Does Famine Feed Faith? Beef Breed Blasphemy?
A great 19th-century orator explains why Lent is a mistake.
By Robert Ingersoll
Robert Ingersoll is largely forgotten today, but in the 19th-century he was one of the most famous men in America, an impassioned patriot and freethinker, an advocate for justice and liberty, a champion of the separation of church and state, and of the rights of women and African Americans. A widely sought speaker, Ingersoll was second only to Ralph Waldo Emerson in terms of the crowds and controversy he drew.
In 1877, Ingersoll gave a speech entitled “The Liberty of Man, Woman and Child,” in which he criticized ministers who inspire fear and use religion to enslave rather than empower the faithful. In response, Dr. Buckley, a Brooklyn churchman, attacked Ingersoll’s lecture, noting that the great orator added insult to injury by delivering it during Lent.
In an 1881 interview, Ingersoll was asked what he thought of Dr. Buckley’s remarks. Here was his reply.
* * *
I never heard of Dr. Buckley until after I had lectured in Brooklyn. He seems to think that it was extremely ill bred in me to deliver a lecture on the “Liberty of Man, Woman and Child” during Lent.
Lent is just as good as any other part of the year, and no part can be too good to do good. It was not a part of my object to hurt the feelings of the Episcopalians and Catholics. If they think there is some subtle relation between hunger and heaven, or that faith depends upon, or is strengthened by famine, or that veal, during Lent, is the enemy of virtue, or that beef breeds blasphemy, while fish feeds faith—of course, all this is nothing to me. They have a right to say that vice depends on victuals, sanctity on soup, religion on rice and chastity on cheese, but they have no right to say that a lecture on liberty is an insult to them because they are hungry. I suppose that Lent was instituted in memory of the Savior’s fast. At one time it was supposed that only a divine being could live forty days without food. This supposition has been overthrown.
What possible good did it do the world for Christ to go without food for forty days? Why should we follow such an example? As a rule, hungry people are cross, contrary, obstinate, peevish and unpleasant. A good dinner puts a man at peace with all the world—makes him generous, good natured and happy. He feels like kissing his wife and children. The future looks bright. He wants to help the needy. The good in him predominates, and he wonders that any man was ever stingy or cruel. Your good cook is a civilizer, and without good food, well prepared, intellectual progress is simply impossible. Most of the orthodox creeds were born of bad cooking. Bad food produced dyspepsia, and dyspepsia produced Calvinism, and Calvinism is the cancer of Christianity. Oatmeal is responsible for the worst features of Scotch Presbyterianism. Half cooked beans account for the religion of the Puritans. Fried bacon and saleratus biscuit underlie the doctrine of State Rights. Lent is a mistake, fasting is a blunder, and bad cooking is a crime.
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Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899) was a Civil War veteran, lawyer, orator, and leading figure in the freethought movement. His works were published in 12 volumes, and he was the subject of six biographies. His admirers included Mark Twain, Henry Ward Beecher, Frederick Douglass, and Thomas Edison, who said Ingersoll had “all the attributes of a perfect man.”
Excerpted from What’s God Got to Do With It: Robert Ingersoll on Free Thought, Honest Talk and the Separation of Church and State, edited and with an introduction by Tim Page. Published by Steerforth Press. Copyright 2005. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.
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