Podcast #249 – The Faith of Christopher Hitchens

faithofhitchensWe discuss Larry Alex Taunton’s new book The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist (available in hardcover, as an audiobook, or for Kindle). In this memoir, Taunton (a Birmingham, Alabama based minister and founder of the Fixed Point Foundation) recounts the friendship that developed between himself and Christopher Hitchens. Considerable controversy has arisen over Taunton’s insinuation that Hitchens, while he had no deathbed conversion, may have re-evaluated religion (if not Christianity) during his final months.

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May 23 in freethought history…

carllinnaeusMay 23, 1707 – Biologist and zoologist Carl Linnaeus is born in Råshult, Sweden. Known as the father of modern taxonomy, he pioneered the system of organizing (and naming via binomial nomenclature) all living creatures. Linnaeus created some controversy by grouping human beings and monkeys in the same category because of their obvious similarities. In response to pious protests, Linnaeus responded that theologians “decree that man has a soul and that the animals are mere [automatons], but I believe they would be better advised that animals have a soul and that the difference is of nobility.” He died in 1778, aged 70.

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May 22 in freethought history…

May 22, 2013 – Newly elected Pope Francis delivers a homily, in which he seems to imply that atheists may go to Heaven: “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”

May 22, 2014 – An advertisement by the Freedom from Religion Foundation, featuring Ron Reagan (son of the late President Ronald Reagain) airs during Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report. He urges citizens to support FFRF and separation of church and state, capping his 30-second pitch by saying, “Ron Reagan. Lifelong atheist. Not afraid of burning in hell.”

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May 21 in freethought history…

May 21, 1921 – Nuclear scientist, Soviet dissident and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov is born in Moscow. He turned from designing nuclear weapons for the USSR to opposing their proliferation. He also advocated for human rights, including freedom of speech, for which he was persecuted. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975 and was named Humanist of the Year in 1980 by the American Humanist Association.

May 21, 1957 – Political scientist and philosopher Arthur F. Bentley dies in Paoli, Indiana, aged 86. He was named Humanist of the Year in 1953 by the American Humanist Association.

May 21, 2005 – The independent documentary The God Who Wasn’t There (written, directed, produced and narrated by Brian Flemming) is released. The film–which questions the existence even of a historical Jesus–features interviews with Sam Harris, Richard Carrier, Robert M. Price and others. Some praised the film for its bold critique of Christianity, while other criticized it for sloppy logic and poorly supported assertions.

May 21, 2013 – Arizona legislator Juan Mendez offers the first secular invocation before a session of the State House of Representatives. Republican legislator’s objected, offering (an unprecedented) second prayer for the day, one aimed at God.

May 21, 2013 – CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer concludes a live interview with Rebecca Vitsmun, survivor of a devestating tornado that killed 24 people in Moore, Oklahoma, by asking, “I guess you gotta thank the Lord, right? Do you thank the Lord?” Vitsmun awkwardly replied, “I’m actually an atheist,” but quickly added, “I don’t blame anybody for thankin’ the Lord.” Atheists around the country subsequently raised well over $100,000 in relief for the Vitsmun family.

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May 20 in freethought history…

ronreaganMay 20, 1958 – Radio talk show host and political commentator Ron Reagan is born in Los Angeles, California. He is best known for the fact that his liberal political views contrasted sharply with the conservatism of his parents, the late President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan. He outed himself as an atheist at twelve and has generally applied that label to himself since. In 2014 he shot a television ad for the Freedom for Religion Foundation, describing himself as “an unabashed atheist” and urged citizens to support separation of church and state.

May 20, 2002 – Paleontologist, evolutionary biologist and historian of science Stephen Jay Gould dies in New York City, aged 60. A prolific writer, he produced over twenty books plus hundreds of essays and peer-reviewed articles. He is perhaps most famous for coining the terms “non-overlapping magisteria” (a still-controversial assertion that science and religion address separate issues and need not be in conflict) and (with colleague Niles Eldredge) “punctuated equilibrium” (the idea that speciation can be characterized as long periods of stasis interrupted by rapid periods of mutation). Raised Jewish, Gould doubted the existence of the conventional gods, saying that Huxley’s agnosticism toward a deity was “the only honorable position because we really cannot know.”

May 20, 2010 – Protestors worldwide stage Everybody Draw M0hammad Day, organized in reaction to death threats against Trey Parker and Matt Stone, whose TV show South Park had recently included a storyline involving depictions of the Prophet Mohammed. The event sparked considerable controversy between advocates of unfettered free speech and those who simply found it disrespectful to Muslims (who generally observe a prohibition against images of the Prophet). The creator of the original cartoon proposing Everybody Draw Mohammad Day subsequently received death threats, and was forced to go into hiding, where she remained as late as 2015.

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May 19 in freethought history…

malleusMay 19, 1487 – The Faculty of Theology of the University of Cologne issues a unanimous approbation of the recently published book Malleus maleficarum (“Hammer of the Witches”), which insisted on the reality of witchcraft, described its supposed practices, and offered guidance on the interrogation and prosecution of witches. The book was quickly condemned by the Roman Catholic Church (which viewed “witchcraft” more as a fraud than an actual power); nonetheless, the book enjoyed numerous publications, deeply influenced popular superstitions, and caused the torture and deaths of countless innocent victims.


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May 18 in freethought history…

bertrandrussellMay 18, 1872 – Philosopher and activist Bertrand Russell is born in Trellech, Wales. Aside from his career contributions to philosophy, mathematics, linguistics and computer science, he was a lifelong critic of war and an advocate for progressive social causes. He was, however, no idealist: his advocacy for socialism did not prevent him from recognizing the failed Soviet experiment, and his pacifism did not blind him to the necessity of armed opposition to the civilizational threat of Hitler and Nazi Germany. He was the author of dozens of books and hundreds of essays, possibly best known to the general public for the title essay in his collection Why I Am Not a Christian. Russell described himself as both an agnostic and an atheist, and was critical of religion, saying, “You find as you look around the world that every single bit of progress in humane feeling, every improvement in the criminal law, every step toward the diminution of war, every step toward better treatment of the colored races, or every mitigation of slavery, every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organized churches of the world. I say quite deliberately that the Christian religion, as organized in its churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world.” Russell died in 1970, aged 97.

May 18, 1896 – Canadian psychiatrist Brock Chisholm is born in Oakville, Ontario. 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. Chisholm died in 1971, aged 74.

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May 17 in freethought history…

bhaMay 17, 1963 – The British Humanist Association is founded. It was formed from the Union of Ethical Societies, which was itself founded in 1896.

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May 16 in freethought history…

asaphiliprandolphMay 16, 1979 – African-American civil rights activist Asa Philip Randolph dies in New York City, aged 90. Randolph was a key figure in the fight to end discrimination in the defense industry and the US military, and he was head of the 1963 March on Washington, during which Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Randolph generally identified as an atheist, and was named Humanist of the Year in 1970 by the American Humanist Association.

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May 15 in freethought history…

felixadlerMay 15, 1876 – Felix Adler delivers a “Founding Address” at the first gathering of what would become the New York Society for Ethical Culture. He concluded his speech by saying, “The time calls for action. Up, then, and let us do our part faithfully and well. And oh, friends, our children’s children will hold our memories dearer for the work which we begin this hour.” In the intervening years, Adler’s vision has expanded to the American Ethical Union, which includes 25 Ethical Societies in the United States.

May 15, 1946 – English secularist publisher and activist Charles Albert Watts dies, aged 87. He was the son of prominent secularists Charles Watts and Kate Eunice Watts. In 1885, he founded Watts’s Literary Guide, which would become New Humanist magazine, now published quarterly. He also founded what would become the Rationalist Press Association.

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