(The following is a transcript of a LIVE broadcast by John Mill. John is a noted free thought advocate and broadcaster. “This Week In Freethought” airs on my American Heathen® internet radio show. Air date of this particular segment: 06/17/11)
Here’s your Week in Freethought History: This is more than just a calendar of events or mini-biographies – it’s an affirmation that we as freethinkers are neither unique nor alone in the world, no matter how isolated and alone we may feel at times.
1. Last Saturday, June 11, but in 1864, German composer Richard Strauss was born. Strauss pretty much exemplified the prodigy: he played the piano at age four and began composing at age seven. But at the Royal Grammar School he absorbed a classical education, and at Munich University, Strauss studied philosophy, aesthetics and art history. His musical successes in tone poem and opera were many, even without being related to the Viennese Waltz family. The Encyclopedia Britannica calls Strauss’s famous Till Eulenspiegels Merry Pranks (1894) “one of the most brilliant dramatic scores ever penned.” What the encyclopedia doesn’t mention is the Rationalist philosophy evident in the piece. Strauss followed that work with what has become known as the theme music for the Stanley Kubrick film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Also Sprach Zarathustra (1896) was based on the work of the notoriously skeptical Friedrich Nietzsche. Its premiere caused great consternation in the German churches.
It was also on June 11, but in 1572, that English playwright Ben Jonson was born. At Westminster School, Jonson was instructed by the classical scholar William Camden (1551-1623), who lit the fire of his desire for the classics. He must have made a name for himself by 1597 because he was imprisoned in the Marshalsea for co-writing a satirical play that was declared seditious and is now lost, The Isle of Dogs. His playwriting continued to be politically volatile: “What excellent fools religion makes of men,” he wrote in his 1603 tragedy, Sejanus, His Fall. The play was a public failure, but caused him to be interrogated by the privy council for “popery and treason” – popery an accusation of being Catholic. Two years later, in Volpone, Jonson tweaked the clergy by writing, “Hood an ass with reverend purple, so you can hide his two ambitious ears, and he shall pass for a cathedral doctor.”
2. Last Sunday, June 12, but in 1381, Wat Tyler’s Rebellion, a peasants revolt, began. Geoffrey Chaucer was about 41. The 1300s, or what historian Barbara Tuchman calls “The Calamitous 14th Century,” was theoretically an Age of Chivalry, but in fact a time of superstition, faith, the Black Death, great cathedrals, great poverty, great ignorance, brutal punishment, sexual license and corruption, especially in the Church. Many peasant-serfs were compelled to work for free on church lands, which made it difficult for workers to support their families. Taxes were imposed. Wat Tyler, who lived in Maidstone, Essex, was outraged when an overzealous tax collector sought to determine if Tyler’s young daughter was of taxable age. He stripped the girl naked and sexually assaulted her. With a hammer, Tyler smashed in the tax collector’s skull. His fellow peasants cheered and banded together to seek redress from 14-year-old King Richard II. Their party grew to 100,000 strong and converged on London. Artisans and tradesmen provided food and shelter along the way, and the rebels attacked abbeys and monasteries, those bastions of idle wealth and ecclesiastical corruption. The next thing the mob did was kill all the lawyers and judges they could find, and release their brother peasants from prison. In London, Tyler and his band, still in the grip of the myth of the “divine right,” believed the king a natural ally of the poor. Richard seized the moment and declared to the mob, “Wat Tyler was a traitor. I’ll be your leader.” The teenaged monarch immediately agreed to all the rebel demands – chiefly, the abolition of serfdom – and they went home. Thereupon the king reneged on his promises and hunted down and hanged 1500 of the rebels after trials in which the judge told the jurors that he would hang them if they didn’t convict. So the oppression of the peasants persisted, the churches and priests continued to ignore them in preference to their royal patrons, and Richard, king of England by divine right, declared to the peasants seeking an end to their slavery, “Villeins ye are, and villeins ye shall remain.”
3. Last Monday, June 13, but in 1865, Irish poet and playwright, William Butler Yeats, was born. He spent much time in London, where he became close with such Rationalists as poet William Ernest Henley (1849-1903), artist William Morris (1834-1896), and poet and playwright Arthur Symons (1865-1945). In addition to his poetry, Yeats wrote twenty-six plays. He cannot properly be claimed by any Christian sect. Yeats criticized Christianity in his poem, “The Second Coming,” in which he mixes pagan and Christian symbolism in a horror-filled vision of the rebirth of paganism from a dead Christianity. Furthermore, in 1937 Yeats opposed the adoption of Article 44 of the Irish Constitution, which would have established a state religion, saying, “Once you attempt legislation on religious grounds, you open the way for every kind of intolerance and religious persecution.”
4. Last Tuesday, June 14, the United States celebrated Flag Day. June 14 was the date in 1777 that the Continental Congress proposed that the United States should have its own national flag. The date was officially established by President Woodrow Wilson on 30 May 1916. On 3 August 1949, President Harry Truman signed an Act of Congress designating June 14th of each year as National Flag Day. It is important to remember that the US flag is not an object of worship, and that Flag Day is not a religious observance. Flag Day is instead a celebration of the nation the flag represents. Far from being founded on Biblical principles, the United States was the first nation in history to be founded on Enlightenment principles: empiricism, individual rights and science. This trinity of secular principles cannot be found anywhere in Bible, Torah, Koran or any other holy book and were not handed to humanity by some divinity. It is also important to remember that what the flag represents is more important than the physical flag itself. That is why – especially in a country whose Constitution’s First Amendment protects nothing if it does not protect political speech – a federal law banning the burning of the flag as a form of protest is clearly unconstitutional, as well as contradictory.
It was also on this date, June 14, 1954, that President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a Congressional resolution which added the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. The pledge, which Congress had recognized officially a dozen years earlier, was originally written in August of 1892 by Francis Bellamy (1855-1931), a Baptist minister, and active Socialist. The Pledge was first published in a children’s magazine, Youth’s Companion, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the Americas. The original 22 words were:
I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
Bellamy considered including the word “equality” in the pledge, but decided against it to avoid offending the many Americans who opposed equal rights for women and blacks. The American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1924 changed “my Flag” to “the Flag of the United States of America.” On 22 April 1951, the Board of Directors of the Roman Catholic men’s group, the Knights of Columbus, mounted a campaign to add the words “under God,” after the words “one nation,” in the Pledge. “Apart from the mention of the phrase the United States of America,” wrote a supporter, “it could be the pledge of any republic. In fact, I could hear little Muscovites repeat a similar pledge to their hammer-and-sickle flag in Moscow.” Eisenhower was impressed. News spread, public opinion grew. A bill to add “God” to the Pledge was approved as a Congressional joint resolution on 8 June 1954. It was signed into law on that Flag Day, June 14. It is odd, therefore, that many have forgotten that Americans fought and died in two World Wars and the Korean conflict without acknowledging God in their Pledge of Allegiance. And those who claim that everything has gone downhill in this country since the 1950s – when amending the Pledge divided the nation into believers and non-believers – might reflect that adding “under God” to the Pledge didn’t help!
5. Last Wednesday, June 15, but in 1520, Pope Leo X (p. 1513-1521) issued the Bull Exsurge Domine (Arise, O Lord), condemning Martin Luther for forty-one doctrinal errors and threatening him with excommunication if he would not recant. The pope, born Giovanni de’ Medici (1475-1521), was the son of a wealthy, powerful and politically connected family. His father got him into the priesthood at age 7; he was a cardinal at 13; he became Pope at age 37, at which newly minted Leo X remarked gleefully, “Let us enjoy this Papacy which God has given us.” The historian and statesman, Francesco Guicciardini (1483-1540), gives us a fascinating précis of Pope Leo’s lifestyle: “His expenditure was such that he degraded the spiritual authority, corrupted the Papal Court, and was compelled to be always in search of extraordinary methods of raising money. He was passionately fond of music and jesters, and his mind was entirely occupied with these. In the early days of his pontificate many believed that he was quite chaste, but it was discovered that he was excessively devoted to pleasures that cannot even be mentioned with decency.” Those unmentionable pleasures, described delicately as “venery,” were not in fact sporting with hawks, but sporting with young boys. Leo X spent lavishly on banquets, entertainments, jewels and gifts. He was lying and duplicitous in diplomacy and raised money through the sale of offices and indulgences, which combined simony with nepotism. Threatening to cut him off from the Catholic community in the 1520 Bull, Leo finally excommunicated Luther on 3 January 1521. At last the Romans had had enough and Leo succumbed to a poisoning on 1 Dec 1521, although modern Catholic historians dispute the physicians who actually saw the dark and swollen body. Luther, inhibited by neither Exsurge Domine nor his excommunication, outlived the next two Popes.
6. Yesterday, June 16, but in 1824, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded in a London pub. It was the first society in history set up to end animal cruelty, so you may wonder why it took the religion of Gentle Jesus and St. Francis of Assisi so long to condemn the ill-treatment of the lower branches on the evolutionary tree. It all started on the sixth day of creation (Genesis 1:26, 28):
“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. …And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”
We’re a little behind on the replenishing part, but the “dominion over” nature command humankind has nailed! It never occurred to Christians that animals were anything but the personal playthings of people: after all, God created the creatures of the earth, air and water for our use, not for our protection. Bear-baiting, cock-fighting, the mistreatment of draft animals and brutality toward stray cats and dogs, were no laughing matter to Richard Martin (1754-1834), an Irish member of Parliament who got “Martin’s Act” against animal cruelty passed in Parliament. He was nicknamed “Humanity Dick” by King George IV. Two years later, on this date in 1824, at Old Slaughter’s Coffee House, Martin oversaw the founding of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which put teeth into Martin’s Act. His efforts so impressed Queen Victoria that, in 1840, the SPCA was renamed the Royal SPCA, as they have been known ever since.
7. Finally, today, June 17, but in 1782, the last legal execution of a witch occurred in Switzerland. From the records we know that Anna Goeldi was hanged in Glarus, Switzerland. It is a fact that in those days attempts to explain the world in non-scriptural, non-superstitious terms were either ignored or punished. But all of Christian Europe joined in the witch hunting primarily because, in the absence of a scientific explanation of the bad things in the world, such as disease, pestilence, storms and comets, people resorted to belief in magic and superstition. For suppressing science, the churches have complete culpability for the bloodshed. Confessions of witchcraft were often extracted under torture – and not only was torture supported by the clergy, based on scripture, but the accuracy of confessions acquired under torture was scripturally supported. And why not? If God punishes his creatures with tortures “infinite in cruelty and duration,” why shouldn’t his ministers on earth imitate him? As late as 1768 in Protestant England, John Wesley, the original Methodist, maintained that, “The giving up of witchcraft is in effect the giving up of the Bible.” And there were a few more sputterings of witch executions: in Italy in 1791, and in Poland in 1793. But in the witch-hunting heartland of Switzerland, the delusion died with Anna Goeldi on this date only 229 years ago.
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 the American Heathen blog, which take you to my blog, FreethoughtAlmanac.com.