Robert Burns

On this date in 1759, Robert Burns was born. The Scottish farmer-poet, who once described himself as being full of "enthusiastic, idiot piety" as a boy, early on questioned religious belief. He directed his pen against Calvinism in his first poem, "Two Herds" (1785), a satire on rival theology, followed by "Holy Willie's Prayer" and "Holy Fair." Biographers, unsure whether to term Burns an agnostic or a deist, agree he rejected Calvinism ("I am in perpetual warfare with that doctrine," letter to Mrs. Dunlop, Aug. 2, 1788), churches ("Courts for cowards were erected, / Churches built to please the priest"), doubted the existence of god ("O Thou Great Being! what thou art / Surpasses me to know"), and the existence of an afterlife. From Burns' poem, "To a Louse on Seeing One on a Lady's Bonnet at Church": "O wad some pow'r the giftie gie us / to see oursels as others see us!/ It wad frae monie a blunder free us / An' foolish notions." He wrote Mrs. Dunlop on Aug. 21, 1792, that "still the damned dogmas of reasoning Philosophy throw in their doubt." The celebrated "Ploughman Poet" bequeathed the world the lyrics of "Auld Lang Syne," striking a welcome secular note with which to end the Western New Year: "We'll take a cup o' kindness yet / For auld lang syne." When he died at age 37 of heart disease, 10,000 people attended the burial. Today his birthdate is celebrated in Scotland and abroad. D. 1797.

“These, my worthy friend, are my ideas. . . It becomes a man of sense to think for himself; particularly in a case where all men are equally interested, and where, indeed, all men are equally in the dark.”

—Robert Burns, letter to Robert Muir, March 8, 1788

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

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