Freethought of the Day

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There are 4 entries for this date: Denis Diderot , Bob Geldof , Sean M. Carroll and Neil deGrasse Tyson
Denis Diderot

Denis Diderot

On this date in 1713, encyclopedist Denis Diderot was born in Langres, France, and destined by his lower-class family for the priesthood. At 13, he was tonsured and titled "abbe." Continuing his studies in Paris, Diderot abandoned his faith when exposed to science and freethought views, evolving gradually from deist to atheist. In his Essay on the Merits of Virtue (1745), Diderot noted: "From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step." Diderot anonymously wrote Pensees philosophiques (1746), which was ordered burned in public. In it, Diderot wrote: "Skepticism is the first step toward truth." After An Essay on Blindness was published in 1749, Diderot spent three months in jail for atheism (he was moved from the Bastille to Vincennes due to overcrowding), an experience that taught him to only circulate his rationalist writings privately. His Interpretation of Nature (1753) sets out the scientific method. His treatises on aesthetics led him to be called the first art critic. His novels include La Religieuse (published belatedly in 1796), which took an unstinting look at the sexually corrupting forces of monasticism and fanaticism. Diderot was the commissioned editor of the first major encyclopedia. He worked with rationalist contributors, including Voltaire, on this monument to the Age of Enlightenment, compiling human achievements in knowledge for nearly 30 years, while facing Roman Catholic opposition. The 17 volumes of text and 11 of illustrations were published between 1751-1772. The publisher at one time was imprisoned. Catherine the Great offered Diderot refuge, which he declined, but he accepted her grand gesture of purchasing his library and bequeathing it to him for life in 1766. In 1773-1774, he made the arduous journey to Russia to thank her, with hopes of setting up a Russian university. The trip disappointed him in her reign and broke his health. D. 1784.

“Wandering in a vast forest at night, I have only a faint light to guide me. A stranger appears and says to me: 'My friend, you should blow out your candle in order to find your way more clearly.' This stranger is a theologian.”
 

—Denis Diderot, Addition to Philosophical Thoughts (c. 1762)

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

© Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.

Bob Geldof

Bob Geldof

On this date in 1951, Robert Geldof, later knighted, was born in Dun Laoghaire, Ireland. He attended Blackrock College in Blackrock, Ireland, and became a music journalist for Georgia Straight in Vancouver, Canada, after his graduation. After returning to Ireland, he became the lead singer of punk rock band The Boomtown Rats (1975–1986), which was known for hit songs such as “I Don’t Like Mondays” (1979), “Rat Trap” (1978) and “Up All Night” (1981). In 1986, Geldof became a solo artist, with songs including “This is the World Calling” (1986) and “The Great Song of Indifference” (1990). Geldof published his autobiography Is That It? in 1986. He portrayed Pink Floyd in “The Wall” (1982). He married journalist Payla Yates in 1986 and the couple have three children: Fifi, born in 1983, Peaches, born in 1989, and Pixie, born in 1990.

Along with being a singer, Geldof is a philanthropist and anti-poverty activist. In 1984, he formed the musical group Band Aid, which raised $8 million to aid Ethiopia. Band Aid was composed of over 40 prominent musical artists including Bono, Sting, Paul McCartney and David Bowie, and produced the popular song, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” (1984). Geldof also helped organize the Live Aid concerts in 1985, which raised over $150 million to combat African famine. He followed Live Aid with the Live 8 concerts in 2005, which were performed at the same time as the 31st G8 Summit, which met to discuss aiding Africa. Live 8 included multiple concerts featuring over 1,000 famous musicians, and which raised money for the Make Poverty History campaign. Geldof was elected a member of the Commission for Africa in 2004. He was given a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2005 Brit Awards for his musical accomplishments, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times, and was knighted in 1986.

When asked in an Independent article (July 10, 2006) if he was a saint or a sinner, Geldof replied, “Being an atheist I can’t be either.” In an interview with Manchester Jewish Telegraph, he further explained: “I was a quarter Catholic, a quarter Protestant, a quarter Jewish and a quarter nothing – the nothing won” (quoted in The Jerusalem Post, March 22, 2011).

“I actively disliked the Church and its institutionalized morality which I felt bedeviled Ireland.”

—Bob Geldof, Is That It? (1986), writing about the Catholic Church.

Compiled by Sabrina Gaylor

© Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.

Sean M. Carroll

Sean M. Carroll

On this date in 1966, Sean M. Carroll was born in Philadelphia, Pa. (He is not to be mistaken with biologist Sean B. Carroll.) He graduated from Harvard University with a Ph.D. in astronomy and astrophysics in 1993. Carroll is a cosmologist and physicist who currently works as a Senior Research Associate in Physics at California Institute of Technology. He has also been a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Theoretical Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and at the Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Carroll published one book on cosmology, From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time (2010), along with numerous research papers. He was awarded the MIT Graduate Student Council Teaching Award in 1996. Carroll currently writes for the science blog Cosmic Variance on the Discover magazine website and is married to science writer Jennifer Ouellette.

Carroll calls himself an atheist in “The God Conundrum,” a 2006 Cosmic Variance post, where he examines and refutes criticisms of Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion (2006). In 2005, he authored a paper titled “Why (Almost All) Cosmologists are Atheists.” Carroll wrote, “I wish to argue that religious belief necessarily entails certain statements about how the universe works, that these statements can be judged as scientific hypotheses, and that as such they should be rejected in favor of alternative ways of understanding the universe.” He elaborated on the scientific support for atheism in a 2001 Cosmic Variance post titled “Does The Universe Need God?” Carroll wrote: “Consider a hypothetical world in which science had developed to something like its current state of progress, but nobody had yet thought of God. It seems unlikely that an imaginative thinker in this world, upon proposing God as a solution to various cosmological puzzles, would be met with enthusiasm.”

“We are looking for a complete, coherent, and simple understanding of reality. Given what we know about the universe, there seems to be no reason to invoke God as part of this description.”

—Sean M. Carroll, “Why (Almost All) Cosmologists are Atheists,” 2005.

Compiled by Sabrina Gaylor

© Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson

On this date in 1958, Neil deGrasse Tyson was born in the Bronx, N.Y. He earned his bachelor’s degree in physics from Harvard University in 1980, his master’s degree in astronomy from the University of Texas in 1983 and his Ph.D. in astrophysics from Columbia University in 1991. After graduation, Tyson worked as a Research Associate at Princeton University (1991–1994) and staff scientist for the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History (1994–1995). He wrote the “Universe” essays for Natural History (1995–2005) and hosts PBS’s “NOVA scienceNOW,” beginning in 2006. Tyson has served on NASA’s advisory council (2005-2008) and has been a Research Associate at the American Museum of Natural History’s Astrophysics Department since 2003, where he is director of the Hayden Planetarium. His nine books include Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution (2005), Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries (2007), and his memoir, The Sky is Not The Limit: Adventure of an Urban Astrophysicist (2000). In 2009, Tyson wrote The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet. Tyson was awarded the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal in 2004 as well as the NASA Exceptional Public Service Medal in 2007. He married Alice Young in 1988 and they have two children.

“I think, based on all the folks who are agnostic historically, I come closer to the behavior of an agnostic than the behavior of an atheist,” Tyson, who prefers not to label his beliefs, wrote in an essay for the September/October 2008 Humanist. In his essay “Holy Wars,” Tyson discussed the intersection of science and religion. He was critical of religion, writing: “I have yet to see a successful prediction about the physical world that was inferred or extrapolated from the content of any religions document.” Tyson is also a strong opponent of intelligent design. He wrote, “Intelligent design is a philosophy of ignorance. You cannot build a program of discovery on the assumption that nobody is smart enough to figure out the answer to a problem” (“The Perimiter of Ignorance,” Natural History, November 2005). Tyson continued: “I don’t want students who could make the next major breakthrough in renewable energy sources or space travel to have been taught that anything they don’t understand, and that nobody yet understands, is divinely constructed and therefore beyond their intellectual capacity. The day that happens, Americans will just sit in awe of what we don’t understand, while we watch the rest of the world boldly go where no mortal has gone before.” Tyson was awarded the American Humanist Association’s Isaac Asimov Science Award in 2009.

“Let there be no doubt that as they are currently practiced, there is no common ground between science and religion.” 

—Neil deGrasse Tyson, “Holy Wars,” published in Natural History, Oct. 1999

Compiled by Sabrina 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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