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The Historical Library is provided for those doing research into the history of nontheism. It is not intended to be--and should not be used as--a source of modern, up-to-date information regarding atheistic issues. DO NOT CONTACT US ABOUT THESE DOCUMENTS. Please read the full Historical Library Disclaimer

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Inspiration (1885)

Robert Green Ingersoll

We are told that we have in our possession the inspired will of God. What is meant by the word "inspired" is not exactly known; but whatever else it may mean, certainly it means that the "inspired" must be the true. If it is true, there is in fact no need of its being inspired -- the truth will take care of itself.

The church is forced to say that the Bible differs from all other books; it is forced to say that it contains the actual will of God. Let us then see what inspiration really is. A man looks at the sea, and the sea says something to him. It makes an impression upon his mind. It awakens memory, and this impression depends upon the man's experience -- upon his intellectual capacity. Another looks upon the same sea. He has a different brain; he has had a different experience. The sea may speak to him of joy; to the other of grief and tears. The sea cannot tell the same thing to any two human beings, because no two human beings have had the same experience.

Another, standing upon the shore, listening to what the great Greek tragedian called "The multitudinous laughter of the sea," may say: Every drop has visited all the shores of the earth; every one has been frozen in the vast and icy North; every one has fallen in snow, has been whirled by storms around mountain peaks; every one has been kissed to vapor by the sun; every one has worn the seven- hued garment of light; every one has fallen in pleasant rain, gurgled from springs and laughed in brooks while lovers wooed upon the banks, and ever one has rushed with mighty rivers back to the sea's embrace. Everything in Nature tells a different story to all eyes that see, and to all ears that hear.

Once in my life, and once only, I heard Horace Greeley deliver a lecture. I think the title was "Across the Continent." At last he reached the mammoth trees of California, and I thought, "Here is an opportunity for the old man to indulge his fancy. Here are trees that have outlived a thousand human governments. There are limbs above his head older than the pyramids. While man was emerging from barbarism to something like civilization, these trees were growing. Older than history, every one appeared to be a memory, a witness, and a prophecy. The same wind that filled the sails of the Argonauts had swayed these trees." But these trees said nothing of this kind to Mr. Greeley. Upon these subjects not a word was told him. Instead, he took his pencil, and after figuring awhile, remarked: "One of these trees, sawed into inch boards, would make more than three hundred thousand feet of lumber."

I was once riding in the cars in Illinois. There had been a violent thunder storm. The rain had ceased, the sun was going down. The great clouds had floated toward the west, and there they assumed most wonderful architectural shapes. There were temples and palaces domed and turreted, and they were touched with silver, with amethyst and gold. They looked Like the homes of the Titans, or the palaces of the gods. A man was sitting near me. I touched him and said, "Did you ever see anything so beautiful?" He looked out. He saw nothing of the cloud, nothing of the sun, nothing of the color; he saw only the country, and replied, "Yes, it is beautiful; I always did like rolling land."

On another occasion I was riding in a stage. There had been a snow, and after the snow a sleet, and all the trees were bent, and all the boughs were arched. Every fence, every log cabin, had been transfigured, touched with a glory almost beyond this world. The great fields were a pure and perfect white; the forests, drooping beneath their load of gems, made wonderful caves, from which one almost expected to see troops of fairies come. The whole world looked like a bride, jeweled from head to foot. A German on the back seat, hearing our talk, and our exclamations of wonder, leaned forward, looked out of the stage window, and said, Y-a-a-s; it looks like a clean table cloth I"

So, when we look upon a flower, a painting, a statue, a star, or a violet, the more we know, the more we have experienced, the more we have thought, the more we remember, -- the more the statue, the star, the painting, the violet, has to tell. Nature says to me all that I am capable of understanding, -- gives all that I can receive.

As with star or flower or sea, so with a book. A man reads Shakespeare. What does be get from him? All that he has the mind to understand. He gets his little cup full. Let another read him who knows nothing of the drama, nothing of the impersonations of passion, and what does he get? Almost nothing. Shakespeare has a different story for each reader. He is a world in which each recognizes his acquaintances -- he may know a few -- he may know all.

The impression that Nature makes upon the mind, the stories told by sea and star and flower, must be the natural food of thought. Leaving out for the moment the impression gained from ancestors, the hereditary fears and drifts and trends -- the natural food of thought must be the impression made upon the brain by coming in contact, through the medium of the five senses, with what we call the outward world. The brain is natural. Its food is natural. The result -- thought -- must be natural. The supernatural can be constructed with no material except the natural. Of the supernatural we can have no conception.

"Thought" may be deformed, and the thought of one may be strange to, and denominated as unnatural by, another; but it cannot be supernatural. It may be weak, it may be insane, but it is not supernatural. Above the natural, man cannot rise. There can be deformed ideas, as there are deformed persons. There can be religious monstrosities and misshapen, but they must be naturally produced. Some people have ideas about what they are pleased to call the supernatural; what they call the supernatural is simply the deformed. The world is to each man according to each man. It takes the world as it really is, and that man to make that man's world, and that man's world cannot exist without that man.

You may ask, and what of all this? I reply: As with everything in Nature, so with the Bible. It has a different story for each reader. Is then, the Bible a different book to every human being who reads it? It is. Can God, then, through the Bible, make the same revelation to two persons? He cannot. Why? Because the man who reads it is the man who inspires. Inspiration is in the man, as well as in the book. God should have "inspired" readers as well as writers.

You may reply, God knew that his book would be understood differently by each one; really intended that it should be understood as it is understood by each. If this is so, then my understanding of the Bible is the real revelation to me. If this is so I have no right to take the understanding of another. I must take the revelation made to me through my understanding, and by That revelation I must stand. Suppose, then, that I do read this Bible honestly, carefully, and when I get through I am compelled to say, "The book is not true!"

If this is the honest result, then you are compelled to say, either that God has made no revelation to me, or that the revelation that it is not true is the revelation made to me, and by which I am bound. If the book and my brain are both the work of the same infinite God, whose fault is it that the book and the brain do not agree? Either God should have written a book to fit my brain, or should have made my brain to fit his book.

The inspiration of the Bible depends upon the ignorance of him who reads.

The Truth Seeker Annual, Now York, 1885.


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The Historical Library is provided for those doing research into the history of nontheism. It is not intended to be--and should not be used as--a source of modern, up-to-date information regarding atheistic issues. DO NOT CONTACT US ABOUT THESE DOCUMENTS. Please read the full Historical Library Disclaimer
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