Commentary: In the local March for Science on Saturday, I will march thinking of Robert Ingersoll.
Maybe I'll carry this quotation from him: “We are the advocates of inquiry, of investigation and thought. This of itself, is an admission that we are not perfectly satisfied with all our conclusions. Philosophy has not the egotism of faith.”
He said that during the last half of the 19th Century, when he was famous – and infamous – as “The Great Agnostic.” Many religious folks hated him passionately; but he was a hugely entertaining speaker. People in the Southwest would ride miles on horses or mules to hear him. An Iowa newspaper described faithful Baptists buying tickets and laughing loudly at his witticisms, even though they vehemently disagreed with him.
Ingersoll was a self-educated man who spoke sense, an eloquent dissenter with much to say, not only to his own time but to ours.
Ingersoll and other “freethinkers” believed in reaching conclusions based on evidence and reasoning, not appeal to ancient authorities (or, as he stated, to sacred writings by men who believed that the sun revolved around the Earth). A part of his work was to explain Darwin's discoveries in a way that laypersons in the audience could “get” evolution. Many who heard him maintained their strong faith, but recognized that certain aspects of the Bible were not literally true.
Questions about science and faith were newer then than now. Ingersoll's belief that these questions were being answered forever was a bit optimistic. Most of the western world assumed after the Scopes Trial that religious objections to the scientific evidence of evolution would fade away; but I'm still hearing them from Las Crucens.
Ingersoll applauded our Founding Fathers for creating “the first secular government in this world” when all European nations were still based on union with churches. He called ours “the first government that said every church has exactly the same rights, and no more” and said our government had “retired the gods from politics.”
Meanwhile, the Doña Ana County Commission has passed an ordinance calling for all meetings to begin with a prayer or similar statement of good wishes for the Commission and the public.
That feels like we're going backward. We're entitled to our various gods (or none). Most beliefs are based on some beautiful words. I hope faith improves the lives of the faithful but good sense and the thought-out preferences of our Founders mandate keeping those gods out of the business of self-government.
I discussed this with an Islamic acquaintance. No one had notified the mosque, or invited anyone from the mosque to pray; and the supporting materials in the agenda packet concerning this indicate that the proponents contemplated Christians and Jews – but would allow humanists, Wiccans, etc. to give invocations, to keep things legal and “fair.”
When I asked him how he felt about the ordinance, he said that religion and government should be separate. I wondered later whether recent Middle Eastern history illustrates the importance of separating Church and State with an immediacy we lack. I asked if Moslems should challenge the ordinance, or sign up to give an invocation. Gently, he replied, essentially, that although he felt somewhat excluded from the plan, and disapproved, he did not want to make unpleasantness. That sometimes the better course was staying quiet.
His gentle way is not always my way, but seems wiser, somehow.