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Jacoby profiles Robert Ingersoll in ‘Great Agnostic’

The American agnostic Robert Ingersoll (1833–1899) receives star treatment in a book about freethought, “The Great Agnostic”, by Susan Jacoby.

Raised in a Catholic home, Jacoby is an atheist and secularist whose goal in “The Great Agnostic,” is to call attention to Ingersoll’s intellectual tradition that extends from Jefferson to Thomas Paine to the current generation of “new atheists.”

Jacoby’s claim is that America’s neglected secular history “encompasses women’s rights, immigration, racism, and evolution . . . as potent and divisive today as they were in Ingersoll’s time.”

Jacoby writes that Ingersoll grew up poor, “the son of an unsuccessful Presbyterian minister who never managed to remain attached to one congregation for long.” He had little formal education, but applied himself as he could to improve his mind. An excellent speaker, he made a bundle of money giving antireligious talks all over the country, so much so that he was called “the Babe Ruth of the podium.”

In fact, “Ingersoll’s belief in the intellectual potential of those at every level of society”, Jacoby writes, “. . .added considerable weight to the message he delivered . . . where farmers and baseball players were more likely to show up than university professors …. Everyone who paid to hear Ingersoll speak knew that he or she would go away with the memory of good laughs to accompany unsettling new thoughts.”

Jacoby notes that, “From a twenty-first-century perspective, it is clear that the golden age of freethought, which stretched roughly from 1875 until the beginning of the First World War, divided Americans in much the same fashion, and over many of the same issues, as the culture wars of the last three decades.”

Specifically, what did Ingersoll say about atheism?

In 1885, according to Jacoby, he replied to the question of whether the belief in agnosticism was more satisfactory than the belief of the atheist, by saying that the “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.”

With due respect to Ingersoll, this confusion of two words, atheist and agnostic, which have different if affiliated meanings does him little good as a philosopher, despite Jacoby’s quoting him on the matter.

The more commonly held definitions of the two terms hold that the agnostic does not know whether there is a God or not. Barring unseen or supra-natural considerations, the agnostic would say the evidence to make such a surmise is not available.

The atheist, on the other hand, rejects the idea of a God altogether, either on the basis of a lack of evidence, or because of evil in the world, or for any number of other reasons that make the existence of a deity unreasonable.

Jacoby notes “that greatest secular idea of all – liberty of conscience [belongs] to the religious and nonreligious alike.” This idea is commonly thought to be an Enlightenment discovery, but it hardly classifies as a secular idea. People of faith exercise liberty of conscience. It is a canard to think that they do not.

Here is some context into which to put “The Great Agnostic.”

According to a recent Pew Research Center Poll, a fifth of Americans now list their religious affiliation as ‘“none.” And a recent piece by Molly Worthen, a professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, says that Christianity’s preferential place in our culture and civil law once again has come under fire this past year. To be fair, she says its preference has been declining for some time, more than a century in fact.

The decline of religion in the public square also is the stark conclusion of novelist Paul Elie’s article, “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?” in a recent New York Times Book Review cover story.

Half a century after Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Reynolds Price and John Updike presented themselves as what O’Connor called “Christian convictions,” Elie laments that their successors are “thin on the ground.”

Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth and a member of the House of Lords, recently wrote that “Religion in the West seems alive and well.”

On what does he base this optimism? Despite attacks by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, Sacks says that three in four people in Britain declare allegiance to a religious faith and 80 percent of Americans do. These figures, he says, are remarkable in an age of science and buttress the instinct that most people have in religion helping us to survive in the past and in future.

“The Great Agnostic” makes the case that Ingersoll’s reputation needs to be better known. The author says Ingersoll could have been president, except that “Hypocrisy in religion pays.”

She concludes by noting, “There will come a time when public men may speak their honest convictions in religion without being maligned by the ignorant and superstitious, but not yet.”

“The Great Agnostic” is well-written and informative but there is not much new in it.

The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought

By Susan Jacoby

Yale University Press

246 pages, $25

Michael D. Langan is the former headmaster of Nardin Academy.