The Atheist at the Funeral

Robert Ingersoll Pollsters tell us that 20 percent of Americans today are secularists—that is, they are atheist, agnostic or unaffiliated with a religion. According to author and atheist Susan Jacoby, the reason why secularists don’t wield an influence commensurate with their numbers is their own reluctance to speak out, “particularly at moments of high drama and emotion,” such as the massacre of the schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut.

Ms. Jacoby expanded on this theme in an opinion piece published last month in the New York Times. “It is vital,” she said, “to show that there are indeed atheists in foxholes, and wherever else human beings suffer and die.” In particular, she suggested that today’s atheists should emulate Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899), the great 19th Century skeptic and freethinker, who frequently delivered secular eulogies at funerals.

Ms. Jacoby has just published The Great Agnostic, a new biography of Ingersoll, who has been a scandalously neglected figure in American history. Ingersoll was a colonel in the Union army during the Civil War. Afterwards, he became a successful lawyer and Republican Party activist. Unusual for a Republican, then as now, he was an economic conservative who at the same time championed the rights of women, African-Americans, working people and the poor. To cap it all, he possessed a charismatic personality and was perhaps the greatest orator of his day.

His “Plumed Knight” speech at the Republican Convention of 1876, where he nominated James G. Blaine for the presidency, set the standard for American political rhetoric for decades to come. As a lecturer, he holds the distinction of having been heard by more Americans than any other speaker until the advent of radio.

So why has this striking individual, who might easily have been President of the United States, fallen into obscurity? The answer lies in his outspoken skepticism of all things religious. As Ms. Jacoby writes in her new book: “Even though Ingersoll was denied the opportunity for public office because of his irreligious beliefs, he was nevertheless very much a part of the social and political establishment. Yet he placed his principles, and his determination that Americans not forget the secular side of their own history, above his considerable political ambitions—something that no aspirant to high office has been willing to do since… well, since Ingersoll himself.”

Ms. Jacoby holds Ingersoll up as a model for today’s atheists, not only for his devotion to principle, but also for his humanity. In his own time, it was deeply frustrating to Ingersoll’s critics that someone who mocked orthodox religion was not an obvious blackguard, but a man of sterling character. Ingersoll was not only honest in his professional life, not only a devoted husband and father, but also warm-hearted, cheerful, gregarious and generous to a fault—a better Christian, in short, than many professed Christians.

He made fat fees as a lawyer and a lecturer, but he was almost always in debt. This was partly because he liked to live well, and to entertain his friends lavishly. But it was also because he gave away huge sums every year to worthy causes.

On one occasion, he received an appeal from a little Negro Baptist church in Texas. A windstorm had blown off the church’s roof. The pastor of the church, who had never met Ingersoll, wrote to him—America’s most notorious scoffer—to request a donation for a new roof. Mischievously, Ingersoll pretended to be puzzled by the request. He wrote back, saying that he did not see why any Baptist church should need a roof. Surely, for Baptists of all people, “the wetter the better.” But he enclosed a substantial check.

Another proof of Ingersoll’s kindness was the fact that this man who said he had no faith in life after death was frequently asked to speak at funerals. In fact, it was Robert Ingersoll who delivered the eulogy at the grave of the poet Walt Whitman. Ms. Jacoby includes the full text of the eulogy as an appendix to her book, and it can also be accessed here. To read it is to understand why Mark Twain once said that when Ingersoll spoke, it was as if molten silver poured from his lips.

While we don’t know exactly what words Ingersoll would have used to console the family of one of the murdered Connecticut schoolchildren, we can make a pretty good guess, based on what he said at the graveside of another child in 1882:

“They who stand with breaking hearts around this little grave, need have no fear. The large and nobler faith in all that is, and is to be, tells us that death, even at its worst, is only perfect rest… There is for them this consolation: the dead do not suffer. If they live again, their lives will surely be as good as ours. We have no fear. We are all children of the same mother, and the same fate awaits us all. We, too, have our religion, and it is this: Help for the living—Hope for the dead.”

Ms. Jacoby is right. America’s flourishing atheist community needs to rediscover Robert Ingersoll—as an inspiration, as a role model and, above all, as a spokesman.

Hal GordonHal Gordon, who wrote speeches for the Reagan White House and Gen. Colin Powell, is currently a freelance speechwriter in Houston. Web site:

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  • John Herr

    Good piece, learned a lot. But do you believe there's a difference between atheism and secularism, particularly as a guide to policy?

  • Hal Gordon

    John — Thanks. I'm not sure I understand what you mean by "a guide to policy." I presume you mean that atheists and secularists both want to exclude religion from the public life of our nation and that therefore there is no difference between them in terms of "policy" — although one may be a believer and still favor a strict separation of church and state. Have I got your drift?

  • John Herr

    Hmm, no, I use "secularism" to describe a public policy guided by factors other than religious considerations, whereas atheism as a policy implies a conscious campaign to drive out religion and/or God out of the public square. Where do you think Ingersoll stood? Where should America stand?