Freethought Almanac

Lighting a candle in toxic air.

The Week in Freethought History (December 23-29)

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.

champollionLast Sunday, December 23, but in 1790, French scholar Jean François Champollion was born. By age 11 Champollion could read the Bible in Hebrew. In addition to his native French, he also acquired Latin, Greek, Amharic, Sanskrit, Avestan, Pahlavi, Arabic, Syriac, Chaldean, Persian and Chinese. With his acquisition of Coptic, an Egyptian language, Champollion became interested in the race to translate the mysterious inscriptions of Ancient Egypt. By use of various inscriptions, but chiefly through the 2nd-century BCE Rosetta Stone, on 17 September 1822 Champollion read before the Academy of Inscriptions at Grenoble his first deductions on what the picture-writing meant. He has since been considered the father of modern Egyptology. As for Champollion’s religion, while the Catholic Encyclopedia claims him as one of the faithful, Champollion’s biographer, Hermione Hartleben, quotes from a Rationalist manuscript Champollion wrote at the age of thirty, saying that it is “undeniable that a change had taken place in his religious views.” In a collection of the Egyptologist’s letters, Hartleben confirms this. Rarely does agreeing with the prevailing religious opinion land one in trouble, so we must not interpret Champollion’s later silence on religious matters as agreement. Like most public figures during the post-Revolutionary Royalist reaction, Champollion was compelled to keep his religious opinions discreet.

arnoldLast Monday, December 24, but in 1822, British critic and poet Matthew Arnold was born. Arnold was a leading literary critic and wrote many essays, which displayed a seriously Rationalist streak. On religion, he attempted to reconcile tradition with the results of then-new Higher Criticism, concluding along with Wordsworth that God is a “Stream of Tendency.” Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach,” written in 1851, seems to lament the loss of faith in a post-Enlightenment world, indulging the notion that faith provides beauty, joy, love, light, certitude, peace and help for pain. But in fact and in history, religious faith, the “Sea of Faith,” was less “a bright girdle furl’d” “round earth’s shore” and more like a straitjacket. In other poems, such as “Immortality” and “Requiescat,” it is clear that Arnold denied belief in immortality and a personal God. He defined the only God he recognized as “a Power, not ourselves. which makes for righteousness,” and religion as “morality touched with emotion.” In the preface to God and the Bible (1875), Arnold wrote, “The personages of the Christian heaven and their conversations are no more matter of fact than the personages of the Greek Olympus and their conversations.” It was Matthew Arnold who said, “The freethinking of one age is the common sense of the next.”

Last Tuesday, December 25, but in 4 BCE, “in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord” was born. Or perhaps not. The story is told with minor divergences in the Gospels of Luke (c.85-95) and Matthew (c.80-100) – Matthew, the latest of the Synoptics, and based on Luke, adds the most embellishments – but Mark (c.70), the earliest Gospel, is silent on the birth story, and John (c.100-125), the latest Gospel, ignores it. It wasn’t easy reconciling dates: even the Catholic Encyclopedia has to acknowledge “that there is no month in the year to which respectable authorities have not assigned Christ’s birth.” The date of December 25 was not fixed in both the Eastern and Western churches until about 440. But early Christmas then wasn’t anything like the sentimental Victorian holiday forced on Ebenezer Scrooge in the story by Charles Dickens, to say nothing of the commercialized, secularized holiday we know today.

Christians strain mightily to obscure the plain historical fact that the mid-winter date of Christmas was borrowed from rival religions. Many of these older religions celebrated the birth of their savior-gods at the same time. But “celebrated” is the correct word here because they were all outlawed by Theodosius in 380 when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. But even in triumph, Christianity maintained the date at the Solstice – December 21 or shortly thereafter. The Egyptian Cult of Isis celebrated the birthday of the sun-god Horus in midwinter, employing a tableau of the divine child in a manger, with the mother Isis beside it. The pagan writer Macrobius (c.430) records that the Roman Saturnalia was a mid-winter tribute to the vegetation god. The festival included a display of presents, candles, and dolls. When the cult of Mithra was adopted from Persia, their midnight celebration of the birth of the savior-god, accompanied by blazing candles and clouds of incense, marked December 25th. In fact, the Mithraic temple was on Vatican Hill, close to the Christian settlement. Mithra – like Tammuz, Adonis, Apollo and Horus – was a sun-god. So the “reason for the season” is not the son of any god, but the sun up in the sky!

Last Wednesday, December 26, but in 1973, “The Scariest Movie of All Time,” The Exorcist was released in the U.S. Initially earning an MPAA rating of “X,” it subsequently settled on an “R” for violence, horror effects, rampant blasphemy, and some sexual manipulation of a crucifix. The Exorcist sets up a classic confrontation between religion and science, in a battle over the life, and presumably the soul, of a 12-year-old girl who is behaving strangely. When all scientific methods fail to discover the cause, the younger priest reluctantly steps aside as the older priest begins a casting-out ceremony that becomes the centerpiece of the film. To no one’s surprise, there was an upsurge in demand for exorcisms just after the release of the film. The Catholic Encyclopedia endorses exorcisms and, as late as November 2010, in Baltimore, Maryland, more than 100 Roman Catholic priests and bishops gathered for a two-day closed conference on exorcism. According to Robert Todd Carroll’s >em>Skeptic’s Dictionary, “Most, if not all, cases of alleged demonic possession of humans probably involve either people with brain disorders ranging from epilepsy to schizophrenia and Tourette’s syndrome… the behaviors of the possessed resemble very closely the behaviors of those with electrochemical, neurochemical or other physical or emotional disorders…” We can read about secular exorcisms today from therapists treating patients with so-called Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD or dissociative identity disorder): psychiatrists ridding patients of their “entities,” which are most likely artifacts of the psychiatrist’s suggestion. Is The Exorcist a triumph of superstition over science? Whether demons or “personalities,” there is just as much evidence of the existence of either – which is to say: none.

Last Thursday, December 27, but in 1822, French chemist and discoverer of the germ theory of disease, Louis Pasteur was born. Pasteur pointed out the differences between organic and inorganic crystallization. His investigation of putrefaction demonstrated that the widely believed “spontaneous generation” of germs does not take place. His study of silk-worm disease saved the French silk industry. He demonstrated the bacterial cause of anthrax, which saved the French cattle industry. He discovered the cause of fowl cholera and saved the French poultry industry. He discovered the cause of child-bed fever in hospitals. And his discovery of a vaccination for rabies was sneered at in Germany, but celebrated in Russia: the Tsar thanked him personally. It was Louis Pasteur who discovered the principles that we know today as the “germ theory of disease,” and the concept of using a weakened form of the disease to inoculate against it – still in use today. Yet Pasteur admitted, “Science knows no country, because knowledge belongs to humanity, and is the torch which illuminates the world.” Pasteur also acknowledged hard work in his own humble way, saying, “In the field of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.” Since there are so few orthodox Christians among the great scientists, it would be salutary to the sacred cause to claim Pasteur for Christ.

The Catholic Encyclopedia claims Pasteur, and even Protestants strain to fit him into their creed. But according to his biographer and son-in-law, René Valléry-Radot, Pasteur was a Catholic apostate and a Rationalist all his life. This judgment is ratified by Sir William Osler, who knew Pasteur. Pasteur believed the mind could not reach “primary realities,” although he “believed in an Infinite and hoped for a future life” and that “the idea of God is a form of the idea of the Infinite, whether it is called Brahma, Allah, Jehovah, or Jesus.” This is hardly orthodox Christianity. So, if Pasteur died with a rosary in his hands it is important to note that it was placed there by pious relatives while he was unconscious.

Yesterday, December 28, but in 1065, Westminster Abbey was consecrated. The now-traditional place of coronation and burial for English monarchs, located just to the west of Westminster Palace, was originally a Benedictine abbey built in the Romanesque style between 1045-1050. Westminster was rebuilt in the Gothic style we recognize today between 1245-1517. The consecration rite itself, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, is superior to a mere blessing, which may be performed by a priest. Consecration, at least today, is a rite reserved to a bishop, rendering it a place in which favours are more graciously granted by God. But, if God watches over Westminster Abbey, one would think He might have prevented King Henry VIII from seizing and closing it during the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1534, 1540). Furthermore, there is a curious collection of the impious residing eternally in and around Westminster Abbey: the agnostic composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
; the notoriously skeptical statesmen William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham (1708-1778), and his son, William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806)
; the apostate poet Geoffrey Chaucer (1343?-1400)
; the admittedly non-Christian poet Robert Browning (1812-1889); Charles Dickens (1812-1870), who held only a sentimental regard for Christianity, while fighting against the social evils its adherents caused; the Deist John Dryden (1631-1700); the actor and theatrical manager David Garrick (1717-1779), who partied with Baron D’Holbach; and the decidedly non-Christian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892). But the biggest surprise of all, would be the man whose scientific theory removed God from the role of Creator: the admittedly agnostic Charles Darwin!

Today, December 29, but in 1170, Thomas Becket was murdered when four knights of King Henry II burst into Canterbury Cathedral and stabbed him to death. The story of the stormy breakup between king and cleric has been the subject of a play by T.S. Eliot (Murder in the Cathedral, 1938) and one by Jean Anouilh (Becket, 1959), as well as an award-winning 1964 film, Becket. The true story behind the drama is a classic power struggle between church and state. Becket served his king as Chancellor with uncompromising loyalty, even when the ship of state collided with the dock of church doctrine. Henry’s case was the stronger: his charge was to protect his subjects from real internal and external enemies. Henry knew the Church was lenient on its clerics, even in cases of murder and sexual depravity – how like the Catholic Church today! – and insisted that ecclesiastical criminals be subject to secular courts. Becket argued Henry’s case until Henry elevated Becket to Archbishop of Canterbury, there to serve him under two offices. But, feeling he could not serve two irreconcilable masters, Becket relinquished the Chancellorship, becoming a zealous advocate for ecclesiastical rights. This caused Henry great consternation, not only for Becket’s political disloyalty but for his personal betrayal. Becket reconciled with Henry at Freteval in 1170, but Henry had had his eldest son crowned by the Archbishop of York. Becket excommunicated both for violating the traditional right of the Archbishop of Canterbury to crown a king. Henry, so the story goes, made an offhand remark, such as “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” – overheard by some knights with more weapons than wits. The subsequent murder was blamed on King Henry, who did penance four years later. Becket was made a saint. Though Thomas Becket died for his beliefs, that in no way made his beliefs valid: indeed, the tension between church and state is largely settled in favor of state in modern democracies. Had Becket but served his king with half the zeal that he served his God, he would not have been left naked to his enemies.

Other birthdays and events this week—

December 25: English writer, actor and homosexual rights campaigner, Quentin Crisp was born (1908)

December 25: Civil War nurse and founder of the American Red Cross, Clara Barton was born (1821)

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,

Ronald Bruce Meyer

Our Fearless Leader.

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June 5: Adam Smith

It is generally accepted that Adam Smith was at most a Deist, but considering how close he was to Hume, he may in fact have been an Agnostic.

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