Apr 23

April 23: Max Planck (1858)

Max Planck (1858)

Max Planck

It was on this date, April 23, 1858, that German physicist Max Planck was born Max Karl Ernst Ludwig Planck in Kiel, Schleswig-Holstein. Although the son of a law professor, and a gifted musician, Planck turned to physics and thermodynamics, invented quantum theory, and developed a formula to predict how the radiation an object emits is related to its temperature, known today as Planck’s Constant and symbolized by the letter h. He lectured at Columbia University in 1909, and was made rector of the University of Berlin in 1913. Max Planck received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1918. The Royal Society of Great Britain gave him the Copley Medal in 1928. Among Planck’s books were Principles of Conservation of Energy (1887), Lectures on Thermo-Dynamics (1897), Lectures on the Theory of Heat Radiation (1906), Introduction to the Theory of Physics (1930) and Where Is Science Going? (1932). Though opposed to the Nazi Party during the ascendancy of the Third Reich in Germany, Planck refused to leave the country and suffered hardship as a result, including the execution of one of his three sons in 1945 for joining the July 20 Plot to assassinate Hitler.

Religion was a tradition and a duty in Planck’s family, but Planck himself was more tolerant of other religions, especially Judaism, than most of his countrymen—even defending German-Jewish chemist and 1918 Nobel Laureate Fritz Haber in spite of the Nazi government. Planck believed every scientist must be a man of imagination and faith, but by “faith” he meant “having a working hypothesis.” Therefore, Planck would say, in Where Is Science Going?, “Anybody who has been seriously engaged in scientific work of any kind realizes that over the entrance to the gates of the temple of science are written the words: Ye must have faith. It is a quality which the scientist cannot dispense with.” Elsewhere in the same work, he wrote, “Religion belongs to that realm that is inviolable before the law of causation and therefore is closed to science.” And was almost pantheist in his view of God as an “ideal Sprit”—one could hardly call him Christian—one biographer observing that Planck was “far removed from all dogmatic, mystery-mongering beings.” Indeed, six months before his death, Planck was questioned about a rumor that he had converted to Roman Catholicism, but the celebrated scientist declared that although his religion ran deep, he did not believe “in a personal God, let alone a Christian God.”

But as if to demonstrate that a scientist, no matter how accomplished, does not necessarily have the tools with which to “speak out of school,” especially on religion, in a 1944 speech Planck stated his rationale for belief in God thus: “As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter.”*

Planck died on 4 October 1947, aged 89, in Göttingen, Lower Saxony, Germany. It was Max Planck who famously said, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”**

* Das Wesen der Materie [The Nature of Matter], speech at Florence, Italy (1944) (from Archiv zur Geschichte der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, Abt. Va, Rep. 11 Planck, Nr. 1797) ** Wissenschaftliche Selbstbiographie. Mit einem Bildnis und der von Max von Laue gehaltenen Traueransprache. Johann Ambrosius Barth Verlag (Leipzig 1948), p. 22, as translated in Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers, trans. F. Gaynor (New York, 1949), pp. 33–34 (as cited in T. S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions).

Originally published April 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

Permanent link to this article: http://freethoughtalmanac.com/?p=2011

Apr 22

April 22: “In God We Trust” Inscribed on US Currency

“In God We Trust”
Inscribed on US Currency (1864)

It's on the money

It was on this date, April 22, 1864, that the US Congress passed an act requiring the Director of the Mint to develop designs for the one-cent and two-cent coins that, for the first time since the nation was founded, included a recognition of God. Replacing the Latin motto, E Pluribus Unum, “Out of many, one” — was one that everyone could read, if not subscribe to: “In God We Trust.” While the Civil War raged, the motto began to appear on all US coins.

How did this happen? According to the US Treasury, then-Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase received a multitude of appeals from Christians. The most persuasive one appears to have been from a Rev. Watkinson of Ridleyville, PA, on 13 November 1861: “You are probably a Christian,” wrote Watkinson…

Would not the antiquaries of succeeding centuries rightly reason from our past that we were a heathen nation? What I propose is that instead of the goddess of liberty we shall have next inside the 13 stars a ring inscribed with the words PERPETUAL UNION; within the ring the all-seeing eye, crowned with a halo; beneath this eye the American flag, bearing in its field stars equal to the number of the States united; in the folds of the bars the words GOD, LIBERTY, LAW.

To anyone who knows history, and cares about liberty, the idea of replacing the goddess of liberty with a religious slogan — especially one listing God before liberty and law — should be frightening. But Watkinson was not finished with Secretary Chase:

This would make a beautiful coin, to which no possible citizen could object. This would relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism. This would place us openly under the Divine protection we have personally claimed. From my heart I have felt our national shame in disowning God as not the least of our present national disasters.”

Chase showed his devotion to the Almighty, or at least to their ministers on earth, within the week, by complying. On 20 November, 1861, Chase piously declared to the Director of the Mint, “No nation can be strong except in the strength of God, or safe except in His defense. The trust of our people in God should be declared on our national coins.”

To do so, Chase himself “coined” the motto, “In God We Trust” — 85 years after the founding of a nation that somehow neglected to mention the Judeo-Christian God in its Declaration of Independence and under in its Constitution proscribed any religious test for office… a nation God didn’t judge for destroying the lives of millions of Africans under slavery, or for stealing land from and committing genocide against Native Americans—all while there was no recognition of the Divinity on its coins and currency. It took another 92 years, amid the anti-Communist hysteria of the 1950s, for President Eisenhower to sign a Congressional joint resolution* making “In God We Trust” the national motto… thereby declaring all who don’t trust God, or who don’t believe in any gods, or who believe in the wrong god, unworthy of citizenship.

And even though the motto was conceived by a cleric, recommended for its religious purpose, and adopted precisely to acknowledge the Judeo-Christian God, several federal courts have ruled that “In God We Trust” is not a religious phrase! What’s troubling is that Nazi Germany had a very similar motto: Gott mit uns (“God with us”). One would suppose that antiquaries of succeeding centuries will judge the Nazis, too, as being spared the ignominy of heathenism!

* The Joint Resolution was signed by President Eisenhower on 30 July 1956.

Originally published April 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

Permanent link to this article: http://freethoughtalmanac.com/?p=1981

Apr 20

April 20: Columbine Massacre

Columbine Massacre (1999) and Religion

It was on this date, April 20, 1999, that two students of Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, brought guns and explosives instead of textbooks to school. After their 49-minute rampage, which left 12 students and a teacher dead and 24 wounded, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris took their own lives. They had planned their massacre for over a year—even making videotapes, including one on the day of the violence.

Cassie Bernall and Rachel Scott: They never had a chance to say “yes”

Never allowing a tragedy go unexploited, three famous, media-savvy conservatives—former political candidate Pat Buchanan, former vice president Dan Quayle, and Georgia Congressman Bob Barr—saw the massacre as an excuse to advocate bringing state-sponsored prayer back into public schools, in contravention of the 1963 Supreme Court rulings forbidding all but voluntary, student prayer. And many other conservative social critics latched onto stories that two of the student victims, Rachel Scott and Cassie Bernall, proclaimed their faith in God when they were asked with a gun pointed at them. Cassie’s mother even published a book: She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall.

There is a yearning among some evangelical Christians for the strength of faith displayed in the legends of the early Christian martyrs: the temptation is strong, in these irreligious times, to show the same religious courage Christians showed when they were a persecuted minority—although only a few score of true martyrs for Christ can be attested, fables and church literature to the contrary. We should stipulate that any innocent person’s death by violence is tragic; but tragedy doesn’t liberate anybody from telling the truth: the FBI investigated and determined that Cassie and Eric Harris did not exchange any words before he shot her in the head.

What about Rachel Scott? She was the first victim of the Columbine shootings and was eating lunch outside on the school lawn with a male friend who survived the shooting. He later claimed that Rachel was mocked about her religious faith by the killer before he opened fire. The FBI investigated and determined, as with Cassie, that Eric Harris exchanged no words with either of the students before he killed Rachel with multiple gunshot wounds to her head, chest, arm, and leg.

In fact, Cassie’s and Rachel’s stories were conflated with that of 18-year-old Columbine survivor Valeen Schnurr. She had been seriously wounded by gunshot wounds and shrapnel and had cried out, “Oh, God help me!” Klebold approached her and asked if she believed in God. Scott replied with a no, then a yes. When Klebold asked her why, she said her family believes. Klebold then reloaded his shotgun, said “God is gay,” and walked away.

It is rather disingenuous to claim that the incident that has come to be known simply as “Columbine” constitutes some message from God that our nation has strayed from the path of righteousness. The U.S. is a violent society to begin with: as Michael Moore pointed out in his Oscar-winning 2002 documentary, Bowling for Columbine, other industrialized democracies don’t have the problems we seem to have with kids and guns and random violence.

So could this massacre have been prevented by mandating prayer in schools? Organized prayer is so watered down, it is unlikely to foment any religions transformation; more specific prayers would violate somebody’s personal religious sensibilities, anyway. Maybe if the Ten Commandments—“thou shalt not kill” and all—had been posted? One would be forgiven for confusion in that event, because Christians know in their hearts that Christianity itself is founded on a murder.

Ah, yes, the religious partisan will say: remember that Harris walked into the school wearing a t-shirt that read “Natural Selection.” What about the anti-religious effect of your godless schools with their teaching of Darwinism and their avoidance of religious morals? Well, Klebold wore a t-shirt saying “Wrath.” What of it? In fact, Harris was a fan of the 1994 film Natural Born Killers, which glorifies the media frenzy that murderous violence attracts in American society. It is a fair assumption that other Columbine students learned the fact of the natural origins of humanity without feeling the urge or planning the means to kill anybody: in fact, one could probably recall around 2,000 other Columbine students who grew up peacefully in the same culture.

Other suggestions for blame included violent video games, lack of parental supervision, anti-depression medication, a “Goth” subculture at Columbine, dark music like that of Marilyn Manson, and so on. Each partisan has his or her pet peeve to blame, in the hope of advancing a favored cause. But what if the cause is all of these—and none of these? What if Columbine, and school shootings before and since, are not a product of the breakdown of parental or religious authority or addressable by increased policing? What if, as Michael Moore vainly pleaded to a deaf America in his documentary, American society itself bears responsibility for the massacre? What if the warning signs in the pre-massacre behavior of Klebold and Harris were ignored because they are all too common? What if, as one commentator framed it,

[T]he concentration on individual warning signs will be of little help in preventing further tragedies. Attention should be focused, rather, on the social warning signs, that is, the indications and indices of social and political dysfunction that create the climate that produces events like the Columbine HS massacre. Vital indicators of impending disaster might include: growing polarization between wealth and poverty; atomization of working people and the suppression of their class identity; the glorification of militarism and war; the absence of serious social commentary and political debate; the debased state of popular culture; the worship of the stock exchange; the unrestrained celebration of individual success and personal wealth; the denigration of the ideals of social progress and equality.

In other words, what about American society would spawn an Eric Harris, described by investigative journalist Dave Cullen (Columbine, 2009) as a “callously brutal mastermind,” and a Dylan Klebold, described by Cullen as a “quivering depressive,” who, rather than fighting for a cause or righting a wrong, instead simply planned for a year to create as much media-ready pain and suffering as possible?

The real reasons Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris engaged in this long-planned but mercifully incompetent* terrorist attack—although, the perpetrators being white, the media would never use the word “terrorist”—were probably just as they claimed in their videos and journals: years of ridicule and bullying, social ostracism and isolation in school, and, of course, easy access to bomb-making materials and guns, financed though Harris’s part-time job at a pizza parlor.

It is a little dishonest to claim that the Columbine killers, because they presumably lacked God in their lives, therefore took the lives of Cassie and Rachel and 11 others. If Cassie and Rachel really would have “said yes,” where was God when they needed him to save their lives?

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* I use the word “incompetent” not out of insensitivity, but because most of the bombs Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris set, mercifully failed to explode, thus saving many lives through their sheer incompetence. Furthermore, the date of April 20 was a day later than the two had hoped to make their attack because some supplies they had been expecting did not arrive until too late for the 19th. The 19th was chosen for being the 4th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing—another terror attack not so called once it was learned that its perpetrators were white.

Comments on the rant above can be found at this link: The Columbine Letters.

Originally published April 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

Permanent link to this article: http://freethoughtalmanac.com/?p=1968

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