This Week In Freethought History (May 28th – June 3rd)
(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: 06/03/11)
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, May 28, but in 1902, the philosopher, author and poet Corliss Lamont was born. Lamont was a humanist leader and a tireless worker for world peace and civil liberties, serving as director of the ACLU for 22 years. He wrote sixteen books, the most famous of which are The Philosophy of Humanism and The Illusion of Immortality. Lamont taught philosophy at Columbia, Harvard, Cornell, and the New School for Social Research. He once wrote, “I think… that philosophy has the duty of pointing out the falsity of outworn religious ideas, however estimable they may be as a form of art.” In his Philosophy of Humanism, Lamont wrote, “Supernatural entities simply do not exist. The nonreality of the supernatural means, on the human level, that men do not possess supernatural and immortal souls; and, on the level of the universe as a whole, that our cosmos does not possess a supernatural and eternal God. … God, once imagined to be an omnipresent force throughout the whole world of nature and man, has been increasingly tending to seem omniabsent… As science advances, belief in divine miracles and the efficacy of prayer becomes fainter and fainter.” Lamont won victories, even during the McCarthy witch-hunts and the HUAC hysteria, for freedom of speech and association, equality and labor rights, and for the peoples’ right to know. He even got the CIA to apologize for reading his mail!
2. Last Sunday, May 29, but in, 1830, the French anarchist known as “la Vièrge Rouge,” the Red Virgin, for her radicalism, Louise Michel, was born. Reared a Catholic by her mother and paternal grandparents, she developed keen observations about the suffering and social inequality around her, none of which the French churches attempted to alleviate. When the Franco-Prussian War ended in 1871, the worker-residents of Paris refused entry to their Prussian conquerors. The Paris Commune formed, with Louise Michel as one of its leaders. The Catholic Church, as the richest and most powerful French institution, had been hip-deep in Monarchist misrule, and so the Commune severed all state connection to the church, nationalized all church property, and secularized the schools. But the Commune, assembled by 28 March 1871, fell by 28 May, amid a reactionary bloodbath: The Monarchists executed 30,000 and imprisoned 45,000, including 500 children; 30,000 were exiled. Michel was arrested for trying to overthrow the government. She was arrested again and again, still fighting for social justice, and better wages and working conditions for laborers until her death in Marseilles on 9 January 1905, at age 74. Her funeral drew two thousand mourners.
3. Last Monday, May 30, but in 1814, the Russian anarchist Mikhail A. Bakunin was born into an aristocratic family. But even as a young man he developed radical ideas, especially after reading the French Encyclopedists. After he took part in the 1848-1849 revolutions in France and Saxony, the French caught him and sent him back to Russia. He escaped from Siberia to London in 1861, where he met and worked with Aleksandr I. Herzen, the “Father of Russian Socialism.” Seven years later, Bakunin had become active in the First International, but his anarchist ideas ran afoul of those of Karl Marx, who got Bakunin expelled. Bakunin believed that mankind is basically moral and that the state is evil. He wrote, in his 1871 tract, God and State, “A Boss in Heaven is the best excuse for a boss on earth, therefore, if God really existed, it would be necessary to abolish him. … The first revolt is against the supreme tyranny of theology, of the phantom of God. As long as we have a master in heaven, we will be slaves on earth. … God being everything, the real world and man are nothing. God being truth, justice, goodness, beauty, power, and life, man is falsehood, iniquity, evil, ugliness, impotence, and death. God being master, man is the slave. While Satan is the eternal rebel, the first freethinker and the emancipator of worlds.” Bakunin goes on, “The idea of God implies the abdication of human reason and justice; it is the most decisive negation of human liberty and necessarily ends in the enslavement of mankind both in theory and practice. He who desires to worship God must harbor no childish illusions about the matter but bravely renounce his liberty and humanity.” Bakunin didn’t completely disagree with Marx, however. He too thought religion was the sigh of the oppressed, and therefore the opium of the people, but he put it this way: “People go to church for the same reasons they go to a tavern: to stupefy themselves, to forget their misery, to imagine themselves, for a few minutes anyway, free and happy.”
4. Last Tuesday, May 31, but in 1819, American poet Walt Whitman was born. His father had known and admired Thomas Paine and instilled liberal ideas in Walt, which did not include allegiance to any church. Wrote Whitman: “I believe in the flesh and the appetites, / Seeing, hearing, feeling, are miracles, and each part and tag of me is a miracle. … / The scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer, / This head more than churches, bibles, and all the creeds. (“Song of Myself”) He found and founded a distinctly American voice in his master work of poetry, Leaves of Grass, first published in 1855. Whitman has little use for conventional religion: “Pointing to another world will never stop vice among us,” he wrote, “shedding light over this world can alone help us.” “And I say to mankind, Be not curious about God, / For I who am curious about each am not curious about God, … / I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in the least, … / I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then, / In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass,” (“Song of Myself”)
Instead, Whitman celebrated secular values and especially praised the human body. In fact, Whitman was so unabashed a body-worshiper that Leaves of Grass was banned in Boston, expurgated in England, and cost him a government job at the hands of Methodist ex-cleric and political appointee James Harlan of Iowa. Happily, Walt Whitman’s poetry outlasted his opponents.
5. Last Wednesday, June 1, but in 1933 during the Great Depression, a World’s Fair celebrating “A Century of Progress” opened on the lakefront in Chicago, Illinois, on what is today known as Meig’s Field. It’s a fair question: just what is progress? The very idea of progress is a novelty of the 18th century Enlightenment and the Atheists who wrote the French Encyclopedia. If we ask which is more favorable to progress – religion or skepticism – the answer should seem obvious. But if we focus on those things about which religion professes to care – social and sexual morality, marriage and family, peace, temperance, crime, medicine, philanthropy, and (in some liberal religions) social and economic justice – the answer is far from obvious. The social aspects are easiest to dispense with: humankind has progressed in the last century with dramatic decreases in crime, including sexual crime, political corruption, death-by-childbirth, and the subjugation of women and racial and religious minorities – while vastly increasing literacy and general education, average life expectancy, disease control, sanitation, transportation, freedom of opinion and discussion, and the real wage workers. Social services and civil rights organizations unknown before the 1800s blossomed in the 1900s. And if you reach back into the century celebrated at the 1933 World’s Fair, you would have to include the abolition of slavery, the germ theory of disease, the use of anesthetics, the theory of evolution, the eight-hour day and the resurgence of unions among the progress for humanity that churches either opposed or ignored. So while everyone at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair was celebrating a century of progress, they should also have been celebrating the foundations of that progress: freethinking and religious skepticism!
6. Yesterday, June 2, but in 1858, the Italian astronomer Giovanni Battista Donati (1826-1873) observed and recorded the first appearance of the comet that bears his name today. The astronomer was 32 at the time and the Donati Comet is one of six he discovered. Throughout human history, while stars and meteors were usually seen as good signs, the appearance of a comet in the skies has been interpreted as one of the divine “signs and wonders” – a fireball flung by an angry God. The Catholic Church Doctor Bede (672-735 CE) declared that “comets portend revolutions of kingdoms, pestilence, war, winds, or heat.” Six hundred years later, Albert the Great (1206-1280) taught the same, citing Joel 2:30. If a comet portended pestilence, so the reasoning went, it was God’s will and therefore useless to attempt to cure diseases. And, of course, the churches would happily accept money to bribe God on your behalf to stay His holy hand. If a comet portended war, rather than wise statesmanship, princes must instead raise the sword and carry out God’s bloody will. The belief that comets presaged wars is memorialized in the Bayeux Tapestry, where a comet can be seen signaling the Norman Conquest of 1066. Donati estimated that his comet has an orbital period of more than 2000 years, so perhaps we humans, if we do not annihilate ourselves, will cast off a few more superstitions by the time Donati’s Comet returns!
7. Finally, today, June 3, but in 1727, the Scot called “the first great British geologist,” James Hutton was born. Hutton studied medicine, took his degree, but, there being no employment for him, he almost gave up science for agriculture. But in studying the land he had inherited in Berwickshire, Hutton hit upon some geological ideas that he began to turn over in his mind as he was turning over the soil: that you could trace the history of the earth through the mineralogy of the earth. In 1785, Hutton submitted a paper to the newly established Royal Society of Edinburgh outlining his Theory of the Earth, an idea that pretty much invented the science of geology. But this theory flew in the face of the Biblical teaching that the earth had been transformed only once, catastrophically, by a universal Flood. Since the beginning of the Christian Era, the book of Genesis was the only acceptable book of geology. Before fundamentalist Islam clamped shut Muslim minds, Avicenna came up with a gradualist theory of the formation of the earth. But in Christian Europe, research into the age of rocks, the clerics thought, distracted the mind from the Rock of Ages – and led to infidelity and Atheism. Only with Hutton, and later with Darwin, was the truth of the scientific theory of gradualism gradually accepted. Hutton developed his Deistic idea that there is no distinction between God and nature.
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.