Normalizing Blasphemy: Robert Ingersoll and Freethought’s Great Awakening

Dale DeBakcsy

By 1870, the Dream Team of Skepticism was nearly filled out. The pantheon offered up Voltaire, the dangerous one; Thomas Paine, the popular one; Thomas Hobbes, the broody one; and Baruch Spinoza, the dreamy one. Brilliant all, assuredly, but as a group they tended to contribute to the perception that to be a religious skeptic, you had to be a bit sinister. Preachers made pew-filling hash of Voltaire’s weakness for questionable business ventures and clumsy spy work, of Paine’s last years of grubby poverty and alcoholism, of Hobbes’s dreary political philosophy, and the fact that Spinoza was, horror of horrors, Jewish. All the good they did, all the light they brought to humanity, was a mere feather against the pound of suspicion placed by the priests on the scales of public opinion.

Freethought needed an unambiguous nice guy, a normal “fellah," somebody who lived a harmonious family life in full public view while unequivocally denying the utility of religion for upright living. A person you could point to as an ultimate living argument that goodness, and greatness too, without God was possible. The need was not long in producing the man: Robert Green Ingersoll, America’s most beloved infidel.

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