say today would have any other possible tendency, I would stop. I am a believer in liberty. That is my religion — to give to every other human being every right that I claim for myself, and I grant to every other human being, not the right — because it is his right — but instead of granting I declare that it is his right, to attack every doctrine that I maintain, to answer every argument that I may urge — in other words, he must have absolute freedom of speech.

I am a believer in what I call “intellectual hospitality.” A man comes to your door. If you are a gentleman and he appears to be a good man, you receive him with a smile. You ask after his health. You say: “Take a chair; are you thirsty, are you hungry, will you not break bread with me?” That is what a hospitable, good man does — he does not set the dog on him. Now, how should we treat a new thought? I say that the brain should be hospitable and say to the new thought: “Come in; sit down; I want to cross-examine you; I want to find whether you are good or bad; if good, stay; if bad, I don’t want to hurt you — probably you think you are all right — but your room is better than your company, and I will take another idea in your place.” Why not? Can any man have the egotism to say that he has found it all out? No. Every man who has thought, knows not only how little he knows, but how little every other human being knows, and how ignorant, after all, the world must be.

And it goes on and on being so epically correct, edifying, and inspiring.


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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.