January 1,Â 1417Â – In January 1417 (exact date uncertain), Italian scholar Poggio Bracciolini discovers, in a German monastery, 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.
January 1, 1802 – President Thomas JeffersonÂ writes aÂ brief but favorable reply to a letter from the Danbury Baptists,Â in which they had complained about religious persecutionÂ in their home state of Connecticut. (Recall that at that time, many states–but not the federal government–still maintained official religions, and regulated or persecuted minority and unofficial religions.) Recognizing the limitations placed on the office of president, Jefferson sought to allay fears that the federal government might not take the Constitutional prohibition against official religions and religious tests for office, writing:Â Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.
January 1, 1936 – Biologist Oscar Riddle (best known for his research into the pituitary gland) comesÂ to national attentionÂ in 1936 when, as a vice president of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, he delivered a speech titled â€œThe Confusion of Tongues,â€ in which he praised the rapid expansionÂ of biological knowledge, criticized superstition in general,Â and condemned resistance in public schools to the teaching of evolution. His speech was covered by theÂ New York TimesÂ and reprinted in the journalÂ Science.
January 1, 1959 – French writer/philosopher Michel Onfray isÂ born in Chambois, France. AnÂ outspoken advocate for hedonism, atheism and anarchism, he is best known in the English-speaking world for his 2005 book Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
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