Robert Ingersoll belongs to that group of popular 19th-century lecturers who have faded from public consciousness because they failed to leave behind a written masterpiece. But Tim Page, The Washington Post's music critic and the editor of What's God Got To Do With It? Robert Ingersoll on Free Thought, Honest Talk & the Separation of Church and State (Steerforth; paperback, $10), claims, "He does not deserve his present obscurity," and the well-chosen nuggets here put him right back on center stage.

Born in upstate New York in 1833 to a Congregational minister, Ingersoll was raised in a house of fiery fundamentalism, which he abandoned as soon as possible. But he retained his intimate knowledge of the Bible and theology and used it strategically for the rest of his life to slash away at what he considered the pernicious superstitions of religion.

Commemorating the centennial of the Declaration of Independence, he told his audience: "In 1776 our fathers endeavored to retire the gods from politics. . . . It was a notice to all churches and priests that thereafter mankind would govern and protect themselves. Politically it tore down every altar and denied the authority of every 'sacred book,' and appealed from the Providence of God to the Providence of Man." As Page acknowledges, "Even 130 years later, one cannot imagine any traditional politician speaking such words and remaining in the game for very long." Indeed, Ingersoll, whom Page calls "our apostle of heterodoxy," left a promising political career (as a Republican!) and "spent the last quarter century of his life as a peripatetic, Socratic gadfly, stinging fundamentalist American wherever and whenever he could."

In this collection of short excerpts from his speeches, interviews and newspaper articles, the patron saint of free thought celebrates human reason and decries the influence of blind faith. Opponents of the Kansas Board of Education, federal funding for church social programs and faith-based restrictions on medical research will find here the inspiration to keep fighting.

-- Ron Charles