Seeing Through the Christian Faith Is Hardly New

Many Voices of Reason Are on Record

Christianity has two thousand years of momentum. It has prestige, the weight of tradition, people well placed in power, a far-flung empire of churches and cathedrals—and millions of paid propagandists, e.g., ministers, priests, nuns, evangelists, missionaries and doorbell ringers. A colossal—though fractured—bureaucracy supports all this.

Is it any wonder that, over the long haul, atheist voices have been lost or suppressed in this great racket (both in the sense of noise and scam)? I have often referenced the atheist publishing surge of the last two or three decades (Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and Loftus are the tip of the iceberg), but we should remember that many skeptics and atheists have shouted from the rooftops, while quieter ones can be found in the nooks and crannies of history.

The words and deeds of these dissenters have slashed Christian doctrines to shreds. Yet the church survives as a mighty fortress and Christian soldiers keep marching on, backed by a tank corps of indefatigable apologists.

But the voices of reason are on record. I only recently became aware of Émilie Du Châtelet (1706-1749), the mistress of Voltaire, who translated Newton’s Principia into French. She also wrote a 738-page analysis of the errors of the book of Genesis. I’d like to get my hands on that book! So many skeptics to check out.

Of course, many such off-the-radar critiques of the faith can be found if we dig hard enough. When I was a kid, we looked up to Andrew Carnegie; our local library was one he had endowed. But the news did not reach us that he had utter contempt for Christian doctrine. Thomas Edison was a hero, but we never got the word that he labeled religion “bunk”—and even got a 1910 write-up in The New York Times for declaring that he didn’t believe in heaven. Of course, we all knew that one of the American literary giants was Mark Twain, but two of his witticisms weren’t mentioned: “Faith is believing in something you know ain’t true,” and “The best cure for Christianity is reading the Bible.”

And in my childhood I was unaware of the legacy of Robert Ingersoll. When I reflect on Ingersoll’s career and contribution, he is proof positive that Americans nurture collective amnesia when Christianity takes a beating. In the years following the Civil War, Ingersoll lectured widely in the U.S. attacking Christian doctrine and the church. He attracted huge crowds and wide press coverage. He presented the case against the faith so convincingly, but seems not to have made a dent.

I suppose Christianity in America was at one of its full tides during Ingersoll’s lifetime. One of his contemporaries was Elisha A. Hoffman, a Presbyterian minister who wrote hundreds of hymns, including Leaning on the Everlasting Arms—one of the favorites of my Methodist childhood. This is what Christianity had to offer—this was part of the full tide that Ingersoll was up against:

What a fellowship, what a joy divine,
Leaning on the everlasting arms;
What a blessedness, what a peace is mine,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.
Leaning, leaning,
Safe and secure from all alarms;
Leaning, leaning,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.

Even the most pious person knows that, in this world, there is no way to be “safe and secure from all alarms,” but that hollow promise has enormous appeal. So it was a long shot that Ingersoll’s common sense deconstruction of Christianity would gain much traction in middle America.

When John Loftus assembled his 2014 anthology, Christianity Is Not Great: How Faith Fails, he put an Ingersoll essay at the top of Part One: “The Failure of the Church and the Triumph of Reason.” If you want to know what Christopher Hitchens might have sounded like in the 19th century—and you’re not familiar with Ingersoll’s message—check out this essay. It may seem a bit dated, e.g., he used the term “the worldly” when we would say “secular,” and he praised science as its contributions stood at the time.

The first part of the essay is a series of hammer blows. He offers a scathing survey of the Christianity’s indifference to the human situation, ending his examples of failure with the words, “What has the church done?” For example:

“Did Christ or any of his apostles add to the sum of useful knowledge? Did they say one word in favor of any science, of any art? Did they teach their fellow-men how to make a living, how to overcome the obstructions of nature, how to prevent sickness—how to protect themselves from pain, from famine, from misery and rags?”

He then surveys what “the worldly have done,” and recites the accomplishments of scientists, inventors, artists, and writers—in contrast to the stagnation offered by religion:

“The inventor of pins did a thousand times more good than all the popes and cardinals, the bishops and priests—than all the clergymen and parsons, exhorters and theologians that ever lived. The inventor of matches did more for the comfort and convenience of mankind than all the founders of religion and the makers of all creeds—than all the malicious monks and selfish saints.”

Thanksgiving Day seems to have been the occasion for this speech/essay, so Ingersoll recites a list of those whom he thanks—one of whom is Voltaire. Since I had recently come across the fascinating story of the latter’s mistress, Émilie Du Châtelet, we can see why they were kindred spirits:

“I thank Voltaire, whose thought lighted a flame in the brain of man, unlocked the doors of superstition’s cells and gave liberty to many millions of his fellow men. Voltaire—a name that sheds light. Voltaire—a star that superstition’s darkness cannot quench.”

Robert Ingersoll fits properly into the ranks of those whom we can thank. His stinging indictment of Christianity, while seeming a little dated here and there, is by no means outdated. To check him out further, see Susan Jacoby’s 2013 book, The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Forethought, and the website, The Ingersoll Times.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published last year by Telletual Press. >