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The Great Agnostic: Introduction
Act 1. Robert G. Ingersoll, Speaker: Unitarian Club Dinner, New York City, 1882
Act II. Correspondence
Act III. Concluding Statement
The Great Agnostic   Act 1: Unitarian Club Dinner

A staged reading of the ideas of Robert G. Ingersoll, 1833–1899

Arranged by LeRoy Owens, 1997.

Robert G. Ingersoll, Speaker
Unitarian Club Dinner
New York City, 1882

INGERSOLL (addressing audience):

robert ingersoll Mr. President, Ladies and Gentlemen: In the first place, I wish to tender my thanks to this club for having generosity and sense enough to invite me to speak this evening. It is probably the best thing the club has ever done. You have shown that you are not afraid of a man simply because he does not happen to agree entirely with you, although in a very general way it may be said that I come within one of you.

So I think, not only that you have honored me — that, I most cheerfully and gratefully admit — but, upon my word, I think that you have honored yourselves. And imagine the distance the religious world has traveled in the last few years to make a thing of this kind possible! You know — I presume every one of you knows — that I have no religion — not enough to last a minute — none whatever — that is, in the ordinary sense of that word. And yet you have become so nearly civilized that you are willing to hear what I have to say; and I have become so nearly civilized that I am willing to say what I think.

And, in the second place, let me say that I have great respect for the Unitarian Church. I have great respect for the memory of Theodore Parker. I have great respect for every man who has assisted in relieving the heavens of an infinite monster. I have great respect for every man who has helped to put out the fires of hell. In other words, I have great respect for every man who has tried to civilize my race.

The Unitarian Church has done more than any other church — and maybe more than all other churches — to substitute character for creed, and to say that a man should be judged by his spirit; by the climate of his heart; by the autumn of his generosity; by the spring of his hope; that he should be judged by what he does; by the influence that he exerts, rather than by the mythology he may believe. And whether there be one God or a million, I am perfectly satisfied that every duty that devolves upon me is within my reach, it is something that I can do myself, without the help of anybody else, either in this world or any other.

Now, in order to make myself plain on this subject — I think I was to speak about the Ideal — I want to thank the Unitarian Church for what it has done; and I want to thank the Universalist Church, too. They at least believe in a god who is a gentleman; and that is much more than was ever done by an orthodox church. They believe, at least, in a heavenly father who will leave the latch string out until the last child gets home; and as that lets me in — especially in reference to the "last" — I have great respect for that church.

But now I am coming to the Ideal; and in what I may say you may not all agree. I hope you won't, because that would be to me evidence that I am wrong. You cannot expect everybody to agree in the right, and I cannot expect to be always in the right myself. I have to judge with the standard called my reason, and I do not know whether it is right or not; I will admit that. But as opposed to any other man's, I will bet on mine. That is to say, for home use. In the first place, I think it is said in some book — and if I am wrong there are plenty here to correct me — that "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." I think a knowledge of the limitations of the human mind is the beginning of wisdom, and, I may almost say, the end of it — really to understand yourself.

The gods that were first made after the image of man were not made after the pattern of very good men; but they were good men according to the standard of that time, because, as I will show you in a moment, all these things are relative. The qualities or things that we call mercy, justice, charity and religion are all relative. There was a time when the victor on the field of battle was exceedingly merciful if he failed to eat his prisoner; he was regarded as a very charitable gentleman if he refused to eat the man he had captured in battle. Afterward he was regarded as an exceedingly benevolent person if he would spare a prisoner's life and make him a slave.

So that — but you all know it as well as I do or you would not be Unitarians — all this has been simply a growth from year to year, from generation to generation, from age to age. And let me tell you the first thing about these gods that they made after the image of men. After a time there were men on the earth who were better than these gods in heaven.

Now, in a little while, I say, men got better than their gods. Then the gods began to die. Then we began to find out a few things in nature, and we found out that we were supporting more gods than were necessary — that fewer gods could do the business — and that, from an economical point of view, expenses ought to be cut down. There were too many temples, too many priests, and you always had to give tithes of something to each one, and these gods were about to eat up the substance of the world.

And there came a time when it got to that point that either the gods would eat up the people or the people must destroy some gods, and of course they destroyed the gods — one by one and in their places they put forces of nature to do the business — forces of nature that needed no church, that needed no theologians; forces of nature that you are under no obligation to; that you do not have to pay anything to keep working. We found that the attraction of gravitation would attend to its business, night and day, at its own expense. There was a great saving. I wish it were the same with all kinds of law, so that we could all go into some useful business, including myself.

So day by day, they dispensed with this expense of deities; and the world got along just as well — a good deal better. They used to think — a community thought — that if a man was allowed to say a word against a deity, the god would visit his vengeance upon the entire nation. But they found out, after a while, that no harm came of it; so they went on destroying the gods. Now, all these tings are relative; and they made gods a little better all the time — I admit that — till we struck the Presbyterian, which is probably the worst ever made. The Presbyterians seem to have bred back.

Now, I say that we have advanced up to the point that we demand not only intelligence, but justice and mercy, in the sky; we demand that — that idea of God. Then comes my trouble. I want to be honest about it. Here is my trouble — and I want it also understood that if I should see a man praying to a stone image or to a stuffed serpent, with that man's wife or daughter or son lying at the point of death, and that poor savage on his knees imploring that image or that stuffed serpent to save his child or his wife, there is nothing in my heart that could suggest the slightest scorn, or any other feeling than that of sympathy; any other feeling than that of grief that the stuffed serpent could not answer the prayer and that the stone image did not feel; I want that understood. And wherever man prays for the right — no matter to whom or to what he prays; where he prays for strength to conquer the wrong, I hope his prayer may be heard; and if I think there is no one else to hear it I will hear it, and I am willing to help answer it to the extent of my power.

This plan is this: Life feeds on life. Justice does not always triumph. Innocence is not a perfect shield. There is my trouble. No matter now, whether you agree with me or not; I beg of you to be honest and fair with me in your thought, as I am toward you in mine.

I hope, as devoutly as you, that there is a power somewhere in this universe that will finally bring everything as it should be. I take a little consolation in the "perhaps" — in the guess that this is only one scene of a great drama, and that when the curtain rises of the fifth act, if I live that long, I may see the coherence and the relation of things. But up to the present writing — or speaking — I do not. I do not understand — a God that has life feed on life; every joy in the world born of some agony! I do not understand why in this world, over the Niagara of cruelty, should run this ocean of blood. I do not understand it. And, then, why does not justice always triumph? Why is not innocence a perfect shield? These are my troubles.

Now, understand me! I do not say there is no god. I do not know. As I told you before, I have traveled but very little — only in this world.

I do not see — admitting that all is true that has been said about the existence of God — I do not see what I can do for him; and I do not see either what he can do for me, judging by what he has done for others.

Now, then, what is religion? I say, religion is all here in this world — right here — and that all our duties are right here to our fellow-men; that the man that builds a home; marries the girl that he loves; takes good care of her; likes the family; stays home nights, as a general thing; pays his debts; tries to find out what he can; gets all the ideas and beautiful things that his mind will hold; turns a part of his brain into a gallery of fine arts; has a host of paintings and statues there; then has another niche devoted to music — a magnificent dome, filled with winged notes that rise to glory — now the man who does that gets all he can from the great ones dead; swaps all the thoughts he can with the ones that are alive; true to the ideal that he has here in his brain — he is what I call a religious man, because he makes the world better, happier; the puts the dimples of joy in the cheeks of the ones he loves, and he lets the gods run heaven to suit themselves. And I am not saying that he is right; I do not know.

This is all the religion that I have; to make somebody else happier if I can.

(Ingersoll turns down the podium light and quietly goes to his desk.)

BAKER (from his desk, to audience):

My name is Newton Baker. I was the personal secretary to Bob Ingersoll for many years. After his death in 1899, I continued to work on his personal papers.

Since the passing of this great and good, this loving and lovable man, many eloquent tributes to his memory have been written and spoken. These tributes have come from all parts of the world and from all classes and conditions of men. They have reflected through the press, the platform, the pulpit and private correspondence the general and genuine esteem and admiration in which Mr. Ingersoll was held. Many who opposed, or seemed to oppose, his religious views, and resented, or seemed to resent, his manner of expressing them, have in their finer moods, unheated by the fires of controversy, admitted and admired the strength and sincerity of his convictions, the wonderful way in which he maintained them, and the purity and exaltation of his character and purpose. Even theological bitterness was silenced in the presence of death, or turned, as in some instances, into generous eulogium. Magnanimous foes whom he had defeated in the forum of debate, conceded the greatness and goodness of the man and acknowledged the magnitude and value of the work he did in the world.

My acquaintance with Mr. Ingersoll began soon after the death of his brother Ebon, and while the immortal words spoken at the funeral were still thrilling through the world. Literature has no parallel to this tribute by a brother living to a brother dead. These brothers were lovers, and never failed each day on reaching their office to give a warm embrace. The sign they first hung out as law partners became a sacred thing to Robert, and in all his changes of location, from Peoria to Washington, to New York — wherever he chanced to be — he kept that modest little sign in constant view from the desk in his private office.

I entered this office in 1879 as Mr. Ingersoll's secretary, and remained with him continuously until in 1892, a period of nearly fourteen years. During all this time it was my privilege to be with him in business hours, in days of leisure, of travel and of social intercourse, to be honored by his friendship, entrusted with his confidence, and, with my wife, enrolled almost a member of that beautiful family of which he was creator and inspirer, sun and shield.

As a young lawyer in Illinois Mr. Ingersoll quickly rose to eminence. In a few short years he attained to the highest office in his profession, the Attorney Generalship of the State — a State that has given to the Nation many of her legal and intellectual giants. He won wide fame in his trial of the celebrated Munn case and of other legal contests in Illinois. Coming to the Nation's capital his ability as a lawyer was at once recognized and he entered upon a large and lucrative practice. This practice was for the most part and by preference in the Executive Departments, although he was frequently in the United States Supreme and District Courts.

The Capital, a leading journal in Washington, commenting on Colonel Ingersoll's closing address to the Jury: "The most characteristic feature of the trial was the marvelously powerful speech of Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll before the Jury and the Judge. People who knew this gifted gentleman only superficially, had supposed that he was merely superficial as a lawyer. While acknowledging his remarkable ability as an orator, and his vast accomplishments as a speaker, they doubted the depth of his power. They heard him, and the doubt ceased. It can be said of Ingersoll, as was written of Castelar, that his eloquent utterances are as the finely-fashioned ornamental designs on a Damascus blade — the blade cuts as keenly, and the embellishments beautify without retarding its power."

Thomas A. Edison said this about Ingersoll: "I think that Ingersoll had all the attributes of a perfect man, and, in my opinion, no finer personality ever existed. Judging from the past, I cannot help thinking that the intention of the Supreme Intelligence that rules the world is to ultimately make such a type of man universal."

Bob Ingersoll was often asked, "Why are you an agnostic?" He answered that question in speeches he gave throughout his life. . . .

INGERSOLL (Moves to podium, turns up light, and speaks excerpts from speeches):

For the most part we inherit our opinions. We are the heirs of habits and mental customs. Our beliefs, like the fashion of our garments, depend on where we were born. We are moulded and fashioned by our surroundings.

Environment is a sculptor — a painter.

The Scotch are Calvinists because their fathers were. The Irish are Catholics because their fathers were. The English are Episcopalians because their fathers were, and the Americans are divided in a hundred sects because their fathers were. This is the general rule, to which there are many exceptions. Children sometimes are superior to their parents, modify their ideas, change their customs, and arrive at different conclusions. But this is generally so gradual that the departure is scarcely noticed, and those who change usually insist that they are still following the fathers.

Like the most of you, I was raised among people who know — who were certain. They did not reason or investigate. They had no doubts. They knew that they had the truth. In their creed there was no guess — no perhaps. They had a revelation from God. they knew the beginning of things. They knew that God commenced to create one Monday morning, four thousand and four years before Christ. They knew that in the eternity — back of that morning, he had done nothing. They knew that it took him six days to make the earth — all plants, all animals, all life, and all the globes that wheel in space. They knew exactly what he did each day and when he rested. They knew the origin, the cause of evil, of all crime, of all disease and death.

They not only knew the beginning, but they knew the end. They knew that life had one path and one road. They knew that the path, grass-grown and narrow, filled with thorns and nettles, infested with vipers, wet with tears, stained by bleeding feet, led to heaven, and that the road, broad and smooth, bordered with fruits and flowers, filled with laughter and song and all the happiness of human love, led straight to hell. They knew that God was doing his best to make you take the path and that the Devil used every art to keep you in the road.

They knew that there was a perpetual battle waged between the great Powers of good and evil for the possession of human souls. They knew that many centuries ago God had left his throne and had been born a babe into this poor world — that he had suffered death for the sake of man — for the sake of saving a few. They also knew that the human heart was utterly depraved, so that man by nature was in love with wrong and hated God with all his might.

At the same time they knew that God created man in his own image and was perfectly satisfied with his work. They also knew that he had been thwarted by the Devil, who with wiles and lies had deceived the first of human kind. They knew that in consequence of that, God cursed the man and woman; the man with toil, the woman with slavery and pain, and both with death; and that he cursed the earth itself with briers and thorns, brambles and thistles.

They knew too, that he drowned the beasts and birds — everything that walked or crawled or flew — because his loving kindness is over all his works. They knew that God, for the purpose of civilizing his children, had devoured some with earthquakes, destroyed some with storms of fire, killed some with his lightnings, millions with famine, with pestilence, and sacrificed countless thousands upon the fields of war. They knew that it was necessary to believe these things and to love god. They knew that there could be no salvation except by faith, and through the atoning blood of Jesus Christ.

All who doubted or denied would be lost. To live a moral and honest life — to keep your contracts, to take care of wife and child — to make a happy home — to be a good citizen, a patriot, a just and thoughtful man, was simply a respectable way of going to hell.

God did not reward men for being honest, generous and brave, but for the act of faith. Without faith, all the so-called virtues were sins, and the men who practiced these virtues, without faith, deserved to suffer eternal pain.

In those days ministers depended on revivals to save souls and reform the world.

In the winter, navigation having closed, business was mostly suspended. There were no railways and the only means of communication were wagons and boats. Generally the roads were so bad that the wagons were laid up with the boats. There were no operas, no theatres, no amusement except parties and balls. The parties were regarded as worldly and the balls as wicked. For real and virtuous enjoyment the good people depended on revivals.

The sermons were mostly about the pains and agonies of hell, the joys and ecstasies of heaven, salvation by faith, and the efficacy of the atonement. The little churches, in which the services were held, were generally small, badly ventilated, and exceedingly warm. The emotional sermons, the sad singing, the hysterical amens, the hope of heaven, the fear of hell, caused many to lose the little sense they had. They became substantially insane. In this condition they flocked to the "mourner's bench" — asked for the prayers of the faithful — had strange feelings, prayed and wept and thought they had been "born again." Then they would tell their experience — how wicked they had been — how evil had been their thoughts, their desires, and how good they had suddenly become.

When I was a boy I heard them tell of an old farmer in Vermont. He was dying. The minister was at his bed-side — asked him if he was a Christian — as he was prepared to die. The old man answered that he had made no preparation, that he was not a Christian — that he had never done anything but work. The preacher said that he could give him no hope unless he had faith in Christ, and that if he had no faith his soul would certainly be lost.

The old man was not frightened. He was perfectly calm. In a weak and broken voice he said: "Mr. Preacher, I suppose you noticed my farm. My wife and I came here more than fifty years ago. We were just married. It was a forest then and the land was covered with stones. I cut down the trees, burned the logs, picked up the stones and laid the walls. My wife spun and wove and worked every moment. We raised and educated our children — denied ourselves. During all these years my wife never had a good dress, or a decent bonnet. I never had a good suit of clothes. We lived on he plainest food. Our hands, our bodies are deformed by toil. We never had a vacation. We loved each other and the children. That is the only luxury we ever had. Now I am about to die and you ask me if I am prepared. Mr. Preacher, I have no fear of the future, no terror of any other world. There may be such a place as hell — but if there is, you never can make me believe that it's any worse than old Vermont."

So, they told of a man who compared himself with his dog. "My dog," he said, "just barks and plays — has all he wants to eat. He never works — has no trouble about business. In a little while he dies, and that is all. I work with all my strength. I have no time to play. I have trouble every day. In a little while I will die, and then I go to hell. I wish that I had been a dog."

Well, while the cold weather lasted, while the snows fell, the revival went on, but when the winter was over, when the steamboat's whistle was heard, when business started again, most of the converts "backslid" and fell again into their old ways.

All that the human race has suffered in war and want, in pestilence and famine, in fire and flood — all the pangs and pains of every disease and every death — all this is as nothing compared with the agonies to be endured by one lost soul.

This is the consolation of the Christian religion. This is the justice of God — the mercy of Christ.

This frightful dogma, this infinite lie, made me the implacable enemy of Christianity. The truth is that this belief in eternal pain has been the real persecutor. It founded the Inquisition, forged the chains, and furnished the fagots. It has darkened the lives of many millions. It made the cradle as terrible as the coffin. It enslaved nations and shed the blood of countless thousands. It sacrificed the wisest, the bravest and the best. It subverted the idea of justice, drove mercy from the heart, changed men to fiends and banished reason from the brain.

Like a venomous serpent it crawls and coils and hisses in every orthodox creed.

It makes man an eternal victim and God an eternal fiend. It is the one infinite horror.

Nothing could add to the horror of hell, except the presence of its creator, God.

While I have life, as long as I draw breath, I shall deny with all my strength, and hate with every drop of my blood, this infinite lie.

We have advanced. In a few years the Christians will become — let us hope — humane and sensible enough to deny the dogma that fills the endless years with pain. They ought to know now that this dogma is utterly inconsistent with the wisdom, the justice, he goodness of their God. They ought to know that their belief in hell gives to the Holy Ghost — the Dove — the beak of a vulture, and fills the mouth of the Lamb of God with the fangs of a viper.

The fact is that if you believe in an infinite God, and also in eternal punishment, then you must admit that Edwards and Calvin were absolutely right. There is no escape from their conclusions if you admit their premises. They were infinitely cruel, their premises infinitely absurd, their god infinitely fiendish, and their logic perfect.

And yet I have kindness and candor enough to say that Calvin and Edwards were both insane.

I gave up the Old Testament on account of its mistakes, its absurdities, its ignorance and its cruelty. I gave up the New because it vouched for the truth of the Old. I gave it up on account of its miracles, its contradictions, because Christ and his disciples believed in the existence of devils — talked and made bargains with them, expelled them from people and animals.

This, of itself, is enough. We know, if we know anything, that devils do not exist, that Christ never cast them out, that if he pretended to, he was either ignorant, dishonest or insane. These stories about devils demonstrate the human, the ignorant origin of the New Testament. I gave up the New Testament because it rewards credulity, and curses brave and honest men, and because it teaches the infinite horror of eternal pain.

You can imagine my surprise, my delight, when I read the poems of Robert Burns.

I was familiar with the writings of the devout and insincere, the pious and petrified, the pure and heartless. Here was a natural honest man. I knew the works of those who regarded all nature as depraved, and looked upon love as the legacy and perpetual witness of original sin. Here was a man who plucked joy from the mire, made goddesses of peasant girls, and enthroned the honest man. One whose sympathy, with loving arms, embraced all forms of suffering life, who hated slavery of every kind, who was as natural as heaven's blue, with humor kindly as autumn day, with wit as sharp as Ithuriel's spear, and scorn that blasted like the Simoon's breath. A man who loved this world, this life, the things of every day, and placed above all else the thrilling ecstasies of human love.

I had found at least a natural man, one who despised his country's cruel creed, and was brave and sensible enough to say: "All religions are auld wives' fables, but an honest man has nothing to fear, either in this world or the world to come."

One who had the genius to write Holy Willie's Prayer — a poem that crucified Calvinism and through its bloodless heart thrust the spear of common sense — a poem that made every orthodox creed the food of scorn — of inextinguishable laughter.

Burns had his faults, his frailties. He was intensely human. Still, I would rather appear at the "Judgment Seat" drunk, and be able to say that I was the author of "A man's a man for 'a that," than to be perfectly sober and admit that I had lived and died a Scotch Presbyterian.

And then I read Shakespeare, the plays, the sonnets, the poems — read all. I beheld a new heaven and a new earth; Shakespeare, who knew the brain and heart of man — the hopes and fears, the loves and hatreds, the vices and the virtues of the human race; whose imagination read the tear-blurred records, the blood-stained pages of all the past, and saw falling athwart the outspread scroll the light of hope and love; Shakespeare, who sounded every depth — while on the loftiest peak there fell the shadow of his wings.

The sacred books of all the world are worthless dross and common stones compared with Shakespeare's glittering gold and gleaming gems.

And then I read the Age of Reason, by Thomas Paine. Let me tell you something about this sublime and slandered man. He came to this country just before the Revolution. He brought a letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin, at that time the greatest American.

In Philadelphia, Paine was employed to write for the Pennsylvania Magazine. We know that he wrote at least five articles. The first was against slavery, the second against dueling, the third on the treatment of prisoners — showing that the object should be to reform, not to punish and degrade — the fourth on the rights of woman, and the fifth in favor of forming societies for the prevention of cruelty to children and animals.

From this you see that he suggested the great reforms of our century.

My attention was turned to other religions, to the sacred books, the creeds and ceremonies of other lands — of India, Egypt, Assyria, Persia, of the dead and dying nations.

I concluded that all religions had substantially the same origin, and that in fact there has never been but one religion in the world. The twigs and leaves may differ, but the trunk is the same.

I know that life is good. I remember the sunshine and rain. then I think of the earthquake and flood. I do not forget health and harvest, home and love — but what of pestilence and famine? I cannot harmonize these contradictions — these blessings and agonies — with the existence of an infinitely good, wise and powerful God.

What do we think of a man, who will not, when he has the power, protect his friends? Yet the Christian's God allowed his enemies to torture and burn his friends, his worshipers.

Who has ingenuity enough to explain this?

What good man, having the power to prevent it, would allow the innocent to be imprisoned, chained in dungeons, and sigh against the dripping walls their weary lives away?

If God governs the world, why is innocence not a perfect shield? Why does injustice triumph?

Who can answer these questions?

In answer, the intelligent, honest man must say: I do not know.

Is there a God?

I do not know.

Is man immortal?

I do not know.

One thing I do know, and that is, that neither hope nor fear, belief, nor denial, can change the fact. It is as it is, and it will be as it must be.

We wait and hope.

(Ingersoll turns down the podium light and returns to his desk.)

End Act 1: Unitarian Club Dinner

The Great Agnostic, A staged reading of the ideas of Robert G. Ingersoll in three acts
Arranged by LeRoy D. Owens, 1987


Act 1. Robert G. Ingersoll, Speaker: Unitarian Club Dinner, New York City, 1882

Act II. Correspondence

Act III. Concluding Statement
Robert Ingersoll in 3 Acts | Paul Robeson: The Meaning of Freedom | Poems
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