Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll, a Civil War veteran, and Free Thought advocate, was often refereed to as the Great Agnostic, and is one of my favorite thinkers. Like Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson (two other men I admire greatly), Ingersoll made it a point to sponsor the enlightenment values of critical thinking, rationality, and the freedom of speech and free inquiry.
Ingersoll was an orator, a speaker, a political leader, and a man of words. Many of his speeches involved a devastatingly eloquent attack on religion, and most of what he said still rings true today. If you ever read Ingersoll, be sure to review his "Lecture on gods" as it is one of the best criticisms of the god concept you'll find past or present.
In fact, my favorite Ingersoll quote comes from this lecture, in which he states:
"Give me the storm and tempest of thought and action, rather than the dead calm of ignorance and faith. Banish me from Eden when you will; but first let me eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge!"
Among Ingersoll's keen observations are the often insightful anthropological and cultural observations he makes, such as:
"Man has not only created all these gods, but he had created them out of the materials by which he has been surrounded. Generally he has modeled them after himself, and have given them hands, heads, feet, eyes, ears, and organs of speech. Each nation made its gods and devils speak its language not only, but put in their mouths the same mistakes in history, geography, astronomy, and in all matters of fact, generally made by the people.... No god was ever in advance of the nation that created him."
Unbelievers, who in Ingersoll's day often faced the threat of being ostracized from their communities, most all of which were religious, also defended rationalism and gave sound advice to his fellow secular nonbelievers, informing:
"We are asked to stifle every noble sentiment of the soul, and to trample under foot all the sweet charities of the heart. Because we refuse to stulify ourselves--refuse to become liars--we are denounced, hated, traduced and ostracized here, and this same god threatens to torment us in eternal fire the moment death allows him to fiercely clutch our naked helpless souls. Let the people hate, let the god threaten--we will educate them, and we will despise and defy him."
Indeed, it is my opinion that Robert G. Ingersol is one of the few truly inspirational atheist speakers. In fact, Ingersoll's contribution to modern secularists and nonbelievers cannot be overlooked. Ingersoll is cited as having discredited blasphemy laws in the United States, making it difficult for such charges to ever be brought up against those who would criticize god or religion.
Ingersoll was close friends to the great American poet Walt Whitman. Whitman said of Ingersoll, "It should not be surprising that I am drawn to Ingersoll, for he is Leaves of Grass... He lives, embodies, the individuality, I preach. I see in Bob [Ingersoll] the noblest specimen—American-flavored—pure out of the soil, spreading, giving, demanding light."
Upon Whitman's death, Ingersoll gave the eulogy at the poet's funeral.
I have selected Robert G. Ingersoll as my second atheist hero because he embodies all the things I wish I could be--a better writer, a more eloquent speaker, a good critical thinker, a defender of strong family values, a fighter of human rights and liberties, and a man who sticks to his ideals but isn't afraid of changing his mind when the evidence is convincing.
If you want to read the works of Robert G. Ingersoll for free, follow the links below.
The gods and other lectures (1876)
The Great Speeches of Colonel Ingersoll
The works of Robert G. Ingersoll