Saturday, August 10, 2013

Considering Robert Ingersoll, "the Great Agnostic"

On August 11, 1833, John Ingersoll, a Christian pastor, and his wife Mary became the proud parents of a baby boy, whom they named Robert Green.
In spite of being born into a pious home in a small upstate New York town, Robert G. Ingersoll for many years proudly bore the label “the Great Agnostic.” And by the time of his death in 1899, he had been one of the best known public speakers in America for decades.
I was probably still a teenager when I first heard reference made to Ingersoll at the Baptist church, or maybe at the Baptist college, I attended. However, I don’t remember hearing him called what many conservative Christians dubbed him: Injuresoul.
When he was twenty years old, the Ingersoll family moved to the town of Marion in southern Illinois. The following year both he and his older brother were admitted to the bar.
According to Marion’s historical website, “A county historian writing 22 years later noted that local residents considered the Ingersolls as a ‘very intellectual family; but, being Abolitionists, and the boys being deists, rendered obnoxious to our people in that respect.’”
The young lawyer went on to become a colonel in the Civil War, and then in 1867 he was appointed the first Attorney General of Illinois. He was quite active as a conservative Republican (which then meant something quite different from what it means now). He gave a highly regarded speech in the 1876 Republican National Convention.
That same year he engaged in an extensive conversation with Lew Wallace, a Civil War general who had commanded the battle of Shiloh in which Ingersoll had been captured by the Confederates. As a result of listening to Ingersoll’s negative ideas about Christianity, Wallace decided to write a book about the life of Christ.
Wallace’s work was published in 1880, while he was governor of New Mexico Territory. We know it as both a book and a movie: “Ben Hur.”
For the last 30+ years of his life, Ingersoll was best known as an exciting public speaker – and as an agnostic, rather than a deist. He is said to have spoken in person to more people in the United States than anyone else in the nineteenth century.
And he probably did more than anyone else in America during that century to spread agnosticism, which has often been called free thinking. But until recently Ingersoll has been largely unknown by most younger people.
The Robert Ingersoll website has posted an eight-minute YouTube video under the title “Meet the Most Remarkable American Most People Never Heard of.”
American journalist, author, and noted atheist Susan Jacoby has sought to resurrect acquaintance with Ingersoll’s life and influence with a book titled “The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought.” I read Jacoby’s work soon after it came out early this year and found it most interesting, although misleading in places.
Still, in May, Washington Post and several other newspapers and websites published Kimberly Winston’s article called “Meet Robert Ingersoll, America’s Most Famous Forgotten Atheist.”
With the growth of atheists/agnostics – and “nones” – in the U.S., there will likely be increasing interest in Ingersoll. And many of us who are “progressive” Christians will find a number of places where we can agree with him, as well as many places where we can’t.
At any rate, the books and other information about Robert Ingersoll, “the great agnostic,” does make for interesting reading. And even though he was born 180 years ago, his ideas, and how to respond to them, are well worth considering now, a time when agnosticism is increasing.


  1. The philosopher Hegel saw history progressing through a process of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. The synthesis then became a new thesis for the next cycle. An illustration of this can be taken from the opening of Hegel's "Logic" where he starts with the thesis "being," the antithesis "not being," and the synthesis "becoming." Later scholars debunked Hegel's idea as too mechanical, but as an idealized schematic, I believe it retains clarifying power.

    Which brings us to the great modern struggle between atheism and fundamentalism. Seen as thesis and antithesis (you can pick which is which), the two clearly call for a synthesis, and many proposed solutions have been presented over the years. Yet in the heat of the moment, it is hard to imagine such a synthesis being possible.

    It is therefore interesting to see the extent to which Ingersoll himself represents such a synthesis in the 19th century. Both the forces of slavery and abolition were deeply rooted in religious grounds, and the intensity of the American Civil War was fueled by that anchoring. By walking away from the religious foundation, Ingersoll found a new way to solve vexing social problems.

    However, as Hegel would suggest, the 19th century synthesis of agnosticism gave way to the ferocious battles between fundamentalism and atheism in the 20th century. And the very complexity of those battles and of the combatants in those battles points to the complaint against Hegel that his dialectic was too simplistic, even as it still hints at a truth hidden in the process.

    Yet this battle is not so alien to church history, for the very early church fathers, such as Justin Martyr, struggled with defining the distinction between atheism and Christianity--a problem that seems nearly unintelligible in our modern context. Perhaps Ingersoll did not so much walk away from living faith as he did from the fossilized remains of 19th-century dysfunctional faith. Surely a lot of the prophets must have looked much like him as they left Jerusalem and headed for the wilderness. Maybe even Jesus.

    1. I think you're really on to something here Craig! Here is an intriguing article that speaks to today's participation in Hegel's dialectic process:

      It is an easy read and I think she's also really on to something!

    2. Craig, I have missed your comments recently, and I am happy to have your meaty comments posted on this blog again.

      I am not sure that Ingersoll's ideas represents a synthesis between theism and atheism, but they certainly represents an attractive centrist position between the calcified conservatism and flawed fundamentalism of much 19th century Christianity and a heartless and nihilistic atheism. More than a synthesis, it seems to me that Ingersoll forwarded an attractive position between those extremes.

      Ingersoll's position was that of secular humanism. The latter term has often been the target of the Religious Right, but surely it is better than "inhumanism," whether secular or religious - and inhumanity has sometimes been evident in the extremes on both sides.

      I am in full agreement, Craig, with with three sentences that conclude your comments.

  2. Thanks, Leroy, for this interesting piece on Ingersoll. In my column periodically I write about someone asking whether we can consider that person a "hero of humanity" -- meaning basically whether we can consider that person's life's activities a positive contribution towards humanity's advancement (or some such thing :). So the question arises whether believing Christians can consider someone like Ingersoll a hero of humanity.

    Following up on Craig's thoughts, appropriating Hegel, I would add that it might be too early to judge whether the thesis-antithesis-synthesis framework will hold for this major clash of thought in Western history. Perhaps something will yet emerge in this regard. (BTW, apparently the "thesis-antithesis-synthesis" terms were from Fichte, and Hegel never actually used them, although obviously his scheme reflects something like them.) I love the phrase suggesting Hegel's schematic "retains clarifying power"!

  3. Thanks, Anton, for your comments. My first reply is about the Hegelian dialectic. That is what I learned about Hegel more than 50 years ago, so I tried to find out more about what you wrote about that terminology being from Fichte, not Hegel.

    I was surprised to see the following introduction to a book by Leonard Wheat, published in 2012 under the title "Hegel’s Undiscovered Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis Dialectics: What Only Marx and Tillich Understood":

    "For over fifty years, Hegel interpreters have rejected the former belief that Hegel used thesis-antithesis-synthesis dialectics. In this incisive analysis of Hegel’s philosophy, Leonard F. Wheat shows that the modern interpretation is false. Wheat rigorously demonstrates that there are in fact thirty-eight well-concealed dialectics in Hegel’s two most important works—twenty-eight in 'Phenomenology of Spirit' and ten in 'The Philosophy of History.'"

    So maybe what I learned and what Craig referred to above is not erroneous after all.

    1. I wasn't actually saying that you or Craig were wrong; only that Hegel didn't use those terms to characterize his scheme. For our mutual edification:

      “Fichte’s concepts of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis reappear in Hegel, but Hegel does not use this terminology.” p. 278 [Inwood, M.J. “Fichte, Johann Gottlieb.” In The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, ed. Ted Honderich, pp. 277-279. N.Y. & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.]

      “Unfortunately, much of this controversy [over Hegel’s dialectical logic] has been greatly confused by the popular association of the terms ‘thesis,’ ‘antithesis,’ and ‘synthesis’ with Hegel’s theory of dialectic. These crude, mechanical notions were invented in 1837 by a less-than-sensitive Hegel expositor, Heinrich Moritz Chalybäus, and were never used as terms of art by Hegel.” p. 315 [Pippin, Robert B. “Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich.” The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, ed. Robert Audi, 311-317. Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press, 1995.]

      “This particular bit of grotesque jargon…is almost never found in the writings of dialectical materialists themselves. It was never used by Hegel or Engels, and was used by Marx only once, solely for the purpose of ridicule.” p. 56 [Wood, Allen W. “Dialectical Materialism.” Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward Craig. Vol. 3, Descartes to Gender and science, 53-58. London & N.Y.: Routledge, 1998.]

    2. So, what do you make of Wheat's argument?

    3. It sounds to me like Wheat potentially is saying the same thing as the Hegel scholars I quoted. I haven't read or even seen Wheat's book, so I have only that one quotation from the introduction to go by.

      I don't think anybody is disputing that Hegel is dialectical; only that his dialectic is not to be simplistically characterized and that he doesn't present his own work in terms of "thesis-antithesis-synthesis."

      I'm certainly interested in anybody who claims that Hegel scholars have gotten him wrong for the last fifty years. I would also need to know which group of Hegel scholars Wheat is talking about. :)

  4. Concerning your main point, I would say certainly Christians could consider Ingersoll a "hero of humanity." His position on the equality of the races and gender equality as well as his strong position on separation of church and state were all good, important, and "Christian" positions - in spite of the fact that they were opposed by many "Christians."

    But even heroes have flaws, and because he was right on several important issues that does not mean he was right in all of his views.

    Perhaps we can say about him, as about many others, he was right in what he affirmed and wrong in what he denied.

  5. I think I'm in basic agreement with you, except that I don't understand your last sentence in this reply. In my view, we Christians must look for common ground with humanists. And we need to invite humanists to seek common ground with us. I think, I, too, would count Ingersoll as a hero.

    I was disappointed at the reaction to your presentation at COR on August 4, as you know. I thought you had provided us with some good information, a positive attitude, and some useful starting points for moving towards agreement and consensus. Instead, you were faced with the same old tired anti-religious bromides that characterize so much of the discourse of angry freethinkers.

  6. I spoke above through the fuzzy fog of college texts barely remembered, so it would not surprise me that Fichte conceived the terms through which I was taught Hegel. This issue did have the virtue of sending me to the musty corner of the laundry room where "Logic" lay. It turned out that what I remembered as the beginning was actually in paragraph 84, at the beginning of section VII of the book, otherwise known as page 123. How very Hegelian. Why this happened can be seen in the convoluted language Hegel actually did use, such as this from the opening of paragraph 85:

    "Being itself and the special sub-categories of it which follow, as well as those of logic in general, may be looked upon as definitions of the Absolute, or metaphysical definitions of God: at least the first and third category in every triad may--the first , where the thought -form of the triad is formulated in its simplicity, and the third, being the return from differentiation to a simple self-reference."

    After that, I think we may all owe a thank you to Fichte!

    On a related matter, Hegel may give some guidance on handling Ingersoll. Hegel makes the point that at the fundamental level of examining being and not-being, they are both the same, which is part of how he gets to finding "becoming" out of them. What if true faith and secular humanism are not saying anything all that different from each other, but rather are speaking from the perspectives of the opposite sides of the same coin? Indeed, Hegel discusses God quite a bit in the "Logic," which is not something more recent philosophers would be likely to do. This may seem to some a drastic way to get God back into the discussion, but I think a major problem with much of modern theology is a terrible failure to come to terms with what is actually going on in science. If we cannot stand in the ultimate place where atheism and theism are the same, we may ultimately have no place to stand at all. Science is that powerful. No mere metaphysical theory can withstand it. Yet, there is something strangely familiar about the powerful winds that blow through its power. As Jesus told the woman at the well, "God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth." (John 4:24, NRSV)

  7. Unitarian-Universalists often claim Ingersoll as one of theirs (I should say ours, since I pretty much make UU my congregation of choice.) However upon examination I find he wasn't. He merely said some nice things about Unitarians. Though for the most part just being a freethinker is enough to get you embraced by UU.

    Patrick Crews
    (Commenting as anonymous so the Google amoeba won't try to engulf my blog contents)