Jul 23

July 23: Daniel Radcliffe (1989)

It was on this date, July 23, 1989, that the English actor known for a 10-year run as the title character in the Harry Potter films, Daniel Radcliffe was born Daniel Jacob Radcliffe in Fulham, London. Radcliffe made his acting debut at age 10 in the title role of BBC One’s television movie David Copperfield (1999), followed by his film debut in the John le Carré spy film The Tailor of Panama (2001). In addition to the seven or eight Harry Potter films, depending on whether you count the two-part Deathly Hallows finale as one or two films (2001-2011), Radcliffe appeared in the 2007 London and New York revivals of the Peter Shaffer play Equus (only some of its popularity sparked by Radcliffe appearing nude!) and as the lead in the 2011 Broadway revival of the musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Other films include a horror picture, The Woman in Black (2012), as the 1950s beat poet Alan Ginsberg in the thriller, Kill Your Darlings (2013) and as the son of Rudyard Kipling in the TV movie My Boy Jack (2007).

Radcliffe has spoken out against homophobia and promoted awareness of gay teen suicide prevention, saying in a 2010 interview, “I have always hated anybody who is not tolerant of gay men or lesbians or bisexuals. Now I am in the very fortunate position where I can actually help or do something about it.” He has donated to charities commemorating Holocaust survivors and to fighting HIV/AIDS.

Of his upbringing, Radcliffe said in a 2012 interview, “There was never [religious] faith in the house. I think of myself as being Jewish and Irish, despite the fact that I’m English.” He has also said, “I’m an atheist, and a militant atheist when religion starts impacting on legislation,” and that he is “very proud of being Jewish.” Christian conservatives, already suspicious of the pagan orientation of the Harry Potter books and films, were even more dismayed when, in an interview promoting the 2009 release of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Radcliffe said, “I’m an atheist, but I’m very relaxed about it. I don’t preach my atheism, but I have a huge amount of respect for people like Richard Dawkins who do.”

Permanent link to this article: http://freethoughtalmanac.com/?p=6853

Jul 22

July 22: Gregor Mendel

Gregor Mendel (1822)

Gregor Mendel

It was on this date, July 22, 1822, that Moravian monk and amateur botanist Gregor Johann Mendel was born in Heinzendorf (now Hynčice), a tiny village in Austrian Silesia, which was then under Hapsburg rule. A peasant with a passion for learning, owing to the poverty of his family, Mendel noviced at the Abbey of St. Thomas at what is now Brno, Czech Republic, in 1843, and was ordained in 1847. He entered the Augustinian Monastery in Brno, which allowed Mendel to study mathematics and science at the University of Vienna. He taught for several years, but eventually gave that up to become abbot of his monastery.

It was in the monastic garden that Mendel made the first experiments in cross-breeding pea plants, combining botany with his mathematical knowledge to produce predictions about dominant and recessive traits. He published the founding theories of genetics before genes were ever discovered, and his researches would have jump-started the science of genetics had not his 1866 paper, Experiments in Plant Hybridization, passed into oblivion because it was published only in the backwater of Brno, and had no champion, like Darwin his Huxley. Difficulty in getting his theory noticed was due also to a lack of mathematical literacy in the field of botany. Mendel’s theories were rediscovered posthumously in 1900 by Hugo de Vries (1848-1935) in Holland, Carl Correns (1864-1933) in Germany, and Erich Tschermak von Seysenegg (1871-1962) in Austria – and by courtesy his name is given to Mendel’s Laws of Inheritance.

Popular writers, such as the website St. Francis Online, say Freethinkers forget to mention, among scientists, “Christians whose faith supported them in their scientific endeavors, like Blaise Pascal, Louis Pasteur and Gregor Mendel.”* This is a truly bizarre criticism: Pascal was seriously ill all of his life and the work on which we judge his religious beliefs was published only after his death, with modifications to make him appear orthodox. Pasteur was a Rationalist all his life.

As for Gregor Mendel, this so-called “devoted monk,”** and “great Catholic scientist” is not even claimed by the (new) Catholic Encyclopedia. His biographer, Hugo Iltis, was a relative, and in the German original of his 1924 Life of Mendel he gives evidence that Mendel was seriously anti-Christian in his youth and remained skeptical all his life. Mendel wrote an aggressively Rationalist poem, speaking of “the gloomy powers of superstition which now oppress the world,” two years before entering the monastery.

And how did he end up in a monastery? Iltis shows that Mendel became a monk only to get leisure to study. He shirked his priestly duties whenever he could, and remained a skeptic (that is, a Deist). Failing eyesight and his duties as abbot distracted Mendel from his researches – so much the worse for science. Even after he became abbot, however, he read and annotated Darwin’s Origin of Species and accepted evolution, something no orthodox Catholic was allowed to do at the time. Mendel’s researches supplanted the dominance of Darwin’s idea that evolution occurred by random mutation, complementing it with the theory of inheritance of dominant characteristics.

It is one of the ironies of science history that Darwin was never aware of Mendel’s discoveries – which would have provided a much-needed “missing link” of support for evolutionary theory!

* St. Francis Bookshop Online (Catholic)
** Bible Believers.Net (Fundamentalist Protestant)

Comment on my Rant

On Mon, 15 Sep 2003, I received the following e-mail in response to my commentary:


Thank you for the interesting essay. I would like to point out that Gregor Mendel is, in fact, claimed proudly in the Catholic Encyclopedia from about 1917: [link here] although interestingly, it says he pursued his research because he was “dissatisfied with Darwinian views.” (Darwin is not granted an entry; he was vocally against the Church during his life, after all.) I don’t see why you wouldn’t consider Mendel a “Christian scientist”; at least, his work and lifestyle were subsidized by the Church. The “superstition” he mentions in his poem could have easily referred to medical science at the time, not just Christian practices. Since the Church has since done away with much superstition–at least Catholics now believe undoubtedly in evolution and genetics, since the Bible is meant as a moral truth more than a historical truth–so his being anti-superstition seems not to attack in any way the more fundamental heart of Christianity which is following of the teachings of Christ.

Also, I do not understand your statement: Mendel’s researches overturned Darwin’s idea that evolution occurred by random mutation, supplanting that with his own theory of inheritance of dominant characteristics. In my view, Mendel’s work was complementary to Darwin’s, since Mendel was describing the default situation of heredity, where there are no evolutionary pressures and no selective advantage to one trait over another. And Darwin described a different situation, in which nevertheless the trait of the successful animal is passed on with the ratios Mendel figured out, just that only the strongest survived to reproduce and the outcome as far as population genetics is not strictly Mendelian over a longer time span.

-[name withheld]

biology graduate student

lapsed Catholic

Dear —:

It’s always a pleasure to correspond with a lapsed Catholic!

I am aware that the Catholic Encyclopedia claims Gregor Mendel. So do most apologists who don’t look too closely into what he actually believed, as opposed to where he worked. As far I can determine, the abbey was just a job for Mendel. His church may have (in some sense) supported him in his work, but not his faith.

However, I would never consider Mendel a Christian scientist in the sense you seem to suggest. The Catholic Church may have employed him, but it was indifferent to his studies; otherwise, his conclusions would not have languished for decades. The church certainly had the money to publish and promote him while he was alive and obscure, but they seem content to claim him now that he’s dead and famous.

There is no Christian science, just as there is no Muslim mathematics or Jewish geography — religion is irrelevant to empirical disciplines. As for the “the gloomy powers of superstition which now oppress the world” Mendel mentions in his poem, I can’t see how you come to the idea that he may have been referring to nineteenth century medical science. As rudimentary as it was, medicine in Mendel’s time was still finding its footing in the study of this world, not the next.

You are correct that Darwin and Mendel held complementary ideas of evolutionary mechanics. What I wrote was a rhetorical overstatement which I have now toned down, as I would rather not anyone misunderstand.

The world can use more scientists like you, so I wish you well in your studies. Thank you for your useful comments!

Permanent link to this article: http://freethoughtalmanac.com/?p=2695

Jul 14

July 14: Bastille Day

Bastille Day (1789)

Storming the Bastille (1789) by Jean-Pierre Houël

It was on this date, July 14, 1789, in the morning, that French citizens stormed and destroyed the hated Bastille prison in Paris, ending a symbol of the human rights abuses by King Louis XVI—who had in fact supported the American colonists in their quest for independence from Great Britain—and beginning the French Revolution. Bastille, means “bastion” or “castle”; it was a structure built in the 14th century to defend the eastern approach to the city of Paris from the English threat in the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453); it is known formally as the Bastille Saint-Antoine. Louis XIV used the Bastille as a prison for those had opposed or angered him, including upper-class members of French society and, after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, French Protestants, but also to hold those who had differed with him on matters of religion.

The destruction of the Bastille marked the end of absolute monarchy in France—Louis XVI was executed by guillotine on 21 January 1793—and signaled the birth of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity for all French citizens and, eventually, the creation of the First Republic. The French Revolution achieved popular support among the peasants and nobles, and even a few priests, because of a cruel tyranny under Church and State that kept the populace at 90% illiteracy, oppressed them with taxes and denied them property ownership—a dangerous income inequality not unlike that increasing in the United States today. To their credit, the leaders of the Revolution took no office in the succeeding government after 1791. Still, the new Constitution treated the luxuriously and cynically corrupt Catholic Church better than it had treated the people. Of course the Church claimed religious oppression because they could no longer oppress the people as they used to—again, not unlike the whining of churches in the U.S. today.

Bastille Day, called simply Le quatorze juillet by natives (cf. “Fourth of July” for Independence Day in the U.S.), was declared the French national holiday, La Fête Nationale, on 6 July 1880. It celebrates not only the storming of the Bastille in 1789, commemorated in a painting of that same year by a contemporary, Jean-Pierre Houël, and later by Austrian composer Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf in his Symphony in C Major and by Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities, but also celebrates the Fête de la Fédération on 14 July 1790. Celebrations of Bastille Day are held all over France to this day. They are, and always have been, secular.

Originally published July 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

Permanent link to this article: http://freethoughtalmanac.com/?p=2612

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