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, June 23, but in 1964, third-generation TV writer and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” series creator Joss Whedon was born. In a 2002 Onion AV Club article, entitled “Is There A God?”, Whedon was asked the question. “No,” he replied. Pressing on, The Onion asked, “That’s it, end of story, no?” Whedon said, “Absolutely not. That’s a very important and necessary thing to learn.” In a Q&A session promoting his 2005 movie Serenity, writer-director Whedon was asked: “What do you have against being a Christian?” He answered in part, “I don’t actually have anything against anybody, unless their belief precludes everybody else. I am an atheist and an absurdist and have been for many, many years. … So the answer is: ‘Nothing, unless you’ve got something against me.’”
Last Monday, June 24, but in 1967, Pope Paul VI promulgated the encyclical Sacerdotalis Cælibatus, The Celibacy of the Priest, reaffirming the that priestly celibacy must remain a Roman Catholic command. In Christendom, celibacy – that is, being unmarried – is supposed to include sexual abstinence, but it was by no means a certainty. Except to Pope Paul. Paul doesn’t even pretend to critical thought on the issue: the decision has been made long ago, and he only shores up its foundation. He praises matrimony (¶21), but points out that Christ was celibate his whole life and priests must emulate this. Furthermore, Christ called men to abandon “home, family, wife and children for the sake of the kingdom of God” (¶22). Indeed, celibacy increases a priest’s “ability for listening to the word of God and for prayer” (¶27) as the earthly representative of Christ (¶29). But the perversity of celibacy was an idea more easily articulated to than enforced on creatures of flesh and blood. After the 4th century Council of Nicæa refused to adopt the rule, it took until the Lateran Council of 1215 to get the whole Catholic Church to agree on priestly celibacy. Up until the 11th century, priests commonly married, but Gregory VII (Hildebrand) brutally enforced celibacy with help from Patarene thugs. The natural result of legislating against human nature is an abundance of aberrant behavior and ultimate disrespect for the Church. The modern problems with priestly child molestation occurred in all ages. The least sordid consequence of the celibacy rule is a dropping-off of candidates for the priesthood, and an evacuation of the ranks of priests those who no longer wish to live in such an unnatural state.
Last Tuesday, June 25, but in 1961, that English comedian, writer and actor Ricky Gervais was born. Gervais achieved mainstream fame with his television series “The Office” and the subsequent series “Extras.” He has starred in the Hollywood films Ghost Town (2008) and The Invention of Lying (2009), in the latter of which Gervais plays a man in an alternate realty in which he is the first person to tell a lie. His character goes so far as to invent religion, telling people, through “ten rules,” that he talks to a “Man In The Sky” who controls everything and promises great rewards in the good place after you die, as long as you do no more than three “bad things.” Gervais has made no secret of his own religious skepticism, stating he lost his Christian faith at the age of eight. Many of his remarks about religion are pithy enough for Twitter: “I see Atheists are fighting and killing each other again, over who doesn't believe in any God the most. Oh, no… wait... that never happens.” (16 Sep 2012) ‘For someone so against religion you talk about God an awful lot’ Yeah, I know a detective who talks about crime a lot. Mad isn't it?” (14 Oct 2012) “If you believe in a god, just tell me why you don’t believe in all the other gods. The reasons you give will be why I don’t believe in yours” (23 Nov 2012) “A Christian telling an atheist he is going to Hell is about as scary as a small child telling an adult they wont get any presents from Santa” (19 Aug 2012) In an interview with the Daily Mirror (London), Gervais said, “I’m basically a ‘do unto others’ type person. I don’t have any religious feelings because I’m an atheist, but I live my life like there’s a God. And if there was he’d probably love me.”
Last Wednesday, June 26, but in 1892, American novelist Pearl S. Buck, was born. The daughter of Presbyterian missionaries in China, and after an American education Buck became a university instructor and writer there. Naturally, her novels focused on life in China and the culture clash between East and West. This cultural perspective may have contributed to her pulling away from the faith of her father. Buck’s first novel, East Wind, West Wind, appeared in 1930. It was followed by The Good Earth in 1931, which won her the 1938 Nobel Prize in Literature. In her later life, Buck was active in welfare organizations, setting up Welcome House, Inc., an agency for the adoption of Asian-American children. As she said, “I am so absorbed in the wonder of earth and the life upon it that I cannot think of heaven and the angels. I have enough for this life.” In all her work it is evident that her ethic was totally humanist: “I feel no need for any other faith than my faith in human beings,” she said.
Last Thursday, June 27, but in 1850, Lafcadio Hearn was born on the Greek island of Lefkas, from which his Greek mother and Anglo-Irish father gave him his name. While attending St. Cuthbert’s in England, at 15 he lost his left eye in a playing field accident. It was also while there that Hearn shook off his Catholicism and adopted a Pantheism little removed from atheism. He pursued a journalism career in the United States, establishing his reputation in New Orleans for his colorful, imaginative prose. Between 1889 and 1890, he settled in Japan, where he spent the rest of his life, and adopted the name Koizumi Yakumo. He taught English and literature, but his perceptive explanation to Western readers of pre-Westernized Japanese life and culture won him Athanæum’s kudos as “the most brilliant of writers on Japanese life.” He was particularly adept at interpreting Japanese Buddhism, as a way of life rather than as a belief. In this he found a perfect complement to his own lack of religion – his belief in the sentience and blessedness of all Nature. He never became a Buddhist, and disagreed with some of its principles, but, “He passionately believed that Buddhism promoted a far better attitude toward daily life than did Christianity.”
Yesterday, June 28, but in 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the most significant ruling to date on the issue of church-state separation, limiting with the “Lemon Test” just how far the states and the United States can go in forcing religious support on citizens. In Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971), the plaintiffs, Alton T. Lemon (et al.), asked the Court to tell David H. Kurtzman, Superintendent of Public Instruction of Pennsylvania (et al.) to stop supplementing the salaries and other expenses of Roman Catholic schools, even when teaching secular subjects in nonpublic schools. In the process of deciding the case, the Supreme Court established the 3-pronged “Lemon test,” which details the requirements for legislation concerning religion, any one prong of which could trigger a violation of church-state separation under the establishment clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution:
1. The government's action must have a secular legislative purpose;
2. The government's action must have the primary effect of neither advancing or inhibiting religion;
3. The government's action must result in no “excessive government entanglement” with religion.
The Court found, 8-0, that the Pennsylvania and similar laws result in “excessive entanglement” between the government and religion. The “Lemon Test” ensured that the general population’s interests take priority over any particular religious institution. Detractors of the decision cite its obviously difficult applicability, its “opacity and its malleability,” its “judicial activism” (by which most conservatives mean a decision with which they do not agree), and often make the evidence-free claim that “Lemon” has chilled legitimate religious expression. Then head of Philadelphia’s Roman Catholic Archdiocese, Cardinal John Krol (1910-1996), who later went on to try to win tax credits for parents of children in religious schools, called opponents of the state law “nativists and Ku Kluxers” – which would seem to underscore who might have benefitted had the Pennsylvania law been upheld. But Lemon has been affirmed and cited time and time again since 1971. As a check on mob rule, altering the “Lemon Test” could come back to bite the mob when its composition changes: if the state favored Christians today, who is to say the state may not favor Muslims tomorrow?
Today, June 29, but in tradition, the Roman Catholic Church celebrates the feasts of Sts. Peter and Paul. During the reign of Emperor Nero, St. Peter was arrested and executed at Rome, although the Church would say he was martyred there. The foundation of the Catholic Church rests on Peter having established the papacy from a historical seat in Ancient Rome. Is this historically true? The pun in Matthew’s gospel about Jesus founding his church with Peter is a late forgery. The Gnostic heresy was a hot item while Bishop Irenæus was active (d. 155), but he records no appeal to Rome to settle it. In those days the bishops with large flocks were all called Popes.
The bishop at Rome did indeed try to claim power and authority over the entire body of the Catholic Church – and he was rebuffed every time! From about 190-290 CE, every time the bishop of Rome tried to speak with authority for the entire Church, the other bishops told him to stuff it! Pope Victor (189-199 CE) tried to dictate policy to the churches in Asia Minor. Bishop Eusebius records that the Asiatic bishops rejected his claim and “bitterly reproached Victor.” Tertullian also sarcastically refers to the pope at Rome as claiming to be “the Supreme Pontiff, that is to say, the Bishop of Bishops.” Pope Cornelius (251-253), and later Pope Stephen (254-257) tried to dictate to the African bishops. Cyprian, head of the African Church at Carthage, shot back with scorn in letters (54, 67 and 72) a repudiation laced with irony, saying in the name of the 80 African bishops, “None of us regards himself as the Bishop of Bishops or seeks by tyrannical threats to compel his colleagues to obey him.” In 340 CE, Pope Julius (337-352) attempted to give orders to the Eastern bishops, whose reply was “full of irony and not devoid of serious threats.” In 382, Pope Damasus (366-384) drew an equally disdainful response to the same demand for obedience. Augustine himself (354-430) did not recognize the authority of Rome on doctrinal matters. In 445 Leo I (400-461) tried to assert the supremacy of Rome and, even with the African Church unraveling under the invasions of the Vandals, still the claim was blasted in “language which no layman even should dare to use and no priest to hear,” wrote Leo. Indeed, until the fall of the Western Empire in the 5th Century, every assertion of Roman supremacy was repudiated. After that, resistance was futile.
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.
Wrote Burns in "Epistle to Rev. John McMath," "But twenty times I rather would be // An atheist clean, // Than under gospel colours hid be // Just for a screen."