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Robert Ingersoll Unitarian Club

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Unitarian Club

Robert Green Ingersoll


New York, January 15, 1892.


The Ideal.

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

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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.

Now, let me lay down this proposition. The imagination of man
has the horizon of experience; and beyond experience or nature man
cannot go, even in imagination. Man is not a creator. He combines;
he adds together; he divides; he subtracts; he does not create,
even in the world of imagination. Let me make myself a little
plainer: Not one here -- not one in the wide, wide world can think
of a color that he never saw. No human being can imagine a sound
that he has not heard, and no one can think of a taste that he has
not experienced. He can add to -- that is add together -- combine;
but he cannot, by any possibility, create.

Man originally, we will say -- go back to the age of
barbarism, and you will not have to go far; our own childhood,
probably, is as far as is necessary -- but go back to what is
called the age of savagery; every man was an idealist, as every man
is to-day an idealist. Every man in savage or civilized time,
commencing with the first that ever crawled out of a cave and
pushed the hair back from his forehead to look at the sun --
commence with him and end with Judge Wright -- the last expression
on the God question -- and from that cave to the soul that lives in
this temple, everyone has been an idealist and has endeavored to
account in some way for what he saw and for what he felt; in other
words, for the phenomena of nature. The easiest way to account for
it by the rudest savage, is the way it has been accounted for
to-night. What makes the river run? There's a god in it. What makes
the tree grow? There's a god in it. What makes the star shine?
There's a god in it. What makes the sun rise? Why, he is a god
himself. And what makes the nightingale sing until the air is faint
with melody? There's a god in it.

They commenced making gods to account for everything that
happens; gods of dreams and gods of love and friend ship, and
heroism and courage. Splendid! They kept making more and more. The
more they found out in nature, up to a certain point, the more gods
they needed; and they kept on making gods until almost every wave
of the sea bore a god. Gods on every mountain, and in every vale
and field, and by every stream! Gods in flowers, gods in grass;
gods everywhere! All accounting for this world and for what
happened in this world.

Then, when they had got about to the top, when their ingenuity
had been exhausted, they had not produced anything, and they did
not produce anything beyond their own experience. We are told that
they were idolaters. That is a mistake, except in the sense that we
are all idolaters. They said, "Here is a god; let us express our
idea of him. He is stronger than a man; let us give him the body of
a lion. He is swifter than a man; let us give him the wings of an

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eagle. He is wiser than a mall" -- and when a man was very savage
he said, "let us give him the head of a serpent;" a serpent is
wonderfully wise; he travels without feet; he climbs without claws;
he lives without food, and he is of the simplest conceivable form.

And that was simply to represent their idea of power, of
swiftness, of wisdom. And yet this impossible monster was simply
made of what man had seen in nature, and he put the various
attributes or parts together by his imagination. He created
nothing. He simply took these parts of certain beasts, when beasts
were supposed to be superior to man in some particulars, and in
that way expressed his thought.

You go into the territory of Arizona to-day, and you will find
there pictures of God. He was clothed in stone, through which no
arrow could pierce, and so they called God the Stone-Shirted whom
no Indian could kill. That was for the simple and only reason that
it was impossible to get an arrow through his armor. They got the
idea from the armadillo.

Now, I am simply saying this to show that they were making
gods for all these centuries, and making them out of something they
found in nature. Then, after they got through with the beast
business, they made gods after the image of man; and they are the
best gods, so far as I know, that have been made.

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.

Then those gods began to die, one after another, and dropped
from their thrones. The time will probably come in the history of
this world when an insurance company can calculate the average life
of gods as well as they do now of men; because all these gods have
been made by folks. And, let me say right here, the folks did the
best they could. I do not blame them. Everybody in the business has
always done his best. I admit it. I admit that man has traveled
from the first conception up to Unitarianism by a necessary road.
Under the conditions he could have come up in no other way. I admit
all that. I blame nobody.

But I am simply trying to tell, in a very feeble manner, how
it is.

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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 things 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.

But no matter. As man became more just, or nearer just, as he
became more charitable, or nearer charitable, his god grew to be a
little better and a little better. He was very bad in Geneva -- the
three that we then had. They were very bad in Scotland -- horrible!
Very bad in New England -- infamous! I might as well tell the truth
about it -- very bad! And then men went to work, finally, to
civilize their gods, to civilize heaven, to give heaven the benefit
of the freedom of this brave world. That's what we did. We wanted
to civilize religion -- civilize what is known as Christianity. And
nothing on earth needed civilization more; and nothing needs it
more than that to-night. Civilization! I am not so much for the
freedom of religion as I am for the religion of freedom.

Now, there was a time when our ancestors -- good people, away
back, all dead, no great regret expressed at this meeting on that
account -- there was a time when our ancestors were happy in their
belief that nearly everybody was to be lost, and that a few,
including themselves, were to be saved. That religion, I say,
fitted that time. It fitted their geology. It was a very good
running mate for their astronomy. It was a good match for their
chemistry. In other words, they were about equal in every
department of human ignorance.

And they insisted that there lived up there somewhere --
generally up -- exactly where nobody has, I believe, yet said -- a

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being, an infinite person "without body, parts, or passions," and
yet without passions he was angry at the wicked every day; without
body he inhabited a certain place; and without parts he was, after
all, in some strange and miraculous manner, organized so that he

And I don't know that it is possible for anyone here -- I
don't know that anyone here is gifted with imagination enough -- to
conceive of such a being. Our fathers had not imagination enough to
do so, at least, and so they said of this God, that he loves and he
hates; he punishes and he rewards; and that religion has been
described perfectly tonight by Judge Wright as really making God a
monster, and men poor, helpless victims. And the highest possible
conception of the orthodox man was, finally, to be a good servant
-- just lucky enough to get in -- feathers somewhat singed, but
enough left to fly. That was the idea of our fathers. And then came
these divisions, simply because men began to think.

And why did they begin to think? Because in every direction,
in all departments, they were getting more and more information.
And then the religion did not fit. When they found out something of
the history of this globe they found out that the Scriptures were
not true. I will not say not inspired, because I do not know
whether they are inspired or not. It is a question, to me, of no
possible importance, whether they are inspired or not. The question
is: Are they true? If they are true, they do not need inspiration;
and if they are not true, inspiration will not help them. So that
is a matter that I care nothing about.

On every hand, I say, they studied and thought. They began to
grow -- to have new ideas of mercy, kindness, justice; new ideas of
duty -- new ideas of life. The old gods, after we got past the
civilization of the Greeks, past their mythology -- and it is the
best mythology that man has ever made -- after we got past that, I
say, the gods cared very little about women. Women occupied no
place in the state -- no place by the hearth, except one of
subordination, and almost of slavery. So the early churches made
God after that image who held women in contempt. It was only
natural -- I am not blaming anybody -- they had to do it, it was
part of the must!

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.

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So I want it distinctly understood that that is my feeling.
But here is my trouble: I find this world made on a very cruel
plain I do not say it is wrong -- I just say that that is the way
it seems to me. I may be wrong myself, because this is the only
world I was ever in; I am provincial. This grain of sand and tear
they call the earth is the only world I have ever lived in. And you
have no idea how little I know about the rest of this universe; you
never will know how little I know about it until you examine your
own minds on the same subject.

The 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

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 on 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 it -- 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.

Suppose a man had control of the atmosphere, knew enough of
the secrets of nature, had read enough in "nature's infinite book
of secrecy" so that he could control the wind and rain; suppose a
man had that power, and suppose that last year he kept the rain
from Russia and did not allow the crops to ripen when hundreds of
thousands were famishing and when little babes were found with
their lips on the breasts of dead mothers! What would you think of
such a man? Now, there is my trouble. If there be a God he
understood this. He knew when he withheld his rain that the famine
would come. He saw the dead mothers, he saw the empty breasts of
death, and he saw the helpless babes. There is my trouble. I am
perfectly frank with you and honest. That is my trouble.

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 want it understood that I do not pretend to know. I say I
think. And in my mind the idea expressed by Judge Wright so
eloquently and so beautifully is not exactly true. I cannot
conceive of the God he endeavors to describe, because he gives to
that God will, purpose, achievement, benevolence, love, and no form
-- no organization -- no wants. There's the trouble. No wants. And
let me say why that is a trouble. Man acts only because he wants.
You civilize man by increasing his wants, or, as his wants increase
he becomes civilized. You find a lazy savage who would not hunt an
elephant tusk to save your life. But let him have a few tastes of
whiskey and tobacco, and he will run his legs off for tusks. You

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have given him another want and he is waling to work. And they
nearly all started on the road toward Unitarianism -- that is to
say, toward civilization -- in that way. You must increase their

The question arises: Can an infinite being want anything? If
he does and cannot get it, he is not happy. If he does not want
anything, I cannot help him. I am under no obligation to do
anything for anybody who does not need anything and who does not
want anything. Now, there is my trouble. I may be wrong, and I may
get paid for it some time, but that is my trouble.

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.

And then I come to the other point, that religion so-called,
explains our duties to this supposed being, when we do not even
know that he exists; and no human being has got imagination enough
to describe him, or to use such, words that you understand what he
is trying to say. I have listened with great pleasure to Judge
Wright this evening and I have heard a great many other beautiful
things on the same subject -- none better than his. But I never
understood them -- never.

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; he 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.

I divide this world into two classes -- the cruel and the
kind; and I think a thousand times more of a kind man than I do of
an intelligent man. I think more of kindness than I do of genius,
I think more of real, good, human nature in that way -- of one who
is willing to lend a helping hand and who goes through the world
with a face that looks as if its owner were willing to answer a
decent question -- I think a thousand times more of that than I do
of being theologically right; because I do not care whether I am
theologically right or not. It is something that is not worth
talking about, because it is something that I never, never, never
shall understand; and every one of you will die and you won't

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understand it either -- until after you die at any rate. I do not
know what will happen then.

I am not denying anything. There is another ideal, and it is
a beautiful ideal. It is the greatest dream that ever entered the
heart or brain of man -- the Dream of Immortality. It was born of
human affection. It did not come to us from heaven. It was born of
the human heart. -- And when he who loved, kissed the lips of her
who was dead, there came into his heart the dream: We may meet

And, let me till you, that hope of immortality never came from
any religion. That hope of immortality has helped make religion. It
has been the great oak around which have climbed the poisonous
vines of superstition -- that hope of immortality is the great oak.

And yet the moment a man expresses a doubt about the truth of
Joshua or Jonah or the other three fellows in a furnace, up hops
some poor little wretch and says, "Why, he doesn't want to live any
more; he wants to die and go down like a dog, and that is the end
of him and his wife and children." They really seem to think that
the moment a man is what they call an Infidel he has no affections,
no heart, no feeling, no hope -- nothing -- nothing. just anxious
to be annihilated! But, if the orthodox creed be true, I make my
choice to-night. I take hell. And if it is between hell and
annihilation, I take annihilation.

I will tell you why I take hell in making the first choice. We
have heard from both of those places -- heaven and hell. According
to the New Testament there was a rich, man in hell, and a poor man,
Lazarus, in heaven. And there was another gentleman by the name of
Abraham. The rich man in hell was in flames, and he called for
water, and they told him they couldn't give him any. No bridge! But
they did not express the slightest regret that they could not give
him any water. Mr. Abraham was not decent enough to say he would if
he could; no, sir; nothing. It did not make any difference to him.
But this rich man in hell -- in torment -- his heart was all right,
for he remembered his brothers; and he said to this Abraham, "If
you cannot go, why, send a man to my five brethren, so that they
will not come to this Place!" Good fellow, to think of his five
brothers when he was burning up. Good fellow. Best fellow we ever
heard from on the other side -- in either world.

So, I say, there is my place. And, incidentally, Abraham at
that time gave his judgment as to the value of miracles. He said,
"Though one should arise from the dead he wouldn't help your five
brethren!" "There are Moses and the prophets." No need of raising
people from the dead.

That is my idea, in a general way, about religion; and I want
the imagination to go to work upon it, taking the perfections of
one church, of one school, of one system, and putting them
together, just as the sculptor makes a great statue by taking the
eyes from one, the nose from another, the limbs from another, and
so on; just as they make a great painting from a landscape by
putting a river in this place, instead of over there, changing the
location of a tree and improving on what they call nature -- that

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is to say, simply by adding to, taking from; that is all we can do.
But let us go on doing that until there shall be a church in
sympathy with the best human heart and in harmony with the best
human brain.

And, what is more, let us have that religion for the world we
live in. Right here! Let us have that religion until it cannot be
said that they who do the most work have the least to eat. Let us
have that religion here until hundreds and thousands of women are
not compelled to make a living with the needle that has been called
"the asp for the breast of the poor," and to live in tenements, in
filth, where modesty is impossible.

I say, let us preach that religion here until men will be
ashamed to have forty or fifty millions, or any more than they
need, while their brethren lack bread -- while their sisters die
from want. Let us preach that religion here until man will have
more ambition to become wise and good than to become rich and
powerful. Let us preach that religion here among ourselves until
there are no abused and beaten wives. Let us preach that religion
until children are no longer afraid of their own parents and until
there is no back of a child bearing the scars of a father's lash.
Let us preach it, I say, until we understand and know that every
man does as he must, and that, if we want better men and women, we
must have better conditions.

Let us preach this grand religion until everywhere, the world
over, men are just and kind to each other. And then, if there be
another world, we shall be prepared for it. And if I come into the
presence of an infinite, good, and wise being, he will say, "Well,
you did the best you could. You did very well, indeed. There is
plenty of work for you to do here. Try and get a little higher than
you were before." Let us preach that one drop of restitution is
worth an ocean of repentance.

And if there is a life of eternal progress before us, I shall
be as glad as any other angel to find that out.

But I will not sacrifice the world I have for one I know not
of. I will not live here in fear, when I do not know that that
which I fear lives.

I am going to live a perfectly free man. I am going to reap
the harvest of my mind, no matter how poor it is, whether it is
wheat or corn or worthless weeds. And I am going to scatter it.
Some may "fall on stony ground." But I think I have struck good
soil to-night.

And so, ladies and gentlemen, I thank you a thousand times for
your attention. I beg that you will forgive the time that I have
taken, and allow me to say, once more, that this event marks an
epoch in Religious Liberty in the United States.


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