christopher hitchens

Meet Robert Ingersoll, America’s Most Famous Forgotten Atheist

Print shows Robert G. Ingersoll speaking from a stage in an auditorium. Photo courtesy RNS/Library of Congress.

Meet Robert Ingersoll, the most famous American atheist you’ve probably never heard of.

A self-educated attorney and atheist, Ingersoll was a Victorian-era rock star who could pack theaters from Texas to New York with people who came from hundreds of miles around to hear “The Great Agnostic” lecture against religion.

He was courted by politicians, his likeness was carved in stone, and when he died in 1899, newspapers around the country carried his obituary. A Civil War veteran, he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Christopher Hitchens, Diana Butler Bass and the Third Great Awakening

Old Time Prayer Meeting image via Shutterstock

Old Time Prayer Meeting image via Shutterstock

Everyone who calls me to speak somewhere, it seems, wants me to address the issue of declining church membership, and particularly how to connect with younger adults. The problem is that sometimes the invitation is built on a false premise. It’s the hope of many churches that if they can find a way to connect with younger people in a relevant way, those young adults will join the church and save the institution for future generations.

And while this is possible in some situations, it’s really the wrong question to be asking.

The explicit question I get asked, time and again, is “How do we better serve younger people?” And if the question really ended there, we could have a pretty productive conversation. But there’s an implied subtext in most cases that we have to tease out, and often times, the church isn’t even willing to admit that this footnote is married to their question. So although the words above are what are spoken, here’s what they really want to know:

“How do we better serve younger people (so that they will come back to our institutions and save them)?”

The Friday News: Dec. 16, 2011

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