Monday, December 10, 2012

Robert G. Ingersoll, the Great Agnostic

Here's a fascinating article by Susan Jacoby in The American Scholar about Robert G. Ingersoll, the 'Great Agnostic.' It's called A New Birth of Reason:
Why do some public figures who were famous in their own time become part of a nation’s historical memory, while others fade away or are confined to what is called “niche fame” on the Internet? Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899), known in the last quarter of the 19th century as the Great Agnostic, once possessed real fame as one of the two most important champions of reason and secular government in American history—the other being Thomas Paine. Indeed, one of Ingersoll’s lasting accomplishments as the preeminent American orator of his era was the revival of Paine, the preeminent publicist of the American Revolution, in the historical memory and imagination of the nation.

Ingersoll emerged as the leading figure in what historians of American secularism consider the golden age of freethought—an era when immigration, industrialization, and science, especially Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection, were challenging both religious orthodoxy and the supposedly simpler values of the nation’s rural Anglo-Saxon past. That things were never really so simple was the message Ingersoll repeatedly conveyed as he spoke before more of his countrymen than even elected public leaders, including presidents, did at a time when lectures were both a form of mass entertainment and a vital source of information.

Traveling across the continent when most Americans did not, he spread his message not only to urban audiences but also to those who had ridden miles on horseback to hear him speak in towns set down on the prairies of the Midwest and the rangelands of the Southwest. ...

The marvel of the Framers, he argued in an oration delivered on July 4, 1876, in his hometown of Peoria, Illinois, was that they established “the first secular government that was ever founded in this world” at a time when every government in Europe was still based on union between church and state. “Recollect that,” Ingersoll admonished his audience. “The first secular government; the first government that said every church has exactly the same rights and no more; every religion has the same rights, and no more. In other words, our fathers were the first men who had the sense, had the genius, to know that no church should be allowed to have a sword.” A government that had “retired the gods from politics,” Ingersoll declared with decidedly premature optimism on America’s 100th birthday, was a necessary condition of progress.

Ingersoll was right. And as I say, this article is absolutely fascinating - not just about Robert G. Ingersoll, but about Thomas Paine, too (to a much lesser extent, admittedly). I highly recommend it.

It's too long for me to post very much here, but I did want to quote a section that - coincidentally - fits surprisingly well with my previous post:
Looking back on the extraordinary decline in religious literalism that took place among educated Americans in the decades bracketing the turn of the century, it is easy to see why fundamentalism was prematurely declared dead by many prominent American intellectuals in the 1920s, just as the death of God would be prematurely reported in the 1960s. In 1931, the distinguished editor of Harper’s magazine, Frederick Lewis Allen, summed up the Scopes trial in his classic work of popular history, Only Yesterday, which has never been out of print. “Legislators might go on passing anti-evolution laws,” Allen wrote, “and in the hinterlands the pious might still keep their religion locked in a science-proof compartment of their minds; but civilized opinion everywhere had regarded the Dayton trial with amazement and amusement, and the slow drift away from Fundamentalist certainty continued.”

That is how things looked at the beginning of the Great Depression in the offices of prestigious magazines in New York and Boston, and that is how they would continue to look to secular intellectuals well into the 1980s. The mistaken conclusion that “science-proof” thinking would simply disappear in the enlightened 20th century was the main factor in Ingersoll’s disappearance from the consciousness of American intellectuals in the generation after his death. Ingersoll’s arguments would come to seem not provocative or dangerous but irrelevant to most (the gigantic exception being Richard Hofstadter) in the generation of historians who came of age during the Depression and the Second World War and who, like Allen, considered fundamentalism no more than an interesting relic of ages past.

Interesting, isn't it? That was my assumption growing up, too. Look how different it turned out.

When I got older - and especially as the internet made information so easy to find (if not always reliable) - I was shocked to discover how common atheism and agnosticism had been in the 19th Century, with even freethought newspapers being published in America. As this article shows, Ingersoll's speeches were extremely popular back then, too.

Well, progress is not always steady. We do regress, sometimes. From what I hear, race-relations - in much of this country - were also better in the late 19th Century than early in the 20th. For awhile, we went backwards on civil rights, and we've done that on evidence-based thinking, too.

Oh, if you're wondering about the terms, Jacoby quotes Ingersoll, in 1885, as follows:
The Agnostic is an Atheist. The Atheist is an Agnostic. The Agnostic says: “I do not know, but I do not believe there is any god.” The Atheist says the same. The orthodox Christian says he knows there is a God, but we know that he does not know. The Atheist [too] cannot know that God does not exist.

Different people use different labels, but that remains pretty much the standard thinking among nonbelievers these days. Technically, agnosticism is about knowing and atheism is about believing. If you don't believe in a god, you're an atheist, whether or not you're also an agnostic and believe that it's impossible to know for sure. (I'd say I'm an agnostic about everything, not just gods.)

And re. "freethought," she has this to say:
It is not an overstatement to say that Ingersoll devoted his life to freethought, the lovely term that first appeared in England in the late 17th century and was meant to convey devotion to a way of looking at the world based on observation, rather than on ancient “sacred” writings by men who believed that the sun revolved around the earth.

It really is an exceptional article. I recommend it.

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