Timothy Larsen reviews Susan Jacoby’s The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought , and finds it to be an “endearing” sample of a disappearing genre of historical writing: hagiography. Larsen observes, “Christian historical writing has now matured to the point where it has dispensed with hagiography. Christian scholars are convinced that we have as much to learn from the weaknesses and blind spots of our saints as we do from their strengths and achievements. The fledgling American atheist community, however, has not yet progressed this far. Jacoby therefore feels a need to airbrush her portrait into an inaccurate and unnatural perfection.”

Jacoby exaggerates, for instance, Ingersoll’s learning: “She imagines Ingersoll to be a great lover of learning, a formidable champion of education, and a model dispenser of knowledge to the masses. In truth, he was a superficial student and thinker. The historian Eric Brandt did a study of what sources Ingersoll was drawing on when he would evoke bodies of knowledge, and what he found was that this material was generally obtained secondhand from popular summaries. Instead of reading the historical, philosophical, or scientific work itself he had raided someone else’s condensed account of it. Ingersoll even boasted, ‘I don’t read more than three lines on a page of any damn book.’ ‘The Great Agnostic’ knew he was out of his depth in a learned exchange of ideas and therefore steadfastly refused to debate anyone.”

Larsen doesn’t begrudge atheists their pantheon: “We Christians know about the traps of hagiography and a conspiracy-theory mentality and therefore cannot judge such faults too harshly. I am also pleased that Yale University Press is willing to try to help along a nascent intellectual community while it is still finding its way.”

More on: History

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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