The Quest for the Perfect Atheist
Jacoby admits that Paine was not an atheist himself and offers no other American names before or after Ingersoll to fill out this atheist succession. I guess there are some Halls of Fame that cannot find anyone worthy of induction. In short, with such apparently slim pickings, one can see why you would not want to make too much of the fact that Ingersoll had a second-rate mind.
Still Finding Its Way
The first of Jacoby's two appendices is a letter that Ingersoll wrote against vivisection. This is the humane Bob that we all love at his best. Nevertheless, for Jacoby's polemical purposes, it is still a part of her enclave's groundless and twisted conspiracy thinking. She imagines that cruelty to animals was happening because it was "justified by biblical precepts." It is strange to imagine this counter-factual history in which ministers of the Gospel were giving addresses across the nation in favor of vivisection.
Who was actually doing that? The scientists and medical researchers who Jacoby has heroically benefiting mankind by defying and supplanting the clerics. Who actually founded the American Anti-Vivisection Society? Caroline Earle White, an adult convert to Roman Catholicism (a form of Christianity that comes in for Jacoby's special ire.)
Ingersoll's anti-vivisection letter is lovely—ending on the delightful note that human beings should not debase themselves into being merely "intelligent wild beasts"; that they should not deform their "soul" by indulging in cruelty. If one did not know the author you would assume it had been written by a pious Quaker. Indeed, most every social cause Jacoby credits Ingersoll with championing—anti-capital punishment, pro-women's rights, anti-slavery, and anti-corporal punishment—were embraced by Quakers precisely because they wanted to take passages in the Bible more literally than other Christians were doing. To observe that other Christians read the Bible in divergent ways does not seem different in kind to saying that, from my perspective, Ayn Rand is the wrong kind of atheist. And atheist leaders in Communist countries have certainly been enamored with capital punishment and so on.
Then there is Jacoby's running praise for Paine's Age of Reason as a work of "literary skill" that has "stood the test of time." Much of it is actually a puerile anti-Bible rant that reads like the offerings of some self-satisfied sophomore on an un-moderated comment thread. To wit, "Among the detestable villains that in any period of the world have disgraced the name of man, it is impossible to find a greater than Moses." If that strikes you as incisive criticism, there is an intellectual feast awaiting you. The truth, however, is that the masses don't read The Age of Reason anymore: It is actually the Bible itself that has stood the test of time.