Robert Ingersoll: A Critique

One purpose of our work is to show just how little certain Skeptical arguments and tactics have changed over the years, and Robert Ingersoll provides us with plenty of examples of this. One easily sees in the works of Ingersoll concerned with the Bible foreshadowings of modern Skeptical works; but the shadow is cast by a giant. Ingersoll was far worse than any of these men.

I have chosen to briefly examine two specific works by Ingersoll. One is entitled "About the Holy Bible"; the other, "A Few Reasons for Doubting the Inspiration of the Bible."

General Tactics

How did Ingersoll operate? We discover very quickly that many of his tactics are still in use by Skeptics today, and by way of introduction, we will use comments from the first of the two works we have under consideration, "About the Holy Bible".

Tactic #1: Prejudicial Commentary.

Consider the following statements by him, beginning with one explaining "the origin of the Bible":

A few wandering families -- poor, wretched, without education, art or power, descendants of those who had been enslaved for four hundred years, ignorant as the inhabitants of Central Africa, had just escaped from the desert of Sinai...
At that time these wanderers had no commerce with other nations, they had no written language, they could neither read nor write. They had no means by which they could make this revelation known to other nations, and so it remained buried in the jargon of a few ignorant, impoverished and unknown tribes for more than two thousand years.
The men who did the selecting (of the NT books for the canon -- JPH) were ignorant and superstitious. They were firm believers in the miraculous. They thought that diseases had been cured by aprons and handkerchiefs of the apostles, by the bones of the dead. They believed in the fable of the Phoenix, and that the hyenas changed their sex every year.

We may admittedly recognize a few things that are just plain wrong in the above paragraphs which Ingersoll, writing in the time he was, can't really be blamed for. Scholarship of the period did suppose the Hebrews had no written language or literacy at the time; while this was to some extent true (there was without doubt a written language, very highly developed, and literacy was very low, though not non-existent), it was not a conclusion drawn based on evidence, but on the lack thereof -- and also based on views of ancient peoples held by scholars of the 19th century, which assumed them to be of lesser intelligence.

Commerce with other nations, while obviously limited by the constraints of travel and communication, did exist. Ancient people were not as unlearned as the scholars of the 19th century surmised -- they just didn't have modern technology at their disposal.

But I want the reader to especially note that Ingersoll uses the word ignorant and stresses poverty and "barbarity". He was careful to stress the enslavement of the Israelites, knowing well that his readers would equate slavery with ignorance (this in spite of the fact that slaves are no less intelligent on the average than anyone else). Nor, note well, was he ashamed of the occasional racist overtone (viz.: "the inhabitants of Central Africa"). He stressed a few of the unreasonable things that some of the canon selectors believed, and begged the question of the possibility of the miraculous, in order to tar them with the brush of ignorance and bypass the intelligence that they did possess.

Ingersoll was very much a product of his times: Ancient and "primitive" peoples were looked down upon by much of the scholarly elite of the 19th century as less than capable, savage, and backwards, utterly incapable of anything resembling civilized discourse. One would never know that ancient peoples were capable of preserving material orally quite accurately -- or that they were no less intelligent as a whole than those who live today.

The method went over well in Ingersoll's century, when the educated agreed with him. Today, much of what he wrote would be too outrageous to pass muster in public discourse; but while the implicit racism and much of the bigotry has disappeared, much of it also remains in the tactics of Skeptics today.

Let me add here as a tangent that Ingersoll also made use of a similar tactic when confronting modern peoples. He states, for example, that it is "admitted by intelligent and honest theologians" that Moses did not write the books ascribed to him. Note how one is thereby put down as ignorant and dishonest if they disagree with Ingersoll's point of view: No critical evaluation is performed of each side's arguments; it is merely assumed that those whom Ingersoll agrees with are correct.

Tactic #2: Conspiracy Claims

Like many skeptics today, Ingersoll explained the origin of the Biblical text in terms of a plot to control others. Thus:

For the purpose of controlling his followers (Moses) pretended that he was instructed and assisted by Jehovah, the god of these wanderers.
We know that the idea of inspiration was of slow growth, and that the inspiration was determined by those who had certain ends to accomplish.

Is there any real proof of these conspiracies? No -- they are products of Ingersoll's imagination, a way of him explaining away things that actually happened.

Today we still have many explaining the Biblical record in terms of a clever conspiracy that only now we have uncovered.

Somebody ought to tell the truth about the Bible. The preachers dare not, because they would be driven from their pulpits. Professors in colleges dare not, because they would lose their salaries. Politicians dare not. They would be defeated. Editors dare not. They would lose subscribers. Merchants dare not, because they might lose customers. Men of fashion dare not, fearing that they would lose caste. Even clerks dare not, because they might be discharged. And so I thought I would do it myself.

So automatically, there is no way you could present a reasoned defense of the Bible -- if you do, you are just part of the conspiracy.

Tactic #3: Argument by Outrage.

Biblical "cruelties", especially those connected with the righteous judgment of a holy God and the corporate responsibility of the people, are held up as "obscene", "blasphemous", etc. and repeated for emotional effect:

Is it well to teach children that God tortured the innocent cattle of the Egyptians -- bruised them to death with hailstones -- on account of the sins of Pharaoh?

I really doubt if Ingersoll was personally concerned with and pain suffered by the Egyptian cattle. But incidents like these are useful for inciting outrage.

Tactic #4: The Argument by Incredulity.

Anything that is miraculous -- such as predictive prophecy -- is dismissed out of hand. Sometimes a touch of insult is added upon those who believe in miracles. We saw this a bit in a comment in #1 above; consider these also:

Can we believe that Elijah brought flames from heaven, or that he went at last to Paradise in a chariot of fire?

In every case above, it is simply a given that if you can believe any of these things, something is wrong with you. This works well for those who already agree with Ingersoll that the miraculous is impossible: It seems to make the case stronger to list miracles, but the cumulation of effect is merely a polemical tactic. It does not add to the question of the possibility of the miraculous to list miracles and hold them up as incredible, any more than listing them in praise proves that miracles can indeed take place.

Tactic #5: Dismissal Scholarship.

No one knows the author of First and Second Kings or First and Second Chronicles; all we know is that these books are of no value.
(The Bible) is the enemy of Art. "Thou shalt make no graven image." This was the death of Art...Palestine never produced a painter or a sculptor.
Is there anything in Exodus calculated to make men generous, loving and noble?
Not a word in Nehemiah worth reading.

With just a hint of bigotry, Ingersoll dismisses all he finds worthless or not understandable, never suspecting whether it might be some deficiency of their own that is the problem, and never mind whether those for whom the material was written found it important.

Likewise we still see irrelevant objections like the one about Art (which, incidentally, aside from resting on a fundamental misunderstanding of the command in question, ignores the fact that Palestine produced many artistic wonders, as well as literary wonders, and at any rate, one can hardly make this sort of judgment for any ancient civilization, being that so little has survived from them).

I have alluded elsewhere to comments like the one above about Exodus: It was apparently Ingersoll's judgment that an "inspired" work ought to be like some sort of health tonic -- as opposed to being what the Bible is, a truth-mirror that makes us recognize our own lostness.

Ingersoll also engaged the method of bald dismissal, and uncritical acceptance of all he agreed with. We saw a bit of this in Tactic #1; here are some more examples:

We know that Solomon did not write the Proverbs or the Song, that Isaiah was not the author of the book that bears his name, that no one knows the author Job, Ecclesiastes, or Esther or of any book in the Old Testament, with the exception of Ezra.
We know that (the book of Esther) is cruel, absurd and impossible.
...we know that Ecclesiates was written by an unbeliever.
We now know that there were many other gospels besides our four, some of which have been lost. There were the Gospels of Paul, of the Egyptians, of Perfection, of Judas, of Thaddeus, of the Infancy, of Thomas, of Mary, of Andrew, of Nicodemus, of Marcion and several others.

With the possible exception of the authorship of Job and Esther, all of this reflects only the unified consensus of "liberal" scholarship -- which Ingersoll simply accepted uncritically. Not a hint of analysis is done at all.

Note also the list of other "gospels" -- simply presented as though by their mere existence they prove something. What of critical evaluation of their contents, their manuscript evidence?

And finally, here are some minor samples of Ingersoll's poor scholarship:

Daniel is a disordered dream -- a nightmare. What can be made of this book with its image with a golden head, with breast and arms of silver, with belly and thighs of brass, with legs of iron, and with feet of iron and clay; with its writing on the wall, its den of lions, and its vision of the ram and goat?

What can be "made" of it? Quite a lot, if you know the history and social context behind it. Elsewhere we have explained each of these items, and shown that far from being a "disordered dream", Daniel is perfectly understandable, easily interpreted (especially the ram and the goat, which are clearly explained), and in line with what we know of the period. Ingersoll is merely a 19th-century man viewing a 5th-century BC text through the lens of his own prejudices.

We turn now to Ingersoll's evaluations of the teachings of Jesus, one comment in particular that is exemplary. On "turn the other cheek" he says:

Is there any philosophy, any wisdom in this? Christ takes from goodness, from virtue, from the truth, the right of self-defence. Vice becomes the master of the world, and the good become the victims of the infamous. No man has the right to protect himself, his property, his wife and children. Government becomes impossible, and the world is at the mercy of criminals. Is there any absurdity beyond this?

As even the most basic commentary tells us, this is a reference to matters of personal insult, not personal assault. It is my supposition that Ingersoll, like many critics today, was too disinterested in establishing the truth to bother looking things up.

Application: Ingersoll's "Reasons" for Doubting Inspiration

By way of further demonstration, we are now going to take a selective look at a list of over sixty "reasons" Ingersoll gives for doubting the inspiration of the Bible. The number is not as impressive as it may seem: Many are essentially the same objection as another, reworded and combined with another objection that is likewise a repetition; many others are conceptually the same as others, i.e., objections to the miraculous, with each entry being a cite of a different miracle or miracle set, or an objection to some event that Ingersoll personally found incredible.

This work offers somewhat longer explanations than the one we have just looked at, but we shall see that the five general tactics remain substantially the same, while actual analysis of hard data and familiarity with it remain substantially lacking.

THE Old Testament must have been written nearly two thousand years before the invention of Printing. There were but few copies, and these were in the keeping of those whose interest might have prompted interpolations, and whose ignorance might have led to mistakes.

This one is a mix of the conspiracy tactic and the prejudice tactic. Skeptics do seem to have abandoned the "printing press" aspect (we only saw that elsewhere with Thomas Paine) but do still pursue the general objection of ancient ignorance.

We have discussed elsewhere oral tradition and the preservation capabilities of ancient peoples; and of course we recognize the suggestion of conspiracy -- unproven and unprovable, mere speculation on Ingersoll's part.

We can consider the next three "reasons" together:

Second. The written Hebrew was composed entirely of consonants, without any points or marks standing for vowels, so that anything like accuracy was impossible, Anyone can test this for himself by writing an English sentence, leaving out the vowels. It will take far more inspiration to read than to write a book with consonants alone.
Third. The books composing the Old Testament were not divided into chapters or verses, and no system of punctuation was known. Think of this a moment and you will see how difficult it must be to read such a book.
Fourth. There was not among the Jews any dictionary of their language, and for this reason the accurate meaning of words could not be preserved. Now the different meanings of words are preserved so that by knowing the age in which a writer lived we can ascertain with reasonable certainty his meaning.

These three objections, which are matched with an objection about the lack of printing presses in the BC era, are again simply prejudicial. For Ingersoll, perhaps, it would be difficult to have a language with no vowels and written without division markers of any sort; but perhaps he does not give enough credit to the ancients for their intelligence and discernment.

True enough, it is difficult for us moderns to understand, since we have no experience with such things, and any modern Christian will admit this, as I have elsewhere. But this is like saying that it is impossible to read Chinese because it is written vertically or as an ideogram. We have no indication that variations in methods of written expression (like those of the sort other languages, including ancient Arabic, shared with ancient Hebrew), or the lack of a printed dictionary, ever caused any problem for any ancient civilization.

Sixth. It is now admitted by the most learned in the Hebrew language that in our present English version of the Old Testament there are at least one hundred thousand errors. Of course the believers in inspiration assert that these errors are not sufficient in number to cast the least suspicious upon any passages upholding what are called the fundamentals.

This particular objection we have seen repeated regularly, as is -- there is no reckoning of what those "errors" actually consist of, how they are counted, and how they are overwhelmingly resolved by the science of textual criticism. All Ingersoll wanted was to show a big number.

Eighth. Other books, not now in existence, are referred to in the Old Testament as of equal authority, such as the books of Jasher, Nathan, Ahijah, Iddo, Jehu, Sayings of the Seers.

Sound familiar? It should -- this is the same claim made by sources which we have refuted elsewhere.

Objections following also make light of differences in selection of canonical books for the canon, with no mind critical evaluation of the reasons and contents of the books.

Twelfth. The fact that language is continually changing that words are constantly dying and others being born; that the same word has a variety of meanings during its life, shows how hard it is to preserve the original ideas that might have been expressed in the Scriptures, for thousands of years, without dictionaries, without the art of printing, and without the light of contemporaneous literature.

All of this is quite true, as I readily admit elsewhere, but why is this reason to doubt the inspiration of the Bible? It is reason to doubt our own capacities, however.

Twenty-first The Chinese, Japanese, Hindus, Tartars, Africans, Eskimo, Persians, Turks, Kurds, Arabs, Polynesians, and many other peoples, are substantially ignorant of the Bible. All the Bible societies of the world have produced only about one hundred and twenty millions of Bibles, and there are about fourteen hundred million people. There are hundreds of languages and tongues in which no Bible has yet been printed. Why did God allow, and why does he still allow, a vast majority of his children to remain in ignorance of his will?
Twenty-second. If the Bible is the foundation of all civilization, of all just ideas of right and wrong, of our duties to God and each other, why did God not give to each nation at least one copy to start with? He must have known that no nation could get along successfully without a Bible, and he also knew that man could not make one for himself. Why, then, were not the books furnished? He must have known that the light of nature was not sufficient to reveal the scheme of the atonement, the necessity of baptism, the immaculate conception, transubstantiation, the arithmetic of the Trinity, or the resurrection of the dead.

These two objections stumble on basically the same point. Christian theology of course avers (in line with Romans 1-2) that the Chinese, Japanese, etc., although ignorant of specifics like transubstantiation (and not necessarily in need of knowing it), are not ignorant in general and have had enough revelation to prompt the seeking out of the true God.

Whether this allows a path to salvation is another issue (I happen to think that it does), but the point is that this is hardly the problem that Ingersoll perceived it to be. Much less should it be allowed to be posed as a problem by someone who is not ignorant of God's will.

Twenty-fourth. All persons who know anything of constitutions and laws know how impossible it is to use words that will convey the same ideas to all. The best statesmen, the profoundest lawyers, differ as widely about the real meaning of treaties and statutes as do theologians about the Bible. When the differences of lawyers are left to courts, and the courts give written decisions, the lawyers will again differ as to the real meaning of the opinions. Probably no two lawyers in the United States understand our Constitution alike. To allow a few men to tell what the Constitution means, and to hang for treason all who refuse to accept the opinions of these few men, would accomplish in politics what most churches have asked for in religion.

This is basically the same thing Robert Price said in another context, and it is just as self-refuting: Ingersoll did not fail to write his works because of problems with knowing what words meant. If words never convey the same meaning to all, then why bother writing anything? Wasn't Ingersoll worried that someone would read his work as a velocipede repair manual?

And what about studying the intent of the author, or at least trying to ascertain it from background data? What about the earlier objection about the lack of a Hebrew dictionary? If there are so many problems with meaning like this, what good will it do to have a dictionary in the first place?

Twenty-eighth. It is hard to believe that God talked to Abraham as one man talks to another; that he gave him land that he pointed out; that he agreed to give him land that he never did; that he ordered him to murder his own son; that angels were in the habit of walking about the earth eating veal dressed with butter and milk, and making bargains about the destruction of cities.

JThis is one of many "reasons" where Ingersoll holds up some event from the Bible and assumes, by "argument by incredulity", that the very rehearsal of it proves it to be impossible. This is merely question-begging.

Twenty-ninth. Certainly a man ought not to be eternally damned for entertaining an honest doubt about a woman having been turned into a pillar of salt, about cities being destroyed by storms of fire and brimstone, and about people once having lived for nearly a thousand years.

I'm not so sure that someone can be "damned" for refusing to believe one or more of these things, but they will find it hard to maintain a consistent faith -- unless, like some (Clark Pinnock for example) they have no problem living with inconsistencies in their belief. This "reason" at any rate amounts to question-begging: "How dare you damn me for not believing in what I simply assume not to be true."

Thirty-sixth. Is it because of total depravity that some people refuse to believe that God went into partnership with insects and granted letters of marque and reprisal to hornets; [Ex. xxiii, 28.] that he wasted forty days and nights furnishing Moses with plans and specifications for a tabernacle, an ark, a mercy seat and two cherubs of gold, a table, four rings, some dishes and spoons, one candlestick, three bowls, seven lamps, a pair of tongs, some snuff dishes (for all of which God had patterns), ten curtains with fifty loops, a roof for the tabernacle of rams' skins dyed red, a lot of boards, an altar with horns, ash pans, basins, and flesh hooks, and fillets of silver and pins of brass; that he told Moses to speak unto all the wise-hearted that he had filled with wisdom, that they might make a suit of clothes for Aaron, and that God actually gave directions that an ephod "shall have the two shoulder-pieces thereof joined at the two edges thereof," and gave all the orders concerning mitres, girdles, and onyx stones, ouches, emeralds, breastplates, chains, rings, Urim and Thummim, and the hole in the top of the ephod like the hole of a habergeon?

This is out of date, because as every expert on ancient symbolism is aware, the "hornet" represents the kingdom of Lower Egypt, and this promise was fulfilled in the Egyptian army breaking the power of the Canaanite kings and making them an easier target for Israel. (Some scholars, however, prefer to render the word here "terror" or "discouragement". Perhaps both are intended.)

Worse, however, Ingersoll assumes that just because he does not see any importance in the symbolism of the cultic apparatus, God could not have had any part in it. But for a pre-literate (note: not "ignorant") society, such symbolism was VERY important -- as important, perhaps, as the written message.

How, in the desert of Sinai, did the Jews obtain curtains of fine linen? How did these absconding slaves make cherubs of gold? Where did they get the skins of badgers, and how did they dye them red? How did they make wreathed chains and spoons, basins and tongs? Where did they get the blue cloth and their purple? Where did they get the sockets of brass? How did they coin the shekel of the sanctuary? How did they overlay boards with gold? Where did they get the numberless instruments and tools necessary to accomplish all these things? Where did they get the fine flour and the oil? Were all these found in the desert of Sinai? Is it a sin to ask these questions? Are all these doubts born of a malignant and depraved heart? Why should God in this desert prohibit priests from drinking wine, and from eating moist grapes? How could these priests get wine?

It isn't evidence of a depraved heart, no -- just evidence of one with no broad sense of the capabilities of ancient people. On the contrary, they had commerce, they had skills, and they had agriculture. Why not also ask the same questions of the nomadic Scythians?

Must we believe that God sanctioned and commanded all the cruelties and horrors described in the Old Testament; that he waged the most relentless and heartless wars; that he declared mercy a crime; that to spare life was to excite his wrath; that he smiled when maidens were violated, laughed when mothers were ripped open with a sword, and shouted with joy when babes were butchered in their mothers' arms? Read the infamous book of Joshua, and then worship the God who inspired it if you can.

I have a question: Where is it said that God "smiled", "shouted with joy", etc. at such things? On the contrary. I think that God gave these people plenty of chances to repent; every moment of their life was a chance. He gave them plenty of chances to save themselves, as Glenn Miller has shown.

And I am quite sure that God was saddened at having to do what needed to be done, but was nevertheless required: For it is written that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. (And incidentally, the "violation of maidens" is nowhere prescribed as part of the paradigm.)

I cannot believe that God killed fifty thousand men for looking into a box.

We have addressed this before -- the number was more in the line of 70 -- but note this was not just a "box" but the Ark of the Covenant. To Ingersoll it is just a "box" because he ascribes no value to it; but for the Israelites (and we argue in fact) it was the focal point of God's presence. The reducing of the sacred to the profane scores well polemically, but realistically, it misses the entire point.

Must we believe, in order to be good and tender fathers and mothers, that because some "little children" mocked at an old man with a bald head, God -- the same God who said, "Suffer little children to come unto me" -- sent two she-bears out of the wood and tare forty-two of these babes? Think of the mothers that watched and waited for their children. Think of the wailing when these mangled ones were found, when they were brought back and pressed to the breasts of weeping women. What an amiable gentleman Mr. Elisha must have been.

Again, we've dealt with this before -- Ingersoll plays the emotional card of wailing mothers well enough, but the fact is that there probably were not any -- and that these kids were old enough to know better.


We have only briefly sampled the works of Robert Ingersoll, but that is all that has been necessary. His other objections are the same we have dealt with before or are beyond are scope. The remainder above tell us enough to realize that he does not deserve the credence he is frequently accorded today.