Robert Ingersoll, “The Divided Household of Faith” (1888)

Reading: Ingersoll, “Divided Household of Faith

Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899) was the most prominent American freethinker of the 19th century. He was a very popular (if scandalous) lecturer, and he spoke in hundreds of towns and cities across the United States during the 1880s and 1890s. In his youth, Ingersoll had been influenced by Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason, as well as by many other writers and intellectuals (he read widely). He also revered the work of Charles Darwin. Because of his studies, he came to reject many of the beliefs of Christianity, which he condemned as an absurdity. He declared himself an “agnostic,” by which he meant that he claimed no knowledge of any supernatural reality. (See the last two sections of his essay, “Why I am an Agnostic.”) Like many other critics of orthodox Christianity, Ingersoll promoted a humanistic ethic, judging actions or policies right or wrong based upon their impact on human beings, rather than on their accordance with religious rules.

In the “The Divided Household of Faith,” Ingersoll criticized the American churches for failing to come to terms with the new discoveries of science (especially astronomy, geology, and biology) and with the (relatively) new moral consensus regarding such issues as slavery.

I see several main questions to ask of this text:

  1. How did Ingersoll criticize Christian beliefs? What beliefs in particular did he go after?
  2. What attitude did Ingersoll adopt towards science?
  3. How might Ingersoll’s beliefs compare and contrast with pragmatism?
  4. What positive beliefs did Ingersoll express here? (By positive, I mean beliefs that go beyond the negative points of his criticism.)

It’s also worth noting that Ingersoll’s father was a Presbyterian (albeit a liberal Presbyterian), and that he grew up in a quite Christian region of upstate New York and went on to serve in the Civil War. Like Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and William James, then, he was to a certain extent rejecting the truisms of the culture from which he emerged.