Drums and Fire – Pillars of the Temple

There’s a drumming noise inside my head
That throws me to the ground
I swear that you should hear it
It makes such an all mighty sound

Louder than sirens
Louder than bells
Sweeter than heaven
And hotter than hell

I ran to a tower where the church bells chime
I hoped that they would clear my mind
They left a ringing in my ear
But that drum’s still beating loud and clear

- Drumming Song, Florence and the Machine

Is there a drumming inside your head that church bells fail to quiet?  A pulse that outdoes heaven for sweetness, and hell for heat? A rhythm you want to share with others, so powerfully does it move you? Perhaps, like me, your head harbors the drums of reason, and thrills to their beat.

Reason is is a liberating soundtrack to life. No one phrased this better than Robert Ingersoll in his speech Why I Am An Agnostic (1896):

When I became convinced that the universe is natural – that all the ghosts and gods are myths, there entered into my brain, into my soul, into every drop of my blood, the sense, the feeling, the joy of freedom.

The walls of my prison crumbled and fell, the dungeon was flooded with light and all the bolts and bars and manacles became dust. I was no longer a servant, a serf or a slave. There was for me no master in all the world – not even infinite space.

I was free – free to think, to express my thoughts – free to live my own ideal–free to live for myself and those I loved–free to use all my faculties, all my senses, free to spread imagination’s wings – free to investigate, to guess and dream and hope – free to judge and determine for myself–free to reject all ignorant and cruel creeds, all the “inspired” books that savages have produced, and all the barbarous legends of the past…

For the first time I was free. There were no prohibited places in all the realms of thought…no need to bow, or cringe, or crawl, or utter lying words. I was free. I stood erect and fearlessly, joyously, faced all worlds.

Ingersoll captures it all: the freedom from dogma, from illegitimate power, from superstition, from cruelty, from hypocrisy. The drumming in his head drove all the nonsense out. But, most important, Ingersoll expresses the exultation and dignity to be found in free thinking, as he stands upright in the sun, proud, tall and joyous, ready to face the future.

Ingersoll was not content to keep his revelation to himself. He had to share it with the world. The drums he heard were marching orders, and he became the foremost soldier for rationalism of his time. He traveled the country on more than a dozen speaking tours, and eager audiences would cram the largest theatres paying $1 a piece – then a substantial sum.

He was not drawn to Spiritualism, as many other thinkers of his time were. In a delightful passage from an interview Ingersoll describes how he scrutinized photographs which claimed to contain images of spirits. “I examined them very closely,” he said, “and I found evidence in the photographs themselves that they were spurious.” Jim Randi, legendary debunker of the supernatural, would be proud.

The beat to which he danced was an uncompromising rationalism – a “faith in facts” – which led ineluctably to the truth:

We banish the phantoms, the mistakes and lies and cling to the truth. We do not enthrone the unknown and crown our ignorance. We do not stand with our backs to the sun and mistake our shadow for God.

But this was not all that Ingersoll preached. He had a burning core of ethical principles which still shine brightly today. He was an early advocate of women’s reproductive rights, saying:

Science must make women the owner, the mistress of herself.  Science, the only possible savior of mankind, must put it in the power of woman to decide for herself whether she will or will not become a mother.

He campaigned fervently against corporal punishment of women and children. His terrifying recommendation for those who beat their children carries a moral potency rarely heard outside churches today:

I do not believe in the government of the lash. If any one of you ever expects to whip your children again, I want you to have a photograph taken of yourself when you are in the act, with your face red with vulgar anger, and the face of the little child, with eyes swimming in tears and the little chin dimpled with fear, like a piece of water struck by a sudden cold wind. Have the picture taken. If that little child should die, I cannot think of a sweeter way to spend an autumn afternoon than to go out to the cemetery, when the maples are clad in tender gold, and little scarlet runners are coming, like poems of regret, from the sad heart of the earth — and sit down upon the grave and look at that photograph, and think of the flesh now dust that you beat. I tell you it is wrong; it is no way to raise children!

He was a fervent opponent of slavery and a champion of civil rights, declaring in 1867 in An Address to Colored People “today I am in favor of giving you every right that I claim for myself.” His abhorrence of slavery was expressed in words as powerful as any I have ever read:

I am astonished when I think how long it took…to abolish slavery in this country. I am also astonished to think that a few years ago magnificent steamers went down the Mississippi freighted with your fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters, and may be some of you, bound like criminals, separated from wives, from husbands, every human feeling laughed at and outraged, sold like beasts, carried away from homes to work for another, receiving for pay only the marks of the lash upon the naked back. I am astonished at these things. I hate to think that all this was done under the Constitution of the United States, under the flag of my country, under the wings of the eagle.

And he was kind. In all his endeavors, he was committed to kindness and fellowship with his compatriots. He made it clear that his opposition was to ideas, not the people who held them. In an 1883 speech on Civil Rights he cautioned “You must remember that I am not attacking persons, but opinions – not motives, but reasons – not judges, but decisions.”

Ingersoll’s passionate advocacy on behalf of the weak in society is the fire in his heart which consummates the drumming in his head. For him it was not enough simply to be free from Gods – he wanted to know “If there’s no God, so what?”, and forged in his life an answer to that question. Ingersoll, a man of drums and fire, with a prophetic vision of a better tomorrow, is the model for Temple of the Future. I seek to follow in his footsteps and revive his thundering voice, which for too long has been confined to the scratchy recordings etched into wax cylinders made by Thomas Edison. If rationality is the drumming in our head, then a commitment to justice for all humankind is the fire in our heart. These are the irreducible components of our lifestance. These are the pillars of our “temple”. This is what it means to be a Humanist.

The Drums of Reason in your head. And in your heart, fire!

 

About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • http://independent.academia.edu/JimFarmelant Jim Farmelant

    Concerning Robert Ingersoll, it is clear that they do not make Republicans like they used to. In his day, he was able to act as a confidante and advisor to a string of Republican presidents, from Grant to McKinley. At the Republican convention of 1876, he made the nomination speech for James Blaine. Although Blaine’s bid for the GOP nomination failed, Ingersoll’s speech became very famous and was, at that time, considered the very model of effective political oratory. Now a days, a man like Ingersoll, who was very much an avowed agnostic, would, at best, have a very uncomfortable role in the GOP, and certainly never be able to work in high profile positions the way Ingersoll waas able to do in his day. Then again, someone who had strong progressive inclinations, the way Ingersoll did, would hardly be able to play a significant role in today’s Republican Party. In Ingersoll’s day, the GOP was still the party, that had proudly abolished slavery in the US, and was therefore widely supported by African-Americans. Today’s Republican Party is generally not regarded by African-Americans as being in any sense a friend. On the contrary, it is recognized as a party that since the 1960s, has, as a matter of political strategy, absorbed the political descendents of the Confederates.

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