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Rediscovering Robert Ingersoll

06/05/07

  03:28:09 am, by Nimble   , 1622 words  
Categories: Thoughts, People, Religion

Rediscovering Robert Ingersoll

Every now and again, you come across something written decades ago that says a lot about a subject, and you realize that the writer had a surprisingly modern outlook on the subject as well. It is in this frame of mind I found myself after running across Robert Ingersoll's "Some Mistakes of Moses". This was a treatise on the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. While humour is present throughout, he takes umbrage to the idea that the first five books were inspired, accurate and to be used as a moral guide.

That the arguments he uses ring true over a hundred years later is partly due to the skill and craft of a good orator and writer, and partly due to the disappointing backslides towards literal readings.

It's a good enough read on its own, though I will pull out some quotes that struck me.

Talking about the "old creed" (I gather, in this sense, the literalists of his time), he says:

The old creed is still taught. They still insist that God is infinitely wise, powerful and good, and that all men are totally depraved. They insist that the best man God ever made, deserved to be damned the moment he was finished.

This seems prescient, given the political maneuvers of Dominionists of late:

It probably will not be long until the churches will divide as sharply upon political, as upon theological questions; and when that day comes, if there are not liberals enough to hold the balance of power, this Government will be destroyed. The liberty of man is not safe in the hands of any church. Wherever the Bible and sword are in partnership, man is a slave.

One's religion is, in the vast majority of cases, passed from parent to child. Realizing this leads to some worthwhile self-examination...

Had we been born in Turkey, most of us would have been Mohammedans and believed in the inspiration of the Koran. We should have believed that Mohammed actually visited heaven and became acquainted with an angel by the name of Gabriel, who was so broad between the eyes that it required three hundred days for a very smart camel to travel the distance. If some man had denied this story we should probably have denounced him as a dangerous person, one who was endeavoring to undermine the foundations of society, and to destroy all distinction between virtue and vice. We should have said to him, "What do you propose to give us in place of that angel? We cannot afford to give up an angel of that size for nothing." We would have insisted that the best and wisest men believed the Koran.

We would have quoted from the works and letters of philosophers, generals and sultans, to show that the Koran was the best of books, and that Turkey was indebted to that book and to that alone for its greatness and prosperity. We would have asked that man whether he knew more than all the great minds of his country, whether he was so much wiser than his fathers? We would have pointed out to him the fact that thousands had been consoled in the hour of death by passages from the Koran; that they had died
with glazed eyes brightened by visions of the heavenly harem, and gladly left this world of grief and tears. We would have regarded Christians as the vilest of men, and on all occasions would have
repeated "There is but one God, and Mohammed is his prophet!"

Regarding whether or not the Bible is 'inspired':

After all, the real question is not whether the Bible is inspired, but whether it is true. If it is true, it does not need to be inspired. If it is true, it makes no difference whether it was written by a man or a god. The multiplication table is just as useful, just as true as though God had arranged the figures himself.

The Bible talks of a "firmament" in the heavens in which heavenly bodies are embedded, and out of which the waters for the flood of Noah came. Rather than admit the inaccuracy of such pre-scientific mythology, various "what they really meant" scenarios have been proposed, like Morris and Whitcomb's "vapor canopy" to account for the presence of enough now-gone water for the flood. Says Ingersoll:

What did the writer mean by the word firmament? Theologians now tell us that he meant an "expanse." This will not do. How could an expanse divide the waters from the waters, so that waters above the expanse would not fall into and mingle with the waters below the expanse? The truth is that Moses regarded the firmament as a solid affair. It was where God lived, and where water was kept. It was for this reason that they used to pray for rain. They supposed that some angel could with a lever raise a gate and let out the quantity of moisture desired. It was with the water from this firmament that the world was drowned when the windows of heaven were opened.

The following is one of my favourite quotes of the entire work:

Every sect is a certificate that God has not plainly revealed his will to man.

I've always wondered why Christians keep Sunday holy, when the Sabbath definitely seemed to have been Saturday, and still is, for Jews and Muslims:

Since the establishment of the Christian religion, the day has been changed, and Christians do not regard the day as holy upon which God actually rested, and which he sanctioned. The Christian Sabbath, or the "Lord's day" was legally established by the murderer Constantine, because upon that day Christ was supposed to have risen from the dead.

It is not easy to see where Christians got the right to disregard the direct command of God, to labor on the day he sanctified, and keep as sacred, a day upon which he commanded men to labor. The Sabbath of God is Saturday, and if any day is to be kept holy, that is the one, and not the Sunday of the Christian.

One part of Genesis that always raises my eyebrows is what happened just before Eve came along, where all the animals are paraded before Adam (Genesis 2:20: 'And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him.')

Unless the Lord God was looking for an help meet for Adam, why did he cause the animals to pass before him . And why did he, after the menagerie had passed by, pathetically exclaim, "But for Adam there was not found an helpmeet for him"?

It seems that Adam saw nothing that struck his fancy. The fairest ape, the sprightliest chimpanzee; the loveliest baboon, the most bewitching orangoutang, the most fascinating gorilla failed to touch with love's sweet pain, poor Adam's lonely heart. Let us rejoice that this was so. Had he fallen in "love" then, there never would have been a Freethinker in this world.

Then there is one subject that touches close to my thoughts, that of what the original sin was. Murder? No. Rape? No. Theft? Barely.

Can any reason be given for not allowing man to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge? What kind of tree was that? If it is all an allegory, what truth is sought to be conveyed? Why should God object to that fruit being eaten by man? Why did he put it in the midst of the garden? There was certainly plenty of room outside. If he wished to keep man and this tree apart, why did he put them together? And why, after he had eaten, was he thrust out?

When man proved too wicked, God 'had to' destroy everyone except for Noah, his family, and just a few animals. This provokes one of Ingersoll's sharpest retorts:

Why did he fill the world with his own children, knowing that he would have to destroy them? And why does this same God tell me how to raise my children when he had to drown his?

There is far too much material to cover here, though I will make mention that he covers Noah's Ark in quite some detail, including prior myths, the two different Flood accounts, how far animals would have to travel and how they would be fed. The Exodus is covered in some detail as well, including some very odd things one would otherwise miss in one's own reading of Exodus such as... if all the beasts were killed... where did Pharaoh get his horses? Why did God constantly sneak in and "harden Pharaoh's heart" to keep coming after them after oodles of plagues, etc.

The one revelation that amused me there as well, was that the Pharaoh's sorcerers seemed to be equal in skill to Aaron. When he changed his rod to a snake as Moses' request, they did as well. When he turned the water to blood, they did, too. What was it that finally convinced them that Moses was acting via God?

Aaron then, according to the command of God, stretched out his hand, holding the rod, and smote the dust of the earth, and it became lice in man and in beast, and all the dust became lice throughout the land of Egypt. Pharaoh again sent for his magicians, and they sought to do the same with their enchantments, but they could not. Whereupon the sorcerers said unto Pharaoh: "This is the finger of God."

Lice!

The whole screed is a very interesting read, and decidedly controversial even (or perhaps especially?) today.

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