A taste of Robert Ingersoll 15

To say one is “agnostic” is to say one does not know – eg. whether a god exists or not.

If one does not know that a god exists, one cannot be in a state of belief that he does. A person who says “I am an agnostic” is, at that moment, an atheist. He might be leaving open the possibility that one day he will know for sure whether or not there is a god, but he does not know it now. For now, he is without belief in a god. For now he is an atheist.

To call oneself “an agnostic” is, we think, an attempt to make a statement of unbelief softer, less challenging; to put a little powder on the bare face of atheism.

Robert G. Ingersoll called himself an agnostic. Although we would argue over the implications of that self-description, we like much of what he wrote and said.

Here is the conclusion of Ingersoll’s lectureWhy I am an Agnostic (1896):

One Sunday I went with my brother to hear a Free Will Baptist preacher. He was a large man, dressed like a farmer, but he was an orator. He could paint a picture with words.

He took for his text the parable of “the rich man and Lazarus”. He described Dives, the rich man – his manner of life, the excesses in which he indulged, his extravagance, his riotous nights, his purple and fine linen, his feasts, his wines, and his beautiful women.

Then he described Lazarus, his poverty, his rags and wretchedness, his poor body eaten by disease, the crusts and crumbs he devoured, the dogs that pitied him. He pictured his lonely life, his friendless death.

Then, changing his tone of pity to one of triumph – leaping from tears to the heights of exultation – from defeat to victory – he described the glorious company of angels, who with white and outspread wings carried the soul of the despised pauper to Paradise – to the bosom of Abraham.

Then, changing his voice to one of scorn and loathing, he told of the rich man’s death. He was in his palace, on his costly couch, the air heavy with perfume, the room filled with servants and physicians. His gold was worthless then. He could not buy another breath. He died, and in hell he lifted up his eyes, being in torment.

Then, assuming a dramatic attitude, putting his right hand to his ear, he whispered, “Hark! I hear the rich man’s voice. What does he say? Hark! ‘Father Abraham! Father Abraham! I pray thee send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my parched tongue, for I am tormented in this flame’.”

“Oh, my hearers, he has been making that request for more than eighteen hundred years. And millions of ages hence that wail will cross the gulf that lies between the saved and lost and still will be heard the cry: ‘Father Abraham! Father Abraham! I pray thee send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my parched tongue, for I am tormented in this flame’.”

For the first time I understood the dogma of eternal pain – appreciated “the glad tidings of great joy”. For the first time my imagination grasped the height and depth of the Christian horror. Then I said: “It is a lie, and I hate your religion. If it is true, I hate your God.”

From that day I have had no fear, no doubt. For me, on that day, the flames of hell were quenched. From that day I have passionately hated every orthodox creed. That Sermon did some good.

We cannot understand how Christians can believe that their god loves every human being but will condemn anyone who offends him to everlasting torment.

But then, we fail to understand how anyone can believe anything that Christianity teaches, from the triune god all the way down.

Posted under Atheism, Christianity, Commentary, Religion general, Theology by Jillian Becker on Saturday, December 27, 2014

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This post has 15 comments.

  • Tibor Gaspardyn

    An atheist proffered the notion that all religion is ultimately about economic control of a society. Different societies have differnt gods…all suggest depravity of life on earth; seek wonderment after death…while the representatives of these ideas have privilege (monks don’t get it…free rice compared to gold thrones). Oh. I’m that atheist.

    Peter Popoff mimistries…check local listings if you want to watch religion at work.

    • liz

      Yes, superstitions about the supernatural may have started as honest mistakes by truth seekers, but it didn’t take long for the power and control seekers to make their move and take over for the rest of history, as they have with every other idea that came along.


      Economy rules the universe, my friend! After all..it’s length and quality of existence is all about how economically it’s laws allow every portion of it to operate!

  • liz

    Yes, being a Christian is a bit like being raised in a psyche ward, among the ravings of lunatics. After years of conditioning, it all comes to seem quite normal! And the sane people appear to be crazy….

  • Don L

    “Dimitri…the entire point of a doomsday machine is lost if you keep it a secret…” Dr. Stangelove

  • The problem is, nobody knows if there is a god because knowledge requires some rational basis and there simply isn’t any for the existence of gods. People can claim knowledge, but that’s about as worthwhile as claiming knowledge that unicorns are real. You’re stuck with faulty claims or an incorrect understanding of what constitutes knowledge. Nobody knows. Therefore, using “agnostic” to refer to knowledge is meaningless since it equally applies to everyone. One might argue that it means the availability of knowledge. Can you know that a god exists? I would say yes, in fact, the only way I’d believe in a god is if I had actual knowledge and evidence for the factual existence of a god. Of course, that would make me a gnostic under that definition.

    • Cephus: I get your point(s). Only – just one thing: “gnostic” has acquired a special meaning. Maybe you’d care to glance at a post of ours titled “Gnosticism: what is it?”.

      Here’s the link:


      Also (a much longer “glance”), the essays under Pages (category heading at the top of our margin) titled “The Darkness of This World” (Parts One and Two, and as yet incomplete) are about Gnosticism in our time – broadly speaking, the cult of evil, the reversal of values.

      • Unfortunately, people tend to take generic concepts and make them into labels, then assume that anyone who is talking about the general concept is really talking about their label. It’s like Christians using the horribly uncreative name of God to refer to their deity, then presuming that anyone who mentions a god must be talking about theirs. Before there was Gnosticism, there was “gnostic”. It’s not my fault that they were so horribly uncreative when they picked their name.

        • I was not attacking you, or complaining about your use of the word. I was just pointing out that in the context of religion it has a special meaning. You would not be easily understood if you used it to mean “knowing” in other contexts. It does mean “knowing”, of course, but it is a certain kind of knowing – intuitive knowing – that applies to religion and not to science, as I explain in my post “Gnosticism: what is it?”. This is not a matter of labeling but of common usage and received understanding. The word “Gnosticism” has only been in use for the last three hundred years or so; “the Gnosis” for about nineteen hundred years.


      I can really only know my own personal experiences. Everything else coming from someone, or something else, I can only know second-hand. “Can I know that a god exists?” I must define the word “God” first.

      Spinoza’s god was to him the sum total of the universe. Most popular religions have at the center of their beliefs a “Personal God”….or, plainly put, an emotional God…one that loves his creations, and sees, cares, feels, and knows what His human creations think, feel, and do.

      To me and many others this idea is an absurd self-cancelling, and a strictly emotionally-based, self-centered belief system faintly held together by a purposefully invented word called Religious Faith.

      Webster’s first definition of faith is “strong belief or trust in someone or something.” This faith in people or things is most successful only IF this faith is earned, and not taken for granted.

      This first example of faith can only stand rigid IF there is considerable meticulous research and investigation resulting in proofs about the subject. After all these criteria are met, faith then becomes reliable if no new data is discovered. Any scientist worth his salt will tell you this.

      Webster’s second definition is ” belief in the existence of God : strong religious FEELINGS or beliefs.”

      With zero proof of anything surrounding human beliefs about a Personal God, there can only be a personal emotional attachment to an outcome holding this “house of cards” up.

      If I must believe in something like a “creator,” I must believe in what I call an “Impersonal god” along the lines of Spinoza’s.

      IOW, the sum-total of Forces at work in the deep past of the universe. Some are still at work, having either evolved into different forces that are at work today, or still in their primary form and doing the same job for the billions of years our universe has existed in accordance with all other forces.

      Being strictly natural forces, there is no type of “feelings” for even one tiny particle these forces created, nor is there any sort of supernatural “hanky-panky” involved.

    • I agree with you that “nobody knows.” But some people assert that they DO know that no supreme being exists, and so call themselves atheists. Demonstrating what they claim to know is a problem. The only thing more difficult than proving a supreme being exists is proving that one does not exist.

      • How can it ever be necessary to prove that something does not exist?

        The onus is obviously on the person who claims that the something does exist to prove it.

        It is the very fact that no one has ever been able to prove the existence of “God” that is the strongest indication that he does not exist. “Seeing no reason to believe is sufficient reason not to believe,” as Karl Popper (echoing other atheists before him) has pointed out.

        • liz

          Yes, the fact that no one has come up with any proof “God” exists yet is a very strong indication that he doesn’t!
          It’s interesting that no one argues that point any more in the case of leprechauns and fairies, yet so many continue to insist on making an exception for “God”, despite the equal lack of evidence!

        • I agree. We KNOW the material universe consists of particles and forces. When someone claims to KNOW that a supreme being is behind it all, they assume the burden of proof.

          The comment by Cephus points to ambiguities surrounding the words atheist and agnostic. From the perspective of personal beliefs, agnostics are atheists (as you rightly point out in your opening remarks to your post.) From the perspective of epistemology, atheists are agnostics (as Cephus implies in his comment “knowbody knows” or even can know.)

          • Scio nescio. I know that I do not know. I do not know that there is a god. So as far as I can know anything (in the “wissen” sense of knowing, not the “kennen” sense), I know that there is no god.