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 an affirmation that we as freethinkers are neither unique nor alone in the world, no matter how isolated and alone we may feel at times.
1. Saturday, January 22, was the 223th birthday of English poet George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788). He became skeptical of religion during his student years at Trinity College, Cambridge. Although a Deist, Byron maintained a friendship with Percy Bysshe Shelley, an Atheist. As he wrote in an 1811 letter, “I do not believe in any revealed religion. I will have nothing to do with your immortality; we are miserable enough in this life, without the absurdity of speculating upon another.”
2. Sunday, January 23, was the 228th birthday of the French novelist known as Stendhal (1783). His most famous work is “The Red and the Black” (Le Rouge et le noir, 1830), about political and social conditions in France. Having seen Catholic influence in Paris, and as French consul in the Papal States, Stendhal was able to say, "All religions are founded on the fear of the many and the cleverness of the few." Prosper Merimée's memoir of Stendhal quotes the novelist saying, "The only excuse for God is that there is no such person" ("Ce qui excuse Dieu c'est qu'il n'existe pas").
3. Monday, January 24, was the 299th birthday of Frederick the Great, or Frederick II, King of Prussia (1712). Frederick was a patron of art and literature (he befriended and protected Voltaire), as well as music: he played the flute and composed music that is still performed today. To his intimates, Frederick admitted his Atheism, but outwardly even a monarch could not profess such a thing. In a letter to Voltaire, Frederick wrote, “Theologians are all alike, of whatever religion or country they may be. Their aim is always to wield despotic authority over men's consciences. They therefore persecute all of us who have the temerity to unveil the truth.”
3. Tuesday, January 25, features three famous freethinkers:
It was the 129th birthday of British feminist and modernist novelist Virginia Woolf (1882). Woolf gave little thought to religion, generally. She despised the arrogance of Christianity and Christian doctrines. But in a 1939 letter to Dame Ethel Smith, Woolf wrote, "reflecting upon my lack of what you possess — faith… how much more pervious to preaching your faith makes you than my lack?"
It was 137 years ago on January 25th, that another British novelist was born: W. Somerset Maugham (1874). Brought up by a religious aunt and uncle, he got himself into medical school, worked for Britain's MI6 in Russia during the Revolution, and then gave it all up or for fiction and theater. In his 1917 masterpiece, “Of Human Bondage” (Chapter 88), the author's surrogate, Philip Carey, "looked upon Christianity as a degrading bondage that must be cast away at any cost.…" In “The Summing Up,” his 1938 autobiography, Maugham said, "I remain an agnostic."
And January 25th was the 252nd birthday of Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns (1759). Burns was contemptuous of the narrow Calvinism of Scotland. His freethinking is apparent in many of his poems and was well known among his friends, one of whom addressed him as "Christless Bobbie." In Burns's own words: "Jesus Christ, thou amiablest of characters, I trust thou art no Imposter, and that thy revelation of blissful scenes of existence beyond death and the grave, is not one of the many impositions which time after time have been palmed off on a credulous mankind."
4. It was 447 years ago on Wednesday, January 26, that Pope Pius IV paved the way for the creation of the “Index of Prohibited Books” (1564). The “Index Librorum Prohibitorum” was suppressed in 1966 under Pope Paul VI. But it is still considered a grave sin in the Roman Catholic Church to read any book considered by Catholic authorities to be heretical. However, there was only token concern for sexually explicit writings, much of it enjoyed and even commissioned by the popes of the Middle Ages. The “Index,” at least in Catholic countries, not only stifled debate about religion and delayed the moral advance of civilization, but retarded Italian literature for over two centuries.
5. Thursday, January 27, was the 255th birthday of Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The Archbishop of Salzburg accused Mozart of neglect of religion. Although he composed memorable church music, even the “Catholic Encyclopedia,” while claiming him as one of the faithful, laments that his compositions “do not reflect the spirit of the universal Church.... What Mozart, with his Raphaelesque (that is, lewd) imagination and temperament, would have been for church music had he lived at a different time…, can easily be imagined.” Surely Mozart's “Requiem” was inspired, but was it any more inspired than his “Little Night Music,” “Magic Flute” or “Jupiter Symphony”? I don’t think so!
It was also on January 27, 668 years ago (1343), that Pope Clement VI issued a bull reaffirming that the Catholic Church can grant remission of sin through indulgences. The “sale” of indulgences was a chief concern of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. Apologists claim there is no sale, just alms in exchange for remission of sin. But since the Middle Ages you could pay a stipulated price, get change, and receive a piece of paper – and there was no indulgence without "alms." By any reasonable definition, that is a sale. Nothing in church history or doctrine has so perfectly supported the old saying: The church is happy to exchange treasures in heaven for cash down!
7. Finally, today, January 28, is the 124th birthday of Polish-born American pianist Artur Rubinstein (1887), who gave his Carnegie Hall debut concert when he was 19. Considered one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century, his biographer, Harvey Sachs, says, "Arthur was given virtually no religious education.... As an adult he referred with pride to his Jewish origins but he called himself an agnostic."
Don’t long for the Golden Age of Freethought. The Golden Age is now!