Susan Jacoby’s biography of Ingersoll

On my train rides up to and back from Madison, I polished off Susan Jacoby’s 2013 short (211 small pages) book on Robert G. Ingersoll (1833-1899). Ingersoll was an author, freethinker, and perhaps America’s most spellbinding orator of the 19th century, despite the fact that he was absolutely godless and spent much of his writing and speaking criticizing religion.  Click on the screenshot to go to the Amazon page, where you’ll see it’s been rated highly by readers:

It’s a good book, concerned more with Ingersoll’s ideas than his life, and well worth reading to see a true antecedent of the “New Atheists”. As Jacoby says in her antepenultimate chapter, “A Letter to the ‘New’ Atheists”, the hallmarks of what I see as New Atheism—its love of and use of science in dispelling religion as well as its uncompromising and in-your-face godlessness and antitheism—were all present in Ingersoll’s writings and speeches. And yet despite his atheism, which denied him the possibility of any public or elective position despite his fierce intelligence and drive, he regularly sold out his lectures, so wonderful a speaker was he. Further, most of his audience, unlike those attending the talks of people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, or me, weren’t nonbelievers: many religious people came to see Ingersoll because of the power of his rhetoric.

Ingersoll was impressive in many ways. He was apparently as close to a perfect human as one could get: a devoted husband and father, a faithful friend, and someone whom even his enemies couldn’t fault. His virtues extended to his views: he was an ardent opponent of slavery and any law or behavior that discriminated against blacks, a strong promoter of women’s rights—complete equality with men—and a great popularizer of Darwin’s work. (Jacoby considers him a better explainer of evolution to the average person than was Thomas Henry Huxley, for Ingersoll had no scientific training and so was able to gauge and address people’s ignorance.) Ingersoll constantly emphasized the Founders’ view of the First Amendment, fighting against the incursion of religions such as Catholicism into government. Finally, he was also a lover and supporter of the arts, especially fond of Shakespeare and—his one flaw, in my eyes—Walt Whitman.

Jacoby feels, rightly, that all of us heathens should be aware that a New Atheist existed long before the genre got its name, and tells us why in her “Letter” chapter. I’ll let you read that for yourself. Although Ingersoll’s reputation waned after his death, and few modern atheists know much about him, it’s salubrious to see a man of our stripe being “strident” (the adjective doesn’t really apply: he didn’t have a mean bone in his body) and changing minds well before the rise of Fundamentalism.

After reading that book, I wanted to go further into Ingersoll. For those who feel likewise, here’s some other material you might essay (screenshots take you to Amazon page)

Here’s a half-hour interview of Jacoby about her Ingersoll book (by Chris M**ney); click on screenshot:

Finally, near the end of his life Ingersoll visited the laboratory of his friend Thomas Edison and recorded seven short bits of oratory. At the site below (click) you can hear the three ones that remain. The quality is poor, but at least you can get an idea of his voice and his cadences. (Remember, Ingersoll spoke to large audiences without a microphone.)

I end with a photo of The Great Agnostic himself (Ingersoll said there was no difference between an agnostic and an atheist) as well as my very favorite quote from him—about the “compatibility” of science and religion. I often use this quote in my talks about faith versus science:

There is no harmony between religion and science. When science was a child, religion sought to strangle it in the cradle. Now that science has attained its youth, and superstition is in its dotage, the trembling, palsied wreck says to the athlete: “Let us be friends.” It reminds me of the bargain the cock wished to make with the horse: “Let us agree not to step on each other’s feet.”

Robert G. Ingersoll

40 Comments

  1. Laurance
    Posted March 17, 2018 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    Well! You just sold a book! It’s ready for me to download into my Kindle!

  2. Bruce J. Cochrane
    Posted March 17, 2018 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    The Robert G. Ingersoll Birthplace Museum is in Dresden NY, on the west side of Seneca Lake. I have visited it on a couple of occasions but not in recent years (my summer home is across the lake from it). I recommend it highly to anyone (atheists or otherwise) who finds her or himself in the Finger Lakes region.

  3. Rita
    Posted March 17, 2018 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    Crimes Against Criminals is an essay arguing for humane treatment of prisoners, and Ingersoll touches on the subject of free will (or lack of it).
    https://www.amazon.com/Crimes-Against-Criminals-Classic-Reprint/dp/B00807B0MC/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1521302688&sr=1-1&keywords=crimes+against+criminals

  4. glen1davidson
    Posted March 17, 2018 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    There’s no harmony between religion and science, but they’re certainly not inevitable enemies either. Christianity generally adopted ancient science, such as it was, with the Church fathers mostly accepting the spherical earth and Ptolemaic astronomy, despite the Old Testament flat earth cosmology.

    And of course the new empirical science was developed by religious people, with Newton an especially religious scientist. Because of religion? Of course not, and especially the education system needed to become far more universal with respect to knowledge and less like the original purpose, teaching potential clergy. Still, even the early universities did produce good thinkers who were religious and who didn’t find religion much of an impediment, if any, to their science.

    Greek rationalism had been incorporated into religious thought, and it served science well. Of course it wasn’t all compatibility, yet the animosity seemed to be mostly sporadic during the Enlightenment, with perhaps the most sustained opposition to some science occurring in the last century or so of American fundamentalism.

    Not that science owes anything to religion except as historical accident, but I can’t see how religion tried to strangle science, nor that science necessarily has an issue with religion.

    Glen Davidson

    • GBJames
      Posted March 17, 2018 at 11:15 am | Permalink

      “I can’t see how religion tried to strangle science”

      You might want to discuss that matter with Mr. Galileo. Or go read up on Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District.

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted March 17, 2018 at 11:55 am | Permalink

        AMEN to that. Might also try reading a recent book authored by the man behind this web site. Also, not sure how a posting on Robert Ingersoll is a request to go into a religious tirade about science.

        Ingersoll was a great speaker in the day when good speakers were almost like rock stars of today. People would travel on foot or horse for miles to listen. It is an art that is no longer with us.

        • glen1davidson
          Posted March 17, 2018 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

          Yeah, well, I guess the dogmatic and ignorant can be found believing anything. You might want to learn to understand nuance and balance. I’m certainly aware of Galileo, as I posted here. But it’s not just black and white, while it’s still certainly a case of religious persecution, unlike how Numbers purportedly paints it (the excerpts certainly don’t make Numbers look good), as mentioned at the linked blogpost/comments.

          “Religious tirade about science.” That’s on the order of misrepresentation that I read from creationists. Pathetic.

          Glen Davidson

          • Randall Schenck
            Posted March 17, 2018 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

            Just tell me this. If religion does not try to strangle science in any way, what is the Templeton organization all about? Why do they spend all that money attempting to make religion and science a happy couple? It is almost as ridiculous as Trump screaming no collusion.

            • glen1davidson
              Posted March 17, 2018 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

              If religion does not try to strangle science in any way,

              Did I say that?

              Of course I didn’t.

              Quit with the misrepresentation.

              Glen Davidson

              • GBJames
                Posted March 17, 2018 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

                “Did I say that?”

                You might want to reread your own sentences, Mr. Davidson.

                “I can’t see how religion tried to strangle science, nor that science necessarily has an issue with religion”

              • Randall Schenck
                Posted March 17, 2018 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

                Such a short memory. Go back and read your opening comment (no.#4) I will quote you if it will help. “I can’t see how religion tried to strangle science” Last paragraph…

              • glen1davidson
                Posted March 17, 2018 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

                Gee, you’re both quite willing to take anything out of context. Just before your quotemine I had written:

                Of course it wasn’t all compatibility, yet the animosity seemed to be mostly sporadic during the Enlightenment, with perhaps the most sustained opposition to some science occurring in the last century or so of American fundamentalism.

                There’s a big difference between persecuting Galileo and “trying to strangle science” at large, which was clearly what I meant in the context of what had immediately come beforehand. So Schenck just misrepresented it as “religion does not try to strangle science in any way,” which is not an “at large” statement, it is a misrepresentation of my position as saying that religion has never tried to strangle science at all, when I had written something quite the opposite of that.

                So the misrepresentations from you incompetents continues. And I think I’ve dealt with your lack of intellectual honesty quite enough. Not a promise never to return to this, but I don’t see much point to it. I doubt either of you would ever deal with what I wrote honestly and in context.

                Glen Davidson

              • GBJames
                Posted March 17, 2018 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

                From one incompetent to another: I might refer you to Da Roolz.

            • Hemidactylus
              Posted March 17, 2018 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

              Tell me the downside of Templeton supported Closer to Truth, FQXi, or the free will conference they supported. I think Jerry overplays the negatives of Templeton.

          • Posted March 17, 2018 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

            “Yeah, well, I guess the dogmatic and ignorant can be found believing anything. You might want to learn to understand nuance and balance.”

            You are entitled to your opinion and to express it. However, others are entitled to different opinions and to express them. That shouldn’t make you, or them, targets for animosity. We may live in the most “dogmatic and ignorant”
            period of our history with potentially deadly consequences. To the extent possible, those of us who want us all to survive may want to emulate Ingersoll, and must “hang together” in trying to balance the extremes on both sides.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted March 17, 2018 at 11:50 am | Permalink

      You are going to get some push back. The examples you describe are really reflections of those cited by Ingersoll from when religion seemed to harmonize with science. This has not been the case for a very long time.

    • Posted March 19, 2018 at 11:55 am | Permalink

      Newton was incredibly religious and incredibly heterodox, so draw whatever conclusion you want from that.

      As opposed to Galileo, who seems to have been opportunistic and apathetic (and very rationalistic – he wrote a naturalistic interpretation of some biblical miracles, now lost).

  5. Mike Cracraft
    Posted March 17, 2018 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    I can imagine that RGI loved cats too.

  6. vtvita
    Posted March 17, 2018 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    I learned of Ingersoll from Jacoby’s excellent book, “Freethinkers, A History of American Secularism (2004)”. In 2011 I drove 2 hours out of my way to visit Ingersoll’s birthplace (Dresden, NY)on his birthday, August 11. I was the only one there and the joint was locked up. Since then, however, CFI (Center for Inquiry) has undertaken fund raising for repair, rehab, and oversight.

    • rickflick
      Posted March 17, 2018 at 11:37 pm | Permalink

      Interesting. I hope CFI is successful. Ingersoll aught to be better known.

  7. GBJames
    Posted March 17, 2018 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    And, of course, there’s the very nice statue of Ingersoll down in Peoria, IL. It was recently restored by FFRF.

    Nice little park but Peoria is kind of a down-and-out town these days.

  8. Ken Kukec
    Posted March 17, 2018 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    … fighting against the incursion of religions such as Catholicism into government.

    In Ingersoll’s day, Catholics were becoming a force in big-city machine politics, but they barely registered on the national scene. Hell, his Catholicism cost Al Smith the presidential election as late as 1928. And, to date, the nation has had but one Catholic president, JFK (who, even in 1960, had to overcome animadversions that his election would establish be a pipeline between White House an Vatican). The US didn’t have a Catholic VP until Joe Biden was elected in 2008 (though Catholics have dominated SCOTUS in recent years).

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted March 17, 2018 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

      There might have been more subtle small-scale incursions that troubled RI.

  9. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted March 17, 2018 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    Although I generally like Walt Whitman, I have always been disconcerted by his one overtly anti-scientific poem “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer”.

    Easily, his most appealing poem is “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” about the boy who witnesses the death of one member of a seagull couple.

  10. juan
    Posted March 17, 2018 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    Livribox, which offers free public domain audiobooks narrated by volunteers, has many Ingersoll lectures. I especially recommend those read by contributor Ted Delorme, which can be found here: https://librivox.org/search?q=lectures%20ingersoll&search_form=advanced

    • juan
      Posted March 17, 2018 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

      Its LibriVox, not Livribox. Sorry.

  11. phoffman56
    Posted March 17, 2018 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    Jacoby’s also got a very recent NYTimes op-ed.

  12. John Hamill
    Posted March 17, 2018 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    What a great book review. I’ve just bought a copy of the book after reading this review. Looking forward to reading it.

  13. Posted March 17, 2018 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    There was a good article on Ingersoll in the September 1924 issue of H. L. Mencken’s “American Mercury.”

    http://www.unz.com/print/AmMercury-1924sep-00064/

  14. Dave137
    Posted March 17, 2018 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    About five years ago, with absolute luck, I was able to acquire Ingersoll’s entire 12-volume set printed in the early 1900s: and there’s a thin paper insert within the binding that’s clearly signed by him (completely overlooked by anyone who viewed this set).

    The set was forgotten in some public library and then sold apparently without a second thought. So too with the seller from whom I hastily acquired it.

    When I see the volumes even now I can’t get over my luck.

    • GBJames
      Posted March 17, 2018 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

      Man, you’re making me jealous!

    • Barry McGuire
      Posted March 17, 2018 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

      I have the first two volumes of that edition. In Vol. 1 there is also a paper insert attached along the binding edge of the title page.

      It appears to be an actual check drawn on Western National Bank of the City of New York, dated 09/30/1889, to a Grove W. Harwood in amount of $400.00 signed by R.G. Ingersoll. Mr. Harwood’s signature in on the back and there is a pale purple cancellation stamp on the front face of the check. It appears to be an original and not a replica of some sort.

      I would be interested to know more about the nature of the insert you have. It is a sad tale as to why I have only two volumes of the 12 in the set. Lucky you.

    • Filippo
      Posted March 17, 2018 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

      I wonder what additional such set lurks in a vintage library in the hinterland and across the fruited plain.

    • Posted March 19, 2018 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

      If you are just interested in reader’s editions, Amazon has a Kindle version of the 12-volume set for $2.99.

  15. Hemidactylus
    Posted March 17, 2018 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Jerry. Read this book already. Funny thing. Ingersoll was a Republican too. Imagine that. Could be why he is largely unheralded.

    • GBJames
      Posted March 18, 2018 at 8:45 am | Permalink

      A Republican in the 19th Century and one in the 21st Century are very different species.

  16. David
    Posted March 18, 2018 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

    Patrick F. Garrett, the sheriff who killed Willam H.Bonney aka Billy the Kid in 1881, requested that the same eulogy that had been given at the death of Robert Ingersoll’s brother be given at his own funeral.

  17. Posted March 19, 2018 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    His writings (late 1800’s) hold up remarkable well. I have read quite a few of his works and they are still pertinent.

  18. Posted March 20, 2018 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

    About ten years ago I was running a lot and listening to a lot of audiobooks and lectures. I came across the lectures of Ingersoll at this website and found myself cheering him while running. https://librivox.org/lectures-of-col-r-g-ingersoll-vol-1-by-robert-green-ingersoll/ Someone above said he still holds up well and I couldn’t agree more.


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