Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Autumn 2000

Sixty-Five Press Interviews with Robert G. Ingersoll

reviewed by Derek Lennard

Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-99), widely known as “the Great Agnostic”, was regarded as the most listened to person in America in the last third of the nineteenth century. His reputation as an orator, politician and lawyer ensured great interest in his lecture tours.

Indeed, on more than three occasions an audience exceeding 50,000 came to witness Ingersoll’s wit, wisdom and stunning oratorical performances.

Ingersoll was at the centre of great controversy about the relative merits of religious orthodoxy and rationalism and his views on the issues of the day were eagerly sought by journalists. Typically, after one of his controversial speeches he would return to his hotel to be surrounded by journalists, whom he would entertain for hours.

As this book so vividly demonstrates, his responses to their questions were clear, cogent, persuasive and, in the opinion of this reviewer, often hilarious.

No one was more effective in taking on the basic teachings of religion. When asked his opinion of the Bible by a reporter from the Washington Post, for example, he responded, “I regard the Bible, especially the Old Testament, the same as I do most ancient books in which there is some truth, a great deal of error, considerable barbarism, and a most plentiful lack of good sense.”

What were these views based upon? the journalist wanted to know. “On reason, observation, experience, upon the discoveries of science, upon observed facts.”

In a similar vein a Pittsburgh journalist asked him for his opinion on “miracles”. He replied, with typical irony and drollery, “I have been asking for a miracle for several years, and have in a mild, gentle, and loving way taunted the church for not producing a little one. I have had the impudence to ask any number of them to join in a prayer asking anything they desire for the purpose of testing the efficiency of what is known as supplication.

“They answer me by calling attention to the miracles recorded in the New Testament. I insist, however, on a new miracle, and, personally I would like to see one now.

“Certainly, the Infinite has not lost his power, and certainly the Infinite knows that thousands and hundreds of thousands, if the Bible is true, are now pouring over the precipice of unbelief into the gulf of hell.

“One little miracle would save thousands ...”

He then points out, “All the miracles recorded in the New Testament could have been simulated. A fellow could have pretended to be dead, or blind, or deaf. I want to see a good miracle. I want to see a man with one leg, and then I want to see the other leg grow out.”

Nothing angered Ingersoll more than did the threat of eternal damnation, which he heard for the first time in a sermon he attended as a child. However, he made it clear that, if there were a heaven and a hell, he would prefer to be despatched to the latter: “I had a thousand times rather associate with the pagan philosophers than with the inquisitors of the Middle Ages.”

Ingersoll did not suffer fools gladly. A San Francisco reporter asked him to comment on attacks made on him by religious newspapers. He responds with devastating wit: “So, I do not bother myself answering religious newspapers. In the first place, they are not worth answering; and in the second place, to answer would only produce a new crop of falsehoods.

“You know, the editor of a religious newspaper, as a rule, is one who has failed in the pulpit; and you can imagine the brains necessary to edit a religious weekly from this fact.

“I have known some good religious editors. By some I mean one. I do not say that there are not others, but I do say I do not know them.

“I might add that the one I did know is dead.”

Some of his critics were more charitable to Ingersoll and a group called the Christian Endeavours decided to organise a day of prayer for his conversion. He responded in an interview with the New York Journal. “It seemed curious that they would advise divine wisdom what to do, or that they would ask infinite mercy to treat me with kindness ... The prayers did not, so far as I know, do me the least injury or the least good.”

Later in the same article Ingersoll sums up his “mission”. “I think I had better remain as I am. I had better follow the light of my reason, be true to myself, express my honest thoughts, and do the little I can for the destruction of superstition, the little I can for the development of the brain, for the increase of intellectual hospitality and the happiness of my fellow-beings.

“One world at a time.”

Amen to that!

URI of this page :
Created : Sunday, 2000-10-29 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
Brett Humphreys :