Broadcast on American Heathen, Friday, January 14, 2011, by John Mill. John Mill is the radio voice of Ronald Bruce Meyer. This is more than just a calendar of events or mini-biographies – it’s a roll-call look into our Freethought history that shows not just who came before us, but that we as freethinkers are not alone in the world, no matter how isolated and alone we may feel at times.
1. Last Saturday, January 8, was the day in 1911 that Thelma "Butterfly" McQueen was born. You remember her as the whiny, incompetent house slave, “Prissy,” from the 1939 film “Gone With the Wind.” Not may people know that "Butterfly" McQueen was also a lifelong atheist and humanist. “As my ancestors are free from slavery,” McQueen said, “I am free from the slavery of religion.”
2. You may remember in my December 3 “Reflection” I mentioned a 21-year-old university student who, in 1697, was the last person in the Western world to be executed for the victimless crime of blasphemy: that was Thomas Aikenhead, who was hanged on January 8 – 314 years ago last Saturday – for the crime of insulting an all-powerful, but apparently very thin-skinned, deity. You know that Thomas’s real crime was offending the priests of the mythical skygod, otherwise, why couldn’t Jehovah mete out his own punishment?
3. Last Sunday, January 9, was the 44th birthday of popular musician Dave Matthews – born in South-Africa in 1967. Matthews makes no secret of his atheism. In a June 1998 US Magazine interview, Matthews reflected, “I’m glad some people have that faith. I don’t have that faith. If there is a God, a caring God, then we have to figure he’s done an extraordinary job of making a very cruel world.”
4. But the January 9 birthday is also claimed by burlesque stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, born in 1911, and the feminist existentialist Simone de Beauvoir, born in 1908. As well as being one of the most famous burlesque dancers of all time, Gypsy Rose Lee was also a film actress, TV hostess, novelist and atheist who said, “Praying is like a rocking chair — it’ll give you something to do, but it won’t get you anywhere.”
Simone de Beauvoir, also January 9, graduated second in her class at the Sorbonne – and her lifelong boyfriend, Jean-Paul Sartre, graduated first. Her most famous work, The Second Sex (1949), examines the historic religious oppression of women. “Christianity gave eroticism its savor of sin and legend when it endowed the human female with a soul,” De Beauvoir said, referring to when the Council of Nicea, by a single vote, declared women to be human.
5. Monday, January 10, was the 235th anniversary of the publication of Thomas Paine’s "Common Sense" (1776). The pamphlet became so popular during the American Revolution that Paine himself was often called “Common Sense.” Paine observed, “For as in absolute governments the King is law, so in free countries the law ought to be King.”
6. Tuesday, January 11, was the 169th birthday of American psychologist and freethinker William James (1842). James famously said, “Religion, in short, is a monumental chapter in the history of human egotism.”
7. Wednesday, January 12 was the 57th birthday of SiriusXM shock jock Howard Stern (1954). Stern is also a freethinker who once said, “Here’s what happens when you die—you sit in a box and get eaten by worms. I guarantee you that when you die, nothing cool happens.”
8. Thursday, January 13 was the 201st birthday of American social reformer Ernestine Rose (1810). In her time she was nearly the only woman who spoke in public on any subject, let alone social reform, feminism, the evil of organized religion, and the “superstition” inherent in Christianity.
9. Today, Friday, January 14 is the 14the anniversary of “A Day of Fasting and Penance” (1997): Apologizing 300 Years Late for the Salem Witch Executions. This was a reenactment of a day of fasting that took place in Salem, and across Massachusetts, in penance for the wrongful persecution of “witches” three centuries earlier.
Back then it was Judge (Rev.) Samuel Sewall, who had presided at many trials in Salem, who stood up in his place in church on that fast day in 1697 – yes, the same year as the execution of Thomas Aikenhead – and implored the prayers of the people that the errors which he had committed “might not be visited by the judgments of an avenging God on his country, his family, or himself.” But it seems to me the victims of the Salem Witch Trials would have been better off with less Jesus and more justice.
Don’t long for the Golden Age of Freethought. The Golden Age is now!
“When a religion is good,” wrote Franklin, “I conceive it will support itself; and when ... its professors are obliged to call for help of the civil power, 'tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.”