Robert Green Ingersoll: The Great American Agnostic

Robert Green Ingersoll, the great American agnostic — and how his 1880s message resonates today.

Robert Ingersoll, between 1865 and 1880 (Library of Congress)

Robert Ingersoll, between 1865 and 1880 (Library of Congress)

Nearly a third of Americans under 30 now say they have no religious affiliation.  They might want to read the works of Robert Green Ingersoll.

He’s not as famous as Americans Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine in enshrining no religion.  But in the late 19th century, the country knew him well as The Great Agnostic – the free-thinking unbeliever who championed the secular face of America’s founding.

A new biography brings him back at an interesting moment.

This hour, On Point:  Ingersoll, the great agnostic, and American faith and freedom now.

-Tom Ashbrook


Susan Jacoby, author, “The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought.”

Dale McGowan, writes the secular parenting blog “The Meming of Life.” Author of “Parenting Beyond Belief” and the upcoming “Atheism For Dummies.” (@memingoflife)

From Tom’s Reading List

NPR “Attention American history buffs, here’s a name you might not have heard before: Robert Ingersoll. According to author Susan Jacoby, he was ‘one of the most famous people in America in the last quarter of the 19th century.'”

The New York Times “Attention American history buffs, here’s a name you might not have heard before: Robert Ingersoll. According to author Susan Jacoby, he was ‘one of the most famous people in America in the last quarter of the 19th century.'”The New York Times “This widespread misapprehension that atheists believe in nothing positive is one of the main reasons secularly inclined Americans — roughly 20 percent of the population— do not wield public influence commensurate with their numbers. One major problem is the dearth of secular community institutions. But the most powerful force holding us back is our own reluctance to speak, particularly at moments of high national drama and emotion, with the combination of reason and passion needed to erase the image of the atheist as a bloodless intellectual robot.”

Excerpt From “The Great Agnostic”

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