The Great Agnostic’s wisdom on the holiday season
Introduction by Brian P. Hudson (Writer@Large)
I am, and have been for some time, a fan of Christmas. As an atheist, I found this to be somewhat problematic from a cognitive dissonance angle. I began reading about and researching the history and culture ofthe holiday, in an attempt to “justify” myself to other nontheists and the Christians who insisted that I couldn’t enjoy Christmas without the Christ. As I continued to read (and eventually write) about an atheist’s Christmas, I found that much of what I wanted to say about the season had been said before, and by a much better voice than mine—it had been said by Robert G. Ingersoll (1833-1899) , the Great Agnostic.
Ingersoll was a stalwart champion of a secular Christmas. This was at a time when Christmas in its modern form was still relatively young, and a time when it was even less acceptable to be a nontheist than it is today. Yet even in that time, Ingersoll saw Christmas for what it was. He argued that Christmas was not, nor did it have to be, a Christian holiday. He argued that “the good part of Christmas” was the secular, social part of it. He labeled it a “really human” tradition, and “a day to get acquainted with each other, a day to recall old memories, and for the cultivation of social amenities.” Ingersoll knew Christmas for what it is: a cultural ritual rooted in shared experience, not dated dogma.
Further, Ingersoll correctly noted that “Christmas is far older than Christianity” and pointed out that, as a solstice holiday, it was truly “the venerable festival Of the Sun.” His views on the pagan origins of Christmas are ones that have survived and even thrived today, as more and more scholarship has drawn clear connections between Christmas and pagan, pre-Christian solstice traditions.
There are four complete works where Ingersoll discussed his views on Christmas. Presented below are his “Essay on Christmas” (1889), “A Christmas Sermon” (1891), “The Agnostic Christmas” (1892), and “What I Want for Winter Solstice” (1897). In addition, there are three minor works presented. These are not complete essays, but either excerpts from longer works or little items labeled “Fragments” in the v. 12 of The works of Robert G. Ingersoll.
The most significant of these is “A Christmas Sermon” (1891), which ignited something of a firestorm in the pages of the Evening Telegram. I have reproduced the “Sermon” here, as well as Ingersoll’s first response here, as it also has much to say about Christmas. It is only the first of a long sequence of increasingly scathing criticisms, however, and I highly recommend reading each of them.
All the texts below were adapted from The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll (1902), as reproduced online through the American Library division of the Internet Archive (http://www.archive.org/). Texts have been altered only to correct minor errors in the original digital scan as presented on that site.
WHAT I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS
by Robert G. Ingersoll
From Complete works v. 11 (378-379). Originally published in 1897.
If I had the power to produce exactly what I want for next Christmas, I would have all the kings and emperors resign and allow the people to govern themselves.
I would have all the nobility drop their titles and give their lands back to the people. I would have the Pope throw away his tiara, take off his sacred vestments, and admit that he is not acting for God is not infallible but is just an ordinary Italian. I would have all the cardinals, archbishops, bishops, priests and clergymen admit that they know nothing about theology, nothing about hell or heaven, nothing about the destiny of the human race, nothing about devils or ghosts, gods or angels. I would have them tell all their “flocks” to think for themselves, to be manly men and womanly women, and to do all in their power to increase the sum of human happiness.
I would have all the professors in colleges, all the teachers in schools of every kind, including those in Sunday schools, agree that they would teach only what they know, that they would not palm off guesses as demonstrated truths.
I would like to see all the politicians changed to statesmen, to men who long to make their country great and free, to men who care more for public good than private gain men who long to be of use.
I would like to see all the editors of papers and magazines agree to print the truth and nothing but the truth, to avoid all slander and misrepresentation, and to let the private affairs of the people alone.
I would like to see drunkenness and prohibition both abolished.
I would like to see corporal punishment done away with in every home, in every school, in every asylum, reformatory, and prison. Cruelty hardens and degrades, kindness reforms and ennobles.
I would like to see the millionaires unite and form a trust for the public good.
I would like to see a fair division of profits between capital and labor, so that the toiler could save enough to mingle a little June with the December of his life.
I would like to see an international court established in which to settle disputes between nations, so that armies could be disbanded and the great navies allowed to rust and rot in perfect peace.
I would like to see the whole world free free from injustice free from superstition.
This will do for next Christmas. The following Christmas, I may want more.
ESSAY ON CHRISTMAS
by Robert G. Ingersoll
[Taken from The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll, v. 2 (431-433). Originally published in The Tribune (New York) in December, 1889.]
My family and I regard Christmas as a holiday–that is to say, a day of rest and pleasure–a day to get acquainted with each other, a day to recall old memories, and for the cultivation of social amenities. The festival now called Christmas is far older than Christianity. It was known and celebrated for thousands of years before the establishment of what is known as our religion. It is a relic of sun-worship. It is the day on which the sun triumphs over the hosts of darkness, and thousands of years before the New Testament was written, thousands of years before the republic of Rome existed, before one stone of Athens was laid, before the Pharaohs ruled in Egypt, before the religion of Brahma, before Sanskrit was spoken, men and women crawled out of their caves, pushed the matted hair from their eyes, and greeted the triumph of the sun over the powers of the night.
There are many relics of this worship — among which is the shaving of the priest’s head, leaving the spot shaven surrounded by hair, in imitation of the rays of the sun. There is still another relic — the ministers of our day close their eyes in prayer. When men worshiped the sun-when they looked at that luminary and implored its assistance — they shut their eyes as a matter of necessity. Afterward the priests looking at their idols glittering with gems, shut their eyes in flattery, pretending that they could not bear the effulgence of the presence; and to-day, thousands of years after the old ideas have passed away, the modern parson, without knowing the origin of the custom, closes his eyes when he prays.
There are many other relics and souvenirs of the dead worship of the sun, and this festival was adopted by Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and by Christians. As a matter of fact, Christianity furnished new steam for an old engine, infused a new spirit into an old religion, and, as a matter of course, the old festival remained.
For all of our festivals you will find corresponding pagan festivals. For instance, take the eucharist, the communion, where persons partake of the body and blood of the Deity. This is an exceedingly old custom. Among the ancients they ate cakes made of corn, in honor of Ceres and they called these cakes the flesh of the goddess, and they drank wine in honor of Bacchus, and called this the blood of their god. And so I could go on giving the pagan origin of every Christian ceremony and custom. The probability is that the worship of the sun was once substantially universal, and consequently the festival of Christ was equally wide spread.
As other religions have been produced, the old customs have been adopted and continued, so that the result is, this festival of Christmas is almost world-wide. It is popular because it is a holiday. Overworked people are glad of days that bring rest and recreation and allow them to meet their families and their friends. They are glad of days when they give and receive gifts – evidences of friendship, of remembrance and love. It is popular because it is really human, and because it is interwoven with our customs, habits, literature, and thought.
For my part I am willing to have two or three a year – the more holidays the better. Many people have an idea that I am opposed to Sunday. I am perfectly willing to have two a week. All I insist on is that these days shall be for the benefit of the people, and that they shall be kept not in a way to make folks miserable or sad or hungry, but in a way to make people happy, and to add a little to the joy of life. Of course, I am in favor of everybody keeping holidays to suit himself, provided he does not interfere with others, and I am perfectly willing that everybody should go to church on that day, provided he is willing that I should go somewhere else.
A CHRISTMAS SERMON
From Complete Works, v.7 (263): “This is the famous Christmas Sermon written by Colonel Ingersoll and printed in the Evening Telegram, on December 19, 1891.
“In answer to this ‘Christmas Sermon’ the Rev. Dr. J. M. Buckley, editor of the Christian Advocate, the recognized organ of the Methodist Church, wrote an article, calling upon the public to boycott the Evening Telegram for publishing such a ‘sermon.’
“This attack was headed ‘Lies That Are Mountainous.’ The Telegram promptly accepted the issue raised by Dr. Buckley and dared him to do his utmost. On the very same day it published an answer from Colonel Ingersoll that echoed through out America.”
Editor’s Note: The original “Christmas Sermon” is reproduced here, along with Ingersoll’s first response.
A CHRISTMAS SERMON. 1891
The good part of Christmas is not always Christian–it is generally Pagan; that is to say, human, natural.
Christianity did not come with tidings of great joy, but with a message of eternal grief. It came with the threat of everlasting torture on its lips. It meant war on earth and perdition hereafter.
It taught some good things–the beauty of love and kindness in man. But as a torch-bearer, as a bringer of joy, it has been a failure. It has given infinite consequences to the acts of finite beings, crushing the soul with a responsibility too great for mortals to bear. It has filled the future with fear and flame, and made God the keeper of an eternal penitentiary, destined to be the home of nearly all the sons of men. Not satisfied with that, it has deprived God of the pardoning power.
And yet it may have done some good by borrowing from the Pagan world the old festival called Christmas.
Long before Christ was born the Sun-God triumphed over the powers of Darkness. About the time that we call Christmas the days begin perceptibly to lengthen. Our barbarian ancestors were worshipers of the sun, and they celebrated his victory over the hosts of night. Such a festival was natural and beautiful. The most natural of all religions is the worship of the sun. Christianity adopted this festival. It borrowed from the Pagans the best it has.
I believe in Christmas and in every day that has been set apart for joy. We in America have too much work and not enough play. We are too much like the English.
I think it was Heinrich Heine who said that he thought a blaspheming Frenchman was a more pleasing object to God than a praying Englishman. We take our joys too sadly. I am in favor of all the good free days — the more the better.
Christmas is a good day to forgive and forget — a good day to throw away prejudices and hatreds — a good day to fill your heart and your house, and the hearts and houses of others, with sunshine.
FIRST RESPONSE TO “A CHRISTMAS SERMON”, INGERSOLL’S REPLY TO DR. BUCKLEY.
Whenever an orthodox editor attacks an unbeliever, look out for kindness, charity and love.
The gentle editor of the Christian Advocate charges me with having written three “gigantic falsehoods,” and he points them out as follows:
First “Christianity did not come with tidings of great joy; but with a message of eternal grief.”
Second “It [Christianity] has filled the future with fear and flame, and made God the keeper of an eternal penitentiary, destined to be the home of nearly all the sons of men.”
Third “Not satisfied with that, it [Christianity] has deprived God of the pardoning power.”
Now, let us take up these “gigantic falsehoods” in their order and see whether they are in accord with the New Testament or not whether they are supported by the creed of the Methodist Church.
I insist that Christianity did not come with tidings of great joy, but with a message of eternal grief. According to the orthodox creeds, Christianity came with the tidings that the human race was totally depraved, and that all men were in a lost condition, and that all who rejected or failed to believe the new religion, would be tormented in eternal fire.
These were not “tidings of great joy.”
If the passengers on some great ship were told that the ship was to be wrecked, that a few would be saved and that nearly all would go to the bottom, would they talk about “tidings of great joy” ? It is to be presumed that Christ knew what his mission was, and what he came for. He says: “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth ; I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother.” In my judgment, these are not “tidings of great joy.”
Now, as to the message of eternal grief:
“Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
“And these shall go away into everlasting punishment ; but the righteous [meaning the Methodists] into life eternal.”
“He that believeth not shall be damned.”
“He that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.”
“Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”
“And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up forever and ever.”
Knowing, as we do, that but few people have been believers, that during the last eighteen hundred years not one in a hundred has died in the faith, and that consequently nearly all the dead are in hell, it can truthfully be said that Christianity came with a message of eternal grief.
Now, as to the second “gigantic falsehood,” to the effect that Christianity filled the future with fear and flame, and made God the keeper of an eternal penitentiary, destined to be the home of nearly all the sons of men.
In the Old Testament there is nothing about punishment in some other world, nothing about the flames and torments of hell. When Jehovah killed one of his enemies he was satisfied. His revenge was glutted when the victim was dead. The Old Testament gave the future to sleep and oblivion. But in the New Testament we are told that the punishment in another world is everlasting, and that “the smoke of their torment ascendeth up forever
This awful doctrine, these frightful texts, filled the future with fear and flame. Building on these passages, the orthodox churches have constructed a penitentiary, in which nearly all the sons of men are to be imprisoned and tormented forever, and of this prison God is the keeper. The doors are opened only to receive.
The doctrine of eternal punishment is the infamy of infamies. As I have often said, the man who believes in eternal torment, in the justice of endless pain, is suffering from at least two diseases petrifaction of the heart and putrefaction of the brain.
The next question is whether Christianity has deprived God of the pardoning power.
The Methodist Church and every orthodox church teaches that this life is a period of probation; that there is no chance given for reformation after death; that God gives no opportunity to repent in another world.
This is the doctrine of the Christian world. If this dogma be true, then God will never release a soul from hell the pardoning power will never be exercised.
How happy God will be and how happy all the saved will be, knowing that billions and billions of his children, of their fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, wives, and children are convicts in the eternal dungeons, and that the words of pardon will never be spoken!
Yet this is in accordance with the promise contained in the New Testament, of happiness here and eternal joy hereafter, to those who would desert brethren or sisters, or father or mother, or wife or children.
It seems to me clear that Christianity did not bring “tidings of great joy,” but that it came with a “message of eternal grief” that it did “fill the future with fear and flame,” that it did make God “the keeper of an eternal penitentiary,” that the penitentiary “was destined to be the home of nearly all the sons of men,” and that “it deprived God of the pardoning power.”
Of course you can find passages full of peace, in the Bible, others of war some filled with mercy, and others cruel as the fangs of a wild beast.
According to the Methodists, God has an eternal prison an everlasting Siberia. There is to be an eternity of grief, of agony and shame.
What do I think of what the Doctor says about the Telegram for having published my Christmas sermon ?
The editor of the Christian Advocate has no idea of what intellectual liberty means. He ought to know that a man should not be insulted because another man disagrees with him.
What right has Dr. Buckley to disagree with Cardinal Gibbons, and what right has Cardinal Gibbons to disagree with Dr. Buckley ? The same right that I have to disagree with them both.
I do not warn people against reading Catholic or Methodist papers or books. But I do tell them to investigate for themselves to stand by what they believe to be true, to deny the false, and, above all things, to preserve their mental manhood. The good Doctor wants the Telegram destroyed wants all religious people to unite for the purpose of punishing the Telegram because it published something with which the reverend Doctor does not agree, or rather that does not agree with the Doctor.
It is too late. That day has faded in the West of the past. The doctor of theology has lost his power. Theological thunder has lost its lightning it is nothing now but noise, pleasing those who make it and amusing those who hear.
The Telegram has nothing to fear. It is, in the highest sense, a newspaper wide-awake, alive, always on time, good to its friends, fair with its enemies, and true to the public.
What have I to say to the Doctor’s personal abuse?
Nothing. A man may call me a devil, or the devil, or he may say that I am incapable of telling the truth, or that I tell lies, and yet all this proves nothing. My arguments remain unanswered.
I cannot afford to call Dr. Buckley names. I have good mental manners. The cause I represent (in part) is too great, too sacred, to be stained by an ignorant or a malicious personality.
I know that men do as they must with the light they have, and so I say More light!
THE AGNOSTIC CHRISTMAS
From the Complete works v.11 (477). Originally published in The Journal (New York), December 16, 1898.
Again we celebrate the victory of Light over Darkness, of the God of day over the hosts of night. Again Samson is victorious over Delilah, and Hercules triumphs once more over Omphale. In the embrace of Isis, Osiris rises from the dead, and the scowling Typhon is defeated once more. Again Apollo, with unerring aim, with his arrow from the quiver of light, destroys the serpent of shadow. This is the festival of Thor, of Baldur and of Prometheus. Again Buddha by a miracle escapes from the tyrant of Madura, Zoroaster foils the King, Bacchus laughs at the rage of Cadmus, and Chrishna eludes the tyrant.
This is the festival of the sun-god, and as such let its observance be universal.
This is the great day of the first religion, the mother of all religions the worship of the sun.
Sun worship is not only the first, but the most natural and most reasonable of all. And not only the most natural and the most reasonable, but by far the most poetic, the most beautiful.
The sun is the god of benefits, of growth, of life, of warmth, of happiness, of joy. The sun is the all-seeing, the all-pitying, the all-loving.
This bright God knew no hatred, no malice, never sought for revenge.
All evil qualities were in the breast of the God of darkness, of shadow, of night. And so I say again, this is the festival of Light. This is the anniversary of the triumph of the Sun over the hosts of Darkness.
Let us all hope for the triumph of Light of Right and Reason for the victory of Fact over Falsehood, of Science over Superstition.
And so hoping, let us celebrate the venerable festival of the Sun.
FRAGMENTS ON CHRISTMAS
by Robert G. Ingersoll
From “Why I Am an Agnostic” (Complete works, v.4)
Apollo was a sun-god and he fought and conquered the serpent of night. Baldur was a sun-god. He was in love with the Dawn a maiden. Chrishna was a sun-god. At his birth the Ganges was thrilled from its source to the sea, and all the trees, the dead as well as the living, burst into leaf and bud and flower. Hercules was a sun-god and so was Samson, whose strength was in his hair that is to say, in his beams. He was shorn of his strength by Delilah, the shadow the darkness. Osiris, Bacchus, and Mithra, Hermes, Buddha, and Quetzalcoatl, Prometheus, Zoroaster, and Perseus, Cadom, Lao-tsze, Fo-hi, Horus and Rameses, were all sun-gods.
All of these gods had gods for fathers and their mothers were virgins. The births of nearly all were announced by stars, celebrated by celestial music, and voices declared that a blessing had come to the poor world. All of these gods were born in humble places in caves, under trees, in common inns, and tyrants sought to kill them all when they were babes. All of these sun-gods were born at the winter solstice on Christmas. Nearly all were worshiped by ” wise men.” All of them fasted for forty days all of them taught in parables all of them wrought miracles all met with a violent death, and all rose from the dead.
The history of these gods is the exact history of our Christ.
From “Reply to the Indianapolis Clergy” (Complete works, v.7)
Question: How, when, where, and by whom was our present calendar originated, that is “Anno Domini,” and what event in the history of the nations does it establish as a fact, if not the birth of Jesus of Nazareth ?
Answer: I have already said, in answer to a question by another gentleman, that I believe the man Jesus Christ existed, and we now date from somewhere near his birth. I very much doubt about his having been born on Christmas, because in reading other religions, I find that that time has been celebrated for thousands of years, and the cause of it is this:
About the 21st or 22nd of December is the shortest day. After that the days begin to lengthen and the sun comes back, and for many centuries in most nations they had a festival in commemoration of that event. The Christians, I presume, adopted this day, and made the birth of Christ fit it. Three months afterward the 21st of March the days and nights again become equal, and the day then begins to lengthen. For centuries the nations living in the temperate zones have held festivals to commemorate the coming of spring the yearly miracle of leaf, of bud and flower. This is the celebration known as Easter, and the Christians adopted that in commemoration of Christ’s resurrection. So that, as a matter of fact, these festivals of Christmas and Easter do not even tend to show that they stand for or are in any way connected with the birth or resurrection of Christ. In fact the evidence is overwhelmingly the other way.
“Thoughts on Christmas” from “Fragments,” (Complete works v.12)
It is beautiful to give one day to the ideal to have one day apart; one day for generous deeds, for good will, for gladness; one day to forget the shadows, the rains, the storms of life ; to remember the sunshine, the happiness of youth and health; one day to forget the briers and thorns of the winding path, to remember the fruits and flowers ; one day in which to feed the hungry, to salute the poor and lowly; one day to feel the brotherhood of man ; one day to remember the heroic and loving deeds of the dead; one day to get acquainted with children, to remember the old, the unfortunate and the imprisoned; one day in which to forget yourself and think lovingly of others; one day for the family, for the fireside, for wife and children, for the love and laughter, the joy and rapture, of home; one day in which bonds and stocks and deeds and notes and interest and mortgages and all kinds of business and trade are forgotten, and all stores and shops and factories and offices and banks and ledgers and accounts and lawsuits are cast aside, put away and locked up, and the weary heart and brain are given a voyage to fairyland.
Let us hope that such a day is a prophecy of what all days will be.
“On gift giving” from “Fragments” (Complete works v.12)
GIFT GIVING. I believe in the festival called Christmas not in the celebration of the birth of any man, but to celebrate the triumph of light over darkness the victory of the sun.
I believe in giving gifts on that day, & a real gift should be given to those who cannot return it; gifts from the rich to the poor, from the prosperous to the unfortunate, from parents to children.
There is no need of giving water to the sea or light to the sun. Let us give to those who need, neither asking nor expecting return, not even asking gratitude, only asking that the gift shall make the receiver happy and he who gives in that way increases his own joy.