An Atheist’s “Prayer”

One of the greatest friends humanity has ever had was an atheist named Robert Ingersoll. Ingersoll railed against religion because he hated superstition and sectarian arrogance. He attacked religion with more precision than any of the new atheists because he actually understood and sympathized with the motives of the human beings caught in bad religion. He had none of the arrogance of those who simply enjoy ridiculing those less intelligent than themselves. I believe it possible to be religious without having the vices he deplored, but I am also moved by his passion on behalf of humankind.

Some years ago I ran across a passage by Robert Ingersoll that seems to show that there might yet be common ground between theist and nontheist. Although he was an atheist and I a person of faith, it seems we share the same hope for a different kind of church. Perhaps he was anticipating the kind of theology some of us are trying to do today. Here is an atheist’s “prayer” for a different kind of church:

“When every church becomes a school, every cathedral, university, every clergy, a teacher and all their hearers, brave and honest thinkers then and not until then will the dream of poet, patriot, philanthropist, and philosopher become a blessed truth.”

It is possible Ingersoll meant when the church is replaced by the school, but I hear a shared hope for a humanity that is both scientific and deeply reverential. Perhaps that’s what he meant by “blessed truth.”

Hear, O people of God, these words from an atheist and a prophet. Love with all of your mind as well as all of your heart and will.