A Reading From The Gospel According To Robert Ingersoll

In the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a number of unrelated people from diverse and distant stations and geographies experience strange shared phenomena that none of them can explain or understand, and which suggests to those around them that they might actually be losing their marbles.  These people are ultimately driven to seek out and travel to the remote location where they have been “summoned.”  It’s not a perfect metaphor for what I am about to say, maybe not even a very good one.  I don’t believe in alien abduction (although I do agree with Sagan, Hawking and others that it’s likely that there is non-supernatural intelligent life in the universe beyond us). I do understand having a sense of an inner stirring, a change of outlook and perspective that I could not really explain or could have predicted, and later coming to find out that I have it in common with a number of other people.

What I’m referring to are the inner tectonic shifts that came as a result of having dismissed my religion and eventually all supernatural phenomena as completely and woefully inadequate to explain and understand our world and universe and the human experience including all the intangible aspects, beautiful and ugly, that come with it. At first all I could articulate was that I did not believe some article of faith or another anymore, like hell.  That list grew over the years until I finally realized I had nothing left to hold any kind of coherent faith or god-ideal together.  That struck terror in me at first.  I prayed that God would forgive me for not believing in Him, as ridiculous as that sounds now, but I truly had nothing on which to base a reasonable belief. What kind of worldview and life would I be left with?  How would I, how could I explain things I had always used God to explain before?  Maybe I was wrong!

This was a case of having to empty myself before anything else could occupy, of having to devastate before anything could be rebuilt.  There was that moment, like in the film when they all find out about each other’s shared experience, that I also realized I was not alone. I had of course realized through reading and conversation with other skeptics that the ideas I held were common to others, that hell for example, is completely untenable, but this was all cognitive.  I tried to articulate what was going on inside me in my first public coming out as a skeptic and freethinker:

To the believer, it will sound as if I am cut off, down a bunny trail of error and blindness, a heretic, apostate. I feel no such thing. Things make much more sense to me, I am more alive, I feel more connected, I am not worried nor do I fear. I am incredibly grateful to the forces responsible for my existence. No god I am interested in knowing would begrudge an honest and sincere inquiry, honoring the only faculties I was born with. I assume responsibility for it. I know love more than I ever have. I have grown. I am more complete in every way. I have ongoing discussion about all this and my ongoing process on Facebook, and I invite anyone to sit in and continue to grow with me, just as it was with listening to Undercover.

I began to read other testimonies of deconversion from a number of religions, Christian, Mormon, Muslim, and found them talking about the same kinds of shifts.  Then I found Robert Green Ingersoll.  How could he have known over a hundred years ago almost exactly what I would be feeling today?  And how is it that so many of us, separated by time and space come to end up feeling these same things, this same way?  This was truly good news indeed, much better news than any I had heard based in anything supernatural no matter how fanciful, but I will let Ingersoll tell it in his own words.

When I became convinced that the Universe is natural — that all the ghosts and gods are myths, there entered into my brain, into my soul, into every drop of my blood, the sense, the feeling, the joy of freedom. The walls of my prison crumbled and fell, the dungeon was flooded with light and all the bolts, and bars, and manacles became dust. I was no longer a servant, a serf or a slave. There was for me no master in all the wide world — not even in infinite space. I was free — free to think, to express my thoughts — free to live to my own ideal — free to live for myself and those I loved — free to use all my faculties, all my senses — free to spread imagination’s wings — free to investigate, to guess and dream and hope — free to judge and determine for myself — free to reject all ignorant and cruel creeds, all the “inspired” books that savages have produced, and all the barbarous legends of the past — free from popes and priests — free from all the “called” and “set apart” — free from sanctified mistakes and holy lies — free from the fear of eternal pain — free from the winged monsters of the night — free from devils, ghosts and gods. For the first time I was free. There were no prohibited places in all the realms of thought — no air, no space, where fancy could not spread her painted wings — no chains for my limbs — no lashes for my back — no fires for my flesh — no master’s frown or threat — no following another’s steps — no need to bow, or cringe, or crawl, or utter lying words. I was free. I stood erect and fearlessly, joyously, faced all worlds.

And then my heart was filled with gratitude, with thankfulness, and went out in love to all the heroes, the thinkers who gave their lives for the liberty of hand and brain — for the freedom of labor and thought — to those who fell on the fierce fields of war, to those who died in dungeons bound with chains — to those who proudly mounted scaffold’s stairs — to those whose bones were crushed, whose flesh was scarred and torn — to those by fire consumed — to all the wise, the good, the brave of every land, whose thoughts and deeds have given freedom to the sons of men. And then I vowed to grasp the torch that they had held, and hold it high, that light might conquer darkness still.¹

¹ – From Robert G. Ingersoll’s Why I Am An Agnostic, Section XI, 1896.

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30 thoughts on “A Reading From The Gospel According To Robert Ingersoll

  1. I can relate. I was raised in liberal Christianity, before I went through a similar period of doubt and unbelief. In my case, however, I came to the conclusion that no god makes even less sense than God. There were many things that the Bible and God seemed unable to explain, but there were even more things that could not be explained without God. Since then, the more I’ve studied, the more convinced I am of the truth of the Bible. So, I moved from one form of belief, to unbelief, then back to a more conservative kind of belief.

    Thanks for your honesty and transparency. I look forward to learning more.

  2. Do you assume I don’t have that same freedom to think? I too am completely free from fear, religion, superstitions. I have complete freedom to think, to love, I am complete. Yet, I believe. You are right, no god you are interested in would ever begrudge you for your thoughts, because that god does not exist. True or true? There are things in this universe we do not understand. Ingersoll may have stood fearlessly erect, but I bow willingly to things I do not yet fully comprehend. The love that you feel, where does that come from? Is it a social construct born out of nothingness into chaos? Where you assign it meaning, to get you through the day? You see OJO, I believe, because that is where logic takes me. It is the best most logical conclusion. However, social constructs are forever changing, and the physical world can be deceiving. Some things are a matter of the heart. Not even your precious social constructs can explain. I Love you OJO. Not because of some construct, but because you were a hero of my youth. So yes, I will still listen to you…you need to do what you need to do, but so do I.

  3. Joe,
    As always, a great read. I have noticed many of the same things myself through the internal change in me that has occurred over the past 6 months or so. It’s difficult to fully express the journey, how I feel now as compared to “then,” but I do know I would not change a single thing even though personally it has cost me. Thanks for your encouragement…from one skeptic to another.

    • Thanks Nate. It is difficult to express the journey sometimes, isn’t it? I often feel as much an observer of my own path as a participant. Life is fab!

  4. I like that no one journey takes the exact same path. I like that I believe differently now than I did in my 20’s, as well as that some of my friends believe almost exactly what they believed in their 20’s. What makes me crazy, if I let it, is how people with differing experiences and beliefs try to tell others that their journey is wrong. Love the postings, now I have to go google Ingersoll and read some more.

  5. Thanks for sharing Ojo. I read the link you posted by Robert Ingersoll “Why I Am Agnostic” what a brilliant man. I have also downloaded some of his other works. Thank you also for being so open on your blogs. I have been on this deconversion journey for three years and I really like to read your blog.

  6. Great post. I’ll never forget the moment I realized the truth of the biblical statement, “the truth shall set you free.” It was after I had stopped believing in Jesus. It was after I had opened the door to look at the world with unbiased eyes and was unafraid of where that might take me. It was only once I let myself question everything and really consider various ways of thinking about life that I was truly free. Living in the insular christian bubble is bondage. Why I didn’t see that while I was trapped inside, I’ll never know…

  7. Enjoyed the post Joe! To find a kindred spirit, especially from another generation, I’m sure was a real encouragement. I do appreciate the freedom that Ingersoll writes about as “free thought” and “freedom” in general are areas that illicit strong passion in me. Question…do you think my (or anyone’s) belief in God prevents them from total freedom …especially in the area of thought?
    Best,
    Steve

    • Thanks for reading and the comment, Steve. It’s a great question! No, I do not necessarily think that belief in God per se prevents people from maximum freedom, but I do think that belief in God does not exist in a vacuum. In other words, there is a worldview, and in most cases a rather substantial and pervasive worldview that accompanies those beliefs. Belief in one of the three Abrahamic gods brings laws, ideas of sin, and at least in Christianity and Islam, hell. In all three there is the idea of God that includes thought-policing, determination of motive and intent that is often divorced from any concept of human well-being. It places a very high value on orthodoxy, correct beliefs if you will, and in fact there are New Testament verses that require correct beliefs; “That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” I think those beliefs do impede freedom of thought and in many cases explicitly forbid it.

  8. Joe, thanks for the reply. It is interesting how orthodoxy has taken such a central place in modern Christianity. Increasingly I have felt that many of the verses that were meant (at least in my opinion) to be comforting, such as the “Confess with your mouth and believe in you heart Christ is Lord”, have instead been used as a stick to instill discipline and conformity. A Christian version of the Orwellian Thought Police starts to operate making sure everyone is thinking and believing correctly. I’m not entirely sure that’s what Christ had in mind since he seemed to go to great lengths to explain that people would identify us as his followers through our love…not through our beliefs. Thats not to say discussion and conversation on “belief” is not important…perhaps just not as important as the church has made it. Perhaps its just a lot easier to condemn someone for (perceived) wrong belief than to have to spend a Friday evening helping out at the homeless shelter 🙂

  9. Joe,
    I found you recently here on your blog site. Didn’t know about your journey over these last several years or some of the background of the roots of your journey. I met you as a teenager in 1986 when I began working with Reality Rock Ministries. I appreciated your ministry over the next several years as I served with Reality Rock in several capacities and then graduated from Redlands High School in 1991. I appreciate your honesty about your questions and search for meaning and truth and how religion influences lives. I must say that the relationship and journey with Jesus that began when I was young has grown stronger over these years. This doesn’t mean that I haven’t struggled with doubts or asked questions. I’ve studied other faiths and I continue to affirm that Jesus is the Son of God, which has tremendous implications. I’ve been blessed to have traveled this country and world and currently pastor a local church in Lubbock, Texas in the shadow of Texas Tech University. I meet many who have questions about life, who have been burned by those who profess faith in Christ but do not live the life He calls Christians to live, and yet, I continue to see the power of God change lives from hopelessness and despair to peace, strength, and meaning in a real relationship with Jesus Christ. Would love to visit with you at a coffee shop someday. I went to seminary on the East Coast so maybe I can connect with you in the future. Can’t tell you how much God used your ministry in my life.

    • Hello Brad,

      Thank you for reading and for your comment. I have not been to the Lubbock area in some time, but I would welcome a chat if you find yourself in the DC / Charlottesville area at all.

      I just want to point out one thing, and perhaps this is not what you intended, but I do want to be clear. My doubt and questions have not had anything to do with “questions about life,” or having been “burned by those who profess faith in Christ.” They are largely a function of taking the objective claims of the religion seriously and doing the homework necessary to get to the bottom of those claims, following the evidence wherever it leads rather than accepting objective statements on faith alone when we know that they are simply not literally true (think worldwide flood for example, and there are many, many other objective claims made that can and should be thus analyzed rather than believed as articles of faith). I just want to be clear on that, on my motivations.

      Having said that, yes, let’s do a coffee shop if you are ever nearby! I am glad and honored, humbled if our music has been used in any good way in your life, and happy for that especially if it advances the cause of love.

      ~J

      • Joe,

        I appreciate your clarification on the motives of your journey. My comments about meaning of life and those burned by other Christians were not really directed towards you but just a general sense of some of what I deal with in this college town. Again, thanks for the clarification.

        I challenge people all the time to take the claims of the Bible and the claims of Christ seriously and study them. And I am grateful for the time to study and ask questions and discern truth over the years in an academic setting (both secular and Christian). I want people to think for themselves and ask good questions. But where all of this has led me is to affirm more than ever the claims of Christ and historical Christianity. There have been great thinkers over the years who have looked at Christianity objectively and have concluded that Jesus really is the Son of God and as I alluded to in my previous post, this conclusion has profound ramifications on ones view of truth and other religious assertions. CS Lewis, Josh McDowell, Ravi
        Zacharis, Lee Strobel, Al Mohler, Chuck Colson, J I Packer, and many others have done as you said, looked at religious claims objectively and it led them to a firm belief in Jesus Christ and His claims.

        Even Billy Graham came to a crossroads early in his ministry. There were many of his peers who were “educated” and strong in “critical thinking” and “higher criticism” and they could not believe he had come to the conclusion that Jesus is the Son of God and that the Bible was the accurate, inspired, and true Word of God. He looked at religion, specifically Christianity, objectively and came to that conclusion. And throughout history there have been many men and women who have pursued religion objectively and it led them to believe in the claims of Christ. I’ve only mentioned some in recent history and current, but perhaps over coffee we could talk through various testimonies of others and their journey of faith in Christ.

        Obviously there are many who simply reject absolute truth. I am not one of
        those. And I am grateful to know the love of God demonstrated through His Son Jesus Christ. I strive to let the love of Christ be seen in my life, attitude and actions. And honestly, your music and ministry encouraged me to not just love, but to love God more. And as I have pursued Jesus, He has been ever faithful to me even when I fail. And His grace is an incredible blessing.

        Thanks for your time…

      • Brad,

        I am not surprised that you find Christianity convincing if these are the kinds of people you study! None of these men are scholars or experts in any field other than theology in some cases, and in Lewis’ case, he is a writer, but a rather awful apologist (I know that’s near blasphemy to Evangelicals, but check out this book for an alternate point of view). These guys are all Christian, Evangelical apologists or pastors and only write populist tomes. Now I don’t mean for that to all sound pejorative, but it’s not the stuff I’m interested in.

        One will have to go to historians, anthropologists, archaeologists, for example to get the real story on the Exodus form Egypt (which according to the best scholarship never happened), to the physicists, cosmologists and geologists for the story on universe and earth sciences, to the chemists, geneticists, and biologists for what we can know about life and evolution. Now most Christians will not even go there, even though some of these scientists are themselves believers (Francis Collins, Kenneth Miller for example), but that’s a big part of the problem. Until we are ready to take a detached look at ALL the evidence and let that evidence lead wherever it goes, we cannot be said to have opened the hood of our faith for a good hard look at it, and just reading commentaries by people like Lee Strobel does not come close to that at all. So yes, let’s have coffee sometime, but it will take a lot more than coffee to talk through some of these issues. I appreciate also your offer to share others’ testimonies, but if you know much about my own history, you will know that I have heard (and have been a big part of) an awful lot of them, and they probably will not carry the day as far as these issues of the objective claims of religion go.

        Thanks for your time as well. ~J

      • Joe,
        I listed some names of some that I knew were once unbelievers, skeptics, and came to faith in Christ. That was my point. They are certainly not the only writers I’ve read. You don’t go through a year-long class of Philosophy of Religion or Philosophy in general (and other classes) and not cover those individuals throughout history who have put forth man’s best arguments against absolute truth or creation, or the meaning of life, or biblical events.

        I’ve studied those who have claimed to be experts in history, archaeology and who discounted and discredited biblical creation accounts. I am well aware of many who were skeptical of the claims of Christ and have studied from an archaeological, historical, anthropological and philosophical view. Some of those still put their faith in Christ and of course, many remain unconvinced that Jesus was indeed the Son of God or that the Bible is a trustworthy and accurate source of information.

        Again, I’ve seen in my studies over history that there are many who started down that road (whether you think they were true historians, archaeologists, philosophers or not I guess can be debated), but they came to put their faith in Jesus Christ and the biblical account of history, man’s nature, the plan for Israel, life and death, and what the future holds for this world we inhabit.

        For you to agree with an expert historian, or multiple historians, who assert that the Exodus never really happened is something you have to be comfortable with. All I’m saying is that there are numerous other leaders and thinkers who are more than qualified in the fields you have listed and would affirm that the Exodus really happened. I’ve seen scientists, (again, whether you deem their credentials as legitimate or not, I don’t know) but I’ve seen them discuss in the most succinct scientific terms how this world could have been created in 24 hour periods and is not billions of years old.

        The truth of the matter is this: If a person comes to the conclusion that they accept the Christian foundation of faith and teaching on creation, the Exodus, the virgin birth of Christ, His resurrection from the dead, then they know they are opening the door to the existence of God. And if God is real, then His Word might be real. And beyond that, they open the door to the possibility of standing before Him and giving an account of their life. Many people simply do not want to be accountable to God or anyone else. I’ve heard that time and time again.

        What I have learned over these years is that anyone who affirms the reality of God’s existence and that His Word is truth, no matter their academic prowess or skill in a particular field, then they are deemed by some to be lacking in real human knowledge and reason. Some say believing in Jesus is a crutch. Some just say they are fools. Everyone has a choice to make. For me, I’m not afraid of my foundation of faith being challenged. It’s not like The Bible and Christian faith hasn’t been scrutinized (by the greatest human minds some would argue) over the past centuries.

        Joe, perhaps I’m too simple with it all for you. But I look at this “life under the sun” that Solomon studied and just do not accept arguments and conclusions that skeptics and human reason put forth. I have that choice as do you. I’m grateful for the freedom that we have to discuss life-changing topics that we have been discussing today. Like you said, this discussion is more than a cup of coffee can handle. I am always open for further discussion. Blessings to you today…

      • Thanks Brad,

        It’s really not the vendetta or conspiracy you make it out to be when you write: “anyone who affirms the reality of God’s existence and that His Word is truth, no matter their academic prowess or skill in a particular field, then they are deemed by some to be lacking in real human knowledge and reason.” I already mentioned two very prominent scientists in Collins and Miller who are also devout believers. It is really pretty simple and comes down to their educational credentials and expertise, the body of literature they have published in peer-reveiwed scholarly journals, the replicability of their research and the results that should be expected and can be predicted. Whoever can meet those high hurdles, no matter their faith, can lay claim to expertise. The people in you your first list do not, and while I appreciate your using them to illustrate people who “were once unbelievers and came to Christ,” what you initially wrote and what I responded to was this: “There have been great thinkers over the years who have looked at Christianity objectively and have concluded that Jesus really is the Son of Godcrite.” Depending on what you are willing to call a “great thinker” will of course have an impact on this, but there’s nothing in the criteria I mentioned (education, peer-reviewed publication, replication, predictability) that would warrant that claim, except perhaps for C.S. Lewis, but again his expertise was Literature, not apologetics or theology.

        Again, I am not saying this to be pugilist. The change for me was in how I evaluate the objective claims religions make. While we cannot know right now or have no access to questions about whether or not angels and demons exist outside of faith or any other supernatural claim, we can learn a lot and validate or invalidate objective claims made about out world and universe just like any other claim made about our world and universe. I would directly challenge your assertion about scholars’ view of the Exodus for example. I have no doubt many pastors and theologians believe it happened as it’s laid out in the bible, but the evidence not only says otherwise, it shows that it was impossible. This was a finding that has extremely broad consensus among scholars of every and all faith. The research and evidence was most recently laid out by Finkelstein and Silberman who, when hired by the Israeli government, actualy had hoped to show otherwise in order to validate the story. So while I am not trying to argue this point per se, I am trying to show how the way I analyze claims has changed from simply taking things on faith because I read them somewhere, or because someone like Josh McDowell or Lee Strobel said so. Anyone who has the credentials and the research under their belt is free to show otherwise and if they can, untold fortunes and fame await them for turning the consensus on its ear. I do not expect that will happen, but if it does, then yes, I will be forced to adjust my point of view. But the bottom line is that we do not take such objective claims by faith or give them a pass simply because they are made in a sacred text, or because they confirm my biases. Huxley said it best:

        “Trust a witness in all matters in which neither his self-interest, his passions, his prejudices, nor the love of the marvelous is strongly concerned. When they are involved, require corroborative evidence in exact proportion to the contravention of probability by the thing testified.”

        That seems prudent, wise, and serves the truth best than simply taking things by faith. I cannot believe God would hold otherwise. Thanks again for the good wishes. ~J

      • Joe,

        I am glad for the dialogue today. I know that your music and ministry touched a lot of lives. Like I shared earlier, I didn’t realize some of your positions and thoughts on various facets of faith until a couple of weeks ago. I finally had some time on this Memorial Day to send you a note and I wasn’t sure I would get a chance to visit with you or not. Lots going on with my life, four children, family, church, finishing my doctorate, etc. But I will check in with you for sure from time to time. God bless!

        Brad

  10. How interesting that I’ve been thinking about my own faith lately and should be drawn to read this… Calling, indeed. Thank you for always giving me things to think about, Ojo!

    • THanks for reading, CHris, and by the way, also for the kind email you sent me a good while back. Hope things are going well for you. Keep me posted on law school and your career as it unfolds! ~J

  11. I truly admire your ability to discuss all topics without spiraling into name calling and bullying. I have seen many sites/blogs where people try to shout each other down and become horribly rude. I enjoy reading dialogue that is thoughtful and considerate.

  12. Solid goods here on wordpress.com, dude. I actually like what you have obtained
    here, definitely like what you’re thinking and the way through which you assert it. You’ve
    taken the effort to make it simultaneously entertaining and intelligent.
    I cannot wait to know much more from you. A useful blog indeed.

  13. I enjoyed you blog… and all the comments. I also had to go on a journey to discover the truth. I will not go into the journey, that would be too long. I would like to share some of my findings, not as the way you should, but as a way I came to understand for myself and get free from religion… to be to explore… search for the truth, so to speak…

    I did find Truth. The Bible is not the truth, it is only a book about the Truth. The Bible is the best book I know, that reveals man’s misunderstandings and misconceptions about God since the beginning of time. There are many things in the bible that are true in man’s dealings and strivings to understand God and His ways but… not all of the facts offered in the bible is the Truth about God Himself. If you read the book of Job, you will discover at the end, in the last three chapters that pretty much all that was stated in the preceding chapters about God was false. All that God himself revealed to Job himself about Himself was true. It was not much information, it was enough however to allow Job to let go of all his former misconceptions about God. Then Job was free to begin again to rediscover God for himself without the help of religion represented by Job’s first three friends. One Friend toward the end of the chapters did know the truth about God, but was not God speaking as Himself. but all this last fellow told Job about God was true and right. God did not correct Him: Elihu, represents “Truth”
    .
    The Bible itself does not conflict with evolution or science at all, except when those two beliefs and or studies contradict the existence of a Creator… I call them beliefs, studies and or theories because facts are not truth unless the fact can be proven and until it is proven “absolutely” it is a belief, theory or study.
    Religion also is not truth. It also is beliefs, theologies, and studies, enforced upon those who choose that mechanism to seek for truth. If we could all just understand the fact that none of these ways are 100% correct, then we would know the truth is to stop looking outside of ourselves.
    The Truth has existed from the beginning, inside each and everyone of us. It has not been lost. There is something else that has existed from the dawn of creation also…. knowledge. There is nothing wrong with knowledge but knowledge alone is not truth. In our search for more and more knowledge we miss the truth that lies buried inside us all… and the ways to Him are by Living and trying out our acquired knowledge.
    God is Love, Light and Life…. and whoever or whatever you wish to call him is ok with me. I just happen to call Him Jesus. Jesus did not come to make new rules and regulations, Jesus came to show us that the truth of Life is in the way of Loving, caring, helping, healing, setting captives free, giving sight to the blind… etc. He took care of the rules and the law so we can be free to discover Him… He is the Truth, but alas, religion masquerades as truth but really only causes confusion and death.
    The new commandment Jesus made is this:
    “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. — John 13:34
    He summed up all the others with two condensed versions:
    Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
    — Matthew 22:37-40

    C.S. Lewis started to change late in life when he wrote “the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” In this story, the witch… believed she knew the truth, and she did. BUT… she did not know it all.

  14. This is amazing for me. I used to listen to you Undercover and have “Relative” somewhere in my basement. However, I’ve been an atheist since 1996. I didn’t know that any of the Christian musicians I listened to years ago (and sometimes even now – shuffle brought up 77s at the moment) had taken a similar path from Christianity to skepticism/secular humanism/freethought/etc.

    When I saw that you had blogged about Ingersoll, I was amazed. This is so far from the message that was around me at Sonshine when I saw you years ago.

    So much better.

    Thanks

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