On this date, June 9, 1897, John Emerson Roberts left the Unitarians to go out to lecture on his own. He had met Robert Ingersoll, that famous agnostic, and they found themselves kindred spirits. Ingersoll wrote to Roberts, “You are preaching a religion for this world.” Roberts told a news reporter about Ingersoll, “He is the greatest apostle of liberty and reason and fraternity.”
Both men called themselves agnostics. What did it mean in their time? A religious man wrote “We must stand for faith in God as against atheism, and for faith in immortality as against agnosticism.”
Atheism is clear enough as not believing in God. Isn’t agnosticism simply a refusal to make a claim where one has no knowledge?
In fact, neither Ingersoll nor Roberts ever challenged belief in immortality. The desire to believe in a future life, even among educated people, was so strong at that time it might have hurt their careers to argue the matter. Speeches at funerals, even freethinkers’ funerals, left the option open.
Roberts himself had no wish to challenge the belief. He said in one lecture, give in 1909:
If this life ends all, then nature is the infinite deceiver, the colossal liar,. . . . and though I do not know it to be a fact and cannot prove it, yet I will trust that when the world is old and the sun is cold and the infinite future is unrolled, man shall yet continue conscious, intelligent, aspiring, deathless, having life and having it more abundantly.
Roberts envisions no traditional heaven, but he wants to believe that life goes on, and until science can persuade him it is impossible, as it could not 100 years ago, he chooses to believe that it will.
The science which underlies arguments about belief has changed significantly since Roberts’s time.
My biography, John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher, is available from Amazon, or from the author. See more on the Books page.