Short Fuse Interview: Susan Jacoby, Robert Ingersoll, and Keeping the Secular Tradition of American History Alive

Robert Ingersoll is all but unknown in our time. Susan Jacoby sets out to answer why. One answer she proposes is that it was generally assumed that the reactionary expressions of religion Ingersoll contended against would simply fade away over time, to be replaced by education, broader culture, and scientific reason.

The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought by Susan Jacoby. Yale University Press, 256 pages, $25.

By Harvey Blume.

Early on in her profile of Robert Ingersoll, Susan Jacoby writes that “Intellectual history is a relay race, not a hundred-yard dash. Ingersoll was one of those indispensible people who keep an alternative version of history alive.”

The alternative Ingersoll helped to keep alive is the secularist view of American history. It refers back to the Founders having omitted all mention of god from the Constitution: Search that document and you will find no “god” or “God,” no “Supreme Being,” not even so much as a polite tip of the hat to “Providence.” It’s instructive to think that when, in January, 2011, the Tea Party read the Constitution out to the House of Representatives, as if it were scripture, they were not called to account for the fact that the Constitution was, if anything, anti-scripture, a document meant to be construed as the work of human beings. For that reason, among others, it was not only revolutionary in its day but remains so in ours.

Ingersoll, the son of an Abolitionist preacher, was a famed, late nineteenth-century exponent of secularism or, as it was then known, freethought. His sources were disparate, ranging from Shakespeare, whose works he cherished and would often quote, to poetry by his friend Walt Whitman, to the discoveries of Charles Darwin. At the center of his effort was Tom Paine.

Jacoby writes that for Ingersoll “the relative obscurity of Thomas Paine. . . was nothing less than a crime against the true history of the United States.” Paine, she writes, had been vilified by “religious reactionaries [who] attempted to equate the separation of church and state with the violent Jacobin period of the French Revolution.” The Tom Paine that she, after Ingersoll, wants to rescue from obscurity is not so much the Paine of Common Sense, whose pamphleteering against English rule and on behalf of the American Revolution are acknowledged, but the Paine of The Age of Reason, who took what was considered a “heretical” stance, namely that sacred books, despite claims to divine authority, were authored by men.

Ingersoll was inspired by “the radical humanism of Tom Paine.” He, like Paine, saw, “the separation of church and state not only as the guarantor of personal freedom of conscience but also as the foundation of a world in which inherited status and wealth would be replaced by merit and intellect.”

By trade, Ingersoll was a attorney. In 1887, in New Jersey, he defended C. B. Reynolds, who had been brought up on charges of blasphemy—punishable by up to a year in prison—for having “distributed a pamphlet denying the infallibility and divine authorship of the Bible.” Though Ingersoll’s defense of Reynolds on grounds of free speech garnered praise even from devout visitors to the courtroom, the jury found Reynolds guilty. The judge however, “unwilling to be recorded in history as the man who imprisoned an American citizen for blasphemy for the first time in fifty years imposed a fine of only twenty-five dollars.” Jacoby points out that the Reynolds Trial was a precursor of the Scopes (Monkey) Trial four decades later.

Robert Ingersoll

By the time of the Reynolds Trial, Ingersoll’s views and oratorical gifts were nationally known. A speech he gave at the Republican Convention of 1876 put him on national stage. After that, the lecture circuit was his preferred medium, and he, like Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, was one of its stars. “Between 1874 and his death in 1899,” Jacoby writes, “Ingersoll spoke in every state except Mississippi, North Carolina and Oklahoma.” His appearances brought him into contact with Eugene V. Debs and with Bob LaFollette, the Progressive Party Governor of Wisconsin, who said, “Ingersoll had a tremendous influence on me. He liberated my mind. . . He was a rare, bold, heroic figure.”

The fact remains that Ingersoll is all but unknown in our time. Why that is so is a question Jacoby sets out to answer. One answer she proposes is that it was generally assumed that the reactionary expressions of religion Ingersoll contended against would simply fade away over time, to be replaced by education, broader culture, and scientific reason. It is also the case, as she notes, that the sort of humanist optimism Ingersoll embodied was, in effect, vitiated by World War I.

The Great Agnostic aims to do for Ingersoll what Ingersoll did for Tom Paine. But Jacoby herself is part of the intellectual relay race she describes. In this and previous books such as Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, and in the columns she wrote for the Washington Post (under the rubric “The Spirited Atheist: In Search of a New Age of Reason”), she proves herself a wide-ranging, endlessly engaging, and original advocate of the view that morality and compassion do not derive from religion and are often, if anything, compromised by it.

I was pleased to have the following email exchange with Susan Jacoby.

Arts Fuse: What led you, personally, to advocate secularism and free thought?

Jacoby: First, it’s freethought (not two words). Free thought as a concept is two words, but freethinkers and freethought refer to a specific movement dating from the beginning of the eighteenth century.

As for me, that this is the only life we have, that we are connected by virtue of our common humanity, not by the “fatherhood” of a deity, that moral sensibilities arise not from fears or hopes connected with an afterlife but from a natural empathy that must be honored, these things have all seemed true to me since I began to think seriously about them in childhood.

Since I was raised a Catholic, I grappled early (as all people raised in a faith must) with the contradiction between evil and belief in an all-powerful, all-loving God. The classic Christian (and Jewish) answer—free will—was not satisfactory to me. Why would a good God endow man with “free will” to torture his fellow man? Who would want to rely on a god like that? Not me. This is hardly an original thought, but the theodicy problem is at the root of why most atheists become atheists. Also, of course, I can’t believe anything that contradicts the observable and provable laws of nature.

AF: Is there a cyclical process in the United States, so that sometimes secularism is in the forefront and sometimes, as now, fundamentalist zeal appears to prevail?

Jacoby: I don’t agree that “fundamentalist zeal” is prevailing right now. It’s more accurate to say that there has been growth in both the fundamentalist and the secularist portion of the American population. Fundamentalist religious believers, however, are better organized than secularists. Churches themselves are powerful mechanisms for propagating their own values.

Susan Jacoby — “The difference betweens science and religion is that science is always open to and modifiable by new evidence. Faith is impervious to evidence.”

AF: You write that the “new atheists,” unlike Ingersoll, “consider ‘moderate’ religion as bad or worse than fundamentalism.” How so?

Jacoby: Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, both of whom I greatly respect, have expressed the view that the real problem with moderate religion is it’s a kind of stalking horse that lends respectable cover to all religion. I don’t agree with this. It’s fundamentalism—the religious right—not the religious left or center that wants to write its own values into law.

Many liberal religious believers are as fierce in defense of the separation of church and state as atheists are. We need to work with them when we agree on certain political issues.

AF: Was Ingersoll more open to “moderate” religion than “new atheists” because religion in his day was more moderate, less fundamentalist, than it has become in our ours?

Jacoby: Religion was not more “moderate” in Ingersoll’s day than in ours. Orthodox religion was much more powerful than it is now, although the late nineteenth century was also an era in which the freethought movement expanded. Again, there’s an analogy with the current cultural climate.

AF: Darwin himself believed that the advance of science would lead to the withering away of religion. For him, there was no need to challenge religion directly, as Huxley did. But aren’t all sorts of Darwinians, from Daniel Dennett through E. O. Wilson, scurrying to explain the fact that Darwin was, at least as the United States is concerned, wrong about the withering away of religion? Today’s Darwinians try to understand what, in culture and/or neuro-wiring, keeps religion going.

Jacoby: I very much dislike your use of the word “Darwinian,” This is a political term, not a descriptive one, and is meant to imply that those who essentially accept Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection are somehow impervious to new research that has modified and continues to modify the particulars. The difference betweens science and religion is that science is always open to and modifiable by new evidence. Faith is impervious to evidence. Why would Darwinians have to ”scurry” to explain why Darwin was “wrong” about the withering away of religion?

In fact, the United States is the only developed country in which a significant segment of the population (about 25 percent) believes in a literal interpretation of the Bible. Even so, fundamentalist religion is certainly less powerful than it was 150 years ago.

There will always be religion in the world, I believe, because there will always be people who cannot live without an overarching ideology that explains everything. This is, of course, true of certain kinds of political ideologies as well. Atheism, by the way, is not a religion because atheism does not attempt to explain everything.

AF: Ingersoll meant to revive Thomas Paine. Did he succeed? Has Paine been revived?

Jacoby: Paine’s vital role in the American Revolution is widely known and taught, and Ingersoll had a lot to do with the revival of his historical memory in that regard. His role in the history of secularism and freethought is much, much less well known (in America) and is not taught in schools at all.

AF: In his effort to resolve the conflict between religion and science, Stephen Jay Gould proposed the idea of Non-overlapping Magisteria, in which religion and science each have their sphere of influence. Why do you reject this idea?

Jacoby: Gould, and the Vatican, are completely wrong about the possibility of “nonoverlapping magisteria.” (On this I agree 100 percent with all of the other “new atheists.”) The idea of putting religion in the “morality magisteria” cubbyhole and science in the “material world” cubbyhole is utterly ridiculous.

Let us take a simple example. Science has made it possible for couples to conceive children through in vitro fertilization—in a test tube without the physical act of intercourse. Whether we are going to fund this research—that is, whether it is right to use public money for this purpose and for insurance payments—is a moral issue as far as some religions are concerned.

But religious pressure on politicians to make laws that follow certain religious views but not others constitutes interference with science. There is no way, in modern society, that moral judgment can be disentangled from scientific advances. There never has been, in fact.

Not all religion is the enemy of science, but religion always wants its say. In the United States, right-wing religion is opposed to the evidence-based world of science.

AF: What is the best single thing to read by Ingersoll?

Jacoby: Ingersoll’s collected works were published in 12 volumes. Many of his most famous lectures are available on the Web. These include, “The Liberty of Man, Woman, and Child,” “Individuality,” “The Ghosts,” “The Gods, “Thomas Paine,” and “What Must We Do to be Saved?”—all of which provide a good overview of his thinking.


  1. Bill Marx, Arts Fuse Editor on February 8, 2013 at 6:45 pm

    H. L. Mencken was an admirer of Robert Ingersoll’s crusade against Christian fundamentalism. In his 1927 volume Prejudices: Sixth Series, Mencken pays homage to Ingersoll’s battle against a “high tide of evangelistic passion.”

    Nevertheless, Bob hurled his challenge at the whole hierarchy of heaven, and within a few short years he had the Babbitts all agog, and after them the city proletariat, and then finally the yokels on the farms. He drew immense crowds; he became eminent; he planted seeds of infidelity that still sprout in Harvard and Yale. Thousands abandoned their accustomed places of worship to listen to his appalling heresies, and great numbers of them never went back.

  2. Harvey Blume on February 9, 2013 at 12:17 am

    didn’t know about mencken on ingersoll. nice.

  3. Harvey Blume on February 9, 2013 at 6:55 pm

    susan jacoby is an incisive writer and thinker. i was tempted to complement or replace my review with any number of quotes from her book.

    this would be one:

    . . . there are two divergent strains of American secular thought. One can be traced to the radical humanism of Tom Paine. . . The other distinct current of American secularism begins with the social Darwinists of the nineteenth-century and continues through the “objectivism” and exaltation of the Ubermensch preached by the twentieth-century atheist and unregulated market isolator Ayn Rand.

    in a washington post columm she says this about rand:

    What’s fascinating about Rand’s appeal to the right is that the tea party . . . is able to ignore her atheism, strong support for abortion, unconventional sexual views and oft-repeated disaidain for the traditional family. I guess Rand’s views on money trump everything.

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