Quote of the Day: Robert Ingersoll on Intelligent Design

Susan Jacoby, who’s just written a new book on atheist writer Robert G. Ingersoll, has called my attention to a really fine essay he wrote in 1872: “The Gods” (full reference below). It’s free online, and twenty pages long when printed out in 12-point type, but lengthen your attention span and read it. You’ll be amazed at how much Strident New Atheism was going on back then, for the tone is very strong—worthy of a Hitchens.  And it’s so reasonable. “How can a religious person read it”, you’ll think, “and not see that the whole business of faith is ridiculous?” Over the next few days I’ll be putting up a few quotes from it.

In the first, Ingersoll goes after the creationism of his era, and the argument from design. Remember that this was written only 13 years after Darwin published On the Origin of Species. Here, as in other parts of the essay, Ingersoll—like Jesus—speaks in parables.

A devout clergyman sought every opportunity to impress upon the mind of his son the fact that God takes care of all his creatures; that the falling sparrow attracts his attention, and that his loving kindness is over all his works. Happening, one day, to see a crane wading in quest of food. the good man pointed out to his son the perfect adaptation of the crane to get his living in that manner. “See,” said he, “how his legs are formed for wading! What a long slender bill he has! Observe how nicely he folds his feet when putting them in or drawing them out of the water! He does not cause the slightest ripple. He is thus enabled to approach the fish without giving them any notice of his arrival” “My son,” said he, “it is impossible to look at that bird without recognizing the design, as well as the goodness of God, in thus providing the means of subsistence.” “Yes,” replied the boy, “I think I see the goodness of God, at least so far as the crane is concerned; but after all, father, don’t you think the arrangement a little tough on the fish?”

Indeed, though some theologians like John Haught try to turn the scientific fact of evolution—once the greatest belief-killer around—into a spiritual virtue, it’s not convincing to many. That’s why, for instance, 29% of American Catholics (a faith that officially accepts evolution) are still creationists.

Look at it this way: if you were an omnipotent god, and wanted to create life, would you do it through the tortuous and torturous process of evolution, in which not only many species suffer unspeakable horrors, but which has led to the extinction without issue of 99% of the species that ever lived? No, you’d do it by fiat: the way it’s described in Genesis.  No rational God, unless he loved suffering, would create through evolution.

Darwin realized this, too. In a famous passage from a letter to Asa Gray written on May 22, 1860 (my emphasis), he clearly understood and absorbed the theological implications of his theories:

With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me.— I am bewildered.— I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I shd wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonid&ae; with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other hand I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe & especially the nature of man, & to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.—   Let each man hope & believe what he can.—

Note that at this stage of his life Darwin, while repudiating a personal God, is still flirting with deism, suggesting that the laws of nature were created by God. But at the end he punts completely: “Let each man hope & believe what he can”!

h/t: Susan Jacoby

_____________

Ingersoll, R. G. 1876. The gods and other lectures. D. M. Bennett, New York.

31 Comments

  1. Mateus
    Posted January 9, 2013 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    I’ll copy and paste it on word and read it from there, that bar on the left is bothering me immensely.

  2. FitzRoy
    Posted January 9, 2013 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    Curious, is it not?

    Darwin never remarked, “A cat might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.”

    Darwin must have thought that only dogs were capable of such rarefied thoughts, but never cats.

  3. Don
    Posted January 9, 2013 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    Yes, Ingersoll was not only a magnificent and courageous intellect but a graceful, persuasive, entertaining writer and speaker–and his eloquence commanded the respect and attention of ordinary people in his time. He was a man of stature. No one today quite compares. Here’s one of my favorites if his, a quote about science:

    >>> 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. <<<

    –Robert Green Ingersoll, God in the Constitution (1890)

  4. gbjames
    Posted January 9, 2013 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    sub

  5. Posted January 9, 2013 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    Excellent quotations.

    /@

    PS. In the Darwin quotation, you have a rogue HTML entity; &ae; should be ampersand-a-e-l-i-g-; : æ

    /@

  6. Nicolas Perrault
    Posted January 9, 2013 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    Ingersoll eloquence has never been matched.

  7. Bembol
    Posted January 9, 2013 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    There is a gorgeous free book on the Apple Store “The lectures of Col. R. G. Ingersoll”

  8. gravelinspector
    Posted January 9, 2013 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    Ah, back to the problem of Ghod’s evil to her creations. Always a good impaling-stake for the Ghoddists to squirm upon.

    God would have designedly created the Ichneumonid&ae; with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On

    I wonder … if the screen-writers / designers for the Alien movie were thinking of the Ichneumonidæ when they designed the “facehugger”. That little darling sticks in the mind once it appears!

  9. derekw
    Posted January 9, 2013 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    ..(the) torturous process of evolution, in which not only many species suffer unspeakable horrors…why am I all of a sudden feeling guilty for eating this Big Mac?

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted January 10, 2013 at 12:52 am | Permalink

      Feel thee not guilty. Eating a Big Mac is surely its own punishment. :)

  10. Launcher
    Posted January 9, 2013 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    > would you do it through the tortuous and torturous process of evolution, in which not only many species suffer unspeakable horrors, but which has led to the extinction without issue of 99% of the species that ever lived?

    I don’t think it’s the “process of evolution”, per se, that’s causing horror in the lives of individual animals. After all, one could be some other creature’s breakfast even if genetic variation, reproductive fitness, and all the other elements of natural selection were to be suspended for a holiday weekend.

    Of course, that still leaves the question of why a world created by a benevolent deity would have so much unimaginable death and suffering in it.

    Another conundrum for creationists is why the heck would a species “made in the image of God” look suspiciously like earth’s other animals, mammals especially and apes in particular? Is it some sort of crude celestial joke?

    • derekw
      Posted January 10, 2013 at 8:16 am | Permalink

      Most of the faithful would suggest Imago Dei (image of God Latin) would not refer to the physical makeup of man but those qualities such as spirit, mind, volition. http://www.reasons.org/articles/imago-dei-what-does-it-mean

      • Launcher
        Posted January 11, 2013 at 11:53 am | Permalink

        That would be an clever dodge. Thanks for the link!

  11. coozoe
    Posted January 9, 2013 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

    Project Gutenberg has many of Ingersoll’s works free for download.

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted January 9, 2013 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

      Beat me to it; a number of them are also available as free audiobooks at librivox.org

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted January 10, 2013 at 11:13 am | Permalink

      Excellent, I’ll get’em on my phone to read on the bus.

  12. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted January 9, 2013 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

    “The tortuous and torturous process of evolution”

    Delightful!

  13. marksolock
    Posted January 9, 2013 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Mark Solock Blog.

  14. Posted January 9, 2013 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

    “If you were an omnipotent god, and wanted to create life, would you do it through the tortuous and torturous process of evolution?”

    Well, yes, if your main interest was life itself and all the pain, death, and reproduction, etc. that goes along with it. If the deity’s main interest was in creating simple happiness, he might have left it at creating bland, endlessly cloning bacteria. I’m not sure what purpose exactly is reflected in the creation described in Genesis–perhaps a confused one?

  15. Max
    Posted January 9, 2013 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

    You can download a copy of his 1874 book of essays, Gods And Other Lectures, here (in various formats, including Kindle):

    http://archive.org/details/godsotherlectu00inge

  16. Thanny
    Posted January 9, 2013 at 10:17 pm | Permalink

    Amazon has it as Kindle book for free:

    You can download a reader program if you don’t actually have a Kindle.

    • Thanny
      Posted January 9, 2013 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

      Good grief. WordPress even parses out Amazon links now?

  17. Diane G.
    Posted January 10, 2013 at 12:28 am | Permalink

    sub

  18. Posted January 10, 2013 at 4:42 am | Permalink

    You can download the audio, take it on the go and have it read to you! http://librivox.org/lectures-of-col-r-g-ingersoll-vol-1-by-robert-green-ingersoll/ I listened to it while running and found myself inspired by it.

  19. Posted January 10, 2013 at 5:16 am | Permalink

    Thanks Jerry, and Susan.

    Ingersoll has been on my to-read list for some time. It should have been sooner.

    Hope you quote the passage on cancer. Beautiful.

  20. s.pimpernel
    Posted January 10, 2013 at 8:14 am | Permalink

    I do not believe we would have so hard a hill to climb today if Ingersoll had had the Net available to him.

    • Don
      Posted January 10, 2013 at 8:40 am | Permalink

      I don’t know. In Ingersoll’s day, when he toured the country to speak in town halls and libraries, the many people who turned out to hear him were more innocent, or openly curious, in attitude than so many are today. The Internet is everywhere, and it’s democratic and rich, but it’s also fragmented in its reach because its frequenters overwhemingly tend to go to the places they feel comfortable, seldom to those places they already suspect will challenge them.

  21. Posted January 10, 2013 at 10:17 pm | Permalink

    Thanks very much for posting this. I have to read more by Robert Ingersoll. Also, I did not know about Susan Jacoby’s new book before reading this, so now I’m really excited about that as well.


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