Susan Jacoby on: “Robert Ingersoll, the Great Agnostic”

American ScholarHere is an excerpt from an article writtem by Susan Jacoby, A New Birth of Reason, in which she discusses Robert Ingersoll, the Great Agnostic, who inspired late-19th-century Americans by affirming the founders’ belief in separation of church and state. It was published by The American Scholar, the venerable but lively quarterly magazine of public affairs, literature, science, history, and culture published by the Phi Beta Kappa Society since 1932. In recent years the magazine has won four National Magazine Awards, the industry’s highest honor, and many of its essays and articles have been selected for the yearly Best American anthologies.

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In an editorial published on July 22, 1899—the day after the Great Agnostic’s death — The New York Times took care to denounce Ingersoll’s views about religion but acknowledged that his principled refusal to mute his antireligious views meant that he “never took that place in the social, the professional, or the public life of his country to which by his talents he would otherwise have been eminently entitled.” Every major newspaper in the country shared this view.

Edgar W. Howe, publisher of The Atchison Daily Globe in Kansas, assessed Ingersoll’s legacy more positively in a memorial editorial that spoke for freethinkers in the American heartland:

“The death of Robert G. Ingersoll removed one of America’s greatest citizens. It is not popular to admire Ingersoll but his brilliancy, his integrity and patriotism cannot be doubted. Had not Ingersoll been frank enough to express his opinion on religion he would have been President of the United States. Hypocrisy in religion pays. 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.”

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Sad but still true 114 years later.

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JacobySusan Jacoby
is the author of The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought, published by Yale University Press (December 2012) from which this essay is adapted, as well as Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism and 10 other books.

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