An easy to read and engaging biography of this not well-known American hero of liberty, science, human rights, and irreligion. The story of his life is woven into the examination of his liberal progressive positions on social issue of his day, which seem to be many of the issue we are debating still. The short, concise book is a good introduction to Ingersoll if you know little of him and is also interesting to Ingersoll-philes by organizing the chapters thematically around the causes and issues he advocated. So, rather than a strictly chronological read, Jacoby dives, one by one, into the major topics of his many speeches, and interviews: Science, including Darwin's Theory of Evolution; separation of church and state; free speech, especially blasphemy; women's rights and equality; Humanism and Freethinking; and his criticism of the Bible, church, and preachers. The value of a new, modern biography is that it can show us how relevant the work of its subject can still be to us today. With references to recent current events, people and debates, she illustrates how Ingersoll's words and arguments are still relevant. She closes with a chapter addressed to the so called `new atheists' advising that they should be learning from Ingersoll and giving him credit for having advanced the conversation challenging religion over 120 years ago. Highly recommended. If you have never heard of Ingersoll, you will ask yourself, "Why haven't I ever heard of this man before?"
It’s a pity Doc Brown and Marty McFly couldn’t use the DeLorean time machine to get Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899) from the late eighteen-hundreds and bring him back to the future. I’d imagine the Great Agnostic would have mixed emotions about our current philosophical landscape. Ms. Jacoby’s book is not a biography. She does give a little backstory but it’s more of a tribute and an attempt to highlight the importance of his work on many social issues, especially his stances on religion that still very much resonate even today. The author’s wonderful prior works such as ‘Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism’ (2004) and ‘The Age of American Unreason’ (2008) make it clear she is an advocate for reason or fantasy.
As stated by the Boston Globe, Ms. Jacoby writes with wit and vigor. While Robert Ingersoll is little known by most people in 2019, his impact has rippled down through the ages. The talented public speaker and lawyer was very much in demand by both the religious and nonbelievers during the Golden Age of Freethought between 1875 and World War I. It was a time period when many of the progressive positions he defended were not held by the majority of citizens. While he was financially successful, any aspirations he had for government employment where continually rejected because of his unconventional stances. The author explains and uses some of Ingersoll’s material to demonstrate his opinions on the separation of church and state, women’s rights, the importance of science, corporal and capital punishment, racial and sexual equality, birth control, blasphemy laws, and public education. Goodness knows, he was on most religious bigwig’s naughty list and drove his detractors bonkers by continually drawing large crowds while living a happy scandal-free domestic life. The secular humanist took umbrage with social Darwinists and believed strongly in the intellectual equality between men and women.
There are no scandals in ‘The Great Agnostic.’ The book is about giving Ingersoll his due. Ms. Jacoby does a commendable job. It is informative and entertaining. I found it amusing how Ingersoll anticipated the Christian habit of inventing deathbed conversion stories and took steps to make sure it was known he died a happy optimistic atheist/agnostic/whatever. This religious nonsense still plays out today. High-profile atheists Steve Jobs and Christopher Hitchens are two current examples of silly deathbed conversion stories still making the rounds. Ms. Jacoby is an unabashed atheist/agnostic/whatever who uses logic, history, and an engaging writing style to explain America’s secular past and present. Ingersoll said, “Ignorance is the soil in which belief in miracles grows.” ‘The Great Agnostic’ may alleviate some of your magical thinking.
Susan Jacoby's THE GREAT AGNOSTIC reveals Robert Ingersoll as a freethinker who saw no difference between an agnostic, as he was dubbed, and an atheist. He claimed that no one knows whether or not God exists; believers believe it, and nonbelievers don't. He didn't believe it. The term "agnostic," which dates back to 1869, may have been coined (probably by Thomas Henry Huxley) to separate honorable American nonbelievers from the pejorative connotation of the much older term, atheist. In any case, "agnostic" in Ingersoll's time didn't seem to carry the noncommittal connotation it does today, because Ingersoll was quite vocally and cheerfully a nonbeliever.
Jacoby's short, scholarly, hypnotically readable biography of Ingersoll recalls him as a happy man. He became famous as a 19th century American orator, and people flocked to hear him because his talks were so good humored and entertaining. Both believers and nonbelievers enjoyed his talks, and only believers who took the Bible literally (fundamentalists today) hated him.
Ingersoll was not like many nonbelievers of his time, who subscribed to a "social Darwinist" theory that certain classes of people are superior to others. Ingersoll's father had been an abolitionist preacher, and Ingersoll championed human rights--including workers' rights, women's rights, and children's rights. He detested corporal punishment and dramatically spoke out against it. He was far ahead of his time.
He was a happily married father of daughters who grew up without a religious education, but who learned to read the Bible as literature. He was well-read and proud to be an American. He revered Abraham Lincoln, and he resurrected Thomas Paine from obscurity. Among his friends were Henry Ward Beecher (a Christian preacher and the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of UNCLE TOM'S CABIN) and Mark Twain.
Jacoby has done a wonderful service to readers everywhere through her portrait of Ingersoll--whom I previously discovered in her 2004 bestseller, FREETHINKERS. What a marvelous experience it is, in the politically divided American society today, to discover a great 19th century American, Robert Ingersoll.
--Kirsten I. Russell, author of Tales from Tripoli: An American Family's Odyssey at a Libyan Boys' School