This week on CenterStage, a speech by best-selling author and historian Susan Jacoby.
On August 16th and 17th, 2014, the Center for Inquiry presented a conference entitled “Robert Green Ingersoll and the Reform Imperative” at its headquarters in Amherst, New York. This event celebrated Ingersoll, perhaps the best-known unbeliever of America’s Gilded Age. Ingersoll was born in 1833 in Dresden, a village in New York’s Finger Lakes district. The conference placed Ingersoll in context with other freethinking reformers with roots in west-central New York State, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frederick Douglass, and Matilda Joslyn Gage.
Susan Jacoby poses the provocative question, “Where Are You, Robert Ingersoll, Now That We Need You Again?”
Susan Jacoby is the author of The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought. She has been a contributor to a wide variety of national publications. Her work Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism was named a notable book of 2004 by the Washington Post and the New York Times. Her work The Age of Unreason became a New York Times best seller.
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Join us now on center stage.
Welcome to Center Stage. I’m Debbie Goddard director of outreach at the Center for Inquiry. Today on center stage, a speech by bestselling author and historian Susan Jacoby.
And Adam Tom Flynn, editor of Free Inquiry magazine. On August 16th and 17th, 2014, the Center for Inquiry presented a conference entitled Robert Green, Ingersoll and the Reform Imperative at its headquarters in Amherst, New York.
This event celebrated Ingersol.
Perhaps the best known unbeliever of America’s Gilded Age, Ingersoll was born in 1833 in Dresden, a village in New York’s Finger Lakes district.
The conference placed Ingersol in context with other freethinking reformers with roots in west central New York state, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frederick Douglass and Matilda Jocelin Gage.
Over our next seven episode, center stage will present key lectures from this one of a kind event this week.
Susan Jacoby poses the provocative question. Where are you? Robert Ingersoll.
Now that we need you again, Susan Jacoby is the author of The Great Agnostic. Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought. She has been a contributor to a wide variety of national publications. Her work, Freethinkers A History of American Secularism, was named a notable book of 2004 by The Washington Post and The New York Times. Her work, The Age of Unreason, became a New York Times bestseller.
And now Susan Jacoby.
We’re going to be hearing now from one of our movement’s superstars, the historian Susan Jacoby. Susan has asked me to make two announcement first. No flash photography, please, during her presentation. And second, after her talk. She’ll be out in the lounge area immediately outside this room and she’ll be happy to sign copies of her books where the weather you brought them with her or whether you buy them from us. Although we hope you’ll buy them from us. So I’d like to tell you a little bit about Susan. She’s an author most recently of the great agnostic Robert Ingersoll, an American Freethought. Prior to that, among other books, she wrote a little tiny lightweight historical tome called Free Thinkers. That’s probably the best single reference for the history of our movement. Yes, it is tremendously comprehensive. Susan has been a contributor to a wide variety of national publications, including The New York Times, The L.A. Times, The American Prospect, Mother Jones, The Nation Glamor and AAP magazine ad free inquiry. Yesterday, Freethinkers A History of American Secularism was named a notable book of 2004 by The Washington Post and The New York Times. Her book, The Age of Unreason, became a New York Times bestseller. And who knows, perhaps in the course of her talk, she’ll tell you a little something about her next project. Ladies and gentlemen, Susan Jacoby.
Well, thank you, Tom. First, let me say how I’m feeling this isn’t quite the right height. Let me say how happy I am that CFI is sponsoring this conference, which is doing some justice to secular history. That’s right in our backyard here. You’re going to see a few of the high spots on the bus trip tomorrow. And I suppose of the I think that those of you who haven’t had a taste of the incredible beauty of the Finger Lakes area, Ingersol, speaking at an agricultural fair, called it one of the most spectacular landscapes God never made. I know you’ll want to come back and see a number of other places in the area that illuminate the history of secularism, of women’s rights, and of the struggle against slavery and sometimes of attempt to conceal slavery in New York State, too. Now, let’s get straight to the subject of my top, Robert Green Ingersoll, who is, in my view, the second most important figure in the history of American secularism. The first, of course, being Thomas Paine. I was at a radio talk about two years ago with Michael Medved, a well-known and and deeply conservative radio commentator. And he told me first that he’d like my book about Ingersol much better than expected to. Well, I didn’t find that so surprising. It’s hard to resist a man who was attacked in The New York Times the day after his death for having kept money in an unlocked drawer in his house where the editorial writer noted disapprovingly members of his family could take what they wanted without asking permission.
Yes, I could just see this fusty old editorial writer in 1899 working himself up into a lather, partly, I suspect, because Ingersoll and his wife had two daughters.
So it was women who were allowed to take this money from the drawer as they saw fit without asking the plotter familias if they could.
And this, the editorial writers surmised, was why Ingersoll didn’t die a wealthy man, even though he’d made a good deal of money from public speaking. But then Medved went on to use the fact that Ingersoll had become quite rich from his speaking fees as, quote, proof that there’d been no discrimination against atheists in this country ever. And this, by the way, is the same line I’ve heard. Only now it’s applied to people like the late Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. It holds atheist, agnostic, free thinkers, whatever you like to call them, to a standard no one else is held to in this country, which is that if you’re a principled person, you shouldn’t expect to get paid for what you do as the religious right sets the example for us every day.
Bye bye. Yes. By such by such a vice, such occasions as the former Senator Jim DeMint departure for his paltry salary job as CEO of the Heritage Foundation, which I’m sure Ron and Tom really are also making such salaries as the head of the Heritage Foundation is or or the royalties for that book. Kevin is for real, which, dammit, I saw it in the airport again yesterday. It is still on the best seller list seller list after all these years. And you can be sure that some of the royalties are going to the father preacher with whom the son who went to heaven during his appendectomy and saw the sisters you never knew because his mother had a miscarriage. I’m sure the royalties for this idiotic book are some of them are going to some worthy causes. But I digress. Can you digress? At the beginning of his speech.
I wrote my short biography of Ingersol After Freethinkers was published because so simply because so many people who read Freethinkers wrote me and said they wish there’d been more about in your soul in it. Also, by the end of this first decade of the 21st century, I was really struck by how many critical public issues ranging from the influence of money on politics to the rights of women, resembled those in the last decade of the 19th century when Ingersoll was in his prime. And one of my greatest satisfactions in having written this little book is the emails I get on my author website from people who hadn’t read Freethinkers but who somehow discovered the Ingersol book on its own. Now, Jennifer Michael Hecht reviewing my book in The New York Times and a generally positive review. But she criticized it because I hadn’t found enough bad to say about Ingersol.
And all I can say, too, is I really tried because that actually is necessary when you’re doing a book.
The only thing I could really find was his position as a gold standard. Publican, but I’m not convinced that this isn’t an anachronistic criticism at this point in history of a Republican in the 80s, 90s, and I have absolutely no doubt that Ingersol, given his repeated warnings about disregard for the rights of workers on the part of the rich and powerful, would have become a Teddy Roosevelt progressive.
Had he lived into the 20th century and not died in 1899. And by the way, in his in his warnings about the what Roosevelt would call the malefactors of great wealth, he was one of the few people of that time who, when he talked about workers, emphasized that he meant women in garment factories as well as men in mines. So one of the reasons I admire Ingersoll’s so much and feel he deserves to be so much better known in American history than he is, is that he was deeply ambitious for a political RIR career and gave it up because fighting the battle for a reason and against the influence of religion on government was more important to him. Although he was a big mover and shaker behind the scenes in the Republican Party his whole life, he joined in, of course, during the Civil War. But there was no possibility he could be nominated for high elective office or even appointed to an important office by Republican presidents he’d helped elect. Weininger saw was selected as the perfect person, partly as a result of his great love of German composers to serve as the American Council in Berlin after German unification 1870. The idea was quickly put down by religious conservatives in both Republican and Democratic parties. Ingersoll could that and should not be confirmed by the Senate. It was explained because he would not be able to say my Angoff the most common of mild German expletives. I’d like to see one just one politician today who would be willing to give up his hopes for higher office because of his anti religious convictions. Common sense tells us that there’s more than one atheist in Congress. But Pete Stark, who retired in the last election cycle, was the only one who admitted it. And not only that, but just emphasizing the separation of church and state as an issue is likely to cost you votes in a lot of districts, not only the strongholds of the Tea Party. That was not Ingersol, and that’s why he’s still a little known today outside Freethought circles. We have no Ingersol today, even among powerful people say billionaire philanthropist doing good works. Who will admit to their Athie ism because they think that if they came out as atheists and I don’t need to name these people, you know, who they are, that it would hurt their philanthropic work. And we don’t have anyone who runs for office on a platform that upholds the separation of church and state. President Obama got praise for me as well as others for explicitly mentioning people who don’t believe in any religion. In his first inaugural address. But when he presided over a memorial for the victims of the Connecticut school shooting in Newtown, he talked about Jesus absolutely ignoring the fact that there were parents who had lost children in that audience who were not Christians. It would have been easy to frame that memorial, as I wrote in The New York Times in terms of that simply acknowledged that we all mourn, we all die regardless of religious beliefs. When a nut with a semiautomatic come shooting at us. But instead, the comfort he offered as president was framed in entirely religious terms, which I think must have been quite offensive to people who are not comforted by the idea of their dead children as little angels in heaven.
And and what Obama has done, it’s not unique to him. It’s what all politicians do eventually. Robert Ingersoll could not agree to those terms, explains why he is among those public figures who, famous in their own time, did not become a part of the nation’s historical memory, but instead are confined to what the Internet calls niche fame.
Ingersoll stepped onto the Facebook stage as the leading figure in the golden age of Freethought, an era when immigration, industrialization and science, especially the theory of evolution, were challenging both religious orthodoxy and the supposedly simpler values of the nation’s Anglo-Saxon rural past. That things were never really so simple was the message Ingersol repeatedly conveyed as he spoke before more of his countrymen than elected public leaders, including presidents, did. In an era when lectures were, of course, both a form of mass communication and a vital source of information between 1875 and his death, Ingersol spoke in every state except Mississippi, North Carolina and Oklahoma. In one of his most popular lectures, titled Individually, Ingersoll said of the framers. And I know most of you have heard this, but I don’t think it bears repeating often enough. They knew that to put God in the Constitution was to put man out. They knew that the recognition of a duty would be seized upon by fanatics and zealots as a pretext for destroying the liberty of thought. They knew the terrible history of the church too well to place in her keeping or in the keeping of her God, the sacred rights of man.
They intended that all should have the right to worship or not to worship, that our laws should make no distinction on account of creed. They intended to found and frame a government for man and man alone. They wish to preserve the individual reality of all to prevent the few from governing and the many from persecuting and destroying the few.
To the question that retains its divisive power today, whether the United States was founded as a Christian nation, Ingersol always answered an emphatic No. The marvel of the framers, he argued at a Centennial Oration delivered in his hometown of Peoria on July 4th, 1876, was that they established the first secular government that was ever founded in this world. At a time when every government in Europe was based on union between church and state, a government that had retired the brigands from politics.
Ingersoll declared with decidedly premature optimism, was an indispensable condition of progress to 19th century free thinkers. As to their 18th century predecessors, intellectual and material progress went hand in hand with the abandonment of superstition and strong ties between religion and government amounted to the endorsement by the state of superstition. Now it’s clear that the golden age of Freethought, which stretched roughly from 1875 until the beginning of the First World War, divided Americans in much the same fashion and over many of the same issues as the culture wars of the past three decades.
The argument over the proper role of religion in civil government was and is only a subsidiary of the larger question of whether the claims of supposedly revealed religion deserve any particular respect or deference in a pluralistic society. That’s the issue. That’s right was raised by Obama’s speech at Newtown. The other cultural issue that divided Americans and Ingersoll’s time are equally familiar and include evolution, race, immigration, women’s rights, sexual behavior and vast disparities of wealth. In the 19th century, however, these issues were newer, as was the science bolstering the secular side of the arguments. The overarching question, Ingersoll’s time was whether any of these issues could or should be resolved by appeals to divine authority to this.
Ingersol also said no. But what Ingersol did say yes to. Given that the most persistent accusation against atheists then now is they believe in nothing. What did he say yes to? And by the way, I should point out here, for those of you who may not know that Ingersol, who is called the great agnostic by others, made it quite clear that he saw no difference between being an atheist and an agnostic. In 1885, he was he was asked by an interviewer for a newspaper. Don’t you think that the belief of the agnostic is more satisfactory to the believer than that of the atheist? Ingersoll replied succinctly. Big Gnostic is an atheist, the atheist. And this is Gnostic, the agnostic says. I do not know, but I do not believe there is any God. The atheist said the same. The Orthodox Christian says he knows there is a God, but we know that he does not know.
The atheists too cannot know that God does not exist. This critical point has always been a source of confusion and willful distortion in American religious discourse, because in large measure, I think the word atheist has a harsher sound to most people and the word agnostic. I also think it’s one reason why Ingersol has not, in my view, been given his due by those who were called the New Atheists. I think some of them are under the mistaken impression that because Ingersol was called the great agnostic, he was one of those wishy washy people who tried to distance himself from Athie ism, a member of the I’m spiritual but not religious crowd. Yeah. Ingersol also pointed out that the labels atheist and infidel had generally applied as epithets to anyone, religious or not, who refused to accept biblical stories that were scientifically impossible, including the devout Quaker mentioned by the first speaker this morning. Suffrages, an abolitionist, Lucretia Mott, and also Payne, who is probably a D, not an atheist and was called a Judas reptile hog. Mad Dog s slouched an arched beach beast in the press at that time. So had he done nothing else? Ingersoll’s lifelong effort to restore Payne’s reputation should have earned him a permanent place in American intellectual history.
And so one of the first things in yourself. Yes. Yes to. Was the proposition that America did have a secular history and a history that needed to be known and understood instead of covered up. So in this cultural climate, Ingersol subtitles as standard lecture about Thomas Paine. With his name left out, the history of liberty cannot be written in your soul. Made it one of his missions not only to remind citizens in American second century of Paines indispensable rhetorical contributions to the revolutionary cause, but to link those ideals to look Payne’s fierce defense of liberty of conscience. Now, to be sure, Ingersol achieved only partial success in returning pain to the American historical canon. And even then, pain is much better known as the as the author of the Crisis Papers than he is of the author of The Age of Reason, which fought with put forth the heretical idea that sacred books of all religions were written by human beings and not by any degree. So it is easier to get pain into school books simply because he wrote one thing the crisis papers that you can talk to eight year olds in Texas without covering up what he really said.
The second thing Ingersoll’s said yes to his humanism, the belief that it was the obligation of human beings to care for one another simply because of our common humanity. And this distinguished him from the social Darwinists of his generation who believe that some people were inherently inferior to others and nothing could be done about it. And this the second reason I admire Ingersoll’s so much. He wasn’t afraid to stand up to people who were generally his allies when he thought that they were wrong. The social Darwinists among his contemporaries insisted that Darwin’s description of tooth and claw natural selection did and should apply to man in a state of nature. Darwin himself explicitly rejected this concept and said that that everything changed once the man entered a stage of the stage of civilization. Herbert Spencer, who was a friend of Ingersoll’s, was the one who coined the phrase survival of the fittest. Not Darwin and Spencer’s equation between biological natural selection and what he called social selection led him to oppose all state aid to the poor public education, health laws.
Hey, we know some of these people, do we not? And even public postal service.
Furthermore, there were atheists and agnostics on the political left, as well as the right, who were convinced not only that the poor were poor because they were unfit, but that natural elect selection had established a hierarchy of inferior and superior races, most of which would be called ethnic groups today. The statements of, among others, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Margaret Sanger about the inferiority of immigrants are a continuing embarrassment to those who would like to think that their favorite social reformers, feminists and anti religious dissenters were untainted by the prejudices of their era. They were not great as they were, and much as I admire Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She was in her views on immigration. Not all that different from some people on the far right today.
And it is a real embarrassment to feminists who often keep trying to write it out. Ingersoll was not that way.
After reading all of Ingersoll’s public works and much of his private correspondence, I still find it difficult to explain the seeming inconsistency between his own place in the tradition of democratic secular humanism pioneered by pain and his close personal relationships with many social Darwinists like Spencer. And for that matter, Thomas Edison.
I think that paradox is the source of his singular importance in the history of American secularism. But it’s also the reasons why it’s difficult for historians to place him and why he’s just left out of so many mainstream history. Part of the explanation for Ingersoll’s refusal to cast his lot with the social Darwinist certainly lies in his big part, part of personality. He had very close relationships with people like Eugene V. Debs are the future socialist candidate for president, whose views on, for instance, on the gold standard couldn’t have been further from Ingersoll’s up. He was really fearless in his dissenting opinions. In 1886, he supported Henry George, the author of the highly influential work Progress and Poverty in his UNF look for in his in his candidacy for mayor of New York on a platform of a single tax on land, Ingersoll believe that no one should be allowed to own any land.
He didn’t use personally. And why? Ingersoll asked, Don’t you know that if people could bottle the air, they would. Don’t you know there would be an American Air Bottling Association? And don’t you know that a lot?
They would allow millions and millions to die for one of breath if they could not pay for air, endorsing both the eight hour day and the right of workers to strike. If you mean working conditions could be achieved in no other way. Ingersoll argued that working people should be protected by law. If they are not, capitals will require just as many hours as human nature can bear. We have seen here in America streetcar drivers working 16 and 17 hours a day. It was necessary, Sherry, to have a strike in order to get down to 14 and other strike to get to 12.
And no one could blame them if they keep on striking till they get to eight hours. But Ingersol made an even more extraordinary statement coming as it did from a rich white man of his time.
Economic justice, he said, must apply to women as well as to working men and men should remember that, quote, All you labor are their brothers and that all women who labor are their sisters, the worst paid, worst treated America workers in America were women, Ingersol noted. And this was more than two decades before the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. He said, think of the sewing women in this city and we call ourselves civilized. Ingersoll’s rejection of the idea that women were by nature intellectually inferior to men. An article of faith for most men and women of his era was another of his distinguishing characteristics as a humanistic free thinker. Many of his earlier 20th century biographers failed to recognize. Probably because most of them were writing before the emergence of the second wave of American feminism in the 70s. But Ingersoll held a radical view of women’s rights and wrongs that went beyond the suffragist movement of his time. In this battle, he sided with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her views on the relationship between religion and women’s ills, as I’m sure you know in your soul, spoke about the necessity of contraception before there was any. He said science must make woman the owner. The mistress of herself must put it in the power of women to decide for herself whether or not she will become a mother.
Yes. And and wouldn’t he be surprised that this is still an issue for some people?
And Ingersol correctly described the ethos of both men and women, quote, who believed that women had to be bounded childbearing as people who, quote, believed that slaves are pure truer than the free, who believe that fear is a safer guide. The knowledge that only those who are really good, but those who are really good only obey the commands of others. And that endurance endurance is the soil in which the perfumed, perfumed flower of virtue grows in your soul. Also emphasized that one of the reasons that it was true that that that many women did not have the level of sophisticated knowledge that men did. And he said it was because they weren’t entitled to education. And by the way, this is really important. Again, it’s it’s a great lacuna in the Freethought movement. After the Civil War, freethinkers were almost invariably abolitionists, whether they were men or whether they were women. However, after the Civil War, during the reconstruction and post reconstruction period, white freethinkers did not stand up for the idea that blacks were entitled former slaves were entitled the right to education or that they might potentially be the equal of white men.
White freethinkers did not stand up universally or even in the majority who did. Ingersoll was one of the few. He was highly regarded. He spoke to. He spoke, for instance, to what was then a small association of African-Americans in the legal profession in Washington in the eighteen 70s. And he said that he was afraid eventually real liberty was going to have to be won by by legal legal means with these people going back to the south and fighting for their rights there. He was only about 80 years too early in that. And even more importantly, in 1883, the Supreme Court delivered a decision which basically abolished the last of reconstruction and institutionalized Jim Crow was a case involving trains saying states had the right to do whatever we had put put African-Americans, blacks colored actually wherever they wanted on trains. It was up to the owners. Ingersoll was one of the few big shots in either party who really spoke out unequivocally against this and predicted immediately that it was not only going to lead to discrimination in public accommodations is it would be called a century later, but that it was going to to bring violence to the south because this would be imposed on former slaves by violence. It took about two years for the full revival of the Ku Klux Klan to prove him was right.
I think this is this is very important because, again, it’s something that not everyone did.
Now, I just.
Unfortunately, because I do want to give you time to give Chris questions, I’m having to skip over some of the things which some of you know and some of you don’t know, because I really want to get to the part that has to do with the trip that many of you are taking tomorrow. So I’m going to skip over everything in your cell had to say about the theory of evolution. But first, in another note and landscape to his precedence, I want to talk about something I did not discover when I was writing Freethinkers, but only when I was writing this small group.
And this is another example of Ingersoll’s refusal to go along, even with people who were mainly his allies, about things he thought were morally wrong. Ingersol, of course, had great confidence, the potential of science to eventually solve what was long thought insoluble contraception.
Be a good example. But he did not regard science as a religion or scientists as priests.
And he made this clear when he endorsed the vivisectionist movement, which was one of the precursors of the modern animal rights movement and expose painful experiments on live and unanesthetized animals. Some of his social Darwinist friends thought Ingersoll was betraying the cause of science by his, quote, sentimental views about animals.
But Ingersoll had consulted serious surgeons and scientists who said that there was absolutely nothing that could be learned. On unanesthetized animals, except how much pain they could tolerate. And and he said, good scientists say, why is that something to know? And he’s so here. He wrote in 1891, Vivisection is the inquisition and the hell of science. What excuse can ingenuity form for a man who deliberately and with an unexcelled aerated pulse, with the calmness of John Calvin at the murder of surveillance, Seek’s with curious and cunning knives in the living, quivering flesh of a dog. For all of the throbbing nerves of pain, the wretches who commit these infamous crimes pretend that they’re working for the good of man, that they’re actuated by philanthropy, and that their pity for the sufferings of the human race drives out all pity for the animals they slowly torture to death. But those who are incapable of pitying animals are, as a matter of fact, incapable of pitying men. A physician who would cut a living rabbit in pieces, laying bare the nerves, denuding them with knives, pulling them out with forceps would not hesitate to try experiments with men and women for the gratification of his curiosity. 1891, ladies and gentlemen, a half century before Dr. Mengele and his peers proved him right. It’s an amazing it’s an amazing letter. I didn’t find it the first time around. I’m going to close with a story from Dharwad, Jack, Michigan, now a sleepy town on the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan or actually southeastern. It’s in southwestern Michigan tomorrow at the Ingersol Birthplace Museum. You’ll see how my story ends. Dragic was once a hotbed of free thought due partly to the influence of a town’s leading citizen employer, Fi Low Dybek with the head of the Round Oak Stove Co., one of the most important American manufacturers of the late 19th century. After Beckwith died, his children built an opera house to memorialize him, and on its facade were busts of all of the famous freethinkers Beckwith admired, including Stanton, Susan B.. Anthony, Shakespeare, Paine, Walt Whitman and Ingersol himself, to name just a few. Ingersoll was one of the few who were alive, and he gave the dedication speech for the first performance of this Opera House on October 25th, 1893. As you can imagine, it was a huge Michigan event. Well, the Opera House stood until 1968 when at the height of the American enthusiasm for urban renewal, a.k.a. urban destruction, the DUI objects, city fathers knocked down the old opera house. This beautiful building to make way for an office building. A lot of the bus were smashed. That wasn’t the reason they did it. It just happened. But some citizens recognized a few of them and rescued them. So when I was working down on Freethinkers and in 2000, I was working on finishing it in 2000. I tracked down Paines bust on a college campus near Dragic, and I ask every official there I interviewed, including the mayor, if anyone knew where Ingersoll’s head was or whether it had survived. Every city official I talked to claim not to know, but then through serendipity, I tracked down a 91 year old man named Joe SPAD Forey, who was still alive and living on Main Street, where the Opera Street what house once stood. When I finally tracked Spatafore down and he referred familiarly to Ingersol as Bob, he will, he laugh. He laughed at the idea that local businessmen and civic leaders might think the bust was gone since 1968. He told me Ingersoll’s bronze head had been planted in the ground like a flamingo at the sight of his friend, Jack roupas driveway. His friend Jack Rupel, another freethinker and and Greeley had rescued the head in 1968. And they didn’t have anywhere else to put it but in the driveway, because although Spatafore, he had attempted many times to get to get the city fathers to build a monument to Ingersoll and Beckwith, he got nowhere. I was just considered a crazy old man, he told me. I’m sure a lot of the people around here think that old Bob deserved to be reduced to smithereens in vengeance by an angry God. Well, to make a long story short, in 2001, the bust was salvaged again by by Rupel and the author and best selling and freethinking minister, our own Roger E. Greeley, who was supposed to be here today but who can’t be. And they drove the sculpture across the country to his pleasant home at the Robert Ingersoll Birthplace Museum in Dresden, where those of you were going. Hall, who will see it tomorrow. I just want to tell you at Spatafore, he said to me in 2000 about this. I said, I’m sure those secular humanist in New York will take good care of Bob. But as for me, I’d like to walk past a statue of him right here and doing magic. As a young man, Spatafore, he had read the speech. Ingersoll delivered about Beckwith in the collected works that were published shortly after his death. The Dresden editions. Bob’s writings were still in the local library. Then Spatafore, he recalled, and I read all 12 volumes of them.
Imagine he said this stuff is still controversial.
And now now I’m going to close just with Illah editorial, not from the stuffy old New York Times, but from the Atcheson Daily Globe in Kansas. His publisher was a free thinker named Edward G. How? In the memorial edition for Ingersol, he said the death of Robert Ingersoll removed one of America’s greatest citizens. It is not popular to admire Ingersoll for his brilliance, his his his integrity and patriotism. But they cannot be doubted. Had Ingersoll not been frank enough to express his opinions on religion, he would, would or might certainly have been president of the United States. Hypocrisy in religion pays. There will come a time when public men may speak their honest convictions in religion without being maligned by the ignorant and the superstitious. But not yet.
No, not yet. Still.
Oh, sorry, I forgot. Yeah.
Hello. Thank you. Great talk. Thank you. I’m fascinated by everything, but in particular reading books and speeches by Ingersol. One little hot item that you touched upon, namely agnosticism versus atheists. Well, what you said is, of course, so no atheist would give much hope for another life. And yet in so many of the speeches I’ve seen, I’ve read rather from Ingersol, including oration of the child’s grave at the congressional cemetery in Washington. And in his wonderful Lotus Club speech in New York City in 1890, he actually addressed part that possibility. And he was always it was always mentioned that he’s doing this because he’s he wants to give the rest of his message across. And he’s a kindly person and he doesn’t want to take away hope. For example, the end of the Lotus Club speech. It’s the last thing he said was a wish. Times like this, I always wish I had had the making of the world and what a world I would have made.
That world unhappiness would have been the only sin melancholy. The only crime joy. The only virtue in whether there is another world. Nobody knows. Nobody can affirm it. Nobody can deny it. Nobody can collect a toll from me claiming that he owns a turnpike. And nobody can certainly say that. The crooked path that I follow. Besides which many flowers are growing, roses are growing does not lead to that place. But if there is another place, I hope that all good fellows will be welcome.
Yeah, yeah. There was this. This this gentleman is absolutely right in your. Ingersol often often said the same thing about another alife that he said about God. Well, you can’t prove there isn’t a there’s very little doubt that he himself didn’t believe in it. Well, for one thing, he took great care when when he knew that he wasn’t well and he had to retire from public life because of his bad heart. He took great care to make sure that there would be a lot of witnesses at his death so that what would happen, what would happen to Voltaire and Thomas Paine. All of these stories that are always about, you know, how how heretics repented on their deathbed and said they were sorry to God. And indeed, in fact, his wife and daughter had to bring a lawsuit a few years later because it was being circulated. A delay had to attest that they were personally present at his death and that, no, he did not repent.
Even his granddaughters had to contend. Yeah, that they had to continue it. Right.
Hello. I hope you mentioned that we enjoy in this country the only secular government ever conceived yet.
I enjoy isn’t exactly the word.
Point taken up yet in Europe, they tend to be much more secular, but they never had that kind of a secular government. And how do you account for that difference? And why are we still so religious here?
I, I, I think, in fact, that the study, the legal separation of church and state here is the reason and I am this is not an original thought with me, although I thought it was when I when I first thought about it. But there are other historians who think so too, although it’s by no means a mainstream view. But I think when one of the things that happened when when church and state, even when it becomes attenuated over centuries, is that is that for such a long time, let’s say at the time the Constitution was written to be against the state established church in most of Europe was also to be against the state. So in other words, religious dissent in countries in which church and state are run means political dissent, too, whereas right from the beginning in America, from the Constitution, that was not true.
I think it accounts, for example, for for the fact that we founded the three craziest religions of the 19th century Christian Science, Mormonism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I really you know, there may be some others that are almost as crazy, but three of the craziest international proselytizing religions were founded here. Well, it is not to say that there was not discrimination against people of load’s or I’m not talking now about social discrimination. I’m simply talking about the fact that you could go here and change your religion. And even in countries with established churches, changing your religion from one form of Protestantism or another would be a statement about where you stood politically, whereas it’s a lot more of a statement now than it was than it was 100, 200 years ago in America. But if you became a Baptist in the South, it was it was not a statement that you didn’t like your state government necessarily. Or if you are if you became a Unitarian in New England as half of the once Puritan Congregationalists churches did. It didn’t mean that you were opposed to traditional New England forms of government, except for which burning and things like that. It simply meant you had a different religious belief. I think when you have a country in which people really are free without political penalty, and I say that in full awareness, that of course there were violations of religious liberty, all but it was nothing like we never lived through anything like Europe did in the 17th century with the religious wars. And that indeed is why the Constitution was written the way the way it was written. So I think, ironically, the separation of church and state is one of the main reasons why why more people adhere to religion here. Also, there’s another thing. Every country in Europe, whether it’s divided regionally, half of Germany was Protestant, half of it was Catholic. Northern Europe is Lutheran, southern southern Europe was Catholic. The other thing was, is that it’s kind of the default religion there. People in Europe, the next book I’m writing is called A Secular History of Religious Conversion, and it’s about the non spiritual factors that are involved in religious conversions on a mass scale. And as a friend of mine in Italy pointed out to me, when you’re no longer a Catholic in Italy, nobody thinks of becoming a Buddha’s store or something like that. They just sort of fall away from what’s the default religion into non observance. Whereas Americans are much more likely. Look, we’re the only country in the world that has this phrase religious marketplace.
It is so American and Europeans think it’s hilarious. And when you look at it, it really is. I may have missed it. I won’t say this definitively, I haven’t written and read every single thing that Ingersol has ever written.
He didn’t have much to say about Eastern religions. Maybe, you know, something he had to say about it that I didn’t.
But but he didn’t know much about Eastern religions. And he said so. All he said was he was also one of the few people he was very opposed to the anti Chinese immigration acts in the eighteen eighties. I did say something. You know, it said, imagine Christians talk about the Chinese as a heathen. He said, although I’m not familiar with Confucianism. I believe that it is older than Christianity and things like that. I don’t think that he had he knew much about Eastern religions or had much to say about them. He just always said over and over again that all religions had had what he said over and over was this, that the things that people cite about all religions as being good things like do unto others as you would have them do unto you and so forth, were qualities of human beings that they are the best in human beings that appear in every religion. And he said he said, but if you claim that for religion, you also have to claim some of the worst things that appear in religion, which also appear in human beings. Now, I don’t know if anyone knows differently. I have never read anything that he said explicitly about any difference between Eastern religions and Western religions. And it certainly wasn’t something that someone of his background would have been very interested in them.
You identify the second human is in back with in line with Ingersoll and Payne before him, and then you identify the the libertarian atheists and skeptics of today in line with social Darwinism. And I think some of them will more identify with Rand and and question this. You’re identifying the straight line from them back to social Darwinists.
Your comments on. No. First of all, first of all, first of all, I’m a secular humanist and an atheist.
I answer to all I’m an atheist, secular humanist. I answer to all of those things.
Most of the atheists I know are not social Darwinism. What I say what I’m saying is that there are two strains of atheist thought. One of them dates all the way back to pain and another of it it does. I learned I wasn’t saying that all atheists today are social Darwinists. What I meant to say is that there are social Darwinists today who are atheists. They’re also some of them who are Christians, which I should have said. In other words, I mean, one of the mysteries of the world to me is how people like Ron Paul and Rand Paul can basically they are social Darwinists. I mean, that’s what their brand of libertarianism is, is about. It’s about complete social Darwinism as well as libertarianism in certain other matters, but in everything but religion and that you never know how somebody who is named for Iron Rand can just ignore the fact that she was an atheist. I don’t know. But I don’t identify the new atheists. Good heavens. Christopher Hitchens was no social Darwinist. Believe you me. And neither is Sam Harris and neither is Richard Dawkins. However, there are some atheists who are social Darwinists.
And I got a good taste of this when I was writing the On Faith column for The Washington Post, which I no longer write because it’s no longer owned by The Washington Post. But I got a good a good taste of the social Darwinist segment of Athie ism and no way of knowing how large or how small is it by my persistent hecklers on my column. They were all men and they all one question on faith posed to all of its panels and one of its first incarnations. You should excuse the expression was was why are women more religious than men? And the answers came in a flood from these Palli. I call it the palaeo atheists.
It’s perfectly obvious women are stupider than men. I mean, they you know, you can you know, you can write anything you want. Of course, they never use their real names, naturally. But but there there is there is a segment of Athie ism that’s like this. But I did not mean to imply that the new atheists are all iron Rania’s. I do think I do think, however, this has nothing to do with being Iron Randian. I do think Ingersol hasn’t gotten the credit from people like Hitchens and Dawkins and Harris that he deserves. I really do. And I think that’s partly because he was so known as the great agnostic. I think I think they’ve made the mistake of thinking that he backed away from atheists and whenever anyone. And also because of the other thing you mentioned, that he was quite willing to say, well, I can’t prove that there isn’t a life after death. But what he also said over and over again was the same thing. You know, just as Hume said, extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. It’s it’s not up to me to prove that there is no life after death. It’s up to you to prove that there is. And there were even as as as I’m sure many of you know, I mean, Susan B. Anthony said that, you know you know, if there is no life after death, what a dream and a delusion has been the life of man. Well, Ingersol explicitly rejected that idea. He said if there is no life after death, it makes it all the more important what we do in this life to make this life good, because this is the only life we know we can have any influence on.
We have heard Susan Jacoby’s speech. Where are you, Robert Ingersoll? Now that we need you again, delivered at the Ingersol conference held at Amherst, New York, in August of 2014, the original recording was engineered by Monica Harmsen.
Theme music was by Adam Fields. Postproduction was by Inquiry Media Productions.
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