Freethought of the Day

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There are 2 entries for this date: George Eliot and Rodney Dangerfield
George Eliot

George Eliot

On this date in 1819, novelist and essayist George Eliot, née Mary Ann Evans, was born at a farmstead in Derbyshire, England, where her father was estate manager. (Although she didn't publish under her pen name until 1857 and used several versions of her given name, Eliot will be used throughout this entry for simplicity's sake.) As the youngest child and a favorite of her father, she received a good education for a young woman of her day. Influenced by a governess, she became a religious evangelical as an adolescent. Her first published work was a religious poem.

Through a family friend, she was exposed to the Unitarian Charles Hennell's Inquiry Concerning the Origins of Christianity. Unable to believe, she stopped attending church. In an 1842 letter to a friend, she termed the bible as "histories consisting of mingled truth and fiction" and prayer as "a vain offering." (The George Eliot Letters, Vol. I, 1954.) Her religious views had earlier caused her father to shun her and send her to live with a sister until she promised to reexamine her feelings. She apparently did and kept house for him until his death in 1849. Her mother had died in 1836 when Eliot was 16.

Her intellectual views did not, however, change. She translated Strauss' Das Leben Jesu, a monumental task, without signing her name to the 1846 work. She accepted the assisant editorship of the Westminister Review quarterly, the official organ of the Philosophical Radicals founded by Jeremy Bentham in 1823. Despite a heavy workload, she translated Feuerbach's The Essence of Christianity, the only book ever published under her real name.

Eliot then scandalized society by sending notices to friends announcing she had entered a free "union" with writer and arts critic George Henry Lewes, who was unable to divorce his wife. They lived harmoniously together for 24 years while enduring social ostracism and financial hardship. She started her impressive fiction career, including Scenes of Clerical Life (1857), Adam Bede (1859), The Mill on the Floss (1860), Silas Marner (1861), Romola (1863) and Middlemarch (1871). British writer Martin Amis has called Middlemarch the greatest novel in the English language. Daniel Deronda (1876) was her last novel. Lewes died two years later.

She married John Walter Cross, 20 years her junior, in May 1880. A throat infection coupled with the kidney disease with which she had been afflicted for several years led to her death on Dec. 22, 1880, at age 61. She was denied burial in Westminster Abbey because of her criticisms of Christianity and her relationship with Lewes.

"I have not returned to dogmatic Christianity — to the acceptance of any set of doctrines as a creed, and a superhuman revelation of the Unseen."

—Eliot letter to François D’Albert-Durade, Dec. 6, 1859; "The George Eliot Letters, Volume III: 1859–1861" (9 vols., 1954–78)

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

© Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.

Rodney Dangerfield

Rodney Dangerfield

On this date in 1921, Rodney Dangerfield (né Jacob Rodney Cohen) was born in Babylon, Long Island, N.Y., to Jewish parents. His father was largely absent from the home. Dangerfield began performing comedy when he was 17, paving the way for his stand-up routines in the Borscht Belt in upstate New York at age 19, when he changed his legal name to Jack Roy. (His father had performed vaudeville as Phil Roy.) He married singer Joyce Indig in 1949 and they had two children. Wanting a different life than what their level of show business provided, they settled in Englewood, N.J., to raise their two children. He worked at various jobs, including selling paint and aluminum siding.

They divorced in 1962, remarried a year later and divorced again. At age 42 he started rehabilitating his comedy act, taking the Dangerfield stage name, with his big break in 1967 as a last-minute replacement on "The Ed Sullivan Show." He appeared on the Sullivan show seven times and over  70 times on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson as he honed his act with its deprecating one-liners, in particular his catchphrase “I get no respect.”

He stopped touring in 1969 to operate the comedy club Dangerfield's, while raising his children after his ex-wife died. He later headlined shows in Las Vegas and landed roles in the films “Caddyshack” (1980), "Easy Money" (1983), “Back To School” (1986), “Natural Born Killers” (1994) and others. He won a 1981 Grammy Award for his album “No Respect” and received comedy achievement and creative awards in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In 1993 he married Joan Child, a flower importer. His 2004 autobiography was titled It's Not Easy Bein' Me: A Lifetime of No Respect but Plenty of Sex and Drugs.

He called himself an atheist during a May 2004 interview with Howard Stern, adding that he was a "logical" atheist. He died at age 82 on Oct. 5, 2004, at the UCLA Medical Center of complications after heart surgery and spending several weeks in a coma. His headstone reads "Rodney Dangerfield ... There goes the neighborhood."

Public domain photo: Dangerfield performing in 1972.

“We’re apes — do apes go anyplace [when they die]?”

—Dangerfield, Howard Stern radio show (May 25, 2004)

Compiled by Sabrina Gaylor and Bonnie Gutsch

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