May 29, 2013
Meet Robert Ingersoll, the most famous American atheist you’ve probably never heard of.
A self-educated attorney and atheist, Ingersoll was a Victorian-era rock star who could pack theaters from Texas to New York with people who came from hundreds of miles around to hear “The Great Agnostic” lecture against religion.
He was courted by politicians, his likeness was carved in stone, and when he died in 1899, newspapers around the country carried his obituary. A Civil War veteran, he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Today, Ingersoll is largely unknown outside atheist circles. But he’s enjoying a bit of a revival, with a critically-acclaimed new biography, a walking tour of Ingersoll sites, a growing number of visitors to his birthplace and an oratory contest in his name.
Ingersoll enthusiasts say the recognition is overdue because the issues he championed remain hot topics — freedom of speech, civil rights, women’s reproductive freedom and, especially, the role of religion in government.
And he did it with flair. Ingersoll had the intellect of the late atheist Christopher Hitchens and the crowd appeal of “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart.
“Ingersoll was the perfect humanist,” said Steve Lowe, founder of the Robert Ingersoll Oratory Contest, which will be held in Washington on June 30. “He was very engaging as a speaker because he used humor and he was outrageous in that he would speak against religion with such fervor.”
“All of that was very titillating, and people would go to hear him whether they agreed with him or not. He did not respect religion, but he respected people who were religious.”