From The Archives
ROBERT INGERSOLL (1833 – 1899)
The Great Agnostic
Question. Does Christianity advance or retard civilization?
Answer. If by Christianity you mean the orthodox church, then I unhesitatingly answer that it does retard civilization, always has retarded it, and always will. I can imagine no man who can be benefitted by being made a Catholic or a Presbyterian or a Baptist or a Methodist—or, in other words, by being made an orthodox Christian. But by Christianity I do not mean morality, kindness, forgiveness, justice. Those virtues are not distinctively Christian. They are claimed by Mohammedans and Buddhists, by Infidels and Atheists—and practiced by some of all classes. Christianity consists of the miraculous, the marvelous, and the impossible.
The one thing that I most seriously object to in Christianity is the doctrine of eternal punishment. That doctrine subverts every idea of justice. It teaches the infinite absurdity that a finite offence can be justly visited by eternal punishment. Another serious objection I have is, that Christianity endeavors to destroy intellectual liberty. Nothing is better calculated to retard civilization than to subvert the idea of justice. Nothing is better calculated to retain barbarism than to deny to every human being the right to think. Justice and Liberty are the two wings that bear man forward. The church, for a thousand years, did all within its power to prevent the expression of honest thought; and when the church had power, there was in this world no civilization. We have advanced just in the proportion that Christianity has lost power. Those nations in which the church is still powerful are still almost savage—Portugal, Spain, and many others I might name. Probably no country is more completely under the control of the religious idea than Russia. The Czar is the direct representative of God. He is the head of the church, as well as of the state. In Russia every mouth is a bastille and every tongue a convict. This Russian pope, this representative of God, has on earth his hell (Siberia), and he imitates the orthodox God to the extent of his health and strength.
Everywhere man advances as the church loses power. In my judgment, Ireland can never succeed until it ceases to be Catholic; and there can be no successful uprising while the confessional exists. At one time in New England the church had complete power. There was then no religious liberty. And so we might make a tour of the world, and find that superstition always has been, is, and forever will be, inconsistent with human advancement.
Question. Do not the evidences of design in the universe prove a Creator?
Answer. If there were any evidences of design in the universe, certainly they would tend to prove a designer, but they would not prove a Creator. Design does not prove creation. A man makes a machine. That does not prove that he made the material out of which the machine is constructed. You find the planets arranged in accordance with what you call a plan. That does not prove that they were created. It may prove that they are governed, but it certainly does not prove that they were created. Is it consistent to say that a design cannot exist without a designer, but that a designer can? Does not a designer need a design as much as a design needs a designer? Does not a Creator need a Creator as much as the thing we think has been created? In other words, is not this simply a circle of human ignorance? Why not say that the universe has existed from eternity, as well as to say that a Creator has existed from eternity? And do you not thus avoid at least one absurdity by saying that the universe has existed from eternity, instead of saying that it was created by a Creator who existed from eternity? Because if your Creator existed from eternity, and created the universe, there was a time when he commenced; and back of that, according to Shelley, is “an eternity of idleness.”
Some people say that God existed from eternity, and has created eternity. It is impossible to conceive of an act co-equal with eternity. If you say that God has existed forever, and has always acted, then you make the universe eternal, and you make the universe as old as God; and if the universe be as old as God, he certainly did not create it.
These questions of origin and destiny—of infinite gods—are beyond the powers of the human mind. They cannot be solved. We might as well try to travel fast enough to get beyond the horizon. It is like a man trying to run away from his girdle. Consequently, I believe in turning our attention to things of importance—to questions that may by some possibility be solved. It is of no importance to me whether God exists or not. I exist, and it is important to me to be happy while I exist. Therefore I had better turn my attention to finding out the secret of happiness, instead of trying to ascertain the secret of the universe.
I say with regard to God, I do not know; and therefore I am accused of being arrogant and egotistic. Religious papers say that I do know, because Webster told me. They use Webster as a witness to prove the divinity of Christ. They say that Webster was on the God side, and therefore I ought to be. I can hardly afford to take Webster’s ideas of another world, when his ideas about this were so bad. When bloodhounds were pursuing a woman through the tangled swamps of the South—she hungry for liberty—Webster took the side of the bloodhounds. Such a man is no authority for me. Bacon denied the Copernican system of astronomy; he is an unsafe guide. Wesley believed in witches; I cannot follow him. No man should quote a name instead of an argument; no man should bring forward a person instead of a principle, unless he is willing to accept all the ideas of that person.
Question. Is not a pleasant illusion preferable to a dreary truth—a future life being in question?
Answer. I think it is. I think that a pleasing illusion is better then a terrible truth, so far as its immediate results are concerned. I would rather think the one I love living, than to think her dead. I would rather think that I had a large balance in bank than that my account was overdrawn. I would rather think I was healthy than to know that I had a cancer. But if we have an illusion, let us have it pleasing. The orthodox illusion is the worst that can possibly be conceived. Take hell out of that illusion, take eternal pain away from that dream, and say that the whole world is to be happy forever—then you might have an excuse for calling it a pleasant illusion; but it is, in fact, a nightmare —a perpetual horror—a cross, on which the happiness of man has been crucified.
Question. Are not religion and morals inseparable?
Answer. Religion and morality have nothing in common, and yet there is no religion except the practice of morality. But what you call religion is simply superstition. Religion as it is now taught teaches our duties toward God—our obligations to the Infinite, and the results of a failure to discharge those obligations. I believe that we are under no obligations to the Infinite; that we cannot be. All our obligations are to each other, and to sentient beings. “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved,” has nothing to do with morality. “Do unto other as ye would that others should do unto you” has nothing to do with believing in the Lord Jesus Christ. Baptism has nothing to do with morality. “Pay your honest debts.” That has nothing to do with baptism. What is called religion is simple superstition, with which morality has nothing to do.
The churches do not prevent people from committing natural offences, but restrain them from committing artificial ones. As for instance, the Catholic Church can prevent one of its members from eating meat on Friday, but not from whipping his wife. The Episcopal Church can prevent dancing, it may be, in Lent, but not slander. The Presbyterian can keep a man from working on Sunday, but not from practicing deceit on Monday. And so I might go through the churches. They lay the greater stress upon the artificial offences. Those countries that are the most religious are the most immoral. When the world was under the control of the Catholic Church, it reached the very pit of immorality, and nations have advanced in morals just in proportion that they have lost Christianity.
Question. It is frequently asserted that there is nothing new in your objections against Christianity. What is your reply to such assertions?
Answer. Of course, the editors of religious papers will say this; Christians will say this. In my opinion, an argument is new until it has been answered. An argument is absolutely fresh, and has upon its leaves the dew of morning, until it has been refuted. All men have experienced, it may be, in some degree, what we call love. Millions of men have written about it. The subject is of course old. It is only the presentation that can be new. Thousands of men have attacked superstition. The subject is old, but the manner in which the facts are handled, the arguments grouped—these may be forever new. Millions of men have preached Christianity. Certainly there is nothing new in the original ideas. Nothing can be new except the presentation, the grouping. The ideas may be old, but they may be clothed in new garments of passion; they may be given additional human interest. A man takes a fact, or an old subject, as a sculptor takes a rock; the rock is not new. Of this rock he makes a statue; the statue is new. And yet some orthodox man might say there is nothing new about that statue: “I know the man that dug the rock; I know the owner of the quarry.” Substance is eternal; forms are new. So in the human mind certain ideas, or in the human heart certain passions, are forever old; but genius forever gives them new forms, new meanings; and this is the perpetual originality of genius.
Question. Do you consider that churches are injurious to the community?
Answer. In the exact proportion that churches teach falsehood; in the exact proportion that they destroy liberty of thought, the free action of the human mind; in the exact proportion that they teach the doctrine of eternal pain, and convince people of its truth—they are injurious. In the proportion that they teach morality and justice, and practice kindness and charity—in that proportion they are a benefit. Every church, therefore, is a mixed problem—part good and part bad. In one direction it leads toward and sheds light; in the other direction its influence is entirely bad.
Now, I would like to civilize the churches, so that they will be able to do good deeds without building bad creeds. In other words, take out the superstitious and the miraculous, and leave the human and the moral.
Question. Why do you not respond to the occasional clergyman who replies to your lectures?
Answer. In the first place, no clergyman has ever replied to my lectures. In the second place, no clergyman ever will reply to my lectures. He does not answer my arguments—he attacks me; and the replies that I have seen are not worth answering. They are far below the dignity of the question under discussion. Most of them are ill-mannered, as abusive as illogical, and as malicious as weak. I cannot reply without feeling humiliated. I cannot use their weapons, and my weapons they do not understand. I attack Christianity because it is cruel, and they account for all my actions by putting behind them base motives. They make it at once a personal question. They imagine that epithets are good enough arguments with which to answer an Infidel. A few years ago they would have imprisoned me. A few years before that they would have burned me. We have advanced. Now they only slander; and I congratulate myself on the fact that even that is not believed. Ministers do not believe each other about each other. The truth has never yet been ascertained in any trial by a church. The longer the trial lasts, the obscurer is the truth. They will not believe each other, even on oath; and one of the most celebrated ministers of this country has publicly announced that there is no use in answering a lie started by his own church; that if he does answer it—if he does kill it—forty more lies will come to the funeral.
In this connection we must remember that the priests of one religion never credit the miracles of another religion. Is this because priests instinctively know priests? Now, when a Christian tells a Buddhist some of the miracles of the Testament, the Buddhist smiles. When a Buddhist tells a Christian the miracles performed by Buddha, the Christian laughs. This reminds me of an incident. A man told a most wonderful story. Everybody present expressed surprise and astonishment, except one man. He said nothing; he did not even change countenance. One who noticed that the story had no effect on this man, said to him: “You do not seem to be astonished in the least at this marvelous tale.” The man replied, “No; I am a liar myself.”
You see, I am not trying to answer individual ministers. I am attacking the whole body of superstition. I am trying to kill the entire dog, and I do not feel like wasting any time killing fleas on that dog. When the dog dies, the fleas will be out of provisions, and in that way we shall answer them all at once.
So, I do not bother myself answering religious newspapers. In the first place, they are not worth answering; and in the second place, to answer would only produce a new crop of falsehoods. You know, the editor of a religious newspaper, as a rule, is one who has failed in the pulpit; and you can imagine the brains necessary to edit a religious weekly from this fact. I have known some good religious editors. By some I mean one. I do not say that there are not others, but I do say I do not know them. I might add, here, that the one I did know is dead.
Since I have been in this city there have been some “replies” to me. They have been almost idiotic. A Catholic priest asked me how I had the impudence to differ with Newton. Newton, he says, believed in a God; and I ask this Catholic priest how he has the impudence to differ with Newton. Newton was a Protestant. This simply shows the absurdity of using men’s names for arguments. This same priest proves the existence of God by a pagan orator. Is it possible that God’s last witness died with Cicero? If it is necessary to believe in a God now, the witnesses ought to be on hand now.
Another man, pretending to answer me, quotes Le Conte, a geologist; and according to this geologist we are “getting very near to the splendors of the great white throne.” Where is the great white throne? Can any one, by studying geology, find the locality of the great white throne? To what stratum does it belong? In what geologic period was the great white throne formed? What on earth has geology to do with the throne of God?
The truth is, there can be no reply to the argument that man should be governed by his reason; that he should depend upon observation and experience; that he should use the faculties he has for his own benefit, and the benefit of his fellow-man. There is no answer. It is not within the power of man to substantiate the supernatural. It is beyond the power of evidence.
Question. Why do the theological seminaries find it difficult to get students?
Answer. I was told last spring, at New Haven, that the “theologs,” as they call the young men there being fitted for the ministry, were not regarded as intellectual by all the other students. The orthodox pulpit has no rewards for genius. It has rewards only for stupidity, for belief—not for investigation, not for thought; and the consequence is that young men of talent avoid the pulpit. I think I heard the other day that of all the students at Harvard only nine are preparing for the ministry. The truth is, the ministry is not regarded as an intellectual occupation. The average church now consists of women and children. Men go to please their wives, or stay at home and subscribe to please their wives; and the wives are beginning to think, and many of them are staying at home. Many of them now prefer the theatre or the opera or the park or the seashore or the forest or the companionship of their husbands and children at home.
Question. How does the religious state of California compare with the rest of the Union?
Answer. I find that sensible people everywhere are about the same, and the proportion of Freethinkers depends on the proportion of sensible folks. I think that California has her full share of sensible people. I find everywhere the best people and the brightest people—the people with the most heart and the best brain—all tending toward free thought. Of course, a man of brain cannot believe the miracles of the Old and New Testaments. A man of heart cannot believe in the doctrine of eternal pain. We have found that other religions are like ours, with precisely the same basis, the same idiotic miracles, the same Christ or Saviour. It will hardly do to say that all others like ours are false, and ours the only true one, when others substantially like it are thousands of years older. We have at last found that a religion is simply an effort on the part of man to account for what he sees, what he experiences, what he feels, what he fears, and what he hopes. Every savage has his philosophy. That is his religion and his science.
The religions of to-day are the sciences of the past; and it may be that the sciences of to-day will be the religions of the future, and that other sciences will be as far beyond them as the science of to-day is beyond the religion of to-day. As a rule, religion is a sanctified mistake, and heresy a slandered fact. In other words, the human mind grows—and as it grows it abandons the old, and the old gets its revenge by maligning the new.