Robert Green Ingersoll on Morally Justifiable Divorces

Adam Lee points us to a passage written by Robert Green Ingersoll in which he advocates for divorce when it really is justifiable, even by many conservative standards — when there’s abuse, neglect, or just no love in the relationship anymore.

What’s striking is that the piece was written in 1889:

… In this contract of marriage, the man agrees to protect and cherish his wife. Suppose that he refuses to protect; that he abuses, assaults, and tramples upon the woman he wed. What is her redress? Is she under any obligation to him? He has violated the contract. He has failed to protect, and, in addition, he has assaulted her like a wild beast. Is she under any obligation to him? Is she bound by the contract he has broken? If so, what is the consideration for this obligation? Must she live with him for his sake? or, if she leaves him to preserve her life, must she remain his wife for his sake? No intelligent man will answer these questions in the affirmative.

Meanwhile, this is the response from a Catholic Cardinal who also wrote about the topic at the same time as Ingersoll:

To the question then, “Can divorce from the bond of marriage ever be allowed?” the Catholic can only answer NO. And for this No, his first and last and best reason can be but this: “Thus saith the Lord.”

Ingersoll, yet again, shows how he was a man before his time and someone well ahead of the moral curve.

(Image via Shutterstock)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Rain

    To the question then, “Can divorce from the bond of marriage ever be allowed?” the Catholic can only answer NO. And for this No, his first and last and best reason can be but this: “Thus saith the Lord.”

    The Lord saith a lot of things that you don’t do because they are things that are too stupid. Don’t worry about the morrow, sell all your belongings, move mountains, camel eye of the needle, yada yada, etc. So why make an exception in this case? That’s the real question.

  • The Other Weirdo

    Meanwhile, this is the response from a Catholic Cardinal who also wrote about the topic at the same time as Ingersoll:

    I still fail to understand why people give any credence to dried up old men who despise life.

  • GodlessPoutine

    I highly recommend everyone read Ingersoll. He was very elegant with a pen and wrote many a rousing speech! You can get all his works online: http://www.gutenberg.org/browse/authors/i#a2662

  • Lynn

    Her is a passage Robert Ingersoll also wrote about divorce. “When the civilized man finds his wife loves another he does not kill, he does not murder. He says to his wife, “You are free.” When the civilized woman finds that her husband loves another, she does not kill, does not murder. She says to her husband, “I am free.”

    To me marriage is part of the god business. People make a lot of money on marriage and divorce. Things are changing rapidly and people think lust is love. People get married, because they are told, if religious, they are living in sin, living with our lover. But you have a 1,000 more benefits in America if you are married.

    That is why gay marriage has been so strong. They want those benefits. Lets be realistic in the world today. Things change and when the relationship is not healthy and you have tried, it is time to move on. But we want to own people like property and divorce, causes a lot of chaos in our world.

    People really do not want to be happy in this world and religion has much to do with that. It really and truly does. When you have the depth to look and listen, religion is extreme insanity and creates a lot of insane people.

    • Derrik Pates

      But the fact is, for the religious, especially Christians, to claim ownership of the institution is downright fraudulent. The Christian church couldn’t even bother to make marriage a sacrament until the 12th century, preferring to leave marriage to – wait for it – *civil authorities*. Then suddenly, the church decided that, oh hey, they should really get involved with this whole marriage business.

      If civil government shouldn’t be involved in marriage, then marriage should not get any of the many benefits that it does – it should be a “civil union” or something, which has to be acquired separately. Also, those benefits of marriage aren’t just in America, but most every country I can think of.

  • ORAXX

    I discovered Ingersoll many years ago when clearing out my grand father’s house. I’ve been indebted to him ever since.

  • L.Long

    I think it would be a very good idea for the gov’mint to get out of the ‘marriage business’ if the couple of any sex wants certain legal protections then they can do like any other business and get a contract agreement which will also have provisions for divorce.
    If others, primarily women, like getting schite on by bigoted asses calling themselves ‘men’ then they can get a religious marriage and revert back to the half-slavery of religious marriage, and good luck to them, they will need it.

  • L.Long

    I also ‘found’ Ingersoll a few years ago as well and read him makes me fairly sad.
    He & others tore religion new Aholes years ago and we are still fighting the same battles, same debates, same points, with no real signs of winning still.

  • LesterBallard

    Ingersoll deserves more recognition. A statue, a stamp, some fucking thing.

    • GubbaBumpkin

      His birthplace in Dresden, New York is a museum.

      A quick Google search turns up a few statues, most prominently one in Peoria, Illinois. (Ingersoll served as attourney general of Illinois for a while).

      • LesterBallard

        Cool.

  • joey_in_NC

    Geez. A little intellectual honesty, please?

    First of all, why not actually identify this “Catholic Cardinal who also wrote about the topic at the same time as Ingersoll”? And why is Cardinal Gibbons being quote mined by selecting only two terse sentences when his full response is a fairly comprehensive essay? And why no link to this essay, in case the reader wants to see the full context in which these words were said?

    Here is Cardinal Gibbons’ entire essay on the subject of divorce…

    http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/robert_ingersoll/is_divorce_wrong.html

    Note that in his full response Cardinal Gibbons states…

    “It should be noted that, while never allowing the dissolution of the
    marriage bond, the Catholic Church has always permitted, for grave
    causes and under certain conditions, a temporary or permanent
    “separation from bed and board.” The causes which, positis ponendis,
    such separation may be briefly given thus: mutual consent, adultery, and
    grave peril of soul or body.”

    But I guess it’s more fun to quote mine.

    • http://confessionsfromthepeanutgallery.blogspot.com/ YankeeCynic

      Of course, that still leaves the two of them married. That prevents the woman from going onto another relationship where she might find love and respect.

      Quote mine defense fail.

    • Greg G.

      I don’t think you get the concept of a quotemine. That’s when you pull a quote out of context so that it seems to say something the author was not actually saying. The quote you complain of sums up pretty much every paragraph in Gibbons reply.

      “How can divorce reform be best secured?” it may be asked. Believing, as I do, that divorce is evil, I also believe that its “reformation” and its death must be simultaneous. It should cease to be.

      Gibbons mentions your quote but seems to opposed to it.

      If it’s more fun to quotemine, you must be having a blast!

    • Artor

      I’ll note that ” a temporary or permanent ‘separation from bed and board.’” is not remotely the same thing as a divorce. So quoting the succinct, NO is entirely appropriate, since after reading the whole essay, the answer is still NO. So sorry, please try again.

      • joey_in_NC

        I’ll note that ” a temporary or permanent ‘separation from bed and board.’” is not remotely the same thing as a divorce.

        “Divorce” in the sense that two sacramentally married people are allowed to remarry? Of course that’s not the same things as a necessary physical separation. The indissolubility of the marriage bond has always been the traditional Christian position, and it won’t change. Why the surprise?

        The point is that Cardinal Gibbons made a much more comprehensive response than what was dishonestly offered. The readers are owed at least a citation/link of his entire response (or at the very least reveal the fricken name of the cardinal so people can look it up themselves).

        Also, simply taking that passage from Ingersoll without disclosing the full response from Gibbons highly suggests that the Catholic position is that a spouse who is victim of a severely abusive marriage must continue to physically live with his/her spouse, because “thus saith the Lord”.

        Flame the official Catholic position all you want, but provide the readers at least the opportunity to understand the true Catholic position without the dishonest distortion.

        • Ibis3

          Also, simply taking that passage from Ingersoll without disclosing the
          full response from Gibbons highly suggests that the Catholic position is
          that a spouse who is victim of a severely abusive marriage must
          continue to physically live with his/her spouse, because “thus saith the
          Lord”.

          But legally, if she’s* still married, she can’t leave without her husband’s permission. She can’t own anything. She has no custody rights, so separation means she has to leave her children with her husband. If he wants to assert his “conjugal” rights, he can legally rape (i.e. it’s not considered rape by the law) her whenever he likes. So how exactly is that essentially different from saying she must remain in her abusive husband’s control because “thus saith the LORD”? The only thing being disclosed by you is how much more of an asshole Gibbons was for ignoring the reality of women’s suffering in favour of following the dictates of his cruel and monstrous asshole god.

          *Of course, a husband abused by his wife had all kinds of options: stick her in the attic Rochester style, send her to Bedlam to be treated for hysteria, send her back to the paternal home with or without cash, put her in a convent, or (though not legally, still easily done) sell her at a fair like the Mayor of Casterbridge or abandon her and go off somewhere else and commit bigamy.

  • http://lotharson.wordpress.com/ Lothars Sohn

    Okay for divorce and abuse, but love is a very subjective feeling which comes and goes.

    To my mind, the best marriage is between two good friends (who might be of the same sex) and decide to found a FAMILY, take an ENGAGEMENT, and realize they’re sexually compatible.

    So even if love feelings disappear, there would still be enough common ground for them to enjoy their relationship.

    Lovely greetings from Germany
    Liebe Grüße aus Deutschland

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son
    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com

    • Greg G.

      Hello again, my friend,

      No two people are likely to find someone who is perfectly compatible so the initial infatuation and sexual compatibility with which we humans are often smitten can make us overestimate our compatibility and wind up married. When the infatuation fades and they find they have no friendship to fall back on, they should have a way out that would allow them to find their bliss with someone else. The idea that God had anything to do with the marriage mistake should be blasphemous to the believer.

      People should be able to have relationships with anyone they wish but it’s none of the church’s business. If they wish to make a commitment with shared property rights, that should be the business of the reigning government for enforcement purposes but that isn’t the church’s business either. If the two wish to have a ceremony with religious connotations, that could be the church’s business.

      • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lothar Lorraine

        Hello Greg, thanks for your friendly tone!

        I like what a famous female rapper once said:
        “A marriage should be like the mafia: once one enters it, it’s for the whole life” (well, she had a better English than I :=) )

        I have very old-fashioned views about marriage, which I also had as I was an atheist.

        I believe that pleasure joy should not stand at the foreground but be natural by-products of an engagement, a strong willingness to stay together through thick and thin.

        Of course, if you’re with the wrong person for that it’s better to divorce, that’s why young folks should always be careful that their partner is at the very least a good friend.

        Of course, it is not up to the church to decide about issues of public marriages. In France, we all consider the state’s neutrality in religious matters as very important.

        However, the Church has everything to say about religious marriages of people who do that before God, however ridiculous this might sound to you.

        For your information: the protestant Church in Germany is now marrying gay couples!

        Lovely greetings from Germany
        Liebe Grüße aus Deutschland

        Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son
        http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.comk

  • EvolutionKills

    Robert G. Ingersol, the gold standard for proper reductio ad absurdum.

  • Stev84

    At that time divorce was what gay marriage is today in America. A highly contentious issue. Then and now Christians predicted the end of the world if people were allowed to divorce more freely.

  • Gregory Marshall

    The Catholic answer to this would be instead of divorce, you get and annulment.

    I am not saying I agree with that, I am just stating what I understood their position to be as a former Catholic.

    • GubbaBumpkin

      An annulment is not the same thing. You can petition for it, but the church decides whether to grant it or not, as Henry VIII found out. It is essentially a declaration that the marriage never existed.

      • Gregory Marshall

        Yeah, I know that, but that is what the church will tell you is to petition for one if you are in an abusive relationship or dealing with infidelity. You also point out correctly, that they are stingy in giving them out.

        • Ibis3

          Not that it matters much now (though back then it did a lot), any children of an annulled marriage were considered illegitimate. Also, there has to be a doctrinal reason to grant one (e.g. it turns out the parties are too closely related or was coerced into the marriage), and abuse doesn’t cut it.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    Robert Ingersoll was a really hoopy frood.

    • Spuddie

      Are you trying out an Al Swearington accent?

      • GubbaBumpkin

        I’m not sure what you’re on about. “Hoopy frood” is from Douglas Adams.

        • Spuddie

          Deadwood reference. The main character had a tendency to call people hoopleheads. My bad. I really have to re-read Adams. Its been a while.

  • Better Off Damned

    Divorce should never need to be justified.

    • Fake

      The justification could be that people don’t want to stay married.

  • Monika Jankun-Kelly

    Someone forgot to tell Debi Pearl! Modern religious conservatives claim to be adhering to time tested traditions, but are so often ignorant of history, of their own history.


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