I finally met the man I was taught to disdain. I immediately liked him even though he’s dead and can’t hold up his end of a new friendship.
He died July 21, 1899, but his biographer, Susan Jacoby, resurrected him for me. It was like meeting an older brother I never knew I had.
I’m sorry I didn’t know him when he was packing arenas, auditoriums, and theaters and driving Christians batty, though even they bought tickets to hear him speak. He was so charismatic, courageous, and compassionate that even his opponents couldn’t stay away.
He could have been called the Great Orator if he hadn’t first been called the Great Agnostic. My childhood church repeatedly denounced him along with Charles Darwin and Harry “the Most Liberal Preacher in America” Fosdick. The Unholy Trinity.
The Great Agnostic is Robert G. Ingersoll, son of a Presbyterian minister.
Imagine my surprise to find him not only likable but admirable. There’s a statue of him in Peoria, Illinois. There should be one in front of the nation’s capitol and a plastic replica on the dashboard of your car.
Ingersoll adored Thomas Paine, Darwin, and Walt Whitman.
Like Paine, he advocated for reason over dogma.
Like Darwin, he promoted science over superstition, facts over myths.
Like Whitman, he believed in “the religion of the body”—this life, not a life here after. He spoke at Whitman’s funeral on March 30, 1892.
I loved him living; I love him still.
And much of that love was because of this line from “To a Common Prostitute” in Leaves of Grass:
Not till the sun excludes you, do I exclude you.
Whitman paid a price for his views as Ingersoll did for his. He publicly supported the socialist union-organizer Eugene V. Debs; opposed the Chinese Exclusion Act; advocated for women’s full rights, not just voting rights; defended the secular foundation of the United States against Christian nationalists.
Ingersoll was an agnostic but he was also a humanist. He believed people could be good for goodness sake.
Happiness is the only good. The place to be happy is here. The time to be happy is now. The way to be happy is to make others so. This creed is somewhat short, but it is long enough for this life, strong enough for this world. If there is another world, when we get there we can make another creed.