This is point of inquiry for Friday, April 11th, 2008.
Welcome to Point of Inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe growthy point of inquiries, the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs. Before we get to this week’s guest, Tom Flynn, again, we’re going to talk about Robert Green, Ingersoll and his important role in American Freethought history. Here’s a discussion I had this morning with Ron Lindsay about the appalling position of an elected official in Chicago. Ron Lindsay is vice president and general counsel for the Center for Inquiry, and he also serves as the director of the Council for Secular Humanism, a First Amendment task force. In which capacity he’ll be speaking with me today. Welcome to Point of Inquiry, Ron Lindsay.
Thank you, T.J., for having me. It’s a pleasure to be on the show.
Ron, I’m. I asked you on the show to talk about this flap in Illinois recently for review for our listeners if they’re unaware. Representative Monique Davis, a Democrat of Chicago, interrupted the atheist activist Rob Sherman’s testimony in front of the House State Government Administration Committee in Springfield, Illinois, and actually told him to get out of his seat because he was an atheist. He was spewing, in her words, something extremely dangerous, dangerous for our children to even know that his philosophy of Athie ism exists.
Vecsey instructed him to get out of the seat and further went on to say that he had no right to be there, no right to offer his testimony. Well, which I think is the most disturbing aspect of her whole tirade, which went on for about 30 seconds.
The Council for Secular Humanism, North America’s leading organization for non-religious folks, had an official response. And in that response, you, Ron, were quoted as saying that daviss remarks actually disqualify her for office and that she should resign. Isn’t that a little over the top? Of course, we disagree with what she said. It was ill advised. But don’t politicians say stupid things all the time?
They do say stupid things all the time. But this went beyond that.
I think her statement indicates that her fundamental convictions are incompatible with the role of a state legislator. One of the if not the primary obligation of a state legislator is to consider impartially all claims for redress from all citizens and to treat all citizens with equal respect, regardless of their religious beliefs. I mean, that’s a core principle of our constitutional system.
In fact, I think Representative Davis statements indicate that her mindset is incompatible with virtually all aspects of the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights. He clearly wants to limit Mr. Sermon’s free speech rights. Clearly took issue with his right to hold certain beliefs about religion and also took issue with his right as a citizen to present his grievances to the government. In her mind, at least, being an atheist disqualifies you from being heard by the state legislature on a particular topic.
So what kind of traction has your call for her to resign had?
I think it has had some impact.
It was picked up by a number of news articles and blogs. I’ve read some of the comments on those blogs and a number of people have agreed that she should resign. I think some other organizations have called upon her to resign.
It just seems to me that you’re arguing, like many secularists, that religious beliefs. They’re private. They’re irrelevant to public policy issues. Of course, it’s true that Davis didn’t say her points effectively. Right. She’s not very articulate when she’s telling someone to shut up. But couldn’t she very generously be interpreted as just saying that the Illinois House did not have to hear about an atheist’s personal beliefs during testimony in a church state separation issue shooting his beliefs have remained private. Like seculars say religious people’s beliefs should remain private.
Well, T.J., I have to congratulate you for giving probably the most charitable interpretation of Representative Davis’s remarks.
I’ve heard it’s very good.
And in matters of defense, and I would recommend to you that you seriously consider a career in the law, but especially criminal defense a little bit.
But but that point aside, I think that’s an incorrect assessment of what happened here.
I mean, if, in fact, Mr. Sherman were there to preach atheist doctrine, he could say, well, look, we’re not here to you know, that’s not our role, to listen to someone give a sermon, about eight of them, just like, you know, we wouldn’t be holding a hearing to hear a Catholic priest talk about the American conception or something else. Yeah. Legislators did not have an obligation to listen to people who are setting forth religious doctrine or anti religious doctrine. But that’s not what to do here. When he wasn’t testifying in his capacity as an atheist and he wasn’t testifying to further atheist beliefs. Instead, he was simply offering his viewpoint on a proposal to give tax dollars to a church. And he was speaking from a constitutional point of view. He was trying to say that this proposed grant to a church would violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
And your take on his test. Why is that? His testimony wasn’t informed by his strident Athie ism, it’s a straight kind of church state separation argument.
So it could have been put forward by a religious person. I mean, obviously, there are many religious people whose country will also take a correct view of. In our opinion, grec view of the reach of the establishment clause, namely that it requires strict separation between church and state. So you can take that position, regardless of your point of view about the ultimate nature of things. Who is the God? There isn’t a God or what have you. So it wasn’t a question of her trying to say, look, we’re not here to listen to either atheist doctrine being priest or Christian doctrine being preached or Jewish talk and what have you.
If that were her point, I mean, first of all, Sherman, we’re trying to do that.
He wouldn’t have been invited to give testimony.
And then if he lost in to something like that, he could probably been cut off. But he wasn’t cut off for that reason.
He was cut off simply because in Representative Davis’s point of view, an atheist does not have a right to offer testimony on anything.
I mean, he had no right to be there because he’s an atheist, because of how dangerous his views are.
According to heard her own words. You’re arguing. Of course, I’m persuaded this point that an atheist is as qualified to give testimony as anyone else on a church state separation issue or any other issue. Would you say the same thing about a religious fundamentalists being qualified to give testimony about, say, abstinence only education or some of these culture war issues if his or her views are informed by his or her religious perspective?
Well, I have to make a distinction here. It depends on from the perspective of his testimony. I mean, why is he there to testify? And what specifically is he saying? The fact that someone’s religious fundamentalists or an anti religious fundamentalism, if there is such a thing, doesn’t affect one way or another their ability to offer testimony on a public policy issue if, in fact, they’re giving reasons for their testimony, apart from their religious beliefs or their anti religious beliefs.
So someone who is a religious fundamentalist, if they did a study, for example, on the success rate of abstinence only education and had some empirical data to show that, in fact, that’s effective. And that’s why we should adopt it. That’s fine.
The fact that the person is a religious fundamentalist is irrelevant if the person is there not to offer empirical evidence in support of the public policy, but rather to say all we need to have is policy because the Bible says fornicators will go to hell or something like that. Well, then, yeah. There’s no point in having a person there because he’s not offering testimony on a public policy issue.
So in that case, the religious fundamentalist would not be qualified to give testimony. But an atheist like Sherman is qualified because he’s not giving testimony derived from his Athie ism, but from his perspective on the well.
I mean, if Sherman were there and said, look, we shouldn’t give this money to this church because I hate churches and everyone should hate churches. And, you know, as an atheist, I think churches should be eliminated from this country.
What have you I mean, again, if there simply to cite atheist doctrine, if you will. I’m not sure if he’s happy.
Yeah, maybe the only doctrine is that we have no doctrine. Have you thought about any of that?
If you were there simply to push an atheist point of view that be one thing. That’s not why he was there. He wasn’t testifying as an atheist. He was testifying as a citizen who happened to be an atheist on a constitutional law issue. And he had a right to testify just as if there were religious fundamentalists who had conducted a scientific study about the effectiveness of abstinence only education and one to offer that evidence into the record. A public hearing. Sure. That’s fine. He has every right to do that. Should be encouraged to do that.
If you’d like to join with the Council for Secular Humanism in calling for a response against Representative Davis, you can do so through our Web site point of inquiry dot org. Ron, just to finish up, there’s a wrinkle in all of this. A couple days ago, apparently, Davis apologized to Sherman from the Council for Secular Humanism perspective. Does that apology kind of lay this matter to rest? Does it make us just say, OK, no harm, no foul were done?
I guess two things by way of response.
First, as a practical matter, it may lay the issue to rest. First of all, issues like this have notoriously short half life.
You know, they kind of pass out of public view. And I think Representative Davis decided to make that apology after she received a number of protests about her comment. And she was hoping that what was all of it?
In the minds of some, it may, but not from our perspective, because, first of all, she apologized to Sherman personally.
I understand she called him, apologized to him for losing her temper. She said she had been influenced by some recent tragic events and she wasn’t focusing on things or something that effect.
But this is not really a personal issue between her and Sherman.
It’s a matter of principle. And her statements indicate, as I said, that she has a mindset that renders her unqualified to be a legislator, who has an obligation to consider equally the interests of all citizens, regardless of their religious beliefs, and to treat them all impartially. At a minimum, before we would retract our call for resignation, she would have to explain why she made those statements. And I think simply saying that she lost her temper or lost her cool for a moment isn’t satisfactory. And furthermore, she would have to indicate that the viewpoints he articulated when she had that outburst are incorrect and that he disavowed the.
Statements, RNC pledges, in fact, to treat all citizens the same, regardless of their beliefs about the existence of God or whatever their religious beliefs are. And to my understanding, she hasn’t gone that far yet. And because he hasn’t gone that far yet, we still believe that she should resign from her position.
Thank you very much for joining me on point of Inquiry, Ron Lindsay. Thank you for having me.
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I’m happy to have Tom Flynn back on the show today. I feel like I could do an episode with Tom every week and it would never get old. Tom is editor of Free Inquiry magazine and also director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum. He’s also in charge of the video operations here at CFI and editor of the new Encyclopedia of Unbelief and a number of other books. Welcome back to a point of inquiry.
Tom Flynn a A.J., it’s great to be with you.
Tom, I’ve invited you on the show today to talk about Robert Green Ingersoll. I bet a lot of our listeners know who he is, respect him, think highly of him. But most Americans no longer even recognize the name. Well, actually, like two weeks ago, I heard him cited offhandedly on one of the Sunday morning news shows, but no reference was actually given to who he was or his place. And in the history of Freethought, it was just a quote of him by one of the presidential historians. Tom, given how little the general public knows about Ingersol, who he was, what he stood for. It seems kind of impossible that he was actually this major national celebrity in the years after the Civil War.
And yet he was. We call him the most remarkable American that most people never heard of. And precisely what is so amazing when you consider Ingersol in retrospect is that he’s is so largely unknown today and yet was the biggest of household names during his public life from the Civil War years up until his death in 1899. He literally was seen and heard by more Americans than we’d see or hear any other human being until the advent of motion pictures in radio. That means more people in SA heard grant more people than saw or heard Lincoln, McKinley, you name them. He was the first American superstar in a very real way. He was he spent essentially 30 years as a high profile lecturer. And this at a time when the public lecture was the dominant form of information and entertainment for most of the American people. Ingersoll spent that time criss crossing the country by train. He was touring probably two weeks out of three for 30 years. Wherever he went, he would fill the biggest theater in town. And so that’s that’s the basis of our claim. There’s no one else in American history who was before the public that intensely for that long. And yet today he’s almost forgotten.
There’s no one like that today who’s thought of as a lecturer, as an orator. But Ingersoll was primarily an order using his lectures, not just to speak on this or that subject, but to bring a kind of general education as well as entertainment to the American people. This is before radio or television. They were entertained by these lecture circuits.
Absolutely. They post civil war period was as often referred to as the golden age of American oratory. You had the Chautauqua movement, which started with the Chautauqua Institution near Jamestown, New York, but then covered the country. And basically there were hundreds of people who earned their living as lecturers on every topic under the sun. And, you know, most Americans went. And when Darwin published Origin of Species, most Americans probably learned about Darwin’s contentions and the arguments for and against by going to a public lecture. And Ingersoll was regarded as just the the supreme craftsman and artist and performer in that genre. OK.
So he was an orator, kind of a public moralist. He didn’t just teach people about subjects, but he proposed a point of view, advanced a worldview. But he actually had two other careers rather than just oratory. He was an attorney and also a political speech maker. I think it’s an interesting fact of history that he was a successful speechmaker on the behalf of the Republican Party.
Yes, yes. This is another of the remarkable aspects of Ingersoll’s story. He was known as the Great Agnostic. He was uncompromising in his lectures against the abuses of religion, against the doctrine of eternal punishment. And yet he was also the foremost political speechwriter for the GOP. But he wouldn’t be at home in the GOP today. Oh, no, no. This is not today’s Republican Party. What we have to remember is that immediately after the Civil War, the Republican Party was the party of Lincoln. It was the more progressive party. More of the Democrats had supported the South in secession or been pro slavery, what have you. So the party that was really doing the heavy lifting for progressive social change during that period was the Republicans. And Ingersoll was their heavy gun to the extent that. During the 30 years of Ingersoll’s public life, every GOP candidate for president whom Ingersol supported attained to the White House. There was one occasion where he had a difference with the GOP candidate. He did no campaigning for James G. Blaine and Blaine did not win.
Is it safe to say that you couldn’t have been a successful Republican presidential candidate without Ingersoll’s endorsement?
That’s hard to say. What we do know is that, in fact, no GOP candidate whom Ingersol declined to support attained the White House.
And he actually gave political speeches at the national conventions and kind of roused people’s attention for for the candidates he chose.
Oh, exactly. In fact, one of the things that made Ingersoll’s early reputation was the Republican National Convention of 1872 in Cincinnati, where he gave up barn burning speech, nominating. Ironically, the same guy that he would later fall out with, James G. Blaine, who was a senator from Maine. And, yes, they made a lot out of that rhyme. But that’s really what put Ingersol on the map nationally as a speechmaker. And in fact, his speech for Blaine was studied in rhetoric and debating and speech courses at the college level for 40 years thereafter.
You were talking about Ingersol on point of inquiry, primarily because of his views on religion. So let’s turn to those. He was a son of a Christian evangelist, a crusading minister. Yet he’s considered the great agnostic. How in the world did he end up becoming a skeptic of religion from that kind of background?
Ingersoll’s father was a theologically conservative but politically liberal minister. He was a fiery campaigner for the abolition of slavery as early as 1830. That was extremely early and it was a rather unpopular, even in the north, to bang the drum too loudly for abolition at that time. So the Ingersoll’s tended to move often because Reverend Ingersol would tend to wear out his welcome at any given church, you know, six months a year. So Ingersoll was born in Dresden, New York, a small village in New York’s Finger Lakes district. By the time Ingersoll was an adolescent there, Robert Ingersoll was an adolescent. The family had moved to Wisconsin a little bit west of Milwaukee. And during this period, obviously, Robert couldn’t get a huge amount of formal education with the family moving so much. He was largely self-taught. He read what he could get his hands on in his teen years. He encountered the works of Shakespeare and the Scottish poet Robert Burns, both of which would greatly affect his prose.
And at the same time, he just began to think very hard about the things that his father’s church was teaching, and they didn’t make sense.
Now, he kept a lot of these concerns to himself until as a young adult, he was an attorney in private practice with his brother, also an attorney. They were in Peoria, Illinois, and Ingersoll had given some fiery courtroom oratory. The local judge was impressed and invited Ingersoll to his home. Well, it turned out that the judge’s daughter and Robert Ingersoll essentially fell in love at first sight.
Now, even Wakefield and her father, Judge Wakefield, were open agnostics. And we think that at that first dinner get together, they compared notes. And Robert realized that here were people who really wanted to take action and make waves in society based on the things that he had figured out for himself. So it was basically his wife to be who put him up to this incredibly audacious idea of going out before the public and standing tall for agnosticism. And that was to become the the core of that part of his business plan for the rest of his life.
So at that first dinner with Judge Wakefield or maybe before he’s developing his ignaz stoicism, he’s called the great agnostic. So was he an agnostic or was he an atheist?
At that point, it might be safe to say that Ingersoll was an agnostic. That was the term that he used most formally. On the other hand, there was a newspaper interview that Ingersoll gave towards the middle of his career where a reporter asked him, was he an agnostic or an atheist? And here’s what Ingersoll said.
There is no difference. The agnostic is an atheist. The atheist is an agnostic. The agnostic says, I do not know, but I do not believe there is any God. The atheist says the same. Now, of course, as you know well, D.J., any two free thinkers can have an hours long pie fight arguing. Over the idea, definitions of the words atheist and agnostic. And some folks view them as two points on the same line. You can either be dubious about the existence of God or be sure he doesn’t exist. I tend to side with the people who see them as complementary concepts. And atheists just has to do with. Is there a God? And agnosticism is an epistemological issue. It’s how you can know what you know. Right.
There are a lot of people of faith who call themselves agnostics. They say they don’t have knowledge that God exists, but they have faith that God.
Exactly. And for my part, I consider myself an agnostic and an atheist and don’t see any conflict between them. And apparently neither did Ingersol. Nonetheless, in most of his public speeches, he referred to himself as an agnostic. Although we you look at what he actually said in the speeches, there was absolutely no question that he had no belief in God. You know, he always treated gods as human creations.
What I find beautiful about Ingersoll’s writings is that they’re not just against the prevailing beliefs in gods or the Judeo Christian God, really. But he advanced a point of view. First, let’s get to his major beefs with religion, and then I want to talk about what he pushed for.
Ingersoll’s major complaints about religion fell into a few broad categories. First, the trinity, he felt was a ridiculous idea. And he had an established speeched where he had about a 10 minute patter sequence.
You could almost hear the Gilbert and Sullivan music that would have gone behind it, where he explained that the two were one. But they’re not three, they’re one. And I needed to have audiences in stitches dismantling the Trinity, Barellan, nobody else in 19th century America could have gotten away with that. The second principle contention was that we cannot know whether God exists, know agnosticism in the core sense. We don’t know that God does exist. We may not know that he doesn’t.
But the whole idea of a supernatural being is so unlikely. And so out of keeping with what else we know about the universe that at best it’s very unlikely. Third principle contention. Miracles do not exist. And he had a number of his stock speeches where he gleefully dismantled miracle claims of healing at Lord’s and what have you. Yeah, he was kind of a paranormal skeptic, not just of religion. Oh, very much so. Very much so. And he he would dissect miracle claims at some length, just as today’s skeptics will dissect a phony faith healer or phony spirit medium, whatever it might be.
That was very much a part of Ingersoll’s portfolio. Also, Ingersoll always stressed that the gods were human creations. It was unsparing in that, in fact, probably his most popular lecture on religion was called The Gods. And when that speech was published in his collected works, he put an epigram at the top of it, something he didn’t always give from the stage. But it was devastating in print. And the opening quote was an honest God is the noblest work of man. Now, of course, that’s a riff on the poet Alexander Pope, who had famously written An Honest Man is the Noblest Work of God. Ingersol just turned that around and it really encapsulated his view of the gods.
They’re all human creations. And the further back one goes in time to more and more ancient religions, the more human foibles we see gods being. And from the time of the ancient Greeks right into the Christian religion, the way these various deities behave probably wouldn’t reflect well on a human being living in Victorian America.
He took exception to the morality of the gods most people believed.
Oh, of course, he would stress that enormous immorality of the conduct of the Greek gods. You look at the Greek myths and the gods are stabbing each other in the back and cheating on one another. They’re they’re definitely not moral exemplars.
That’s easier to do. He also cast an eye, though, to the Judeo Christian gods. He skewered Judaism and Christianity. His mistakes of Moses really take a bull’s eye to Jehovah.
Oh, yes. He he felt that Jehovah, as depicted in the Old Testament, was a butcher, a tyrant. And if you read the Old Testament dispassionately, it’s in large part a record of how God commanded the Israelites to slay and dispossess one innocent people after another, genocide after genocide, after genocide. And he was very strong in condemning that. He also looked at the great immorality if if the Judeo Christian God is, as he is thought to be, if he is the author of nature and he he’s also supposed to be good, then how do we account for the natural evils in the world? And Ingersoll looked at the suffering, the. Nature red in tooth and claw. Predators and prey, what have you. And he drew true lessons from that one is that if God is in charge of this world of terrible pain and agony and fear, God must be a monster. The other point that he took from it is that nature showed no sign of design. He said over and over that no one except a knave could have designed nature where predators are constantly pursuing prey, where where the big prey on the small and the strong prey on the weak. One of the metaphors he liked to use over and over. Was that because of the cruelties of nature, the natural world was at Niagara of blood.
Ingersoll also had a major problem with the Christian concept of hell.
Yes, he certainly did. In fact, that was probably his foremost contention with regard to religion. Ingersoll hammered on the idea of eternal punishment. In a sense, it was another example of his moral argument, very similar to the arguments he made based on the pain and suffering in nature, a good God who was at all the sort of God that Christianity talked about. Ingersoll felt such a God could not morally condemn his creatures to an eternity of torment for mistakes they made on Earth when they’d been made so fallible. And he also looked at the social consequences of the clergy and the church’s fear mongering, using the threat of eternal punishment to keep people in line, to force them to do things against their own interests. What have you and Ingersoll was absolutely ruthless on as you went to an Ingersol lecture and you only remembered one thing, you remembered that hell was unworthy of any God that could actually exist if one did and one probably didn’t. Now, where did all of this lead? Because Ingersoll wasn’t out there just tearing down.
Just criticizing. Right. He was advancing a point of view, too. He was he was advancing well, use advancing a point of view that we today would recognize very easily as humanism. He talked about a religion of humanity as being the point toward which he was ultimately working.
But along the way, the near term goals were very radical by the spirit of the time, but easier to grasp, completely secular. He wanted full equality between men and women. He wanted full racial equality. He wanted transparent access to knowledge at all levels of society. He basically wanted a lot of things that the secular reformers of a generation or two hence would ask for. What was amazing, utterly remarkable, was in 1885, say you didn’t have very many other people in America getting up there on a stage in front of a few thousand people in a big city theater and beating the drum for complete racial equality.
Ingersoll did, especially middle aged, aristocratic, well esteemed white guys.
Exactly. Exactly. And he he gave them that lecture over and over.
So his social justice positions we just touched on, we’re not going to be able to get into them in depth. But you’re saying they were informed by his secular, his his kind of his skeptical views about religion.
Exactly. Exact. They really boiled down to if there is no God out there, if it’s a natural world of cause and effect, then we have to take care of ourselves. And that’s you really get down to it. That’s the the essence of the humanist project. As Paul Kurtz wrote back in The Humanist Manifesto, too, there is no deity to save us. We must save ourselves.
Tom, there’s so much more to discuss about Ingersol. I’d love to have you back on later this year, maybe around his birthday to finish up. Just give our listeners a little information about how the Council for Secular Humanism is working hard to remember Ingersol today.
Well, they the Council for Secular Humanism operates Ingersoll’s birthplace in Dresden, New York, as a museum. It’s the only full time museum dedicated to a humanistic free thinker in the country. And basically, it’s open Saturdays and Sundays from Memorial Day weekend through the end of October. At the museum, we have artifacts from Ingersoll’s life. There’s just so much more. It’s hard to know where to begin, right at the museum.
There are some real gems. I remember reading that Ingersoll’s contemporaries like Mark Twain insisted that reading him was nothing compared to listening to him. And at the museum, you can actually hear a voice of this man who died in 1899.
That’s correct. About two years before his death, Ingersol visited the laboratories of Thomas Edison Ingersoll. And we’re actually good friends. Another skeptic, it should be said. Indeed, indeed, Edison is known for having said at one intemperate moment, religion is Boehnke. And that’s about how he really felt. But he welcomed Ingersol to his laboratory and had Ingersoll recite a few passages into an early prototype phonograph. The historical record suggests that Ingersol cut seven wax cylinders. Each one runs for about a minute and a half, two minutes. So very, very short excerpts. We know of four of them. We have an audio kiosk in the museum where you can push a button and listen to any of them. If you don’t happen to be in Dresden, New York, as I understand, many people are not. They’re also available on our Web site at a secular humanism dot org slash Ingersol, their brief. They’re noisy. This was a technology in its infancy. It sounds like Bob Ingersoll is or rating in an aluminum Quonset hut during a hailstorm. But he’s in there.
Tom Flynn, thanks for joining me for this discussion about Ingersol.
And I look forward to having you back so we could continue exploring this fascinating historical figure. Thanks very much, D.J..
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