Here’s your Week in Freethought History: This is more than just a calendar of events or mini-biographies – it’s a reminder that, no matter how isolated and alone we may feel at times, we as freethinkers are neither unique nor alone in the world.
Last Sunday, July 8, but in 1892, the American Psychological Association was organized in Worcester, Massachusetts. Kicking superstition out of the study of human mental health and behavior was a major improvement over the medieval Christian treatment of insanity and hysteria. Andrew D. White, in his Warfare of Science with Theology (1895) chronicles the change. The natural causes of insanity and hysteria had been known long ago, but only a general civilizing of “Christendom” allowed this former heresy to take hold. Since the founding of the American Psychological Association, psychology has had a few pseudoscientific setbacks – such as Repressed Memory Syndrome and Multiple Personality Disorder. In spite of its flaws, and its opposition by Scientology, psychology as the study of human behavior has served humanity far better than superstition.
Last Tuesday, July 10, but in 1509, religious reformer John Calvin was born. Unlike his contemporary, Martin Luther, born 26 years earlier, Calvin was genteel and scholarly and was never ordained in the Catholic Church. Persuaded to come to Geneva to preach, it was there that Calvin came into his own. He drew up his five points – total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints – and to this doctrine he compelled all Genevans to swear belief. In 1538, tired of his tyranny, Calvin was exiled. But just three years later, Geneva begged him back. His power now nearly absolute, he wielded it with godly gusto. Within five years, Calvin exiled 76 and passed 58 death sentences – including luring Michael Servetus to his death by fire. As Robert Ingersoll described him, “Calvin was ... a strange compound of revengeful morality, malicious forgiveness, ferocious charity, egotistic humility, and a kind of hellish justice. In other words, he was as nearly like the God of the Old Testament as his health permitted.”
Last Wednesday, July 11, but in 1533, Pope Clement VII (pope from 1523-1534) excommunicated England's King Henry VIII (king from 1509-1547). By the time of Henry the sharp instrument of cutting off a member of the church from communing with his co-religionists had lost some of its edge. Of course, any group has the right to expel a member, but the Catholic doctrine then leaves no recourse for avoiding eternal damnation. Excommunication was first exercised in Apostolic times to punish heresy. In the Middle Ages, the Papacy abused it freely and frequently for political advantage – so much so that a bishop would excommunicate a thief who stole his property. The Christian fatwa is rarely used in these skeptical times because the action would serve to publicize rather than to preclude dissent and only in the most conservative communities would anyone take the sentence seriously. In the case of King Henry, he ignored the Pope and invented his own religion – a serious loss for Roman Catholicism.
Last Thursday, July 12, but in 1849, the Anglo-American physician William Osler was born. In 1889 he became the first professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. By the turn of the century, he was the best-known physician in the English-speaking world and the “most influential physician in history.” His humanist ethic was visible in publications such as Counsels and Ideals (1905) and Michael Servetus (1909). In his 1904 Ingersoll Lecture, Science and Immortality, he gives the scientific evidence against belief and adds, “It may be questioned whether more comfort or sorrow has come to the race since man peopled the unseen world with spirits to bless and demons to damn him.”
Also last Thursday, but in 1817, the writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau was born. Thoreau embraced the Transcendentalist belief in personal insight and experience, but his belief in the soul was not of the Christian variety and, when he spoke of God, he could be speaking of the human will or of nature, saying, “My profession is to be always on the alert to find God in nature.” He was friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson and an abolitionist, taking an active part in the Underground Railroad to free escaped slaves. He wrote vigorously in defense of civil liberties in his 1849 essay On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, saying, “I did not see why the schoolmaster should be taxed to support the priest, and not the priest the schoolmaster.” A friend asked his thoughts on the afterlife, to which Thoreau replied, “One world at a time.” As he neared death, an aunt asked if he had made his peace with God. Thoreau replied, “I did not know that we had ever quarreled.”
Today, July 14, but in 1927, American news reporter, anchor, and NBC commentator John Chancellor was born. A high school drop-out, Chancellor got his first job as a copy boy at the Chicago Sun-Times. From there his assignments extended from the 1957 desegregation of Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas, to panelist in the Nixon-Kennedy debates, to heading the Voice of America, to anchor for NBC Nightly News from 1970-1982. Boston Globe columnist Jack Thomas interviewed the newsman about his final struggle with cancer, which ended in 1996. Do you fear death? asked Thomas. “Not as much as I would have thought,” replied Chancellor. What do you think will happen to you after death? “I've been an agnostic for as long as I can remember,” Chancellor replied, “so I don't know where we go. But if it turns out that the lights are just turned off and nothing happens, well, that's OK.”
It was also on July 14, but in 1833, that American painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler was born. His Arrangement in Grey and Black (1871), better known as Whistler's Mother, was quintessentially American, yet the artist left the United States, never to return, at the age of twenty-one. He bounced between residences in Paris, where he studied art, and London, where achieved his greatest successes. While in Paris, Whistler became an aggressive Atheist. Whistler made a name for himself, not simply due to his talent, but also because of his flamboyant personality. Whistler was notorious for ridiculing the Bible and singing blasphemous songs. Before he died in London, Whistler was made a member of the French Légion d'Honneur.
Finally, on July 14, but in 1789, French citizens stormed and destroyed the hated Bastille prison in Paris, ending a symbol of the human rights abuses of King Louis XVI and beginning the French Revolution. The destruction of the Bastille marked the end of absolute monarchy in France, the birth of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity for all French citizens and, eventually, the creation of the First Republic. The Revolution achieved popular support among the peasants, and even a few nobles and priests, because of a cruel tyranny under Church and State that kept the populace at 90% illiteracy, shifted the tax burden to them from the 1%, and denied them rights such as property ownership. To their credit, the leaders of the Revolution took no office in the succeeding government after 1791. The new Constitution treated the luxuriously and cynically corrupt Catholic Church better than the Church had treated the people. Bastille Day was declared the French national holiday on 6 July 1880.
We can look back, but the Golden Age of Freethought is now. You can find full versions of these pages in Freethought history at the links above.
In her novels, Sand frequently used the word "God," but described it as "an avatar of which the meaning is often an enigma."