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, September 23, but in 1970, American folk-rock recording artist and entrepreneur Ani DiFranco was born. DiFranco began singing and playing acoustic guitar before she was 10, and by age 15 she was writing her own songs and booking herself anywhere she could play. Her blend of music is enhanced by lyrics expressing her feminism, her bisexuality, her working-class ethic, and her topical and political concerns. DiFranco is straightforward about her disrespect for religion. Rock critic Jim Walsh once asked her, “What song proves to you that there is a God?” DiFranco’s staccato reply: “I’m an atheist, for Chrissake!” In another interview from 2000, DiFranco was asked to explain the line “God’s work isn’t done by God, it’s done by people” from her 1998 song, “Up, Up, Up.” She replied, “Well, I’m not a religious person myself. I’m an atheist. I think religion serves a lot of different purposes in people’s lives, and I can recognize the value of that… But then, of course, institutional religions are so problematic… My spirituality tends to be more in the vein of, if there is a God it exists within us, and the responsibility for justice is on our shoulders.”
Last Monday, September 24, but in 1717, English man of letters Horace Walpole was born. The youngest son of England’s longest-ruling Prime Minister, Robert Walpole (who was most likely an Atheist). Principally known as a letter-writer – his extant letters fill sixteen volumes – Walpole was one of the most brilliant writers of the Deistic school. In his letters he freely admitted his skepticism about immortality and his distaste for priests. He described a 1739 funeral procession in Paris as “…a most vile thing. A long procession of flambeaux and friars; … nothing but friars, white, black, and grey, with all their trumpery.” Back in England, Walpole showed the same disdain for religion: “Besides, the woman who showed me the church [in Malvern Abbey] would pester me with Christ and King David, when I was hunting for John of Gaunt and King Edward.” And in observing churches in his travels, Walpole wrote, “A Gothic church or a convent fills one with romantic dreams – but for the mysterious, the church in the abstract, it is a jargon that means nothing, or a great deal too much, and I reject it and its apostles.” Among Walpole’s contributions to English literature was this donation to the English language: in the Persian fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip (1754), Walpole noted the heroes finding valuable things they weren’t looking for, thus coining the word serendipity.
Last Tuesday, September 25, but in 1789, the U.S. Congress passed and sent for ratification the first ten amendments to the Constitution, which came to be known as the Bill of Rights. To Freethinkers, the most important amendment is the first, yet when most people think of the First Amendment, the “Free Speech” clause is what comes to mind. In reading the 45 words in the original text – “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” – what is striking is that religion is mentioned before speech! If the Founders put safeguards against government support of religion before safeguards against government suppression of speech, there must have been a reason. It is no accident that the United States of America is the first nation in history to separate religion from government. In fact, freedom of religion, as well as freedom from religion – one is meaningless without the other – were integral to the design of the new nation. How did this come about? The founders of the United States of America were determined not to fashion a nation united under democracy, only to have it divided by sect. Instead, the founders adopted a First Amendment with both an (anti-)Establishment Clause and a (pro-)Free Exercise Clause. But for many Christians, especially fundamentalists, that is not enough. In spite of an overwhelming numerical majority in the United States; in spite of a church on practically every corner, an overwhelming presence on radio and TV, and even on the Internet, a religion page in most daily newspapers, and a tolerant if not willingly unskeptical news media, as well as the control of one major political party and the welcome infiltration of another – not to mention the possession of money that multiplies like loaves and fishes – most fundamentalist Christians in the US behave as though they are daily being dragged out of their homes and racked into recanting! It isn’t so. The Bill of Rights, passed on this date in 1789, and ratified on 15 December 1791, requires constant vigilance from Freethinkers and conscientious theists alike.
Last Wednesday, September 26, but in 1833, English publisher and politician Charles Bradlaugh was born. In 1877, Bradlaugh and Annie Besant re-published Charles Knowlton’s book advocating birth control, The Fruits of Philosophy. Both were charged with publishing material that was “likely to deprave or corrupt those whose minds are open to immoral influences,” found guilty and sentenced to six months in prison. In court they argued that “we think it more moral to prevent conception of children than, after they are born, to murder them by want of food, air and clothing.” An appeal quashed the verdict. Bradlaugh was elected to Parliament in 1880, but as he was not a Christian, he asked for permission to affirm rather swear the oath of office. Even with Prime Minister William Gladstone’s support, the Speaker refused. Both the Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Catholic Cardinal Manning, argued against the right of atheists to be MPs. A new Speaker allowed Bradlaugh to affirm the oath of office in 1886, when he was finally seated in the House of Commons. In Bradlaugh’s 1864 “Plea for Atheism” he said, “The atheist does not say, ‘There is no God,’ but he says ‘I know not what you mean by God; the word is to me a sound conveying no clear or distinct affirmation.’ … Atheism, properly understood, is no mere disbelief; is in no wise a cold, barren negative; it is, on the contrary, a hearty, fruitful affirmation of all truth, and involves the positive assertion of action of highest humanity.”
Last Thursday, September 27, but in 1964, that American musician Stephan Jenkins, best known as the front man for the pop music group Third Eye Blind, was born. After earning a degree in Literature in 1987 from the University of California at Berkeley, Stephan Jenkins co-founded Third Eye Blind in San Francisco. As an act of rebellion to protest Siena College’s anti-contraception policy, at a November 1998 concert Jenkins threw 1000 condoms into the Catholic college audience. Jenkins is somewhat of an unbeliever, saying “I think religion is a bunch of hooey, and I think that the holidays are an opportunity for people to get stressed out, getting their rush to shop. It’s so conformist.”
Also last Thursday, September 27, but in 1540, Pope Paul III officially approved the Society of Jesus – the Jesuits – through his encyclical, Regimini militantis ecclesiae. Born Alessandro Farnese on 29 February 1468 in Rome, Paul III was pope for 15 years, from 1534-1549. Paul won his elevation though his sister Giulia’s liaison with Pope Alexander VI, and managed to have four children born to him while he was a cardinal. His chief reason for approving a new Society was to enforce orthodoxy in the church as a hedge against the Protestant heresy. He also excommunicated Henry VIII of England for divorcing Catherine of Aragon, established the Index of Prohibited Books to censor church criticism, formally established the Inquisition (or Holy Office) to quash heresy, and still had time to promote two of his grandsons to cardinals – one age 14, the other age 16. That he was a strong supporter of the arts, which every pope was who wanted tourists and cash to come to Rome, nobody questions. But the Society of foot-soldiers for the faith insinuated themselves into politics and carried out murderous intrigue during the rein of “Bloody Mary” in England (1553-1558), caused the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre in France (1572) and laid the foundation for the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). In 1773 Pope Clement XIV, in the Bull Dominus ac Redemptor Noster, which listed and endorsed all the crimes of the Jesuits brought to his attention by fellow clerics, abolished the Society “forever.” “Forever” lasted until the fall of Napoleon. The Jesuitry is with us still.
Yesterday, September 28, 1820, German political philosopher and Socialist leader Friedrich Engels was born. Engels was shocked at the squalid life of the poor workers his industrialist father employed. Before he was 24 he had published his observations in his 1844 Condition of the Working Classes in England. Engels began contributing to a radical journal called Franco-German Annals. The editor of that journal, Karl Marx, met with Engels in Paris and the two men became lifelong friends. The two produced many works between them, most notably the Communist Manifesto, in February 1848. Between them, Engels and Marx founded Socialism in Europe. Marx had been reared in a heterodox Jewish atmosphere, but Engels’ childhood included strict religious instruction, so Engels was more hostile toward churches. To him, all political oppression, where it did not emanate from the clergy, emanated from a political structure controlled or influenced by the clergy. As he wrote in The Peasant War in Germany, “[B]ishops and archbishops, abbots, priors and other prelates… not only exploited their subjects as recklessly as the knighthood and the princes, but they practiced this in an even more shameful manner. They used not only brutal force, but all the intrigues of religion as well; not only the horrors of the rack, but also the horror of excommunication, or refusal of absolution; they used all the intricacies of the confessional in order to extract from their subjects the last penny, or to increase the estates of the church.” In his 1918 Reminiscences, British Atheist and Socialist Ernest Belfort Bax, who knew the writer, calls Engels a “devout atheist.”
Today, September 29, but in 1511, the Spanish cleric Michael Servetus was born. It developed that Servetus was a gifted linguist and read the entire Bible in its original languages. Servetus also studied law at Toulouse and medicine in Paris. But by 1530 Servetus bought into the theology of the 4th century theologian Arius, which denies the Trinity because it is found nowhere in the Bible. Denying the Trinity (Arianism) necessarily means denying the divinity of Jesus, who instead of being one with God was merely like God. In July 1531 he published De trinitatis erroribus; in 1532 De trinitate and De Iustitia regni Christi. He believed he could avoid persecution by the Church. As brilliant as he was, in April 1553 Servetus was arrested and imprisoned. He escaped in June, intending to hide out in Italy, but passed through Geneva, where John Calvin was waiting for him. He was thrown into “… an atrocious dungeon with no light or heat, little food, and no sanitary facilities.” On 27 October 1553, sentence was carried out. William Osler, the father of modern medicine, described it thus: “[I]t is said that he looked like the Christ in whose name he was bound. Around his waist were tied a large bundle of manuscript and a thick octavo printed book. The torch was applied, and as the flames spread to the straw and sulphur and flashed in his eyes, there was a piercing cry that struck terror into the hearts of the bystanders. The faggots were green, the burning was slow, and it was long before in a last agony he cried again, ‘Jesu, thou Son of the eternal God, have mercy on me!’” Though a believer, Servetus had dared to doubt the prevailing orthodoxy – he had expressed an opinion – and he had been killed for it. He was only 42 years old.
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.