December 16

    George Santayana

    George Santayana

    On this date in 1863, philosopher George Santayana (né Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás) was born in Madrid, Spain, where he was schooled in Catholicism before emigrating with his parents to the U.S. at age 9 in 1872. Santayana earned a Ph.D. in philosophy at Harvard University in 1886 and joined the faculty in 1889. His first book was Sonnets and Other Verses (1894), followed by his eloquent philosophical works The Sense of Beauty (1896), The Life of Reason (1905-06), Skepticism and Animal Faith (1923) and the four-volume The Realms of Being (1927-40). He wrote one novel, The Last Puritan (1935), which proved popular. His final work was Domination and Power (1951). 

    “We should have to abandon our vested illusions, our irrational religions and patriotisms,” he wrote in The Life of Reason: Reason in Art (1906). “The fact of having been born is a bad augury for immortality,” Santayana quipped in The Life of Reason. “My atheism, like that of Spinoza, is true piety toward the universe and denies only gods fashioned by men in their own image, to be servants of their human interests.” (On My Friendly Critics, Soliloquies in England, 1922.)

    He resigned from Harvard in 1912 at age 48 to travel abroad and never returned to the U.S. Santayana never married. Scholars have speculated about his sexuality but it remains unclear whether he had any actual heterosexual or homosexual relationships.

    Although he was an avowed atheist, his views on religion have been described as fairly benign and were outlined in his books Reason in Religion, The Idea of Christ in the Gospels and Interpretations of Poetry and Religion. For much of the last decade of his life, he was cared for by Irish nuns at a convent in Rome, where he died in 1952 at age 88.

    “No religion has ever given a picture of deity which men could have imitated without the grossest immorality.”

    —"Little Essays, Drawn From the Writings of George Santayana" by Logan Pearsall Smith (1920)

    Ludwig van Beethoven

    Ludwig van Beethoven

    On this date in 1770, composer Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany, into a Catholic family. After working as an assistant organist, he studied in Vienna under Haydn. Beethoven was an admirer of Goethe, who rejected Christianity in favor of a pantheistic viewpoint. When his friend Moscheles returned a manuscript to Beethoven with the words “With God’s help” on it, Beethoven reportedly wrote instead, “Man, help thyself.” (Cited in A Biographical Dictionary of Modern Rationalists by Joseph McCabe, 1920.)

    His biographer and friend Anton Schindler wrote that Beethoven was “inclined to Deism.” Although he received Catholic ministrations at the insistence of religious friends, Beethoven reportedly said in Latin after the priest left, “Applaud, friends; the comedy is over.” (Beethoven’s Brevier, Ludwig Noll, 1870.) In the Imperial Dictionary of Universal Biography (1857), George Macfarren described Beethoven as a “free-thinker.” D. 1827.

    “There is no record of his ever attending church service or observing the orthodoxy of his religion. He never went to confession. … Generally he viewed priests with mistrust.”

    —George Marek, "Beethoven: Biography of a Genius" (1969), cited by James A. Haught in "2000 Years of Disbelief"
    Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor; photo by Everett Historical,

    Arthur C. Clarke

    Arthur C. Clarke

    On this date in 1917, science fiction writer and inventor Arthur C. Clarke was born in Minehead, Somerset, England. A stargazer as a boy, he could not afford to attend university. He became a radar specialist for the Royal Air Force during World War II. A lifelong nonbeliever, he refused to accept the “Church of England” affiliation put on his dogtag by the RAF and insisted they change it to “pantheist.” Clarke earned a degree in math and physics in 1948 at King’s College, London. He was the first to propose, in a technical paper in 1945, that geostationary satellites could make telecommunication relays, which later won him the 1982 Marconi International Fellowship and many other honors.

    After selling science fiction throughout the 1940s, Clarke was writing full-time by 1951. In 1954 he suggested satellite applications for weather forecasting to the U.S. Weather Bureau. He turned from the stars to underwater exploration, concentrating on the coast of Sri Lanka, where he moved in 1956.

    When Clarke was 36 he married Marilyn Mayfield, a 22-year-old American divorcee with a young son. They separated after six months, although the divorce was not finalized until 1964. He never remarried but was intimate with a Sri Lankan man, Leslie Ekanayake, who died in 1977. They were eventually buried together. Clarke’s New York Times obituary noted that journalists who asked if Clarke was gay were told, “No, merely mildly cheerful.”

    His most famous work was the screenplay, co-written with Stanley Kubrick, for the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The script was nominated for an Oscar. Clarke served as chair of the British Interplanetary Society. His TV programs included “Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World” (1981) and “Arthur C. Clarke’s World of Strange Powers” (1984). He co-broadcast Apollo 11, 12 and 15 missions with Walter Cronkite and CBS News. He was wheelchair-bound starting in 1988 with post-polio syndrome. 

    In 2000 Clarke was knighted. Before his death at age 90 in 2008, he left instructions about his funeral: “Absolutely no religious rites of any kind, relating to any religious faith, should be associated with my funeral.” He told the London Times in August 1992 that he was “an aggressive agnostic.” In 1999 he told Free Inquiry magazine, “One of the great tragedies of mankind is that morality has been hijacked by religion.”

    “Religion is the most malevolent of all mind viruses. We should get rid of it as quick as we can.”

    —Clarke interview with Popular Science magazine (Aug. 1, 2004)
    Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

    Bill Hicks

    Bill Hicks

    On this date in 1961, stand-up comedian and social critic William Melvin Hicks was born in Valdosta, Ga., to parents Jim and Mary Hicks (née Reese). Hicks’ family lived in Florida, Alabama and New Jersey before settling in Houston when he was 7. The neighborhood was mostly Southern Baptist. At age 12 he began performing as a comedy duo with his friend Dwight Slade. By 13 he had already begun stand-up gigs, the first of which was at a church camp talent show.

    After high school he moved to Los Angeles, playing gigs and making a number of television appearances. In 1982 he founded the Absolute Creative Entertainment Production Company, which later became Sacred Cow. He moved to New York City, performing 300 times a year over the next five years. Hicks inspired a devoted following in the UK and Ireland, winning the Critics’ Award at the Edinburgh Festival. In 1992 he moved back to L.A. and was voted “Hot Stand-up Comic” by Rolling Stone magazine in 1993, though his material was controversial.

    His 12th and final appearance with late-night host David Letterman in 1993 was cut from the broadcast due to his jokes about religion and anti-abortionists. Though Hicks grew up Southern Baptist, he was always a freethinker. When his father would say that he believed the bible was the literal word of God, Hicks replied, “You know, some people believe that they’re Napoleon. That’s fine. Beliefs are neat. Cherish them, but don’t share them like they’re the truth.” (American Scream: The Bill Hicks Story by Cynthia True, 2002.)

    He died from pancreatic cancer in February 1994 at age 32 at his parents’ home in Little Rock, Ark. Rolling Stone ranked him No. 13 on its 2017 list of the 50 best stand-up comics of all time.

    “The whole image is that eternal suffering awaits anyone who questions God’s infinite love. That’s the message we’re brought up with, isn’t it? Believe or die! Thank you, forgiving Lord, for all those options.”

    —From Hicks’ posthumously released album “Rant in E-Minor” (1997)
    Compiled by Noah Bunnell

Freedom From Religion Foundation