Why I Am Agnostic (Part VI)
By: Robert Green Ingersoll
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Up to this time I had read nothing against our blessed religion except what I had found in Burns, Byron and Shelley. By some accident I read Volney, who shows that all religions are, and have been, established in the same way -- that all had their Christs, their apostles, miracles and sacred books, and then asked how it is possible to decide which is the true one. A question that is still waiting for an answer.
I read Gibbon, the greatest of historians, who marshaled his facts as skillfully as Caesar did his legions, and I learned that Christianity is only a name for Paganism -- for the old religion, shorn of its beauty -- that some absurdities had been exchanged for others -- that some gods had been killed -- a vast multitude of devils created, and that hell had been enlarged.
And then I read the Age of Reason, by Thomas Paine. Let me tell you something about this sublime and slandered man. He came to this country just before the Revolution. He brought a letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin, at that time the greatest American.
In Philadelphia, Paine was employed to write for the Pennsylvania Magazine. We know that he wrote at least five articles. The first was against slavery, the second against duelling, the third on the treatment of prisoners -- showing that the object should be to reform, not to punish and degrade -- the fourth on the rights of woman, and the fifth in favor of forming societies for the prevention of cruelty to children and animals. From this you see that he suggested the great reforms of our century.
The truth is that he labored all his life for the good of his fellow-men, and did as much to found the Great Republic as any man who ever stood beneath our flag.
He gave his thoughts about religion -- bout the blessed Scriptures, about the superstitions of his time. He was perfectly sincere and what he said was kind and fair.
The Age of Reason filled with hatred the hearts of those who loved their enemies, and the occupant of every orthodox pulpit became, and still is, a passionate malinger of Thomas Paine. No one has answered -- no one will answer, his argument against the dogma of inspiration -- his objections to the Bible.
He did not rise above all the superstitions of his day. While he hated Jehovah, he praised the God of Nature, the creator and preserver of all. In this he was wrong, because, as Watson said in his Reply to Paine, the God of Nature is as heartless, as cruel as the God of the Bible.
But Paine was one of the pioneers -- one of the Titans, one of the heroes, who gladly gave his life, his every thought and act, to free and civilize mankind.
I read Voltaire -- Voltaire, the greatest man of his century, and who did more for liberty of thought and speech than any other being, human or "divine." Voltaire, who tore the mask from hypocrisy and found behind the painted smile the fangs of hate. Voltaire, who attacked the savagery of the law, the cruel decisions of venal courts, and rescued victims from the wheel and rack. Voltaire, who waged war against the tyranny of thrones, the greed and heartlessness of power. Voltaire, who filled the flesh of priests with the barbed and poisoned arrows of his wit and made the pious jugglers, who cursed him in public, laugh at themselves in private. Voltaire, who sided with the oppressed, rescued the unfortunate, championed the obscure and weak, civilized judges, repealed laws and abolished torture in his native land.
In every direction this tireless man fought the absurd, the miraculous, the supernatural, the idiotic, the unjust. He had no reverence for the ancient. He was not awed by pageantry and pomp, by crowned Crime or mitered Pretence. Beneath the crown he saw the criminal, under the miter, the hypocrite.
To the bar of his conscience, his reason, he summoned the barbarism and the barbarians of his time. He pronounced judgment against them all, and that judgment has been affirmed by the intelligent world. Voltaire lighted a torch and gave to others the sacred flame. The light still shines and will as long as man loves liberty and seeks for truth.
I read Zeno, the man who said, centuries before our Christ was born, that man could not own his fellow-man.
"No matter whether you claim a slave by purchase or capture, the title is bad. They who claim to own their fellow-men, look down into the pit and forget the justice that should rule the world."
I became acquainted with Epicurus, who taught the religion of usefulness, of temperance, of courage and wisdom, and who said: "Why should I fear death? If I am, death is not. If death is. I am not. Why should I fear that which cannot exist when I do?"
I read about Socrates, who when on trial for his life, said, among other things, to his judges, these wondrous words: "I have not sought during my life to amass wealth and to adorn my body, but I have sought to adorn my soul with the jewels of wisdom, patience, and above all with a love of liberty."
So, I read about Diogenes, the philosopher who hated the superfluous -- the enemy of waste and greed, and who one day entered the temple, reverently approached the altar, crushed a louse between the nails of his thumbs, and solemnly said: "The sacrifice of Diogenes to all the gods." This parodied the worship of the world -- satirized all creeds, and in one act put the essence of religion.
Diogenes must have know of this "inspired" passage -- "Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins."
I compared Zeno, Epicures and Socrates, three heathen wretches who had never heard of the Old Testament or the Ten Commandments, with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, three favorites of Jehovah, and I was depraved enough to think that the Pagans were superior to the Patriarchs -- and to Jehovah himself.