Susan Jacoby – Freethought’s Forgotten Hero

February 11, 2013

Our guest this week is Susan Jacoby.

She’s the bestselling author of a number of books about secularism and American culture, including Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism and The Age of American Unreason.

Jacoby started her career at the Washington Post, and her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Los Angeles Times Book Review, Newsday, Harper’s, The Nation, Vogue, The American Prospect, Mother Jones, and the AARP Magazine, among other publications.

Her latest book, just published and the subject of our interview, is The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought.

This is point of inquiry from Monday, February 11th, 2013. Welcome to Point of inquiry. 

I’m Chris Mooney point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs. And at the grassroots, if you don’t already, please follow us on Twitter at point of inquiry and on Facebook at slash point of inquiry. And also, I’m thrilled to remind you that our very next episode of Point of Inquiry is going to be a live recording at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Boston Sunday, February 17th, with Steven Pinker. So if you have questions, submit them to us on Twitter or Facebook. That’s at point of inquiry and slash point of inquiry. This week, our guest is Susan Jacoby. She’s a celebrated bestselling author of a number of books about secularism and American culture, including Freethinkers, A History of American Secularism and the Age of American Unreason. Jacoby started her career at The Washington Post and her work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, Newsday, Harper’s The Nation, Vogue and many others. Her latest book just published. 

And the subject of our interview is entitled The Great Agnostic Robert Ingersoll, An American Freethought. Susan Jacoby, welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

I’m very happy to talk to you. 

Your new book, The Great Agnostic, zooms in on one of the key characters from your other book, Freethinkers. 

Maybe the biggest of them all. Robert Ingersoll. I mean, in the 19th century, you sort of I don’t know, would it be fair to say a pope of free thought? And I say it had just because the pope has just resigned. 

What do you think of that? What would Ingersoll think of that? 

Very nice segue. 

Where I was, as I was telling you, when I woke up and checked my email at about six o’clock this morning, you know, finding that the pope was resigning as head of the church. I actually find that cheering in a couple of respects. One, it actually it’s actually a good thing that the pope has done. He has actually said something which God no. So we don’t hear our own political representatives saying often enough, which just I’m too old and senile to do this job. 

It’s time I went. I wish more public figures would do that. 

You know, I think that I think the recognition that at some point people become too old to carry out really stressful or heavy demanding jobs is important. And the second thing is, I think the very fact that the pope is resigning for the first time since any pope has resigned since the early 15th century, it implies what, of course, we all know, which is that the Catholic Church is nothing more than a human institution. And when people become the pope mentioned mental as well as physical incapacity, when people become not strong enough to do it, they ought to resign because they’re people. 

I celebrate both of those sentiments. And it’s just interesting that that the news came today. Well, let’s let’s let’s shift to Ingersol. I happen to know who he is, but I’m maybe one of the rare ones. I mean, this is a man who looms so large that, you know, you say in the book, he mumbles might have been president and now he’s lost to us. 

There’s no question about it. And I wrote this biography partly because after freethinkers, a lot of people were very intrigued by the chapters in which Ingersoll played a role and they wished I’d written more about him. But, of course, in a book that’s that covers one hundred and two hundred year period, you can’t write at all about one man. So I wrote this as part of Yale Pressies American Icons series. And what I was trying to do is bring back this very important figure in the history of American secularism and tell people who he was because he was a true celebrity in the last quarter of the 19th century. He definitely spoke before more Americans than any other public figure of his time, including presidents. He did give up his political ambitions because he he felt that propagating his anti religious views, his opposition to union between church and state and his explanation of science, the very important thing about him was his he believed he didn’t need to have an advanced degree to understand science, that if science were explained properly and promoted, people of all kinds and levels of education could understand it. It wasn’t some obscure thing that was only for the most elite, educated people in the country. And I think that’s very important in terms particularly he’s a figure for our time as well as his. It’s important in terms of the efforts of some right wing politicians to act as if science itself is elitist and and and paying attention to evidence and scientific conclusions is also, quote, elitist, unquote. And you’re that Ingersoll said, no, no, no. 

You say in the book that he he could go speak to I don’t know. I don’t want to say this. 

They’re only regular, ordinary, hardworking folk. I mean, anyone who does that now is sort of seen as a pointy headed intellectual. You almost don’t do that now. 

But Ingersoll, first of all, lectures were different in the 19th century. They were lectures were what were what were what websites and television are now. They were the primary form of public entertainment as well as information. And people had much longer attention spans than I mean, many of you yourself lectures lasted three hours. And this was not unusual. People expected to get their 25 cents worth. Oh, when they when they when they went to a lecture. And this also meant a lot of the people who attended in your Salz lectures throughout the country were not necessarily people who agreed with his anti religious views, but they went because because he was known to be a very funny guy and they expected to be entertained. And maybe they wanted to hear a little bit more about things. And one of the things he did while Thomas Henry Huxley was the preeminent scientific popularizer of Darwin’s theory of evolution, Ingersoll was certainly more important in terms of explaining what the theory of evolution meant to people in this country who wouldn’t read books by Huxley and wouldn’t necessarily get to the lecture by him. And he was able to explain these things in ways that people could understand, like nothing travels more poorly than satire over time. And he would open his standard lecture on evolution with, say, when he first read on The Origin of Species, the first thing that occurred to him was how horrible it would be for the kings and queens of the old world to understand that they were descended from the Duke Orangutang and the Princes chimpanzee. 

Yes, he spoke before with a hostile crowds. I mean, this is another thing we don’t have anymore. And I’m just struck by this. Reading your book is that we don’t talk to people who disagree with us anymore. I give public lectures. I know you do, too. And I can’t tell. I mean, there will be one or two people who disagree with me. 

But it’s a university and everybody mostly agrees with me. That’s the way it is. 

Right. In general, when you give lectures, you’ll get a few people who disagree with you. But it won’t in any way represent, you know, what would be the range of opinion in a particular community. I will say this, and this is Ingersol lectured far and wide. I mean, he lectured on the prairies. People would ride horseback for days to hear him. And one of the things was, is that the audiences, again, because lectures were considered an important form of entertainment. I mean, you know, what was there to do in Sherman, Texas, really? I mean, it brought Bob Ingersoll is coming to town. You you’re going to go hear him. You know, no matter what you believed about religion. And so I think there was this there was this desire, particularly in an era when even if people, you know, didn’t didn’t believe in evolution, people certainly saw the fruits of technology. There was absolutely no era in American history. And I include the computer era in that in which people saw the fruits of science so visibly and quickly. I mean, think about it. You’re talking about a period in history in which for the first time, things were lit up at night. I mean, think about think about just what that piece of technology did to people. It showed people that these things that were mysterious and that they didn’t understand exactly how they happened could completely transform their lives. And that is one of the things that Robert Ingersoll played off of saying these things were created by men. They’re not mysterious, unknowable inventions of God. They are based on scientific principles. Anyone can learn how to make them and do them. 

I want to remind our listeners that Susan Jacobi’s latest book, The Great Agnostic, Robert Ingersoll, an American Freethought, you can get it through our website point of inquiry, Dot. The people were offended. I mean, was the culture more tolerant of contrary viewpoints? Enemy? Clearly, he got a reputation and a lot of people didn’t like what he was saying. 

No, I wouldn’t say that the culture was more tolerant of contrary viewpoints. I first of all, first of all, even though, you know, in many ways the end of the 19th century was a period somewhat like ours. While there there was there were two reactions to Darwin’s theory of evolution. And we are living with this split today. There was the reaction of liberal Protestantism, which is let us accommodate. And Protestantism was still in spite of Catholic and Jewish emigration. The dominant force in American political life. So liberal Protestants said, let us accommodate ourselves to this new secular knowledge. Let us present and present a way in which one can both believe in God and in science. Whereas fundamentalists who are led by William Jennings Bryan politically said no, never anything that contradicts a literal interpretation of the Bible we will not stand for. And this is when this big split in American Protestantism occurs. And we are living with the consequences of that today. I am sure that Ingersoll and his freethinking contemporaries, they certainly thought that these issues would be done. You know, I think if you had told them that in the 20th first century, there would be successful politicians who deny the real. Of evolution, I mean, I think he would have been astonished. 

Interestingly, you say that he did try to be a bridge builder with the non fundamentalists. 

Right. He didn’t. Absolutely. Absolutely. 

Because he saw and quite rightly, he saw and he saw every step away from insistence on literal adherence to the Bible as a victory for secularism. In other words, he saw his side, as you know, if you can if you get one chink in the armor, there are other chink in the armor. And he was equally opposed to all religions, but he tried to build. He did not have any relations with Catholics because Catholic conservatism was really monolithic in that day as it was one of the most conservative periods in the Catholic Church. And of course, there was also the doctrine of papal infallibility, which which which, of course, was the height of ridiculousness to him. Whereas among Protestants, there were all kinds of denominations that far from believing in the infallibility of religious leaders, were built on the idea that there was no such thing as the infallibility of any leader. So it is easier to work with him. And, you know, what he did is what many secular groups do today on issues in which the interests of certain kinds of liberal religious people and people like Ingersol converged. He would work with him, by the way. And Ingersoll saw your saw was called the Great Agnostic. He didn’t call himself that. And when he was asked whether there was any difference between an atheist like Gnostic. He said absolutely not. You said it’s a mistake to say that atheists say that they know there is no God. No one can prove a negative. So therefore, we cannot know that there is no God. We can only say, looking at the world around us, using our brains, looking at the evidence. It doesn’t seem very likely. And we’re not going to live our lives on on the basis of belief in a being who contradicts all of the laws of nature. We do, in fact, no. Well, one of them and the main one being that everything dies. 

So the man who came up with the word agnostic was was Huxley, who was a contemporary and you know, Huxley is often depicted now as sort of the more outspoken secularist and defender of evolution and Darwin as sort of the soft voice. Were there were there people who were more outspoken than Ingersol, making him seem like a soft voice? 

There was no one more outspoken than Ingersol in the last quarter of the 19th century. Absolutely not. There was no one more outspoken than in yourself. There was no one. I mean, Ingersol did so much for one thing, if he had done nothing else. He helped to revive the reputation of Thomas Paine, which had been obscured at the end of the 18th century, of course. He was so famous and respected as the writer of the crisis papers and contributed the revolutionary cause. But then he writes The Age of Reason, which puts forth the astonishing idea that man, not God, wrote the Bible and his reputation is just, you know, pulverized in the United States. And one of the things figures so that he did a lot of lectures on Thomas Paine alone. And one of the things he did was he helped revive Paines historical memory in the minds of his educated countrymen. And for that alone, he deserves an important place in American intellectual history that he doesn’t have. 

Are you saying, historically speaking, you think we would know Paine less if not for Ingersol? 

There’s no question. There’s no question about it. The very fact that that Ingersol not that we know all that much about Paine now that we’ve sort of gone back to knowing about the revolutionary pain, but the pain who wrote The Age of Reason? 

The age of reason does not make it, as you could imagine, into elementary school textbooks or secondary school textbooks. But there’s absolutely no question that he played a huge role in pulling the reputation of pain out of the obscurity into which his fallen except among small, freethinking communities, because he was really the only free thinker who had a broad national audience that extended beyond the freethinking community. 

I want to remind our listeners again that Susan Jacoby’s latest book, The Great Agnostic Robert Ingersoll, An American Freethought, is available through our. Point of inquiry dot org. So the central question of interest here is his relative obscurity. I mean, and what the chief cause is for him being forgotten. I mean, is it just as simple as saying that history is told by the victors and the victors in this case are the people that have made our culture so religiously infused now? 

Not entirely. First of all, his history is told by the victors. But history is also told by. The educated in fashionable topics. There was a very long time when secularism itself was of interest to historians until about 1930 and Ingersoll was was still known as a memory, even though he died in 1899. He was still being attacked by Catholic publications in the 1920s and so forth. Then a couple more things happened. Along came the Scopes trial in 1925. And many intellectuals in urban areas drew the mistaken conclusion from the Scopes trial because Clarence Darrow humiliated William Jennings Bryan on the stand that that was the end of fundamentalism, which nothing could have been less true. What happened was the fundamentalists dropped off the political stage, but they never dropped off the organizational involvement in American life stage. And well, while all these intellectuals in Boston, in New York, you know, we’re saying that was the end of fundamentalism. Texas, again, the Texas school board was exercising its influence on New York publishers who absolutely caved to remove discussions of evolution from biology textbooks that have existed before the First World War. Truman moons, biology texts called Biology for Beginners, which is the standard textbook for 40 years in the 20th century in high school in 1924 before the Scopes trial. It has a portrait of Darwin on the front office in the next edition. After the Scopes trial 1926 27, Darwin was replaced by a picture of the digestive tract. And in fact, in the 1930s at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Oscar Riddle said that, you know, we we know less about evolution and teach less about it in our schools than we did in 1915. So that’s one thing. And also the depression and the war come along. And this just absolutely obscures, you know, very much interest in these kinds of topics. And particularly the other thing that happens, of course, also is the Bolshevik Revolution. And Athie ism becomes equated with communism in the minds of a lot of Americans during the Red Scare. So that while so that while this never entered into feelings about Athie ism and Freethought in the 19th century, it very much does after the First World War. There is that. But there are also cyclical things. Look, a lot of feminists dropped out of history from the time women got the right to vote with the 22nd Amendment until the return of the feminist movement in the 1970s. Nobody knew who Elizabeth Cady Stanton was in the 1950s, in the 1960s, except a few people who weren’t called feminists then. But we’re thinking about it. So it takes there are cycles in history regarding minority movements and secularism. While it is stronger now than it was in the 19th century, just as it was stronger at the end of the 19th century than it was in the 18th century, except among the most highly educated founders there, there. One of the things about things like secularism and feminism is they’re not like churches. They don’t perpetuate their ideas constantly so that often the story has to be retold in every generation. And if things intervenes so that the story doesn’t get told, these people who are very highly regarded in their own time drop out of history. And particularly if they are what Ingersoll was, which was his importance in our history, is an intellectual history as a carrier forth of ideas. And and you can say you can say he deserves his obscurity because secularists haven’t won. But that’s not a proper way of looking at history, which is intellectual history is a kind of relay race for one torchbearer to another. It’s not something except in very rare instances in which in a very short time, one group of people wins. I would say you can say very well that it’s the opposite. The only time in the 20th century we’ve ever changed public has seen public opinion change so fast on an issue like this is in the gay rights movement. There is no other movement abolitionism in the 19th century feminism of the 19th and 20th centuries in which public opinion has taken, you know, less than 50 years to a century to 150 years to change. 

Were the secularists of Ingersoll’s time and Ingersol working with the early feminist center or the early women’s suffrage movement? 

They were they were supporters of women’s suffrage, but Ingersol himself went far beyond that. And it’s another reason he’s very important here. There were a lot of suffrages. Elizabeth Cady Gagne stands get written out of the suffragist movement largely because she was an agnostic who wrote a woman’s Bible about how misogyny religion was the chief root of misogyny. Ingersoll sided with people like Stan in saying that while a vote was necessary, that it alone could not guarantee women’s rights, that the root of women’s rights was one religion and two her inability to control her own fertility, which was related to religious opposition long before there were effective means of contraception. And yourself said that contraception would until there was reliable contraception. Woman could never be the mistress of her own fate. That’s a very pressing. He was very ahead of his time on issues like this, ahead of his time, even for the people who were part of the feminist movement of the day. 

You suggest in the book that the atheist world itself or the secular world itself has not adequately credited Ingersol. 

Absolutely. And I think and I absolutely think the reason for that is because he was called the great agnostic and likable enough. Is that what it is? Yeah. And like me, a lot of the other UAC, a lot of the other new atheists have contempt for people who are atheists but refuse to say they are. And they mistakenly think that Ingersol was one of those people. If they had read what he had to say about it, they wouldn’t think that. But I don’t think I don’t think they have. If they haven’t read what he had to say about atheists, about exoticism being the same thing. And. And I think that I think that the that the new atheists sort of given not a lot more of a nod to Ingersol than they have. They’ll talk about pain, but they don’t talk about in yourself and in your soul is largely responsible the last quarter of the 19th century for really working to revive Paine’s reputation. Moreover, there is something most of the new atheists are not people with political ambitions. They write what they read. I include myself in that. They write what they write and are not giving anything up to do it. Robert Ingersoll is one of the unusual people in the history of our movement. He was a Republican, a gold standard Republican. He had unusual oratorical gifts at a time when you had to be a good speaker, unlike now, to run for public office. The there’s no he would not you know, he would not necessarily have been president, although many newspapers said he certainly would have been a competitor because the odds against any one man becoming president. But he certainly he certainly would have run for high public office. And as a Republican, he would have won it and he would have you know, he would have brought. But he could not do that and bring on all of his secular values to office. And he shows that over politics. And I think somebody who gave up something he could have had that had. By that I mean a big political career. Forget about whether he would have been present or not, deserves an honored place in the history of the secular movement, which he has not gotten. 

Let’s shift to the takeaway. I mean, you’ve written a biography of a person who isn’t as well remembered as they ought to be. So I guess there’s two audiences here where you have to think, what would you want the impact to be upon them? I mean, let’s take them in order. One is the nonsecular movement, everybody else, and one is the second movement. I mean, in the second room is more likely. You have heard of him at least somewhat. 

I mean, but what first of all, take people who are not, you know, living and breathing, that if they hear there was this orator who was, I don’t know, like let’s rhetorically say almost as good as Lincoln and, you know, of the same party and who happened to be, you know, against organized religion, you know, so to speak, and for the separation of church and state. 

And that’s part of American history. What what would you want them to take away from that? 

Well, first of all, I don’t think anybody who doesn’t have secular inclinations is going to pick up this book. What I’m really hoping this book will do is that it will reach secular people. It will reach that 20 per some of that 20 percent of people who don’t belong to any church, who are not necessarily dedicated professional secularists. And we’ll tell you more about something that they ought to know something about. And and I’ll tell you, I had after I wrote an essay about atheists and for The New York Times op ed page a few weeks ago, which mentioned Ingersol. The next week, it was reprinted in the Dallas Morning News in full. My author Web site nearly crashed. I received hundreds of emails from atheists and freethinkers in Texas saying how thrilled they were to see my article. Many of them mentioned Ingersoll. They’d found that their own parents have had volumes of Ingersol and they were hidden away in the attic or something like that. But these these e-mails were fascinating. It’s one of the reasons I have no other Web website because these people were all atheist. In Texas, a place where being an open atheist is not like being an atheist in New York City, where where it means nothing. And they were thrilled to read something about in your saw. A lot of them knew about him, but a lot of them didn’t. They were they were thrilled to read another piece of history. And I think we forget, you know, those of us who live in places where even if we’re not in a majority, there are plenty of people like us we can talk to. And there you go. For any writer, there isn’t any social stigma attached to being an atheist. A lot of the atheists and non-religious people of all kinds in this country live in places where there’s where they feel a real stigma. And I think, you know, having something like this to read about and think about and knowing that he spoke in Sherman, Texas and so on, it’s something that these people find interesting. And they found my article being reprinted in The Dallas Morning News. They found it heartening. The oldest person I got an email from was an 85 year old African-American man in Amarillo, Texas, who who had the Ingersoll’s volumes. He got them from a public library that dumped them. I thought being an African-American atheist in Amarillo, Texas, I thought there really is a hell of us. 

So, yeah, there’s that. So. So it does it does help make this more relatable. 

And, you know, I still it’s just hard to concedes that A, him crisscrossing parts of the country that we know paint red every political season and actually being able to give big speeches there. 

What about people? People don’t go to be. Yeah, that that kind of lecturing doesn’t exist. I mean, nobody draws thousands of people for speeches. I don’t know. I don’t know. Perhaps I have. Oh, I don’t know. Let’s see. Perhaps if some really big TV figure I don’t know, like if Jon Stewart showed up in Sherman, Texas, he would draw a big audience, but he doesn’t have to show up in Sherman, Texas. He’s on television every night, four nights a so. 

Well, what do we learn from the fact that you can have mega figures in history who are secular and they get wiped away, but then others don’t? I mean, you know, the Darwin’s the Galileo’s somehow it’s because they’re scientists and they’re in the conflict. 

There’s no comparison. Darwin that Ingersoll was a popularizer and the publicize there and a political fighter for these ideas. Darwin is the author and the developer of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. Various people like Galileo and Copernicus left us the knowledge that that the Earth moves around, the sense that the sun doesn’t move. You can’t you can’t compare scientists and inventors to people who are popularizers of ideas, really. And of course, of course, it’s it’s you know, Darwin isn’t just a secular figure. He’s revered by secularists, but he’s Charles Darwin. He’s the person who explained to us with whatever modifications we’ve already had and are still going to have, how this world came to be upright. 

But if Ingersol what I’m trying to say is, if Ingersol had been a scientist, there’s something about the fact that you’re just a popularizer that doesn’t get you taken as seriously, too. 

If Ingersoll had been a scientist, too, I think it would have, you know, added to the narrative surrounding him. Do you see what I mean? 

Well, yes and no. I mean, the fact is, is that is that Huxley is not known to anybody but scientists today. Of course, he is much better known in the scientific community. But I guarantee you, if you go into any any elementary school, there are no more likely to know who Thomas Henry Huxley was than the Ardino who Robert Ingersoll was. We who we who revere science and read of lot a lot about science have an exaggerated idea. And Huxley Huxley really was not a real original scientist. He was basically a popularizer of Darwin. You can’t say that Huxley was a scientist in the real sense that Darwin is. He was mostly a popularizer and a great popularizer because. Because he was a scientist. But but popularizers are very important. And as I told you at the beginning, think one of the most important things that Ingersoll did and he was right about is you can. That may help people to understand scientists if only scientists talk about science. You have to convey to people the idea that it’s quite possible for any person who applies his brain to know and understand science, that this has something to do with their everyday lives, that this is not like religion in which people believe on faith in things that completely defy the laws of the natural world. Science is what has given us all we have. The heat that I’m the heated apartment then sitting in, when I look out at the snow, the stove that I’m going to cook my dinner on. These are things that people can understand. And what and what was very important in 19th century was that they understand the connection between some of these new comforts and revolutionary technologies they were having and the larger issues of science. And the other thing, because Ingersoll did, is he wanted there to be a close relationship between scientists, science and the humanities, an issue and a separation which again plagues this to who is this day. And one of the reasons he’s so contemporary is all of his issues were issues. We have not in any way resolved. 

Well, I like I like remember, it helps me to want to celebrate him, to think that he was a popularizer and popularizers don’t get enough credit anyway. But I kind of like like that. 

Well, you know, one of the things that we are desperately lacking right now is a scientific popularizer of the status of Carl Sagan. You know, that that the you know, the absence of it’s not enough to be writing about how illogical religion is, the wonders of science, what they have to do with our world, those kinds of things. There were more of them in the 19th century. There hasn’t really been one of the stature of Carl Sagan. We need. We need somebody else like that. There are people working at it, but there’s nobody of his stature. 

I agree. Maybe maybe Dr. Tyson will get there. 

Yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. It. 

Neil Tyson is very good. One of the problems is when you think about Ingersol, he had hours to explain his ideas. Somebody like Neil Tyson, he’s on The Daily Show or The Colbert Report for four minutes. So it’s so that, in other words, the whole the whole formats for explaining things to people, the attention span of the American people is so much shorter than it was then. 

Well, you know, I want to thank you. I think we need to wrap up here. But I want to thank you for for doing this book. 

And, you know, I think it’s a it’s a Laver’s to try to unearth someone like this and try to get attention paid to them. And, you know, it seems like you’ve done a great job. You’ve gotten it all the way to people who wouldn’t wouldn’t have heard otherwise. 

So, yeah, you know, well, it’s not like writing another biography of Lincoln. I got a built in audience. 

A Lincoln, by the way, was one of Ingersoll’s heroes. And and Ingersoll became a lawyer the same way as Lincoln did by reading law and the law offices of an older an older lawyer in Illinois. 

Well, on that note, Susan, thank you so much for being with us on point of inquiry. Thank you. 

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One of inquiries, Bruce, by Atomize Ikke and AMR’s New York, and our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Waylan. It is Indro featured Debbie Goddard. I’m your host Chris Mooney. 

Chris Mooney