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, October 21, but in 1833, Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel was born. It is one of the ironies of his life that a man who made his fortune in the invention and manufacture of weapons of war – dynamite and other nitroglycerine derivatives – bequeathed among five annual prizes one acknowledging efforts toward peace. Perhaps in G.B. Shaw’s Major Barbara, the industrialist Undershaft was modeled on Nobel, but the point is that no money is ultimately untainted. When Alfred Nobel died on 10 December 1896, his will stipulated that the interest on his accumulated wealth was to be awarded (by the Nobel Foundation, in consultation with others) for the most important discovery in physics, chemistry, and physiology or medicine, for the best effort to promote world peace, and for the best fiction work of "an idealist tendency." The Nobel judges are most likely conventionally Christian themselves, nevertheless, we have such religious skeptics as winners in literature as Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, Anatole France, John Galsworthy, Sinclair Lewis, Maurice Maeterlinck, Theodor Mommsen, Eugene O’Neill, Luigi Pirandello, Romain Rolland, G.B. Shaw, Rabindranath Tagore, William Butler Yeats, Bertrand Russell, José Saramago, Dario Fo, Nadine Gordimer, Claude Simon, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Ernest Hemingway!
Last Monday, October 22, but in 1844, the world did not end – and no I’m not talking about the third presidential debate. Baptist preacher William Miller had made meticulous calculations from the Bible – something Irish Archbishop James Ussher had done to calculate the date of the beginning of the world – and predicted that Christ would return on 22 October 1844. Miller’s followers, known as Millerites, gathered in makeshift temples and on hillsides. Many had sold their property and possessions. But when midnight came, people grew restless. Some walked out. At about one o’clock one of the leaders rose and said, “I never did fix upon the precise time myself... I believe the most important thing after all is, to be ready. ...” Miller’s followers had experienced what came to be called “the Great Disappointment.” But the Seventh-Day Adventist Church rose from the ruins!
Last Tuesday, October 23, but in 4004 BCE, the Earth was created by God. It is disheartening to report that many Christians will leave it at that. The exact dating of the age of the earth was arrived at by an Irish theologian, Archbishop of Armagh, James Ussher in his Chronologies of the Old and New Testaments, which was first published 1650-1654. Ussher arrived at his conclusion by careful counting of the “begats” in the Bible, and perhaps some divine guidance. In spite of advances in Earth sciences, almost 46 percent of Americans (and 58% of Republicans) still believe that the world was created by God in its present form between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago! Incredibly and ironically, in an age of general literacy, universal education, and substantial wealth and prosperity in the United States, Young Earth Creationist fantasies persist!
Last Wednesday, October 24, but in 1648, the Holy Roman Emperor, the French, the Spanish, the Dutch, the Swiss, the Swedes, the Portuguese and representatives of the Pope signed the Treaty of Westphalia, calling for “a Christian and Universal Peace,” thus ending the Thirty Years War. It is also proof positive of the words of Jesus in Matthew 10:34: “I came not to send peace, but a sword.” The Thirty Years War, says the Encyclopedia Britannica (11th edition), “was primarily a religious war and was waged with the bitterness characteristic of such wars, but at the same time political and feudal quarrels were interwoven with the religious question ... based on the principle cujus regio ejus religio” or “Whose rule, his religion.” Begun in 1618 with Catholics and Protestants fighting over claims in Bohemia, and fought mostly in the realm of the Holy Roman Empire, the Thirty Years War nevertheless expanded to include the Baltic and raged from the frontiers of France to regions in Russia. The Encyclopedia Americana says, “few wars have been more calamitous in their general effect on the mass of the people, and the happiness and progress of mankind.” And the Cambridge Modern History says the conflict furnished “the most appalling demonstration of the consequences of war to be found in history.” In a generation of fighting, some sixty percent of the people of the German/Roman Empire were slain; in some provinces as many as 90% were killed – not just by warfare but by famine and disease – while 80% of the villages in Bohemia were destroyed. Accompanying the bloodshed was a moral decay unusual even for Christendom: armies of women stripped from their homes followed the soldiers and traded sex for food. Rape of German women occurred on a massive scale, so that it is hard to believe the Nazi notion of a “pure German” heritage. And the economic dislocation in central Europe resulting from the sectarian strife made labor scarce and seriously stalled reconstruction. If there any good to come of the Peace of Westphalia ending the Thirty Years War, it was a definition of just what a modern nation-state is, and where its citizens’ loyalty lies: In theory, if not in practice, that loyalty turned to state rather than to church.
Also last Wednesday, October 24, but in 1945, American physical anthropologist Eugenie Scott was born. Scott joined the University of Kentucky as a physical anthropologist in 1974 and has been executive director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) since 1987. She is a leading critic of young earth creationism and intelligent design. Describing her background as “liberal Protestant,” Scott designates herself a nontheist and is a signatory to the third Humanist Manifesto. Both Scott and the NCSE are criticized by creationist groups as being "atheistic" for simply being religiously neutral and promoting science over design. Scott jokes that she is so often referred to as “Atheist Eugenie Scott” by creationists she sometimes thinks her first name is “Atheist.”
It was on this date, October 25, but in 1838, French opera composer Georges Bizet was born. At the age of nine the precocious child was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire. Bizet composed his Symphony in C at age 17 and, in 1858, won the Prix de Rome, which allowed him three years of financial security to explore composition. Bizet was never conspicuously successful during his short life. His most popular work is his 1875 opera, Carmen, which was based on an 1846 novel by Prosper Mérimée (an Atheist). But he never got to enjoy Carmen’s success: Bizet died just a few months following the opera’s premiere, after the critics scorned it, at age 36. Carmen’s revival just five years later, and its enduring popularity since, proved the critics wrong. Bizet’s letters, published in 1907, reveal that he emphatically rejected Christianity, and may have had no religious beliefs whatever. In one letter, he writes, “I have always read the ancient pagans with infinite pleasure while in Christian writers I find only system, egoism, intolerance, and a complete lack of artistic taste.”
Also last Thursday, October 25, but in 1400, the first great poet in the English language, Geoffrey Chaucer, died at his home in London. His date of birth is unknown, though it is probably around 1340. Chaucer became a celebrated poet during his lifetime. His most famous work, The Canterbury Tales, is a clever use of a pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas Becket as a frame for poetic and prose tales. In it, Chaucer satirizes priests, monks and nuns. For example, the Summoner, a church official, tells his story about a friar who is taken down to hell, but sees no friars. None? Hardly! His guide shows them living inside Satan's ass! The Pardoner tries to live a life of good works, which is a clever dig at the church: it was common knowledge that most clerics used their guaranteed income for a life of leisure. Chaucer himself doubted immortality and his satire may have masked agnosticism: Chaucer had been an ambassador to Italy and witnessed for himself the widespread disbelief in immortality. Nevertheless, Chaucer is the first literary figure buried in what is now called the Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey.
Yesterday, October 26, but in 1916, French President François Mitterand was born. Reared in a conservative, Roman Catholic family, Mitterrand first entered politics by way of the ultranationalist Croix de Feu organization and served as a junior minister in the Nazi-collaborating Vichy government – but later worked with the Resistance. After the war, Mitterand held various offices in the Fourth Republic. He joined the French Socialist Party and became its leader by 1971. Finally, in 1981, Mitterand was elected French president. He was re-elected in 1988 and held the office until 1995. Six months after he left office, on 8 January 1996, François Mitterrand died in Paris of the terminal cancer he had hidden from the public for years. It was also in 1996 that Franz-Olivier Giesbert observed, in his book of conversations with Mitterand, Dying Without God: François Mitterand's Meditations on Living and Dying, that Mitterand had become a confirmed agnostic, unable to sustain his earlier Catholic faith, or a belief in immortality. Mitterand faced his death without fear and without faith.
Also yesterday, October 26, but in 1759, French revolutionist Georges Danton was born. Though not from a wealthy family, he got a good education and became a lawyer before deciding the legal structure of France was inimical to freedom. He abandoned the law for revolutionary activities and, when the monarchy fell, became minister of justice. A powerful, vibrant speaker, Danton could incite crowds. He was called “Jove the Thunderer” by friends and enemies. During the Revolution, when he believed France was gravely threatened, Danton approved of violent measures, but the excesses sobered him. He opposed the use of the guillotine, but his moderation fell out of fashion and the extremists rallied to Robespierre. Historians admit Danton's good character, but often pass over his outspoken Atheism. It was Robespierre who had him arrested and executed, on 5 April 1794 – and one of the charges Robespierre used against Danton was his Atheism. “I leave it all in a frightful welter,” Georges Danton said on his way to the guillotine, “not a man of them has an idea of government. Robespierre will follow me; he is dragged down by me.” His prediction about Robespierre was correct.
One more for Friday, October 26, but in 1973: American comedian and creator of the prime-time Emmy-winning satire “The Family Guy” (1999-present), Seth MacFarlane was born. He also wrote, directed, produced and voiced the title character in the 2012 comedy Ted, starring Mark Wahlberg and Mila Kunis. MacFarlane was named the Harvard Humanist of the Year in 2011 in recognition for “his active, passionate commitment to Humanist values, and his fearless support of equal marriage rights and other social justice issues.” On the February 19, 2010, episode of “Real Time with Bill Maher” (HBO), MacFarlane said he is an atheist, but that he has no problem with religious people in general. And in the entertainment magazine Steppin’ Out, Macfarlane said, “I do not believe in God. I'm an atheist. I consider myself a critical thinker, and it fascinates me that in the 21st century most people still believe in, as George Carlin puts it, ‘the invisible man living in the sky.’”
Today, October 27, but in 1782, Italian virtuoso violinist and composer Niccolò Paganini was born. Paganini was a child prodigy, composing a sonata at age eight and performing onstage from the age of eleven. He toured and captivated Vienna in 1828 and made admirers of Goethe, Heine and Schumann on his equally successful tour in Germany. Paganini went on to conquer Paris and London. During his concert career, it was rumored that his mesmerizing virtuosity was a gift from the devil – a rumor Paganini did nothing to dispel! Very few of his compositions were published during his lifetime, which helped to stymie imitators. Sadly, Paganini's international touring schedule crushed his health by 1834. He announced his retirement in 1835, but later lost his voice. Niccolò Paganini finally died from cancer of the larynx at age 57. His principal biographer admits only that Paganini practiced “religious indifferentism.” Paganini received no last sacrament nor any religious service at his funeral, and his burial was non-religious. At least in Italy, Paganini was well known as an Atheist.
Also today, October 27, but in 1466, the Dutch author, and the greatest humanist scholar of the northern Renaissance, Desiderius Erasmus was born. He was the product of a liaison between a housekeeper and a priest. Ordained a priest himself, he learned first-hand about the laxity and corruption of contemporary monasteries when he entered one run by the Augustinians. He became a life-long critic of the Catholic Church, but Erasmus kept his life long by distancing himself from both Lutheranism and Romanism. He was known for hearty, Rabelaisian, living, usually on someone else’s tab. Still, his wit and scholarship won him international notice. In his Praise of Folly (1688), he writes, “As the Christian Church was founded in blood, confirmed by blood, and advanced by blood, so now in like manner... the Popes take to the sword.” His letters, too, contain caustic indictments such as, “the monarchy of the Popes at Rome, as it is now, is a pestilence to Christendom...” Although the Catholic Encyclopedia curiously claims him, Erasmus was the greatest Freethinker of his time.
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 in my blog, FreethoughtAlmanac.com.
"In theory it is still possible to be an orthodox religious believer without being intellectually crippled in the process; but it is far from easy."