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, December 15, but in 1790, the first U.S. school of law was established at the University of Pennsylvania. After a series of lectures by James Wilson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a Justice of the first U.S. Supreme Court, “Penn” began offering a full-time program in law. The training and certification of legal service providers was a major development in not just legal history but in the history of government – a further step in the upward evolution of democracy. It is often claimed that Christianity gave us a better-ordered society by giving us the law as we know it today. In fact, the very opposite is the case. Just as it was freethinkers, not Christians, who made the world safer for children, decreased crime, ensured the right to divorce, revived education, equalized marriage, and ended slavery and torture – it was freethinkers who revived law as the ancient (pagan) Romans knew it, and carried it forward to the institution we know today.
In ancient civilizations, law and the administration of justice were at a much higher level than we find in Christian Europe until the Enlightenment. It is almost comical to see the absurd, procrustean lengths to which Christian apologists will go to try to fit the square peg of canon law into the round hole of secular law, which developed in Europe in spite of the churches. Modern freethinkers are then left to wonder why it took the followers of Christ until the Encyclopedists in France, Beccaria in Italy, and Bentham, Romilly, Mackintosh, and others in England, to institute the legal, juridical and prison reforms we take for granted today – and why the struggle continues to secure rights for workers, for women, for children, and the LGBT, not to mention rights for religious minorities and freethinkers. Until the modern era, the brutality and barbarity of the law, especially in Catholic countries, was unabated. Jules Michelet quotes, in his history of French law, a lord of the Middle Ages who happily abused a serf, saying, “He’s mine – I can boil him or roast him if I want.”
Last Monday, December 16, but in 1961, American stand-up comedian, satirist and social critic Bill Hicks was born. Drawn to comedy early, he was influenced by Richard Pryor and began to emulate Woody Allen. Hicks got an early start poking fun at religion. He recounted a conversation with his father this way: “‘I believe that the Bible is the literal word of God.’ And I say no, it’s not, Dad. ‘Well, I believe that it is.’ Well, you know, some people believe they’re Napoleon. That’s fine. Beliefs are neat. Cherish them, but don’t share them like they’re the truth.” His style was conversational, yet he was able to inject pointed attacks on mainstream society, religion, politics, and consumerism. For example: “Eternal suffering awaits anyone who questioned God’s infinite love.” Hicks had a special place in his repertoire for creationists—
“God put [dinosaur fossils] here to test our faith!” … I think God put you here to test my faith, dude. Does that bother anybody else, the idea that God might be fucking with our heads? [and] You ever notice that people who believe in creationism look really unevolved? Eyes real close together, big furry hands and feet. “I believe God created me in one day.” Yeah, looks like he rushed it.”
“I wish I could meet a Christian who would proselytize to me,” said Hicks. “But they keep running away from me. I wanna talk to you all.” Bill Hicks died age 32 in 1994. His epitaph might have been these words he asked to be released after his death: “I left in love, in laughter, and in truth and wherever truth, love and laughter abide, I am there in spirit.”
Last Tuesday, December 17, but in ancient tradition, the Ancient Roman version of the universal midwinter nature festival which they called Saturnalia began. The week-long festival was named in honor of Saturn, the Roman god of the sowing of the harvest, celebrated the birth of a solar or vegetation god, one who would save the world from the darkness and sterility of winter. During the week of the 17th through the 23rd there were religious ceremonies, boisterous revels, the exchange of gifts, visits to friends, public gambling, greetings of “Yo, Saturnalia!” (much like “Merry Christmas!”) along with a feast at the temple. If these customs seem familiar to moderns who celebrate Christmas, they are complemented by the Christian appropriation of the Winter Solstice (about December 21) and the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun in Mithraism (December 25) to co-opt the rival religions and market the new one. The worshippers of Mithra used candles and incense at their cave-temple on Vatican Hill. So the death and resurrection play that is so central to Christianity was acted out for a pagan audience long before the Christian cult that copied it. Most of the pagan cults are exterminated now, thanks to the love of Christ, but the celebrations continue under new management. Saturnalia, or at least the human feeling Saturnalia celebrates, just will not be denied.
Last Wednesday, December 18, but in 1963, American actor and film producer Brad Pitt was born. A leading man nominated for five Academy Awards and five Golden Globes, and winning one of the latter, Pitt is noted for commercial film successes in Troy (2004) and Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005) and Academy Award-nominated performances in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) and Moneyball (2011). Born in Oklahoma, Pitt had shaken off his fundamentalist beliefs by the time he entered college. “When I got untethered from the comfort of religion, it wasn’t a loss of faith for me, it was a discovery of self,” he says. “I had faith that I’m capable enough to handle any situation. There’s peace in understanding that I have only one life, here and now, and I’m responsible.” In a July 2009 interview for the German magazine Bild, Pitt was asked if he believes in God. He answered, smiling, “No, no, no!” Asked if his soul is spiritual, Pitt replied, “No, no, no! I’m probably 20 per cent atheist and 80 per cent agnostic. I don’t think anyone really knows. You’ll either find out or not when you get there, until then there’s no point thinking about it.”
Last Thursday, December 19, but in 1843, British author Charles Dickens’ immortal short story, A Christmas Carol, was published in London. Dickens wrote the classic ghost story quickly, in desperation to get out of debt from a recent American tour and a poorly selling prior novel. Like the United States of today, in his story a grasping upper class steals money, power and well-being from the 99% beneath them, just as Jesus would not have counseled. Dickens himself believed in God and had a sentimental regard for Christianity, but thought its puritan strain was socially harmful. Social-moral reform was Dickens’ chief message in A Christmas Carol. Scrooge is shamed into changing his narrow, grasping, capitalist ways – in a dream and through the agency of ghosts, which really annoyed the contemporary clergy, who were hoping for babes in mangers, wise men and holy ghosts – by being shown for the first time their human cost. If anyone can be said to have been the first, it was Charles Dickens who took the Christ out of Christmas!
Yesterday, December 20, but in 1902, American philosopher Sidney Hook was born. A protégé of John Dewey, Hook earned a doctorate at Columbia University in 1927 and taught at New York University from 1927-1972, including over 20 years as head of NYU’s philosophy department (1948-1969). Perhaps his best-known quote is, “If one shoots at a king, one must not miss.” An independent thinker, Hook criticized the student anti-war movement and the Communist Party principally because they were anti-democratic. And he criticized the 1960s school prayer cases because he believed the education of the citizenry is preferable to a court-imposed mandate. In fact, Hook was an Atheist and actively involved in the American Humanist Association and the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism (CODESH). Hook wrote for The Humanist and Free Inquiry magazines and once said, “As a set of cognitive beliefs, religion is a speculative hypothesis of low order of probability.” Indeed, it was Sidney Hook who said, “Religious tolerance has developed more as a consequence of the impotence of religions to impose their dogmas on each other than as a consequence of spiritual humility….”
Today, December 21 (the First Day of Winter), but in 1940, American musician and satirist Frank Zappa was born. From his work with the Mothers of Invention from 1965 to 1975, to his solo efforts afterward, Zappa expanded and redefined rock as social and cultural criticism. Zappa was the first artist to be inducted into both the Jazz (1994) and Rock and Roll (1995) Halls of Fame. Frank Zappa’s iconoclasm extended most notoriously to religion. In his Real Frank Zappa Book he says, “If you want to get together in any exclusive situation and have people love you, fine — but to hang all this desperate sociology on the idea of The Cloud-Guy who has The Big Book, who knows if you’ve been bad or good – and cares about any of it – to hang it all on that, folks, is the chimpanzee part of the brain working.” Furthermore, Zappa says, “The essence of Christianity is told us in the Garden of Eden story. The fruit that was forbidden was on the tree of knowledge. The subtext is, ‘All the suffering you have is because you wanted to find out what was going on. You could be in the Garden of Eden if you had just kept your fucking mouth shut and hadn’t asked any questions.’” Seventeen years after his death, in September 2010, the citizens of Baltimore dedicated a statue to him in the downtown section of his city of birth. Frank Zappa once said, “Reality is what it is, not what you want it to be.”
Other birthdays and events this week—
December 16: American philosopher George Santayana was born (1863).
December 18: Pope Pius XII, in the ninth year of his papacy, promulgated the encyclical Optatissima Pax, On Prescribing Prayers for Peace, just in time for the ending of World War II two years earlier, which counted 60 million people killed, thereby demonstrating the powerlessness of prayer (1947).
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.
"It would be safe to say that I'm agnostic." Matthews says. "I think it's very ignorant to say, 'Well, for everything, God has a plan.'"