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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There are 4 entries for this date: Robert Burns , Virginia Woolf , Sherwin Wine and W. Somerset Maugham
Robert Burns

Robert Burns

On this date in 1759, Robert Burns was born. The Scottish farmer-poet, who once described himself as being full of "enthusiastic, idiot piety" as a boy, early on questioned religious belief. He directed his pen against Calvinism in his first poem, "Two Herds" (1785), a satire on rival theology, followed by "Holy Willie's Prayer" and "Holy Fair." Biographers, unsure whether to term Burns an agnostic or a deist, agree he rejected Calvinism ("I am in perpetual warfare with that doctrine," letter to Mrs. Dunlop, Aug. 2, 1788), churches ("Courts for cowards were erected, / Churches built to please the priest"), doubted the existence of god ("O Thou Great Being! what thou art / Surpasses me to know"), and the existence of an afterlife. From Burns' poem, "To a Louse on Seeing One on a Lady's Bonnet at Church": "O wad some pow'r the giftie gie us / to see oursels as others see us!/ It wad frae monie a blunder free us / An' foolish notions." He wrote Mrs. Dunlop on Aug. 21, 1792, that "still the damned dogmas of reasoning Philosophy throw in their doubt." The celebrated "Ploughman Poet" bequeathed the world the lyrics of "Auld Lang Syne," striking a welcome secular note with which to end the Western New Year: "We'll take a cup o' kindness yet / For auld lang syne." When he died at age 37 of heart disease, 10,000 people attended the burial. Today his birthdate is celebrated in Scotland and abroad. D. 1797.

“These, my worthy friend, are my ideas. . . It becomes a man of sense to think for himself; particularly in a case where all men are equally interested, and where, indeed, all men are equally in the dark.”

—Robert Burns, letter to Robert Muir, March 8, 1788

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

© Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf

On this date in 1882, novelist and essayist Virginia Woolf, née Adeline Virginia Stephen, the daughter of freethinker Sir Leslie Stephen, and Julia Jackson Duckworth, was born in London. Starting at an early age, she and her sister Vanessa were sexually abused by two half-brothers. Virginia's mother died when she was in her early teens. This was followed by the death of her caretaking half-sister Stella, then her father from a slow cancer in 1904, and finally her brother Toby in 1906. Virginia had the first of several major breakdowns following Toby's death. Virginia moved into the home of her sister Vanessa and her husband Clive Bell in Bloomsbury, which became the hub of the intellectual and largely freethinking Bloomsbury group. In 1905, Virginia began working for the Times Literary Supplement. She married Leonard Woolf in 1912. Her first book, The Voyage Out, was published in 1915, followed by Night and Day (1919), Jacob's Room (1922), Mrs. Dalloway (1925), and Orlando (1938). Woolf wrote more than 500 essays, among them "A Room of One's Own" (1929), in which she famously observed: "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction." Her "Three Guineas" was likewise a feminist rallying cry to women to come into their own. Woolf pioneered the modern novel, employing stream-of-consciousness and a non-linear narrative. Orlando featured an androgynous protagonist, reputedly inspired by Vita Sackville-West, with whom Virginia Woolf had a love affair. Virginia Woolf committed suicide by drowning herself during a recurring period of mental breakdown and despair in early WWII, writing her husband: "I owe all my happiness to you but can't go on and spoil your life." D. 1941.

“I read the Book of Job last night—I don't think God comes well out of it.”

—Virginia Woolf, quote cited by Warren Allen Smith in Who's Who in Hell

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

© Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.

Sherwin Wine

Sherwin Wine

On this date in 1928, Sherwin Wine was born in Detroit, Mich. He received his bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Michigan, and returned for his master’s degree in philosophy in 1951. Wine attended Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati and was ordained as a rabbi in 1956. He worked as a U.S. Army chaplain in Korea (1957–1958) and an assistant rabbi at Temple Beth El in Detroit (1958–1960). Wine wrote many books, including Judaism Beyond God (1985) and Staying Sane in a Crazy World (1995). He lived with his partner, Richard McCains, until Wine’s death in 2007 from a car accident.

Born to Conservative Jewish parents, Wine began questioning the idea of a god at Hebrew Union College and gradually lost his faith. He told Time Magazine in 1965: “I find no adequate reason to accept the existence of a supreme person” (quoted in The New York Times, July 25, 2007). Wine’s lack of belief led him to found Humanistic Judaism, which rejects belief in god while maintaining secular Jewish traditions, culture and ethics. “Theological beliefs have nothing to do with Jewish identity. The Jewish people encompass theists and atheists,” Wine explained in his book Celebration (2003). He elaborated on the beliefs of Humanistic Judaism: “Humanists know that they have the right and the power to be the masters of their own lives, that they have the strength to confront the world as it is and not as fantasy makes it appear, and that they have the opportunity to serve the future and not the past.” Humanistic Judaism was founded in 1963, when Wine established the Birmingham Temple in Farmington Hills, a suburb of Detroit. At the Birmingham Temple, which he worked at until his retirement in 2003, Wine performed services with no mentions of god, replacing prayers with poetry and Torah readings with speeches on history. He was a co-founder of the Society for Humanistic Judaism in 1969, and was Dean of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, which he founded in 1985. Humanistic Judaism is now practiced worldwide. D. 2007

“If I were a CEO of a company and ran it like God runs the universe, I’d be fired.”

—Sherwin Wine, The Guardian, Sept. 18, 2007.

Compiled by Sabrina Gaylor

© Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.

W. Somerset Maugham

W. Somerset Maugham

On this date in 1874, William Somerset Maugham was born in Paris, France. Maugham was orphaned when he was ten years old, and soon moved to live with relatives in England. He underwent medical training at St. Thomas Hospital in London, becoming a doctor in 1897. After publishing his first book, Liza of Lambeth (1897)—inspired by his time in London—Maugham left his medical career to pursue writing. His literary skill and concise writing style helped him become an accomplished novelist, playwright and short story writer. Maugham is most famous for writing the semi-autobiographical novel Of Human Bondage (1917). His other popular works include The Moon and Sixpence (1919), Cakes and Ale (1930), The Razor’s Edge (1944), and the short story “Rain” (1923). He married Syrie Wellcome following her divorce from Henry Wellcome in 1917. The marriage was unhappy and they divorced in 1928. They had one daughter, Mary Elizabeth, born in 1915. Many of Maugham’s significant relationships were with men; Frederick Gerald Haxton, Maugham’s American secretary, was his lover and companion from 1914 until Haxton’s death in 1944.

Maugham was a nonbeliever who saw no need for religion. “I remain an agnostic, and the practical outcome of agnosticism is that you act as though God did not exist,” Maugham wrote in his memoir The Summing Up (1938). In the notebook he kept from 1892–1949, he discussed religion and his lack of religious beliefs more extensively. Maugham wrote: “I’m glad I don’t believe in God. When I look at the misery of the world and its bitterness I think that no belief can be more ignoble” (A Writer’s Notebook, 1949). He continued: “The evidence adduced to prove the truth of one religion is of very much the same sort as that adduced to prove the truth of another. I wonder if that does not make the Christian uneasy to reflect that if he had been in Morocco he would have been a Mahometan, if in Ceylon a Buddhist; and in that case Christianity would have seemed to him as absurd and obviously untrue as those religions seem to the Christian.” D. 1965

“I do not believe in God. I see no need of such idea. It is incredible to me that there should be an after-life. I find the notion of future punishment outrageous and of future reward extravagant. I am convinced that when I die, I shall cease entirely to live; I shall return to the earth I came from.” 

—W. Somerset Maugham, A Writer’s Notebook (1949)

Compiled by Sabrina Gaylor and Eleanor Wroblewski

© 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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