Twenty-five years ago I personally experienced the anguish a terminally ill person and family endures when my second wife became ill with cancer. While in the shadow of death, her vitality languished as her life was consumed by pain.
Instead of extending and enhancing her life, chemotherapy, radiation and surgery seemed to have increased her suffering. She died a thousand deaths!
Her appetite was replaced by nausea and vomiting and her bodily wastes removed by catheter and colostomy. Her breathing was aided by an oxygen mask and tank, and her erect spine bent nearly at right angles.
Her mind became disoriented, and finally, all hope was replaced by despair. Every ounce of what was once a beautiful life had been replaced with excruciating suffering.
How much misery can a human being take? Doctors could not relieve her pain short of placing her in a drugged stupor. Is that life?
During her last few months of death her young (32) heart kept pumping painful chemicals and cancerous toxins throughout her body. She pleaded for help to end it all. But there was no law like Oregon's for the terminally ill.
Since the Oregon law's inception, some members of Congress and various religious establishments have been obstinate, even fanatical, in their effort to create roadblocks (fear, scare tactics, abuse, propaganda, lies, etc.) to stop it. Huge sums of money were spent trying to deny an individual the right to determine when his or her life was too painful to continue. The law was democratically passed twice and has since worked flawlessly.
The enormous amounts of money (over $6 million) and time spent fighting this law could have been better spent preventing millions of babies from suffering agonizing deaths. Those dollars could have saved millions of the 12 million lives of the children under 5, who die each year because of malnutrition, diarrheal dehydration, disease, lack of clean water, and proper sanitation.
Some of the money could have helped provide facilities for some of the billions of people who are without basic sanitation. If you doubt the plight of millions of children, visit Juarez and Tijuana just across the border in Mexico. Or go to Haiti, the Philippines, or Africa.
The Oregon law is strictly voluntary with numerous safeguards to avoid abuse. No doctor, pharmacist, congressman, or anyone is compelled to participate in Oregon's assisted suicide law.
But Attorney General John Ashcroft has joined Senators Gordon Smith and Don Nichols in imposing their views on the terminally ill. It is no surprise that Mr. Ashcroft attempted to override Oregon's assisted suicide law. During his confirmation hearings, he said he would enforce current laws, even as critics cited examples where he had disregarded laws that conflicted with his beliefs.
One has to ask why many religious people are so vehemently opposed to allowing a terminally ill person to end unbearable suffering and yet be willing to interfere with "God's plan" of death with defibrillators, pacemakers, joint replacements, etc. So the Attorney General blithely attempts to block a democratically passed law, ignores state rights, and refuses to acknowledge an individual's personal right to end his or her own life.
Give priority to saving the lives of children and show some compassion for the terminally ill who want to avoid an agonizing death.
Religious journalists, particularly the very conservative and fundamentalist, love to portray the USA as a spiritual battleground. In their world, the godly are in constant battle against broad contempt for religion and the resulting moral decay. The foes of the righteous are academia, the media and the government. If you believed everything that they wrote along these lines, you couldn't help but conjure up an image of a Christian family barricaded inside their home while drunken atheists loot and burn their neighborhood. A little research shows, however, that crime is at historic lows and the traditional bellwether of the nation's moral fiber, teenage pregnancy, is also at a record low and still declining.
That's why I read with interest a recent profile of respected religious scholar Huston Smith and his new book, Why Religion Matters. What would a more liberal commentator have to say on these matters, I wondered? After all, someone like Smith, author of the bestselling The World's Religions, would be more likely to receive a sympathetic ear from the more reasonable quarters of the public and the media.
Reading the book, I was surprised at how familiar it sounded. Like the others, Smith alleges that we are in the midst of a moral and spiritual crisis, which he extends to the media, government, education, the law and almost every other facet of society. Combined with his attacks on freethought, it soon becomes apparent that his message is subtler but just as pernicious as all the others.
Setting himself up as a defender of the human spirit, he rails against the scientific worldview (which he labels "scientism") and the evils of secular schools biased towards evolution. For example, after having the phrase "unsupervised, impersonal" removed from the National Association of Biology Teachers' definition of religion, he went on to suggest the following be given to students:
"There is so much that we still do not know that plenty of room remains for you to fill in the gaps with your own philosophic or religious convictions." The fact that something so blatantly anti-science could be suggested in earnest would anger one if it came at the suggestion of Pat Robertson, but from Smith--a man consulted by the NABT once before--it is doubly alarming.
Most worrying of all is Smith's contention that the law is unfairly skeptical when it comes to religious matters. Smith contends that the First Amendment was not designed to erect a wall between church and state--because "there is no way to keep church and state separate," but to simply turn religious issues over to the states. He decries the use of the Establishment Clause as a "guarantor of public secularism." If only! Of course, he ignores the constant struggles between organizations like the Freedom From Religion Foundation or ACLU and a defiantly pious judiciary. In fact, Smith contends that in those facets of public life where church/state separation is routinely violated, such as "In God We Trust" on the currency, real religion isn't being served--it's a shallow attempt to "domesticate" real faith. One supposes this means it doesn't go far enough. To Smith, any policy that does not actively embrace, or at least acknowledge religion, is hostile to it. He sees the value of the constitution as imposing "neutrality" in religious matters, which to him means that publicly expressed religion should be abundant, without overtly favoring any particular sect. How this impossible situation would be realized, he does not say. Basically, the theme of Smith's message is the same as that of the Falwells of this country--we need more religion in our schools, in the media, and in our laws.
Potentially the most damaging parts of the book address the notion that religious need is a fundamental part of the human condition. Smith often ascribes to us a "basic longing that lies in the depths of the human heart," a "fundamental disease," a "spiritual hollow." Perhaps this cannot be easily denied; but it is a mistake to conclude that because a human being desires meaning, the universe must provide one.
Furthermore, it is false to assume that such a desire for meaning and wonder cannot be satisfied by observing the universe around us. Most freethinkers know that there is an ample supply of the mysterious and awesome without the need for an ad hoc godly explanation. Still, the myth persists among others that meaning and value are impossible without faith. "The atheist's world contains very little value," Smith says. Science is "an artificial language that cannot accommodate the human spirit" and "belittles art, religion, love and the bulk of the life we directly live." How could freethought appear a viable outlook if these statements are not refuted?
That's why a book like this is of concern to freethinkers. It serves as a reminder that even the most rational-seeming religionist probably considers an atheist to live in a moral vacuum, a spiritual void both literally and figuratively. When religionists like Smith speak of science being blind to the otherworldly, heads nod in agreement. When they speak of morality as religion's domain, they find a receptive audience. And perhaps most alarmingly, when they speak of the scientific mindset as devoid of love, beauty and all human values, there are few to contradict them.
As long as the myth persists that the rational worldview is somehow lacking in humanity, the efforts of freethought will only be rewarded with marginal success. It is these fictions that grant religion all of its respect and legitimacy. Freethought may be literally soulless, but its ethical, life-affirming qualities must be emphasized. The fact that one can live a life where morality is solely a human affair, where the natural world offers beauty in abundance, and where life is even more precious for being finite is one all freethinkers know. And that's why religion doesn't matter.
My son and I attended Dan Barker's debate last year at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and were inspired by his ability to spread the freethought message, and to do it so well against a professional theologian in a very hostile environment.
So, when my son came home from school one Monday in April and told me that his public high school was having an Inter-Faith Forum on Thursday, and that his teacher was looking for an atheist, I jumped at the chance. What an opportunity to be able to demonstrate the stark differences between atheism and the world's major superstitions! I immediately called the teacher who was organizing the event and offered my services.
I was the first panelist to arrive at Osburn High School (Manassas, Virginia) that morning, and I sat in the office awaiting the arrival of the others. A Catholic seminary student, in training for the priesthood, arrived and sat across from me. After exchanging pleasantries, he said to me, "Isn't this great? A public high school conducting a religious forum. We don't get the chance to do this very often."
I said, "Yes, it's great just as long there is no proselytizing."
He looked at me just a bit quizzically, but he went on. "What people don't seem to realize is that the First Amendment provides freedom of religion, not freedom from religion."
That is one of my hot buttons, so I figured that it was time to take off the gloves. I responded, "Actually, the First Amendment states that 'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion'--this is unquestionably freedom from religion. So, contrary to what you just said, the First Amendment does, in fact, make that guarantee. You'll hear that in my little talk today."
He had no response, and I could see him begin to rub his chin. He must have been thinking, "Who is this guy?"
We entered the stadium-seating lecture hall, and I smiled at the symbolism, intended or not, of the seating arrangement, in which I was seated at the far left, next to the Unitarian representative. But I could not have asked for a better draw for the order of speeches since I was to be the last. What a perfect way to contrast the nature of the freethought message; it was exactly as I had hoped.
There were representatives from most major religions--Islam had two, the Hindus, Unitarians, and Jews had one apiece; and the Christians were represented by five flavors, including two Mormons, a Catholic, a Lutheran, and a couple of nondenominational types. The Buddhist monk did not show. We each had five minutes to give a talk to present the basic tenets of our "religion."
* * *
[Excerpt of my remarks]
Now, before I get started, let's get this out of the way. Take a good look at me--I have no horns. I don't have a pointed tail, and I don't carry a pitchfork. In fact, I'm very much like you, except that I believe in just one less god than most of you.
So what is an atheist? The word comes from the Greek "a" (which means "without") and "theos" (meaning "god"). Without god . . . we atheists have no supernatural beliefs. Contrary to public opinion, most atheists do not say, "There is no god." Most of us do say, "We see no evidence for gods, so why should we believe in them?"
Our Muslim friends on the panel say that "the answer" is in the Koran. The Jewish folks say that "the answer" lies within the Torah. And our Christian friends say that "the answer" is within the Bible. Atheists say that the answers lie here, within our brains.
* * *
After the remarks we split into individual groups so that students could ask questions of the speaker of their choice. Well, it took me several minutes to even get near the door to leave the lecture hall, because I was inundated with students asking me questions. When I finally managed to get to the interview area, it was quite amusing to see that each of the religious representatives had one, two, or no students around them, while there were 35-40 in my area.
The interview session went well--the kids were very curious about how I felt about the origins of life, where we go when we die, how I raise my kids, how did I get to be the way I am, do I worry about going to hell, is homosexuality a sin . . . you name it, they asked it. They were all very nice, very respectful, and very curious. I had to deal with only one student who was a little upset with it all, and one teacher who was only too proud to announce that he had a doctorate and still had faith. We talked for a while, but he left fully understanding that I draw a very clear distinction between faith, defined to be the belief in a concept in the absence of evidence, and reason, which requires it.
After the interview session, which had to be extended to accommodate my large and curious group, we entered the lecture hall to find the others waiting for us so that we could conclude the morning session with formal questions for the panel members. Of course, the first question was directed to the atheist, as were most others. They ranged from questions about the historical nature of Jesus to my thoughts on abortion.
A lunch break followed. My son told me that during lunch, one of the students asked the Catholic seminary student what he thinks happens to those who don't believe in God. He replied, "See that guy over there? [He was pointing to me.] He's going to hell." This was exactly the kind of thing that I wanted the kids to hear, so that they could draw a clear distinction between the messages of faith and freethought.
The entire agenda was repeated for the afternoon students of World History. My oldest daughter, who was not supposed to be able to attend the forum, later told me that the news of the forum spread around the school like wildfire, and that was why the aisles were packed for the afternoon session.
The afternoon sessions went better than the morning ones. I received accolades for my performance, and I was forced to stay for countless talks with teachers and students alike. I've enclosed the front page article about the forum, complete with my picture. Keep in mind that this was meant to be a forum to discuss the world's religions, and the atheist got a big chunk of the press! The irony is very amusing.
The day before the forum, I sent an email to the teacher organizing the event, suggesting that he should videotape the activities--to show it on the local cable channel at night so that the whole community could benefit from the forum. He took me up on it.
The message in all of this is that freethought will remain in the shadows unless each one of us steps out and spreads the word. Impressionable young minds need to have choices, and none will be available unless we take all available opportunities to inform them that there are better ways to live than to subjugate ourselves to an imaginary and vengeful god. Our kids need to know that there is a better way of life, one that is moral and ethical, which maintains their personal integrity. It is the responsibility of each one of us to spread this message.
[St. Paul teaches] that government . . . derives its moral authority from God. It is the 'minister of God' with powers to 'revenge,' to 'execute wrath,' including even wrath by the sword (which is unmistakably a reference to the death penalty).
--Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia
First Things Journal, 2002
My becoming a Christian upset him [Ted Turner] very much--for good reason. He's my husband and I chose not to discuss it with him--because he would have talked me out of it. He's a debating champion. --Jane Fonda, filing for divorce E! Online news, May 15, 2002
One of the reasons I believe the spiritual door was opened for an attack against the United States of America is that the policy of our government has been to ask the Israelis, and demand it with pressure, not to retaliate in a significant way against the terrorist strikes that have been launched against them. --Sen. James Inhofe, R-OK Senate floor speech, March 2002
I have great respect for the Holy Father and I have not lost confidence in the church [due to priest sex abuse scandals] . . . . The Lord is pruning the branches right now, . . . --Jim Tower Pres. Bush's advisor on "faith-based initiatives" Boston Globe, April 23, 2002
Every great and meaningful achievement in this life requires the active involvement of the One who placed us here for a reason. --Vice President Dick Cheney, 2001 New Republic Online, March 20, 2002
Whenever [one] hears [our] religion abused, he should not attempt to defend its tenets, except with his sword, and that he should thrust into the scoundrel's belly as far as it will enter. --King Louis IX of France Roman Catholic Saint (Quoted) Boston Daily Globe April 9, 2002
This [Jewish] stranglehold has got to be broken or this country's going down the drain. . . . A lot of Jews are great friends of mine. They swarm around me and are friendly to me. Because they know that I am friendly to Israel and so forth. But they don't know how I really feel about what they're doing to this country, and I have no power and no way to handle them. --Evangelist Billy Graham to Pres. Nixon, 1972 Recently released tape recording
[Islam is] a very evil and very wicked religion. --Rev. Franklin Graham NBC Nightly News, November 2001
I just fear that they're [the Muslims in America] in agreement that this is a just and holy war. --Rev. Franklin Graham Fox TV's Hannity & Colmes, Aug. 2002
[Pluralists] would have us to believe that Islam is just as good as Christianity, but I'm here to tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that Islam is not just as good as Christianity. Islam was founded by Muhammad, a demon-possessed pedophile who had 12 wives--and his last one was a 9-year-old girl. And I will tell you Allah is not Jehovah either. Jehovah's not going to turn you into a terrorist that'll try to bomb people and take the lives of thousands and thousands of people. --Rev. Jerry Vines Pastor of First Baptist Church Jacksonville, Fla. Southern Baptist Convention Times-Union, June 12, 2002
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is appealing a July 26 ruling by a federal judge permitting indirect state funding of a faith-based social service.
The disappointing ruling was "part two" of the Freedom From Religion Foundation's challenge of the "charitable choice" funding of Faith Works.
Federal Judge Barbara Crabb of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin had earlier issued a landmark ruling against direct subsidy of Faith Works, a Milwaukee program instituted to bring "homeless addicts directly to Christ." The Foundation case was the first in the nation challenging "charitable choice" to be adjudicated and won.
In her January 7 ruling, Crabb found that the grant of $880,000 in unrestricted federal funds to Faith Works constituted "unrestricted, direct funding of an organization that engages in religious indoctrination."
Faith Works has no medical drug or alcohol treatment program, but relies on referrals to other agencies, and its "faith-enhanced" AA program and bible studies, some led by Faith Works "graduates."
Crabb's secondary ruling in July does not overturn her January decision against direct funding of proselytization.
Crabb had directed that the Foundation's additional challenge of the constitutionality of state contracts with Faith Works be considered separately. The state Department of Corrections, using special waivers and a no-bidding process, has contracted with Faith Works to send parolees to the faith-based, long-term program.
The state Department of Corrections had contracted up to $160,000 in services from Faith Works from 1999 to 2001. The cost to taxpayers was $47 a day for each participant assigned by DOC to Faith Works over a period of nine to twelve months. Some of the men were sentenced to Faith Works as an alternative to revocation of probation or parole.
The State of Wisconsin and defendant-intervenor Faith Works tried to compare the contract to a "voucher." Foundation attorney Rich Bolton in his brief noted that comparison is "incorrect." There is no comparable secular program offered to offenders, who are a captive audience: "DOC selects, recommends and promotes Faith Works to targeted offenders."
He added, "The State may not promote and pay for religious indoctrination that is recommended and encouraged in the first instance by probation and parole agents." Even if the men are willing to participate in the religion-based program, Bolton noted, that is not a permissible use of taxes.
Bolton also noted in his brief that from Dec. 1999 to May 2001, DOC did not require that offenders be offered alternative secular treatment, nor is there one available of comparable length, a reason often cited for sending men to the program.
In her July decision, Crabb, who admitted that that the issue was "narrow" and "very close," bought the "voucher" argument:
"The Supreme Court has drawn a distinction between government programs that provide aid directly to religious schools and those involving true private choice." Crabb's decision generously cited the Supreme Court's June ruling approving vouchers for religious schools in Cleveland.
"I find that offenders participate in the program as a result of their genuinely independent, private choice. Thus, any appearance that the government is endorsing Faith Works is overcome by the fact that offenders must consent to the program's religious content before participating in it," Crabb concluded.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation gave notice of appeal of the July decision on Aug. 9. The State of Wisconsin and Faith Works are expected to appeal the major part of Crabb's ruling barring direct funds to the religious group.
The case will go before the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.
"We are confident the appeals court will agree that direct funding of Faith Works is an egregious violation of the First Amendment," commented Anne Gaylor, Foundation president.
"Along with our attorney Rich Bolton, we remain hopeful that the panel will carefully consider our argument that the state has shown illegal preference and endorsement in the state contracting process as well," said Gaylor.
In related news, a federal court in Louisiana recently declared that state's use of federal money to promote abstinence an illegal establishment of religion. This is the first challenge of the abstinence program since Congress made allocations to it under the "charitable choice" provisions of the 1996 welfare reform act, permitting federal funds to go to overtly proselytizing groups.
A recently filed lawsuit in Georgia also has ramifications for the fight against public funding of proselytizing social service groups. Plaintiffs are challenging state funding of the United Methodist Children's Home in Decatur, which refuses to hire Jews, and has fired qualified workers for being gay. The home requires counselors to condemn homosexuality.
Twenty-two La Crosse-area residents agreed to be named plaintiffs and join the Freedom From Religion Foundation's federal lawsuit challenging a Ten Commandments monument in a city park in La Crosse, Wisconsin.
The Foundation originally filed its legal complaint on July 1 with "Jane and John Doe," La Crosse Foundation members, seeking a protective order to keep the names confidential.
In July, the man who filed as "John Doe" died. Federal Magistrate Steve Crocker of Madison subsequently ruled in late July against the Foundation's confidentiality request. The Foundation had less than a week to find plaintiffs willing to be named, for the lawsuit to continue. When Foundation president Anne Gaylor was quoted in the La Crosse Tribune noting that the ruling jeopardized the Foundation's lawsuit, many La Crosse-area citizens volunteered to become plaintiffs.
"It is heartening that so many residents came forward to defend the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state," said Foundation president Anne Gaylor. "We think this makes a firm statement to the community, showing widespread concern that religion not be promoted by government."
The outpouring of new plaintiffs was big news in La Crosse, where the Foundation's request to move the Ten Commandments monument to private property had been headlined for months.
The Foundation had asked for the protective order for its original plaintiffs because of initial community hostility. The La Crosse City Council led the opposition, and antagonistic letters to the editor filled the editorial pages. Cardboard and plastic replicas of the bible edicts, peddled by a fundamentalist minister, have appeared on many lawns. A national Christian radio network devoted whole programs to denouncing the Foundation's efforts. Nasty e-mails arrived regularly at the Foundation's office. More than 4,000 area residents signed a petition urging the city to maintain the Ten Commandments in Cameron Park.
"We appreciate all our new plaintiffs," said Gaylor, "and are especially grateful to Sue Mercier, Hank Zumack and Maureen Freedland for special help. It's heartwarming to see this response."
The diverse list of plaintiffs includes Foundation members, local Unitarian-Universalists, two Jewish women, a Catholic man and others. Some plaintiffs totally avoid using Cameron Park and nearby businesses because of the presence of the religious monolith.
Many avoid the park, but indicate they are distressed that they must go past the religious monument if they wish to go to the bank, shop at the Farmer's Market at Cameron Park, or at the People's Food Co-op located across the street. Another plaintiff was a member of the U.S. Navy, and as a military officer, took an oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution, which he believes is violated by the presence of the bible edicts in the center of a public park
Bob Fenn, one of the founders of the Denver, Colorado chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, died on July 13. He had been in poor health for some time.
Bob was born in Lubbock, Texas, in 1927 and served his country in the U.S. Air Force during World War II. He married his wife Edith in 1953 and they had three children. After working as a milkman for a number of years, Bob opened his own barber shop. The shop became a center of activity for atheists and nonbelievers. Bob was no shrinking violet; he was openly atheistic even though it occasionally cost him the loss of a customer.
Bob was the glue that has held the Colorado chapter together. He always had a smile on his face and never let petty differences interfere with the work of the chapter. Bob designed and made many leaflets, posters, and signs used by the chapter. He was also responsible for the ChapterÕs participation in the People's Fair, which is an important annual event in Denver.
His wife Edith, the chapter treasurer for several years, best summed it up about Bob when she said: "He was a good guy."
Bob is survived by Edith, their three children, eighteen grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.
Below are excerpts of some of the thoughtful commentaries on the 9th Circuit decision tempering the hysterical outbursts against it:
"The 'Under God' addition, by identifying patriotism with religion, excludes agnostics, atheists and all believers in some deity or deities other than the Christian God. Nor does the 'under God' addition meet Theodore Roosevelt's test of promoting reverence and appealing to high emotions. Doubtless all the crooks in the corporate community have recited the pledge without notably improving their conduct."--Arthur Schlesinger Jr. ("When Patriotism Wasn't Religious," New York Times, July 7, 2002)
"The soundness of the decision is best revealed when it is measured against the objections to it. Prominent politicians, rather than offering reasoned responses to a challenging constitutional question, merely came up with sound bites condemning what they knew was an unpopular decision." --Westchester News Editoral, NY ( June 28, 2002)
"Religion and devotion to God should, like St Paul's charity, not be puffed up. God does not reward the loudest voice. Moreover, the 'under God' inclusion in the pledge is, as the much-maligned majority in the Ninth Federal Circuit ruled, unconstitutional."--Phil Donahue, (MSNBC premiere, July 15, 2002)
"The response to the court's decision exposed the fundamentalism that weaves through American public life, where many . . . confuse the worship of God with patriotism. . . . praise these two appeal judges--Alfred Goodwin and Stephen Reinhardt--for rendering a gutsy decision and for flushing American faundamentalism into the open."--Nation columnist David Corn ("I Pledge Allegiance to Fundamentalism in the United States of America. . .", Tompaine.com, July 16, 2002)
"Those two words went into the pledge nearly 50 years ago, and for the most deplorable reason. . . . the pledge had become yet another cold-war litmus test. The words 'under God' were a way to indicate that America was better than other nations--we were, after all, under the direct protection of the deity--and adding them to the pledge was another way of excluding, of saying that believers were real Americans and skeptics were not. 7 ". . . what was embarrassing was watching all those people--Republicans, Democrats, liberals, conservatives--shout 'under God' on the Senate floor, as though government were a pep rally and they were on the sanctified squad. . . . [Now our nation] settles for sloganeering, demonizing and politicking."--Anna Quindlen ("Indivisible? Wanna Bet?" The Last Word, Newsweek, July 15, 2002)
". . . before they trampled one another on the way to the TV cameras, a lot of the congressional Bible-thumpers who rose to the pledge's defense were busy making the world safe for the likes of Enron and WorldCom."--Brian Dickerson ("Getting it Straight," Detroit Free Press, June 28, 2002)
Atheist politicians seem to be an endangered species these days, but things were very different a century to a century-and-a-half ago. Between the mid-1800s and the start of World War I--the period we think of as the Golden Age of freethought--public servants with no use for religion were a common sight on the political landscape.
Nowhere was this more the case than in Second empire and early Third Republic France--the France of the second half of the 19th century. These were glory years in the annals of French freethought, a time when scientific positivism, anti-clericalism and faith in science and reason reinvigorated the climate of ideas with the spirit of Voltaire. It was a period that might well be called the French Neo-enlightenment. One of its standout figures was Georges Clemenceau.
Clemenceau (1841-1929) was born in a little village in the Vendee region of western France. The son of a physician, he studied medicine in Paris in the early 1860s, eventually earning a medical doctorate. While in medical school he took his first steps into journalism, meeting and befriending emile Zola and writing with him for an ephemeral newspaper called Travail (Work). In his articles, Clemenceau boldly endorsed freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the establishment of a Republic. These opinions, during the years of Napoleon III's Second empire, were bound to get him into trouble. In 1862 he served sixty-three days in jail for participating in a pro-republican student demonstration.
In 1865 Clemenceau sailed to New York City as a foreign correspondent for Le Temps. He ended up spending four productive years in the United States. During this time he sent back many pieces to his Parisian home office on life in post-Civil War America, including several anti-slavery articles and an interview with Ulysses Grant.
Clemenceau's U.S. sojourn also left him with an excellent command of english, a skill that would serve him well a half century later at Versailles, in his discussions with Woodrow Wilson and British prime minister David Lloyd George at the table of the Paris Peace Conference, where Clemenceau served as leader of the French delegation.
In addition, Clemenceau translated John Stewart Mill's Auguste Comte and Positivism into French (positivism would leave a lasting impression on his own thinking) and taught French and equestrianism at Aiken Seminary for Young Ladies in Stamford, Connecticut. Here he met a student named Mary Plummer, whom he married in 1869. The marriage would last seven years, producing three children.
Returning to France with his new wife, he plunged into politics. In 1870, in the wake of France's disastrous defeat at the hands of the Prussians, the radical government known as the Commune appointed him Mayor of Montmartre. Clemenceau's anti-German sentiments, which would never abate, took root at this time. He was a member of the Paris Municipal Council from 1871 to 1876. During the 1870s and 1880s he was five times elected a deputy to the National Assembly.
Clemenceau was out of politics between 1893 and 1906 but continued his social action as a journalist. For much of this period he owned and edited La Justice, a newspaper to which he contributed a steady stream of articles, many of them anti-clerical. Biographer Wythe Williams calls the Clemenceau of the 1890s "the most widely read and influential molder of public opinion in the [French] nation."1
Between 1898 and 1901, peak years in the Dreyfus Affair, Clemenceau edited and contributed regularly to the daily L'Aurore (Dawn), where he was joined by old friend emile Zola in that paper's ardent campaign on behalf of Alfred Dreyfus. Zola's famous open letter to the French president, "J'accuse," published in L'Aurore in January 1898, owed its title to Clemenceau. The complete collected newspaper articles of Clemenceau fill nineteen volumes; articles written during the Dreyfus Affair account for seven of the nineteen. Criticism of religion is a thread running through all nineteen volumes.
In spite of his intense social involvement during the 19th century's final decade, Clemenceau found time to ponder the history of religions, and this resulted in a collection of essays entitled Le Grand Pan (The Great God Pan, 1896). The idea behind Clemenceau's title is that Pan is paradoxically still among us. Although it may please us to think that primitive, "false" gods have been replaced over time by more modern and "truer" ones, such changes are illusory. Historically, says Clemenceau, there are no new gods, just old gods recycled. We are mistaken to think that Pan was buried under with the advent of Christianity. In actuality he lives on, as do various other deities from earlier eras, all of them disguised, but only slightly, under new names and costumes, all of them false, all of them eternally animated by the same unchanging forces: ignorance and superstition.
From 1903 to 1906 Clemenceau served in the Senate while continuing to edit L'Aurore. He was twice Prime Minister of France, first from 1906 to 1909, then from 1917 to 1920. During the second of these two terms, the defeat of Germany was his all-consuming goal. When World War I came to an end with France on the winning side, Clemenceau was acclaimed throughout his country as Pere Victoire, Father Victory. In 1920, at age 79, he narrowly missed being elected President of the French Republic.
Nicknamed "The Tiger" early in his career, Clemenceau was a scrappy political fighter who excelled at ousting political opponents by provoking votes of no confidence, a tactic that earned him the title "wrecker of ministries." He also cut a fierce figure in the beau monde of French society. A famed duelist, he was known and feared as an expert swordsman and marksman.
Toughness of character notwithstanding, Clemenceau was a person of learning and culture. He knew and loved painting and sculpture and was among the first to herald the genius of Van Gogh. Rodin, who sculpted a bust of him, was a personal friend. So was Claude Monet, about whom Clemenceau wrote a book. Clemenceau owned Monet's self-portrait, eventually donating it to the Louvre. He himself, like his friend Zola, sat for edouard Manet. It was at Clemenceau's insistence that James McNeill Whistler's famous painting "Arrangement in Gray and Black" (we know it better as "Whistler's Mother") was purchased by the French government. A statue of Clemenceau stands on the Champs-elysee.
Clemenceau's 17th-century forebears were Protestants who had experienced persecution during the reign of Louis XIV. In time the family returned to Catholicism, but without abandoning a certain streak of rebelliousness and skepticism. Clemenceau's paternal grandfather, though a member of a Catholic parish, was buried without a religious funeral. His father was an outspoken nonbeliever who insisted that his children be raised without religious training. In this he was opposed by Clemenceau's mother, a practicing Protestant. Though deeply attached to both parents, young Georges identified strongly with his father. At age 16 he was once suspended from school for arguing against Christianity with a teacher.
When he married in 1869, Clemenceau insisted, to the dismay of his bride and her family, on a strictly civil ceremony, free of all religious trappings. "Throughout his life," biographer Williams tells us, "the Tiger declined to attend religious services, except for an occasional state ceremony in a cathedral, which in his public position he could not avoid."2 In his will, Clemenceau stipulated that his body was to be taken from the mortuary to the graveyard without rites of any kind.
The Tiger's wry sense of humor added to his popularity. As he progressed into his eighties, he enjoyed raising eyebrows by referring fondly to his impending death as a long overdue sleep he was eager to enjoy. For his burial he chose a plot next to the grave of his father. When the carver in charge of his tombstone took Clemenceau to the site to complain that the area was too small for a coffin, the two-time Prime Minister of France, indifferent to gaping onlookers, strolled over to the spot in question and fell to the ground, stretching out full-length and "modeling" his future grave, to demonstrate that the bed he had chosen for his final slumber was indeed a comfortable fit.
Not surprisingly, history textbooks and encyclopedias tend to skirt the issue of Clemenceau's atheism. His anti-clericalism (a political stance and thus a relatively "safe" topic) is inevitably discussed, but specific mention of his personal rejection of religion is carefully avoided. Collier's Encyclopedia, Encyclopedia Americana, The Encyclopedia Britannica and Grolier's Multimedia Encyclopedia are all cases in point: nowhere in the Clemenceau entries found in these standard reference works is there a direct statement about Clemenceau's open, lifelong atheism.
Georges Clemenceau is a towering figure in the history of France's Third Republic. Throughout his political and journalistic career he fearlessly attacked the Church as an institution guilty of fostering ignorance, superstition and inhumanity. Along with countless other 19th-century French artists and intellectuals, he dreamed of a day when organized religion would be rendered obsolete by the forces of reason and science.