The Quest for the Perfect Atheist
Jacoby also touchingly tries to obtain for Ingersoll the reflective glow of others, especially Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman—the Colonel is given full credit for admiring them both, and it is repeatedly intimated that he is of their ilk. There are two appendices in The Great Agnostic; the second is Ingersoll's tribute to Whitman, which he wrote upon his death. Jacoby neglects to mention that when Ingersoll actually met the living poet, Whitman went out of his way to affirm his belief in God, the immortality of the soul, and religion as a beneficial force in the world—and to berate Ingersoll for his attacks on faith. Likewise, we are told that Lincoln was Ingersoll's "hero" and that they were very much alike, but not that in the 1860 election (that is, when it really mattered) Ingersoll not only voted and campaigned against Lincoln, but denounced him as a man "of no character." Ingersoll got along better with such men once they were dead. One could go on in this way.
An 'Atheist Pantheon'
If American atheism is a struggling subculture that is still producing hagiographies, it is also a sectarian enclave which is given to its own, alternative, conspiracy-theory views of events. Mainstream scholars have long debunked the myth that Christianity has been historically opposed to science. Even a 20th-century agnostic scientist such as Stephen Jay Gould knew that historical scholarship made such a view untenable. This discredited perspective continues to circulate in the echo chamber of popular atheism, however, and Jacoby has imbibed it.
Worse, in order to illustrate it, she leads with the most damning example she knows: that Christians opposed the use of anesthetics for women in labor because Genesis is supposed to teach that childbearing should be painful. Especially Calvinists, we are informed, believed that "new drugs to ease pain were ungodly." Alas, this is completely an urban legend perpetuated by an ill-informed atheist subculture. If the warfare-of-faith-and-science myth is the equivalent of thinking that President Obama is anti-American, then the anesthetics clincher to prove it makes one a "birther" in another sense. (For a scholarly demolition of this atheist urban legend, see Ronald L. Numbers (ed.), Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, Harvard University Press, 2010.)
Still, it is hard not to empathize with Jacoby's deep desire to find in Robert Ingersoll a pure and noble atheist undefiled. She longs for an "atheist pantheon" or an "Atheist Hall of Fame." It does not seem, however, that these United States are the logical place to locate such an establishment. If Jacoby were the curator of one for American honorees, one wonders if rather than a pantheon it would simply be a temple dedicated to the cult of Ingersoll. It is not clear who else could be included. She claims that there are two traditions in the American movement: a good one that goes from Thomas Paine to Ingersoll and a bad one that goes from 19-century Social Darwinists to Ayn Rand. It is clear that she has excommunicated those in this second line. (With one doubt clouding the face of a faithful disciple, Jacoby admits that she still finds it "difficult to explain" why Ingersoll himself was willing to give these Social Darwinist heretics the right hand of fellowship.)