Why Am I Agnostic?
By Robert Green Ingersoll
Part IINorth American Review, 1890
The Christian religion rests on miracles. There are no miracles in the realm of science. The real philosopher does not seek to excite wonder, but to make that plain which was wonderful. He does not endeavor to astonish, but to enlighten. He is perfectly confident that there are no miracles in nature. He knows that the mathematical expression of the same relations, contents, areas, numbers and proportions must forever remain the same. He knows that there are no miracles in chemistry; that the attractions and repulsions, the love and hatreds, of atoms are constant. Under like conditions, he is certain that like will always happen; that the product ever has been and forever will be the same; that the atoms or particles unite in definite, unvarying proportions, -- so many of one kind mix, mingle, and harmonize with just so many of another, and the surplus will be forever cast out. There are no exceptions. Substances are always true to their natures. They have no caprices, no prejudices, that can vary or control their action. They are "the same yesterday, to-day, and forever."
In this fixedness, this constancy, this eternal integrity, the intelligent man has absolute confidence. It is useless to tell him that there was a time when fire would not consume the combustible, when water would not flow in obedience to the attraction of gravitation, or that there ever was a fragment of a moment during which substance had no weight.
Credulity should be the servant of intelligence. The ignorant have not credulity enough to believe the actual, because the actual appears to be contrary to the evidence of their senses. To them it is plain that the sun rises and sets, and they have not credulity enough to believe in the rotary motion of the earth -- that is to say, they have not intelligence enough to comprehend the absurdities involved in their belief, and the perfect harmony between the rotation of the earth and all known facts. They trust their eyes, not their reason. Ignorance has always been and always will be at the mercy of appearance. Credulity, as a rule, believes everything except the truth. The semi-civilized believe in astrology, but who could convince them of the vastness of astronomical spaces, the speed of light, or the magnitude and number of suns and constellations? If Hermann, the magician, and Humboldt, the philosopher, could have appeared before savages, which would have been regarded as a god?
When men knew nothing of mechanics, nothing of the correlation of force, and of its indestructibility, they were believers in perpetual motion. So when chemistry was a kind of sleight-of-hand, or necromancy, something accomplished by the aid of the supernatural, people talked about the transmutation of metals, the universal solvent, and the philosopher's stone. Perpetual motion would be a mechanical miracle; and the transmutation of metals would be a miracle in chemistry; and if we could make the result of multiplying two by two five, that would be a miracle in mathematics. No one expects to find a circle the diameter of which is just one fourth of the circumference. If one could find such a circle, then there would be a miracle in geometry.
In other words, there are no miracles in any science. The moment we understand a question or subject, the miraculous necessarily disappears. If anything actually happens in the chemical world, it will, under like conditions, happen again No one need take an account of this result from the mouths of others: all can try the experiment for themselves. There is no caprice, and no accident.
It is admitted, at least by the Protestant world, that the age of miracles has passed away, and, consequently, miracles cannot at present be established by miracles; they must be substantiated by the testimony of witnesses who are said by certain writers -- or, rather, by uncertain writers -- to have lived several centuries ago; and this testimony is given to us, not by the witnesses themselves, not by persons who say that they talked with those witnesses, but by unknown persons who did not give the sources of their information.
The question is: Can miracles be established except by miracles? We know that the writers may have been mistaken. It is possible that they may have manufactured these accounts themselves. The witnesses may have told what they knew to be untrue, or they may have been honestly deceived, or the stories may have been true as at first told. Imagination may have added greatly to them, so that after several centuries of accretion a very simple truth was changed to a miracle.
We must admit that all probabilities must be against miracles, for the reason that that which is probable cannot by any possibility be a miracle. Neither the probable nor the possible, so far as man is concerned, can be miraculous. The probability therefore says that the writers and witnesses were either mistaken or dishonest.
We must admit that we have never seen a miracle ourselves, and we must admit that, according to our experience, there are no miracles. If we have mingled with the world, we are compelled to say that we have known a vast number of persons -- including ourselves -- to be mistaken, and many others who have failed to tell the exact truth. The probabilities are on the side of our experience, and, consequently, against the miraculous; and it is a necessity that the free mind moves along the path of least resistance.
The effect of testimony depends on the intelligence and honesty of the witness and the intelligence of him who weighs. A man living in a community where the supernatural is expected, where the miraculous is supposed to be of almost daily occurrence, will, as a rule, believe that all wonderful things are the result of supernatural agencies. He will expect providential interference, and, as a consequence, his mind will pursue the path of least resistance, and will account for all phenomena by what to him is the easiest method. Such people, with the best intentions, honestly bear false witness. They have been imposed upon by appearances, and are victims of delusion and illusion.
In an age when reading and writing were substantially unknown, and when history itself was but the vaguest hearsay handed down from dotage to infancy, nothing was rescued from oblivion except the wonderful, the miraculous. The more marvelous the story, the greater the interest excited. Narrators and hearers were alike ignorant and alike honest. At that time nothing was known, nothing suspected, of the orderly course of nature -- of the unbroken and unbreakable chain of causes and effects. The world was governed by caprice. Everything was at the mercy of a being, or beings, who were themselves controlled by the same passions that dominated man. Fragments of facts were taken for the whole, and the deductions drawn were honest and monstrous.
It is probably certain that all of the religions of the world have been believed, and that all the miracles have found credence in countless brains; otherwise they could not have been perpetuated. They were not all born of cunning. Those who told were as honest as those who heard. This being so, nothing has been too absurd for human credence.
All religions, so far as I know, claim to have been miraculously founded, miraculously preserved, and miraculously propagated. The priests of all claimed to have messages from God, and claimed to have a certain authority, and the miraculous has always been appealed to for the purpose of substantiating the message and the authority.
If men believe in the supernatural, they will account for all phenomena by an appeal to supernatural means or power. We know that formerly everything was accounted for in this way except some few simple things with which man thought he was perfectly acquainted. After a time men found that under like conditions like would happen, and as to those things the supposition of supernatural interference was abandoned; but that interference was still active as to all the unknown world. In other words, as the circle of man's knowledge grew, supernatural interference withdrew and was active only just beyond the horizon of the known.
Now, there are some believers in universal special providence -- that is, men who believe in perpetual interference by a supernatural power, this interference being for the purpose of punishing or rewarding, of destroying or preserving, individuals and nations.
Others have abandoned the idea of providence in ordinary matters, but still believe that God interferes on great occasions and at critical moments, especially in the affairs of nations, and that his presence is manifest in great disasters. This is the compromise position. These people believe that an infinite being made the universe and impressed upon it what they are pleased to call "laws," and then left it to run in accordance with those laws and forces; that as a rule it works well, and that the divine maker interferes only in cases of accident, or at moments when the machine fails to accomplish the original design.
There are others who take the ground that all is natural, that there never has been, never will be, never can be any interference from without, for the reason that nature embraces all, and that there can be no without or beyond.
The first class are Theists pure and simple; the second are Theists as to the unknown, Naturalists as to the known; and the third are Naturalists without a touch or taint of superstition.
What can the evidence of the first class be worth? This question is answered by reading the history of those nations that believed thoroughly and implicitly in the supernatural. There is no conceivable absurdity that was not established by their testimony. Every law or every fact in nature was violated. Children were born without parents; men lived for thousands of years; others subsisted without food, without sleep; thousands and thousands were possessed with evil spirits controlled by ghosts and ghouls; thousands confessed themselves guilty of impossible offenses, and in courts, with the most solemn forms, impossibilities were substantiated by the oaths, affirmations, and confessions of men, women, and children.
These delusions were not confined to ascetics and peasants, but they took possession of nobles and kings; of people who were at that time called intelligent; of the then educated. No one denied these wonders, for the reason that denial was a crime punishable generally with death. Societies, nations, became insane -- victims of ignorance, of dreams, and, above all, of fears. Under these conditions human testimony is not and cannot be of the slightest value. We now know that nearly all of the history of the world is false, and we know this because we have arrived at that phase or point of intellectual development where and when we know that effects must have causes, that everything is naturally produced, and that, consequently, no nation could ever have been great, powerful, and rich unless it had the soil, the people, the intelligence, and the commerce. Weighed in these scales, nearly all histories are found to be fictions.
The same is true of religions. Every intelligent American is satisfied that the religions of India, of Egypt, of Greece and Rome, of the Aztecs, were and are false, and that all the miracles on which they rest are mistakes. Our religion alone is excepted. Every intelligent Hindoo discards all religions and all miracles except his own. The question is: When will people see the defects in their own theology as clearly as they perceive the same defects in every other?
All the so-called false religions were substantiated by miracles, by signs and wonders, by prophets and martyrs, precisely as our own. Our witnesses are no better than theirs, and our success is no greater. If their miracles were false, ours cannot be true. Nature was the same in India and in Palestine.
One of the corner-stones of Christianity is the miracle of inspiration, and this same miracle lies at the foundation of all religions. How can the fact of inspiration be established? How could even the inspired man know that he was inspired? If he was influenced to write, and did write, and did express thoughts and facts that to him were absolutely new, on subjects about which he had previously known nothing, how could he know that be had been influenced by an infinite being? And if he could know, how could he convince others?
What is meant by inspiration? Did the one inspired set down only the thoughts of a supernatural being? Was he simply an instrument, or did his personality color the message received and given? Did he mix his ignorance with the divine information, his prejudices and hatreds with the love and justice of the Deity? If God told him not to eat the flesh of any beast that dieth of itself, did the same infinite being also tell him to sell this meat to the stranger within his gates?
A man says that he is inspired -- that God appeared to him in a dream, and told him certain things. Now, the things said to have been communicated may have been good and wise; but will the fact that the communication is good or wise establish the inspiration? If on the other hand, the communication is absurd or wicked, will that conclusively show that the man was not inspired? Must we judge from the communication? In other words, is our reason to be the final standard?
How could the inspired man know that the communication was received from God? If God in reality should appear to a human being, how could this human being know who had appeared? By what standard would he judge? Upon this question man has no experience; he is not familiar enough with the supernatural to know gods even if they exist. Although thousands have pretended to receive messages, there has been no message in which there was, or is, anything above the invention of man. There are just as wonderful things in the uninspired as in the inspired books, and the prophecies of the heathen have been fulfilled equally with those of the Judean prophets. If, then, even the inspired man cannot certainly know that he is inspired, how is it possible for him to demonstrate his inspiration to others? The last solution of this question is that inspiration is a miracle about which only the inspired can have the least knowledge, or the least evidence, and this knowledge and this evidence is not of a character to absolutely convince even the inspired.
There is certainly nothing in the Old or the New Testament that could not have been written by uninspired human beings. To me there is nothing of any particular value in the Pentateuch. I do not know of a solitary scientific truth contained in the five books commonly attributed to Moses. There is not, as far as I know, a line in the book of Genesis calculated to make a human being better. The laws contained in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are for the most part puerile and cruel. Surely there is nothing in any of these books that could not have been produced by uninspired men. Certainly there is nothing calculated to excite intellectual admiration in the book of judges or in the wars of Joshua; and the same may be said of Samuel, Chronicles, and Kings. The history is extremely childish, full of repetitions of useless details, without the slightest philosophy, without a generalization born of a wide survey. Nothing is known of other nations; nothing imparted of the slightest value; nothing about education, discovery, or invention. And these idle and stupid annals are, interspersed with myth and miracle, with flattery for kings who supported priests, and with curses and denunciations for those who would not hearken to the voice of the prophets. If all the historic books of the Bible were blotted from the memory of mankind, nothing of value would be lost.
Is it possible that the writer or writers of First and Second Kings were inspired, and that Gibbon wrote "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire?" without supernatural assistance? Is it possible that the author of judges was simply the instrument of an infinite God, while John W. Draper wrote "The Intellectual Development of Europe" without one ray of light from the other world? Can we believe that the author of Genesis had to be inspired, while Darwin experimented, ascertained, and reached conclusions for himself?
Ought not the work of a God to be vastly superior to that of a man? And if the writers of the Bible were in reality inspired, ought not that book to be the greatest of books? For instance, if it were contended that certain statues had been chiselled by inspired men, such statues should be superior to any that uninspired man has made. As long as it is admitted that the Venus de Milo is the work of man, no one will believe in inspired sculptors -- at least until a superior statue has been found. So in the world of painting. We admit that Corot was uninspired. Nobody claims that Angelo had supernatural assistance. Now, if some one should claim that a certain painter was simply the instrumentality of God, certainly the pictures produced by that painter should be superior to all others.
I do not see how it is possible for an intelligent human being to conclude that the Song of Solomon is the work of God, and that the tragedy of Lear was the work of an uninspired man. We are all liable to be mistaken, but the Iliad seems to me a greater work than the Book of Esther, and I prefer it to the writings of Haggai and Hosea. AEschylus is superior to Jeremiah, and Shakespeare rises immeasurably above all the sacred books of the world.
It does not seem possible that any human being ever tried to establish a truth -- anything that really happened -- by what is called a miracle. It is easy to understand how that which was common became wonderful by accretion, -- by things added, and by things forgotten, -- and it is easy to conceive how that which was wonderful became by accretion what was called supernatural. But it does not seem possible that any intelligent, honest man ever endeavored to prove anything by a miracle.
As a matter of fact, miracles could only satisfy people who demanded no evidence; else how could they have believed the miracle? It also appears to be certain that, even if miracles had been performed, it would be impossible to establish that fact by human testimony. In other words, miracles can only be established by miracles, and in no event could miracles be evidence except to those who were actually present; and in order for miracles to be of any value, they would have to be perpetual. It must also be remembered that a miracle actually performed could by no possibility shed any light on any moral truth, or add to any human obligation.
If any man has ever been inspired, this is a secret miracle, known to no person, and suspected only by the man claiming to be inspired. It would not be in the power of the inspired to give satisfactory evidence of that fact to anybody else.
The testimony of man is insufficient to establish the supernatural. Neither the evidence of one man nor of twelve can stand when contradicted by the experience of the intelligent world. If a book sought to be proved by miracles is true, then it makes no difference whether it was inspired or not and if it is not true, inspiration cannot add to its value.
The truth is that the church has always -- unconsciously, perhaps -- offered rewards for falsehood. It was founded upon the supernatural, the miraculous, and it welcomed all statements calculated to support the foundation. It rewarded the traveller who found evidences of the miraculous, who had seen the pillar of salt into which the wife of Lot had been changed, and the tracks of Pharaoh's chariots on the sands of the Red Sea. It heaped honors on the historian who filled his pages with the absurd and impossible. It had geologists and astronomers of its own who constructed the earth and the constellations in accordance with the Bible. With sword and flame it destroyed the brave and thoughtful men who told the truth. It was the enemy of investigation and of reason. Faith and fiction were in partnership.
To-day the intelligence of the world denies the miraculous. Ignorance is the soil of the supernatural. The foundation of Christianity has crumbled, has disappeared, and the entire fabric must fall. The natural is true. The miraculous' is false.
North American Review, March, 1890.
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