Two Cheers for Robert Ingersoll

Writer Kimberly Winston said of Robert Ingersoll that he "was a Victorian-era rock star who packed theaters with people who traveled hundred[s] of miles to hear his lectures against religion." Sometimes called "the Great Agnostic," he was probably the principal figure in the "Golden Age of Freethought," which ran from the last quarter of the 19th century well into the second decade of the 20th.

Robert Ingersoll was born this week 181 years ago, on Aug. 11, 1833.

They say that if you want to lose your faith, make friends with a priest. Ingersoll was the son of a Congregationalist preacher. But in his case it was the treatment of his father that probably first inspired the seeds of doubt. The Rev. Ingersoll was a broadminded liberal, as well as a social justice activist and abolitionist, who was tried for his liberalism, found guilty, and defrocked. While he was eventually restored to the ministry, the events were never forgotten by his son.

Briefly a schoolteacher, Ingersoll studied law and passed the Illinois bar in 1854. He was 21 years old. He married Eva Amelia Parker in 1862, and they went on to have two daughters.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, he raised a regiment, the 11th Regiment Illinois Volunteer Cavalry, and led it as a colonel. He saw combat at the Battle of Shiloh. After the war he was elected Attorney General for the state, where he began to be noted in Republican circles for his fiery oratory. He was encouraged to play down his agnosticism and run for governor, but he refused to compromise or even veil his views on religion.

He turned his attention to public speaking in an era when that was a principal form of entertainment. He was interested in and spoke on a wide range of subjects, taking a stance as a thoroughgoing progressive, but his celebrations of family and his blunt agnosticism, bleeding quickly into atheism, were what gained him fame.

The Wikipedia article on Ingersoll holds up as an example a line from his lecture "The Great Infidels," where he declared, "All the meanness, all the revenge, all the selfishness, all the cruelty, all the hatred, all the infamy of which the heart of man is capable, grew blossomed, and bore fruit in this one word -- Hell."

In my childhood I was indirectly influenced by Ingersoll through my father, who was a fervent devotee, particularly enjoying the plain errors and contradictions of the Bible enumerated by the colonel in various lectures.

Later I found much to reflect on in his line, cited in Joseph Lewis' Ingersoll the Magnificent, where he is said to have declared, "Nothing is greater than to break the chains from the bodies of men, nothing nobler than to destroy the phantom of the soul." As a liberal Buddhist I find the current obsession of many of the "new atheists" with the denial of deity a great missing of the real issue. Whether there is a god or gods is of little significance, as we can see in our lives that they have no direct import. But the belief that there is some part of us that is not touched by, or part of, the world has led to more suffering among human beings than there are grains of sand along the course of the Nile.

In my opinion, Ingersoll missed the true currents of religion, of the possibility of an open and liberal spirituality. But, that acknowledged, he certainly brought a lot to the table -- a lot. So two resounding cheers for good ole Robert Ingersoll!

May he be remembered for standing against the powers that be and the demons of cheap faith, and for championing the endless power of not knowing.