February 12 in freethought history…

February 12, 1789 – American patriot Ethan Allen dies in Burlington, Vermont, aged 51. Best known for his daring exploits during the Revolutionary War, Allen was also a politician, frontier philosopher and early advocate for smallpox inoculation. In later life he self-published Reason: the Only Oracle of Man, a rambling attack on organized religion that arose from earlier collaboration with physician and Deist Thomas Young. The book sold poorly; few copies survive.

February 12, 1809 – Charles Darwin is born in Shrewsbury, England. He was the co-discoverer, with Alfred Russel Wallace, of evolution by natural selection. His books include The Voyage of the Beagle, On the Origin of Species, The Descent of Man and Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals. Evolution and the shared ancestry of all life on earth has dealt a blow to belief in divine creation (although there are hold-outs even in the 21st century). As for Darwin…he wrote in an 1880 letter: “I do not believe in the Bible as a divine revelation & therefore not in Jesus Christ as the son of God.”

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February 11 in freethought history…

poggiobraccioliniFebruary 11, 1380 – Italian scholar Poggio Bracciolini is born in Terranuova, Tuscany. He is best known for his discovery, in 1417 in a German monastery, of the only surviving manuscript of De rerum natura (“On the Nature of Things”), an instructional poem written by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, explaining the philosophy of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus. Epicurus’s work helped set the stage for modern science, denying supernaturalism, insisting on natural causes of physical phenomena, theorizing that all things are made of atoms, and proposing a solution to the puzzle of free will. Bracciolini died in 1459, aged 79.

February 11, 1898 – Physicist Leo Szilard is born in Budapest, Hungary. He was the first to conceive of the nuclear chain reaction, patented the idea for the nuclear reactor, and (having emigrated to the US just prior to World War II) wrote the letter (signed by Albert Einstein) that convinced President Franklin Roosevelt to develop the atomic bomb. After the war, Szilard delved into biological research, and was one of the founders of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. He was named Humanist of the Year in 1960 by the American Humanist Association. Szilard died in 1964, aged 66.

February 11, 1918 – The Edison Company releases the silent film The Unbeliever, starring Raymond McKee and Marguerite Courtot. This World War I propaganda film is possibly the first motion picture featuring an atheist protagonist, albeit it in a negative light–in the story, the arrogant “unbeliever” goes off to war, sees Jesus Christ in a battlefield vision, has a conversion experience, and returns home with a new relationship with God.

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February 10 in freethought history…

richardcarlileFebruary 10, 1843 – Publisher and social reformer Richard Carlile dies in London, aged 52. He crusaded for universal suffrage, for equal rights for men and women, and against child labor. A Deist-turned-atheist, he published and distributed the works of Thomas Paine as well as his own periodical The Republican. Carlile was arrested and jailed repeatedly for sedition, blasphemy and related charges, and spent many years in jail. He died in poverty, having donated his body for medical research.

February 10, 1947 – In Everson v. Board of Education, the US Supreme Court rules that the Constitution’s Establishment Clause (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof”) also applies to state legislatures through the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause (“…nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”). Incidentally, the case involved a taxpayer lawsuit against a school district that reimbursed parents for transportation expenses to both public and private (religious) schools. The precedent established in Everson v. BoE has provided justification for separation of church and state in numerous subsequent lawsuits, and is much-despised by religious conservatives.

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February 9 in freethought history…

luciliovaniniFebruary 9, 1619 – Philosopher and freethinker Lucilio (“Julius Caesar”) Vanini is executed by the Parliament of Toulouse, France for atheism and blasphemy. Vanini was not, in fact, an atheist (more a pantheist). Nonetheless he denied the immortality of the soul; declared Moses, Jesus and Muhammad imposters; believed that the laws of nature applied everywhere in the universe and that life emerged spontaneously on earth; and even theorized that man arose from apes. He was only 33 at the time of his execution.

February 9, 1737 – Thomas Paine is born in Thetford, United Kingdom. Paine was an influential propagandist for both the American and French Revolutions. Like many of America’s Founders, Paine was a Deist who declared, “My country is the World, and my religion is to do good.” His influential works include Common SenseThe American CrisisThe Rights of Man and The Age of Reason. In this last title, Paine criticized organized religion and questioned Biblical inerrancy; as a result, he fell out of favor with both the American public and its politicians. He died in New York City in 1809, aged 72. Only six people attended his funeral.

February 9, 1944 – Poet, novelist and activist Alice Walker is born in Putnam County, Georgia. She is best known for her novel The Color Purple, which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. She was named Humanist of the Year in 1997 by the American Humanist Association.

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February 8 in freethought history…

peterkropotkinFebruary 8, 1921 – Prince Pyotr Alexeyevich (Peter) Kropotkin, polymath and anarchist, dies in Moscow, aged 78. His principle scientific contribution was the book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, which offered a counterpoint to social Darwinism, arguing that cooperation was as much a factor in evolution as competition.

February 8, 1996 – President Bill Clinton signs the Communications Decency Act, an early attempt to regulate pornography on the internet. The Act was later struck down by the Supreme Court on free speech grounds in Reno v ACLU.

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February 7 in freethought history…

charleschiltonmooreFebruary 7, 1906 – Freethought publisher Charles Chilton Moore dies near Lexington, Kentucky, aged 68. He was a pastor when, as Moore himself told it, he invited a distant cousin to read and discuss with him a selection of books both for and against religion, in hopes of converting his cousin to Christianity through intellectual debate. In the end, the cousin embraced Christ and Moore became an “infidel.” He resigned his church position and began publishing the freethought newspaper the Blue Grass Blade. The Blade, although sporadically published, was a sensation in Lexington, and attracted subscribers from around the US. Moore railed against religious bigotry, political corruption, and argued for the abolition of the “liquor trade.” In 1899 he was convicted under the Comstock Act of publishing “obscene” material (namely, articles and letters concerning birth control and “free love”). During his months as a federal prisoner at the Ohio State Penitentiary, he was well-treated by the warden and his fellow inmates. Moore’s sentence was commuted by President William McKinley, and his return to Lexington was celebrated at banquets and parties.

February 7, 1901 – British rationalist Hector Hawton is born in Plymouth, Devon, England. He was editor of The Humanist for the Rationalist Press Association for many years, and wrote several nonfiction books, including Men without Gods, Philosophy for Pleasure, The Thinker’s Handbook and The Feast of Unreason. He died in 1975, aged 74.

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February 6 in freethought history…

February 6, 1843 – Charles Southwell is released from a British prison after serving a year for blasphemy. He was convicted based on an article criticizing the Bible, published in his periodical Oracle of Reason.

February 6, 1886 – The first issue of the Blue-Grass Blade, a freethought newspaper edited by Charles Chilton Moore, appeared in Lexington, Kentucky. The Blade attracted subscriptions from around the United States. After Moore’s death in 1906, the paper was published sporadically, finally ending in August 1910.

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February 5 in freethought history…

February 5, 1846 – Anarchist and atheist Johann Joseph Most is born in Augsburg, Bavaria. His upbringing was impoverished and traumatic–as a child he developed frostbite on his left cheek, which led to an infection and other complications. The resulting surgery left him so disfigured that throughout his adult life Most wore a long, thatchy beard to hide it. He espoused Marxist causes, and eventually embraced anarchism, even promoting “propaganda of the deed”; essentially a put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is brand of terrorism that emphasized violence and disruption over political action. Indeed, he literally wrote the book on bomb-making: for decades, his pamphlet “The Science of Revolutionary Warfare” was essential reading for violent malcontents. For his efforts, Most was imprisoned or expelled from Germany, France and the United Kingdom before emigrating to the United States, where he published and lectured, inspiring thousands of anarchists, including Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. (He later had a falling-out with Goldman and Berkman, which led to an infamous on-stage confrontation with Goldman, who attacked Most with a horsewhip.) Most also advocated atheism, publishing a pamphlet called “The God Pestilence.” He died in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1906, aged 60.

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February 4 in freethought history…

epicurusFebruary 4, 341 BCE – According to ancient sources, the Greek philosopher Epicurus is born on this date (10 Gamelion of the old Attic calendar). Although little of his written work survives, fragments of his proto-scientific treatise On Nature. Epicurus is also commonly attributed with the “trilemma” against the omnipotence and omnibenevolence of God that asks, “”Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

February 4, 1921 – Feminist Betty Friedan is born Betty Naomi Goldstein in Peoria, Illinois. She founded the National Organization for Women (NOW) and is the author of the influential manifesto The Feminine Mystique. Friedan described herself as an agnostic, and was one of the signers of the 1973 Humanist Manifesto II. She was named Humanist of the Year in 1975 by the American Humanist Association. Friedan died in 2006 on her 85th birthday.

February 4, 1954 – English activist Chapman Cohen dies in Brentwood, England, aged 85. Raised in a nonreligious Jewish family, Cohen became active in Britain’s National Secular Society, eventually serving as Vice President and later President.  He lectured widely, made frequent contributions to freethought periodicals, and published numerous pamphlets. Wrote Cohen: “Gods are fragile things, they may be killed by a whiff of science or a dose of common sense.”

February 4, 1971 – Canadian psychiatrist Brock Chisholm dies in Victoria, British Columbia. He was the first Director-General of the United Nations’ World Health Organization (WHO). The outspoken Chisholm, a secularist, ruffled feathers by suggesting that children should not be encouraged to believe in Santa Claus or the Bible. He was named Humanist of the Year in 1959 by the American Humanist Association.

February 4, 1987 – Carl Rogers, one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century, dies in San Diego, California, aged 85. The American Humanist Association named him Humanist of the Year in 1964.

February 4, 2014 – Bill Nye the Science Guy debates Young Earth Creationist Ken Ham at Ham’s Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, on the question, “Is creation a viable model of origins?” Nicknamed “Ham on Nye,” the event was attended by 900 people and viewed by hundreds of thousands via internet streaming. No official winner was declared, but while some on the science side criticized Nye for even participating in the debate, they universally agreed that Nye presented the better case.

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February 3 in freethought history…

ronaldreaganFebruary 3, 1983 – At the National Prayer Breakfast, President Ronald Reagan issued Proclamation 5018, declaring 1983 the Year of the Bible. Among other things, the Proclamation stated, “The Bible and its teachings helped form the basis for the Founding Fathers’ abiding belief in the inalienable rights of the individual, rights which they found implicit in the Bible’s teachings of the inherent worth and dignity of each individual. This same sense of man patterned the convictions of those who framed the English system of law inherited by our own Nation, as well as the ideals set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.” Reagan’s action was in response to Public Law 97-280, a joint resolution passed by the US Congress the previous year. The Proclamation has spawned attempts at copycat legislation a few times since, each time protested by secular groups.

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