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 3 entries for this date: Camille Pissarro , Marcel Proust and Ernie Chambers
Camille Pissarro

Camille Pissarro

On this date in 1830, impressionist painter Jacob Camille Pissarro was born on the island of St. Thomas in the West Indies to Frederic Pissarro and Rachel Petit. Their ancestors were Sephardic Jews who had been forced to convert to Catholicism by the Roman Catholic Inquisition. They preserved their Jewish faith in secret, revealing it only in the 20th century. These Sephardim were easily assimilated into French culture because of their connection over the years to the Catholic Church. This Jewish--but nontraditional, open-minded and rational--infrastructure was the one into which Camille's father, Frederic, was raised in Bordeaux. Moving to St. Thomas after his uncle died, Frederic married his widowed aunt-by-marriage, Rachel, scandalizing the Jewish community on the island. It took seven years and three children before their marriage was accepted by that community. In his biography, Camille Pissarro, Pissarro's great-grandson, Joachim Pissarro, writes: "Knowing what had happened to their parents, it is not surprising that none of the children was very enthusiastic about the religion of their ancestors. Pissarro decided to turn his back on religion altogether and immersed himself in authors who fortified his oppositional stance." Pissarro was sent to a boarding school outside of Paris at age 11. At 17, he returned to St. Thomas to work in the family business. Deciding at age 20 that the life of a clerk was not for him, he left for Venezuela to paint, eventually returning to France, where he lived the rest of his life. Pissarro married a nonJewish woman, whom his mother never accepted, providing more reinforcement for Pissarro of the problems caused by religion. By the late 1870s, Pissarro was known as "Pere Pissarro," and was respected for his kindness and support of colleagues and upcoming artists. Often compared to the painter Millet, Pissarro was quick to point out that "[the critics] all throw Millet at me, but Millet's art was biblical. For the Hebrew that I am, there is very little of that in me; isn't that funny?" (Stephanie Rachum, Exhibition catalogue. Jerusalem: Israel Museum, 1994) Confronting the art-world establishment, forcing it to make room for his revolutionary style of painting, expressing his belief in the need for new and modern art, he believed "our time is a birth and a transition to a new period." Most of Pissarro's paintings are landscapes, focusing on the forms and colors of nature. He developed a new technique of brushwork "to capture the play of light and create a sense of movement, producing images with a soft and welcoming aesthetic [and] when figures are included they function as elements of light and air." When asked what makes a true painter, Pissarro replied, "He is one who can put two tones of color in harmony" (Camille Pissarro by Joachim Pissarro).

Pissarro was an atheist and self-defined freethinker, both philosophically and in his art. While never denying his Jewish heritage, Pissarro felt that it made him an outsider. In 1894, the famed Dreyfus Affair was on everyone's tongue and sides were drawn. Among those against Dreyfus were some of Pissarro's oldest friends: Cezanne, Renoir and Degas. Pissarro's support of Dreyfus was linked not only to the overt anti-Semitism in the case, but also to his dislike of the bourgeoisie and capitalism. Paul Signac observed in his diary: "Pissarro tells me that since the anti-Semitic incidents, Degas and Renoir shun him and no longer greet him. What can be taking place in the minds of such intelligent men that leads them to become so stupid?" (Stephanie Rachum, Exhibition catalogue. Jerusalem: Israel Museum, 1994) Though Jewish in origin, Pissarro desired to be judged solely by universal art standards, and in this, paved the way for many of the artists of Jewish origin who came to Paris in the early 20th century. D.1903.

"He didn't turn his back to Judaism, but was against the idea of God or organized religion."


—Great-grandson Joachim Pissarro, curator of the Museum of Modern Art, and biographer, Camille Pissarro (1993)

(Compiled by Jane Esbenben)

© Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.

Marcel Proust

Marcel Proust

On this date in 1871, Marcel Proust was born in Auteuil, near Paris. His father was a prominent physician and his mother was part of a prosperous Jewish family. Although plagued by chronic asthma and well-publicized neuroses, Marcel completed his one-year stint of military service and studied law. He met Anatole France, who became Marcel's patron for a time. Like many other French writers of his day, Proust was active in opposing the prosecution of Dreyfuss. When Proust's first book of short stories, essays and poetry was not a success, he turned to translating the works of art historian John Ruskin. He then devoted much of his remaining life to Remembrance of Things Past, his 7-volume masterpiece. This freethinking pioneer of the modern novel died of an asthma attack. D. 1922.

“The kind of fraud which consists in daring to proclaim the truth while mixing it with a large share of lies that falsify it, is more widespread than is generally thought.”

—Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past (1913-26), cited in The Great Thoughts, edited by George Seldes

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

© Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.

Ernie Chambers

Ernie Chambers

On this date in 1937, Ernest Chambers, known as "the Maverick of Omaha" and "defender of the downtrodden," was born in Omaha, Neb., where he has since resided. Chambers understood early on the power of protest and of grassroots organizing, standing up for civil rights as a youth and emerging as a leader of African American youths in Omaha. He graduated from Creighton University School of Law, and was first elected to the Nebraska Legislature as a state senator in 1970. Chambers broke the starched suit and tie rules, wearing T-shirts to the Legislature, on Donahue, to the United Nations and to meet President Carter. He was the only black member of the legislature, in an overwhelmingly white, ultraconservative state, for most of his career. Chambers became known for defending the rights of women, gays and lesbians, farmers and criminals. He challenged paid prayers before the Nebraska Legislature in the Supreme Court case, Marsh v. Chambers (1983), and although the Supreme Court ruled against him, Chambers was successful in subsequently persuading the Senate (a unicameral branch) to drop payment for prayers. Rita Swan of Children's Healthcare is a Legal Duty (CHILD) said in 2005: "Nebraska is the only state in the country that has never had a religious exemption to child neglect in either the juvenile or criminal codes and that distinction is due to Ernie's forceful opposition and vigilance. Nebraska is one of four states without a religious exemption to metabolic screening of newborns and that again is because of Ernie's leadership." CHILD presented Chambers with its child advocacy service award for successfully arguing that "no parent should have a religious right to deprive a child of necessary health care" and keeping a religious exemption to health care from being enacted in that state.

Chambers cleverly filed a lawsuit in 2007 against "God" (Chambers v. God) to make a point about frivolous lawsuits. Chambers, who identifies as nonreligious without using a label, sought a permanent injunction against the Defendant for making terroristic threats against him and his constituents, of inspiring fear and causing "widespread death, destruction and terrorization of millions upon millions of the Earth's inhabitants." In October 2008, the judge threw out his lawsuit against God, saying the Defendant wasn’t properly served due to his unlisted home address. Chambers, accepting the Hero of the First Amendment Award from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, told the audience: "What I would do, from time to time, is mock, taunt, and ridicule my colleagues for injecting religion and Jesus into the Legislature" (Nov. 12, 2005). Chambers' political opponents, in a successful effort to finally unseat him from the Senate when they could not do so electorally, passed a law in 2000 establishing term-limits for Nebraska legislators so he was unable to seek reelection in 2008. In 2005, Chambers became Nebraska's longest-serving state senator. Ernie Chambers was re-elected to the Nebraska legislature in 2012, after sitting out one term as required by term limits.  He currently serves in the Nebraska legislature. In 2015, FFRF awarded Chambers its Emperor Has No Clothes Award. 

"As an elected official, I know the difference between theology and politics. My interest is in legislation, not salvation."

—-Ernie Chambers in his acceptance speech for the "Hero of the First Amendment" award at the 27th annual Freedom From Religion Foundation convention (Nov. 12, 2005)

Compiled by Bonnie Gutsch; Photo by Brent Nicastro

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