Essay / Theology

Bob Ingersoll and the Old Atheism

Today (July 21) is the day that Col. Robert G. Ingersoll died in 1899. Ingersoll was the most popular promoter of agnosticism in the late nineteenth century, though his favored way of characterizing his beliefs was “Free Thought.” He not only drew large crowds when he came to town, but he also commanded large sums for admission. Thousands of people were willing to pay one dollar (which was a lot to spend on amusement in the nineteenth century) to hear Ingersoll speak, and the demand for tickets even drove a scalper’s market that could sell those tickets for double the cost. He knew how to handle the newspapers to his advantage by being just shocking enough to qualify as a new story (“Ingersoll Comes to Town; Shocks Many”) rather than a mere editorial opinion (“Agnostic Makes Standard Speech; Questions Religion”).

Ingersoll’s message was not original with him, but he communicated it in a way that excited people. Every town had its token village atheist who grumbled the same arguments under his breath all day every day, and could be counted on to interject a “Says who?” into every religious conversation. But Ingersoll was a cheerful, optimistic personality, a podium orator in the grand style, and a wordsmith who could take a crowd with him on poetic flights of fancy. He had fought for the Union in the civil war, and carried that gravitas with him. He praised America, progress, humanity, the nineteenth century, open-mindedness, democracy, and common decency. “Ladies and gentlemen: The idea of hell was born of revenge on the one side, and cowardice on the other. In my judgment the American people are too brave, too charitable, too generous, too magnanimous to believe in the infamous dogma of an eternal hell. (Applause)”

His way with words was always striking: He would assert bluntly that the only way to have faith was to have a closed mind, but then he would underline it with the kind of purple poetry you don’t get a chance to hear every day: “Orthodox ideas are the feathers that have been molted by the eagle of progress. They are the dead leaves under the majestic palm, while heresy is the bud and blossom at the top.” The crowd went wild.

And perhaps most importantly, he was funny. Even if you find his opinions tragic and despairing, you have to admit he had an uncanny sense of comic timing and an instinct for which targets to aim his mockery at. He was probably the greatest stand-up comic of the age. He could ramble on for hours (his collected works run to twelve unbelievably repetitive volumes), but he could also pack his whole message into a quotable zinger. Here are a few characteristic Ingersollisms:

I have always noticed that the people who have the smallest souls make the most fuss about getting them saved.

I do not believe in drinking skimmed milk here with the promise of butter beyond the clouds. Space or time cannot be holy any more than a vacuum can be pious. Not a bit, not a bit; and no day can be so holy but what the laugh of a child will make it holier still.

I read a book, an account of the creation of the world. That book I have taken pains to say was not written by any God. And why do I say so? Because I can write a far better book myself. Because it is full of barbarisms.

Every religion in the world has announced every other religion as a fraud. (Laughter) That proves to me that they all tell the truth –about others. (Laughter)

Now they say that the book is inspired. I do not care whether it is or not; the question is, Is it true? If it is true it don’t need to be inspired. Nothing needs inspiration except a falsehood or a mistake. A fact never went into partnership with a miracle. Truth scorns the assistance of wonders.

I tell you there is something splendid in man that will not always mind. Why, if we had done as the kings told us five hundred years ago we would all have been slaves. If we had done as the priests told us we would all have been idiots. If we had done as the doctors told us we would have been dead. We have been saved by disobedience. We are saved by that splendid thing called independence, and I want to see more of it day after day, and I want to see children raised so they will have it. That is my doctrine.

Now, we have got in this country a religion which men have preached for about eighteen hundred years, and just in proportion as their belief in that religion has grown great, men have grown mean and wicked; just in proportion as they have ceased to believe it, men have become just and charitable.

For my part, I am willing to give up heaven to get rid of hell.

It is claimed that every member of the Church has solemnly agreed never to outgrow the creed; that he has pledged himself to remain an intellectual dwarf. Upon this condition the Church agrees to save his soul, and he hands over his brains to bind the bargain. … With scraps of dogmas and crumbs of doctrine, he agrees that his souls shall be satisfied forever.

There are a couple of audio recordings of Ingersoll. Unfortunately they seem to be studio captures of his high-minded and morally earnest talks. More interesting would be recordings of his interaction with a live audience, in stand-up comic mode.

Touring around the United States at the end of the nineteenth century, even though he stuck to his free-thinkers circuit, Ingersoll encountered the full range of religious opinions. The conservatives (the ancestors of the fundamentalist movement) he considered merely cave-men –cave-men who didn’t even believe in cave-men!– and his whole point was to demonstrate the moral superiority of his own agnosticism over their retrograde superstitition. They were dangerous to progressive social causes, no doubt, but in Ingersoll’s view these people simply hadn’t been keeping up with the intellectual facts. “Let us come to the bar of the nineteenth century and judge matter by what we know, by what we think, by what we love.”

But interestingly, Ingersoll’s preferred targets were the liberal pastors and theologians. What he relished above all was a three-step game he played with the liberals whenever he came to a big city. First step: He would give one of his favorite speeches, “Mistakes of Moses,” in which he mocked the first five books of the Bible as morally misguided, historically groundless, and especially un-American. Second step: He would ask the best educated ministers to say what they disagreed with in his message, requiring them to be specific about which parts of the Bible they considered unhistorical or otherwise false. Third step: He would mock the liberals for agreeing with him in all essentials, but not taking the logical step into agnosticism. His best performance of this three-step game is recorded in “Ingersoll’s Shorter Catechism,” in which he elicits the gassiest of answers from the liberal clergy: “The Bible may be wrong in some statements. God and right cannot be wrong. We must not exalt the Bible above God. It may be that we have claimed too much for the Bible, and thereby given not a little occasion for such men as Mr. Ingersoll to appear on the other extreme, denying too much.” He pushes relentlessly in the catechism to get the most straightforward possible answers:

Q (Ingersoll). What is your idea of the Bible?
A (Professor Swing). I think it is a poem.

Here is where Ingersoll blew the whistle on the liberal Christianity of the late nineteenth century. These teachers had already relegated religious claims to the realm of non-fact, to “poetry” in the sense of sentiment. Ingersoll drew the sharp dividing line. On the far side of the dividing line was superstition: Anybody who held religion to be about truth, facts, or real information was hopelessly pre-modern, tied to dogmas instead of the search for reality. “What has religion to do with facts? Nothing. Is there any such thing as Methodist mathematics, Presbyterian botany, Catholic astronomy or Baptist biology? What has any form of superstition to do with a fact or with any science? Nothing but to hinder, delay, or embarrass.”

But on this side of the dividing line were Ingersoll and the liberals who thought of the Bible as a poem. Anybody who held religion to be not fact was on his side of the line, and ought to say so honestly.

The agnostic does not simply say, “l do not know.” He goes another step, and he says, with great emphasis, that you do not know. He insists that you are trading on the ignorance of others, and on the fear of others. He is not satisfied with saying that you do not know, — he demonstrates that you do not know, and he drives you from the field of fact — he drives you from the realm of reason — he drives you from the light, into the darkness of conjecture — into the world of dreams and shadows, and he compels you to say, at last, that your faith has no foundation in fact.

This is the point at which Ingersoll is an interesting comparison to today’s headline-grabbing “New Atheists.” Their greatest similarity is their relegation of religion to the province of non-knowledge.

Of course Christians responded to Ingersoll’s attack in a variety of ways. Some spokesmen addressed his charges at the level of truth claims, and presented counter-evidence of an appropriate sort (the historical basis of Scriptural reports, the influence of Christianity for good and not for ill, etc.). Some impugned his character. Some saw him as a sign of the end times. Some tried to reach out to him personally. Some used the commotion that he caused as an opportunity to present the Christian message with greater clarity.

But one of the most interesting responses to Ingersoll was that of Methodist chaplain Charles Caldwell McCabe. McCabe was well suited to respond to Ingersoll in kind: He too was a civil war veteran and a dynamic public speaker, and a bit of a character. He is credited with sparking the popularity of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, spreading it not only among his fellow inmates while he was a prisoner of war, but also by singing it during his popular speeches and sermons. After the war, McCabe had oversight of the Oregon territory of the Methodist church during a period of explosive growth.

At a freethinkers’ convention, Ingersoll argued that progress was on the side of agnosticism, and Christianity was being left behind: “The churches are dying out all over the land; they are struck with death.” McCabe read a report of this speech in a newspaper as he was riding on a train as part of his busy schedule raising support for the rapid growth of the Methodist church. At the next station, McCabe sent Ingersoll a telegram saying:

Dear Robert:
‘All hail the power of Jesus’ name.’ We are building more than one Methodist church for every day in the year and propose to make it two a day!
C. C. McCabe

McCabe, on his own lecture circuit, told about his telegram, and the churches rejoiced. Reverend Alfred J. Hough worked the story up into a hymn which, against all odds, became an overnight sensation with the Methodists and a few Baptists:

The infidels, a motley band,
In council met and said:
‘The Churches die all through the land,
The last will soon be dead.’
When suddenly a message came,
It filled them with dismay:
“All hail the power of Jesus’ name!
We’re building two a day.’

The King of Saints to war has gone,
And matchless are his deeds;
His sacramental hosts move on,
And follow where he leads;
While infidels his Church defame,
Her cornerstones we lay;
‘All hail the power of Jesus’ name!
We re building two a day.’

‘Extend,’ along the line is heard,
‘Thy walls, O Zion fair!’
And Methodism heeds the word,
And answers ey’rywhere
A new Church greets the morning’s flame,
Another evening’s ray,
‘All hail the power of Jesus’ name!’
We re building two a day.

When infidels in council meet
Next year with boastings vain,
To chronicle the Lord’s defeat,
And count his Churches slain,
O may we then with joy proclaim,
If we his call obey:
‘All hail the power of Jesus’ name!
We re building three a day.’

Though Hough may not have written this part, congregations began singing the hymn with the chorus:

We’re building two a day, dear Bob,
We’re building two a day.
All hail the power of Jesus’ name!
We’re building two a day.

Dubious as this may be in terms of sacred hymnody, it seems to be a response to Ingersoll that has some element of good humor about it. Christians should respond to public advocates of agnosticism in a variety of ways, chiefly in responsible ways that take their truth claims seriously and meet them with honest answers. But when the agnostic spokesman is a stand-up comic, a funny response is also appropriate. As always, humor is a difficult weapon to wield properly, but McCabe doesn’t sound shrill. He seems to have met Ingersoll’s bombastic pulpiteering with a boisterous counter-blast. The Bob-We’re-Building hymn strikes the right chord for a public duel in good humor. McCabe also, by the way, wrote out a mock-“Vision of Ingersollville” which shows his range as a satirist more fully.

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