By James A. Haught
This is the fifteenth segment of a series on renowned skeptics throughout history. These profiles are drawn from 2000 Years of Disbelief: Famous People With the Courage to Doubt, Prometheus Books, 1996.
No other American had a career like that of the amazing Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899), the premier lecturer in an era when public speeches were a major form of mass entertainment and education. Called “the American Demosthenes” and “the Shakespeare of oratory,” he drew audiences as great as fifty thousand in a quarter-century of touring the nation.
Ingersoll was a self-educated dynamo who might have become a national political figure, had he not felt compelled to declare, over and over, in city after city, that religion is childish superstition which impedes human progress.
He was born in Dresden, New York, the son of an abolitionist Congregationalist minister who moved from state to state. Although he had little formal education, Ingersoll read voraciously and was admitted to the Illinois bar in 1854. He and his brother, Ebon Clark, opened a lucrative law practice in Peoria, where Robert met and married an avowed atheist’s strong-spirited daughter, who influenced him greatly. In the 1850s, Ingersoll opposed slavery and became a champion of women’s rights. He addressed a suffrage meeting led by Susan B. Anthony. He also quit the Democratic party because it embraced slavery, and joined the Republicans, largely because of his admiration for Abraham Lincoln.
During the Civil War, Ingersoll rose to the rank of colonel and headed the 11th Illinois cavalry, but he was captured with his troop and sent home as a parolee. After the war, he was selected as attorney general of Illinois and became a vivid speaker for Republican candidates in elections around America. He moved his law practice to Washington and then to New York City.
Meanwhile, Ingersoll had been giving public lectures in the cause that stirred him most: the struggle against supernaturalism. He began denouncing religion in lecture halls; soon he was crisscrossing the nation as a controversial but popular speaker. As a supporter of evolution, he was called a “bulldog for Darwin.”
Ingersoll perfected more than thirty skeptical lectures with titles such as “Why I Am an Agnostic” and “The Liberty of Man, Woman and Child.” Paid as much as $3,500 for a single talk, he earned the equivalent of one million dollars a year in today’s dollars. He became friends with many scientists, writers and human rights leaders of his day. He might even have been elected governor of Illinois or gained a cabinet appointment in Washington, had he not claimed his agnosticism. Such a public declaration of disbelief was tantamount to political suicide, then as now.
Although fundamentalist clergymen deemed Ingersoll a devil, none could point to any blemish in his personal morals. Since his untimely death in 1899, he has been somewhat of a saint of rationalist humanism in America.
Ingersoll’s views on religion
“It has always seemed absurd to suppose that a god would choose for his companions, during all eternity, the dear souls whose highest and only ambition is to obey.” – “lndividuality”
“Who at the present day can imagine the courage, the devotion to principle, the intellectual and moral grandeur it once required to be an infidel, to brave the Church, her racks, her fagots, her dungeons, her tongues of fire – to defy and scorn her heaven and her hell – her devil and her God?” – ibid.
“The Church hates a thinker precisely for the same reason a robber dislikes a sheriff, or a thief despises the prosecuting witness.” – ibid.
“Heresy is what the minority believe; it is the name given by the powerful to the doctrines of the weak.” – “Heretics and Heresies”
“Who can estimate the misery that has been caused by this infamous doctrine of eternal punishment? Think of the lives it has blighted – of the tears it has caused of the agony it has produced. Think of the millions who have been driven to insanity by this most terrible of dogmas. This doctrine renders God the basest and most cruel being in the universe….There is nothing more degrading than to worship such a god.” – ibid.
“I would have the pope throw away his tiara, take off his sacred vestments, and admit that he is not acting for God – is not infallible – but is just an ordinary Italian. I would have all the cardinals, archbishops, bishops, priests and clergymen admit that they know nothing about theology, nothing about hell or heaven, nothing about the destiny of the human race, nothing about devils or ghosts, gods or angels. I would like to see the whole world free – free from injustice – free from superstition.” – “What I Want for Christmas”
“Eternal punishment is eternal revenge, and can be inflicted only by an eternal monster. … Infinite punishment is infinite cruelty, endless injustice, immortal meanness. To worship an eternal jailer hardens, debases and pollutes even the vilest soul.” – “Origin of God and the Devil”
“The idea of hell was born of ignorance, brutality, fear, cowardice and revenge. This idea testifies that our remote ancestors were the lowest beasts.” – ibid.
“The doctrine of eternal punishment is in perfect harmony with the savagery of the men who made the orthodox creeds. It is in harmony with torture, with flaying alive and with burnings. The men who burned their fellow-men for a moment, believed that God would burn his enemies forever.” – “Crumbling Creeds”
“Did it ever occur to you that if God wrote the Old Testament, and told the Jews to crucify or kill anybody who disagreed with them in religion, and that this God afterward took upon himself flesh and came to Jerusalem, and taught a different religion, and the Jews killed him – did it ever occur to you that he reaped exactly what he had sown?” – “Orthodoxy”
“Give me the storm and tempest of thought and action, rather than the dead calm of ignorance and faith!” – “The Gods,” 1872
“Man, gathering courage from a succession of victories over the obstructions of nature, will attain a serene grandeur unknown to the disciples of any superstition.” – ibid.
“An honest God is the noblest work of man.” – ibid.
“To hate man and worship God seems to be the sum of all creeds.” – “Some Mistakes of Moses”
“The ‘Sabbath’ was born of asceticism, hatred of human joy, fanaticism, ignorance, egotism of priests and the cowardice of people.” – ibid.
“A false friend, an unjust judge, a braggart, hypocrite, and tyrant, sincere in hatred, jealous, vain and revengeful, false in promise, honest in curse, suspicious, ignorant, infamous and hideous – such is the God of the Pentateuch.” – ibid.
“In all ages, hypocrites, called priests, have put crowns on the heads of thieves, called kings.” – Prose Poems and Selections, 1884
“No man of any humor ever founded a religion.” – “What Must Be Done to Be Saved?”
“There can be but little liberty on earth while men worship a tyrant in heaven.” – ibid.
“I have had some trouble in regarding evil as having been intended by infinite Goodness.” – letter to Mrs. J.C. Euwer, Nov. 23, 1886
“The country that has got the least religion is the most prosperous, and the country that has got the most religion is in the worst condition.” – speech in Boston, April 23, 1880
“Our hope of immortality does not come from any religion, but nearly all religions come from that hope.” – quoted in the Chicago Times, Nov. 14, 1879
“The church has always been willing to swap off treasures in heaven for cash down.” – speech in Chicago, Sept. 20, 1880
“Miracles are the children of mendacity.” – speech in New York, April 25, 1881
“Strange, but true, that those who have loved God most have loved men least.” – ibid.
“The inspiration of the Bible depends upon the ignorance of the gentleman who reads it.” – ibid.
“One good schoolmaster is worth a thousand priests.” – speech in New York, May 1, 1881
“The history of intellectual progress is written in the lives of infidels.” – ibid.
“A believer is a bird in a cage; a freethinker is an eagle parting the clouds with tireless wing.” – The Great Quotations, by George Seldes
“For many centuries, the sword and cross were allies. Together they attacked the rights of man. They defended each other.” – ibid.
“I believe it was Magellan who said, ‘The Church says the earth is flat; but I have seen its shadow on the moon, and I have more confidence even in a shadow than in the Church.’ On the prow of his ship were disobedience, defiance, scorn and success.” – ibid.
“Is it possible that an infinite God created this world simply to be the dwelling place of slaves and serfs? Simply for the purpose of raising orthodox Christians? That he did a few miracles to astonish them? That all the evils of life are simply his punishments, and that he is finally going to turn heaven into a kind of religious museum filled with Baptist barnacles, petrified Presbyterians and Methodist mummies?” – ibid.
“Surely there is grandeur in knowing that in the realm of thought, at least, you are without a chain….Surely it is worth something to feel that there are no priests, no popes, no parties, no governments, no kings, no gods, to whom your intellect can be compelled to pay a reluctant homage.” – ibid.
“It seems almost impossible for religious people to really grasp the idea of intellectual freedom. They seem to think that a man is responsible for his honest thoughts; that unbelief is a crime, that investigation is sinful; that credulity is a virtue, and that reason is a dangerous guide.” – Atheist Truth versus Religious Ghosts, preface
“If any man wishes to have God recognized in the constitution of our country, let him read the history of the Inquisition, and let him remember that hundreds of millions of men, women and children have been sacrificed to placate the wrath, or win the approbation of this God.” – “God in the Constitution,” an article in The Arena, January 1890
“The church in all ages and among all peoples has been the consistent enemy of the human race. Everywhere and at all times, it has opposed the liberty of thought and expression. It has been the sworn enemy of investigation and intellectual development. It has denied the existence of facts, the tendency of which was to undermine its power. It has always been carrying fagots to the feet of Philosophy. It has erected the gallows for Genius. It has built the dungeon for Thinkers. And today the orthodox church is as much opposed as it ever was to the mental freedom of the human race.” – ibid.
“Happiness is the only good, reason the only torch, justice the only worship, humanity the only religion, and love the only priest.” – eulogy at the grave of his brother, Ebon
“Supernatural religion will fade from this world, and in its place we shall have reason. In the place of the worship of something we know not of, will be the religion of mutual love and assistance – the great religion of reciprocity. Superstition must go. Science will remain.” – What Great Men Think of Religion, by Ira Cardiff
“For ages, a deadly conflict has been waged between a few brave men and women of thought and genius upon the one side, and the great ignorant religious mass on the other. This is the war between science and faith.” – ibid.
“The inventor of the plow did more good than the maker of the first rosary; because, say what you will, plowing is better than praying.” – ibid.
“An intelligent man cannot believe that a miracle ever was, or ever will be performed. Ignorance is the soil in which belief in miracles grows.” – ibid.
“Christianity has always opposed every forward movement of the human race. Across the highway of progress it has always been building breastworks of bibles, tracts, commentaries, prayerbooks, creeds and dogmas.” – ibid.
“Nothing has the same prospect of longevity as a good religious lie.” – ibid.
“I know absolutely nothing about God. I have always lived, you see, in one of the rural districts of the universe.” – ibid.