A lady named Priscilla Threadgill has posted a comment to my Facebook Fan Page, that may be one of the nicest things anyone’s ever said to me.
“Are you using UFO as ‘unidentified flying object,’ ” Priscilla writes, “or something further like ‘universal friendship organization’? Well, something beyond that but those were the words that came to me that match the acronym…”
“Universal Friendship Organization.” It would be wonderful if that’s what’s starting up among the comments on my Fan Page posts. A place where believers and disbelievers–in UFOs, and in things even more fundamental–can exchange ideas in friendship and respect. We’re all one humanity, facing the same (probably insoluble) existential issues. Notably, as Unitarian minister Forrest Church has put it, that we’re alive and we know we must die. Our journeys toward truth may lead us through confusion–into more confusion. But at least we can join hands along the way.
Priscilla’s remark reminded me of one of my favorite passages from the voluminous writings of the great 19th-century American agnostic (and pillar of the Republican Party) Robert Ingersoll. I made Ingersoll’s acquaintance as a teenager, through the pulp pages of the Haldeman-Julius “Little Blue Books.” For those who don’t remember the “Little Blue Books”–and there can’t be many still around who do–this was a publishing series in the early part of the 20th century, devoted to making literary classics and trenchant anti-religious polemic readily accessible to the working people of this country. In format these publications were more like pamphlets than books, stapled at the spine and normally printed on the cheapest of paper. You could get “Hamlet” for a nickel or a dime–I forget which. Ingersoll’s famous lecture “Some Mistakes of Moses” would cost you 25 cents. At age 15, I spent the quarter and met “Colonel Bob” Ingersoll.
Agree or disagree with him, he was a remarkably appealing human being. Consider: he made fun of practically everything that was sacred to the pious–the Bible, any and all churches, religious dogmas of every sort. One thing he never ridiculed, always treated with respect, was belief in life after death. Life after death, he said, isn’t a religious doctrine. It’s something that springs up naturally in the human heart whenever–I’m quoting this from memory–“the bright lips of love kiss the dark wing of death.” He didn’t really believe in it, but who knew? It’s not impossible; we can always hope. “If we are immortal,” he wrote–another memory quotation–“it is a fact of nature. And this fact has nothing to do with priests, churches, or creeds.”
This helps explain why the Great Agnostic was much in demand as a speaker at funerals. His sermons–I guess you would call them that–are strangely consoling. Speaking at the funeral of a little girl, he said: we just don’t know. She may now be conscious and aware, dwelling in perpetual light and joy. Or she’s unconscious and unaware, eternally safe from harm. One thing we know for sure: she’s not in torment. Hell is an obscene lie, invented by priests in the interest of their cash registers. It doesn’t, can’t exist.
I don’t enjoy everything about Ingersoll. For a Bible-lover like me, his savage assaults on the Scriptures make painful reading, even though–or perhaps precisely because–they’re normally right on target. His remarks about Jews sometimes make me cringe, as does his habit of using “Jew Bible” as a term of contempt. The late 19th century saw the growth of the toxic phenomenon that Conor Cruise O’Brien has called “anti-Christian anti-Semitism,” a nastier and more uncompromising cousin to the traditional Christian Jew-hatred, which reached its culmination in the Nazi death camps. Did the amiable, always kindly intentioned “Colonel Bob” unwittingly play some part in this process? I sometimes wonder.
Readers of this blog will not be surprised to find that I like Ingersoll best when he’s at his least confrontational, his most mellow. As, for example, in the letter he wrote in 1886 to a Pennsylvania lady named Mrs. J.C. Euwer, the marvelous conclusion of which came to mind when Priscilla Threadgill suggested that my “UFO” might stand for Universal Friendship Organization. (The letter is in Eva Ingersoll Wakefield, The Letters of Robert G. Ingersoll, New York: Philosophical Library, 1951, pp. 273-274.)
“A great many people,” Ingersoll wrote to Mrs. Euwer, “say that they cannot believe the bible, because in that book God is made to order wars of extermination–because he upheld slavery and polygamy. If you will think a moment, that is exactly what your God has been doing in the world, whether he ever wrote it down in the bible, or not; and to my mind, the God of Nature is even worse than the God of the bible.
“Now, of course, I know nothing about how this is. I can only guess. You may have some way of knowing that I have not, but situated as I am, I may say:
“First. There may be an infinite God, who made everything, who does everything, and everything may be exactly right, and all the fault may be in my lack of wisdom.
“Second. There may be a God, who has done the best he could, and is still doing the best he can, but who is not infinite; and if such a being exists, all good people ought to help him, and if I ever find that there is such a God, and he wants help, I shall go to work to help him. And,
“Third. This is the thing I guess is right–nobody knows how it is. The human mind is not big enough to answer the questions of origin and destiny; and when we are all honest–when that day comes–popes and peasants, presidents of colleges and naked barbarians, will all admit, that one knows exactly as much as the other on this subject, and that all together know exactly nothing!
“But of one thing I feel certain: that whether there be any God, or not, I ought to give to others the rights that I claim for myself; speech and thought should be free; and no matter whether we guess alike about Gods, or other worlds,–here, we should be friends.”
Join the Universal Friendship Organization! Post a comment below or, even better, at my Facebook Fan Page: https://www.facebook.com/JournalofaUFOInvestigator.
by David Halperin
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