Robert Green Ingersoll (1833–1899) was an American lawyer, writer, and orator during the nineteenth century. He was nicknamed “the Great Agnostic” for his promotion of agnosticism. The Council for Secular Humanism, copublisher of Free Inquiry, owns and operates the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum in Dresden, New York. On August 12, 2023, the Museum hosted an event celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of continuous operation by the Council. The following two articles were adapted from speeches given at that event. —The Editors
What would Robert Green Ingersoll make of today’s America? He died in 1899, which was after the invention of the electric lightbulb but before the first Model T slid off Henry Ford’s assembly line. In almost every respect, Ingersoll was a man who was ahead of his time, which makes me wonder: If he could be with us here today, what would Ingersoll think about all this, about our lives, about America?
Well, for insights I turned to our Ingersoll bible, Susan Jacoby’s seminal biography of Ingersoll, The Great Agnostic. Jacoby wrote that Ingersoll was a man of contradictions. He was a “Gilded Age Republican who considered the alleviation of poverty a social responsibility, an individualist and libertarian who insisted that government protect the rights of minorities.” And he was “an economic conservative” who advocated for social reform.
In reading Ingersoll’s various social and philosophical views, I would say he was more consistent than his contemporaries gave him credit for. Ingersoll was a man of the Enlightenment. He was consistently a humanist, who stood for the rights and dignity of each person as an individual.
He saw the power of reason as mankind’s greatest gift and the influence of religion as reason’s greatest enemy.
Ingersoll was a fan of capitalism because he saw that giving individuals the ability to reap rewards for their creativity, ambition, and effort is the best possible way to unleash human potential. But he also supported organized labor and was an acquaintance of the socialist labor leader Eugene V. Debs. Ingersoll promoted the labor strike as a tool to give average working people a chance at a fair wage and decent working conditions.
He supported the eight-hour working day at a time when men were often forced to work fourteen or more hours straight. He believed there was a connection between giving workers a secular public education and having them stand up for decent and dignified working conditions.
About this, Ingersoll said, “[not long ago there were] no teachers except the church, and the church taught obedience and faith—told the poor people that although they had a hard time here, working for nothing, they would be paid in Paradise with a large interest.”
But when workers could think for themselves, when they no longer were shackled by the delusions of religion, and when the education they received was secular and not religious in nature, they would be much more likely to reject their miserable temporal existence and demand a decent life in the here and now, Ingersoll believed.
Knowing all this about Ingersoll, I think if he were transported here today, he would be massively impressed with modernity and how his ideas and philosophies that were so heterodox and radical in his day are now so widely embraced.
Ingersoll would be astounded by the progress America has made on a raft of things he cared about: in advancing civil liberties and in separating the church from the state, in bettering the living and working conditions for average people and even society’s poorest members. He would be blown away by the revolution in science, medicine, communications, and technology. And as to the remarkable progress made in racial and gender equality, well, he would think it’s almost beyond imagining. A black, female vice president who is a lawyer? He would be amazed.
Ingersoll would be especially delighted by the rise of the Nones and to see the wholesale abandonment of organized religion by so many of his countrymen. Although, at some point he would look longingly across the pond and wonder why America’s population was such a laggard when it came to overwhelmingly rejecting religion like so many people in Europe have done.
He would see that almost every radical idea he posited, from promoting the equality of women and racial minorities to the need for secular public education, has come to fruition in today’s America.
And the result of it all? Of educating all people in literacy and numeracy, of utilizing all human capital regardless of race or sex, of giving workers an eight-hour day while still embracing the dynamism of a free market? The result is a standard of living far beyond anything imaginable in Ingersoll’s day.
Robyn E. Blumner at the Ingersoll Museum’s thirtieth anniversary event. Image credit: Debbie Allen.
It would be as if heaven had arrived here on earth, not as the clerics believed it would through religion’s magic incantations, but through the human mind, through human reason, through our drive and initiative. Just as Ingersoll predicted it would happen if we followed his lead.
But I don’t think that’s the end of the story, because Ingersoll was a man ahead of his time whatever time he was in. So after he recovered from his astonishment, I think Ingersoll would see some concerning signs in today’s America
He would be horrified by America’s growing Christian Nationalism and the way his beloved Republican Party has transmogrified into a party dominated by religious fundamentalists.
He would be concerned at the way the U.S. Supreme Court is elevating religion into an uber right and the court’s growing contempt for the separation of church and state.
He would be astonished at the science denialism of so many Americans after the advances of science were so evident and had done so much demonstrable good.
He would be unhappy, I believe, that the tremendous strides toward gender and racial equality are being dismissed by the political Left as if there has been little to no progress—a laughable and self-evident falsehood. And he would see identity politics as a scourge that divides good people and undermines the individualism that is at the core of humanism.
Ingersoll would view all these trends with concern. But I believe he would be comforted by something else, that is, by us. I think he would be happy to know that organizations such as the Center for Inquiry and publications such as Free Inquiry exist. And that there is a large and engaged community of supporters who join with us to keep his brand of humanism alive, well, and vital.
So, on my own behalf and on behalf of the memory of Robert Green Ingersoll, I thank all of you. He would be proud of this community and honored by the way we keep the flame of reason burning in his name.
Robert Green Ingersoll (1833–1899) was an American lawyer, writer, and orator during the nineteenth century. He was nicknamed “the Great Agnostic” for his promotion of agnosticism. The Council for Secular Humanism, copublisher of Free Inquiry, owns and operates the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum in Dresden, New York. On August 12, 2023, the Museum hosted …