March 7 in freethought history…

anthonycomstockMarch 7, 1844 - Anti-obscenity crusader Anthony Comstock is born in New Haven, Connecticut. His lifelong obsession with the morality of others first evidenced in his complaints while serving in the Civil War against fellow soldiers who swore. Comstock founded the fantastically named New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (a punk rock band name ripe for the picking), and successfully lobbied Congress to pass what came to be known as the Comstock Act, which made it a federal crime to send “obscene, lewd or lascivious material” through the mail. The definition of such material was subject to broad interpretation, leading to prosecution of those who published information about human sexuality, birth control or even news involving the sexual misdeeds of prominent figures. Comstock actually bragged that he had driven 15 people to suicide (including Ida Craddock, a women’s rights advocate who committed suicide rather than endure federal imprisonment). Other victims of “comstockery” (an actual word since 1895) were playwright George Bernard Shaw, freethought publisher D. M. Bennett, atheist anarchist Emma Goldman and birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger. The Comstock Act has outlived its namesake: it is still in effect, albeit its power has been greatly attenuated due to court rulings and changes in public perceptions of obscenity. Comstock died in 1915, aged 71.

March 7, 1849 – Botanical pioneer Luther Burbank, who developed over 800 new strains of fruits, flowers, vegetables and other plants, is born in Lancaster, Massachussetts. Burbank was widely revered for his creations during his lifetime. His only negative experience with the public came as a result of an interview he gave shortly before his death in 1926, in which he declared “I am an infidel today. I do not believe what has been served to me to believe. I am a doubter, a questioner, a skeptic. When it can be proved to me that there is immortality, that there is resurrection beyond the gates of death, then will I believe. Until then, no.” Burbank died in 1926, aged 76.

March 7, 2000 – British anarchist and atheist activist Nicholas Walter dies, aged 65. He was heavily involved in social and political causes, perhaps most notably as decade-long editor of New Humanist for the Rationalist Press Association, and as VP of the National Secular Society. In the 1980s, Walter was vehement in his support for Salman Rushdie (after the author of The Satanic Verses came under a death threat from radical Islamists), and worked to have the UK’s blasphemy laws reformed.

March 7, 2013 – Bangladeshi blogger Saniur Rahman (who had written articles critical of Islamist activities) survives a stabbing attack in Dhaka. He is one of several outspoken secular activists who have been injured or killed by extremists in recent years.

March 7, 2014 – The Saudi Interior Ministry issues a series of regulations for the implementation of Royal Decree 44, which criminalized participating in terrorist activities outside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Although the regulations ostensibly target terrorist organizations, Article 1–again, Article 1!–criminalizes “calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based.” With allies like these, who needs enemies?

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