From The Archives
ROBERT INGERSOLL (1833 – 1899)
The Great Agnostic
One hundred years after Christ had died suppose some one had asked a Christian, What hospitals have you built? What asylums have you founded? They would have said “None.” Suppose three hundred years after the death of Christ the same questions had been asked the Christian, he would have said “None, not one.” Two hundred years more and the answer would have been the same. And at that time the Christian could have told the questioner that the Mohammedans had built asylums before the Christians. He could also have told him that there had been orphan asylums in China for hundreds and hundreds of years, hospitals in India, and hospitals for the sick at Athens.
Here it may be well enough to say that all hospitals and asylums are not built for charity. They are built because people do not want to be annoyed by the sick and the insane. If a sick man should come down the street and sit upon your doorstep, what would you do with him? You would have to take him into your house or leave him to suffer. Private families do not wish to take the burden of the sick. Consequently, in self-defence, hospitals are built so that any wanderer coming to a house, dying, or suffering from any disease, may immediately be packed off to a hospital and not become a burden upon private charity. The fact that many diseases are contagious rendered hospitals necessary for the preservation of the lives of the citizens. The same thing is true of the asylums. People do not, as a rule, want to take into their families, all the children who happen to have no fathers and mothers. So they endow and build an asylum where those children can be sent—and where they can be whipped according to law. Nobody wants an insane stranger in his house. The consequence is, that the community, to get rid of these people, to get rid of the trouble, build public institutions and send them there.
Now, then, to come to the point, to answer the interrogatory often flung at us from the pulpit, What institutions have Infidels built? In the first place, there have not been many Infidels for many years and, as a rule, a known Infidel cannot get very rich, for the reason that the Christians are so forgiving and loving they boycott him. If the average Infidel, freely stating his opinion, could get through the world himself, for the last several hundred years, he has been in good luck. But as a matter of fact there have been some Infidels who have done some good, even from a Christian standpoint. The greatest charity ever established in the United States by a man—not by a community to get rid of a nuisance, but by a man who wished to do good and wished that good to last after his death—is the Girard College in the city of Philadelphia. Girard was an Infidel. He gained his first publicity by going like a common person into the hospitals and taking care of those suffering from contagious diseases—from cholera and smallpox. So there is a man by the name of James Lick, an Infidel, who has given the finest observatory ever given to the world. And it is a good thing for an Infidel to increase the sight of men. The reason people are theologians is because they cannot see. Mr. Lick has increased human vision, and I can say right here that nothing has been seen through the telescope, calculated to prove the astronomy of Joshua. Neither can you see with that telescope a star that bears a Christian name. The reason is that Christianity was opposed to astronomy. So astronomers took their revenge, and now there is not one star that glitters in all the vast firmament of the boundless heavens that has a Christian name. Mr. Carnegie has been what they call a public-spirited man. He has given millions of dollars for libraries and other institutions, and he certainly is not an orthodox Christian.
Infidels, however, have done much better even than that. They have increased the sum of human knowledge. John W. Draper, in his work on “The Intellectual Development of Europe,” has done more good to the American people and to the civilized world than all the priests in it. He was an Infidel. Buckle is another who has added to the sum of human knowledge. Thomas Paine, an Infidel, did more for this country than any other man who ever lived in it.
Most of the colleges in this country have, I admit, been founded by Christians, and the money for their support has been donated by Christians, but most of the colleges of this country have simply classified ignorance, and I think the United States would be more learned than it is to-day if there never had been a Christian college in it. But whether Christians gave or Infidels gave has nothing to do with the probability of the Jonah story or with the probability that the mark on the dial went back ten degrees to prove that a little Jewish king was not going to die of a boil. And if the Infidels are all stingy and the Christians are all generous it does not even tend to prove that three men were in a fiery furnace heated seven times hotter than was its wont without even scorching their clothes.
The best college in this country—or, at least, for a long time the best—was the institution founded by Ezra Cornell. That is a school where people try to teach what they know instead of what they guess. Yet CornellUniversity was attacked by every orthodox college in the United States at the time it was founded, because they said it was without religion.
Everybody knows that Christianity does not tend to generosity. Christianity says: “Save your own soul, whether anybody else saves his or not.” Christianity says: “Let the great ship go down. You get into the little life-boat of the gospel and paddle ashore, no matter what becomes of the rest.” Christianity says you must love God, or something in the sky, better than you love your wife and children. And the Christian, even when giving, expects to get a very large compound interest in another world. The Infidel who gives, asks no return except the joy that comes from relieving the wants of another.
Again the Christians, although they have built colleges, have built them for the purpose of spreading their superstitions, and have poisoned the minds of the world, while the Infidel teachers have filled the world with light. Darwin did more for mankind than if he had built a thousand hospitals. Voltaire did more than if he had built a thousand asylums for the insane. He will prevent thousands from going insane that otherwise might be driven into insanity by the “glad tidings of great joy.” Haeckel is filling the world with light.
I am perfectly willing that the results of the labors of Christians and the labors of Infidels should be compared. Then let it be understood that Infidels have been in this world but a very short time. A few years ago there were hardly any. I can remember when I was the only Infidel in the town where I lived. Give us time and we will build colleges in which something will be taught that is of use. We hope to build temples that will be dedicated to reason and common sense, and where every effort will be made to reform mankind and make them better and better in this world.
I am saying nothing against the charity of Christians; nothing against any kindness or goodness. But I say the Christians, in my judgment, have done more harm than they have done good. They may talk of the asylums they have built, but they have not built asylums enough to hold the people who have been driven insane by their teachings. Orthodox religion has opposed liberty. It has opposed investigation and free thought. If all the churches in Europe had been observatories, if the cathedrals had been universities where facts were taught and where nature was studied, if all the priests had been real teachers, this world would have been far, far beyond what it is to-day.
There is an idea that Christianity is positive, and Infidelity is negative. If this be so, then falsehood is positive and truth is negative. What I contend is that Infidelity is a positive religion; that Christianity is a negative religion. Christianity denies and Infidelity admits. Infidelity stands by facts; it demonstrates by the conclusions of the reason. Infidelity does all it can to develop the brain and the heart of man. That is positive. Religion asks man to give up this world for one he knows nothing about. That is negative. I stand by the religion of reason. I stand by the dogmas of demonstration.