Freethought of the Day

Would you like to start your day on a freethought note? "Freethought of the Day" is a daily freethought calendar brought to you courtesy of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, highlighting birthdates, quotes, and other historic tidbits.

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Beatrice Webb

Beatrice Webb

On this date in 1858, Beatrice Webb (née Beatrice Potter) was born in Gloucestershire, England. The eighth of nine sisters, Potter's mother resented her for not having been born a boy. Like most Victorian girls, Potter received a poor education in spite of her father's wealthy career as a timber entrepreneur. Unusually though, her father, unlike most Victorian men, believed in the intellectual equality, if not superiority of women. As a teenager, with an increasingly inquisitive mind, Potter read every history, economy and philosophy book within reach and began to rebel against her privileged life. She did not seek comfort in religion, like most English elites of the time, but instead sought it in science. Herbert Spencer, a close friend of the Potter family, intrigued Potter with his "scientific method," which she believed could be applied to solve society's social problems. As a young adult, Potter conducted her own research, contrasting poverty in London to poverty in rural areas. She was one of the first researchers to argue that poverty has underlying causes, instead of being a deserved state. By 1885, Potter's research, including on the English cooperative movement and housing projects for the poor, inspired her to break with capitalism and openly advocate socialism for the rest of her life. The success of Potter's research was her fearless commitment to disguise herself as one of her subjects (often poor workers) and immerse herself in their lifestyle.

In 1890, Potter needed historical information for a then-upcoming book on London sweatshops and was referred to socialist and reformist Sidney Webb. Webb fell in love with her, but she rejected his proposals for marriage until it became apparent that they were deeply intellectually compatible. They married in 1892, and wrote their first of many books together, The History of Trade Unionism (1894). Personal friend H.G. Wells once described the Webbs as "the most formidable and distinguished couple conceivable" (quoted in Margaret Drabble, ed., Oxford Companion to English Literature, 1995). The Webbs' influence in British government is still felt in London politics today. Beatrice was among the first to conceive of a "national health plan," the basis for today's British National Health Service. She also apprenticed for Charles Booth, helping him write the influential study The Life and Labour of the People in London (1902-1903). In opposition to Britain's 1934 Poor Law, the Webbs wrote a minority report, which was considered a revolutionary document, responsible for the foundation of Britain's social services system. After joining the Fabian Society in the 1890s, the Webbs socialized with other freethinkers, including Virginia Woolf, George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell and Annie Besant. Along with Shaw and Graham Wallas, the Webbs founded The London School of Economics and Political Science, in 1895, to train social scientists to promote "the betterment of society" (LSE website). Beatrice and Sidney both held government posts throughout their later years. Beatrice especially gained renown when her personal diaries were first published in 1926. Together, the Webbs published around 500 books, articles, pamphlets and edited volumes. They are the only married couple interred at Westminster Abbey. D. 1943.

“That part of the Englishman's nature which has found gratification in religion is now drifting into political life.”

—Beatrice Webb, quoted in David Tribe, 100 Years of Freethought, 1967

Compiled by Bonnie Gutsch

© Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.

Lord Byron

Lord Byron

On this date in 1788, poet George Gordon, Lord Byron was born in London. Byron became the toast of London after writing Childe Harold. He also wrote Don Juan, The Prisoner of Chillon and Cain, which was denounced from the pulpits. A classical Deist, Byron refused to take the oath when seated in Parliament. He died of malaria, fighting for Greek freedom. Eulogized as a "soldier-poet of freedom," the tempestuous Byron had so scandalized society that he was refused burial at Westminster Abbey. D. 1824.

Even Gods must yield -
      Religions take their turn:
'Twas Jove's - 'tis Mahomet's -
      and other Creeds
Will rise with other years, till
      Man shall learn
Vainly his incense soars, his
      victim bleeds;
Poor child of Doubt and Death,
      whose hope is built on reeds.

—Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Canto Two (1811)

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

© Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

On this date in 1729, dramatist and critic Gotthold Ephraim Lessing was born in Saxony, Germany. Although pressured by his family to go into the ministry, Lessing studied medicine and philosophy at Leipzig University instead. By 1750, he had become a rationalist. He wrote the play "Miss Sara Sampson" in 1755. "Minna von Barnhelm" (1767) is considered a classic comedy. "Nathan der Weise" [Nathan the Wise] (1779) "embodies his ripe Rationalism," according to Joseph McCabe (A Dictionary of Modern Rationalists, 1920). A deist and admirer of Spinoza, Lessing is credited with initiating biblical criticism in the journal he edited, Wolfenbuttel Fragments. D. 1781.

“ . . . [the Crusades], which in their origin were a political stratagem of the popes, developed into the most inhuman persecutions of which Christian superstition has ever made itself guilty: the true religion had then the most and the bloodiest Ismenors. ”

—Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Hamburgische Dramaturgie (1767-1769), cited in Who's Who in Hell edited by Warren Allen Smith

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

© Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.

Johan August Strindberg

Johan August Strindberg

On this date in 1849, dramatist, novelist and writer Johan August Strindberg, one of nine children, was born in Stockholm, Sweden. His childhood was poor, as demonstrated by the title of his autobiography, The Son of a Servant (1886). He attended Upsala University, and, while working at the Royal Library in Stockholm, wrote a popular novel, Roda rummet (1879), which made him a national celebrity. His religiously satiric story, Det nya riket (1882), created such a ruckus he had to leave the country. When he returned, he became an active leader with the Swedish Rationalists. He corresponded with Nietzsche and was an admirer of Edgar Allan Poe. A passage with an unorthodox description of the Last Supper in his collection of his stories, Giftas (1884), was censored as anti-Christian, and Strindberg was charged with blasphemy. Although in Switzerland at the time, Strindberg returned to Sweden to face charges, and was acquitted. He suffered a mental breakdown, which he and his work never really recovered from, in the late 1890s, although he remained active in theatre. The author of more than 70 plays, he is considered an important influence to modern playwrights. D. 1912.

“Reason, too, was sin; the greatest of all sins, for it questioned God’s very existence, tried to understand what was not meant to be understood. Why it was not meant to be understood was not explained; probably it was because if it had been understood the fraud would have been discovered.”

—Johan August Strindberg, Married (Giftas), 1884.

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor and Sabrina Gaylor

© Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.

Roe v. Wade Issued

Roe v. Wade Issued

“This right of privacy, whether it be founded in the Fourteenth Amendment's concept of personal liberty and restrictions upon state action, as we feel it is, or, as the District Court determined, in the Ninth Amendment's reservation of rights to the people, is broad enough to encompass a woman's decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy. The detriment that the State would impose upon the pregnant woman by denying this choice altogether is apparent. Specific and direct harm medically diagnosable even in early pregnancy may be involved. Maternity, or additional offspring, may force upon the woman a distressful life and future. Psychological harm may be imminent. Mental and physical health may be taxed by child care. There is also the distress, for all concerned, associated with the unwanted child, and there is the problem of bringing a child into a family already unable, psychologically and otherwise, to care for it. In other cases, as in this one, the additional difficulties and continuing stigma of unwed motherhood may be involved. All these are factors the woman and her responsible physician necessarily will consider in consultation.”

—Justice Blackmun, for the majority, Roe v. Wade

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

© Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.

Freethought of the Day

Would you like to start your day on a freethought note? "Freethought of the Day" is a daily freethought calendar brought to you courtesy of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, highlighting birthdates, quotes, and other historic tidbits.

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