From The Archives
ROBERT INGERSOLL (1833 – 1899)
The Great Agnostic
I neither assert nor deny the immortality of the soul; I simply admit that I do not know. Upon that subject I am absolutely without evidence.
This is the only world that I was ever in. There may be spirits, but I have never met them, and do not know that I would recognize a spirit. I can form no conception of what is called spiritual life. It may be that I am deficient in imagination, and that ministers have no difficulty in conceiving of angels and disembodied souls.
I have not the slightest idea how a soul looks, what shape it is, how it goes from one place to another, whether it walks or flies. I cannot conceive of the immaterial having form; neither can I conceive of anything existing without form, and yet the fact that I cannot conceive of a thing does not prove that the thing does not exist, but it does prove that I know nothing about it, and that being so, I ought to admit my ignorance.
I am satisfied of a good many things that I do not know. I am satisfied that there is no place of eternal torment. I am satisfied that that doctrine has done more harm than all the religious ideas, other than that, have done good.
I do not want to take any hope from any human heart. I have no objection to people believing in any good thing—no objection to their expecting a crown of infinite joy for every human being. Many people imagine that immortality must be an infinite good; but, after all, there is something terrible in the idea of endless life. Think of a river that never reaches the sea; of a bird that never folds its wings; of a journey that never ends.
Most people find great pleasure in thinking about and in believing in another world. There the prisoner expects to be free; the slave to find liberty; the poor man expects wealth; the rich man happiness; the peasant dreams of power, and the king of contentment. They expect to find there what they lack here.
I do not wish to destroy these dreams. I am endeavoring to put out the everlasting fires. A good, cool grave is infinitely better than the fiery furnace of Jehovah’s wrath. Eternal sleep is better than eternal pain.
For my part I would rather be annihilated than to be an angel, with all the privileges of heaven, and yet have within my breast a heart that could be happy while those who had loved me in this world were in perdition.
I most sincerely hope that the future life will fulfill all splendid dreams; but in the religion of the present day there is no joy. Nothing is so devoid of comfort, when bending above our dead, as the assertions of theology unsupported by a single fact. The promises are so far away, and the dead are so near. From words spoken eighteen centuries ago, the echoes are so weak, and the sounds of the clods on the coffin are so loud.
Above the grave what can the honest minister say? If the dead were not a Christian, what then? What comfort can the orthodox clergyman give to the widow of an honest unbeliever? If Christianity is true, the other world will be worse than this. There the many will be miserable, only the few happy; there the miserable cannot better their condition; the future has no star of hope, and in the east of eternity there can never be a dawn.