'The Great Agnostic': Giving Up Politics To Preach Against Religion

By NPR Staff

January 6, 2013

Attention American history buffs, here's a name you might not have heard before: Robert Ingersoll. According to author Susan Jacoby, he was "one of the most famous people in America in the last quarter of the 19th century."

"He went around the country," Jacoby tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "He spoke to more people than presidents. He was also an active mover and shaker behind the scenes of the Republican Party."

But Ingersoll is largely forgotten today. His crime? Speaking out in favor of the separation of church and state. Jacoby, the author of a new biography The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought, says he promoted Darwin's theory of evolution and fought publicly against government interference in religion.

"Because of this, as The New York Times said in his obituary when he died in 1899, he couldn't run for public office even though he was a big deal behind the scenes," she says. "Because even then, although most of the Republican presidents from Lincoln on didn't even belong to a church, you still, if you were an open agnostic or atheist, could not hope to run for public office."

Ingersoll actually gave up his public career, Jacoby says, because "he thought it was more important to talk about the ways in which fundamentalist religion was a bad thing."

It was a controversial message. "He had enormous audiences," Jacoby says. "The late 19th century, we think of this as the Victorian era, and stuffy and all that, but it was a time of enormous change" as Americans began to discover Darwin, and immigration changed the social makeup of the country. "Ingersoll was probably the first person who said, 'I don't believe in a God,' that a lot of people had ever seen."

Ingersoll's father was actually a Presbyterian minister, who kept a library "of all of the things that Ingersoll came not to believe," Jacoby says. "There is nothing like reading the Bible literally to make you question it; Ingersoll said that quite often."

And he was public about those questions. "He wanted to revive the secular portion of America's revolutionary history," Jacoby continues. "He did not want to deny the role of religion in the founding of America, but he wanted to put it in its perspective." Then as now, she adds, many people asked whether America had been founded as a Christian nation. "As controversial then as it is now, Ingersoll's answer was no, and he went around explaining why it was no."

Men like Ingersoll would have been astonished, Jacoby says, by the survival of fundamentalism in our era. "I don't think that they would have been at all surprised that people are still religious. I think they would have been very surprised that anybody, by the end of the 20th century, would have been running for office on the platform that the Bible is literally true."

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