From The Archives
ROBERT INGERSOLL (1833 – 1899)
The Great Agnostic
There is a natural desire on the part of every intelligent human being to harmonize his information—to make his theories agree—in other words, to make what he knows, or thinks he knows, in one department, agree and harmonize with what he knows, or thinks he knows, in every other department of human knowledge.
The human race has not advanced in line, neither has it advanced in all departments with the same rapidity. It is with the race as it is with an individual. A man may turn his entire attention to some one subject—as, for instance, to geology—and neglect other sciences. He may be a good geologist, but an exceedingly poor astronomer; or he may know nothing of politics or of political economy. So he may be a successful statesman and know nothing of theology. But if a man, successful in one direction, takes up some other question, he is bound to use the knowledge he has on one subject as a kind of standard to measure what he is told on some other subject. If he is a chemist, it will be natural for him, when studying some other question, to use what he knows in chemistry; that is to say, he will expect to find cause and effect everywhere —succession and resemblance. He will say: It must be in all other sciences as in chemistry—there must be no chance. The elements have no caprice. Iron is always the same. Gold does not change. Prussic acid is always poison—it has no freaks. So he will reason as to all facts in nature. He will be a believer in the atomic integrity of all matter, in the persistence of gravitation. Being so trained, and so convinced, his tendency will be to weigh what is called new information in the same scales that he has been using.
Now, for the application of this. Progress in religion is the slowest, because man is kept back by sentimentality, by the efforts of parents, by old associations. A thousand unseen tendrils are twining about him that he must necessarily break if he advances. In other departments of knowledge inducements are held out and rewards are promised to the one who does succeed—to the one who really does advance—to the one who discovers new facts. But in religion, instead of rewards being promised, threats are made. The man is told that he must not advance; that if he takes a step forward, it is at the peril of his soul; that if he thinks and investigates, he is in danger of exciting the wrath of God. Consequently religion has been of the slowest growth. Now, in most departments of knowledge, man has advanced; and coming back to the original statement—a desire to harmonize all that we know—there is a growing desire on the part of intelligent men to have a religion fit to keep company with the other sciences.
Our creeds were made in times of ignorance. They suited very well a flat world, and a God who lived in the sky just above us and who used the lightning to destroy his enemies. This God was regarded much as a savage regarded the head of his tribe—as one having the right to reward and punish. And this God, being much greater than a chief of the tribe, could give greater rewards and inflict greater punishments. They knew that the ordinary chief, or the ordinary king, punished the slightest offence with death. They also knew that these chiefs and kings tortured their victims as long as the victims could bear the torture. So when they described their God, they gave this God power to keep the tortured victim alive forever —because they knew that the earthly chief, or the earthly king, would prolong the life of the tortured for the sake of increasing the agonies of the victim. In those savage days they regarded punishment as the only means of protecting society. In consequence of this they built heaven and hell on an earthly plan, and they put God—that is to say the chief, that is to say the king—on a throne like an earthly king.
Of course, these views were all ignorant and barbaric; but in that blessed day their geology and astronomy were on a par with their theology. There was a harmony in all departments of knowledge, or rather of ignorance. Since that time there has been a great advance made in the idea of government—the old idea being that the right to govern came from God to the king, and from the king to his people. Now intelligent people believe that the source of authority has been changed, and that all just powers of government are derived from the consent of the governed. So there has been a great advance in the philosophy of punishment—in the treatment of criminals. So, too, in all the sciences. The earth is no longer flat; heaven is not immediately above us; the universe has been infinitely enlarged, and we have at last found that our earth is but a grain of sand, a speck on the great shore of the infinite. Consequently there is a discrepancy, a discord, a contradiction between our theology and the other sciences. Men of intelligence feel this. Dr. Briggs concluded that a perfectly good and intelligent God could not have created billions of sentient beings, knowing that they were to be eternally miserable. No man could do such a thing, had he the power, without being infinitely malicious. Dr. Briggs began to have a little hope for the human race—began to think that maybe God is better than the creed describes him.
And right here it may be well enough to remark that no one has ever been declared a heretic for thinking God bad. Heresy has consisted in thinking God better than the church said he was. The man who said God will damn nearly everybody, was orthodox. The man who said God will save everybody, was denounced as a blaspheming wretch, as one who assailed and maligned the character of God. I can remember when the Universalists were denounced as vehemently and maliciously as the Atheists are to-day.
Now, Dr. Briggs is undoubtedly an intelligent man. He knows that nobody on earth knows who wrote the five books of Moses. He knows that they were not written until hundreds of years after Moses was dead. He knows that two or more persons were the authors of Isaiah. He knows that David did not write to exceed three or four of the Psalms. He knows that the Book of Job is not a Jewish book. He knows that the Songs of Solomon were not written by Solomon. He knows that the Book of Ecclesiastes was written by a Freethinker. He also knows that there is not in existence to-day—so far as anybody knows—any of the manuscripts of the Old or New Testaments.
So about the New Testament, Dr. Briggs knows that nobody lives who has ever seen an original manuscript, or who ever saw anybody that did see one, or that claims to have seen one. He knows that nobody knows who wrote Matthew or Mark or Luke or John. He knows that John did not write John, and that that gospel was not written until long after John was dead. He knows that no one knows who wrote the Hebrews. He also knows that the Book of Revelation is an insane production. Dr. Briggs also knows the way in which these books came to be canonical, and he knows that the way was no more binding than a resolution passed by a political convention. He also knows that many books were left out that had for centuries equal authority with those that were put in. He also knows that many passages— and the very passages upon which many churches are founded—are interpolations. He knows that the last chapter of Mark, beginning with the sixteenth verse to the end, is an interpolation; and he also knows that neither Matthew nor Mark nor Luke ever said one word about the necessity of believing on the Lord Jesus Christ, or of believing anything—not one word about believing the Bible or joining the church, or doing any particular thing in the way of ceremony to insure salvation. He knows that according to Matthew, God agreed to forgive us when we would forgive others. Consequently he knows that there is not one particle of what is called modern theology in Matthew, Mark, or Luke. He knows that the trouble commenced in John, and that John was not written until probably one hundred and fifty years—possibly two hundred years—after Christ was dead. So he also knows that the sin against the Holy Ghost is an interpolation; that “I came not to bring peace but a sword,” if not an interpolation, is an absolute contradiction. So, too, he knows that the promise to forgive in heaven what the disciples should forgive on earth, is an interpolation; and that if its not an interpolation, it is without the slightest sense in fact.
Knowing these things, and knowing, in addition to what I have stated, that there are thirty thousand or forty thousand mistakes in the Old Testament, that there are a great many contradictions and absurdities, than many of the laws are cruel and infamous, and could have been made only by a barbarous people, Dr. Briggs has concluded that, after all, the torch that sheds the serenest and divinest light is the human reason, and that we must investigate the Bible as we do other books. At least, I suppose he has reached some such conclusion. He may imagine that the pure gold of inspiration still runs through the quartz and porphyry of ignorance and mistake, and that all we have to do is to extract the shining metal by some process that may be called theological smelting; and if so I have no fault to find. Dr. Briggs has taken a step in advance—that is to say, the tree is growing, and when the tree grows, the bark splits; when the new leaves come the old leaves are rotting on the ground.
The Presbyterian creed is a very bad creed. It has been the stumbling-block, not only of the head, but of the heart for many generations. I do not know that it is, in fact, worse than any other orthodox creed; but the bad features are stated with an explicitness and emphasized with a candor that render the creed absolutely appalling. It is amazing to me that any man ever wrote it, or that any set of men ever produced it. It is more amazing to me that any human being ever believed in it. It is still more amazing that any human being ever thought it wicked not to believe it. It is more amazing still, than all the others combined, that any human being ever wanted it to be true.
This creed is a relic of the Middle Ages. It has in it the malice, the malicious logic, the total depravity, the utter heartlessness of John Calvin, and it gives me great pleasure to say that no Presbyterian was ever as bad as his creed. And here let me say, as I have said many times, that I do not hate Presbyterians—because among them I count some of my best friends—but I hate Presbyterianism. And I cannot illustrate this any better than by saying, I do not hate a man because he has the rheumatism, but I hate the rheumatism because it has a man.
The Presbyterian Church is growing, and is growing because, as I said at first, there is a universal tendency in the mind of man to harmonize all that he knows or thinks he knows. This growth may be delayed. The buds of heresy may be kept back by the north wind of Princeton and by the early frost called Patton. In spite of these souvenirs of the Dark Ages, the church must continue to grow. The theologians who regard theology as something higher than a trade, tend toward Liberalism. Those who regard preaching as a business, and the inculcation of sentiment as a trade, will stand by the lowest possible views. They will cling to the letter and throw away the spirit. They prefer the dead limb to a new bud or to a new leaf. They want no more sap. They delight in the dead tree, in its unbending nature, and they mistake the stiffness of death for the vigor and resistance of life.
Now, as with Dr. Briggs, so with Dr. Bridgman, although it seems to me that he has simply jumped from the frying-pan into the fire; and why he should prefer the Episcopal creed to the Baptist, is more than I can imagine. The Episcopal creed is, in fact, just as bad as the Presbyterian. It calmly and with unruffled brow, utters the sentence of eternal punishment on the majority of the human race, and the Episcopalian expects to be happy in heaven, with his son or daughter or his mother or wife in hell.
Dr. Bridgman will find himself exactly in the position of the Rev. Mr. Newton, provided he expresses his thought. But I account for the Bridgmans and for the Newtons by the fact that there is still sympathy in the human heart, and that there is still intelligence in the human brain. For my part, I am glad to see this growth in the orthodox churches, and the quicker they revise their creeds the better.
I oppose nothing that is good in any creed—I attack only that which is ignorant, cruel and absurd, and I make the attack in the interest of human liberty, and for the sake of human happiness.
Question. What do you think of the action of the Presbyterian General Assembly at Detroit, and what effect do you think it will have on religious growth?
Answer. That General Assembly was controlled by the orthodox within the church, by the strict constructionists and by the Calvinists; by gentlemen who not only believe the creed, not only believe that a vast majority of people are going to hell, but are really glad of it; by gentlemen who, when they feel a little blue, read about total depravity to cheer up, and when they think of the mercy of God as exhibited in their salvation, and the justice of God as illustrated by the damnation of others, their hearts burst into a kind of efflorescence of joy.
These gentlemen are opposed to all kinds of amusements except reading the Bible, the Confession of Faith, and the creed, and listening to Presbyterian sermons and prayers. All these things they regard as the food of cheerfulness. They warn the elect against theatres and operas, dancing and games of chance.
Well, if their doctrine is true, there ought to be no theatres, except exhibitions of hell; there ought to be no operas, except where the music is a succession of wails for the misfortunes of man. If their doctrine is true, I do not see how any human being could ever smile again—I do not see how a mother could welcome her babe; everything in nature would become hateful; flowers and sunshine would simply tell us of our fate.
My doctrine is exactly the opposite of this. Let us enjoy ourselves every moment that we can. The love of the dramatic is universal. The stage has not simply amused, but it has elevated mankind. The greatest genius of our world poured the treasures of his soul into the drama. I do not believe that any girl can be corrupted, or that any man can be injured, by becoming acquainted with Isabella or Miranda or Juliet or Imogen, or any of the great heroines of Shakespeare.
So I regard the opera as one of the great civilizers. No one can listen to the symphonies of Beethoven, or the music of Schubert, without receiving a benefit. And no one can hear the operas of Wagner without feeling that he has been ennobled and refined.
Why is it the Presbyterians are so opposed to music in the world, and yet expect to have so much in heaven? Is not music just as demoralizing in the sky as on the earth, and does anybody believe that Abraham or Isaac or Jacob, ever played any music comparable to Wagner?
Why should we postpone our joy to another world? Thousands of people take great pleasure in dancing, and I say let them dance. Dancing is better than weeping and wailing over a theology born of ignorance and superstition.
And so with games of chance. There is a certain pleasure in playing games, and the pleasure is of the most innocent character. Let all these games be played at home and children will not prefer the saloon to the society of their parents. I believe in cards and billiards, and would believe in progressive euchre, were it more of a game—the great objection to it is its lack of complexity. My idea is to get what little happiness you can out of this life, and to enjoy all sunshine that breaks through the clouds of misfortune. Life is poor enough at best. No one should fail to pick up every jewel of joy that can be found in his path. Every one should be as happy as he can, provided he is not happy at the expense of another, and no person rightly constituted can be happy at the expense of another.
So let us get all we can of good between the cradle and the grave; all that we can of the truly dramatic; all that we can of music; all that we can of art; all that we can of enjoyment; and if, when death comes, that is the end, we have at least made the best of this life; and if there be another life, let us make the best of that.
I am doing what little I can to hasten the coming of the day when the human race will enjoy liberty—not simply of body, but liberty of mind. And by liberty of mind I mean freedom from superstition, and added to that, the intelligence to find out the conditions of happiness; and added to that, the wisdom to live in accordance with those conditions.