Bashing Ingersoll,
Or Portrait Of O'Hair?
Randy Sweatt

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Randy Sweatt"
Subject: Re: Ingersoll and O'Hair
Date: January 01, 2002 8:20 AM

It's one thing to be in the Navy and thus you've ordered your life around the very high likelihood that you will move many times. However, I had hoped never to move again (I had hoped to live there until [a] I die, or [b] some estate of some kind kicks down enough to get me a small cottage on a quiet cul de sac). There are a lot of things about my lifestyle (particularly regarding my choice of possessions) that would be different if I knew I'd have been moving in the coming years. I have lived out of a duff before: if it didn't fit in the bag, it stayed behind.

In addition, my health is such that I really have no business moving. The other guy won the fight because he is older, and supposedly older people aren't supposed to move. However, he is holding down a job doing physical labor and he just moved here from Alaska a year ago. Meanwhile, I have been too frail to hold down a full-time job for the past 17 years. Anybody who even glances at this case would conclude the same thing: he was violating the disturbance clause of his lease with impunity, lying to the manager, and being real sneaky about the whole thing; I was being more patient than most would have been in the same situation. Unfortunately, the on-site manager's husband belongs to one of those very strict religious sects that doesn't think very highly of atheists (or anybody else not a member of that particular sect, for that matter). I now realize that he'd been quite busy sabotaging my case against the other tenant, and he eventually sabotaged my very tenancy there. And I can make a strong case that this behavior was prompted by the bigotry that his sect teaches. Unfortunately, I cannot do anything because he is the husband, not the employee.

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I can say, without hesitation and with little thought, that the man I'd most like to meet, living or dead, would be Thomas Paine. I am convinced that Thomas Paine's person was every bit as noble as his writing. Even if the rumors of his alcoholism were true (are true?), this would not put a dent in my respect for this man: we know enough about him and can trust that we have a very accurate portrait of his life. As much as I would like to discuss intervening history with Jefferson or even Madison, Paine would be my choice were I limited to only one, and I base this on how well I think we'd get along. stigmatize

That said, I would like to remind myself of something that Paine said (though the exact words evade me, for now): It matters not who said it, but rather what was said. Now, what Paine said and how he worded these sentiments is, of course, much fuller than this feeble attempt of mine. But Paine was urging us to divorce the idea from the person who either originated the idea or propagated it further.

With this in mind, I'd like to look first at Ingersoll and then at O'Hair, as I think we need to see a few things about each in order to filter through the bias in this biographical sketch. With it, we can have a more balanced and hopefully more accurate picture of Ingersoll the man when we read Ingersoll the prose. We must keep in mind, though, that when we read Ingersoll the prose, we are reading prose, we are not "reading" a man. Who Ingersoll was and what kind of life he led affects our understanding of the prose only to the extent that Ingersoll may or may not have been a hypocrite -- that is, only the extent to which the values by which he lived differed significantly from those he advocated from the lecturn.

Did Robert Green Ingersoll practice what he preached?

This, I think, is the only manner in which a writer's personal values can affect the integrity of his writing; unless this is the question we are asking, the writer's values do not, in my opinion, affect the integrity of his or her writing. I certainly don't consider differences between his values and those which are popular by today's standards as affecting the integrity of anyone's work. Hypocrisy is one thing, but the times and places where one lived are a given and cannot be changed by the individual: this is all anybody has to work with.

Any time we read about people of the mid- to late-nineteenth century we must face the fact that many if not most people's views on such things as race (and many other subjects) were vastly different from how those views are commonly held today. I am constantly having to remind myself that I lived through the 1960s and watched many changes unfold, that I am now aware (as I was not, back then) that those were times of unprecedented social upheaval and change. I watched my parents and their parents being forced by the culture-wide awakening to change their tune on many subjects. However, since the one that most vividly showcases this change is the view on race relations, I will use race relations as my example throughout this piece, although I could be (and am) talking about any number of viewpoints that changed during this time.

Culturally speaking, these views underwent a drastic change during the course of my childhood. Those who are only slightly younger than I were born into a world that had already undergone these fundamental changes: how far back this all took place is all but irrelevant unless you happened to live through it.

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What Ingersoll May Have Wanted for His Audience

When we look at Ingersoll's writings, we notice several sketches of people he admired. Among those, we have almost as many different pieces about Thomas Paine as we have other individuals combined.

When I say that Ingersoll showcased the lives of people he admired, I could very well be saying that he wanted his audiences to admire these individuals. Whether Ingersoll personally admired Paine is irrelevant to much of what Ingersoll was probably doing with the information he incorporated into the lecture tours he made. This sentiment of wanting to urge the "the people" or "the c ommon people" on to a nobler calling was common during both Paine's and Ingersoll's days. Thus we have people such as George Washington asserting that religion is good for the people of the country, although Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln were the three Presidents who, if it came out irrefutably that they were atheists, I would not be the least bit surprised. Religion was needed for the masses, but Washington did not need it for himself.

John Adams made this point most clearly, in a widely misunderstood remark that he made in a personal letter to the then-retired President Thomas Jefferson:

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Twenty times in the course of my late reading have I been on the point of breaking out, "This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it!!!" But in this exclamation I would have been as fanatical as Bryant or Cleverly. Without religion this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company, I mean hell.

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The superstition that a moral society could not be had without religion was almost universal two-hundred years ago, and is popular though thoroughly refuted today. Because of this, the men who led our great nation made sure to give plenty of lip-service to religion.

In a similar sense, I can see Robert Green Ingersoll, a very influential speaker and writer who toured the country giving his series of lectures. In so doing, he used his talents, in part, for what he thought was the good of his nation. Regardless of what Ingersoll actually thought about Thomas Paine, for example, he knew that to expose the public to Paine's legacy could only strengthen patriotism for the Union, which was sorely needed at the time. He also knew Paine to be one of the most influential writers on "our side" of the religious question. In addition, the story of Paine's having been literally forgotten by the people of the United States because of his views on religion cannot but inspire any American interested in that very brand of Liberty advocated by Paine himself. And Ingersoll at least felt the need to popularize some of Paine's values, even if he did not live up to them himself.

Having tried to incorporate some of Paine's values into my own life on occasion, I can say that for someone to fail to live up to these ideals is no shameful deed.

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Madalyn Murray O'Hair's Mixed Agenda

That it took a Madalyn Murray O'Hair to write the unbecoming biography of Ingersoll speaks only to the pre-1970s tendency to hide the warts and blemishes of our heroes. Surrealistic novelist William S. Burroughs credits Richard M. Nixon with ending this situation:

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I think that Richard Nixon will go down in history as a true folk hero, who struck a vital blow to the whole diseased concept of the revered image and gave the American virtue of irreverence and skepticism back to the people.

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I'm not ready to give Nixon all the credit, but Burroughs does point out a crucial difference between how we dealt with, say, the amorous affairs of John F. Kennedy, compared with how we responded to those of Bill Clinton. Many changes occurred during the 1960s and 1970s, and Madalyn Murray O'Hair was directly responsible for some of those changes. I am ready to accept her claim that the word atheist pretty much stopped being a synonym for Communist due primarily to her efforts.

But much of the reason O'Hair's efforts did not produce more change than they did was due to her very abrasive personality. If anybody is going to write an unsympathetic biography of Ingersoll it would be her. In addition, if anybody is going to take a little dirt and make it the main focus of a piece, I suspect she would be the one to do that, as well.

Most of all, I think much of the way this biographical sketch turned out has to do with the differences not between Ingersoll's stated ideology versus his life but more with the differences between the cultural values of the nineteenth century versus those of today. And I can see where O'Hair is coming from: If you take the long and noble list of Freethought heroes and examine thier social views, you will notice that a large chunk of them held views that we would call "Progressive," view that, for whatever reason, tended to "stick" over the course of the following century. Many Freethinkers were abolitionists, suffragists, and the like. Even when they were sympathetic with the Capitalistic spirit, they often were at least supportive of workers' rights and unions and such. The "Wobblies" (IWW) is a prime example of such a movement whose leadership was openly atheistic -- or, at least highly critical of religion. The portion of humanity who considered themselves Freethinkers or atheists contained a higher than average per capita supporting such movements that were considered "radical" back then but have since become assimilated into society to the point where we would consider some of them part of "the System," part of what today's radicals would say needs changing.

A smaller than average chunk of the Freethinkers tended to hold views that would have made you feel the way you felt when reading this sketch of Ingersoll. I can easily place Henry Ford well within that category. I don't know enough about P. T. Barnum to say either way, but I think I'd be surprised if I were to find out he had been a "radical." There are others but I cannot, off the top of my head, think of any names. However, I can sit here for several minutes rattling off name after name of atheists who held "radical" ideas! This is part of the point I'm trying to make: the Fords and Ingersolls were in the minority, and even more so amongst atheists, agnostics, Freethinkers, and the like. A few atheists went even further, forming groups of atheistic racists, who used the Theory of Evolution to justify their racist views. You will find many people listed on the "Famous Dead Non-Theists" web page who will never be represented in atheistic web site's collection of Quotations. They were atheists, and that's all that some modern atheists have in common with them.

Atheism is the absence of theism: nothing more and nothing less. Atheists come in all stripes and colors, as you will see in the "Famous Dead Non-Theists" web page. Positive Atheism has extended a hand of friendship to the Raëlians, an atheistic religion that opposes Darwinism in favor of what they call Extraterrestrial Intelligent Design (the aliens created life). We also felt the need to remind a few of our fellows that being racists does not stop the World Church of the Creator from rightly being called "an atheist group." But in the interest of balance and fairness, we also reminded the press that to refer to them as "an atheist group" is somewhat irresponsible, since atheism is a very minor aspect of what they do: almost a fluke. The press should stick to calling them "a racist group," since their racism, not their atheism, is the main point of their existence.

Remember, there wasn't nearly the spirit of opposition as there is today: there wasn't even much of an awareness except among a handful of "radicals" -- many of whom happen to end up among today's Freethought heroes. Even thirty years ago, racism was not considered the shocking taboo that it is today. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that some of the anti-racist movements are even overdoing it, having carried it much further than they needed to. But while the fringes of the anti-racism movements (and other progressive movements; I use them to exemplify the whole, remember) explore the boundaries and possibilities, the very mainstream of society itself has shifted toward what back then would have been considered very radical.

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O'Hair's Self-Portrait of Ingersoll

Having set this groundwork, it's only a matter of suggesting that O'Hair probably did two things with this biography that I would have done differently.

First, she compared Ingersoll's times with ours, rather than comparing Ingersoll to his own message. How Ingersoll lived is very much a product of the situation into which he was born combined with what he did with the cards that were dealt to him. He was no Wobbly, that's for sure; but then, he never had to feel the sting of injustice which created the need for the Wobblies to arise. Only part of what he did was the result of individual decisions that he made: much of where life took him are places that O'Hair herself might have gone had she worn the same pair of shoes.

I can relate: I might not have become an atheistic activist had I not been incarcerated ("held") for refusing, on religious grounds, a court's order to attend a faith-based rehabilitation program (even though sending me to any rehabilitation program at all was inappropriate). Even if I had seen the same opportunities, I might not have pursued them had I been happy where I was.

Secondly, O'Hair judged Ingersoll against the mainstream of how other Freethinkers lived and thought, rather than giving Ingersoll the benefit of the doubt due to his times. Had she acknowledged that a larger than average percentage of nineteenth-century atheists were "radicals," she could have at least shown that Ingersoll was off to the side amongst atheists, though not all that wide of the mark when compared to the average American of the times. In fact, with the exception of the atheists and agnostics, someone writing from O'Hair's perspective might be able to unflatteringly portray just about anybody who lived during that century.

To accomplish her goal, O'Hair should have spent more energy trying to make Ingersoll a hypocrite rather than portraying him as simply holding and even exemplifying those values which, for good reason, are much less common in our day than they were in his. That way, she could have truly shown him to be the crumb that this piece, at first glance, makes him out to be. Instead, she ends up making a lot of noise without saying all that much; that is, what I'd expect from one of Ingersoll's ideological opponents. And for what? She went further than she had to and ended up tarnishing the reputation of a man when what we really need are a few heroes -- warts and all -- and to have a balanced portrayal of those heroes. We shouldn't settle for candy-coated dedications but neither should we tolerate unduly harsh critiques, particularly from our own side.

But wait! Did I say this is what we could expect from one of Ingersoll's ideological opponents? You bet! So am I calling O'Hair one of Ingersoll's ideological opponents? That's exactly what I'm doing! With a single notable exception, Ingersoll, according to this piece, stood for almost everything that O'Hair was against. And O'Hair stood just as strongly for the so-called radical positions as she did for atheism and, at times, even more so.

When writing as an atheist, it's impossible not to bring other issues into play: atheism, as I have pointed out many times, is pretty much a nonissue. Atheism is little more than a way to distinguish ourselves from theists. Once an atheistic writer admits this, she or he is free to write about any subject as personal opinion, and to relate it to atheism as she or he chooses. O'Hair, in trying to create an atheistic movement, felt the need to make of atheism much more than I would ever grant to it.

But that's not all. O'Hair proudly called herself an atheist; as such, she was often highly critical of those who called themselves agnostics (and a few other varieties of what I would lump into the category of "atheists"). Ingersoll, like many American Freethinkers during the second half of the nineteenth century, billed himself as "The Great Agnostic." Interestingly, he and most of the other self-styled agnostics of the day were as adamant in their rejection of theism as anybody who was ever distinguished as an "atheist" for similar renitence!

O'Hair points out some legitimate truths about Ingersoll and rightly addresses the tendency to overrate our heroes ("we cannot make a 'saint' of him"). All this, however, might be a diversion from her real point of this sketch. O'Hair had a very specific understanding of the word atheist. Like Gora, O'Hair thought that the word atheist meant more than simply "one who lacks a god-belief." To both atheist leaders, a person earned the moniker "atheist" only though the practice of a specific morality: in O'Hair's case, O'Hair's morality; in Gora's case, Gora's morality.

Ingersoll, in the mean time, expressed a specific ideal, not for atheists or agnostics but for humanity. For falling short, one was not disqualified from anything except the consequences of living up to that ideal. And O'Hair did make sure to admit that regardless of whether or not he lived up to his or anybody else's ideal, nobody expressed this particular set of ideals as eloquently or as attractively as Robert Green Ingersoll.

And even if she went to great extremes to get this point across, the point was made that we ought not make a "saint" out of any of our heroes. Of course! The entire concept of "saints" not only belongs to the realm of theism, but is admittedly false: as Ambrose Bierce defines the word in his Devil's Dictionary, "A dead sinner revised and edited." I won't speak for "what atheists ought to know." I will, however, say what I would hope any human would be able to recognize: Nobody has even the makings of what some would call "a saint." Nobody. Anybody who doesn't see this is welcome to what I would consider to be her or his delusions: Ingersoll was bigger than life; Paine was bigger than life; Anthony was bigger than life; Eliot was bigger than life; Jesus was bigger than life.

About the only historical figure I can think of who made sure that nobody mistook her as being bigger than life was Madalyn Murray O'Hair herself! Whether this was because she didn't trust people not to do this to her is anyone's guess, but the one thing I doubt anybody will do is immortalize Madalyn! But with all her flaws, I will say that Madalyn was, in my opinion, as honest as they come. If she said something about Ingersoll I trust that that's what she saw when she opened up her eyes and took a good, hard look at the great orator. In the unlikely event that she got some facts wrong, she was, nevertheless, doing the best she could with what she had and trusting sources that she found trustworthy. If she let a perspective get off balance, this was only because her own perspective was not always that level: I doubt we could make a case that she was trying to pull something over on her readers.

It was Madalyn's perspective that came out on that typewritten sheet, not some pretense. When we read something that Madalyn wrote, I believe we are reading the honest opinions of her mind -- and I believe this more so about Madalyn than any big name in the movement except, perhaps, Thomas Paine.

This is why I try to understand as much about the author as I can when I'm reading about the author's subject. I have studied the tricks of detecting bias in writing since I was in Middle School. It was almost second nature to me to read this and see as much of O'Hair in it as I saw of Ingersoll. Part of the Robert Green Ingersoll that I read about in this article was a side of Ingersoll we wouldn't see anywhere else: Madalyn was deflating the mythical Ingersoll that others had created; Madalyn was using Ingersoll to comment on the writing styles of his previous biographers. Another part of the Robert Green Ingersoll that I read about in this article was a side of Madalyn that came out because Ingersoll was a convenient character to play that role: Madalyn was expressing her understanding of atheism by comparing it with what she saw as Ingersoll's shortcomings; Madalyn was expressing her hope for the atheistic movement by telling us what she wished Ingersoll had done with the cards he was dealt; Madalyn crawled back into the humility that will keep her from ever being seen as bigger than life by admitting that even with Ingersoll's shortcomings, even in light of what he could have done but didn't, he still did more for the movement than most of us could ever hope to do even if we played all our cards right; Madalyn was even admitting to the temptation of seeing Ingersoll as bigger than life despite his shortcomings.

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Six years of service to
    people with no reason to believe

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Added: January 2, 2002

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Randy Sweatt"
Subject: Re: Ingersoll and O'Hair
Date: January 02, 2002 7:33 PM

Gora would suggest that to think you will inevitably act one way or the other because you are of a certain personality type is a form of theism, a form of surrender or submission to (in this case) the inevitable (as determined by something called a "personality type"). Instead, he would suggest simply recognizing this as one more barrier to overcome. Recognizing any barrier as such is part of the solution, but recognizing that we can work to overcome it (or work around it) is another equally important part of the solution.

While I think Gora may have taken this point a little too far in his writings, I have nonetheless benefited from at least holding this particular viewpoint up to a situation to see if I might be "surrendering" to some sort of "power greater than myself" which is not a real power but rather a phantom of my own making: a "theism," in Gora's sense of the word.
 

We do well to recognize greatness when we see it. Even though people can have greatness in but a small aspect of their lives, we can try to find it in others and look for it in everyone we meet. It's also beneficial to share what we love with others: who was it that told you about Ingersoll? and did not Ingersoll tell you about Shakespeare? Paine? Burns? And did not O'Hair show you that Ingersoll is only human?

I try to go about life presupposing that all have something to give. This may not be true in all cases, but I can dream, can't I?
 

This is a very common quirk upon which religious smooth-talkers will prey. It is also one of the toughest of the thinking styles to get rid of when making that transition from a faith-based outlook to one that's admittedly based solely upon one's own human abilities. (After all, even a faith-based outlook is based solely upon human abilities!)

But the style of thinking which allows for perfection to even exist is looking for frustration simply because there is no such thing: one might as well go around thinking that gods exist!

Instead, I am (and always will be) in the process of replacing that method with Liberal Scientific Method, which states that every claim to knowledge is up for grabs (even the law of gravity). That is, anything that we think we know is subject to revision, to being overthrown by a better understanding, based upon newer, better evidence or argument. When submitting to Liberal Scientific Method, the best we can say is, "According to the best evidence currently available, thus and so is true and this and that is false." Now, we can talk about knowledge approaching certainty, where it is laughably unlikely that something will be overturned at this point in humankind's education, but we have laughed before and still had to publish new science textbooks for the schools.

What this also means is that nobody is the arbiter of knowledge. Unlike the wise philosopher class in Plato's Republic, anybody is qualified to submit new evidence, a new finding, a new hypothesis, anybody is allowed to try to topple the existing body of knowledge. A schoolgirl can turn a popular branch of "alternative medicine" on its ear (the Journal of the American Medical Association published nine-year-old Emily Rosa's science fair project which tested the claims of Therapeutic Touch practitioners); a patent clerk can shake the entire school of physics to its very foundation (Einstein was a patent clerk when he submitted his Theory of Special Relativity); a graduate student can make a significant discovery in the field of astronomy (Joycelyn Bell was a graduate student when she identified the pulsar).

So, since nobody holds the keys and anybody can enter the fray, science becomes the ultimate and exemplary expression of democracy, an ongoing and world-level discussion.

Learning to think this way is preventing me from holding anybody in too high of esteem. I no longer get surprised when I hear, for example, that Leonardo da Vinci taught that the beaver, when chased, would bite off his testicles and offer them to the predator as a sort of animal world peace offering. And while I'll admit that I was initially taken aback by this Ingersoll biography, it doesn't really surprise me to learn that Ingersoll was that way, considering the people I've known who liked him versus those who ignored him (though nobody spoke against him, for some reason; Ingersoll was, in this way, an enigma). Neither does it surprise me that some would write phony biographies of him, making him appear as something he was not: this could really damage the credibility of anybody who uses Ingersoll as any sort of authoritative anything in a discussion with ideological opponents! Finally, I am not surprised that O'Hair would hold Ingersoll to cultural standards rather than to his own expressed opinion, though I would have reversed the priority, holding him to his own standards and letting the cultural norms drop back to a less important status.

But most importantly, we do well to be on the lookout for our own dependence on styles of thinking that can get us into trouble. It is for this reason that I have so heavily emphasized our "Clues Index," which lists several articles on logical fallacy and other "how-to-think-clearly" pieces. I also assembled my own summary of those I have noticed being used in our Forum and included it in the Introduction to Activistic Atheism, as well as a description of several things to look out for when discussing atheism with others.

The first and foremost thing one (hopefully) notices from reading these things is that we are not and will never become "perfect." The whole point of Liberal Scientific Method is to address our very fallibility. Were it not for our fallibility (everyone's fallibility: look at some of Einstein's later work), we would not need the system of checks and balances that is Liberal Scientific Method, nor would such a system have arisen.

I suspect that our fallibility is the very foundation of learning to think rationally as opposed to using a faith-based method: we are most fallible and therefore must constantly check our work in our quest to find our own answers. In spite of all this, the human is the most intelligent and the most sensitive entity with whom we know we can communicate; therefore, the only thing we can do when checking our work is to invite the scrutiny of other humans (which is what science is all about: submitting one's work to the general discussion specifically for the purpose of asking our peers to try to find holes in it).

This is not simply the best alternative, it is our only option:

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I admit that reason is a small and feeble flame, a flickering torch by stumblers carried in the star-less night, -- blown and flared by passion's storm, -- and yet, it is the only light. Extinguish that, and nought remains.
     -- Robert Green Ingersoll, from the Field-Ingersoll Debate

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Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Six years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

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Material by Cliff Walker (including unsigned editorial commentary) is copyright ©1995-2006 by Cliff Walker. Each submission is copyrighted by its writer, who retains control of the work except that by submitting it to Positive Atheism, permission has been granted to use the material or an edited version: (1) on the Positive Atheism web site; (2) in Positive Atheism Magazine; (3) in subsequent works controlled by Cliff Walker or Positive Atheism Magazine (including published or posted compilations). Excerpts not exceeding 500 words are allowed provided the proper copyright notice is affixed. Other use requires permission; Positive Atheism will work to protect the rights of all who submit their writings to us.