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, May 26, but in 1647, the first witch was hanged in America for the crime of witchcraft. Alse Young was arrested, tried for this capital offense in Windsor, Connecticut, and hanged at Meeting House Square in Hartford, on what is now the site of the Old State House. There is no further record of Young’s trial or the specifics of the charge, only that Alse Young was a woman, as 80% of those executed for witchcraft were, and that her execution anticipated the 1692 Salem witch trials by some 45 years. There is no doubt that theologians reasoned, after the line from Leviticus, that “If the All-wise God punishes his creatures with tortures infinite in cruelty and duration, why should not his ministers, as far as they can, imitate him?” Consequently, torture was a favorite method, not for finding the truth of witchcraft, because witchcraft never contained any, but for quite effectively extracting confessions, because people will say anything to get the pain to stop. Witchcraft jurisprudence itself anticipated the anti-communist purges of the 1950s in the US: To confess to witchcraft was to earn a life sentence in jail; to deny the charge often resulted in a death sentence. The crime of witchcraft was not prosecuted in Connecticut after 1715, but the stain of execution for the imaginary crime of witchcraft remains.
Last Monday, May 27, but in 1964, American radio personality, television host, comedian, and actor Adam Carolla was born. Host of the talk show/podcast “The Adam Carolla Show,” and “Loveline” prior to that, Carolla was a protégé of talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel and started broadcasting 1994-1995. He and Kimmel hosted “The Man Show” on Comedy Central from 1999 to 2003. From 2006-2009 he hosted a morning talk radio show on the Infinity Broadcasting Network. He has been a voice actor on Buzz Lightyear of Star Command, Family Guy and in the 2012 film Wreck-It Ralph. In an episode of Penn Jillette's Penn Radio radio show (3/9/2006), the host asked, “My wife informed me that you are also an out-of-the-closet atheist, is that right?” Carolla replied, “Yes.” Penn continued, “Yeah, which is fabulous. In the 1880s the three highest paid speakers in the United States of America were atheists.” “Really?” said Carolla. Penn said, “It was Robert Ingersoll, Thomas Huxley and Mark Twain.” Carolla commented, “Well we can all enjoy them in hell when we see them there,” as both laughed. Penn then asked, “Have you ever been religious?” Carolla replied, “No. [...] If you were not born into that culture, it seems like the most outlandish thing in the world. Obviously, you could take any Christian and have them born into the fundamentalist Hasidim (Jews), and they’d be walking around with the beard and the whole getup. So obviously, if you weren’t indoctrinated into that early on, then it makes no sense [to you].” Carolla went on, “I also [am] very insulted when people say ‘Well without religion what’s to stop people?’ Somehow we don't know it’s intrinsically wrong to kill, or to cheat, or to do whatever other things it says in the Bible.” Regarding his own religious beliefs, Carolla has been frank: “I am not agnostic. I am atheist. I don’t think there is no God; I know there’s no God. I know there’s no God the same way I know many other laws in our universe. I know there’s no God and I know most of the world knows that as well. They just won’t admit it because there’s another thing they know: they know they’re going to die, and it freaks them out. So most people don’t have the courage to admit there’s no God and they know it.”
Also last Monday, May 27, but in 1971, English actor Paul Bettany was born. He first came to the attention of American audiences when he appeared in Brian Helgeland's 2001 film A Knight's Tale. His later films include A Beautiful Mind (2001), Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003), Dogville (2003), and the film adaptation of the novel The Da Vinci Code (2006). His most recognizable voice role is JARVIS in the Iron Man films (2008, 2010, 2013). In an interview during which Bettany talks about his role in the film The Da Vinci Code (5/10/2006), Bettany remarks, “I was brought up Catholic. I’m lapsed. From the age of three I was with the nuns. Now I’m an atheist. I think religion does a lot for us but I can’t quite believe it, alas... It’s just a personal choice. I love the idea of heaven though. Who doesn't? It’s lovely.” In an AP interview on the same subject (5/23/2006) Bettany says he is now “fanatically atheist,” but was not prepared for incessant questions about the religious debate over the novel and film, which theorizes about a conspiracy to cover up Christ’s marriage and villainizes the Catholic group Opus Dei, whose leader helps orchestrate nefarious deeds in pursuit of the Holy Grail. About his portrayal of Charles Darwin in the 2009 film Creation, in which his real-life wife Jennifer Connolly co-starred as Darwin’s religious wife, Bettany mused, “I couldn’t believe the amount of violence that you can find on the Internet directed at a man who’s been dead for a very long time. There's vicious diatribes full of hatred for Darwin. Actually, he was, by all accounts, one of the sweetest human beings you can possibly imagine. But there are still a lot of people who just can’t accept his thinking without getting irrational. He was an atheist and so am I, but I don’t think that makes me immoral.”
Last Tuesday, May 28, but in 1902, American socialist philosopher Corliss Lamont was born. Lamont was a humanist leader and a tireless worker for world peace and civil liberties, serving as director of the ACLU for 22 years. He wrote sixteen books and taught philosophy at Columbia, Harvard, Cornell, and the New School for Social Research. Lamont taught philosophy at Columbia, Harvard, Cornell, and the New School for Social Research, and once wrote, “I think… that philosophy has the duty of pointing out the falsity of outworn religious ideas, however estimable they may be as a form of art. We cannot act as if all religion were poetry while the greater part of it still functions in its ancient guise of illicit science and backward morals….” In his Philosophy of Humanism, Lamont wrote, “Supernatural entities simply do not exist. The nonreality of the supernatural means, on the human level, that men do not possess supernatural and immortal souls; and, on the level of the universe as a whole, that our cosmos does not possess a supernatural and eternal God.”
Last Wednesday, May 29, but in 1830, the French schoolteacher and anarchist, known as the “Red Virgin,” Louise Michel, was born. She became known as “la Vièrge Rouge,” the Red Virgin, for her radicalism. When the Franco-Prussian War ended in 1871, Louise Michel became one of the leaders of the Paris Commune. The Catholic Church had been hip-deep in Monarchist misrule in France, and so the Commune severed all state connection to the church, nationalized all church property, and secularized the schools. But the Commune shortly fell amid a reactionary bloodbath: Michel was arrested by the Monarchists for trying to overthrow the government. At her trial in 1873, she was defiant: “I do not wish to defend myself, I do not wish to be defended. I belong completely to the social responsibility for all my actions. I accept it completely and without reservations. … I had no accomplices in this action. I acted on my own initiative. … If you let me live, I shall never stop crying for revenge and I shall avenge my brothers. I have finished. If you are not cowards, kill me!” Anticlerical and anti-religious, and not believing in life after death, Michel was arrested again and again, still fighting for social justice, and better wages and working conditions for laborers, until her death at age 74. Victor Hugo dedicated his poem Viro Major to Michel. Her funeral drew two thousand mourners.
Last Thursday, May 30, but in 1814, Russian revolutionary and anarchist philosopher Mikhail A. Bakunin (Михаил А. Бакунин) was born. After he took part in the 1848-1849 revolutions in France and Saxony, the French caught him and sent him back to Russia. He escaped from Siberia to London in 1861, where he met and worked with Aleksandr I. Herzen (Алекса́ндр И. Ге́рцен), the “Father of Russian Socialism.” Seven years later, Bakunin had become active in the First International, but his anarchist ideas ran afoul of those of Karl Marx, who got Bakunin expelled. Bakunin believed that mankind is basically moral and that the state is evil. He wrote, in his 1871 tract, God and State, “A Boss in Heaven is the best excuse for a boss on earth, therefore, if God really existed, it would be necessary to abolish him. … The first revolt is against the supreme tyranny of theology, of the phantom of God. As long as we have a master in heaven, we will be slaves on earth. … God being everything, the real world and man are nothing. God being truth, justice, goodness, beauty, power, and life, man is falsehood, iniquity, evil, ugliness, impotence, and death. God being master, man is the slave. While Satan is the eternal rebel, the first freethinker and the emancipator of worlds. … The idea of God implies the abdication of human reason and justice; it is the most decisive negation of human liberty and necessarily ends in the enslavement of mankind both in theory and practice.” He agreed with Marx when he wrote, “People go to church for the same reasons they go to a tavern: to stupefy themselves, to forget their misery, to imagine themselves, for a few minutes anyway, free and happy.”
Yesterday, May 31, but in 1819, American poet, essayist and journalist Walt Whitman was born. His father had known and admired Thomas Paine and instilled liberal ideas in Walt, which did not include allegiance to any church. Whitman had little use for conventional religion throughout his life. In this master work, Leaves of Grass, as in all his poetry, Whitman has little use for conventional religion: “Pointing to another world will never stop vice among us,” he wrote, “shedding light over this world can alone help us. … And I say to mankind, Be not curious about God, / For I who am curious about each am not curious about God, /… I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in the least, /… I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then, / In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass…” (“Song of Myself”) Whitman was unalterably positive about his American nation and expressed a childlike faith in scientific and technical progress: “Science, testing absolutely all thoughts, all works, has already burst well upon the world – a sun, mounting, most illuminating, most glorious, surely never again to set. But against it, deeply entrench’d, holding possession, yet remains (not only through the churches and schools, but by imaginative literature, and unregenerate poetry) the fossil theology of the mythic-materialistic, superstitious, untaught and credulous fable-loving, primitive ages of humanity.”
Today, June 1, but in 1937, American actor, film director, and narrator Morgan Freeman was born. Freeman has received Academy Award nominations for his performances in Driving Miss Daisy (1989), The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and Invictus (2009), as well as winning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the 2004 fight film Million Dollar Baby. He has also won a Golden Globe Award and a Screen Actors Guild Award. Freeman has appeared in many other box office hits, including Glory (1989), Unforgiven (1992), Se7en (1995), Deep Impact (1998), Bruce Almighty (2003) and (in voice-over) March of the Penguins (2005). In an interview with CNN (6/2/2010), the actor who played God in Bruce Almighty denied the claim that he was a "man of God," saying that "the question of faith is whatever you actually believe is. We take a lot of what we’re talking about in science on faith; we posit a theory, and until it’s disproven we have faith that it’s true. If the mathematics work out, then it’s true, until it’s proven to be untrue." In the 2007 film The Bucket List, co-star Jack Nicholson’s character (Edward) gave a pretty accurate account of his own real-life lack of faith, but does the pro-faith assertion of Freeman’s character (Carter) match his real-life faith? In an interview with the Grio (6/8/2012), he explained, “My belief system doesn’t support a creator as such, as we can call God, who created us in his/her/its image,” Freeman said. “Has anybody ever seen hard evidence?” The Grio goes on, “But there’s a twist. Freeman doesn’t actually define himself as an atheist since he believes God exists — as a human creation. ‘We invented God,’ Freeman said.”
Other birthdays and events this week—
May 27: American writer of speculative fiction, and eight-time Hugo Award winner, Harlan Ellison was born (1934).
May 30: American biochemist and Nobel laureate Julius Axelrod was born (1912).
June 1: A World’s Fair opened in Chicago, Illinois, celebrating “A Century of Progress” in technological innovation — without the help of any gods (1933).
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.
J.B.S. Haldane (1892) It was on this date, November 5, 1892, that British biochemist and geneticist John Burdon Sanderson Haldane was born in Scotland. Educated at Eton and Oxford, J.B.S. Haldane was not only broadly knowledgeable in science, but he had a well developed social conscience. This led him to follow Marxism for a time […]