Some biographies praise their subjects so effusively that they seem to take on the status of demigods, full of power, wisdom, and something more than mere humanity. Others do a disservice to the subject by making, perhaps unintentionally, his concerns seem narrow and his work seem uninspiring. Susan Jacoby’s The Great Agnostic is of the latter category.
It recounts the life of Robert Ingersoll, the 19th-century American Freethinker dubbed “The Great Agnostic.” Relatively unknown in most popular atheist and agnostic circles today, Ingersoll, in Jacoby’s estimation, should get much more attention from and even emulation by this generation’s crop of New Atheists than he does. The re-popularization and re-appropriation of Ingersoll by the New Atheists is her explicit goal; even though that movement’s media heyday seems to be passing, she includes a “Letter to the New Atheists” appended to the end of the book which pleads for the movement to adopt Ingersoll. So she focuses her biography on those points of similarity between the wars he chose to wage and those currently fought by the New Atheists. But the book’s penchant for creating and attacking theistic straw men, its proclivity for screed-laden generalization at the expense of factual accuracy, and its lack of philosophical nuance makes it an easily dispatched polemic against Christianity, and a disservice to any greatness Ingersoll might actually have had.
The themes of the book are common, and relatively banal: the purported incompatibility of faith with reason, the war between science and faith, and the political tyranny of religious theonomists (a phrase Jacoby seems to find redundant). But these are discussed with a breathtaking lack of nuance or sophistication.
For example, Jacoby chooses the purported conflict between science and religion as representative of Ingersoll’s agnostic polemics. As in the rest of the book, caricatures abound. She doesn’t mention the deep Christian faith of many early modern scientists for whom a simplistic conflict between religion and science would be entirely alien. These men included scientific giants like Robert Boyle, one of the founders of modern chemistry and a man deeply devoted to missionary endeavors; Gottfried Leibniz, who is equally renowned for his mathematical prowess as for his famous attempts at a solution to the problem of evil; and Blaise Pascal, who wrestled by day with vexatious quandaries in the physical world and by night with the God whom he loved and who doggedly pursued his soul. Such a list could continue, but in Jacoby’s book, it does not even begin.
Nor do Jacoby’s condemnations of religion ever interact with the arguments of many contemporary theistic scientists and philosophers who say that a theistic, and particularly a Christian, conception of nature provides a far superior defense and explanation of a scientific worldview. Alvin Plantinga’s recent Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, for example, revises and expands upon his earlier Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism by arguing that the regularity and reasonableness of nature suggest some sort of non-arbitrary ordering, and that a theistic perspective provides the requisite intellectual defense for why the cognitive content of our minds is trustworthy and not merely a naturalistic accretion and confluence of neurochemicals. Though it is clear that Jacoby’s intent in the book is to use the life of Ingersoll as a base from which to launch an agnostic and naturalistic apologetic against theism in general and against Christianity in particular, she never engages with any of the theistic treatments of science that Pascal and Plantinga represent.
Another example: Jacoby frequently characterizes Christians as being opposed to medical progress because “it violated God’s plan for women to be freed from the promised anguish attached to childbirth” or that “vaccination against smallpox usurped the divine prerogative.” But this treatment of Christian interaction with medicine is almost universally ignorant of most of the history of medicine. She says nothing of Christians rescuing deformed children exposed to perish as undesirable mutants in the Roman Empire. She is silent on the history of Christian hospitals throughout the Holy Land for pilgrims and travelers, medical missionary missions to the developing world, the YMCA with its aim to promote health among inner city boys, the Salvation Army, or the formation of the Red Cross.
The omission of the Red Cross is a doubly amusing one: first because its founder, Jean Henri Dunant, was a faithful adherent to Calvinism—the very same belief system that Jacoby identifies as being most prone to resigning the sick and injured to their fate—and second, because it was founded in the year 1863, the exact period that Jacoby identifies as the height of Christian opposition to medical research and care. Since its inception, Christianity has gone hand in hand with the alleviation of suffering throughout the world. Just this year, Yale University sponsored a conference on the history of Christian medical missions, during which scholars presented research documenting the wide-ranging and pioneering medical work of Christian missionaries. Far from attempting a refutation of this massive and growing body of literature, Jacoby simply ignores it.
Of course all of this doesn’t imply that the clergy facing Ingersoll were entirely blameless, or that they held perfectly reasonable positions. On the contrary, they gave Ingersoll at least some legitimate targets for his agnosticism. This is because a wholehearted rejection of science and modernity itself, like a wholehearted lauding of it, is unwarranted; modernity has brought mechanized warfare, yes, but it has brought us medical wisdom as well. To dogmatically assert the irredeemability of science in modernity is to participate in the same error, albeit in the opposite direction, of all those bards writing breathless paeans to the infallibility of science.
Such, perhaps, was the error of Ingersoll’s clerical opponents. Indeed, some theistic anti-moderns participate in this error still today. Their inability to give thanks to God for the true and legitimate progression of science casts a pall of suspicion upon more nuanced or legitimate critiques of Modernity. A far more Christian position would affirm gratefully that God has given the gift of scientific investigation to humanity in these latter days, even while we still faithfully oppose the idolatry of scientism.
Jacoby’s book, therefore, is a paradigmatic exercise in missing the point. Many have suggested that The New Atheists must ground their polemic in a more rigorous intellectual tradition. A recovery of Nietzsche, Russell, or others may be an answer. It is regrettably unclear from this biography whether Ingersoll himself actually had a sophisticated understanding of Christianity, since Jacoby’s editorializing obscures Ingersoll’s own voice. But it is even possible that Ingersoll, with his popular appeal and ability to persuasively form his polemic, deserves a spot in The New Atheism’s pantheon of revered and emulated freethinkers. If so, however, Jacoby’s book, riddled as it is with flaws, gives little reason to suggest he deserves that spot.