By Adi Chowdhury
“When I became convinced that the universe is natural, that all the ghosts and gods are myths, there entered into my brain, into my soul, into every drop of my blood the sense, the feeling, the joy of freedom. The walls of my prison crumbled and fell. The dungeon was flooded with light and all the bolts and bars and manacles became dust. I was no longer a servant, a serf, or a slave. There was for me no master in all the wide world, not even in infinite space. I was free — free to think, to express my thoughts — free to live my own ideal, free to live for myself and those I loved, free to use all my faculties, all my senses, free to spread imagination’s wings, free to investigate, to guess and dream and hope, free to judge and determine for myself . . . I was free! I stood erect and fearlessly, joyously faced all worlds.”
–Robert Green Ingersoll, “Why I Am An Agnostic”
It’s August 11, and that means an opportunity to take a moment and appreciate the brilliant Robert Green Ingersoll, a great politician, thinker, and humanist that stood tall in history.
From Secular Seasons:
Ingersoll Day is an annual celebration on or around August 11th, the birthday of Robert Green Ingersoll, to celebrate the life and works of one of the most popular freethinkers in US history. Heard by more Americans than any human being before the advent of motion pictures and radio, Robert Ingersoll was the most successful orator in nineteenth century America. A leading political figure, he campaigned against slavery and for the rights of women and minorities. Known as the “Great Agnostic,” he attracted huge crowds to lectures that criticized religion and promoted freethought.
An Electrifying Voice for a Progressive Mind
Ingersoll was an American politician and orator. His career commenced with his service as first Attorney General of Illinois. He was affiliated with the then-progressive Republican Party, the party of Lincoln and the party that stood resolute in the war against slavery. Ingersoll’s career was “distinguished” to say the least, and his “electrifying voice” accrued widespread fame. His rational mindset can be observed in his works and activism, as described by Secular Humanism:
Tour after tour, he crisscrossed the country and spoke before packed houses on topics ranging from Shakespeare to Reconstruction, from science to religion. In an age when oratory was the dominant form of public entertainment, Ingersoll was the unchallenged king of American orators. Ingersoll was the friend of Presidents, literary giants like Mark Twain, captains of industry like Andrew Carnegie, and leading figures in the arts. He was also beloved of reformers like Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Other Americans considered themselves his enemies. He bitterly opposed the Religious Right of his day. He was an early popularizer of Charles Darwin and a tireless advocate of science and reason. More, he argued for the rights of women and African-Americans.
Ingersoll also praised the virtues of family and fireside. And he practiced what he preached. Contemporary sources say Ingersoll enjoyed almost idyllic contentment in family life. Opponents frequently despaired of finding anything to disparage in his personal life.
“The Great Agnostic”
Ingersoll led the charge in the crusades against superstition and the religious right. Here is an amusing summation of his rallying activism against religion, from Don Swaim
An evangelist in Buffalo lashed out at Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll as “a poor barking dog.” In Pittsburgh, indignant defenders of the faith urged the mayor to arbitrarily forbid Ingersoll from speaking publicly on a Sunday. The chief judge of the Delaware Supreme Court called on a grand jury to indict Ingersoll for blasphemy. Similarly, the head of the Pennsylvania Bible Society warned that if Ingersoll spoke profanely of the Lord in Philadelphia, he would be arrested under the commonwealth’s blasphemy law. A pastor in New York declared as “irreverent and infidel” Ingersoll’s lecture on “The Liberty of Man, Woman, and Child.” In Connecticut, a clergyman demanded an opera house breach its contract and bar its doors to a scheduled lecture by the heretic. In Kansas City, a minister voiced fear that Ingersoll’s sacrilegious rhetoric would harm the minds of precious little children. A pastor in Utica denounced Ingersoll as a sensualist, a gourmand [note: it is true Ingersoll was a prodigious eater], and a violator of common decency. A letter to the editor of the Buffalo Times accused Ingersoll of depriving the fearful of any hope of meeting their late family members in Heaven, and that a belief in Hell was necessary to keep society together. Fire-breathing Brooklyn cleric T. De Witt Talmage characterized Ingersoll as “the champion blasphemer of America,” a man who favored sending obscene material through the mails [an untruth]. Further, Talmage insisted the blasphemy laws be strictly enforced against Ingersoll, and that while the fervid pastor personally believed in free speech, it did not apply when it came to insulting his God. “Good speech is legal,” Talmage claimed, “bad speech is not.”
This blasphemer and heathen rose to fame as “the great agnostic.”
Let all humanists and thinkers across the globe dwell in appreciation of the shadow this great humanist, Robert G. Ingersoll, cast across the United States, as he stood tall and resolute, his feet planted with vigor in unwavering defense of civil liberties of all people and the preservance of freethought. But, no, his great shadow did not darken the nation; rather, it provided an opportunity for rays of light, rays of hope and unbridled intellect, to penetrate and seep through the cracks in the facade of superstition attired as religion, donning a false cloak of innocence and peace. The works of Ingersoll allowed for light to permeate this nation in the wake of an age dominated by religious suppression, zealotry, and prejudice.