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The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought Hardcover – January 8, 2013
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“Susan Jacoby has written a necessary, informative, and intelligent survey of the life, times, and writings of a most neglected figure in American history. A serious and thoughtful reflection on a topic of interest to historians, humanists, and social scientists, let alone general readers, The Great Agnostic will deepen one of the most important of contemporary debates.”—Alan Wolfe, author of The Future of Liberalism (Alan Wolfe)
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My only criticism of this story is that American freethought during the end of the 19th century seems very isolated. Jacoby has called this period the Golden Age of American freethought (in Freethinkers as well as here); it was also the golden age of British freethought, and the two traditions were in regular contact with each other. One example would be contraception, which Ingersoll advocated on the basis of women's right to control their own bodies. It wouldn't detract from Ingersoll at all to acknowledge that freethinkers advocating birth control had a long and important history on both sides of the Atlantic when Ingersoll took up the issue. Of course you can't do everything in 200 pages, but in her letter to the new atheists, the author calls out to readers of some contemporary British atheists such as Dawkins and Hitchens. Perhaps there would be less need to re-establish these ties across the water if we knew more about the ongoing transatlantic interactions between people like Thomas Paine, Richard Carlile, Frances Wright, R. D. Owens, Charles Knowlton, Charles Bradlaugh, Abner Kneeland, Gilbert Vale, and Robert Ingersoll throughout the 19th century.
But that's my own pet project. Read the book! Rediscover Ingersoll!
If we wonder why we have not heard more about Ingersoll, the same might be said about Thomas Paine. Any objective study of the history of 18th century American must surely recognize the importance of Paine to the creation in America of a free, secular, democratic republic. Surely, he ranks with Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin. What kept him from recognition with those founders? What kept such a dynamic speaker and figure as Ingersoll from elective office? Jacoby concludes that it was his challenge to Christian orthodoxy that made him unelectable. And she sees this same prejudice operating today. Very few contemporary politicians have the nerve to state their lack of religious belief. Why should we be surprised at the level of hypocrisy among our elected officials? Jacoby has done well to bring this daring freethinker out of the shadows. And she rightly places him up there with Thomas Paine as a heroic voice in the evolution of our free, enlightened, secular democratic republic.