Why I Am Agnostic (Part V)
By: Robert Green Ingersoll
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Having spent my youth in reading books about religion -- about the "new birth" -- the disobedience of our first parents, the atonement, salvation by faith, the wickedness of pleasure, the degrading consequences of love, and the impossibility of getting to heaven by being honest and generous, and having become somewhat weary of the frayed and raveled thoughts, you can imagine my surprise, my delight when I read the poems of Robert Burns.
I was familiar with the writings of the devout and insincere, the pious and petrified, the pure and heartless. Here was a natural honest man. I knew the works of those who regarded all nature as depraved, and looked upon love as the legacy and perpetual witness of original sin. Here was a man who plucked joy from the mire, made goddesses of peasant girls, and enthroned the honest man. One whose sympathy, with loving arms, embraced all forms of suffering life, who hated slavery of every kind, who was as natural as heaven's blue, with humor kindly as an autumn day, with wit as sharp as Ithuriel's spear, and scorn that blasted like the simoon's breath. A man who loved this world, this life, the things of every day, and placed above all else the thrilling ecstasies of human love.
I read and read again with rapture, tears and smiles, feeling that a great heart was throbbing in the lines.
The religious, the lugubrious, the artificial, the spiritual poets were forgotten or remained only as the fragments, the half remembered horrors of monstrous and distorted dreams.
I had found at last a natural man, one who despised his country's cruel creed, and was brave and sensible enough to say: "All religions are auld wives' fables, but an honest man has nothing to fear, either in this world or the world to come."
One who had the genius to write Holy Willie's Prayer -- a poem that crucified Calvinism and through its bloodless heart thrust the spear of common sense -- a poem that made every orthodox creed the food of scorn -- of inextinguishable laughter.
Burns had his faults, his frailties. He was intensely human. Still, I would rather appear at the "Judgment Seat" drunk, and be able to say that I was the author of "A man's a man for 'a that," than to be perfectly sober and admit that I had lived and died a Scotch Presbyterian.
I read Byron -- read his Cain, in which, as in Paradise Lost, the Devil seems to be the better god -- read his beautiful, sublime and bitter lines -- read his prisoner of Chillon -- his best -- a poem that filled my heart with tenderness, with pity, and with an eternal hatred of tyranny.
I read Shelley's Queen Mab -- a poem filled with beauty, courage, thought, sympathy, tears and scorn, in which a brave soul tears down the prison walls and floods the cells with light. I read his Skylark -- a winged flame -- passionate as blood -- tender as tears -- pure as light.
I read Keats, "whose name was writ in water" -- read St. Agnes Eve, a story told with such an artless art that this poor common world is changed to fairy land -- the Grecian Urn, that fills the soul with ever eager love, with all the rapture of imagined song -- the Nightingale -- a melody in which there is the memory of morn -- a melody that dies away in dusk and tears, paining the senses with its perfectness.
And then I read Shakespeare, the plays, the sonnets, the poems -- read all. I beheld a new heaven and a new earth; Shakespeare, who knew the brain and heart of man -- the hopes and fears, the loves and hatreds, the vices and the virtues of the human race: whose imagination read the tear-blurred records, the blood-stained pages of all the past, and saw falling athwart the outspread scroll the light of hope and love; Shakespeare, who sounded every depth -- while on the loftiest peak there fell the shadow of his wings.
I compared the Plays with the "inspired" books -- Romeo and Juliet with the Song of Solomon, Lear with Job, and the Sonnets with the Psalms, and I found that Jehovah did not understand the art of speech. I compared Shakespeare's women -- his perfect women -- with the women of the Bible. I found that Jehovah was not a sculptor, not a painter -- not an artist -- that he lacked the
power that changes clay to flesh -- the art, the plastic touch, that molds the perfect form -- the breath that gives it free and joyous life -- the genius that creates the faultless.
The sacred books of all the world are worthless dross and common stones compared with Shakespeare's glittering gold and gleaming gems.