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. Saturday, January 15, was the 389th birthday of French poet and playwright Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (1622), who became famous under the pen name Molière. Always in trouble with the French Catholic church, his clever 1664 satire of religious fanatics and hypocrites, “Tartuffe,” so stirred up the clergy, that it was banned for five years. The last scene in Molière's 1665 play “Don Juan” was described by a contemporary as "a school of Atheism in which, after making a clever Atheist say the most horrible impieties, he entrusted the cause of God to a valet who says ridiculous things." Don Juan was also banned, of course.
2. Sunday, January 16, was the 225th anniversary of the “Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom” becoming law. Written by Thomas Jefferson almost ten years earlier, the “Statute” overcame the objections of Patrick Henry and his allies.
The new law guaranteed that no citizen of Virginia would be compelled to attend church, to support the clergy or the establishment of any church, or be penalized for failing to do any of those things. Furthermore, the "Statute" guaranteed that there would be free and open debate about religion. And these rights were extended not just to Christians, but to religious minorities such as Baptists, Presbyterians, Jews, and even Freethinkers. The "Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom" was the model for the first clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution!
3. Monday, January 17, was the 305th birthday of American statesman, scientist, writer, printer and philosopher Benjamin Franklin. The Thomas Edison of his day, Franklin had a keen interest in science, he invented the Franklin stove, bifocal eyeglasses and the lightning rod. That lightning rod attracted thunderbolts from pulpits: The Rev. Thomas Prince accused Franklin of defying God and blamed a 1755 earthquake on these “iron points invented by the sagacious Mr. Franklin.”
Franklin was a notorious Freethinker, and in 1758 wrote “The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason.” He reasoned against public support of churches, writing, “When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it so that its professors are obliged to call for help of the civil power, 'tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.”
4. Tuesday, January 18 boasts the birthdays of two famous Freethinkers: Polish-born British mathematician Jacob Bronowski (1908) and French jurist and nobleman Baron de Montesquieu (1689).
Jacob Bronowski’s career achievement was an 18-month project for BBC television called "The Ascent of Man," broadcast in 13 parts in 1973. In it, he said, "Man masters nature not by force but by understanding. This is why science has succeeded where magic failed: because it has looked for no spell to cast over nature."
Baron de Montesquieu, born 322 years ago also on January 18, was educated in science, history and law. His famous 1748 work, “Spirit of the Laws,” which did much to prepare the way for the legal reform of the French Revolution, earned a place of “honor” on the Index of Prohibited Books. A Deist, Montesquieu said, “Churchmen are interested in keeping the people ignorant. I call piety a malady of the heart. The false notion of miracles comes of our vanity, which makes us believe we are important enough for the Supreme Being to upset nature on our behalf.”
5. Wednesday, January 19, is remembered for three famous Freethinkers: the 202nd birthday of Edgar Allan Poe (1809), the 213th birthday of Auguste Comte (1798), and the 275th birthday of James Watt (1736).
American poet and short story writer Edgar Allan Poe was the author of haunting poems such as “The Raven” and short stories such as “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Poe did not believe in life after death and, in his prose-poem "Eureka," published the year before he died, says "... 'God,' ... stands for the possible attempt at an impossible conception."
Auguste Comte, also born January 19, was the French founder of the philosophy of Positivism, which denies metaphysics in favor of a reliance on sense experience as the source of human knowledge and denies the existence of a personal God, while putting humanity at the center of its concerns.
James Watt, also born January 19, was the Scottish inventor who radically improved the steam engine of his day and made important contributions to industrialization, including coinage of the term "horsepower." Watt was a Deist and never attended church.
6. Thursday, January 20, was the date, 58 years ago (1953), that the "Piltdown Man" fossils – purportedly of a “missing link” between man and ape – were admitted to be a hoax. Touted by its discoverer, Charles Dawson, and its chief defender, paleontologist Sir Arthur Keith, it took 40 years to expose. The error was corrected from within the scientific community, so there is no cause for gloating from Creationists, who apparently believe, based on Genesis, that night and day were created before the sun was (Gen. 1:1-19), the earth was created before the stars were (Gen. 1:16), the entire earth was once engulfed in a flood (Gen 6:13-8:22), visual stimuli can cause genetic change (Gen. 30:37-39), and the sun (or the earth's rotation) can be stopped with no inertial effects (Josh 10:12-13).
7. Finally, today, January 21, was the 158th birthday of famous Freethinker Helen Hamilton Gardener (1853). Influenced by Robert Ingersoll, Gardener became a popular feminist lecturer and writer of the 19th Century, blasting by example and scholarship the popular fancy that the female brain is inherently inferior to the male brain. She did not spare religion in her writings: "The bible teaches that a father may sell his daughter for a slave (Ex. xxx, 7), that he may sacrifice her purity to a mob (Judges xix, 24; Gen. xix, 8), and that he may murder her, and still be a good father and a holy man." In 1920, Helen Hamilton Gardener was appointed by President Woodrow Wilson the first woman on the U.S. Civil Service Commission.
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.”