Suffolk Humanists

For a good life, without religion

Robert G Ingersoll

Posted by Margaret on Wednesday, Aug 13, 2003

In a way, doing Thought for the Day might be considered good training for a political candidate, as most politicians these days have to present their ideas in as few words as possible. We live in a sound-bite age.

There aren’t many people who can hold an audience in thrall with a speech lasting two or three hours, rather than the two minutes I’m being allowed this morning. I’ve only heard a couple. As an art student, I attended a lecture by the great American architect Buckminster Fuller, who invented the geodesic dome – you can see them at the Eden Project in Cornwall. He spoke for three hours without notes in a small lecture theatre, in a heat wave, but it was fascinating stuff and none of us wanted him to finish, despite melting.

On 21st July it was the anniversary of the death of another great American, the 19th century orator and political speechmaker Robert G Ingersoll, who could draw audiences in their thousands. Ingersoll was famous for his distinguished service as a Colonel in the Civil War, as a defence attorney in controversial cases, and for making speeches on controversial subjects, such as the emancipation of women and African-Americans.

One of the reasons that Humanists like me admire Robert Ingersoll is his opposition to the Religious Right of his day. He popularised the theories of Charles Darwin on evolution, and was a tireless advocate of science and reason. In 1886, Ingersoll defended Charles B Reynolds free of charge. Reynolds was a prominent freethinker who’d been arrested in New Jersey under an archaic blasphemy law. He was convicted, and Ingersoll paid the $50 fine himself. He’d done such a good job of mocking the idea of a blasphemy law in a free society that few have attempted to bring similar charges again.

Ingersoll’s collected works have been published in 12 volumes but there are many short sound-bites to remember him by, such as:

“Reason, Observation and Experience – the Holy Trinity of Science – have taught us that happiness is the only good; that the time to be happy is now, and the way to be happy is to make others so.”

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