A picture from The Great Agnostic

December 7, 2013 • 12:33 pm

I’ve been tracking down quotes from Robert G. Ingersoll, the subject of Susan Jacoby’s new book, The Great Agnostic: Robert G. Ingersoll and American Freethought.  I’ve been mightily impressed with the man: he was a strident atheist before it was cool (or uncool) to be strident, and as eloquent as Hitchens.  He was also reputed to be of impeccable charm and character. It would do us all good to read more of him, and realize that New Atheism isn’t the first in-your-face form of godlessless. (I presume that’s one reason Jacoby wrote her book.)

Anyway, checking an e-version of Ingersoll’s 1879 book, The Gods and Other Lectures, I found this as the frontispiece:


That’s about as strident as you could get for 1879!

And I must include a relevant quote I’ve used before, from Ingersoll’s 1890 essay God in the Constitution:

“We have already compared the benefits of theology and science. When the theologian governed the world, it was covered with huts and hovels for the many, palaces and cathedrals for the few. To nearly all the children of men, reading and writing were unknown arts. The poor were clad in rags and skins—they devoured crusts, and gnawed bones. The day of Science dawned, and the luxuries of a century ago are the necessities of to-day. Men in the middle ranks of life have more of the conveniences and elegancies than the princes and kings of the theological times. But above and over all this, is the development of mind. There is more of value in the brain of an average man of to-day—of a master-mechanic, of a chemist, of a naturalist, of an inventor, than there was in the brain of the world four hundred years ago.

These blessings did not fall from the skies. These benefits did not drop from the outstretched hands of priests. They were not found in cathedrals or behind altars — neither were they searched for with holy candles. They were not discovered by the closed eyes of prayer, nor did they come in answer to superstitious supplication. They are the children of freedom, the gifts of reason, observation and experience — and for them all, man is indebted to man.”

31 thoughts on “A picture from The Great Agnostic

  1. I’m first, of course, struck by the final act of Life of Brian.

    But I’d also, Jerry, to urge you to consider the “newness” of Gnu Atheism not merely in light of the greats from a century ago, and not only from two centuries ago (e.g., Jefferson), but of more than two millennia ago — especially, Epicurus and Democritus. The former utterly devastated the favored theological arguments for gods that remain with us today, and he did so most simply and elegantly. The latter had figured out most of the basic outlines of classical physics and astronomy, all (as Laplace put it) without need of the god hypothesis.



    1. The death of Hypatia in 415CE ended the ancient bright star of Greek culture. (I liked the movie Agora about Hypatia.)

    2. What struck me with Epicurus and Democritus is they weren’t harassed in their culture…at least from what I remember. When I learned about the Pre Socratics, as a young atheist, I thought about how about far we had slipped as a species.

      1. Unfortunately, that’s not a controlled “experiment” – Epicurus taught withdrawl. So one could imagine things as being drastically different if he’d been outspoken.

  2. Absolutely brilliant quote from Ingersoll. I an going to have to read him. As far a I know both Ingersoll and Mencken are little known in the UK. I certainly would not have known anything about them if not for your postings.

    1. That has always been my favorite Ingersoll quote. Here is another one I like, which harks back to the Socrates dictum regarding an “unexamined life”:

      Only the very ignorant are perfectly satisfied that they know. To the common man the great problems are easy. He has no trouble in accounting for the universe. He can tell you the origin and destiny of man and the why and wherefore of things. Robert Green Ingersoll, Liberty in Literature (1890)

  3. Please visit the best site by far: theingersolltimes.com — best because it is in a lively newpaper format, has pictures; is easy to read; contains links to all his works; has short and long biographies; quotes luminaries of his day about him; highlights important pieces of his and much more. Do see for yourself — and tell your friends.

    He was a true TITAN OF HUMANITY!

  4. “When the theologian governed the world, it was covered with huts and hovels for the many, palaces and cathedrals for the few. To nearly all the children of men, reading and writing were unknown arts. The poor were clad in rags and skins—they devoured crusts, and gnawed bones.”

    AKA: Republican paradise.

  5. Atheism is cool now and that’s good. But he mentions freedom in the last sentence. Unfortunately, freedom is not cool, snd is, as sn ideal, slmost dead. In the U.S., it’s just cultural inertia that keeps it slive at all. Yet, even the tremendous power of reason has to be free if it’s to get snything done.

        1. ROT13 by itself isn’t secure enough, though. That’s why I go the extra mile and pass all especially sensitive stuff through it not once, but twice.


  6. When the Xns gave up burning people at the stake, they lost the battle. In this respect, Islam is much smarter; they know that an execution now and then is a great aid to piety.

    1. As Voltaire said on the execution of Admiral John Byng ‘In this country they kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others’. (pour encourager les autres)

  7. Ingersoll is definitely “the man”. His lectures are all up on Project Gutenberg, and are read in a most interesting style at librivox.org – highly recommended!

  8. There was amongst families in Mr Ingersoll’s time still a lotta.lotta dying of America’s weest ones.

    Antibiotic medicines and many other infections’ – fighting poultices and unguents had not seen invention yet then.

    Although most remiss, I have been intending since the interwebs to find these: Mr Ingersoll’s words — several different speeches’ worth which he, a loving spouse adoring of his two daughters, constructed and had had prepared — for loved ones to say over dead kiddos’ burials and with which to try to comfort their grieving mamas during the days and years of sorrow to follow same.

    All of such ones, of course, … … godless words.

    Thanks for the reminder to get my search for such of Mr Ingersoll’s words underway.


  9. I would add Lucretius (99 – 55) to the two millennium previous list of atheist writers. It is his writings that preserved Democritus and Epicurus’ thinking for Enlightenment purposes (The Swerve is a fine read).

    Contemporary religious scolds accuse current atheist writer’s of anger, stridency, militancy, and blah blah blah. Present writer’s are in their crosshairs because the internet enables wider dissemination of this material, as well as debates that turn out unfavorably for apologist opponents.

    Atheist’s past were not infrequently more acerbic and confrontational than Ingersoll or anyone alive and writing today. Many were excommunicated, criminalized by their governments, exiled or fled their country one step ahead of the gaoler, and some were captured, imprisoned, tortured and worse, there were (rare) executions, by either religious or civil authority.

    If your taste runs to incendiary, here is a very short list of authors you might enjoy:

    17th Century
    Voltaire (1694 – 1791)

    18th Century
    Diderot, Denis (1713 – 1784)
    Paine, Thomas (1737 – 1809)
    Bentham, Jeremy (1748 – 1832)
    Wollstonecraft, Mary (1759 – 1797)
    Shelly, Percy Bysshe (1792 – 1822)

    The list of author’s for each succeeding century is even longer. The notion that atheist’s today are more extreme than previous atheist’s is utter bullshit.

    1. +1

      And, if it’s scathing you’re after…well, as razor sharp as Hitchens’s wit was, I’m pretty sure he would agree that Twain’s was sharper still.

      Ambrose Bierce didn’t pull any punches, either.


      1. Of course, everyone here has the “Portable Atheist” edited by Hitchens, right? Lots of shrillness there, and oodles of good and interesting arguments, too. All the usual suspects from Lucretius to Hirsi-Ali, and some you may not have heard of.

        I have another anthology of atheist writings, “Atheism” edited by S. T. Joshi, which is the next non-fiction book on my reading list.

        1. If I correctly recall from reading Joshi somewhere (this book while skimming it at a bookstore?), he seems supremely confident in his critique of the (“strident”) modus operandi of Dawkins, et al.

  10. Oh hey, just to add to the Ingersoll mix –

    “Ministers wonder how I can be wicked enough to attack the Bible.

    I will tell them: This book, the Bible, has persecuted, even unto death, the wisest and the best. This book stayed and stopped the onward movement of the human race. This book poisoned the fountains of learning and misdirected the energies of man.”

    The rest of the quote and shameless self promotion <a href="http://deadwildroses.wordpress.com/2013/12/08/the-dwr-sunday-disservice-about-the-bible/"here.

  11. The Freedom From Religion Foundation daily newsletter is a good source of quotes from atheists through the centuries who refused to kowtow to Christian authority.

    A quote I excerpted from today, 8Dec2013. The Baron is at least as rancorous as Hitchens.


    Baron von Holbach (1723 -1789)

    How could the human mind progress, while tormented with frightful phantoms, and guided by men, interested in perpetuating its ignorance and fears? Man has been forced to vegetate in his primitive stupidity: he has been taught stories about invisible powers upon whom his happiness was supposed to depend. Occupied solely by his fears, and by unintelligible reveries, he has always been at the mercy of priests, who have reserved to themselves the right of thinking for him, and of directing his actions.”

    1. My favorite Holback quote:

      “If a faithful account was rendered of Man’s ideas upon Divinity, he would be obliged to acknowledge, that for the most part the word “gods” has been used to express the concealed, remote, unknown causes of the effects he witnessed; that he applies this term when the spring of the natural, the source of known causes, ceases to be visible: as soon as he loses the thread of these causes, or as soon as his mind can no longer follow the chain, he solves the difficulty, terminates his research, by ascribing it to his gods … When, therefore, he ascribes to his gods the production of some phenomenon … does he, in fact, do any thing more than substitute for the darkness of his own mind, a sound to which he has been accustomed to listen with reverential awe?”
      ― Paul Henri Thiry d’Holbach, System of Nature

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