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, December 16, but in 1770, German composer Ludwig van Beethoven was born. He composed inspired church works such as Missa Solemnis and his immortal Choral Symphony (#9). But Beethoven wrote many secular works of equal inspiration. In fact, it was no secret during his life that Beethoven was an apostate from the Christian creed and a follower of the Pantheism espoused by Goethe. Franz Joseph Haydn believed Beethoven was an Atheist. Biographer George Marek, says Catholic-born Beethoven “never became a practicing one. There is no record of his ever attending a church service or observing the orthodoxy of his religion. He never went to confession. … Generally he viewed priests with mistrust.” Anton Felix Schindler, who was Beethoven’s friend, described the composer as “inclined to Deism.” Once, when violinist Felix Moscheles playfully wrote on one of his manuscripts, “With God’s help,” Beethoven altered it to read “Man, help thyself.” Sir George A. Macferren called Beethoven a “freethinker” in his article in the Imperial Dictionary of Universal Biography. The Catholic Encyclopedia does not dare to claim him.
Last Monday, December 17, the ancient Roman version of the universal midwinter nature festival known as Saturnalia began. The week-long festival was named in honor of Saturn, the Roman god of the sowing of the harvest, celebrated the birth of a solar or vegetation god, one who would save the world from the darkness and sterility of winter. During the week of the 17th through the 23rd there were religious ceremonies, boisterous revels, the exchange of gifts, visits to friends, public gambling, greetings of “Yo, Saturnalia!” (much like “Merry Christmas!”) along with a feast at the temple. If these customs seem familiar to moderns who celebrate Christmas, they are complemented by the Christian appropriation of the Winter Solstice (about December 21) and the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun in Mithraism (December 25) to co-opt the rival religions and market the new one. The worshippers of Mithra used candles and incense at their cave-temple on Vatican Hill. So the death and resurrection play that is so central to Christianity was acted out for a pagan audience long before the Christian cult that copied it. Most of the pagan cults are exterminated now, thanks to the love of Christ, but the celebrations continue under new management. Saturnalia, or at least the human feeling Saturnalia celebrates, just will not be denied.
Last Tuesday, December 18, but in 1963, American actor and film producer Brad Pitt was born. A leading man nominated for five Academy Awards and five Golden Globes, and winning one of the latter, Pitt is noted for commercial film successes in Troy (2004) and Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005) and Academy Award-nominated performances in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) and Moneyball (2011). Born in Oklahoma, Pitt had shaken off his fundamentalist beliefs by the time he entered college. “When I got untethered from the comfort of religion, it wasn't a loss of faith for me, it was a discovery of self,” he says. “I had faith that I'm capable enough to handle any situation. There's peace in understanding that I have only one life, here and now, and I'm responsible.” In a July 2009 interview for the German magazine Bild, Pitt was asked if he believes in God. He answered, smiling, “No, no, no!” Asked if his soul is spiritual, Pitt replied, “No, no, no! I’m probably 20 per cent atheist and 80 per cent agnostic. I don’t think anyone really knows. You’ll either find out or not when you get there, until then there’s no point thinking about it.”
Last Wednesday, December 19, but in 1843, British author Charles Dickens’ immortal work, A Christmas Carol, was published in London. Dickens wrote the classic ghost story quickly, in desperation to get out of debt from a recent American tour and a poorly selling prior novel. Like the United States of today, a grasping upper class steals money, power and well-being from the 99% beneath them, just as Jesus would not have done. Dickens himself believed in God and had a sentimental regard for Christianity, but thought its puritan strain was socially harmful. Social-moral reform was Dickens’ chief message in A Christmas Carol. Scrooge is shamed into changing his narrow, grasping, capitalist ways – in a dream and through the agency of ghosts – by being shown for the first time their human cost.
Last Thursday, December 20, but in 1902, American philosopher Sidney Hook was born. A protégé of John Dewey, Hook earned a doctorate at Columbia University in 1927 and taught at New York University from 1927-1972, including over 20 years as head of NYU’s philosophy department (1948-69). Perhaps his best-known quote is, “If one shoots at a king, one must not miss.” An independent thinker, Hook criticized the student anti-war movement and the Communist Party principally because they were anti-democratic. And he criticized the 1960s school prayer cases because he believed the education of the citizenry is preferable to a court-imposed mandate. In fact, Hook was an Atheist and actively involved in the American Humanist Association and the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism (CODESH). Hook wrote for The Humanist and Free Inquiry magazines and once said, “As a set of cognitive beliefs, religion is a speculative hypothesis of low order of probability.” Indeed, it was Sidney Hook who said, “Religious tolerance has developed more as a consequence of the impotence of religions to impose their dogmas on each other than as a consequence of spiritual humility….”
Yesterday, December 21, but in 1940, American musician and satirist Frank Zappa was born. From his work with the Mothers of Invention from 1965 to 1975, to his solo efforts afterward, Zappa expanded and redefined rock as social and cultural criticism. Zappa was the first artist to be inducted into both the Jazz (1994) and Rock and Roll (1995) Halls of Fame. Frank Zappa’s iconoclasm extended most notoriously to religion. In his Real Frank Zappa Book he says, “If you want to get together in any exclusive situation and have people love you, fine — but to hang all this desperate sociology on the idea of The Cloud-Guy who has The Big Book, who knows if you’ve been bad or good – and cares about any of it – to hang it all on that, folks, is the chimpanzee part of the brain working.” Furthermore, Zappa says, “The essence of Christianity is told us in the Garden of Eden story. The fruit that was forbidden was on the tree of knowledge. The subtext is, ‘All the suffering you have is because you wanted to find out what was going on. You could be in the Garden of Eden if you had just kept your fucking mouth shut and hadn’t asked any questions.’” Seventeen years after his death, in September 2010, the citizens of Baltimore dedicated a statue to him in the downtown section of his city of birth. Frank Zappa once said, “Reality is what it is, not what you want it to be.”
Today, December 22, but in 1885, Pope Leo XIII Proclaimed an extraordinary jubilee. What is a jubilee? To most of us moderns, a jubilee is a special anniversary, or the celebration of it, but in both the Jewish and Christian traditions a Jubilee Year is a year of celebration and forgiveness of sin. The word “jubilee” comes from the Latin jubilaeus annus “year of jubilee,” from a Hebrew word Yobhel (יובל), meaning “ram’s-horn trumpet,” with which the jubilee year was proclaimed. “Thou shalt sanctify the fiftieth year,” we read in Leviticus 25:10, “and shalt proclaim remission to all the inhabitants of thy land: for it is the year of jubilee.” These “remissions” were to be obtained “by visiting the city of Rome and the venerable Basilica of the Prince of the Apostles,” according to the Catholic Encyclopedia. If you could not afford to make the journey, or if you were not up to the rigors of travel to Rome, then you could simply send the equivalent in the form of a cash donation and receive the same benefit. Since the pope confines the “spiritual privileges” to the churches of Rome itself, this serves to attract as many rich foreign Catholics as possible. The most recent Jubilee year, celebrating two millennia of Christianity, was in 2000. The Catholic Encyclopedia solemnly asserts that “it is impossible to doubt the evidence of innumerable witnesses as to the great moral renovation produced by these celebrations.” If so, the effect was local and temporary, much like modern fundamentalist revivals. And it didn’t prevent the Reformation and the rise of Protestantism – precisely because the Church was so corrupt and so greedy for selling treasures in heaven for cash down!
Other birthdays and events this week—
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.
"The greatest question of our time is not communism vs. individualism, not Europe vs. America, not even East vs. West," wrote Durant, "it is whether men can bear to live without God."