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Ingersoll, Freethought Battler

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No other American had a career like that of the amazing Robert Ingersoll, the premier lecturer in the 19th-century era when public speeches were a major form of mass entertainment and education. Called "the American Demosthenes" and "the Shakespeare of oratory", he drew audiences as great as fifty thousand in a quarter-century of touring the nation.

Ingersoll was a self-educated dynamo who might have become a national political figure, had he not felt compelled to declare, over and over, in city after city, that religion is childish superstition that impedes human progress.

He was born in Dresden, New York, the son of an abolitionist Congregationalist minister who moved from state to state. Although he had little formal education, Ingersoll read voraciously and was admitted to the Illinois bar in 1854. He and his brother, Ebon Clark, opened a lucrative law practice in Peoria, where Robert met and married an avowed atheist's strong-spirited daughter, who influenced him greatly. In the 1850s, Ingersoll opposed slavery and became a champion of women's rights. He addressed a suffrage meeting led by Susan B. Anthony. He also quit the Democratic party because it embraced slavery, and joined the Republicans, largely because of his admiration for Abraham Lincoln.

During the Civil War, Ingersoll rose to the rank of colonel and headed the 11th Illinois cavalry, but he was captured with his troop and sent home as a parolee. After the war, he was selected as attorney general of Illinois and became a vivid speaker for Republican candidates in elections around America. He moved his law practice to Washington and then to New York City.

Meanwhile, Ingersoll had been giving public lectures in the cause that stirred him most: the struggle against supernaturalism. He began denouncing religion in lecture halls; soon he was crisscrossing the nation as a controversial but popular speaker. As a supporter of evolution, he was called a "bulldog for Darwin".

Ingersoll perfected more than thirty skeptical lectures with titles such as "Why I Am an Agnostic" and "The Liberty of Man, Woman and Child". Paid as much as $3,500 for a single talk, he earned the equivalent of one million dollars a year in today's dollars. He became friends with many scientists, writers and human-rights leaders of his day. He might even have been elected governor of Illinois or gained a cabinet appointment in Washington, had he not claimed his agnosticism. Such a public declaration of disbelief was tantamount to political suicide, then as now.

Although fundamentalist clergymen deemed Ingersoll a devil, none could point to any blemish in his personal morals. Since his untimely death in 1899, he has been somewhat of a saint of rationalist humanism in America.

Ingersoll's views on religion

"It has always seemed absurd to suppose that a god would choose for his companions, during all eternity, the dear souls whose highest and only ambition is to obey." - "lndividuality"

"Who at the present day can imagine the courage, the devotion to principle, the intellectual and moral grandeur it once required to be an infidel, to brave the Church, her racks, her fagots, her dungeons, her tongues of fire - to defy and scorn her heaven and her hell - her devil and her God?" - ibid.

"The Church hates a thinker precisely for the same reason a robber dislikes a sheriff, or a thief despises the prosecuting witness." - ibid.

"Heresy is what the minority believe; it is the name given by the powerful to the doctrines of the weak." - "Heretics and Heresies"

"Who can estimate the misery that has been caused by this infamous doctrine of eternal punishment? Think of the lives it has blighted - of the tears it has caused of the agony it has produced. Think of the millions who have been driven to insanity by this most terrible of dogmas. This doctrine renders God the basest and most cruel being in the universe....There is nothing more degrading than to worship such a god." - ibid.

"I would have the pope throw away his tiara, take off his sacred vestments, and admit that he is not acting for God - is not infallible - but is just an ordinary Italian. I would have all the cardinals, archbishops, bishops, priests and clergymen admit that they know nothing about theology, nothing about hell or heaven, nothing about the destiny of the human race, nothing about devils or ghosts, gods or angels. I would like to see the whole world free - free from injustice - free from superstition." - "What I Want for Christmas"

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James A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia's largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail.  Mr. Haught has won two dozen national news writing awards. He has written 12 books and hundreds of magazine essays and blog posts. Around 450 of his essays are online. He is a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine, a weekly blogger at Daylight Atheism, (more...)

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