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, September 30, but in 1452, the first book printed with moveable metal type came off the press invented by Johann Gutenberg in Mainz, Germany. That first book was a Latin Bible. Of the 47 surviving copies, the finest known was acquired by the Library of Congress and is still on display. Most Christians in the world today still take the greater portion of the Bible literally, so such biblical criticism as Thomas Paine's Age of Reason and Robert Ingersoll's Some Mistakes of Moses are as relevant today as they were when they were written. Many Christians still revere and promote the Ten Commandments, yet no civilized society makes crimes of eight of them. Therefore, to say the Bible is useful in a moral sense is as laughable as promoting it as history! Like all holy books, the Bible was written to persuade and to indoctrinate. And what a marvelous method was the scientific invention of printing for spreading the word far and wide! Printing was perhaps the single most important invention for human progress. So why didn't God think of that?
Last Monday, October 1, but in 1847, English Atheist-turned-Theosophist Annie Besant was born. At age 19, she was married off to the Rev. Frank Besant, but his narrow views conflicted with her independent spirit, so he ordered her to leave – which she did with two children and a strong social conscience. At a radical periodical called the National Reformer, Besant found a kindred spirit in Charles Bradlaugh. During the next few years she wrote many articles on religion and women's rights. Referring to Paul's advice (I Corinthians) that “it is better to marry than to burn,” Besant wrote, “This coarse and insulting way of regarding woman, as though they existed merely to be the safety-valves of men's passions, and that the best men were above the temptation of loving them, has been the source of unnumbered evils.” On religion, “The position of the atheist is a clear and reasonable one,” wrote Besant. “What you tell me about your God is self-contradictory and is therefore incredible. I do not deny ‘God,’ which is an unknown tongue to me. I do deny your God, who is an impossibility. I am without God.”
Last Tuesday, October 2, but in 1852, Scottish inorganic chemist and Nobel Laureate Sir William Ramsay was born. He learned his Rationalism at Tübingen University, Germany and, after publishing several notable papers between 1885 and 1890, Ramsay co-discovered the elements argon (Ar 1894), helium (He 1895), krypton (Kr 1898), neon (Ne 1898) and xenon (Xe 1898). Sir William Ramsay received the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1904, was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1888 and knighted in 1902. He tended to use theistic turns of phrase – in a 1908 letter, he wrote, “Life has been pretty good to us – perhaps I should say God. I feel inclined to,” but even his Christian biographer, W.A. Tilden, has to admit that Ramsay was an Agnostic. Sir William did not believe in a future life.
Last Wednesday, October 3, but in 1925, American writer Gore Vidal was born. He grew up near Washington, DC, in the house of his blind grandfather, the populist Democrat, Senator Thomas Pryor Gore of Oklahoma. After receiving encouraging reviews on his first novel in 1946, he published more novels, branched out into theater, film and television, and piled up an impressive list of credits: the film Myra Breckinridge (1968); The Best Man a play (1960), the novels Julian (1964), Creation (1981), Lincoln (1984), Empire (1987), an essay collection called United States (1993), the autobiographical Palimpsest (1995), and Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta (2002). As a self-described "born-again atheist," Vidal wrote (1992), “In the First Amendment to the Constitution, the Founders made it clear that this was not to be a sky-god nation with a national religion like that of England, from whom we had just separated. ... This separation was absolute in our original Republic. But the sky-godders do not give up easily… The original gentlemen's agreement between Church and State was that We the People (the State) will in no way help or hinder any religion while, absently, observing that as religion is a good thing, the little church on Elm Street won't have to pay a property tax. No one envisaged that the most valuable real estate at the heart of most of our old cities would be tax exempt, as churches and temples and orgone boxes increased their holdings and portfolios. The quo for this huge quid was that religion would stay out of politics and not impose its superstitions on Us the People. The agreement broke down years ago.” The 20th century answer to Oscar Wilde, Gore Vidal died this July 31 at age 86.
Last Thursday, October 4, but in 1997, a group calling themselves the Promise Keepers gathered on the Mall in Washington DC. Promise Keepers was founded in 1990 by (then) 50-year-old football coach Bill McCartney and was been led by the same man until 2003. The Promise Keepers’ extreme right-wing agenda includes opposition to equal rights for women and a belief not only that feminism is the root of all social evils in the US, but that male dominated-households and bible-based legal reform are the remedy. When the PK speaks of “taking responsibility” in a marriage, what they mean is taking control. Promise Keepers openly calls for wives to “submit” to their husbands. It may go without saying that this bible-based organization is homophobic: its founder considers homosexual behavior “an abomination of Almighty God.” The PK leaders claim the organization is religious rather than political, but choosing the Mall in the nation's capital for a gathering-place seems to belie that claim. And Promise Keepers is not a new idea – it is the same old idea: keep some people down (women, gays, non-believers) and you'll keep yourself up. All it takes is a reversal of legal, social and civil rights gains!
Yesterday, October 5, but in 1713, the most famous French Encyclopedist, Denis Diderot, was born. Educated by the Jesuits, he escaped before they could ordain him. Diderot gradually lost his faith between his Essay on Merit and Virtue (Essai sur le Mérite de la Vertu, 1745) – in which he wrote, "From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step" – and his next book, Philosophical Thoughts (Pensées philosophiques, 1746), which was burned by the hangman, the public censor. In the latter work, Diderot wrote, “A thing is not proved just because no one has ever questioned it. What has never been gone into impartially has never been properly gone into. Hence skepticism is the first step toward truth. It must be applied generally, because it is the touchstone.” Three years later, Diderot was charged with Atheism and imprisoned for a year for his Letter on the Blind (Lettre sur les aveugles, 1749), in which he argued his strict materialism and disbelief in a divine plan for the universe. It was in the same year, 1749, that he began his work on the great French Encyclopedia (Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 1751-1772), the sum of human knowledge to that time. Diderot enlarged the scope of the project and made it a platform for anti-clerical and reformist ideas.
Today, October 6, but in 1981, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat (محمد أنور السادات) was killed by Islamic fundamentalist extremists in Cairo. Born on 25 December 1918, Sadat's political activities got him jailed at least twice. In 1970 he succeeded his political ally, Gamal Abdel-Nasser (جمال عبد الناصر), after Nasser's military lost badly to Israeli forces in the Six Day War. Initially vowing revenge, Sadat realized that making peace with Israel would bring greater benefits to his country than making war. There followed the 1978 Camp David Accords and a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. For this Sadat won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1978. But there was a Muslim fundamentalist contingent that would not make peace for any reason, considered such overtures to the West a betrayal, and resented Sadat's crackdown on Muslim political dissent. Sadat was assassinated during an army parade by members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, subsequent to a fatwā from Omar Abdel-Rahman, a cleric later convicted in the US for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. So it could be argued that Sadat was killed because he was insufficiently intolerant.
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.
Wrote Thomas Jefferson, “I know that Gouverneur Morris, who pretended to be in his secrets and believed himself to be so, has often told me that General Washington believed no more in [Christianity] than he did.”