It is impossible to imagine that these days we could ever have a public figure like Robert Ingersoll. He was the very first American that most other Americans had ever heard of who publically declared, "I don't believe in God." That would not be surprising nowadays; there is a strong "New Atheist" movement, and there are statistics to show that the number of people who do not go to church and the number of people who claim to have no religion are increasing. Ingersoll, however, was popular; he was a genial man who got enormous audiences during a time when conventional Christianity was taken for granted, audiences who came to hear their beliefs critiqued and gently derided, and enjoyed having some fun at their own expense. Susan Jacoby, who has written on American secularism before, maintains that the current secularists have needlessly forgotten Ingersoll, and wants to bring his thinking back to our attention in _The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought_ (Yale University Press), an accessible account of Ingersoll's thinking and influence. Jacoby's book is a biography, and Ingersoll has deservedly had those before, but here she places him as a secularist hero for our own age. He does deserve to be better known, as an American original, by the devout and by the unbelievers.
Ingersoll was called "The Great Agnostic" in his own time, one of the reasons that he may not be so much of a hero to atheists today, who consider agnostics wishy-washy. It may be a point of philosophical confusion, but Ingersoll himself didn't see the difference between the two groups, since the main thing that characterized both was a lack of belief in gods. He was admitted to the bar in 1854, a practice he continued all his life, even after his oratorical shows began. He was a colonel in the Union Army during the Civil War. His distaste for religion might have made it impossible for him to be elected, or even appointed, to office, but his fellow Republicans sought him out for his rhetorical gifts. Ingersoll's lack of religious belief was his foundation for his own system of beliefs. "While I am opposed to all orthodox creeds," he said, "I have a creed myself; and my creed is this. Happiness is the only good. The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here. The way to be happy is to make others so." He never allied himself with the Social Darwinists, who, freethinker or Christian, thought that the poor, the immigrants, and the darker races were inferior. He insisted that women were the worst-paid and worst-treated workers in America, and that birth control was essential in liberating women from servitude. He believed, like Voltaire, and like Paine (whose obscurity as a patriot and anti-biblical polemicist Ingersoll spent a lifetime correcting) that human rights were universal and indivisible. He believed this precisely because of his disbelief in religion; you could not find ringing principles of free speech or free press, let alone the prohibition of religious requirements for office, by studying the ancient writings of any faith.
Jacoby has written a fine introduction to an American thinker. There are bigger biographies of Ingersoll, but the timing of this one when Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and others are making atheism more apparent to theists (if not more acceptable) is excellent. Indeed, she ends the book with "A Letter to the `New' Atheists," exhorting them to remember Ingersoll for his devotion to science and reason, his disgust for religious oppression, and his insistence on reminding Americans that our founders had explicitly rejected any sort of theocracy. There is one characteristic none of the current atheist stars have to the degree Ingersoll did: humor. There are plenty of quotations here to show how he slyly turned a phrase or an idea that could even have believers laughing at the contradictions of their beliefs. We do not have his stage presence anymore, but Jacoby's book is an invitation to read his good-humored, serious lectures like "The Gods" or "The Ghosts." I have turned to them myself again in the past few days, with great pleasure, and from the latter I find: "Sir Thomas More declared that to give up witchcraft was to throw away the sacred Scriptures. In my judgment, he was right." And Jacoby is right to stir contemporary enthusiasm for her subject.