On this date in 1842, Ambrose Bierce was born in Ohio, and left home at 15 to work as a "printer's devil" for a newspaper. At 17, he was enrolled at Kentucky Military Institute, and enlisted in the Civil War at age 19 in 1861. His experiences in that bloody war resulted in his Edgar Allen Poe-like "western gothic" supernatural stories, numbering more than 90, most set in the Civil War, which he wrote in middle age. Following the war, the young man went west, sharpening his writing skills on atheistic tracts and drawing a folio of political cartoons. Bierce was hired as a journalist for several San Francisco newspapers, writing 167 weekly, satiric "Town Crier" columns later published in book form, The Fiend's Delight (1872). Married in 1871, he and his new wife went on an extended honeymoon to England as a gift from his father-in-law. Bierce struck up friendships with the "Fleet Street Gang" and wrote for Figaro and Fun. Those columns were reprinted in book form as Cobwebs from an Empty Skull (1874). He and his young family returned to the United States, where he collaborated on a bestseller attacking the waltz (The Dance of Death), and wrote 87 weekly columns for the Argonaut.
After other journalism jobs, Bierce was hired by William Randolph Hearst in 1887, and worked for him for 21 years, inaugurating a column of witty epigrams. Vintage Bierce: "Camels and Christians receive their burdens kneeling." "Treat things divine with marked respect--don't have anything to do with them." Bierce's first collection of short stories, Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, appeared in 1891, followed by Can Such Things Be? (1893). His ghost story, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," is still anthologized. Bierce was at the height of his fame at the turn of the century, when his lobbying defeated a bill by "railroad rogues" seeking massive forgiveness of debt to the government. In 1906, The Cynic's Word debuted, to be renamed The Devil's Dictionary, his most enduring, freethought work. Bierce's personal life was rocky, with one son dying either of suicide or during a duel, another of pneumonia in his twenties, and Bierce's marriage ending in divorce, earning him the nickname "Bitter Bierce." In 1913, at age 70, he told friends during a visit to Texas that he was going South, and was never heard from again. Bierce reputedly fought beside Pancho Villa and died in battle, although some believe Villa killed him in a quarrel, and others maintain Bierce never went to Mexico at all. He is believed to have died in 1914. A novel speculating about Bierce's last days, The Old Gringo, was written by Carlos Fuentes in 1985, and was made into a movie starring Gregory Peck and Jane Fonda in 1989. D. 1914.
Christian, n. One who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbor. One who follows the teachings of Christ insofar as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin.
Eucharist, n. A sacred feast of the religious sect of Theophagi. A dispute once unhappily arose among the members of this sect as to what it was that they ate. In this controversy some five hundred thousand have already been slain, and the question is still unsettled.
Evangelist, n. A bearer of good tidings, particularly (in a religious sense) such as assure us of our own salvation and the damnation of our neighbors.
Faith, n. Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.
Infidel, n. In New York, one who does not believe in the Christian religion; in Constantinople, one who does.
Pray. v. To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner, confessedly unworthy.
Religion, n. A daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable.
Reverence, n. The spiritual attitude of a man to a god and a dog to a man.
Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited.
—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1906)
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On this date in 1953, Michael Arthur Newdow, an attorney and emergency room physician, was born to nominally Jewish parents. He grew up in the Bronx, N.Y., and Teaneck, N.J., and earned a B.S. in biology from Brown University. In 2004 he told Brown's alumni magazine that "I was born an atheist." He graduated from UCLA's medical school in 1978 and earned a law degree from the University of Michigan in 1988. In 1977, he was ordained as a minister in the Universal Life Church, based in Modesto, Calif., a "church" which has but one basic tenet: "Do only that which is right." In 1997, Newdow formed an organization called FACTS (First Atheist Church of True Science), which advocates for a strong wall between state and church. Newdow has filed several lawsuits challenging the mingling of religion and government. One, Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow, was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2004. The issues at hand: Whether a public school district policy that required teachers to lead students in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, which included the words "under God," was a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and whether Newdow had legal "standing" on behalf of his daughter to challenge the policy. (The 9th U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in his favor in 2002 that "under God" in school pledges was unconstitutional. Circuit Judge Alfred T. Goodwin, a 79-year-old Nixon appointee, famously wrote: "A profession that we are a nation 'under God' is identical to a profession that we are a nation 'under Jesus,' a nation 'under Vishnu,' a nation 'under Zeus,' or a nation 'under no god.' "
The appeals court ruling was appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled 5-3 that Newdow didn't have standing in the case because he didn't have sufficient custody over his daughter, whose mother had primary custody. "No one who managed to get a seat in the courtroom is likely ever to forget his spellbinding performance," New York Times court reporter Linda Greenhouse said of Newdow's oral argument. What he saw as unconstitutional endorsement of religion led Newdow to file other suits, including one to remove "In God We Trust" from U.S. coins and currency and others to block religious invocations at presidential inaugurations, use of "so help me God" when administering the oath of office and use of official chaplains in Congress. The Freedom From Religion Foundation named Newdow its Freethinker of the Year in 2002 and a Freethought Hero in 2004.
Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:
Every school morning in the Elk Grove Unified School District's public schools, government agents, teachers, funded with tax dollars, have their students stand up, including my daughter, face the flag of the United States of America, place their hands over their hearts, and affirm that ours is a nation under some particular religious entity, the appreciation of which is not accepted by numerous people, such as myself. We cannot in good conscience accept the idea that there exists a deity.
I am an atheist. I don't believe in God.
And every school morning my child is asked to stand up, face that flag, put her hand over her heart, and say that her father is wrong.
—Michael Newdow's oral argument to the U.S. Supreme Court, March 24, 2004 (
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