The Quest for the Perfect Atheist
It is impossible not to like Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899), the greatest champion of atheism in 19th-century America (indeed, perhaps in the whole of American history). Susan Jacoby, his most recent biographer, values highly his forthright attacks on orthodox doctrine, but fair-minded Christians have always been apt to admire him as well. His love of life was infectious; his wit was delicious. Colonel "Bob" Ingersoll was a generous, large-hearted man, filled with compassion for those who were suffering or oppressed.
It is right and fitting that, in The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought (Yale University Press), Jacoby would want to celebrate such a life and thereby introduce a new generation of readers to her hero. She does this as a proud member of the atheist community in America.
Christian historical writing has now matured to the point where it has dispensed with hagiography. Christian scholars are convinced that we have as much to learn from the weaknesses and blind spots of our saints as we do from their strengths and achievements. The fledgling American atheist community, however, has not yet progressed this far. Jacoby therefore feels a need to airbrush her portrait into an inaccurate and unnatural perfection. This is all rather endearing: love covers a multitude of sins.
She imagines Ingersoll to be a great lover of learning, a formidable champion of education, and a model dispenser of knowledge to the masses. In truth, he was a superficial student and thinker. The historian Eric Brandt did a study of what sources Ingersoll was drawing on when he would evoke bodies of knowledge, and what he found was that this material was generally obtained secondhand from popular summaries. Instead of reading the historical, philosophical, or scientific work itself he had raided someone else's condensed account of it. Ingersoll even boasted, "I don't read more than three lines on a page of any damn book." "The Great Agnostic" knew he was out of his depth in a learned exchange of ideas and therefore steadfastly refused to debate anyone.
In his rhetorically powerful, highly entertaining public lectures, Ingersoll (a trained lawyer) would ask question after question in order to sow doubt in people's minds about their religious beliefs—a lawyerly technique that saved him the trouble of actually trying to prove any alternative views true. His most celebrated court case involved the Star Route scandal, a national sensation of public corruption. Ingersoll managed to get his clients acquitted even though everyone (including Jacoby) agrees that there is no doubt that the bribery took place. This should be a clue—and one of direct relevance to his skeptical approach to doctrinal claims—that there is a big difference between making people realize how tricky it is actually to prove something beyond a shadow of doubt and demonstrating conclusively that it is not true and that they should abandon their belief in it.