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The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethoughtby Susan Jacoby
Synopses & Reviews
During the Gilded Age, which saw the dawn of Americaandrsquo;s enduring culture wars,and#160;Robert Green Ingersoll was known as andldquo;the Great Agnostic.andrdquo; The nationandrsquo;s most famous orator,and#160;he raised his voice on behalf ofand#160; Enlightenment reason, secularism, and the separation of church and state with a vigor unmatched since Americaandrsquo;s revolutionary generation. When he died in 1899,and#160;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 todayandmdash;was the United States founded as a Christian nation?andmdash;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 ofand#160; andldquo;new atheists.andrdquo; Jacoby illuminates the ways in which Americaandrsquo;s often-denigrated and forgotten secular history encompasses issues, ranging from womenandrsquo;s rights to evolution, as potent and divisive today as they were in Ingersollandrsquo;s time. Ingersoll emerges in this portraitand#160;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 allandmdash;liberty of conscience belongingand#160; to the religious and nonreligious alike.
"A rare all-American atheist is celebrated in this provocative if hagiographic sketch. Journalist and atheist intellectual Jacoby (Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism) recaps the Gilded Age career of Robert Green Ingersoll, an influential lawyer and liberal Republican orator dubbed 'The Great Agnostic' for his wildly popular lectures on religion, evolution, and other hot-button issues. Her brisk, lucid study makes him an apostle of irreligion in the tradition of Thomas Paine: a minister's son steeped in Christian doctrine, Ingersoll used folksy humor, clear expositions, and conversational language to extol science and condemn religious cant. (He lampooned the notion of intelligent design by touting cancer as the capstone of God's plan.) She also styles him a paragon of progressive politics and culture — she appends his luminous eulogy for Walt Whitman — and a near-saintly exemplar of secular humanism, complete with deathbed scene bathed in the joyful denial of a world to come. The author sets her frankly laudatory portrait — her afterword enjoins latter-day 'Ã¢Â€Â˜New' Atheists' to honor Ingersoll's memory — in an insightful analysis of the late Victorian clash between a scientific, Darwinian worldview and a fundamentalist backlash. Jacoby is hardly neutral in that culture war, but her stimulating study shows that rationalist skepticism is as authentic and deep-seated as America's fabled religiosity. Photos. Agent: Georges Borchardt." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
A biography that restores Americaand#8217;s foremost nineteenth-century champion of reason and secularism to our still contested twenty-first-century public square
About the Author
Susan Jacoby is the author of ten books, including Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, The Age of American Unreason, and Alger Hiss and the Battle for History. She contributes to many newspapers and national magazines. She lives in New York City.
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