Robert Ingersoll

Few American publishers these days will fact-check an assertion about the perfidy of Christians (or of religious believers more generally). And Yale University Press apparently continues that practice of benign neglect of gross error in publishing Susan Jacoby’s new book about Robert Ingersoll. My friend and colleague Tim Larsen reviews Jacoby’s book:

If American atheism is a struggling subculture that is still producing hagiographies, it is also a sectarian enclave which is given to its own, alternative, conspiracy-theory views of events. Mainstream scholars have long debunked the myth that Christianity has been historically opposed to science. Even a 20th-century agnostic scientist such as Stephen Jay Gould knew that historical scholarship made such a view untenable. This discredited perspective continues to circulate in the echo chamber of popular atheism, however, and Jacoby has imbibed it.

Worse, in order to illustrate it, she leads with the most damning example she knows: that Christians opposed the use of anesthetics for women in labor because Genesis is supposed to teach that childbearing should be painful. Especially Calvinists, we are informed, believed that “new drugs to ease pain were ungodly.” Alas, this is completely an urban legend perpetuated by an ill-informed atheist subculture. If the warfare-of-faith-and-science myth is the equivalent of thinking that President Obama is anti-American, then the anesthetics clincher to prove it makes one a “birther” in another sense. (For a scholarly demolition of this atheist urban legend, see Ronald L. Numbers (ed.), Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, Harvard University Press, 2010.)

Here’s another example:

The first of Jacoby’s two appendices is a letter that Ingersoll wrote against vivisection. This is the humane Bob that we all love at his best. Nevertheless, for Jacoby’s polemical purposes, it is still a part of her enclave’s groundless and twisted conspiracy thinking. She imagines that cruelty to animals was happening because it was “justified by biblical precepts.” It is strange to imagine this counter-factual history in which ministers of the Gospel were giving addresses across the nation in favor of vivisection.

Who was actually doing that? The scientists and medical researchers who Jacoby has heroically benefiting mankind by defying and supplanting the clerics. Who actually founded the American Anti-Vivisection Society? Caroline Earle White, an adult convert to Roman Catholicism (a form of Christianity that comes in for Jacoby’s special ire.)

It’s fascinating, in a dreary sort of way, to see how many things people write about religion that they just know to be true, and that are never looked up because editors and proofreaders also just know them to be true. Consider for instance the myth that Christians long believed and taught that the earth was flat.

Myths of this kind are ineradicable, for reasons Mark Twain explained long ago when giving his “Advice to Youth”:

There is in Boston a monument of the man who discovered anesthesia; many people are aware, in these latter days, that that man didn’t discover it at all, but stole the discovery from another man. Is this truth mighty, and will it prevail? Ah no, my hearers, the monument is made of hardy material, but the lie it tells will outlast it a million years. An awkward, feeble, leaky lie is a thing which you ought to make it your unceasing study to avoid; such a lie as that has no more real permanence than an average truth. Why, you might as well tell the truth at once and be done with it. A feeble, stupid, preposterous lie will not live two years — except it be a slander upon somebody. It is indestructible, then of course, but that is no merit of yours.

Somebody who already just knows that Christians opposed anesthesia in childbirth will read Jacoby and have that belief confirmed, then will tell someone else, or write it in a blog post, and so we continue to go round and round and round in the circle game. I just thank you, Lord, that we Christians never say or write anything slanderous about other people.

UPDATE: Everyone, please read Lincoln Mullen’s comment below.