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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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  • http://twitter.com/PT__Philosopher Thomas Smith

    Robert Ingersoll’s “Some Mistakes of Moses” changed my life. I’ve found that many of his other works show him to be a man ahead of his time; the “Chinese Exclusion” is the first to come to mind.

  • http://twitter.com/TominousTone Thomas Lawson

    Prescient man.

    “In a country where religion is [assumed] to be in power—where it has rewards for pretense, where it pays a premium upon hypocrisy, where it at least is willing to purchase silence—it is easily conceivable that millions pretend to believe what they do not.” – R. G. Ingersoll

    It appears people are choosing to stop pretending. Here’s another name for you: Charles Chilton Moore. Not as nice as Ingersoll. Kentucky’s most-hated man, actually.

  • Duras

    My eyes popped when I came across him in undergrad.  As a liberal and an atheist, I am pained with the fact that democrats must make appeals to religion to sure-up votes from the demographic shifts.  But democrats will be well-served to incorporate the voice of Ingersoll to promote secularism within religio-political discourse.  

  • Wm_James_from_Missouri

    I am a Christian and am quite happy to say so. Every Christian has had doubts. Even Christ, we he asked “ Why have you forsaken me… “. In that moment, he sins what may be the most profound sin possible. For how, could a “Being” (speaking as a believer, of course,), knowing that he was the Son of God, doubt his place or life’s meaning for one instant, yet he did. And yet it was this act of doubting that eventually yields to purpose, thereby, freeing other doubters from their burden. The poetry of the argument is in itself a liberation.

  • Ed75

    More than 90% of Americans believe in God, so the 20% figure above is dubious.

    • http://profiles.google.com/jmorrisson Jane Morrisson

      I don’t think that’s true. I certainly don’t broadcast that I’m an atheist, and I would bet there are millions more that never talk about it for fear of derision or other reaction from friends and family.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Y6CO5C2HE4WM2OYGCDVWGPRXXM oldman

      So many people say they believe in God – however they do absolutely nothing (study religion, go to church, pray, do any sort of practice, etc) about it. For these folks, who are a sizable percentage in America – if one does nothing but profess a belief in God, what difference does it make whether they believe or not? If they changed their minds tomorrow, not one facet of their lives would change.

    • Gordon Green

      Freedom from religion is an individual right that protects the minority from the majority.  If 99.99% of people believed it, that would still not make it right.

  • Ed75

    According to Wikipedia, Mr. Ingersoll’s liberal Protestant pastor father had been brought to church trial several times, and when he finally lost his privilege to preach because of a small infraction, his son turned against Calvinism (which is not hard to do) and then against Christianity in general. Apparently he was a well known iconoclast:

    In his Devil’s Dictionary American journalist and writer Ambrose Bierce included his own version of the Decalogue in which the second commandment is, “No images nor idols make/for Robert Ingersoll to break.”

    He is in a long line of people who react in various ways to Calvinism, which, for a Catholic, is a flawed doctrine.

  • Josiah Vanvliet

    I’m the president of the Boston Atheists, New England’s largest secular organization with almost 1100 members. I am trying to create a community based on meeting the needs of it members using secular and empirical methods. You can see more at our meetup page, our facebook page, or the blog that I’ve been writing to flesh out my idea’s on an atheist community at metabelief.blogspot.com


  • geraldfnord

    I hope that the “Little Blue Book” series, to which Ingersoll contributed more than a few, will be mentioned. These days maybe a series of YouTube clips would do the same. (The “TED” talks are similar, but they seem to have purely an Establishment window of acceptable opinion—the “hepper” part of the Establishment to be sure, but ultimately Owner-safe, as Mr Hanauer’s experience well demonstrated.)

  • gemli

    Ingersoll’s enlightened opinion of women seems very modern, especially given that we still hear the kind of retrograde misogyny that was rampant in his day from modern-day conservatives and fundamentalists.  Ironically, it seems that rejection of religion is associated with the inclusive and nurturing worldview that the religious often claim as their territory.  Narrow-mindedness, bigotry and homophobia are hallmarks of religious teachings, and the more agnostic we are about those things, the better.

    It’s clear from Ingersoll’s abhorrence of superstition and dogma, and his referring to the poisoning of imagination that results from religious indoctrination, that he rejected theism wholeheartedly, and would properly be called an atheist rather than the milder (and at the time recently invented term) agnostic.  The idea that we “can’t really know” about God’s existence may be true, but we can’t really know that unicorns and faeries don’t exist either.  This doesn’t stop us from having a pretty good idea about the probability of whether these invisible creatures inhabit invisible supernatural worlds.

    The prevalence of atheism is hard to gauge, because people are hesitant to admit that they don’t believe.  The discourse has long been co-opted by the religious to make it difficult to even have a conversation about atheism without incurring social consequences, or worse.

    The fact that we hear more conversations today about atheism and agnosticism may represent an awakening to the fact that religion is not a necessary, or even desirable, part of our nature.

  • AC

    this is the only answer i give when someone asks me what i am – i have my own definition for what ‘god’ defines…
    i don’t really know this man or his works, looking forward to the show

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Y6CO5C2HE4WM2OYGCDVWGPRXXM oldman

    So many people say they believe in God – however they do absolutely
    nothing (study religion, go to church, pray, do any sort of practice,
    etc) about it. For these folks, who are a sizable percentage in America -
    if one does nothing but profess a belief in God, what difference does
    it make whether they believe or not? If they changed their minds
    tomorrow, not one facet of their lives would change.

    • AC

      i like it when someone with a fish bumper sticker cuts me off.

  • MarkVII88

    David Greene at NPR is currently presenting a series about religion/faith and the 30% of young adults that don’t identify with an organized religion.  I’m disappointed by the fact that this series is only focusing on those individuals who made the choice to leave a religion.  It isn’t touching upon those of us who don’t believe, never believed, and who aren’t suffering a crisis of conscience about it.  Why is this group, my group, who simply don’t care about faith or religion or who think it’s a waste of time always left out of the analysis? We believe in many of the same practical things as those with faith like don’t steal from people, pay for what you take, help those in need. For us it’s just called common sense!

    • AC

      that’s what makes calling yourself ‘agnostic’ so great, it keeps those that want to bother trying to ‘save’ you from trying too hard! lol

  • MarkVII88

    I absolutely agree with Ingersoll’s even keel approach to being agnostic.  I think people assume that if you are an atheist or agnostic that you harbor some kind of militant negative feeling against God or religion.  I am willing to bet that most agnostics and atheists are happy to just live and let live.  Most of us are not spoiling for a fight about things like including God in the pledge of allegiance.  We aren’t offended when a friend or relative offers us a prayer when we’re sick or something like that.  Militant anti-religion is just as bad as militant religion.

    • PithHelmut

      Actually I do find praying for me offensive but I don’t want to offend back those who do so with kindness in their hearts. 

    • http://www.defaithed.com/ Defaithed

      Should you ever see an example of actual “militant anti-religion” in a modern society, let us know…

  • sickofthechit

    How can we claim to have “Separation of Church and State” when churches are given preferential tax treatment and all of us are allowed to deduct what we donate?  How is that not deemed “Establishment of a Religion”? Charles A. Bowsher

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/James-Patrick-Dwyer-Jr/100002088204784 James Patrick Dwyer Jr.

       I totally agree with you. Do you think is is possible for politicians to remove their tax exemption?

  • Paul Stern

    It is too bad that no professed non-believer has ever been elected to high office. It’s unlikely any mainstream candidates think it is possible. 

  • John Read

    Just a few years ago in college I saw a poster for a Multifaith gathering with symbols of the three major monotheistic religions.  I contacted the Multifaith chaplain expressing my dismay that non-believers didn’t seem welcome.  To my surprise he welcomed me, and from there on I represented the non-religious in many school sponsored events/gatherings.  It was an incredible privilege and a sign of the times to be able to speak about big ideas and “break bread” with priests, rabbis, imams, and so many understanding people.  Some of the best moments in my life thus far!

    -John, Boston

  • Shashin Umrania

    The word/term “GOD” was probably meant to be used as a generic word to represent any and all Faith. It really wouldn’t refer to particularly christian faith figure.  

  • soundfriend

    You’ve got to serve somebody. It might be God or it might be Ingersoll, but you’re going to have to serve somebody.

    • sea1851

      Only if you are SERVILE  by nature. Some people are so. Some people are eager to kneel, to prostrate themselves, to abase and dishonor their human nature. Others prefer to remain upright, to take their hat off to no other person or entity, to preserve their dignity, their self-respect, their humanity, and the integrity of their soul. Kneel if you will, serve if you will. That’s your nature today. It could change, depending on what paths you go down in your personal journey through this life. Best wishes.

    • Gordon Green


    • Duras

      Nietzsche talks about two kinds of wills: the will to power over people, and the will to have power over oneself.  This goes across the belief spectrum, but in my observations it is pretty much a zero-sum truth that people who try to control, say, a woman’s body are controlled economically and are generally in a dogmatic slumber. 

      Nonetheless, all non-religious thinkers and few followers of Christ are not locked into a system where if they didn’t believe certain things, it would be a thought-crime, which is the essence of totalitarianism. 

    • http://www.defaithed.com/ Defaithed

      Methinks you’ve been waitering far too long…

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/QMDZ3LH5U2B4GAT7J2HS4TCP6E Jim

    here is where i was so offended with religion (and this is by no means just christianity… it includes other extreme religion). I approach a nice and polite evangelical lady. she said to ask me to convert. convert on what? i was raised a catholic.

    so i ask her a question and said my mother is one of the most caring, generous, and selfless person she would ever meet. I ask her would she expect my mother to be in the kingdom of the lord after she pass away if she is an atheist.  She emphatically said NO… i look her and said… i see how evangelical christianity brain washed you and your kind.

  • malkneil

    To the current caller:

    A theory that explains everything, explains nothing.

  • Jennifer4333

    I have always wondered what atheists/agnostics do in times of great crisis, grief, tragedy – if they don’t pray, do they hope? think? wonder?

    • adks12020

      I think, ponder, wonder why, feel sad, just like a religious person.  I just don’t wonder why God let an event happened; I just wonder why and how it happened. I don’t pray because it doesn’t make sense to speak to a deity that I don’t believe hears me or could do anything about my situation.

      For those of us that are atheist or agnostic we have similar questions about praying.  We think why do people do it? Religious people think, why don’t we do it?

      The human mind is a crazy and amazing thing. 

    • Elizabeth_in_RI

      All of the above! Just because we don’t believe in a deity doesn’t mean we don’t wish, and even pray, that things don’t get better or whatever. We just don’t believe that a deity is responsible for all the good things that happen or that it would have worse if a particular deity wasn’t around. We aren’t freaks – we just think that it is likely that this is it and we better be the best people we can be now – and not wait until the next life, heaven, etc.

    • Gordon Green

      I find this question surprising and somewhat disturbing.  Are we not all human beings with the same basic set of emotions, after all?  How those are culturally contextualized varies, but your question implies that those who are not religious are different at some basic level, and seems to me to suggest a lack of the basic empathy that ties us all together across cultures. We all share similar feelings; I think some of us just don’t need to explain it all with some tidy mythology.  And, in my opinion, when you stop looking to explain everything with a story, the world can become a bigger and even more wondrous place.

    • Duras

      When a loved one dies, I believe that is it, I’ll never see again.  The observable reality of death is something that I deal with.  I feel like I’m deluding myself to believe in things that adhere to my desires instead of the world before my eyes. 

      In a way, life becomes more precious because there is a finite amount of time I have with friends, nature, books, etc.  Value is so often determined nihilistically: the fewer of something one has, the more it is treasured.  This is an argument that often angers the believers of afterlives: when one believes that one doesn’t really die, when one denies death, per se, one is actually denying life.

      I ain’t going to lie to you: it is tough to look on the world and deal with death.  But I do hope that I’m wrong and there is a life afterwards, but the reasons to believe in such things are borne exlusively out of desire.

    • Bruce94

      I think Duras and Gordon Green below have the right response to your question.  I sometimes pose the converse:  who or what kind of God do religious people pray to in the aftermath of a tragedy involving the loss of innocents — “when bad things happen to good people?”  I believe the Rabbi answered your question a long time ago when he said that in times of great grief we come together regardless of our beliefs or lack of beliefs. 

      When we look more deeply into the origins of empathy, a book like “The Price of Altruism” by Oren Harman might prove valuable.  Among other things I think it describes a basis for altruism found in evolutionary biology as well as social psychology.  It just may be that man has finally evolved to the point where communitarian values and mutuality will begin to determine behavior as much as or more than self-interest and greed.

      It may be that ultimately we find ourselves hard-wired for not only flight/fight, hunting/gathering and reproducing, but also connecting and sharing with others who are outside our immediate family or kinship systems. 

    • PithHelmut

      They look to the people around them, the people they have built relationships with over the years. This is important because so long as we look outside of humanity, in say a mythical creature in the sky or any other myth, we will be missing out on practicing the skills we need to become more humane and effective as a force to change the world for the better instead of waiting for the whims of someone that isn’t there. It takes a lot of courage to jettison a god when one is brought up with one but courage makes us better people not worse. Cowardice however does the opposite. 

    • albert_hofmann_jr

       So do you think that those of us who do not believe in some supernatural, superpowered,super hero, don’t think, or wonder? Of course we do.
        When it comes to end of life  we do not fool ourselves with bronze age superstitions like religious people do, with notions of heaven and other such silly nonsense. Instead we are resigned to the fact that this life is all there is.
       And as for prayer, that also does not work. Look up the Templeton Foundation Prayer Study and see for yourself.
       People who spend much of there time talking to themselves and/or hearing voices are generally considered to be insane.

  • sea1851

    Susan Jacoby has done a great service in publishing a new biography of Bob Ingersoll. The lat Christopher Hitchens was surprised to find Ingersoll “almost airbrushed out of American history,” and called for an Ingersoll revival. Mark Twain, Walt
    Whitman, Andrew Carnegie, Oscar Wilde, Thomas Edison and a host of other eminent people of the 19th century, all praised him to the skies for his ideas and his eloquence. 
       Ingersoll employed one of the sharpest of oratorical weapons—humor—against the orthodox religionists of his time.  He loved anecdotes that had two and sometimes three punch-lines, each one funnier than the last. He understood that to send an audience into gales of laughter and a
    little while later have even strong men dabbing the tears of sentiment and a full heart from their eyes was one and the same art. No one ever forgot an evening with Robert Ingersoll.

         On knowledge. “Itused to be that the only educated man in the community was the minister. If youwanted to know something, you asked him. Today if you do, you don’t.”

         On smoking. “I’drather smoke one cigar than hear two sermons.”
    On revivalism.“I think the fire that has to be blown all the time is a poor thing to get warm by.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/nielsen.ben Ben Nielsen

    Agnosticism is what connects science and spirituality. Scientists and mystics
    both strive
    to understand what can be known, and also to be honest about what is not known.

    But as some schools of religion have become corrupted,
    they pretend to know what is unknowable, and deny what is known. This leads to
    dogma, superstition, egotism and conflict.

  • http://www.facebook.com/nielsen.ben Ben Nielsen

    Agnosticism is what connects science and spirituality. Scientists and mystics both strive to understand what can be known, and also to be honest about what is not known.

    But as some schools of religion have become corrupted, they pretend to know what is unknowable, and deny what is known. This leads to dogma, superstition, egotism and conflict.

  • sickofthechit

    I believe in a God, I just don’t believe in any religion.

  • http://twitter.com/kegandolfo Kathleen Fischer

    Doesn’t the Isreal not being willing to give up being a Jewish state block any ability to intergrate with Palestinians?

    • Gordon Green

      The concept of an Islamic State or Christian State or Jewish State seems to me to be inherently problematic.  One person one vote, no discrimination, is the way to peace and prosperity in the long run.  

      • anon

        I don’t know why one person one vote would necessarily lead to peace and prosperity… 

        • Gordon Green

          Societies containing minorities without representation tend to be subject to more unrest, do they not?  Civil unrest makes business difficult.

  • Kathy

    This entire “you can’t have morality without religion” is the most idiotic thing I’ve ever heard. Not a single time in my upbringing did my parents ever threaten me with hellfire in order to get me to pick up my blocks or not put arsenic into the neigbor’s chocolate milk.

  • Ray in VT

    I don’t know if he actually is, but I’m guessing that Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is an atheist.  I don’t know if he has actually said anything about it.  I am very happy that I have never heard any of Vermont’s three representatives to Congress explicitly talk about their personal religious beliefs.

  • adiggins

    Great topic!  Can’t wait to read the book.  Glad to hear Ingersoll was against animal cruelty.

    I think people believe in the popular religious mythology of Christendom to trick themselves into being better people, and also to honor their family traditions.  At some point, though, you need to ask which is more important, keeping unjust, unkind, unfair traditions on life support by subscribing to them or being good neighbors and citizens of the planet as our understanding and awareness progresses beyond the religious explanations of the past.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Y6CO5C2HE4WM2OYGCDVWGPRXXM oldman

    I think the biggest problem is we “impose” a moral structure on our children when they need to develop one of their own. Which is appropriate when they are too young to, but is so not appropriate as they get older. A major downfall of religions is they impose a moral structure instead of getting people to develop and internalize their own.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_5UQ5B7LIGFBAN4TO2ZH36AFX24 Mark

    Religion and Science are two sides of the same coin. If you look at all religions and find the common threads, you find truth. Every single religion has untruths but all religions point to the one truth that there is a consciousness that we connect to.  

    • PithHelmut

      Truth?  You make it sound like there is only one truth but truth is relative like almost everything except perhaps the speed of light.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_5UQ5B7LIGFBAN4TO2ZH36AFX24 Mark

     Einstein said Religion without “science is ignorance. Science without religion is lame”

    • PithHelmut

      Einstein also said that religion is no more than a childish superstition. Perhaps the word religion was used instead of spiritualism, which is not much better but perhaps that could be a substitute for the word, morality. 

  • acujen

    To the guest’s point earlier, science evolves with evidence, but so would religion if it change could be demonstrated. It’s really not comparable.If an obvious metaphysical even happened people would probably change their religious beliefs. On an individual level, people’s spirituality changes as their life experiences change all the time, so while fundamentalism may not change because of its inherent nature, spirituality does and that can be within the guise of following a religion and taking from it what makes sense, which is what the majority of people I know do

  • BHA_in_Vermont

    I am personally offended by the idea that religion = morality and the lack of religion equates to a lack of morality.
    - How many kids were abused by priests? How many by non religious people?
    - How many Catholic criminals repent on their death beds?
    - How many Catholics get absolution weekly by going to confession? Do something immoral, say “I’m sorry” on Sunday and you are a moral person again (until the next time).

    Organized religions developed to control the population. And yes, maybe many hundreds of years ago when “whatever I can grab is mine” was the way to stay alive, religion and the “Fear of God” may have been the only way to keep things somewhat orderly. Today they provide a sense of structure to those who feel they need it but they are not the only source of moral training.
    - You don’t steal because it is wrong.
    - You don’t smack your neighbor because it is wrong.

    You don’t need a church, temple or mosque official to tell you that.

    “In God We Trust” is on our money and “Under God” is in the pledge for ONE reason – the “We are not godless communists and we will prove it by changing our money and pledge” McCarthy era.

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/QPPACAGRVCDIWM44CLO2OKOTXM Joshua

      Why don’t you steal? Who says it is wrong? What determines if stealing is wrong or not? If it is human reason, well that changes over time. It it were imbedded in human nature that stealing is wrong, then why do children do it as infants/toddlers without any presuppostitions indoctrinated upon them. The only moral compass for an atheist is himself. I for one would rather have the Bible as my standard than any one including myself because man is innately selfish.

      • bananajamm1

        No one said that morality is embedded in human nature. What is embedded in human behavior is the ability to learn, grow, and flourish within a community. Once a human being has learned to function within these parameters, he/she knows that destructive behavior would hurt the group. As a member of the group, he/she doesn’t want to upset its balance. Also, after experiencing individual suffering, one can develop compassion for the suffering of others. Therefore, learning and development formulate morality. No Bible verses needed. 
        If you need a book to tell you not to hit people, you are a husk of a human being. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/joel.cooper.1656 Joel Cooper

    I enjoyed the show about Robert Ingersoll today. I especially appreciated that the guest, Susan Jacoby, refused to allow Tom Ashbrook to rudely interrupt her before she had finished making her point. I reluctantly listen to On Point because I know that Mr. Ashbrook will interrupt his guests. I tune-in to listen to what the expert guests have to say – not the opinions/interpretations of the show host. Diane Rehm and Neal Conan are examples of show hosts that guide the discussion but do not control the conversation.

    • http://www.facebook.com/nielsen.ben Ben Nielsen

      I understand your reaction, but I think that Tom’s ability to keep conversations focused and “on point” is what makes him such an amazing moderator. Like everything, facilitating is a balancing-act, and the sweet spot is not universally agreed upon.

    • Gordon Green

      I disagree.  I think it takes a certain amount of prodding on the part of the moderator to keep guests from glibly reciting their familiar talking points.  Maybe Chris Matthews takes it a bit too far, but I think Tom has it about right.

      • onan

        Some of this interruption is a function of the interviewer and and interviewee being in separate studios, unable to avail themselves of visual conversational clues. 

        Even so, there is a tendency in this modern American culture – characterized by increasing impatience, shorter attention span, coarsened discourse and manners, and sense of entitlement -to interrupt others in mid-sentence.

        Regarding interrupting, consider the first “debate” between Romney and Obama.  Media bloviators gave Obama grief for his performance.  Romney set the standard for subsequent debates, what with his repeatedly interrupting Obama.  Of course Romney, a former CEO, accustomed to firing and berating and interrupting subordinates with impunity, would find it hard to break that admirable habit.

  • fornasaro

    Having a 2 and a 4 year old. I find it even easier to insert moral teaching without the use of any specific religion. It is important for me that my children understand that everybody is different and all believes (and people for that matter) should be respected. And especially that we should not expect for any miraculous fix to help ourselves or others. Its we who should take action.  

  • Melosobo

    How come US presidents, when they take an oath as such, swear over a bible instead of doing that over the US Constitution document, which they are expected to uphold?. Is this not a violation of the separation between state and church?

    • Gordon Green

      Melosobo raises a great question.  I find all these winks and nods to organized religion to be distasteful at best.  Swearing on the constitution would be much more appropriate for our country, founded as it is on the idea that freedom of religion and freedom from religion are interdependent.

    • sea1851

      It is not a violation of church-state separation, it is a matter of choice and of ancient custom. No President-elect is under any Constitutional obligation to swear on a Bible, or use the phrase “so help me God.” Franklin Pierce did not swear, but affirmed, as the Constitution allows. And he placed his hand on a volume of law, not a Bible. There is strong evidence that Thomas Jefferson may have pronounced affirmation rather than swearing, and as he was technically not a Christian, it is more likely that he didn’t swear upon a Christian Bible. President-elect John Quincy Adams, a deeply religious man, makes no mention in his memoirs of having used a Bible or of uttering the extra phrase, “so help me God.” Every President-elect is at perfect liberty to forego extra-Constitutional usages at his swearing-in, or retain them, as he sees fit.

  • nj_v2

    I enjoyed this program!

  • Bruce94

    Thanks On Point for two substantive hours of programming back-to-back this morning. 

    Kind of scary to learn that 25% of Americans still take the Bible literally.  That stat hasn’t moved much in the past few decades and is indicative of what I view as the “dumbing down” of America exemplified by certain groups (typically on the Far-Right fringe) who deny among other things the validity of anthropogenic global warming and evolution–a symptom of an anti-science, anti-rational and anti-empirical attitude that disguises itself as healthy skepticism, but in fact serves to resist progress in not only ethical, but also economic as well as political realms.

    As far as the moral capacity of non-believers is concerned, I have taken time to look at some of the anecdotal data and research that supports the view that Christians as a group behave no differently than anyone else including atheists in moral terms.  The conclusion reached by many investigators like William Lobdell is that organized religion makes little or no difference in how we treat one another.  If this is true, the question then arises, “what good is religion?”

    Historically, the evidence suggests that in the West, if we’ve seen any moral progress at all, it has occurred not because of religion, but in spite of it.  By progress I mean the idea of democracy; the elimination of cruel punishments; equal rights for racial and ethnic minorities, women and gays; the acceptance of education and health care as human rights; and humane treatment of animals.  And to the caller who mistakenly wants to merge religion and science, you need to look a century or so before Newton to get an inkling of what that proposition would involve–recall the “Galileo Affair?”

    IMO the impetus for many of these changes came from secular reason, not from religion, which either played no role or opposed these advances.  The philosophers of classical Greece and Athens and, later, those of the Enlightenment contributed more to our moral progress than the rise of dogmatic monotheism which in many instances led to intolerance (and still does in  extreme evangelical communities). 

    • anon

      I think that you’re making the same mistake so many make… equating ‘religion’ with ‘Christianity’. The Galileo affair was a feature of Christianity. During the ‘dark ages’ of Europe, scientists in Muslim countries (including southern Europe) were flourishing, and it was BECAUSE – not in spite of – their religion. Many of the later scientific discoveries in the rest of Europe came about after they translated their books from Arabic. Christianity may not be compatible with science, but that doesn’t mean that the same is true of all religions.

      Hospitals and universities in the Muslim world were financed by waqfs (Islamic trusts). For schools, the buildings, books, salaries and stipends for students, etc. were covered. As for hospitals, they covered everything from salaries to medicines to buildings… (Almost 1000 years ago, every Islamic city had several hospitals.) Some waqfs involved public kitchens where food was prepared and distributed to the poor; there were even waqfs set up to take care of animals. (In Damascus, there was an area set aside to take care of old horses and another for cats…)

      • Bruce94

        Thanks for the thoughtful reply.  I agree that “not all religions are incompatible with science.”  And I certainly didn’t intend for my comment to apply to various forms of spirituality that don’t come under the rubric of “organized religion” where one seeks a relationship with an exclusive “personal God.”

        My comment did specify moral progress that has taken place “in the West” and, hence, was deliberately confined to Western culture and its major religious tradition–Christianity. 

        The role of religion in the development of scientific methodology in the Muslim countries is a subject with which I’m not very familiar.  If your observations are correct, it would appear that the relationship between the early Islamic institutions and their scientific thinkers was quite different from that seen in the Western world under Christianity.

        In any case, the scientific contributions of the “Islamic golden age” in general and that of Ibn al-Haytham in particular have been well documented and pre-dated Galileo and Kepler by  hundreds of years.          

        • anon

          Thanks for your thoughtful reply, too. I had meant to acknowledge that you said ‘in the West’ but forgot…

    • Jolanta1

      Wow, I wish there were more thinkers like you…

  • JT Gould

    Thoroughly enjoyed today’s program. The guest was very engaging and very passionate about the subject matter. Very interested in now reading the book as I was never aware of Mr. Ingersoll.  

  • http://twitter.com/TominousTone Thomas Lawson

    Churchill said “History is written by the victors.” Ingersoll’s quick and quiet vanishing act from the record of American history goes to show that the history of non-belief is stricken by the vicars.

  • dlhouse51

    Susan Jacoby’s description of Darwinism as the catalyst for the split between fundamentalism and liberal (mainstream) Christianity was spot on.   She mentioned how this split laid the foundation for the partisanship that divides our political landscape today, 150 years after “Origin of the Species” was published.

    Fundamentalists at the turn of the last century were adamant in the belief that if scientific theory contradicted the text of the Bible, the theory had to be wrong unless it could be proven “in the lab”.   The fundamentalist argument at the time, and still put forth, is that if science can prove one part of the Bible is in error, then the whole authority of scripture is in doubt.

    What is astonishing is that many fundamentalist leaders are using this argument to discount the science of climate change.  The new version of the argument holds that the computer models of climate change are not provable in a lab environment and are based on erroneous premises.  The only true premise, according to this argument, is that God would never create a resource for our economic advancement (fossil fuels) that would damage His creation. 

    To that argument, fundamentalists like E. Calvin Beisner of the Cornwall Alliance, add that the ecology movement is really an effort to return the world to nature worship and is, therefore, evil.  

    The Cornwall Alliance is actively promoting resistance to policy efforts aimed at reducing human causes of climate change.  The alliance has created a program entitled “Resisting the Green Dragon” urging Christians to reject governmental interference in the production and use of fossil fuels.  The program labels the ecology movement as “of the dragon”, a reference to the beast metaphor for Satan in the New Testament book of Revelations. 

    When religion labels science as of the devil, it makes it very difficult to foster consensus on a practical way to respond to potential catastrophes projected as a result of scientific research.   The major danger of this 150 year old American Christian schism is its potential to derail a conversion from fossil fuels to renewable energy.   This is a much greater problem than arguing whether or not a belief in God is necessary for the development of an individuals ethics.

    David Lee House
    Renewable Energy Implementation Strategist
    Rehoboth, MA

  • PithHelmut

    I don’t feel obligated to be cordial about religion. It is what has kept mankind down and continues to do so. I do know that there is no god.  If we must not be so confident then should we also keep an open mind as to fairies and leprechauns?  Religion belief is egotistical and infantile. I don’t understand why theists believe god made us but never ask who made god?  It really doesn’t solve the problem at all.

    • Duras

      The promotion of critical thinking will at the very least moderate religious attitudes.  Humiliation tends to turn modest believers into fundamentalists.


  • Duras

    Gallup says that 1/3 of Americans believe the Bible is literally true.


  • Heather Hough

    Susan Jacoby, free thinker? Your chains are rattling. 

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/QPPACAGRVCDIWM44CLO2OKOTXM Joshua

    Puzzling. I don’t understand why atheists even care about
    religion. If a person truly believes that there is no God, why does he actively try to persuade anyone otherwise, as Ingersoll was portrayed to do on the broadcast? After all, his motto should be “let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15:32). The argument that current religion imposes upon the irreligious is groundless unless the atheist bases his worldview on his own human reason. In such case, the real controversy is between opposing gods: the God of the Bible and the atheist himself (who is exalted as god since the atheist is the source of all truth). Therefore, an atheist is not a free thinker, but one who is bound to the worldview that he conceives to be true which is always relative and flawed by selfishness. Born again Christians freed from such bondage are able to know truth (in John 14:6 Jesus says, “I am the truth”) and have a personal relationship with the true God (John 17:3, “this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God”). Hence, born-again Christians are the only “free” thinkers.

    • Mia Bostic

       Atheists do not “Believe” there is no God. Atheism = without beliefs. Since there is no scientific evidence for a God’s existence it is non-existent to them.

      I think the only reasons they actively try to make people change their belief system is because they don’t like how parents indoctrinate their children to their own belief systems without given a choice.

      • http://profile.yahoo.com/QPPACAGRVCDIWM44CLO2OKOTXM Joshua

        Your accusation about parenting assumes that an atheist parent is somehow not indoctrinating his child with his own belief system of atheism. An atheist worldview excludes the religious worldview and removes choice as well. All parents indoctrinate or teach, the difference is what they teach.

        • http://twitter.com/TominousTone Thomas Lawson

          Joshua, do not forsake the substance for the shadow. Do not discard the compass of reason and navigate by the fog of faith.

          • http://profile.yahoo.com/QPPACAGRVCDIWM44CLO2OKOTXM Joshua

            I would contend that the atheist worldview is equally a life of faith as my Christian worldview. The atheist puts all his trust in the evidence he can “only see” which is a very small sphere. Therefore, it is the atheist who lacks clarity in reason because of his limitations.

          • Duras

            No, the difference is that atheists put little to no value in believe and no value at all in faith.   What you are essentially saying is that the believer’s imagination can perceive worlds not understood through the senses.  As an atheist, I find that egotistical and delusional.  And it is not like atheists can’t imagine anything–just look up theoretical scientists.

    • http://twitter.com/memeweaver mike williams

      “Puzzling. I don’t understand why atheists even care about

      religion.” Not all puzzling. Religionists try to set much of the social agenda based on their particular beliefs. Religious organisations are exempt from tax in most jurisdictions and funnel substantial funds towards political lobbying. There is a great deal of care to take about religion.

  • Stop_making_sense

    What are you talking about? Not believing in God = being God? Not believing in God = believing oneself to be the source of all truth?  Basing a worldview on own human reason (which some, not incidentally, might say is God-given) = exalting oneself as God? Using human reason leads to not being a free thinker? Using human reason makes one selfish?  Born Again Christians are freed from the bondage of human reason? Being Born Again gives one a fast, not to mention exclusive, track to The Truth?  I’ll take human reason any day over a chain of “reasons” that seem to be devoid of it. 

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/QPPACAGRVCDIWM44CLO2OKOTXM Joshua

      Sure. I believe this logic goes, “Human Reason is the only way to find truth. And this statement is reasonable. Therefore, Human Reason is the only way to find truth.” My contenction is that your presupposition that reason is the only path to truth defines for you what legitimate evidence is.That amounts to faith.

      • albert_hofmann_jr

         I have read your other comments and I will start by saying, you are one seriously screwed up individual. Now on to your comment.You believe wrong. Reason, and respect for/and use of reason is a guide to help us find truth. What you describe here pertains more to the ancient Greeks.
         And yes we, unlike you respect evidence which is why we do not believe in god, any of them, because there is no evidence for any god. Wrong again, faith by definition is belief without evidence. And that is why faith is to important to religion, because it has no evidence for any of it’s core beliefs.
         Take for example Noah’s flood. Not a single piece of evidence has been found to support that. Therefor you must apply faith. Think about that. A kind loving creator god who said it was all good. Then a few hundred years later he changes his mind and destroys everything. Commits genocide against how ever many 100,000′s or perhaps millions of people. But that’s not good enough for the kind loving god of Abraham, he has to kill all plants and animal life too. If he is so smart why didn’t he simply send a plague to kill, just the evil humans? You know like he did to Egypt. Why did all plant and animal life have to suffer?
          Faith? OK, you have faith that a man can live in the belly of a big fish for 3 days. In a bath acids and digestive enzymes? At depths that would killed him from cold, not to count pressure? Imagine if that fish dove a few hundred feet then suddenly rose to the surface. Now we have nitrogen narcosis, the bends. And let’s mot forget simple suffocation. If the fable of Jack and the Beanstalk where in the bible instead of this story would you know the difference? Of course not. You would believe that equally. Pay attention now I will tell you a secret. It’s called reason, and evidence. That is to say respect for reason and evidence. That seems to be a foreign concept to you specifically, and religious people in general.
         Good luck man, I hope you find the help so badly need. Actually you have already started to find it, right here, with my remarks and those of others who have posted similar comments.

  • jer_dna

    people believe in God than want to admit. Picture yourself on your deathbed.
    You’re going to die in a few days or a few hours. You have said all your
    goodbyes to friends and relatives. The room is empty. What thoughts will you
    think? “God, if you exist


    • Duras

      Yup, so many people look for that loophole out of death. 

    • Garland DeGreeff

      I agree. That’S what happened to me when I thought I would die 8 yrs ago. No matter if a beloved is holding your hand, you are alone. I also want my son to be able to believe he will see us, if he should see us dying or be dying himself.

    • http://www.facebook.com/art.rigsby Art Rigsby

       jer_dna, you are actually wrong. More people are atheist but are afraid to admit it because of the backlash at the job, from the family and society in general. Why in the world, in our religious country, would a person not admit they believed in God?

    • droop

      what nonsense.  I went through a terrible medical crisis a few years ago.  Family was called in to say goodbye.  I survived thanks to wonderful medical advances.  Never once during this time did I think “god, if you exist …”  If you need that kind of stuff in your life, you are welcome to it, but stop trying to tell the rest of us what we believe.  I couldn’t care less if during your final hours as you slip into oblivion you have to call on your invisible friend, and I want the same respect from you.

      • jer_dna

        Hey friend, I’m not trying to convert you.  I respect you even if you don’t believe.  I’m not saying all people turn to God on their deathbed — I do think most do.  Anyway I thank God you’re still alive so we can have this chat.  Hope we have another chat on the other side.  :)  peace

  • msrichards

    There are plenty of atheists in foxholes, her-dna, and I have been at the deathbeds of two in recent years.
    They did not call for a god in whom they had no belief.
    They were matter-of-fact about the process, just as they had been throughout their lives.
    They wished things were different, but as my sister said when she was dying at age 56, “this happens every day.”

  • IowaOPFan

    I don’t believe in religion.  I have no knowledge of God and I don’t believe that anyone else does either.  The creation of the universe is beyond human comprehension.  People fill the void by creating God in man’s image.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/QPPACAGRVCDIWM44CLO2OKOTXM Joshua

    To albert_hofmann_jr & Duras. I’m assuming that most commenter’s are no longer looking at this, but I will respond for future readers. I agree that reason is a guide to help on find truth, but unlike secular humanists, it should not be the ultimate standard for truth. However, you are incorrect about your definition of Biblical faith as belief without evidence. Hebrews 11:1 states that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” There is plenty of evidence for faith; you have chosen to reject such evidence.

    I will speak to Noah’s flood. Biblical creationists have accumulated and documented evidence supporting the flood, atheists choose to reject that. God placed a rainbow in the sky as a sign of his covenant with Noah that He will never flood the earth again. God did not kill all the plants and animals; he spared every “kind” in the ark. God did “kill only the evil humans.” The whole point of the ark was to make it possible for everyone to be spared. All that was necessary was for them to walk onto never before seen structure called a boat that seemed “unreasonable” because there was no evidence at the time of any flooding. The wickedness of man’s heart caused them to mock the preacher Noah for 120 years until God brought the destruction of the flood. God uses the flood as an illustration/warning of what our current day is like. People will think it is crazy and mock those who believe that God will return and judge mankind, but the flood is a reminder that God will judge sin (2 Peter 3:3-9).

    As for Jonah, a journal was put out by Harvard recounting a
    man who was found alive in the belly of a sperm whale in 1891. Quite fascinating is that the man was completely white due to the stomach acids and lost his mind for three weeks. He was comatose when they cut him out, and a whale’s stomach would not be cold, due to blood temperature being around 104 degrees. What’s supernatural about Jonah is that he was able to walk away from that and preach right away. From personal experience he could say that “Salvation
    is from the Lord” (Jonah 2:9).

    These accounts are totally different than fairy tales, because they are in the Bible. Scripture claims to be God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16); Jack & the Beanstalk has no such claim.

    Here is crux of the matter. Reason and evidence are good “tools” to understanding truth, but not the ultimate standard of truth. All truth is God’s truth. Human reason is
    fundamentally flawed by sin and always relative. Which human reason do I trust, my own or Ingersoll’s or yours. One generation thinks it’s reasonable to kill all who don’t think like them and another to kill babies as long as their in the womb. Human Reason is a subjective form of truth, which takes more faith than Christian belief. I will place my trust in the objective truth of God’s Word.

    Here is crux of the matter. Reason and evidence are good “tools” to understanding truth, but not the ultimate standard of truth. All truth is God’s truth. Human reason is
    fundamentally flawed by sin and always relative. Which human reason do I trust, my own or Ingersoll’s or yours. One generation thinks it’s reasonable to kill all who don’t think like them and another to kill babies as long as their in the womb. Human Reason is a subjective form of truth, which takes more faith than Christian belief. I will place my trust in the objective truth of God’s Word.

    • Bibliodrone

       This talk of “proof” in support of Biblical literalism brings to mind that old quote: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

      • http://profile.yahoo.com/QPPACAGRVCDIWM44CLO2OKOTXM Joshua

        No facts are changed to support Biblical literalism. However, human reason views such facts through a clouded window of flawed, unobjective bias.

        • Bibliodrone

          “No facts are changed to support Biblical literalism…” Well, yes, that’s the whole point. They can’t be changed to support biblical literalism.

          Also, when it comes to “flawed, unobjective bias”, that could just as easily apply to you as to anyone else, but that’s irrelevant anyway, because your statement adds nothing factual to your premise.

          • http://profile.yahoo.com/QPPACAGRVCDIWM44CLO2OKOTXM Joshua

            I don’t disagree that I have a presuppostion; however, my presupposition is not flawed or unobjective. My ultimate truth is not human reason but the objective (outside myself), truth of God’s Word.
            The facts are that human reason views “facts” and incorrectly interprets them because his only source of truth is himself and what he can see. No one can refute that human reason is flawed or relative; just look at how it changes what it considers good or moral over time. God has given us His Word to answer what seems unseeable & unreasonable.

          • Bibliodrone

            I think we will have to agree to disagree. You place your religious beliefs in the category of “Ultimate Truth”, a position which is not “objective” nor a subject amenable to a “factual” discussion. I’ve no problem with an individual’s faith, but if we can’t agree on the meaning of words like “fact” and “truth”, or “faith” for that matter, well, Suum cuique.

  • Kentnek

    Wow Josh! You are using the fictional text of the bible as your reference to evidence…  of an “Ultimate standard of Truth”. Nice trick. Then I see your dogma stick comes out and you start beating yourself with the truthyness … someone else has taught you. Good Boy.
         More reliable would be an account of your own spiritual experience(s) as a Hooman Been, that truth of existing, we might all relate to. But now let me take a turn at conjecture.

    God was the invention of man’s ego. Most likely as an attempt to soothe the pain of others after some tragic loss. But as an invention of man, God was quickly employed as a tool to manipulate others… (for their own good, naturally).

    This next natural progression based on man’s psychological development would be religion. The made up rules of “carrot and stick” incomplete but with lots of stories and rituals that God would naturally have outlined for his “special contacts” on earth… an army of priests and profits would volunteer.

    Religion – a natural path to power,manipulation and contradiction. But that’s enough conjecture for now….

    Interesting that some today are trying to include -not comparative religion_ but Christianity as part of school curriculum in the face of statistics that suggest that the more education people achieve – the less likely they are to believe in god.

    I don’t understand when statistics like that turnout to be accurate why people don’t blame God for it.

    • Dan Ortiz

      perhaps you should share you statistics with us to see if your conclusions are exegetical and not eisegetical.

Aug 20, 2014
A man holds his hands up in the street after a standoff with police Monday, Aug. 18, 2014, during a protest for Michael Brown, who was killed by a police officer Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Mo. (AP)

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