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, July 21, but in 1925, a court in the tiny mining town of Dayton, Tennessee, handed down a guilty verdict against 24-year-old high school teacher John T. Scopes for violating the Butler Act (passed earlier that year) – that is, for teaching the theory of evolution in a public school classroom. Everyone knows the principal combatants in the courtroom, but it is not as well known that the case was sought by the American Civil Liberties Union to turn back a string of state laws forbidding the teaching of science rather than religion in science class, but also as a publicity stunt to bring world attention onto Dayton. That part was engineered by Dayton promoter George W. Rappelyea. Through Rappelyea’s persuasion and the backing of ACLU lawyers, including trial lawyer Clarence Darrow, the reluctant Scopes agreed to be defendant. The trial began on July 10, 1925, and the post-World War I Daytonians suffered a media multitude in order to hear their favorite pastor, William Jennings Bryan, defend the faith. In spite of a drubbing by Darrow, Bryan won the case and Scopes was fined $100. The verdict was overturned in early 1927 on a technicality, much to the relief of many in Dayton. Rappelyea’s publicity stunt had succeeded only too well!
Last Monday, July 22, but in 1822, Moravian monk and amateur botanist Gregor Mendel was born. It was as Abbott in the Augustinian Monastery in Brno, modern Czech Republic, that Mendel made the first experiments in cross-breeding pea plants, combining botany with his mathematical knowledge to produce predictions about dominant and recessive genetic traits. Mendel’s theories were rediscovered posthumously and by courtesy his name is given to Mendel’s Laws of Inheritance. Popular writers say we Freethinkers forget to mention, among scientists, “Christians whose faith supported them in their scientific endeavors, like Blaise Pascal, Louis Pasteur and Gregor Mendel.” This is a truly bizarre criticism: Pascal was seriously ill all his life and the work on which we judge his religious beliefs (Penseés) was published only after his death. Pasteur was a Rationalist all his life. As for Gregor Mendel, this so-called “devoted monk,” and “great Catholic scientist” is not even claimed by the Catholic Encyclopedia. His biographer, Hugo Iltis gives evidence that Mendel was seriously anti-Christian in his youth and remained skeptical all his life. Mendel wrote an aggressively Rationalist poem two years before entering the monastery – which he entered to get leisure to study!
Last Tuesday, July 23, but in 1989, the English actor known for a 10-year run as the title character in the Harry Potter films, Daniel Radcliffe was born. In 2012, Radcliffe stated, “I think of myself as being Jewish and Irish, despite the fact that I’m English.” He has also said, “I’m an atheist, and a militant atheist when religion starts impacting on legislation,” and that he is “very proud of being Jewish.” Christian conservatives, already suspicious of the pagan orientation of the Harry Potter books and films, were even more dismayed when, in an interview promoting the 2009 release of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Radcliffe said, “I’m an atheist, but I’m very relaxed about it. I don’t preach my atheism, but I have a huge amount of respect for people like Richard Dawkins who do.”
Last Wednesday, July 24, but in 1783, South American liberator Simón Bolívar was born. Bolívar inherited a fortune that assured him of a quality education, partly in Spain. He traveled Europe, and briefly in the United States. Bolívar found the writings of Rousseau particularly compelling, along with other writers of the 18th-century European Enlightenment. On his return to Venezuela, on fire with democratic and anti-clerical ideas learned in Europe, in 1810 Bolívar joined a group of revolutionists bent on overthrowing the Spanish throne and church. He became Bolivia’s first President and drew up its constitution. By 1825, Bolívar governed an area extending from the Caribbean to Argentina. He was called El Liberator (The Liberator) and the “George Washington of South America.” Bolívar was aware of the weaknesses and limits of liberal democracy, which is why he insisted on the necessity of a strong, republican form of government, with emphasis on the common good over individual rights. Sadly, his vision of a United States of Latin America was not to be: Clericals, who resented his atheism, united with Republicans, who resented the sternness of his government. He resigned the presidency in 1828 and exiled himself. His birthday in Venezuela is a national holiday.
Last Thursday, July 25, but in 1368, the foremost surgeon of medieval Europe, Guy de Chauliac, died. He was born in what is now France sometime in 1300, which, among other places, is where he learned to eliminate astrology and mysticism from surgery. He wrote the Chirurgia magna, which was a standard surgical text for three centuries. At Avignon Chauliac was physician to Popes Clement VI, Innocent VI and Urban V, where he treated victims of Bubonic Plague and Pneumonic Plague – and noticed the difference. The underpinning of surgery is, of course, a knowledge of human anatomy. Yet it is this study that the Christian Churches stopped dead in its tracks for a thousand years – until the 16th century. The medieval argument against anatomical study, that “the Church abhors the shedding of blood,” would be laughable if the Churches themselves had not spilled oceans of blood from the bodies of other Christians to enforce orthodoxy. For the most celebrated surgeon in the 14th century, it was chiefly the bull by Pope Boniface VIII (1235-1303), that was interpreted and enforced as a general prohibition against dissection – and that prevented Guy de Chauliac from being a true light in the Dark Ages.
Yesterday, July 26, but in 1856, the prolific Irish playwright, Nobel Laureate (1925) and social critic George Bernard Shaw was born. A vegetarian who neither smoked nor drank, Shaw saw human society as reformable. It is said that the young Shaw attended a revival service by Dwight Moody and Ira Sankey in Dublin, and in one of his first critical notes wrote, “if this sort of thing is religion, then I am an atheist.” In the Preface to his 1912 play Androcles and the Lion, which runs over 36,000 words and has its own Table of Contents, Shaw commits a thorough dissection of Jesus and Christianity. In it, Shaw says, “The fact that a believer is happier than a sceptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.” In his 1920 play, Heartbreak House, Shaw has the character Ellie say, “We know now that the soul is the body, and the body the soul. They tell us they are different because they want to persuade us that we can keep our souls if we let them make slaves of our bodies.” George Bernard Shaw was known to quip, “Christianity might be a good thing if anyone ever tried it.”
Today, July 27, but in 1835, Italian poet and Nobel laureate Giosuè Carducci was born. He studied philosophy at the University of Pisa, was professor of literature at Bologna University, and became a leader of the realistic school of Italian letters. In 1865, Carducci published a notorious poem called “L’inno a Satana,” or “Hymn to Satan,” which won him derision as a “praiser of Satan.” But by co-opting what the corrupt clerical forces in Italy were going to call the reformers anyway, he shook up the anti-clerical movement which eventually won Italy back as a republic. He re-issued the poem on the opening day of the First Vatican Council in 1870, just to rile the righteous. The “Hymn to Satan” is really a “toast” containing such jabs as: “As Martin Luther threw off his monkish robes, / so throw off your shackles, O mind of man, … / Hail, O Satan O rebellion, / O you avenging force of human reason! / Let holy incense and prayers rise to you! / You have utterly vanquished the Jehovah of the Priests.” Though somewhat nervous at rewarding an Agnostic, Carducci won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1906 – the first Italian to receive such an honor. Anti-clerical to the end, Giosuè Carducci said, “I know neither truth of God nor peace with the Vatican or any priests. They are the real and unaltering enemies of Italy.”
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.
Correction: I was spending a weekend in New England when I placed singer Barry Manilow’s birthday in the wrong month. Somewhere in the night, I read June 17, but thought I read July 17. At daybreak, a Gentle Reader corrected me. Could it be magic? I have not, even now, calculated the damage I have caused to the world of pop music. My recovery will take awhile, but I’m tryin’ to get the feeling again. One day I’ll be able to say I made it through the rain. One day I’ll be ready to take a chance again. Until then, you must forgive me, because I can’t smile without you. And, to that special Gentle Reader, this one’s for you!
If you would like to hear an audio version of this post, click on this link: FreethoughtWeek270713.
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."