The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought by Susan Jacoby

I can’t remember just how I discovered Susan Jacoby’s 2004 book Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. What I can tell you is I absolutely loved it. Like any outstanding book, I learned things from it. Before reading Freethinkers I didn’t know that during the later part of the 19th century America was home to a robust and popular intellectual movement that was incredibly critical of organized religion. In an age before radio and television and long before the Internet, curious and intellectually engaged citizens would pack theaters and ballrooms to hear notable men (and a few woman) challenge Papal infallibility, Biblical inerrancy, the divinely created universe and other accepted orthodoxies. Even taking into account Paine’s atheism and Jefferson’s deism, I always assumed the America of yesteryear while maybe religiously diverse was nevertheless steadfastly religious. Thanks to Jacoby’s book Freethinkers I learned that assumption wasn’t necessarily true.

Over the last few months, I’ve been exploring the section of my public library where the biographies, autobiographies and memoirs are displayed. So far, this has opened up a whole new world of available reading material. After having excellent success with books like Losing My Religion, Pope John XXIII and Pilgrimage from Darkness I hope to continue this practice into the new year and beyond. During one of my recent forays into this area of the library I came across a copy of Jacoby’s The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought. Hoping that this recent book by Jacoby, just like her earlier Freethinkers, could give me a glimpse into that forgotten world of 19th century American secularism, I eagerly grabbed it. 

While I didn’t enjoy The Great Agnostic as much as I did Freethinkers, I still liked it. (I also think I might have enjoyed it more than her 2008 offering The Age of American Unreason. While I thought her points were valid and her arguments sound, at times it seemed like she came off a tad elitist.) I found her portrait of Ingersoll as an intellectual giant and gifted orator who championed progressive causes like gender equality, church-state separation, personal freedom and the advancement of science engaging and interesting. So impressive and well-regarded was Ingersoll that had he’d not been so vocal as a religious non believer (or just lied about his personal beliefs and/or kept his mouth shut like many politicians) he would have been nominated Vice President. An impressive distinction for a person from any age, past or present. No wonder I enjoyed reading his biography.

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