A Classic American Takedown of Christianity

…but Robert Ingersoll was up against 1,900 years of church momentum

Once upon a time there was a Golden Age of Freethought in the United States, roughly between the end of the Civil War and the start of World War I. That is, there were learned people who stood up in the public square and said out loud that Christianity was wrong. One of the most prominent freethought champions was Robert G. Ingersoll (1833-1899); he was a highly popular orator who toured widely in the U.S., and probably outdid Thomas Paine in his scathing criticism of Christianity. His legacy has been secured because his family took care to preserve the texts of his speeches (see The Ingersoll Times), and Susan Jacoby’s biography is an essential part of any atheist library.

The case can be make that we are today in another golden age of freethought—or to put it more bluntly—an age of outspoken atheism; we can look back on Ingersoll as a mentor and trailblazer. In fact, John Loftus thought it appropriate to put one of Ingersoll’s essays at the beginning of Part One of his 2014 anthology, Christianity Is Not Great: How Faith Fails. And that is the very point that Ingersoll drives home in this essay titled, “The Failure of the Church and the Triumph of Reason.”

But how can anyone argue that the Christian church has been a failure—in the middle of the 19th century or now? There are probably dozens of metrics that show how successful the church has been—and continues to be. And so many Christians are so very proud of the good that the church supposedly does; they are confident that it is a force for good in the world. The history of wars, persecutions and bloodletting in the name of Jesus has faded from memory—or is naively dismissed as irrelevant to practice of the faith today.

The Ingersoll essay, however, is a good tool for cutting through the propaganda; it is a catalogue of so many of the nasty, evil behaviors of the church over the centuries. His refrain through roughly the first half of the essay is “What good has the church done?” And his paragraphs fall like hammer blows; his accusations of malfeasance go back to the beginning:

“Did Christ or any of his disciples add to the sum of useful knowledge? Did they say one word in favor of any science, or 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?”

No, and probably for good reason: Jesus seems to have expected the imminent conclusion of human history.

Ingersoll had a good sense of what a colossal time-waster the church has been:

“There have been thousands of councils and synods—thousands and thousands of occasions when the clergy have met and discussed and quarreled—when popes and cardinals, bishops and priests have added to and explained their creeds—and denied the rights of others. What useful truth did they discover?”

It’s actually great fun to read this essay—well, unless you wish to look the other way when the ugliness of Christian history is recited. We can delight in Ingersoll’s crafting of the language, demonstrating that his pen was mightier than any sword:

“For centuries [the church] kept the earth flat, for centuries it made all the hosts of the heaven travel around this world—for centuries it clung to ‘sacred’ knowledge, and fought facts with the ferocity of a fiend.”

Christians would have us believe that the Bible contains revealed words, planted in the minds of the holy authors. But if there truly is a divine mechanism for doing that, how come, as the Black Plague swept the world in the 14th century, God didn’t see fit to whisper to a few thousand of the wisest humans, “It’s the fleas!” Ingersoll points out that the response of the church—and herein lies one of the great contradictions of god-is-good theism—was ghastly:

“The church regarded epidemics as the messengers of the good God. The ‘Black Death’ was sent by the eternal father, whose mercy spared some and murdered the rest. To stop the scourge, they tried to soften the heart of God by kneelings and prostrations—by processions and prayers—by burning incense and making vows. They did not try to remove the cause. The cause was God. They did not ask for pure water, but for holy water.”

After Ingersoll’s stinging indictment of the church, he prefaces the second half of the essay more sympathetically:

“Let me be understood. I do not say and I do not think that the church was dishonest, that the clergy were insincere…I admit, and admit cheerfully, that believers in the supernatural have done some good—not because they believed in gods and devils—but in spite of it.“

Ingersoll then offers a catalogue of the advances, the achievements, the good deeds of those who ignored faith and investigated the world with unfettered curiosity. He calls these folks “the worldly.” His list of humanist’s advancements is based on human knowledge during the last half of the 19th century, hence the essay may seem a bit dated—and he evinces an optimism that wouldn’t hold up in the wake of the horrors of the 20th century. But his delicious, cutting words make it all worthwhile; scientists, he asserts, “…do not regard men…as children to be cheated with illusions, rocked in the cradle of an idiot creed and soothed with a lullaby of lies.”

When I was growing up on the northern Indiana prairie in the 1950s and 1960s, we all knew about Mark Twain—how could we not?—but no one brought his contempt for religion to our attention. We all knew about Andrew Carnegie—after all, he had endowed our local library—but we had no idea that he ridiculed the scheme of Christian salvation. But we didn’t notice Robert Ingersoll at all. After all, the church has had the custodians of wisdom in small town America in its pocket, e.g., the preachers and librarians who were expected to “protect and defend” received tradition and faith.

But Ingersoll’s hope for the dismissal of Christianity has been gaining new traction. Since the start of this new millennium, there has been an atheist publishing surge—by my count now well more than 200 titles. Tradition and faith are no longer—in the words of the old hymn—“safe and secure from all alarms.”

Of course, Christianity continues to be successful. Given what we see happening in the world these days, it’s hard to be optimist that believers are going to “snap out of it” anytime soon. The church has the best gimmick ever: It’s hard to kill something that promises you can live forever if you believe the right stuff.

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 Tellectual Press.