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Books > Biographies & Memoirs > Historical > United States > 0300137257
  1. The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought
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  2. The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought

    Delivery: 10-20 Working Days
    Customer Ratings (111 reviews)
    Price R315.00

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During the Gilded Age, which saw the dawn of America’s enduring culture wars, Robert Green Ingersoll was known as “the Great Agnostic.” The nation’s most famous orator, he raised his voice on behalf of  Enlightenment reason, secularism, and the separation of church and state with a vigor unmatched since America’s revolutionary generation. When he died in 1899, even his religious enemies acknowledged that he might have aspired to the U.S. presidency had he been willing to mask his opposition to religion. To the question that retains its controversial power today—was the United States founded as a Christian nation?—Ingersoll answered an emphatic no.

In this provocative biography, Susan Jacoby, the author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, restores Ingersoll to his rightful place in an American intellectual tradition extending from Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine to the current generation of  “new atheists.” Jacoby illuminates the ways in which America’s often-denigrated and forgotten secular history encompasses issues, ranging from women’s rights to evolution, as potent and divisive today as they were in Ingersoll’s time. Ingersoll emerges in this portrait as one of the indispensable public figures who keep an alternative version of history alive. He devoted his life to that greatest secular idea of all—liberty of conscience belonging  to the religious and nonreligious alike.

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Susan Jacoby
First Edition
Yale University Press
Yale University Press
Yale University Press
Yale University Press
Most Helpful Customer Reviews

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... Read more
Susan Jacoby sets out to -- and in her afterword advises "new" atheists to work tenaciously to -- restore Robert Ingersoll to his rightful place in American history. In two hundred pages, she makes a compelling case. Ingersoll was not only a champion of freethinkers, he widened the field for religious moderates and everyone who prefers a secular government and public sphere. And he lived an interesting life in interesting times.

My only criticism of this story is that American freethought during the end of the 19th century seems very isolated. Jacoby has called this period the Golden Age of American freethought (in Freethinkers as well as here); it was also the golden age of British freethought, and the two traditions were in regular contact with each other. One example would be contraception, which Ingersoll advocated on the basis of women's right to control their own bodies. It wouldn't detract from Ingersoll at all to acknowledge that freethinkers advocating birth... Read more
Jacoby introduces the subject of this book, Robert G. Ingersoll, as one of “the two most important champions of reason and secular government in American history---the other being Thomas Paine.” Ingersoll (1833—1899) lived in an era when to criticize Christian orthodoxy was not deadly to one’s life, but deadly to one’s career. Paine lived in an earlier era, when to proclaim one’s nonbelief was to risk one’s freedom, if not one’s life. Both men took great risks, and if the risks are slowly, but surely becoming less life-threatening, it is very much due to brave and clear-thinking men like these. Ingersoll is fascinating because of his broad appeal. He seemed to delight just about any audience---orthodox or secular. He did not preach to the choir. What so frustrated his antagonists was his ability to draw large and enthusiastic audiences in every part of the country. Equally frustrating to his enemies was the indestructible integrity of... Read more
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