Oct 05

October 5: John Addington Symonds

John Addington Symonds (1840)

John Addington Symonds

It was on this date, October 5, 1840, that British writer John Addington Symonds was born in Bristol. He was educated at Oxford and married Janet Catherine North (sister of botanical artist Marianne North), on 10 November 1864, producing four daughters. Having health problems throughout his life, Symonds gave up the intensity of the study of law and turned to letters. He achieved great distinction with his classic Short History of the Renaissance in Italy, which appeared in seven volumes from 1875 to 1886. In this work, Symonds scoffed at the idea that the Renaissance artists owed their excellence to religious inspiration. However, Symonds held a sentimental view of God:

Gods fade; but God abides and in man’s heart
Speaks with the clear unconquerable cry
Of energies and hopes that can not die.
—Sonnet, On the Sacro Monte.

While living in Davos, Switzerland, Symonds wrote biographies of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1878), Ben Johnson (1886), Michelangelo (1893) and others, translated the Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini (1887), and wrote his accomplished Studies of the Greek Poets (1873-1876). Implicit in his references to Christianity is Symonds’ rejection of it. As one of the first advocates of male-male love (later to be called homosexuality), it is no wonder Symonds rejected at least that part of Judeo-Christian teaching and tradition. To this day, there are at least 81 countries where homosexuality is still illegal—mostly in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, according to a 2013 report—while no country in Europe has a law against homosexuality.

Why is this? If we took a tour of world religions, we would find that Judaism condemns homosexuality: Genesis 19:4, 5; Leviticus 18:22, 20:13. Christianity condemns homosexuality: Matthew 15:19, Mark 7:21, Acts 15:20, 29; Romans 1:26-27. Islam condemns homosexuality: Qur’an 7:80-81, 26:165-166 (it is punishable by death in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Yemen). Mormonism (LDS) condemns homosexuality in the “law of chastity” Moroni 9:9. Bahá’í does not condone homosexuality, but does not condemn it in those who have not accepted the Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh. Homosexuality is not considered a religious matter by many Buddhists, but same-sex relations are considered “sexual misconduct.” Sikh scripture (the Guru Granth Sahib) does not oppose homosexuality, but many Sikhs do. Hinduism does not view homosexuality as a religious sin, but many Hindus do.

However, in Confucianism, which is not technically a religion, “biting the bitter peel,” is considered a euphemism for homosexual relations, and generally taken to mean anal sex, but is not specifically condemned and is not mentioned in the Analects. Unitarian Universalism, Wicca, Satanism, other pagan religions, along with Secular Humanism (which is not a religion), decline to condemn homosexuality. So it would seem that there is no condemnation of homosexuality and same-sex relations that does not stem from religion.

Still illegal and severely punishable in England in his time—Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for the “gross indecency” of homosexuality from 1895-1897 and it would be another hundred years before protections against discrimination were passed into law—Symonds variously called his sexual orientation “Greek love,” “that unmentionable custom,” “male love” and “l’amour de l’impossible” (i.e., love of the impossible).

Although the Oxford English Dictionary credits the medical writer C.G. Chaddock for introducing the word “homosexual” into the English language in 1892, Symonds had used the word nine years earlier in A Problem in Greek Ethics (1883). The book was inspired by the poetry of Walt Whitman, with whom he corresponded and about whom he wrote a Study(1893). Symonds co-authored a book called Sexual Inversion (1897) with sexologist Havelock Ellis. Although published after Symonds’ death, this book is credited with first making the distinction between homosexual behavior and homosexual orientation.

As to his religion, Symonds was equivocal. His biographer quotes this letter…*

When the cholera was raging in the year 1848, I heard so much about it that I fell into a chronic state of hysterical fear. Some one had told me of the blessings which attend ejaculatory prayers. So I kept perpetually mumbling, “O God, save me from the cholera.” This superstitious habit clung to me for years. I believe that it obstructed the growth of sound ideas upon religion ; but I cannot say that I was ever sincerely pious, or ever realised the language about God I heard and parroted.

…but in the same work quotes this 1861 letter to his sister…

The Bishop preached a magnificent sermon yesterday on “doubting.” … It was an impassioned warning to young men, bidding them not let in the thin end of the wedge of scepticism. He told them that the admission of doubts on subjects of pure criticism and history would lead to metaphysical doubts, and end in doubt of God. … I think he is right here. Many a man begins by doubting the eternity of punishment ; and then, believing in his right to exercise private judgment, can find the doctrine of the Trinity nowhere in the Bible. The habit of appealing to Reason once gained, and strengthened and supplied with food by philosophical studies, he comes to apply the test of Reason to higher mysteries that of the Incarnation ; that, finally, of the existence of a God. Each step has been destructive as it must be, if men try to understand dogmas which their powers pronounced unintelligible. For a time such a man lives without God in the world.

Symonds wrote his Memoirs (1889-1893), but this remained unpublished for 90 years, until they were edited by Phyllis Grosskurth as an Autobiography and printed in 1984. Symonds died at Rome on 19 April 1893, age 54, and was buried close to Percy Bysshe Shelley. Scottish historian Horatio F. Brown, a personal friend to whom the writer entrusted his papers, shows in his 1895 biography of the writer that John Addington Symonds did not believe in a future life.†

* Horatio F. Brown, Life of John Addington Symonds, 1895, pp. 319 and 421.
† Ibid.

Originally published October 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

Permanent link to this article: http://freethoughtalmanac.com/?p=3446

Sep 27

September 27: Stephan Jenkins

Stephan Jenkins (1964)

Stephan Jenkins
It was on this date, September 27, 1964, that Stephan Jenkins, the front man for the pop music group Third Eye Blind, was born Stephan Douglas Jenkins in Oakland, California. After overcoming childhood dyslexia, and earning a degree in literature in 1987 from the University of California, Berkeley, Stephan Jenkins co-founded Third Eye Blind in 1993 in San Francisco. The group has produced such hits as “Jumper” (including the line, “Everyone’s got to face down the demons/Maybe today we can put the past away” a song about “a friend who’s gay, jumping off a bridge and killing” himself), “Deep Inside of You” (feature in the 2000 film Me, Myself & Irene) and “Never Let You Go” (featured in the 2000 films Clockstoppers and Coyote Ugly and the 2012 film American Reunion, and presumably about then-girlfriend, Charlize Theron).

At the Roman Catholic liberal arts college in Loudonville, New York, known as Siena College, during a 7 November 1998 concert, in the middle of the band’s second song, “Narcolepsy,” Jenkins “grabbed a large case of condoms and explained that school officials prohibited him from distributing them at the concert, but that—rebel that he is—he wasn’t going to let them stop him, and he proceeded to toss handfuls into the clamoring crowd.”* Jenkins and fellow band member Arion Salazar wrote into the lyrics of their 1999 song, “Darwin,” a suggestion on how life developed on Earth without the help of any gods—

The chromosomes divide,
multiply and thrive
And the strong survive
And the strong survive
And the grandson of an alien
wears his snake skin boots
And shows his reptile roots
He shows his reptile roots

We’re lacking something,
something good
Is this all for nothing,
Show me the goods,
something good

Jenkins has said before that he does not believe in God. On 16 December 2000, Associated Press reporter Jennifer Vineyard interviewed Jenkins at the “Jingle Ball,” a Christmas celebration in New York City’s Madison Square Garden. “Though not much was said about the holiday festivities onstage,” Vineyard wrote, “Jenkins was more than happy to elaborate backstage about his feelings on the season. For Christmas, he said, he plans to go to midnight mass with his mother in Portland, though neither is a believer in God:

But I’m a big believer in praying, and I’m a believer in singing. So it’s an opportunity to sing and pray, and I like that a lot. I think religion is a bunch of hooey, and I think that the holidays are an opportunity for people to get stressed out, getting their rush to shop. It’s so conformist.†

* “Third Eye Blind Show Delivers Mixed Bag” by Greg Haymes, Times Union, 9 November 1998 (retrieved 9/17/14)
* Jennifer Vineyard, Associated Press report, 16 December 2000, as quoted on the Celebrity Atheist List Web site.

Originally published September 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

Permanent link to this article: http://freethoughtalmanac.com/?p=3254

Sep 05

September 5: Religion and Terror

The Reign of Terror (1793)
and the Churches

Maximilian Robespierre

It was on this date, September 5, 1793, that an 11-month Reign of Terror began in France. Sometimes called the Red Terror, to distinguish it from the equally brutal but little-mentioned White Terror which followed it, the Reign of Terror lasted until the execution of Maximilian Robespierre on 28 July 1794. In less than a year, about 18,000 people were killed, an average of 55 a day. The massacres and beheadings were excessive, and supervised by the Committee of Public Safety, in which Georges Danton and Robespierre were influential members. Religious writers, when they speak of the French Revolution at all, are fond of pointing to the Terror as proof that people deprived of their religion turn into beasts with no moral compass. Is that true?

First, the Terror was not part of the French Revolution: the revolutionists had succeeded in 1789 – replacing a desperately brutal feudal system, a 90% illiteracy rate and the divine rule of kings with a republican government – and the men and women who had secured the freedom of France left the governing to others. The Terror took place four years after the French Revolution.

Second, anyone who is familiar with the history of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages may recall, if they were ever taught, that compared to the 50,000 slaughtered in a few days during the St. Bartholomew Massacre some 220 years earlier, or the quarter of a million Albigensian men, women, and children slain from 1211-1215, the Reds had a lot to learn from the Catholics about random murder.

Third, the Committee of Public Safety, supported by the people of Paris, was created to preserve the reformed government and to put down threats from inside the country. The clergy, in league with the nobles, were plotting the reversal of the Revolution. Robespierre took the lead and the Terror was installed to defeat the insurrection and to repel opportunistic foreign invaders, since this was in every sense a national emergency. And yet, less than 10% of those killed in the Terror were clerics – 67% belonged to the mostly republican working class.

The clerical-royalist conspiracies were real: the crowned heads of Europe wanted to smother democratic ideas in the cradle. The former French nobility wanted their inherited privilege returned. The Catholic Church was similarly addicted to unearned advantage, but they had also been made into employees of the state, and required to take a loyalty oath. Half of them refused and fought for the failure of republican government, enlisting the aid of foreign powers. As it is unlikely that foreign invaders would not demand a piece of France for their services, it was fortunate that the republican army defeated the Austrian, English, Prussian and Spanish invaders.

A contemporary French cartoon: the Third Estate (workers) is shown bearing the full burden of taxation. The nobility (left) leans unhelpfully on his labor; the clergy (right) gives token help.

Fourth, there was an internal quarrel between the Girondists and the Montagnards. Robespierre led the Montagnards to victory – but he not only believed in God and hated Atheism, he decreed the worship of God as the State religion, which alienated the populace. It was under the God-loving Robespierre that the despicable acts of the Terror took place. The Terror ended when Robespierre was overthrown and an appalled public demanded his execution.

Fifth, as soon as Robespierre fell, there was an equal and opposite reaction from the clerical-royalists: a White Terror to restore the monarchy. Perpetrated largely by Catholics, the displaced masters of France took revenge on the republicans, killing thousands without even the pretence of a trial. Eventually, more moderate men took over, but they also abolished Robespierre’s Cult of the Supreme Being. With the resulting general indifference to religion, France became relatively tranquil and prosperous.

So not only were the greatest excesses of the Reign of Terror perpetrated under a man of God, but the reactionary clerical-royalists dipped their hands in blood, as well. France is a secular republic today because, unlike the US and some other nations, France knows what religious strife is really like.

NB: The facts of the Red Terror and the White Terror are related in the following sources: Cambridge Modern History Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Ernst Daudet, La Terreur blanche.. Quantin, 1878; Ernest Lavisse. Histoire de France Contemporaine. 10 vol., 1920-1922; Richard Lodge. A History Of Modern Europe From The Capture Of Constantinople,1453, To The Treaty Of Berlin, 1878. New York: Harper & Bros., 1898.

Originally published September 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

Permanent link to this article: http://freethoughtalmanac.com/?p=3098

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