This Week In Freethought History June 10th – 16th
(The following is a transcript of a segment 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: 06/16/12)
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.
Sunday, June 10, in 1797, President John Adams signed into law the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary (Tripoli is in modern Libya). The Treaty with Tripoli, as it is now known has become a lightning rod in the debate over whether or not the United States is, or ever was, or was intended to be, a Christian nation, or even founded on Christian principles.
Christian partisans say that the article must be read “as a declaration that the federal government of the United States was not in any sense founded on the Christian religion,” and that “such a statement is not a repudiation of the fact that America was considered a Christian nation.” But the Declaration of Independence refers only to a creator, not to a Christian God, and has no force of law, anyway. And the Constitution is conspicuously godless – Jefferson wrote that an attempt was made to insert a reference to Jesus Christ, and that it was voted down.
The Treaty with Tripoli was not only adopted unanimously, but there was no debate, no dissention. Were the ratifiers pressed for time? Such haste speaks ill of the importance of their cherished religion, for the treaty claimed something (supposedly) morally reprehensible – a denial of the Christian God! True, the majority of Americans in 1797 were at least nominally Christian, even if no more than 10 percent of Americans were actually members of congregations. But, no, the United States is no more a Christian nation because most of its citizens are Christians than it is a “white” nation because most of its citizens are white. We are Americans not because we practice revealed religion and believe in Bible-based government, but because we practice democracy and believe in republican government.
Last Monday, June 11, but in 1864, German composer Richard Strauss was born. The Encyclopedia Britannica calls Strauss’s famous Till Eulenspiegel’s 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. Jonson was imprisoned in the Marshalsea for co-writing a satirical play that was declared seditious, 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 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.”
Last Tuesday, June 12, but in 1381, Wat Tyler’s Rebellion, a peasant revolt in England, began in the year Geoffrey Chaucer turned 41. 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. What followed was a textbook example of how a popular revolt can be co-opted: Tyler’s fellow peasants cheered and banded together to seek redress from 14-year-old King Richard II. Their party grew 100,000 strong and converged on London. Artisans and tradesmen provided food and shelter along the way, and the rebels attacked those bastions of idle wealth and ecclesiastical corruption, the abbeys and monasteries. The next thing they did was kill all the lawyers and judges they could find, and release their brother peasants from prison. But 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. Young King Richard seized the moment and declared to the mob, “Wat Tyler was a traitor. I’ll be your leader” and immediately agreed to all the rebel demands – chiefly, the abolition of serfdom (which was sort of like slavery without the benefits) – so Tyler and his band went home satisfied. Thereupon the king reneged on his promises and hunted down and hanged 1,500 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 peasant class persisted, the churches and priests continued to ignore them in preference to their royal patrons, and Richard II, king of England by divine right, declared to the peasants seeking an end to their slavery, “Villeins ye are, and villeins ye shall remain.”
Last Wednesday, 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.”
Last Thursday, 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 – although a federal law banning the burning of the flag as a form of protest seems to be proposed at least once a year, such a law 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 black people. 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 should not be surprising that this should happen during the “red scare 1950s, but many have forgotten that Americans fought and died in two World Wars and the Korean conflict without acknowledging God in their Pledge of Allegiance, so 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 could just as well have been the cause!
Last Friday, 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.
Finally, today, 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 we humans have nailed the “dominion over” part! 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.
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.