Freethought Almanac

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November 11: Kurt Vonnegut Jr + Joseph McCabe

Kurt Vonnegut Jr (1922)

It was on this date, November 11, 1922, that science fiction and satire writer Kurt Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis, Indiana. Vonnegut enrolled at Cornell University as a biochemistry major, but left for the Air Force during World War Two. He was captured in May 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge. Released in May 1945, he was awarded the Purple Heart.

After the War, he worked several writing jobs until he published his first novel, Player Piano, in 1952. He followed that with Mother Night (1962), filmed in 1996 (he made a cameo appearance), and Cat's Cradle (1963). Vonnegut carried some of his war experiences into his writing, notably the firebombing of Dresden in his 1969 novel Slaughterhouse Five. Slaughterhouse Five elevated Vonnegut to #1 on the New York Times best-seller list and was later filmed (1972). In addition to essays, short stories, and screenplays, Vonnegut's other novels include Breakfast of Champions (1979), Deadeye Dick (1982), Hocus Pocus (1990), and Timequake (1997).

Among many other awards, including an honorary Masters from the University of Chicago, Vonnegut was named Humanist of the Year in 1992 by the American Humanist Association. In an interview in Free Inquiry magazine, Vonnegut said, "For at least four generations my family has been proudly skeptical of organized religion." In his autobiographical book, Palm Sunday (1981), Vonnegut quotes himself in a commencement speech, saying, "You have just heard an atheist thank God not once, but twice. And listen to this: God bless the class of 1974."

Still later in Palm Sunday, Vonnegut interviews himself, asking how he was affected by his study of anthropology at the University of Chicago. Vonnegut answers, " confirmed my atheism, which was the religion of my fathers anyway."

* As reported in the Denver Post.

Joseph McCabe (1867)

It was also on this date, November 11, 1867, that Freethought writer Joseph Martin McCabe was born in Manchester, the product of Protestant East Anglians and Irish Catholic stock. He was named Joseph, after the saint, because he was, from infancy, promised to the priesthood. He entered the priesthood at age 16 and soon his intellectual gifts overwhelmed his teachers. As McCabe put it, "They dreaded me, and they taught me nothing."

The name McCabe means, ironically, "son of the abbot." He became a monk of the Franciscan Order and, as "Father Antony," studied philosophy and ecclesiastical history at Louvain University, Belgium, but the rules of his Order forbade him to take a degree. Appointed professor of scholastic philosophy, in 1895 McCabe became Rector of Buckingham College. His restless mind could not be bounded by monastery walls and on Christmas morning of 1895 he declared himself "doctrinally bankrupt." He recounted his loss of faith in Twelve Years in a Monastery (1897):

To me it would have been preferable to die, as I one time meditated, rather than continue without belief in that sorry system. I allowed a few weeks for possible change of sentiment, taking only one lady, who perceived my grave trouble, into my confidence. She betrayed me, of course, and they sent my old tutor to deal with me. On Ash Wednesday, 1896, I went out from the shade of the cloister, to find "the world," which for 12 years had rung in my ears in association with "the flesh and the devil," more honest, sweeter, and more honorable than the folk who affected to despise it."

McCabe was one of the original directors of the British Rationalist Press Association. At his death on 10 January 1955 at the age of 87, The Times of London (January 26, 1955) described McCabe as "a pillar of Rationalism." He had written 200 books and translations, delivered 2,000 lectures, including lecture tours in Australia, the US and Canada, and held many public debates, including one on Spiritualism with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He described himself in his Rationalist Encyclopædia (1948) as, simply, "an Atheist and Materialist."*

* McCabe's writings are a resource and inspiration for these blog posts.

Originally published November 2003.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

Our Fearless Leader.

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This Week in Freethought History (November 10-16)

Read about actor Richard Burton, science fiction writer Kurt Vonnegut Jr, feminist pioneer Elizabeth Cady Stanton, feminist and atheist activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, French painter Claude Monet, German philosopher and theologian Albert the Great, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and more …

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