Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Hearing the Voice of Freethinking Robert Ingersoll

By Gary Berg-Cross

You may have heard that WASH is holding its annual banquet in Lynchburg, VA this year on May 25. All are welcome to come. You don't need to be a WASH member to attend. Details and registration are available at:

It’s a chance to join other secularists in what many call the "belly" of the fundamentalist beast.  It’s an easy label since Lynchburg is the home of the late Rev. Jerry Falwell's evangelical Liberty University and Thomas Road Baptist Church. WASH will be e serving an excellent buffet with a cash bar and food for thought.  Our speaker will be Dr. J. Anderson Thomson and the topic will be the cognitive science of religious belief.

I’m sure that Robert Ingersoll would attend if he were alive today, but I’m glad to see his ideas and life abroad in the land. Bill Moyers had a show on in March 2013 called Fighting Creeping Creationism. The 2nd part of the show, which you can see via the link above, was a wide-ranging conversation with journalist and historian Susan Jacoby who expounded on the role secularism and intellectual curiosity have played throughout America’s history from its founders on.

This is a topic explored in her new book, The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought. Jacoby is the perfect person to play the role of bringing Ingersoll,  “mover and shaker” of the early Republican Party, back into mainstream discussion.  Seven score years ago Ingersoll did the same secular resurrection for Tom Paine.

For most of us Ingersoll, like Paine is largely forgotten today although earlier he was listened to on topics of the separation of church and state, Darwin’s theory of evolution,  women's rights and much more.
His Centennial Oration gives one a feeling about the timely relevance of his thought:

THE Declaration of Independence is the grandest, the bravest, and the profoundest political document that was ever signed by the representatives of a people. It is the embodiment of physical and moral courage and of political wisdom....

Such things had occasionally been said by some political enthusiast in the olden time, but, for the first time in the history of the world, the representatives of a nation, the representatives of a real, living, breathing, hoping people, declared that all men are created equal. With one blow, with one stroke of the pen, they struck down all the cruel, heartless barriers that aristocracy, that priestcraft, that king-craft had raised between man and man. They struck down with one immortal blow that infamous spirit of caste that makes a God almost a beast, and a beast almost a god. With one word, with one blow, they wiped away and utterly destroyed, all that had been done by centuries of war — centuries of hypocrisy — centuries of injustice.

What more did they do? They then declared that each man has a right to live. And what does that mean? It means that he has the right to make his living. It means that he has the right to breathe the air, to work the land, that he stands the equal of every other human being beneath the shining stars; entitled to the product of his labor — the labor of his hand and of his brain.

What more? That every man has the right to pursue his own happiness in his own way. Grander words than. these have never been spoken by man.”
If you would like to hear more about Ingersoll’s “controversial” ideas come to the  Ingersoll Oratory contest in Dupont Circle starting at noon June 30th, 2013. There’s a lot of great oratory to chose from, the great Ingersoll  delivered more than 1,200 speeches to packed houses across the country in the late 1800s. His arguments were usually succinct, thought provoking, insightful and still speaks to contemporary issues.
Fifteen speakers will select their favorite pieces to orate some of these ideas.  Susan Jacoby will be there as one of the judges making it a great event for secular DC.

Also of note, WASH board member Steven Lowe offers walking tours of Ingersoll’s life in DC. Upcoming are morning walks June 20th and 29th.

Sunday, June 23, 10 am: short version** - meet at SW corner 13th & E St. NW

Saturday, June 29, 9:30 am: long version* - meet at 450 F St. NW

*Long Version: a 1.5 mile walk lasting 2 hours, visiting 11 locations.
- Meet at 450 F Street NW.( the Building Museum/Judiciary Square METRO street level)


These take you through the oldest parts of Washington, D.C., to visit the sites where Ingersoll lived, worked, or spoke.



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