Sunday, July 5, 2015

Praise Pictures and the Great Agnostic

Yesterday was the 4th of July, and Facebook was full of the usual patriotic memes and pictures of barbecues. I didn't pay much attention to most of them, but the one to the right caught my attention. It was posted by a Christian film company called Praise Pictures. It currently has 17,450 "likes" and has been shared 8,548 times. Most of the comments are some variation on "Amen" or "God bless America" or "One Nation under God". One person even posted a link to the website for Chick tracts--those little Evangelical cartoon booklets people leave lying around.

The quotation was a big hit with Christians. Which is odd, because the guy who said it was decided not a Christian. In fact, Robert Ingersoll was a 19th century lawyer and orator famous as "The Great Agnostic". He actually traveled the country giving speeches questioning Christianity. The freedom to do so was an essential part of his idea of liberty.

A further irony is that the quotation comes from Ingersoll's defense of a fellow freethinker named C.B. Reynolds, who was charged with blasphemy in New Jersey for arguing against the infallibility of the Bible. Here's Ingersoll's quotation with a little more context:
For the sake of your State, acquit this man. For the sake of something of far more value to this world than New Jersey—for the sake of something of more importance to mankind than this continent—for the sake of Human Liberty, for the sake of Free Speech, acquit this man.

What light is to the eyes, what love is to the heart,
Liberty is to the soul of man.
Without it, there come suffocation, degradation and death.
In the name of Liberty, I implore—and not only so, but I insist—that you shall find a verdict in favor of this defendant. Do not do the slightest thing to stay the march of human progress. Do not carry us back, even for a moment, to the darkness of that cruel night that good men hoped had passed away forever.
Though people were impressed by Ingersoll's defense and soaring oratory, Reynolds was found guilty and fined $75 dollars, which Ingersoll paid. Blasphemy was still a punishable offence in those days.

As for the meme, somehow I doubt that most of the people sharing it know it's a quotation from a famous agnostic, defending another freethinker, who was on trial for blasphemy. I doubt they know they were saying "Amen" to the words of a man who also said, "We are satisfied that there can be but little liberty on earth while men worship a tyrant in heaven." I suspect some of them still think you should be punished for saying things like that, but I hope I'm wrong.

What about the people at Praise Pictures? Did they know who they were quoting? I don't know, but I like to think they did, and quoted him anyway. Here's why: the quotation works for everybody who wants freedom of thought and expression. It works for a Christian who cherishes the freedom to believe and proclaim Christianity, and it works for agnostics like me, who cherish the freedom to question Christianity and all other religions. Maybe the people at Praise Pictures see that? I hope so.

Few Christians take their freedom of conscience for granted, because they know that Christians have been punished or even killed for their beliefs, and still are in some places today. On the other hand, those who question Christianity and other religions have also been punished and killed for it, and still are in some places today. If I had lived in the 19th century, it could have been me charged with blasphemy. If I had lived in the 17th century, I might have been hanged or burned at the stake. And if I lived in Saudi Arabia today I could be whipped for writing some of the things I write. Like Christians, I don't take my freedom of conscience or speech for granted. In fact, that's probably why I exercise it a bit more than I probably should--because I'm glad I can! That's what I think about on the 4th of July.

So, I'm not writing this essay to make fun of Christians for posting a quotation by an agnostic. For all I know, they did it on purpose. I'm writing it to say I like the fact that they did, and I hope they did it on purpose. Why? Because the quotation is just as true for a Christian as an agnostic. If if weren't, it would mean nothing. If liberty only applied to certain beliefs, then it wouldn't be liberty at all.


Trial of C.B Reynolds for Blasphemy. Project Gutenberg

1 comment:

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