‘The Great Agnostic’: Giving Up Politics To Preach Against Religion


Attention American history buffs, here’s a name you might not have heard before: Robert Ingersoll. According to author Susan Jacoby, he was “one of the most famous people in America in the last quarter of the 19th century.”

“He went around the country,” Jacoby tells NPR’s Rachel Martin. “He spoke to more people than presidents. He was also an active mover and shaker behind the scenes of the Republican Party.”

But Ingersoll is largely forgotten today. His crime? Speaking out in favor of the separation of church and state. Jacoby, the author of a new biography The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought, says he promoted Darwin’s theory of evolution and fought publicly against government interference in religion.

“Because of this, as The New York Times said in his obituary when he died in 1899, he couldn’t run for public office even though he was a big deal behind the scenes,” she says. “Because even then, although most of the Republican presidents from Lincoln on didn’t even belong to a church, you still, if you were an open agnostic or atheist, could not hope to run for public office.”

Ingersoll actually gave up his public career, Jacoby says, because “he thought it was more important to talk about the ways in which fundamentalist religion was a bad thing.”


Listen to the interview at the link below.

Written By: NPR
continue to source article at npr.org


  1. For me, even better than the writings are the audio lectures. Here is a link (all free) to the first set and you can find the second set from there. He predicted religion would die in his lifetime largely because science had better answers. I can only imagine how he’d feel knowing it is still around 150 years later especially given the improvements in the science.


  2. I too always wonder why he is not as widely known everywhere but especially in America as he ought to be, although he has a faithful following of admirers who even organise oratory contests of his Essays. Here’s a link for one of those – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sjgCZkcY730.
    His critical analysis of the Bible was extremely rational and so modern, very outright and brave. For me, he is the 19th century’s Christopher Hitchens – a great and outspoken mind, very much ahead of his time. His speeches were heard by crowds similar to today’s crowds at pop concerts!
    The best reading, the best ‘voice of Ingersoll’ for me is to be found here – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jOPnFYHm5tU – it is very worth hearing. I actually got ‘hooked’ on ‘Mistakes of Moses’ in that voice for a very long time once.
    Looking forward to getting the book – it’s a must since his views are so very fresh and modern, and can be so funny as well, can’t wait to read more about the man himself.

  3. In some ways he’s similar to RD.
    Has RD been offered a knighthood ?
    It will be interesting to know; as to whether he accepts or turns it down?
    But I believe religious delinquents might oppose it?

  4. I like listening to his well-documented lectures (although the actor does sometimes sound preachy). I asked this a while back in a previous discussion and didn’t get an answer – Does anyone know if Ingersoll Avenue in Des Moines is named after him, or is that a different Ingersoll?

  5. PIn reply to #6 by bluebird:

    In reply to #5 by hellosnackbar:

    In some ways he’s similar to RD.
    Has RD been offered a knighthood ?
    It will be interesting to know; as to whether he accepts or turns it down?

    2007 petition for knighthood

    He responds @ comment 71
    Thanks for that reference bluebird it provided an interesting read.
    When did peacebeuponme stop commenting? I remember him from many years ago!

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