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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Béla Bartók

Béla Bartók

On this date in 1881, composer, pianist and ethnomusicologist Béla Bartók was born in Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary. He and Franz Liszt are regarded by many as the greatest Hungarian composers. Trained in piano and composition at the Budapest Academy of Music, Bartók began his career as a touring pianist in 1903. His talents as a composer soon became apparent, and Bartók assumed a professorship at the academy in 1908. He drew inspiration from the folk music of the Balkans and other regions while engaging in intense studies of harmonic practices, including those of contemporary French composers. While not an expert in stringed instruments, Bartók’s compositions displayed a preternatural understanding of the violin: “He enriched [the violin’s] repertoire with such essential works as his two Sonatas for Violin and Piano (of 1921 and 1922, respectively), two Rhapsodies for Violin and Orchestra (1928-29), 44 Duos for Two Violins (1931), and the Sonata for Solo Violin (1944).” (New York Philharmonic.) 

His childhood Catholicism was gone by early adulthood. "By the time I had completed my 22nd year, I was a new man — an atheist.” (Béla Bartók: Life and Work by Benjamin Suchoff, 2001.) He later became attracted to Unitarianism and publicly converted in 1916. A committed anti-fascist, Bartók opposed Hungary’s alliance with Germany in World War II, and refused to perform in Germany during Nazi rule. Bartók married Márta Ziegler in 1909 when he was 28 and she was 16. They divorced in 1923 and he married Ditta Pásztory, a piano student, two months later when she was 19 and he was 42. He had two sons, Béla Bartók III and Péter. Bartók and Ditta emigrated to the U.S. in 1940 and accepted a research fellowship at Columbia University, where they compiled a large collection of Serbian and Croatian folk songs for Columbia’s libraries. He died at age 64 in New York from complications of leukemia.

Bartók's portrait on a 1,000-forint banknote. Hungarian National Bank photo (cropped).  GNU Free Documentation License

"To violinist Stefi Geyer, he once wrote about his religious belief, calling the trinity a 'clumsy fable' that 'enslaves thought.' ... The existence of the universe did not require the hypothesis of a creator. 'Why don't we simply say: I can't explain the origin of its existence and leave it at that?' "

—"Béla Bartók" by David Cooper (2015)

Compiled by Paul Epland

© Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.

Courtlandt Palmer

Courtlandt Palmer

On this date in 1843, writer Courtlandt Palmer was born in New York. An 1869 graduate of Columbia Law School and heir to family wealth, Palmer used both assets to promote rationalism. He had rejected the Dutch Reformed church of his family at an early age. He founded the Nineteenth Century Club to promote freethought, serving as its first president. He also wrote for The Truth Seeker and other freethought publications.

The New York Sun, in its obituary, lauded Palmer for "a surpassing feat in making fashionable in New York a sort of discussion which before had been frowned upon as in the last degree pernicious, and especially unbefitting polite and conservative society. He set people to thinking and talking over moral and religious questions, which they had not dared to consider, and made familiar to them views from which they had turned in alarm as morally poisonous and soul-destroying. The Nineteenth Century Club was established as a Freethinking debating society, and not many years ago it would have been avoided and denounced as an institution for the propagation of Infidelity and odious Radicalisms. Yet under Mr. Palmer's lead the club received the stamp of fashionable approval, and its discussion have been carried on before crowded assemblages of ladies and gentlemen in full evening dress. ... Where they had been sure there was only one possible side, they saw other people found many sides."

The obituary also noted that Palmer's death defied the stereotype "that the deathbed of the unbeliever is an agonizing one." It noted his final words to family were: "I want you one and all to tell the whole world that you have seen a Freethinker die without the last fear of what the hereafter may be." D. 1888.

Public domain sketch

“He investigated for himself the questions, the problems, and the mysteries of life. Majorities were nothing to him. No error could be old enough, popular, plausible, or profitable enough, to bribe his judgment or to keep his conscience still. He was a believer in intellectual hospitality, in the fair exchange of thought, in good mental manners, in the amenities of the soul, in the chivalry of discussion. He believed in the morality of the useful, that the virtues are the friends of humanity, the seeds of joy. He lived and labored for his fellow men.”

—Col. Robert G. Ingersoll's funeral oration on behalf of Courtlandt Palmer. (Cited in "Four Hundred Years of Freethought" by S.P. Putnam, 1894.

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

© Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.

Matilda Joslyn Gage

Matilda Joslyn Gage

On this date in 1826, Matilda Electa Gage (née Joslyn) was born in Cicero, N.Y. The father of this ranking national suffrage leader and outspoken freethinker was Dr. Hezekiah Joslyn, whose home was a station on the underground railroad and who advocated abolition, women's rights, freethought and temperance. Matilda married merchant Henry Gage at age 18 and gave birth to five children, one of whom died in infancy. A founding member and onetime president of the National Woman Suffrage Association, Gage worked closely with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Indignant over "the wrongs inflicted upon one-half of humanity by the other half in the name of religion," she delivered a major address, "Woman, Church, and State," at a suffrage convention in 1878. By popular response, she later turned this address into a book of the same name in 1893. It documented woman-hating abuses stemming from such religious doctrines as celibacy, including the witch hunts.

The activist organized protest voting campaigns for women, addressed Congress, edited the National Citizen and Ballot Box for four years and was an honorary member of the Council of Matrons of the Iroquois. Gage convened the historic Woman's National Liberal Union in 1890, the first feminist group devoted to the promotion of the separation of church and state. Gage's warning of a union of Catholics and Protestants whose agenda was to put God in the Constitution and attack secular schools, is eerily timely today: "[I]n order to help preserve the very life of the Republic, it is imperative that women should unite upon a platform of opposition to the teaching and aim of that ever most unscrupulous enemy of freedom — the Church." Carved on her tombstone in Fayetteville, N.Y., is Gage's well-known motto: "There is a word sweeter than Mother, Home, or Heaven; that word is Liberty." D. 1898.

Public domain photo: Radcliffe College Schlesinger Library

“During the ages, no rebellion has been of like importance with that of Woman against the tyranny of the Church and State; none has had its far reaching effects. We note its beginning; its progress will overthrow every existing form of these institutions; its end will be a regenerated world.”

—"Woman, Church and State," by Matilda Joslyn Gage (1893)

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

© Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.

Gloria Steinem

Gloria Steinem

On this date in 1934, feminist leader and journalist Gloria Steinem was born in Toledo, Ohio, to Leo and Ruth (Nuneviller) Steinem.. At the age of 10, her father abandoned the family, leaving Gloria alone to care for her mother, who was dysfunctional from depression. She went to school as possible, tap-danced in talent contests, and mothered her severely ill mother. The difficulty of her struggles was poignantly revealed in an anecdote in later memoirs, of how she waited until all the dishes were dirty, then washed them in the bathtub. Escaping into books and the movies, she was popular with classmates and managed to do well in school. In 1951, she was finally rescued when her older sister invited her to move to Washington, D.C., and complete her high school education. Steinem was accepted by Smith College, where she first started to write, and graduated magna cum laude in 1956.

The recipient of a two-year grant to India, she discovered that she was pregnant. During a stopover in England en route to India and facing a desperate crossroads, Steinem managed to arrange an abortion. She was later on the vanguard calling for legalized abortion. Steinem moved in 1960 to New York City to start a journalism career, where she was met with sexist roadblocks, such as the Life magazine editor who told her: "We don't want a pretty girl. We want a writer." The glamorous writer freelanced herself into New York celebrityhood, working for such venues as the TV news satire, "That Was the Week That Was." But it took her years to be given the political assignments she craved.

In 1969, Steinem wrote her first feminist article. Throughout the next five heady years, she stumped for feminism around the country, becoming the women's movement's best-known, most quotable exponent. She helped found Ms. Magazine in 1971, convinced that freedom would come through "individual women telling the truth." Feminism she defined as "the belief that women are full human beings." In 1972, McCall's magazine named her Woman of the Year. She was instrumental in calling the National Women's Conference in Houston, Texas, in 1977, a landmark gathering. In 1983, her first collection of essays and articles was published, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions. She also wrote Marilyn: Norma Jean, a biography of Marilyn Monroe (1986), Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem (1992) and Moving Beyond Words (1997). An idea generator and original thinker, Steinem remains one of feminism's most elegant, loyal and thoughtful advocates.

Gage Skidmore photo: Steinem speaking with supporters at the Women Together Summit at the Carpenters Local Union in Phoenix in 2016. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0

“It's an incredible con job, when you think of it, to believe something now in exchange for life after death. Even corporations, with all their reward systems, don't try to make it posthumous.”

—Gloria Steinem, interview with Annie Laurie Gaylor, The Feminist Connection, November 1980 (Madison, Wisconsin)

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

© Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.

Robbie Fulks

Robbie Fulks

On this date in 1963, "Insurgent country" artist Robbie Fulks was born in Pennsylvania. He grew up in North Carolina and Virginia. Fulks took up the banjo at age 7. He dropped out of Columbia University, working as a paralegal, proofreader and actor. In 1983 he moved to Chicago, where he eventually joined Chicago's premiere bluegrass band, Special Consensus. He also taught at Old Town School of Folk Music. In 1993, he formed Robbie Fulks and the Trailer Trash. "Insurgent Country: Vol. 1: For a Life of Sin" came out in 1994, followed by volume II of "Insurgent Country" in 1995. Other albums include "Let's Kill Saturday Night" (1998), "Couples in Trouble" (2001) and "13 Hillbilly Giants." Fulks often opens for the country's top entertainers.

In an interview with the Sarasota Herald-Tribune (Oct. 23, 1998), Fulks said: "Religion is one of the important questions in life, I think. Or the disposition of our mortal souls and what happens to us after we die, and whether there is or isn't a God. I definitely think about it every day of my life. Given that it's that important a topic, it just makes sense to deal with it in music. I just took my own views and slightly radicalized them for the song ["God Isn't Real"]. I'm not really a confirmed atheist. But I am kind of a reluctant disbeliever. And I thought that [type of song] hadn't been done in country music before."

Photo by Robman94 under CC 3.0

God Isn't Real

A world filled with wonder, a cold, fathomless sky
A man's life so meager, he can but wonder why
He cries out to Heaven its truth to reveal
The answer: only silence, for God isn't real.

Go ask the starving millions under Stalin's cruel reign
Go ask the child with cancer who eases her pain
Then go to your churches, if that's how you feel
But don't ask me to follow, for God isn't real.

He forms in his image a weak and foolish man
Speaks to him in symbols that few understand
For a life of devotion, the death blow he deals
We'd owe Him only hatred, but God isn't real.

Go tell the executioner of the power he can't defy
Go tell his shackled victim of the mercy on high. . .
Then go to your churches, go beg, pray, and kneel,
But don't ask me to follow, for God isn't real.

No, no matter how He should be, God isn't real.

—-Robbie Fulks, "God Isn't Real"

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

© Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.

Elton John

Elton John

On this date in 1947, Reginald Kenneth Dwight (Elton John) was born in Pinner, England. By age 4, he began playing piano and reportedly could play any melody he heard. He dropped out of the Royal Academy of Music in London in 1961 to form his first band, Bluesology, which performed Ray Charles and Jim Reeves ballads, among others. He acquired his stage name from two of the musicians in Bluesology, Long John Baldry and Elton Dean. After leaving Bluesology in 1966, Elton auditioned unsuccessfully for several big-name rock bands, but found success at an audition as a songwriter where he met Bernie Taupin, a lyricist with whom he would form a lifelong musical partnership. According to Elton's website, Bernie could write lyrics in less than an hour and Elton would compose the music in half an hour.

Elton's first major hit, "Your Song," making the U.S. Top Ten charts in 1970, earned him international fame. The Elton John Band went on to have other major hits, including "Rocket Man" (1972) and "Honky Cat" (1972). Elton created Rocket Records in 1974, the label under which he released the hits "Daniel" and "Crocodile Rock." In that same year he collaborated with his friend John Lennon at Lennon's final public concert in Madison Square Garden. Deemed the most successful pop artist of the 1970s, he often released at least two albums a year.

The singer battled bulimia and drug and alcohol addictions in the 1970s and 1980s. Just as his popularity waned, his band experienced a comeback at a free concert they hosted in Central Park. He produced chart-toppers in the 1980s such as "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues" (1983) and "I'm Still Standing" (1983). He experienced a health scare in the late 1980s with potentially cancerous nodules affecting his vocal cords. This brush with illness, threatening to dismantle his singing career, and co-habitating with partner David Furnish, helped refocus Elton to take care of his health, fight off his addictions and become a generous philanthropist. In 1990, he started donating royalties to AIDS awareness and in 1993 formed the Elton John Aids Foundation.

He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, wrote songs for "The Lion King" and won an Academy Award for the "Lion King" song "Can You Feel the Love Tonight." He won Tony Awards for his work on the theatrical productions of "The Lion King" (1998) and "Aida" (2000). His single, "Candle in the Wind," honoring the tragic death of his friend Princess Diana, broke all records and he donated proceeds to Diana's favorite charities. As an "out" gay, he rejects organized religion largely because "religion has always tried to turn hatred toward gay people. Religion promotes the hatred and spite against gays." (Observer Monthly magazine, November 2006.) He was knighted in 1998 by Queen Elizabeth II for his contributions to music and fundraising for AIDS. With about 220 million album sales over his 40-plus year career, he is one of the world's most well-known musical talents and humanitarians.

“From my point of view, I would ban religion completely. The reality is that organized religion doesn't seem to work. It turns people into hateful lemmings and it's not really compassionate.”

—Elton John, Observer Music Monthly interview (November 2006)

Compiled by Bonnie Gutsch; photo by Tinseltown, Shutterstock.com

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