Freethought Almanac

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This Week in Freethought History

This Week in Freethought History
January 29-February 4

Broadcast on American Heathen, Friday, February 4, 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. It was on Saturday, January 29, 274 years ago, that English-born American patriot and pamphleteer Thomas Paine was born into an English Quaker family (1737; N.S February 9). As a soldier in George Washington’s army, Paine witnessed for himself the struggle for independence and penned “Common Sense,” which made him so popular that the title became Paine’s nickname. The 1776 pamphlet, “The Crisis,” which begins, “These are the times that try men’s souls,” was so powerfully written that Washington had it read aloud to his troops for motivation. Paine was a Deist, opposed Christianity, monarchy, and slavery, and said “the Bible and the Testament are impositions upon the world… the fall of man, the account of Jesus Christ being the Son of God, and of his dying to appease the wrath of God, and of salvation by that strange means, are all fabulous inventions.”

2. Sunday, January 30, was the 236th birthday of English satirist and writer Walter Savage Landor (1775). A friend of Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, Landor was a theist, did not believe in the afterlife and held a strong disdain of Christianity. Indeed, he pointed out, “Every sect is a moral check on its neighbour. Competition is wholesome in religion as in commerce,” and “Divorce the Church and State: divorce them; and the one will neither be shrew nor strumpet; the other neither bulley nor cutpurse.”

3. Monday, January 31, was the 130th birthday of American chemist Irving Langmuir (1881), who said, “Never believe anything that can’t be proved.” Langmuir’s cleverest contribution was his six “Symptoms of Pathological Science” (or how to detect pseudoscience) — ever noticed these?:: (3) Claims of great accuracy; (4) Fantastic theories contrary to experience; (5) Criticisms are met by ad hoc excuses thought up on the spur of the moment.

Monday, January 31, was also the 214th birthday of Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1797). Probably Schubert’s most popular work, after his songs, is his unfinished Symphony in B-Minor (No. 8, D.759). And although he wrote much religious music, and the Catholic Encyclopedia makes much of Schubert’s service to church music, Sir George Grove, in his standard Dictionary of Music and Musicians, says, “of formal or dogmatic religion we can find no trace” in Schubert. In Schubert’s own words, regarding creeds and churches, he says, “Not a word of it is true.”

4. Tuesday, February 1, was the 109th birthday of American poet Langston Hughes (1902). As a leading light of the “Harlem Renaissance” in the 1920s, and the author of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” Hughes believed in God, but did not accept Christianity; indeed, he raged at “the doors of many of our churches, [which] have been until recently entirely closed to Negroes.” “What I am against is the misuse of religion,” said Hughes. His 1932 poem “Goodbye, Christ” was attacked by evangelist Aimee Semple MacPherson and the right-wing America First party. Hughes criticized those who used their piety for personal gain, or as a shield behind which oppression could flourish.

5. On Tuesday, February 2, we have the birthdays of three famous freethinkers: Ayn Rand, James Joyce and Havelock Ellis.

Tuesday was the 106th birthday of Objectivist philosopher and author Ayn Rand (1905). As a young girl, she witnessed the Bolshevik Revolution and saw firsthand the brutality of the Soviet regime. This affected her philosophy of life and her belief “that reality exists independently of perception.” Her Libertarian-leaning Objectivism became popular with economic and social conservatives. During the McCarthy era, when most Capitalists identified “godless” with “Communism,” Rand “was identifying religion and communism as brothers under the skin. … Both subordinated man to a higher power: religion to god, communism to the state.”

Irish author James Joyce was born 129 years ago last Tuesday (1882). Joyce’s early education was from Irish Jesuits, but he rejected their religion as “black magic.” Said Joyce, “I confess that I do not see what good it does to fulminate against the English tyranny while the Roman tyranny occupies the palace of the soul.” In the “first draft” of his novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, called Stephen Hero, Joyce has Stephen muse, “He comes into the world God knows how, walks on the water, gets out of his grave and goes up off the Hill of Howth. What drivel is this?”

And February 2 was the 152nd birthday of English psychologist and sexologist Havelock Ellis (1859). “There is,” Ellis observed, “a very intimate connection between hypnotic phenomenon and religion.” His liberal views on sexuality outraged the English clergy, who attempted “to trap and prosecute him.” That he was a Freethinker is shown in his Affirmations (1897) and My Life (1940). “The whole religious complexion of the modern world,” wrote Ellis, “is due to the absence from Jerusalem of a lunatic asylum.”

6. Thursday, February 3, is the date, 68 years ago, that Four Chaplains aboard a sinking US Army Transport during WWII, helped soldiers board lifeboats and gave up their own life jackets when the supply ran out, thereby sacrificing their lives to save the lives of others. I say more about this in this week's "Reflection."

7. Finally, today, Friday, February 4, it was the 169th birthday of Danish critic and scholar Georg Brandes (1842). Over the course of his 85 years, Brandes exercised great influence on Scandinavian and European literature, but moved around the world rather often. One of the reasons was his freethinking philosophy: his views forced him to leave Denmark for Berlin, but in 1883 he was persuaded to return to Denmark. His last years were dedicated to anti-religious polemics and a rejection of what he saw as the hypocrisy of prudish sexuality. “But my doubt would not be overcome,” wrote Brandes. “Kierkegaard had declared that it was only to the consciousness of sin that Christianity was not horror or madness. For me it was sometimes both.”

Don’t long for the Golden Age of Freethought. The Golden Age is now!

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Ronald Bruce Meyer




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