Humanist Freethinkers

Humanist Freethinker: Pete Seeger

 

From FFRF

On this date in 1919, Peter Seeger was born in Manhattan to musicologist Charles Seeger and concert violinist, Constance de Dyver Edson Seeger. Best known for his legendary contributions to folk music, he wrote such songs as “If I Had A Hammer” and the anti-war song “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” and popularized the German folk song, “Die Gedanken Sind Frei,” which celebrates freedom of thought. He was committed to social activism throughout his entire life, lending his music and his voice to the civil rights movement, anti-war efforts, and most recently, the environment.

Seeger was exposed to folk music early on, as his father and stepmother collected and transcribed rural American folk music. He attended Harvard University with the intention of becoming a journalist, but dropped out after two years and moved to New York City. He began to work with other folk performers and his career was launched.

At 20, Seeger married Toshi-Aline Öta with whom he had four children and eight grandchildren. Due to his affiliation with the Communist Party in the 1940s, he was summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953 and indicted for contempt of Congress in 1957, though the indictment was overturned a year later. In his testimony, he said, “I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.”

Seeger continued to write music and perform around the world into the 21st century. In 1972 he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993. In 1994 he was honored by the Kennedy Center. He was also awarded the National Medal of Arts that same year. In 1996 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame under the category of Early Influences.

When asked about his religious views in a Beliefnet interview (March 16, 2007) Seeger described himself as a pantheist, saying, “I feel most spiritual when I’m out in the woods. I feel part of nature. Or looking up at the stars. [I used to say] I was an atheist. Now I say, it’s all according to your definition of God.” D. 2014

Give Me That Old Time Religion

Give me that old time religion

Give me that old time religion

Give me that old time religion

It’s good enough for me.

 

We will pray with Aphrodite,

We will pray with Aphrodite,

She wears that see-through nightie,

And it’s good enough for me.

 

We will pray with Zarathustra,

We’ll pray just like we use ta,

I’m a Zarathustra booster,

And it’s good enough for me.

 

We will pray with those Egyptians,

Build pyramids to put our crypts in,

Cover subways with inscriptions,

And it’s good enough for me.

 

We will pray with those old druids,

They drink fermented fluids,

Waltzing naked though the woo-ids,

And it’s good enough for me.

 

We do dances to bring water,

Prepare animals for slaughter,

Sacrifice our sons and daughters,

And it’s good enough for me.

 

I’ll arise at early morning,

When my Lord gives me the warning,

That the solar age is dawning,

And it’s good enough for me

-Pete Seeger’s rewriting of the lyrics to Give Me That Old Time Religion

Compiled by Dayna Long

 

“I leaf through [the bible] quite often–if only to shake my head in disgust. I quote Leviticus to people who think that every word in the Bible is absolutely gospel and you need to obey every word. In Leviticus it says you must kill a bull if you’re going to really love God. And you must kill it in a certain way, or else you will be killed.”

—-Seeger, interview, Beliefnet, March 16, 2007.

~~

Humanist Freethinker: Terry Pratchett

 

From FFRF

On this date in 1948, Terence (Terry) David John Pratchett was born in Buckinghamshire, England. He enjoyed reading, especially science fiction, fantasy, myth and ancient history. He has said that from a young age he was skeptical about Christianity and came to the conclusion that there was no god.

He has won many awards, including the Carnegie Medal for The Amazing Maurice and Educated Rodents (2001), and was knighted in 2009 for his services to literature. Several of his books have been adapted as movies for television. Pratchett’s first novel, Carpet People, a children’s fantasy, was published in 1971. Pratchett is best known for his “Discworld” novels, a fantasy series tied together not by characters or plot but by the setting of the Discworld, a flat world sitting on the backs of four elephants standing on the back of a giant turtle swimming through space.

The first book in this series, The Color of Magic, a fantasy adventure starring a hapless wizard parodying many conventions of the genre, was published in 1983, and the thirty-eighth, I Shall Wear Midnight, a coming-of-age story featuring a strong young witch battling prejudice, was published in 2010. The Discworld, like many fantasy worlds, features gods who occasionally interfere directly in events or feature as characters in some way.

In 2007, Pratchett was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, but has continued to write and publish new books, albeit at a slower pace. He has made many public statements in support of the right to die, and talks openly about his Alzheimer’s experience, including his wish to take his own life before his disease is critical. He was knighted in 2009.

Throughout his work, Pratchett questions religion in many different ways, pointing out religious hypocrisy while at the same time illustrating how different the world would be if God, or any gods, were real. The 1992 Discworld novel Small Gods shows the god Om visiting his worshipers, and being deeply dissatisfied with the direction in which his church has gone. Good Omens (1990), co-written with fellow British fantasy author Neil Gaiman, deals with Christian mythology and the book of Revelations. It begins with an angel and a demon conversing outside the Garden of Eden and questioning God’s motives regarding the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It ends with the ten-year-old antichrist, Adam, contemplating the raid of a neighbor’s orchard and thinking, “There never was an apple . . . that wasn’t worth the trouble you got into for eating it.”

Pratchett died at his home on the morning of 12 March 2015 from Alzheimer’s, according to his publisher.

Pratchett said, “I read the Old Testament all the way through when I was about 13 and was horrified” (The Daily Mail, U.K., June 21, 2008).

“There is a rumor going around that I have found God. I think this is unlikely because I have enough difficulty finding my keys, and there is empirical evidence that they exist.”

—Sir Terry Pratchett, The Daily Mail (U.K.), June 21, 2008

~~

Humanist Freethinker: Sam Harris

 

Sam Harris

From FFRF

On this date in 1967, author and neuroscientist Samuel Benjamin Harris, a key figure in the 21st century freethought movement, was born in Los Angeles, the son of TV producer and writer Susan (Spivak) Harris and actor Berkeley Harris, who divorced when Sam was 2. He grew up in his mother’s secular household and enrolled at Stanford University to study philosophy but left during his sophomore year to study Eastern religions and meditation in India.

He eventually returned to Stanford and graduated in 2000. He started writing his first book, The End of Faith, after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001. It received the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction in 2005 and was followed by his Letter to a Christian Nation in 2006.

Harris married in 2004 and has two daughters with his wife Annaka, an author and science editor. They co-founded the nonprofit Project Reason in 2007. He received a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience in 2009 from UCLA. Five of his books are New York Times bestsellers. His latest, as of this writing, are Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion (2014) and Islam and the Future of Tolerance (with British activist Maajid Nawaz, 2015).

Harris is generally considered a member of the “Four Horsemen of New Atheism” along with Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens. The name comes from the title of a video they made during a two-hour unmoderated discussion at Hitchens’ home on Sept. 30, 2007.

Journalist Simon Hooper described New Atheism as “the view that superstition, religion and irrationalism should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises in government, education and politics.” In a March 2010 piece in Free Inquiry titled “Why I Don’t Believe in the New Atheism,” humanist Tom Flynn argued that there was no such movement, that the only thing new was that books critical of religion were being published by mainstream houses and were selling in the millions.

Harris himself has no use for the term or for the atheist label. In a 2007 speech he said that while he had become “one of the public voices of atheism, I never thought of myself as an atheist before being inducted to speak as one. I didn’t even use the term in The End of Faith, which remains my most substantial criticism of religion. And, as I argued briefly in Letter to a Christian Nation, I think that ‘atheist’ is a term that we do not need, in the same way that we don’t need a word for someone who rejects astrology. We simply do not call people ‘non-astrologers.’ All we need are words like ‘reason’ and ‘evidence’ and ‘common sense’ and ‘bullshit’ to put spiritualists in their place, and so it could be with religion.”

Christopher Michel photo (cropped), Creative Commons 4.0

“It is time that we admitted that faith is nothing more than the license religious people give one another to keep believing when reasons fail.”

—”Letter to a Christian Nation” (Knopf, Sept. 19, 2006)

~~

Humanist Freethinker: Eric Idle

 

From Freedom From Religion Foundation

On this date in 1943, Eric Idle was born in the North of England. He attended Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he was president of Footlights Revue, and graduated in 1965. He worked in several television comedies, including “The Frost Report.” He teamed up with Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, Graham Chapman and John Cleese for the enduring TV classic, “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” (1969 – 1974). The cast teamed up for several irreverent movies, including “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (1975), which spoofed religion and the Crusades. “The Life of Brian” (1979) depicts what happens when a peasant, Brian, unfortunately gets mistaken for Jesus. Brian and other crucifix victims (including Idle) memorably end the film singing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” “The Meaning of Life” (1983) contains Idle’s signature “Galaxy Song,” reminding humans of their insignificance. Idle has appeared in many other comedies, including “Nuns on the Run” (1990) and frequently tours the country with his revues.

The Lord God Made Them All

All things dull and ugly
All creatures short and squat
All things rude and nasty
The Lord God made the lot.

Each little snake that poisons
Each little wasp that stings
He made their brutish venom
He made their horrid wings.

All things sick and cancerous
All evil great and small,
All things foul and dangerous
The Lord God made them all.

Each nasty little hornet
Each beastly little squid
Who made the spiky urchin?
Who made the sharks? He did!

All things scabbed and ulcerous
All pox both great and small
Putrid, foul and gangrenous
The Lord God made them all.

—Composed by Eric Idle, sung by Monty Python team

Oh, Lord, Please Don’t Burn Us

“O Lord, please don’t burn us.
Don’t grill or toast your flock.
Don’t put us on the barbecue
Or simmer us in stock.
Don’t braise or bake or boil us
Or stir-fry us in a wok

Oh, please don’t lightly poach us
Or baste us with hot fat.
Don’t fricassee or roast us
Or boil us in a vat,
And please don’t stick thy servants, Lord,
In a Rotissomat”

—Composed by Eric Idle and John Du Prez, authored by Graham Chapman and John Cleese
~~

Humanist Freethinker: Luther Burbank

 

From FFRF

On this date in 1849, Luther Burbank was born in Massachusetts. He found fame early, when he single-handedly saved U.S. potato crops from the deadly blight by cultivating russet potatoes. The inventor, who ran Burbank’s Experimental Farms in Santa Rosa, Calif., produced more than 800 new varieties of fruits and plants, such as the Shasta daisy. He was recognized for his plant breeding by an Act of Congress.

The beloved naturalist was one of Robert Ingersoll‘s greatest fans. Burbank believed, “Children are the greatest sufferers from outgrown theologies.” Shaken by the Scopes trial, Burbank wrote: “And to think of this great country in danger of being dominated by people ignorant enough to take a few ancient Babylonian legends as the canons of modern culture. Our scientific men are paying for their failure to speak out earlier. There is no use now talking evolution to these people. Their ears are stuffed with Genesis.”

In 1926, an interview about his freethought views appeared in the San Francisco Bulletin, which headlined it: “I’m an Infidel, Declares Burbank, Casting Doubt on Soul Immortality Theory.” The article was reprinted around the world, creating shockwaves. Burbank was inundated with mostly critical letters, which he felt he had to reply to personally.

Friend and later biographer, Wilbur Hale, attributed Burbank’s hastened death to the exertion of his replies: “He died, not a martyr to truth, but a victim of the fatuity of blasting dogged falsehood.” A crowd estimated at 100,000 came to Luther’s memorial, and heard the openly atheistic and ringing tribute by Judge Lindsay of Denver, Colorado. California still celebrates Luther Burbank’s birthday as Arbor Day, planting trees in his memory. D. 1926.

“. . . as a scientist, I can not help feeling that all religions are on a tottering foundation. None is perfect or inspired.

The idea that a good God would send people to a burning hell is utterly damnable to me. I don’t want to have anything to do with such a God.

I am an infidel today.” —Luther Burbank, interview in San Francisco Bulletin, Jan. 22, 1926
~~

Humanist Freethinker: Thomas Paine

 

From Britannica

Thomas Paine, (born January 29, 1737, Thetford, Norfolk, England—died June 8, 1809, New York, New York, U.S.), English-American writer and political pamphleteer whose Common Sense pamphlet and Crisis papers were important influences on the American Revolution. Other works that contributed to his reputation as one of the greatest political propagandists in history were Rights of Man, a defense of the French Revolution and of republican principles; and The Age of Reason, an exposition of the place of religion in society.
 Life In England And AmericaPaine was born of a Quaker father and an Anglican mother. His formal education was meagre, just enough to enable him to master reading, writing, and arithmetic. At 13 he began work with his father as a corset maker and then tried various other occupations unsuccessfully, finally becoming an officer of the excise. His duties were to hunt for smugglers and collect the excise taxes on liquor and tobacco. The pay was insufficient to cover living costs, but he used part of his earnings to purchase books and scientific apparatus.

Paine’s life in England was marked by repeated failures. He had two brief marriages. He was unsuccessful or unhappy in every job he tried. He was dismissed from the excise office after he published a strong argument in 1772 for a raise in pay as the only way to end corruption in the service. Just when his situation appeared hopeless, he met Benjamin Franklin in London, who advised him to seek his fortune in America and gave him letters of introduction (including one to Franklin’s son-in-law, Richard Bache).

Paine arrived in Philadelphia on November 30, 1774. Bache introduced him to Robert Aitkin, whose Pennsylvania Magazine Paine helped found and edit for 18 months. In addition Paine published numerous articles and some poetry, anonymously or under pseudonyms. One such article was “African Slavery in America,” a scathing denunciation of the African slave trade, which he signed “Justice and Humanity.”

Paine had arrived in America when the conflict between the colonists and England was reaching its height. After blood was spilled at the Battles of Lexington and Concord, April 19, 1775, Paine argued that the cause of America should be not just a revolt against taxation but a demand for independence. He put this idea into Common Sense, which came off the press on January 10, 1776. The 50-page pamphlet sold more than 500,000 copies within a few months. More than any other single publication, Common Sense paved the way for the Declaration of Independence, unanimously ratified on July 4, 1776.

During the war that followed, Paine served as volunteer aide-de-camp to Gen. Nathanael Greene. His great contribution to the patriot cause was the 16 “Crisis” papers issued between 1776 and 1783, each one signed Common Sense. “The American Crisis. Number I,” published on December 19, 1776, when George Washington’s army was on the verge of disintegration, so moved Washington that he ordered it read to all the troops at Valley Forge. Its opening is among the most stirring passages in the literature of the American Revolution:

These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us—that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: It is dearness only that gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated. Britain, with an army to enforce her tyranny, has declared that she has a right not only to tax but “to bind us in all cases whatsoever,” and if being bound in that manner is not slavery, then is there not such a thing as slavery upon earth. Even the expression is impious, for so unlimited a power can belong only to God.

This paper, combined with the subsequent victory of Washington’s army in the Battle of Trenton later in the month, had the probable effect of inspiring many soldiers, whose term of service would expire January 1, to reenlist.

In 1777 Congress appointed Paine secretary to the Committee for Foreign Affairs. He held the post until early in 1779, when he became involved in a controversy with Silas Deane, a member of the Continental Congress, whom Paine accused of seeking to profit personally from French aid to the United States. But in revealing Deane’s machinations, Paine was forced to quote from secret documents to which he had access as secretary of the Committee for Foreign Affairs. As a result, despite the truth of his accusations, he was forced to resign his post.

Paine’s desperate need of employment was relieved when he was appointed clerk of the General Assembly of Pennsylvania on November 2, 1779. In this capacity he had frequent opportunity to observe that American troops were at the end of their patience because of lack of pay and scarcity of supplies. Paine took $500 from his salary and started a subscription for the relief of the soldiers. In 1781, pursuing the same goal, he accompanied John Laurens to France. The money, clothing, and ammunition they brought back with them were important to the final success of the Revolution. Paine also appealed to the separate states to cooperate for the well-being of the entire nation. In “Public Good” (1780) he included a call for a national convention to remedy the ineffectual Articles of Confederation and establish a strong central government under “a continental constitution.”

At the end of the American Revolution, Paine again found himself poverty-stricken. His patriotic writings had sold by the hundreds of thousands, but he had refused to accept any profits in order that cheap editions might be widely circulated. In a petition to Congress endorsed by Washington, he pleaded for financial assistance. It was buried by Paine’s opponents in Congress, but Pennsylvania gave him £500 and New York a farm in New Rochelle. Here Paine devoted his time to inventions, concentrating on an iron bridge without piers and a smokeless candle.

In Europe: Rights Of ManIn April 1787 Paine left for Europe to promote his plan to build a single-arch bridge across the wide Schuylkill River near Philadelphia. But in England he was soon diverted from his engineering project. In December 1789 he published anonymously a warning against the attempt of Prime Minister William Pitt to involve England in a war with France over the Dutch Republic, reminding the British people that war had “but one thing certain and that is increase of taxes.” But it was the French Revolution that now filled Paine’s thoughts. He was enraged by Edmund Burke’s attack on the uprising of the French people in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, and, though Paine admired Burke’s stand in favour of the American Revolution, he rushed into print with his celebrated answer, Rights of Man (March 13, 1791). The book immediately created a sensation. At least eight editions were published in 1791, and the work was quickly reprinted in the U.S., where it was widely distributed by the Jeffersonian societies. When Burke replied, Paine came back with Rights of Man, Part II, published on February 17, 1792.

What began as a defense of the French Revolution evolved into an analysis of the basic reasons for discontent in European society and a remedy for the evils of arbitrary government, poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, and war. Paine spoke out effectively in favour of republicanism as against monarchy and went on to outline a plan for popular education, relief of the poor, pensions for aged people, and public works for the unemployed, all to be financed by the levying of a progressive income tax. To the ruling class Paine’s proposals spelled “bloody revolution,” and the government ordered the book banned and the publisher jailed. Paine himself was indicted for treason, and an order went out for his arrest. But he was en route to France, having been elected to a seat in the National Convention, before the order for his arrest could be delivered. Paine was tried in absentia, found guilty of seditious libel, and declared an outlaw, and Rights of Man was ordered permanently suppressed.

The first years that he spent in France formed a curious episode in his life. He was enthusiastically received, but, because he knew little French, translations of his speeches had to be read for him. In France Paine hailed the abolition of the monarchy but deplored the terror against the royalists and fought unsuccessfully to save the life of King Louis XVI, favouring banishment rather than execution, which he argued would alienate American sympathy. He was to pay for his efforts to save the king’s life when the radicals under Maximilien Robespierretook power. Paine was imprisoned from December 28, 1793, to November 4, 1794, when, with the fall of Robespierre, he was released and, though seriously ill, readmitted to the National Convention.

While in prison, the first part of Paine’s Age of Reason was published (1794), and it was followed by Part II after his release (1796). Although Paine made it clear that he believed in a Supreme Being and, as a Deist, opposed only organized religion, the work won him a reputation as an atheist among the orthodox. The publication of his last great pamphlet, Agrarian Justice (1797), with its attack on inequalities in property ownership, added to his many enemies in establishment circles.

Paine remained in France until September 1, 1802, when he sailed for the United States. He quickly discovered that his services to the country had been all but forgotten and that he was widely regarded only as the world’s greatest infidel. Despite his poverty and his physical condition, worsened by occasional drunkenness, Paine continued his attacks on privilege and religious superstitions. He died in New York City in 1809 and was buried in New Rochelle on the farm given to him by the state of New York as a reward for his Revolutionary writings. Ten years later, William Cobbett, the political journalist, exhumed the bones and took them to England, where he hoped to give Paine a funeral worthy of his great contributions to humanity. But the plan backfired, and the bones were lost, never to be recovered.

LegacyAt Paine’s death most U.S. newspapers reprinted the obituary notice from the New York Citizen,which read in part: “He had lived long, did some good and much harm.” This remained the verdict of history for more than a century following his death, but the tide has turned: on January 30, 1937, The Times of London referred to him as “the English Voltaire,” and on May 18, 1952, Paine’s bust was placed in the New York University Hall of Fame.
~~