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, August 4, but in 1792, British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was born. After reading the radical writings of Thomas Paine, William Godwin and Baron D’Holbach, he became an Atheist and a Materialist – a position he maintained throughout his creative life. He was educated at Eton, where he was known as “Shelley the Atheist,” and at Oxford. A believer in free speech, while at Oxford, Shelley wrote in defense of Daniel Isaac Eaton, a bookseller charged with selling books by Thomas Paine. In a pamphlet called The Necessity of Atheism, he attacked compulsory Christian practice. In it, Shelley wrote this gem (after D’Holbach): “If God has spoken, why is the world not convinced?” So shocked was Oxford that Shelley was expelled on 25 March 1811.
Last Monday, August 5, but in 1850, French naturalistic writer Guy de Maupassant was born. Between 1880 and 1891 Maupassant wrote about 300 short stories (a literary form that he mastered), some six novels and many poems – totaling about 29 volumes when published 1908-1910. His stories include “Ball of Fat,” which made his literary reputation and may have been the inspiration for John Ford’s 1945 western, Stagecoach – which in turn made the reputation of a struggling young actor named John Wayne. Another short story, “The Inn,” may have inspired Steven King’s 1977 novel, The Shining. His “Clair de Lune,” and most of the rest of his literary efforts, express a deep religious skepticism, if not outright Atheism. Guy de Maupassant once said, “Patriotism is a kind of religion; it is the egg from which wars are hatched.”
Last Tuesday, August 6, but in 1973, the erotic actress and MENSA member, with an IQ of 156, known as Asia Carrera was born to a Japanese father and a German mother. Eurasian genes and some cosmetic surgery contributed to her stunning good looks, which caused her to be “discovered” by erotic film director Bud Lee, who cast her in her first film. She married Lee in 1995, starred in or featured in over 270 films, and divorced Lee but remained friends in 2003. Currently retired, this self-styled computer geek idolizes Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffet. Both Buffet and Carrera are atheists. About her beliefs, Asia says, “I’ve always been an atheist. Science explains everything. There is no meaning in life except to be the best at something.” And, “Religion is silly. When you’re dead, you turn into a source for future flowers and plants.”
Last Wednesday, August 7, but in 1928, Canadian-American magician and psychic debunker James “The Amazing” Randi was born. From the 1950s he toured the world as a magician, stage mentalist and escape artist, like his idol, Houdini, and developed a strong skepticism toward psychics. Randi was a founding fellow of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), based in Buffalo, NY, a non-profit organization devoted to the critical examination of paranormal and supernatural claims. As for his personal beliefs, in Randi’s 1989 book The Faith Healers, he writes, “I am frequently approached following lectures and loudly asked if I am a Christian and/or whether I believe in God – the assumption being that I understand what the questioner means by both terms. My answer has always been that I have found no compelling reason to adopt such beliefs.”Last Thursday, August 8, but in 1910, a decree of the Sacred Congregation of the Sacraments, specified the age at which children are to be admitted to first Communion in the Roman Catholic Church. “Quam singulari,” said that age is the “age of discretion” – defined as knowing right from wrong – and being capable of “using … reasoning powers.” This last condition would seem to contradict the very idea of faith, but no matter. In order to partake of Christian communion, the child must also “be able to distinguish the Eucharistic from the common bread; that is, to know that what looks like bread is not bread, but contains the real, living Body and Blood of Christ.” Leaving aside this patently ludicrous statement, if you eat this bread, are you eating God? And why would you eat a god? This “eating the god,” as the Aztecs of Mexico literally called it, was described by Sir James George Frazer in The Golden Bough: “by eating the body of the god, he shares in the god’s attributes and powers.” The very idea that symbolically eating a god can confer on the communicant some kind of benefit is magical thinking at its most primitive. When a child takes her first communion, the church says she has to open her mouth wide enough to swallow dusty superstition along with the dry wafer.
Yesterday, August 9, but in 1471, Franciscan Friar-turned-Cardinal Francesco della Rovere was elevated to the Papacy as Sixtus IV, and he provides a window on the morals of the 15th century. A pious man, Sixtus also loved his family – he had a brother, three sisters, and fourteen nephews and nieces (two of those nephews may have been his own sons) – and from the papal treasury Sixtus spared no expense to make them comfortable. Even the Catholic Encyclopedia admits that Sixtus “fell more and more under his dominating passion of nepotism, heaping riches and favours on his unworthy relations.” It is generally agreed that Sixtus himself was of good character – when he died, says one chronicler, “all Rome wept for him” – but in secular affairs he was particularly inept. Sixtus attempted without success to temper the terrors of the Spanish Inquisition. He decreed a failed crusade against the Turks. He failed to get French King Louis XI to allow papal decrees to be published without royal consent. And he failed to reunite the Russian Church with Rome. It is true that Sixtus sponsored the building of the Sistine Chapel and Sistine Bridge, which are named for him, and revived the Vatican Library, opening it to scholars – but these were accomplished with nepotism, heavy taxation and simony. It is with this history in mind that historian Jacob Burckhardt calls this particular Pope, “the terrible Sixtus.”Today, August 10, but in 1675, by order of King Charles II, the foundation stone of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, south London, was laid. The churches still, both Catholic and Protestant, were unready to relinquish their hold on not only how to go to heaven, but how the heavens go. Believing that the world would soon end, the early church was (in fact) indifferent to “how the heavens go.” The Christian belief is that the universe was created by God; the heavens are a solid hemisphere, a “firmament,” from which angels hung the greater and lesser lights – the sun, moon and stars. The earth stands immobile at the center of the universe. This “Ptolemaic theory,” based on the revered writings of Claudius Ptolemy (Κλαύδιος Πτολεμαῖος; 85-165 CE) and his predecessor Aristotle (Ἀριστοτέλης; 384-322 BCE), became the sacred science of the Christian churches. As if driving the final nail into the coffin of a supposedly designed universe, Carl Sagan wrote, in his introduction to Steven Hawking’s Brief History of Time, that the book speaks “about God, or perhaps about the absence of God,” and that today’s astronomy envisions “a universe with no edge in space, no beginning or end in time, and nothing for a Creator to do.” By the time the Royal Observatory was built, most of the erroneous cosmology was not only disproved but no longer defended by church authorities. The only hold-outs appear to be so-called creationists, who cling to the tattered remains of Biblical inerrancy as a defense against the indifference to God of the methodological naturalism and empiricism that makes modern science (and, indeed, modern life) possible.
Other birthdays and events this week—
August 7: Pope Paul IV, newly elected and nearly 80, issued an Ecclesiastical Constitution making it an article of faith that Mary, the mother of Jesus, “was a virgin before, during, and after the conception and birth of her” son: Religion and Virginity (1555).
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.
Phyllis Diller (1917) It was on this date, July 17, 1917, that the comedienne and actress with the distinctive laugh, Phyllis Diller, was born Phyllis Ada Driver in Lima, Ohio. She was a San Francisco housewife with five children when her under-employed husband suggested she try to make a career of the comedic skits she […]