The Magazine

Rational Man

The skeptic who scandalized Victorian America.

Jan 28, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 19 • By KATHERINE MANGU-WARD
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

I would rather belong to that race that commenced a skull-less vertebrate and produced Shakespeare, a race that has before it an infinite future, with an angel of progress leaning from the far horizon, beckoning men forward, upward, and onward forever—I had rather belong to such a race .  .  . than to have sprung from a perfect pair upon which the Lord has lost money every moment from that day to this.

Yet in an otherwise pleasant book about an appealing man who lived in interesting times, Susan Jacoby’s frequent interjections (usually in footnote form) on current American politics are jarring. In the introduction, she suggests that Ingersoll “could never have imagined” the prevalent role of religion in 21st-century American political life, and that he would be “astonished” by the current political scene. She cites an intemperate remark from Rick Santorum about the separation of church and state: The very concept, as expressed in John F. Kennedy’s speech to Baptist ministers in Houston in 1960, makes Santorum want to “throw up.”

It would take a great deal more than that to astonish a man as widely read and traveled as the Great Agnostic, and Santorum is hardly a spokesman for the mainstream on this issue. Jacoby even makes snippy remarks about the atheistic origins of the first name of former Texas representative Ron Paul’s son, Kentucky senator Rand Paul (who denies, by the way, that he is named for Ayn Rand).

Her afterword is a lecture directed at the New Atheists, in which she takes the likes of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins to task for failing to include Ingersoll among their credited influences. She accuses them of ignor-ance and bias against Ingersoll because he is difficult to fit into our modern political categories—all in the kind of hectoring tone Ingersoll himself eschewed, and to his great benefit.

When Hitchens died in 2011 of esophageal cancer, raging and grumping all the way to his grave, he was compared (favorably and unfavorably) to Thomas Paine, who died impoverished and alone, with rumors of suicide and conversion further besmirching an already damaged reputation. Such deathbed mythology has long plagued prominent atheists.

Perhaps mindful of Paine’s example, however, Ingersoll was determined to use his own death to make his point one last time. As the heart disease that had long plagued him began to take its toll, Ingersoll settled in at home. Surrounding himself with family—he got along famously with his in-laws, freethinkers who later curated his papers and tended his legacy—Ingersoll smoked cigars, played billiards, and took one last morning nap before expiring with his wife by his bedside. The Chicago Tribune’s obituary headline: “Ingersoll Dies Smiling.” 

Katherine Mangu-Ward is managing editor of Reason magazine.