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Robert G. Ingersoll: Man for All Seasons

Murphy’s Law: Robert G. Ingersoll: Man for All Seasons


The ancient Greek heroes shook their fists at the gods of their day. They disagreed with the deities and noised it about. They were the freethinkers of the ancient world. This annoyed and threatened the priests and the politicians. The heroes usually were killed for their honesty. Socrates was handed hemlock for his disbelief. Over the centuries men and women in all lands, who were so cheeky as to share doubt and spread truth, were put down or set aflame.

Intelligence, however, would not succumb to superstition. The philosophers kept cornering the theologians. Times changed until political power could not protect the preachers from freethinkers. So it came to pass – a freethinker could actually die a natural death. In the last century, the most notable American freethinker was so successful he spoke to more people than any prelate, politician or president. Robert G. Ingersoll was known as the greatest orator our country ever produced. A hundred years ago, everyone knew of him. His death, in 1899, caused a collective sigh of relief by the clergy. Although he has remained in print since 1876, he seems forgotten by all except freethinkers and religious historians. Here is a sampling of Ingersoll’s insightful prose:

John Calvin was of a pallid, bloodless complexion, thin, sickly, irritable, gloomy, impatient, tyrannical, heartless, and infamous. He was a strange compound of revengeful morality, malicious forgiveness, ferocious charity, egotistic humility, and a kind of hellish justice. In other words, he was as near like the God of the Old Testament as his health permitted.

Who can imagine the infinite impudence of a Church assuming to think for the human race? Who can imagine the infinite impudence of a Church that pretends to be the mouthpiece of God, and in his name threatens to inflict eternal punishment upon those who honestly reject its claims and scorn its pretensions? By what right does a man, or an organization of men, or a god, claim to hold a brain in bondage? When a fact can be demonstrated, an appeal to force is unnecessary: when it cannot be demonstrated, an appeal to force is infamous. In the presence of the unknown, all have an equal right to think.

Laughing has always been considered by the theologians as a crime. Ministers have always said you will have no respect for our ideas unless you are solemn. Solemnity is a condition precedent to believing anything without evidence. And if you can only get a man solemn enough, awed enough, he will believe anything.

Jehovah was not a moral god. He had all the vices and he lacked all the virtues. He generally carried out all his threats, but he never faithfully kept a promise.

The government of God was tried in Geneva when John Calvin was his representative. Under this government of God, the flames climbed around the limbs and blinded the eyes of Michael Servitus, because he dared to express an honest thought. This government of God was established in New England and the result was that Quakers were hanged or burned. This government of God was established in Spain, and the Jews were expelled. This government of God was in the U.S. when slavery was regarded as a divine institution. The pulpit of that day defended the buying and selling of women and babes. The mouths of the slave-traders were filled with passages of Scripture, defending and upholding traffic in human flesh.

In theology class, under Jesuit tutelage, my favorite question was, “How come?” It was never answered. If I had read Ingersoll earlier, I would have had the Jebbies tearing their gowns. Here he is on theology: “I will give my definition of metaphysics: Two fools get together; each admits what neither can prove, and there-upon both of them say, ‘Hence we infer.’ That is all there is of metaphysics.

“Robert G. Ingersoll: Man for All Seasons” is copyright © 1998 by John Patrick Michael Murphy.

The electronic version is copyright © 1999 Internet Infidels with the written permission of John Patrick Michael Murphy.

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