The Forgotten Mind: Robert Ingersoll

My Father recently pointed me to the incredible web library of [Robert Ingersoll]( (1833-1899), one of the great thinkers and orators in American history. Ingersoll was best known for his adamant defense of agnosticism. Given the recent discussions on this site it seems a prudent time to introduce this man to those who are unaware and re-acquaint those who are. Being a website that promotes the ideas of classical liberalism I sure wish we could have had Ingersoll as a contributor.

Ingersoll has been all but forgotten, but, in his time, he was revered by the best and brightest. Edison, Twain, Oscar Wilde, Frederick Douglas, H.L. Mencken — all described Ingersoll with the most carefully chosen superlatives. Twain once wrote, ‚ÄúBob Ingersoll‚Äôs music will sing through my memory always as the divinest that ever enchanted my ears.‚Äù

It is all the more convenient that his entire [library]( can be found on the web. It is incredibly fitting that a man who thrived on voicing his ideas to the populace and who advocated forward-looking ideas would find rebirth on something as futuristic and people-driven as the internet.

As Twain opined, Ingersoll was most certainly a beautiful wordsmith. Here is a wonderful excerpt from [“Why I am an Agnostic:”](

>I heard hundreds of these evangelical sermons ‚Äì heard hundreds of the most fearful and vivid descriptions of the tortures inflicted in hell, of the horrible state of the lost. I supposed that what I heard was true and yet I did not believe it. I said: “It is,” and then I thought: “It cannot be.”

>These sermons made but faint impressions on my mind. I was not convinced.

>I had no desire to be “converted,” did not want a “new heart” and had no wish to be “born again.”

>But I heard one sermon that touched my heart, that left its mark, like a scar, on my brain.

>One Sunday I went with my brother to hear a Free Will Baptist preacher. He was a large man, dressed like a farmer, but he was an orator. He could paint a picture with words.

>He took for his text the parable of “the rich man and Lazarus.” He described Dives, the rich man — his manner of life, the excesses in which he indulged, his extravagance, his riotous nights, his purple and fine linen, his feasts, his wines, and his beautiful women.

>Then he described Lazarus, his poverty, his rags and wretchedness, his poor body eaten by disease, the crusts and crumbs he devoured, the dogs that pitied him. He pictured his lonely life, his friendless death.

>Then, changing his tone of pity to one of triumph ‚Äì leaping from tears to the heights of exultation — from defeat to victory — he described the glorious company of angels, who with white and outspread wings carried the soul of the despised pauper to Paradise — to the bosom of Abraham.

>Then, changing his voice to one of scorn and loathing, he told of the rich man’s death. He was in his palace, on his costly couch, the air heavy with perfume, the room filled with servants and physicians. His gold was worthless then. He could not buy another breath. He died, and in hell he lifted up his eyes, being in torment.

>Then, assuming a dramatic attitude, putting his right hand to his ear, he whispered, “Hark! I hear the rich man’s voice. What does he say? Hark! ‘Father Abraham! Father Abraham! I pray thee send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my parched tongue, for I am tormented in this flame.'”

>”Oh, my hearers, he has been making that request for more than eighteen hundred years. And millions of ages hence that wail will cross the gulf that lies between the saved and lost and still will be heard the cry: ‘Father Abraham! Father Abraham! I pray thee send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my parched tongue, for I am tormented in this flame.'”

>For the first time I understood the dogma of eternal pain — appreciated “the glad tidings of great joy.” For the first time my imagination grasped the height and depth of the Christian horror. Then I said: “It is a lie, and I hate your religion. If it is true, I hate your God.”

>From that day I have had no fear, no doubt. For me, on that day, the flames of hell were quenched. From that day I have passionately hated every orthodox creed. That Sermon did some good.
Ingersoll’s attacks on religion are, I must say, refreshingly vehement and unapologetic. Although I wouldn’t describe myself as fervently anti-religious I am certainly not pro-religious. Ingersoll’s powerful prose does not tread upon the traditional egg shells that are always scattered at the feet of religious discourse.

Here is his wonderfully voiced opinion on the current topic of “intelligent design:”

I read Paley’s Evidences and found that the evidence of ingenuity in producing the evil, in contriving the hurtful, was at least equal to the evidence tending to show the use of intelligence in the creation of what we call good.

You know the watch argument was Paley’s greatest effort. A man finds a watch and it is so wonderful that he concludes that it must have had a maker. He finds the maker and he is so much more wonderful than the watch that he says he must have had a maker.
Then he finds God, the maker of the man, and he is so much more wonderful than the man that he could not have had a maker. This is what the lawyers call a departure in pleading.

According to Paley there can be no design without a designer — but there can be a designer without a design. The wonder of the watch suggested the watchmaker, and the wonder of the watchmaker, suggested the creator, and the wonder of the creator demonstrated that he was not created — but was uncaused and eternal.

I strongly encourage all those interested in the debate to read Ingersoll‚Äôs captivating essays. They bring a new and unique voice to a debate that is, in many ways, so tired and clich?©d.

Oh, and if you really want to delve into the “watchmaker” debate I highly suggest Richard Dawkins’s authoritative [The Blind Watchmaker.](

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1 Response to The Forgotten Mind: Robert Ingersoll

  1. John Poor says:

    My senior year in high school, I made a lot of people very angry by saying, “If what you say about God is true, then he’s an asshole, and I don’t understand why you worship him.” My phraseology was not nearly as eloquent as Ingersoll’s, of course, but the sentiment was there nonetheless.

    Thank you for bringing his writings to my attention. Hopefully I’ll have some time to investigate further once finals are over.

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