"I would rather be right than be president." Henry Clay said it, but if he hadn't, Col. Robert G. Ingersoll would have. It was certainly more true of Ingersoll than of Clay. He had the qualities people sought, then and now, in a leader. He had a keen, powerful mind; he was a matchless orator in an age which understood, and adored, oratory. He had led a regiment bravely in battle in the Civil War. He was honest, moral, dignified and in love with his wife and daughters. But when people encouraged him to run for president, or governor, he told them it was impossible, that he could only win votes if he would renounce his agnosticism, which he would never do. He would renounce high office rather than be false to his conception of truth. Between power and integrity there was, for him, no choice. And this disqualified him for office.
Twain idolized him. Oscar Wilde, when he came to the United States, was curious to see this man Ingersoll whose lectures were so much more in demand than his own. He attended several Ingersoll performances, and pronounced him "the most intelligent man in America." It has been written that Frederick Douglass said that, "of all the great men of his personal acquaintance, there had been only two in whose presence he could be without feeling that he was regarded as inferior to them -- Abraham Lincoln and Robert Ingersoll."
People turned out by the thousands to hear him speak -- 50,000 one night in Chicago, in the days before microphones and sound systems. Ingersoll criss-crossed an America still deeply pious, heaping scorn on the brutality of religion. By the time he died in 1899, he had probably been heard by more human beings than any other person who lived in the 19th century. Although Ingersoll launched a broad-front free-thinker's assault on religious credulity, people seemed to focus on his words against the stupider aspects of Christianity, the ones that good, intelligent people had, by the late 1800s, outgrown. His sarcasm shreded the lingering bigotry in the national religion.
He held the odd status of beloved agnostic in a Christian land, in part, because this public man was so clearly living an honest, useful and loving life. His house was filled with spiritual and intellectual light, and he used a wonderful mind and a matchless personal power in the service of the good of all humanity. He frankly advocated equality for women when few men did, and he damned child abuse masquerading as parental authority. "Gentlemen," he said in one circumstance, "it isn't to have you think that I would call Christ 'an illegitimate child' which hurts me: it is that you should think that I would think any the less of Christ if I knew it was so."
His friend Walt Whitman probably captured the common view of Ingersoll when he called him, "a fiery blast for new virtues, which are only old virtues done over for honest use again." The odd thing is, Ingersoll would have been shut out of public discourse in America today. The fundamentalist movement began a few years after Ingersoll died, and the level of public and private spirituality in this country sank steadily and rapidly, unto the current level, where leading "men of faith" include Bob Jones and Jimmy Swaggart, "a cellarage only to be gazed at across the barriers of libel law."
Ingersoll's words and his life give proof to the suspicion many Americans may have, but few dare utter, that people without religion can live full, generous public lives, can have a better sense of right and wrong, than those bound up in creeds. I look forward to the day when I can cast a vote for a man as worthy as Ingersoll to be president of the United States, whether he believes in God or not. I doubt I will live to do it.
His printed works are cherished by those who can find them, and hidden away from view whenever possible by public libraries. I found a "Best of Robert Ingersoll" (from which these snippets are copied) only by sending away to Prometheus Books, 700 E. Amherst St., Buffalo, N.Y. 14215.
This is my creed: Happiness is the only good; reason the only torch; justice the only worship, humanity the only religion, and love the only priest.
God cannot send to eternal pain a man who has done something toward improving the condition of his fellow-man. If he can, I had rather go to hell than to heaven and keep company with such a god.
In most of the states of this union, I could not give testimony. Christianity has such a contemptable opinion of human nature that it does not believe that a man can tell the truth unless frightened by a belief in God.
Suppose there were no passages in the Bible except those upholding slavery, polygamy, and wars of extermination, would anybody claim that it was the word of God? I would like to ask if there is a Christian in the world who would not be overjoyed to find that every one of these passages was an interpolation?
I do not consider it a very important question whether Christ was the Son of God or not. After all, what difference does it make? If he never existed, we are under the same obligation to do what we believe is right; and believing that he was the Son of God or disbelieving it, is of no earthly importance. If we are ever judged at all it will be by our actions, and not by our beliefs. If Christ was good enough to die for me, he certainly will not be bad enough to damn me for honestly failing to believe in his divinity.
I pity the man who has only to brag that he is white.
Strange! that no one has ever been persecuted by the church for believing God bad, while hundreds of millions have been destroyed for thinking him good. The orthodox church will never forgive the Universalist for saying, "God is love." It has always been considered one of the very highest evidences of true and undefiled religion that all men, women and children deserve eternal damnation. It has always been heresy to say, "God will at last save all."
Blasphemy is the word that the majority hisses into the ears of the few. Each church has accused nearly every other of being a blasphemer. The Catholics called Martin Luther a blasphemer and Martin Luther called Copernicus a blasphemer. Pious ignorance always regards intelligence as a kind of blasphemy. Some of the greatest men of the world, some of the best, have been put to death for blasphemy. After every argument of the church has been answered, has been refuted, then the church cries, "Blasphemy!" Blasphemy is what an old mistake says of a newly discovered truth. Blasphemy is the bulwark of religious prejudice. Blasphemy is the breastplate of the heartless. The Infinite cannot be blasphemed.
From Ingersoll's summation in the 1887 case of a young man brought up for trial under an old New Jersey statute against blasphemy. Ingersoll argued the case for free. The jury found the defendant guilty and sentenced him to $25 and court costs of $75, which Ingersoll paid.
I have many objections to the philosophy of Christ. I do not believe in returning good for evil. I believe in returning justice for evil. I do not believe that I can put a man under a moral obligation to do me a favor by doing him a wrong. The doctrine of non-resistance is to me absurd. The right should be defended and the wrong resisted. Goodness should have the right to protect itself. Neither do I believe in decrying this world. We should not say, "Thou fool," to the man who works for those he loves. Poverty is not a virtue, nor is wealth a crime.
The goverment of God was tried in Geneva when John Calvin was his representative. Under this government of God, the flames climbed around the limbs and blinded the eyes of Michael Servetus, because he dared to express an honest thought. This government of God was established in New England and the result was that Quakers were hanged or burned. This government of God was established in Spain, and the Jews were expelled. This government of God was tried in the U.S. when slavery was regarded as a divine institution. The pulpit of that day defended the buying and selling of women and babies. The mouths of the slave-traders were filled with passages of Scripture, defending and upholding traffic in human flesh.
Were we allowed to read the Bible as we do all other books, we would admire its beauties, treasure its worthy thoughts, and account for all its absurd, grotesque and cruel things, by saying that its authors lived in rude, barbaric times. But we are told that it was written by inspired men; that it contains the will of God; that it is perfect, pure, and true in all its parts; the source and standard of all moral and religious truth; that it is the star and anchor of all human hope; the only guide for man, the only torch in Nature's night. These claims are so at variance with every known recorded fact, so palpably absurd, that every free, unbiased soul is forced to raise the standard of revolt.
The only thing that makes life endurable in this world is human love, and yet, according to Christianity, that is the very thing that we are not to have in the other world. We are to be so taken up with Jesus and angels, that we shall care nothing about our brothers and sisters that have been damned. We shall be so carried away with the music of the harp that we shall not even hear the wail of father and mother. Such a religion is a disgrace to human nature.
The Catholics have a Pope. Protestants laugh at them, and yet the Pope is capable of intellectual advancement. In addition to this, the Pope is mortal, and the church cannot be afflicted with the same idiot forever. The Protestants have a book for their Pope. The book cannot advance. Year after year, and century after century, the book remains as ignorant as ever.
The Agnostic ... occupies himself with this world, with things that can be ascertained and understood. He turns his attention to the sciences, to the solutions of questions that touch the well-being of man. He wishes to prevent and cure disease; to lengthen life; to provide homes and raiment and food for man; to supply the wants of the body. He also cultivates the arts. He believes in painting and sculpture, in music and the drama -- the needs of the soul. The Agnostic believes in developing the brain, in cultivating the affections, the tastes, the conscience, the judgment, to the end that man may be happy in this world.
The Agnostic does not simply say, "I do not know." He goes another step and says with great emphasis that you do not know.
Real religion means the doing of justice. Real religion means the giving to others every right you claim yourself. Real religion consists in duties of man to man, in feeding the hungry, in clothing the naked, in defending the innocent, and in saying what you believe to be true.
And yet this same Deity says to me, "resist not evil; pray for those that despitefully use you; love your enemies, but I will eternally damn mine." It seems to me that even gods should practice what they preach.
The truth is, most Christians are better than their creeds; most creeds are better than the Bible, and most men are better than their God.
What is it to be spiritual? To recognize the finer harmonies of conduct -- to live to the ideal -- to separate the incidental, the evanescent, from the perpetual -- to be enchanted with the perfect melody of truth -- open to the influences of the artistic, the beautiful, the heroic -- to shed kindness as the sun sheds light -- to recognize the good in others, and to include the world in the idea of self -- that is to be spiritual.
There is nothing spiritual in the worship of the unknown and unknowable, in the self-denial of a slave at the command of a master whom he fears. Fastings, prayings, mutilations, kneelings, and mortification are either the result of, or result in, insanity.
Is life worth living? Well, I can only answer for myself. I like to be alive, to breathe the air, to look at the landscape, the clouds, the stars, to repeat old poems, to look at pictures and statues, to hear music, the voices of the ones I love. I enjoy eating and smoking. I like good cold water. I like to talk with my wife, my girls, my grandchildren. I like to sleep and to dream. Yes, you can say that life, to me, is worth living.