Ingersoll’s Voice: A Persuasive ‘Evangelical’ Humanism

Robert Ingersoll was primarily an orator, the most famous of his time (late 18th-mid 19th Century) and one of the most successful of all time. He was known as the Great Agnostic, and people would travel great distances and pay large sums to hear him critique religion and espouse a proto-Humanist naturalistic lifestance. His speeches are still worth reading today, filled with striking metaphors, powerful images, and (at the time) heretical ideas expressed in a simple, folksy style.

From him I believe today’s Humanists can learn how to convey their values with a fierce passion and emotional intensity which has often eluded the non-religious, who can seem, as freethinkng author Susan Jacoby once put it, “bloodless and professorial” when talking about their deepest beliefs. Unlike representatives of many religious traditions, Humanists often seem cautious about proselytizing and about making their beliefs emotionally compelling.

Not me. In my more mischievous moments I call myself an “evangelical Humanist”. I believe the world would be a better place – our government, our communities, our families would be exalted – were we to make a more concerted effort to embrace the Humanist values of reason, compassion, and hope. I believe that Humanism is the finest expression of human values we’ve yet developed as a species, and I want to defend and advance Humanist ideals. In this sense, I’m like many religious believers: I think my life stance is true in that it most closely maps reality, I think it is good in that it promotes optimal human flourishing more effectively than other perspectives, and I think it is beautiful, expressing as it does the noblest of human ideals. And therefore I want to spread it, by convincing more people to become Humanists.

Ingersoll was good at this, and I hope to held the Humanists of today become better. My background in activism and politics has combined with my penchant for performance to make me profoundly interested in the art and science of persuasion. For the past two years I’ve helped teach a class at the Harvard Kennedy School on persuasion, and I believe that Humanists would be more effective in the cultural marketplace if they more consistently heeded the lessons from the well-developed science of communication. Hence the workshops I conduct for Humanist groups on effective influence and activism, and my compendium of posts on political strategy, The Freethinker’s Political Textbook.

I’m particularly concerned with the fact that Humanism has hitherto seemed unable to ignite people with the sort of moral energy and passionate intensity common to religious believers, and I want to see if we might go some way toward fixing that by becoming better storytellers, harnessing the arts, narrative, and symbol to get our message across.

We need to learn how to persuade if we are gong to win the culture. We need to be able to compete with the powerful cultural narratives and aesthetic appeal of religious traditions. W need to learn to speak with Ingersoll’s voice.


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