Seven weeks before he died, the famous orator and freethinker Robert G. Ingersoll gave his last public speech in Boston, Massachusetts. Ingersoll spoke in the evening of June 2, 1899, at the Hollis Street Theatre on the topic “What is Religion” to a full house.
Ingersoll’s last speech was sponsored by the Free Religious Association which had been formed in Boston in 1867 by a group of Unitarians. Ralph Waldo Emerson was the first member to join the group at the original meeting.
Ingersoll still commanded attentive audiences although he was past his prime, having a minor stroke in 1896 and suffering from angina. The speech was a summary from his years on the stump denouncing the sins of organized religion.
Ingersoll asked the question “Is an infinite God the governor of this world?”
Ingersoll answered his question with more questions.
“Is he responsible for all the wars that have been waged, for all the innocent blood that has been shed?”
‘Is this God responsible for religious persecution, for the Inquisition, for the thumb-screw and rack, and for all the instruments of torture?”
“Did this God allow the cruel and vile to destroy the brave and virtuous? Did he allow tyrants to shed the blood of patriots?”
“How can we account for cancers, for microbes, for diphtheria and the thousand diseases that prey on infancy?”
Ingersoll then answered his questions with the statement that religion was fear.
“Fear builds the alter and offers the sacrifice.”
“Fear bends the knees and utters the prayer.”
“Most people cling to the supernatural. If they give up one God, they imagine another.”
“Religion rests on the idea that Nature has a master and that this master will listen to prayer; that this master punishes and rewards; that he loves praise and flattery and hates the brave and the free.”
“Religion can never reform mankind because religion is slavery.”
“It is far better to be free, to leave the forts and barricades of fear, to stand erect and face the future with a smile….to increase knowledge, to take burdens from the weak, to develop the brain, to defend the right, to make a palace for the soul.”
“This is real religion. This is real worship.”