You, Sir, Are No Robert Ingersoll

You, Sir, Are No Robert Ingersoll August 4, 2014

Before I went on vacation last month, you may recall how I tangled with a mob of nasty sexists who misleadingly call themselves “men’s rights activists”. Most of their comments were pure ad hominem filth, not worth the trouble of responding to, but there was one I wanted to address: from an atheist MRA who fears that feminism is ruining both science and atheism, and who thinks that some famous historical freethinkers would have taken his side.

Surprisingly, my largely religious family was very receptive of Ingersoll’s Thanksgiving Sermon:

I think Mr. Lee would do well to read it.

This MRA’s condescension notwithstanding, I’m well acquainted with the writings of Robert Ingersoll; more so, in fact, than he clearly is.

The piece referenced is a lengthy historical argument about the long climb of civilization up from the darkness of superstition, and the way that religious ideas about sin, revelation and dogma have only ever divided humanity and held us back from achieving our potential. In it, Ingersoll credits a long list of philosophers, scientists and inventors, all of whom happen to be men. Apparently, this MRA thinks Robert Ingersoll was implying that only men could have been the architects of civilization.

The truth is that Ingersoll knew perfectly well that women’s underrepresentation wasn’t due to some natural incapacity, but to prejudice and enforced ignorance. In one of his published works, he said, “There were universities for men before the alphabet had been taught to women.” Ingersoll was perfectly clear about his view that women are the equals of men in every way that matters, and that given the opportunity, they’d benefit equally from education and contribute equally to the betterment of the human race.

In 1885, for example, he wrote the preface to feminist freethinker Helen Hamilton Gardener‘s book Men, Women and Gods. Here are some choice quotes from Ingersoll’s preface:

“Nothing gives me more pleasure, nothing gives greater promise for the future, than the fact that woman is achieving intellectual and physical liberty.”

“[Women] are no longer satisfied with being told. They examine for themselves. They have ceased to be the prisoners of society – the satisfied serfs of husbands, or the echoer of priests. They demand the rights that naturally belong to intelligent human beings. If wives, they wish to be the equals of husbands.”

“Woman is not the intellectual inferior of man. She has lacked not mind, but opportunity. In the long night of barbarism, physical strength and the cruelty to use it were the badges of superiority.”

“The men who declare that woman is the intellectual inferior of man, do not, and cannot, by offering themselves in evidence, substantiate their declaration.”

Or take Ingersoll’s 1887 lecture The Liberty of Man, Woman and Child:

“In my judgment, the woman is the equal of the man. She has all the rights I have and one more, and that is the right to be protected. That is my doctrine…

If there is any man I detest, it is the man who thinks he is the head of a family – the man who thinks he is ‘boss!’

Imagine a young man and a young woman courting, walking out in the moonlight, and the nightingale singing a song of pain and love, as though the thorn touched her heart – imagine them stopping there in the moonlight and starlight and song, and saying, ‘Now, here, let us settle who is boss!’ I tell you it is an infamous word and an infamous feeling – I abhor a man who is ‘boss,’ who is going to govern in his family, and when he speaks orders all the rest to be still as some mighty idea is about to be launched from his mouth. Do you know I dislike this man unspeakably?”

Ingersoll was an early defender of contraception (he said that it “frees women”). He was an ardent advocate for the right of women to divorce in the case of violent or loveless marriages (a radical position at the time). He was even sensitive to the existence of street harassment and assault:

“It is hard to appreciate the dangers and difficulties that lie in wait for woman. Even in this Christian country of ours, no girl is safe in the streets of any city after the sun has gone down. After all, the sun is the only god that has ever protected woman. In the darkness she has been the prey of the wild beast in man.”

Ingersoll’s views on family life, feminism and women’s equality were remarkably progressive even by today’s standards, let alone the standards of the 19th century when he lived. (Remember, all this was written before women even had the right to vote!) That’s just one more reason he’s worthy of admiration. But just like the Catholic apologist who deluded herself into believing that Terry Pratchett’s writing supported her views on euthanasia, atheist MRAs don’t want to hear that their backward opinions would have been soundly rejected by the thinkers they admire.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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  • You know, the name of many important thinkers has been carelessly distorted and employed by someone else to fit into totally adverse position: so many Pagan or Atheist philosophers, scientists, etc. have been somehow portrayed as “honorary Christians” among the centuries! So many ideas of theirs have been purposefully misrepresented and/or shamefully simplified.

  • Tige Gibson

    Doesn’t his ironic use of the name “sigh” imply he’ll not be back?

  • Beautifully done. Thank you. I reckon I know what author is next up on my reading list.

    On that note, it’s hilarious to see you confusing MRAs with facts. Quite a few atheist MRAs have rejected the trappings of religion, but still cling to this misogynistic complementarian ideal that religion features as one of its cornerstones–like everything else religions push is wrong and should be jettisoned, but this, THIS, this has to be the real deal, this has to be true, this part is absolutely okay. It’s just as nonsensical as the religious people who jettison this or that Bible verse but cling to some other one with all their strength. It’s all about what enforces privilege to some people, what validates their worldview. If the MRA you’re quoting gave up the idea of male privilege, what on earth would he have left? (And we’ll ignore the whole problem of his argument from X, wherein he tries to make his worldview sound more reasonable by saying–erroneously at that, which just makes it funnier–that a great and celebrated thinker thought the same way, and yet still thinks of himself as this big tough evolved rational thinker. I’ve never, ever seen Christians do that, have you?)

  • Annerdr

    This particular atheist MRA referenced in the post doesn’t seem to realize that his same argument could be made against black men, brown men and yellow men. Ingersoll would have been most familiar with western European history and so would have pulled from that, so the individuals who stood up with their great ideas would have all been white men. Someone once came up with the fabulous idea of the tepee, a portable home that suited a nomadic people. We don’t know who that is, but he/she was pretty smart and notably improved the lives of those who no longer had to build a shelter everywhere they went.

  • Annerdr

    One can hope.

  • Martin Penwald

    Funny, I see on Wikipedia that he was Republican. The [not so]GOP has changed a lot since then.
    Robert Ingersoll was an incredible man, and his world’s views are still amazing today.

  • Psycho Gecko

    Yeah, kinda well known that there was a huge change. Basically, just swap what you know about Republicans and Democrats if you’re looking at politics pre-Civil Rights era.

  • cipher

    Not surprising. The fundies have appropriated the founding fathers and remade them into evangelicals.

  • L.Long

    You can see here one reason why religion succeeds! It is not that the atheist MRA are still using the trappings of religion but rather the religion is formed from the trappings of hate filled bigoted peoples. When was the last time some gawd said to hate gays??? But it is clear that all cultures that hate gays have religions that hate gays. An excellent example is the AmerIndians which have no ingrained hate for gays did not have a religion that hated gays. Now most have left the old ways and are now xtian and hate gays but they do so because a bigoted religion was forced on them. The culture feeds the religion and the religion feeds the culture and around we go again in a circle of hate & bigotry.

  • DJMankiwitz

    I had no idea. I need to read more about Ingersoll.

    As for MRAs, here is where I differ slightly from PZ Myers. PZ continually gives that group advice on how to fight social issues, but I think he’s too caught up on the name. From everything I’ve read, Men’s Right Activists are a hate group, not a “rights activist” group of any sort. They’ve merely picked a somewhat progressive-sounding name. The key sign is they never actually establish what men’s rights they are defending, they only attack women as vague “oppressors” of rights, spending all their energy describing how terrible women are and none at all talking about actual “men’s right” issues.

    They’re nothing more than the KKK calling themselves “white rights activists”. PZ is, frankly, wasting time trying to give them advice on issues their group could actually be working on. Men’s rights have never, and were never intended, to be important to them. All that matters is how awful women are.

  • DJMankiwitz

    It’s worse than that. I’ve read the opinions of the MRAs, and frankly if anything religion RESTRAINED them from the worst excesses mysogeny is capable of. To be sure, christianity has done harm, but there were limits imposed on members of that sect at least. I can’t believe I’m making this defense, but have you seen some of this bile? It’s as though they ditched religion purely to process and refine the stores in their hate-silos, unrestrained by ANY moral code of any sort.

    To put it another way. Christians put woman on a mantle as some priceless rare fabrigé egg, with “oppression by worship” of a sort, but at least there was a general sense that woman should be protected and are actually valuable (messed up versions of both of these values, as they are), but MRAs don’t even do that, they just see women as the worst things humanity has ever produced, terrible monsters destroying everything “men” value, and deserving of literally any cruelty someone could think up (I’m not exaggerating, my perusal of their forums abound with nightmarish scenarios they seem to delight in coming up with as “punishment” for both women in general and specific feminists). MRAs represent a long-held sexism, but this sort of ideological hate purity in a group is something I hadn’t previously seen, with religion seeming to actually keep it in check a bit. I hate to say it, but religious proponents might actually have been at least partially right about religion “being a source of morality”, for at least SOME people, and it disgusts me to think that that’s the case.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    Yeah, kinda well known that there was a huge change…

    Rand Paul’s speech at Howard University in 2013 was quite a reminder of that.

  • Al Petterson

    As Krugman said, for a hundred years after the Civil War there was a bunch of Northeastern liberals who were Republicans only because Lincoln freed the slaves, and there were a bunch of Southern conservatives who were Democrats only because Lincoln freed the slaves.

  • I totally hear you. I’ve thought the same thing as well. There’s some evidence for the idea that MRAs tend to skew, as a group online at least, very young (as in, teens and early 20s), which makes a lot of sense to me. The sheer hatred and bile spewed forth at women comes easiest to people who simply don’t know a lot about life yet and who haven’t gotten to know very many women as actual people. The idea makes a lot of sense; one of the impressions I very strongly get from MRAs is that they’re all very angry indeed that the real world doesn’t conform to the fairy tales they believe. They do not in fact always “get” the hot woman they’ve selected for their use. Women are not in fact obligated to “look past” their flaws or to teach them to be better people. Nobody owes them a damned thing. Niceness tokens do not in fact earn anybody sex. The world does not in fact revolve around them. But they grow up convinced that they’re going to step into this role they’ve been told forever is their birthright–and now look, those evil mean FEMINISTS have taken away all the bright shiny toys! Those evil mean AMERICAN WOMEN refuse to play into this fantasy! So they blame everybody in the world–except themselves, who are forever blameless. They become this perfect storm of narcissism, hatred, control-lust, and self-pity.

    The MRAs who genuinely hate women may well end up leaving religion because it just doesn’t hate us enough. I’ve personally heard some MRAs talk like that–that one reason they deconverted was because their churches worshiped women too much and they just couldn’t take it anymore. I don’t think they’d even understand if anybody tried to tell them that it was a false worship at best, just a whitewashed and held-in-check version of their own contempt and hate.

  • I’m not sure how to explain this…so bear with me! I’m quite sure PZ darn well knows they aren’t a serious group. His advice is a “if they were serious, this is the advice I would give them” type of advice. Which basically means his advice isn’t for the MRA’s. His advice is for those who are reading who might be interested in legitimately taking up such a cause. Make sense?

  • Errant Endeavour

    Entirely unrelated to this post (which was great, by the way): For some reason, whenever I go to your main page, it shows the latest post to be ‘Making Non-Whites Feel Welcome’, nothing beyond that. It may be my computer, but in case it wasn’t I thought I should let you know.

    EDIT: I just checked the site on my tablet and it’s showing up just fine, so I think it is just me. Please disregard.

  • DJMankiwitz

    I could throw out an “intent is not magical!” here I suppose, but frankly I actually believe intent matters. My bad if that’swhat his intention was.

    (I guess I should add that I get the point of the “intent is not magical” expression. Generally though, the “intent” behind the statements this is directed at are STILL pretty sleazy even with excuses. I guess I just think there’s some wiggle room. I try to give this to people who are, simply, completely unaware of civil rights online or any of the in-group things that have been talked about. It actually is possible to be ignorant of this stuff even today, if you never know that you don’t know and wouldn’t even know to start looking something up.)

  • Madison Blane

    The other group that I’ve seen a disproportionate section of in MRA’s is men who have been through a very painful divorce, particularly a divorce that caused them to lose their children (or have contact with their children severely limited) and/or pay out unreasonable sums to a woman who was unfaithful to the marriage and had her own job. I can see were some of the tamer MRA arguments – and some of the stated goals of MRA activists – could appeal to these men. It is an outlet for the anger that they rightfully feel.

    Some men DO get a really bad deal in the divorce…and with the court system in general. It’s sexist that our court system enforces the claim that women are somehow ‘natural caregivers’ or ‘better at raising kids’. It’s sexist to assume that women ‘aren’t violent’. I believe with all my heart that joint-custody should be the default in a divorce involving children. I can empathize with a man who lost his children just because he couldn’t live with their mother. It’s sexist that a court’s default decisions imply that all a man is good for is to be a financial provider, someone who ‘visits with’ and ‘babysits’ his kids. Men have just as much of a right and an ability to nurture as women.

    Where the men who get drawn into MRA err is when they don’t realize that feminists are their natural allies in these issues. It’s easy to blame the woman. It takes a lot more effort to fight the system that put those sexist practices in place. Rather than being angry that your ex benefits in some way from those systems while refusing to see where he also benefits from a sexist society in different ways, we would do better to all work together.

  • Madison Blane

    Maybe it’s his way of criticizing MRA’s for not being concerned with issues that actually matter to men, without out-right calling them on the carpet for being a hate-group only concerned with maintaining their dominance…his way of saying, ‘This is what an ACTUAL Mens’ Rights group would look like and you sir, are no crusader for Mens’ Rights!’

  • Exactly. There are some very real issues that MRAs touch upon in places, but the solution is not to roll back women’s rights and try to recreate the hugely flawed image of the 1950s that MRAs all seem to carry in their heads, but rather to address those very real issues in ways that are fair for both men and women. I’m not thrilled about paternity support or custody policies either, but the solutions are going to involve some big shake-ups to our existing notions of the social safety net, not putting everything back the way it was (which by the very wildest of coincidences would make a system that just so happens to hugely favor men and disenfranchise women–though I’m sure that’s only a coincidence [/s]).

  • Azkyroth

    Joint custody as the default has been the official position of family court in much of if not all of the US for some time now, and from my brother’s law research, assignment of primary custody when joint custody is not an option, correcting for cases where the father isn’t seriously seeking custody and is only trying to obtain leverage, comes out at about parity at least in California. This seems like one of those things that “everyone knows” but is grossly outdated at the very least.

  • Madison Blane

    Perhaps that is the truth in your area of California. It is nowhere near the truth in the states where I have lived (Patriarchal Arkansas and Louisiana) nor in states where I have friends in custody battles (AR, LA, TN, NY, MI), going bankrupt just to see their kids more than 4 days a month (and in more than one case, it is the Mother who is using her kids to gain leverage, to punish a man she is angry with and cannot control – with judges who act as if women are incapable of vindictive behavior).
    We cannot fix the bias of judges in our court system and the cultural misogyny ingrained in their decisions – judges who assign care providers and monetary providers based on gender – if we are not even able to admit that the system is flawed or that the problem exists. It may not exist where you live, I am willing to grant that in good faith, but those practices are far from ‘grossly outdated’ in many other places. I know there are terrible fathers out there, abusive men who have no desire to be fully involved in their kids’ lives and there are cases where joint custody isn’t an option but those cases should not determine our default and we shouldn’t assume that there aren’t just as many women who fall into that category of ‘bad parent’. Family court should exist to do what is best for the children involved, not to reinforce stereotypes or entrench us further in the gender wars. And I have seen it fuel a horrible bitterness (a bitterness that is fed and nurtured by MRA’s) that is at odds with feminist goals – because forcing men to pay (literally and figuratively) and limiting a child’s ability to bond with their father is NOT any feminist goal I’m aware of and it is not what I consider ’empowering’…and I’m sick of vindictive women being given the label of ‘feminist’. It hurts us all.