January 1

    Michel Onfray

    Michel Onfray

    On this date in 1959, Michel Onfray was born in Argentan in northwest France. He taught philosophy in high school in Caen from 1983 to 2002. During this time he received his doctorate from the University of Caen in 1986. Onfray’s first book, Le ventre des philosophes, critique de la raison diététique (The Philosophers’ Stomach: A Critique of Dietary Reasoning) was published in 1989.

    Onfray has written over 100 published books, which are popular throughout France as well as other parts of Europe, Latin America and even East Asia. However, only one, Traité d’Atheologie (2005) has been published in English: Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

    In 2002 he founded the Université Populaire (People’s University) in Caen, at which he and others give free lectures on philosophy and other intellectual topics. The main thrust of Onfray’s work is atheist, materialist and hedonist. On the Brain@McGill website affiliated with the Institute of Neurosciences, Mental Health and Addiction, Bruno Dubuc writes: “The French author Michel Onfray may be the philosopher who best represents the hedonist tradition today. In his many works, Onfray attempts to reposition the human body at the centre of our world view. … Onfray specializes in a certain ancient philosophy that has been buried under 2000 years of Christianity.”

    In Atheist Manifesto, Onfray makes a strong case for removing all the remnants of Judeo-Christian ideology from our secular culture. Onfray is also a historian of philosophy who loves to point out why many philosophers are undeserving of our respect. He has so far published six volumes in the series La contre histoire de la philosophie (The Counter-History of Philosophy).

    Photo by Perline via CC 3.0

    “I persist in preferring philosophers to rabbis, priests, imams, ayatollahs, and mullahs. Rather than trust their theological hocus-pocus, I prefer to draw on alternatives to the dominant philosophical historiography: the laughers, materialists, radicals, cynics, hedonists, atheists, sensualists, voluptuaries. They know that there is only one world, and that promotion of an afterlife deprives us of the enjoyment and benefit of the only one there is. A genuinely deadly sin.” 

    —Onfray, "Atheist Manifesto" (2005)
    Compiled by Eleanor Wroblewski

    E.M. Forster

    E.M. Forster

    On this date in 1879, English writer Edward Morgan Forster was born in London to a wealthy family. His architect father died of tuberculosis before his second birthday. He inherited £8,000 in trust (about $1.3 million in 2017 dollars) in 1887 from his great-aunt, which enabled him to support himself by writing after attending Kings College-Cambridge.

    Forster, who was gay, wrote all six of his novels while living with his mother in Surrey. They traveled widely together. As a conscientious objector in World War I, he served as a searcher of missing military members for the British Red Cross in Egypt.

    His most well-known novels are A Room With a View (1908), Howards End (1910), Maurice (1913-14) and A Passage to India (1924). All four have been made into major motion pictures. A television adaptation of Howards End first aired on the cable network Starz in 2018 and premiered as a four-episode series on “Masterpiece” on PBS in January 2020. He also wrote short stories, travel pieces, scripts, essays, biographies and the libretto for Benjamin Britten’s opera “Billy Budd,” based on Herman Melville‘s novel. 

    In the 1930s and 1940s he worked as a broadcaster on BBC Radio and was associated with the Union of Ethical Societies. Forster called himself a humanist and was president of the Cambridge Humanists from 1959 to his death. He was a vice president of the Ethical Union in the 1950s and a member of the Advisory Council of Humanists UK from its foundation in 1963.

    “A humanist has four leading characteristics — curiosity, a free mind, belief in good taste, and belief in the human race,” Forster wrote in “George and Gide,” an essay in the collection Two Cheers for Democracy (1951).

    Forster had a long relationship with Robert Buckingham, a policeman 23 years his junior, with the acquiescence of Buckingham’s wife May, who came to accept that her husband was romantically involved with Forster, perhaps influenced by a gift of £10,000. He died of a stroke at age 91 at the Buckinghams’ home. His ashes, mingled with those of Buckingham, were later scattered in the rose garden of Coventry’s crematorium. (D. 1970)

    PHOTO: Forster in 1938; photo by Howard Coster/National Portrait Gallery under CC 3.0.

    “I do not believe in Belief.”

    “There lies at the back of every creed something terrible and hard for which the worshipper may one day be required to suffer.”

    —Forster's essay "What I Believe," The Nation magazine (July 21, 1938)
    Compiled by Bill Dunn

    Gustave Tridon

    Gustave Tridon

    On this date in 1841, Edme Marie Gustave Tridon was born into a wealthy family in Châtillon-sur-Seine, France. He studied law and was qualified to practice it but never did. As a student he became a radical republican socialist and opponent of Emperor Napoleon III.

    He also embraced metaphysical materialism and atheism, considering the latter the highest achievement of scientific reason. Among the figures of the French Revolution, he most admired Jacques-René Hébert, a Parisian guillotined by the Jacobins. Tridon published two books on the Hébertists: The Hébertists: Protest Against a Historical Calumny (1864) and The Commune of 1793: The Hébertists (1871). He also published a history titled The Gironde and the Girondists (1869).

    Tridon’s views corresponded with those of veteran revolutionary Louis Auguste Blanqui, whom he met in the Sainte-Pélagie prison in 1865. Tridon had been incarcerated there for writing anti-religious articles deemed contrary to morality. After his release he founded the journal Candide, which was eventually shut down by the authorities, and Tridon was jailed again.

    In 1866 he joined the First International, one of the first Blanquists to do so. On his return to France from the International congress, he was again arrested and remained in prison until 1868. He founded the journal Revue and contributed articles to several other journals. In January 1870, fearing arrest, he fled to Brussels. He was sentenced in absentia to deportation.

    A dark stain on his legacy was the so-called racial anti-Semitism in vogue within the French anarchist left during the mid-19th century. Tridon wrote Du Molochisme Juif, a screed published posthumously that pleaded for an Aryan victory over the Jews to save Western civilization and referred to Jews as “a carnivorous race sacrificing humans to its gods.” (Judd L. Teller, Scapegoat of Revolution, 1954.)

    The exact cause of his death at age 30 is uncertain. Some sources say it was suicide, but British author Joseph Mazzini Wheeler wrote that while imprisoned in Sainte-Pélagie, he “contracted the malady which killed him.” 

    Historian Maurice Dommanget wrote in Hommes et Choses de la Commune (Men and Things of the Commune) that “This twenty-nine-year-old man is already worn out. He is hunched to the point that he looks like he is hunchbacked, his face is riddled with pimples, his cheeks hang down. His weak constitution, his delicate health did not allow him to overcome the feverish militant life and the long stays in prison.” D. 1871.

    “He received the most splendid Freethinker’s funeral witnessed in Belgium.”

    —"A Biographical Dictionary of Freethinkers of All Ages and Nations," by Joseph Mazzini Wheeler (1889)
    Compiled by Bill Dunn

    ‘Wall of Separation’ Phrase Coined

    ‘Wall of Separation’ Phrase Coined

    On this date in 1802, President Thomas Jefferson coined the famous phrase describing the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment as erecting “a wall of separation between church and state.” He used the phrase in his famous letter to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut, who had asked him to explain the meaning of the First Amendment’s phrase “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

    “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibit the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state.”

    —Jefferson's letter to the Baptists of Danbury (Jan. 1, 1802)



    On this date in 1839, Ouida, a novelist, animal rights activist and freethinker, was born Maria Louisa Ramé in Bury St. Edmunds, England. She derived her pen name Ouida from her own childish pronunciation of Louisa. She rivaled Dickens, Browning and George Eliot for salability on the Continent. She wrote more than 40 novels, as well as short stories, children’s books and essays.

    A passionate animal lover and rescuer, she owned as many as 30 dogs at once. Ouida’s enduring collection of stories, A Dog of Flanders (1872), has been made into a movie five times. Her essay “The Failure of Christianity” was published in 1895 in her nonfiction book Views and Opinions. American author Jack London cited her novel Signa, which he read at age 8, as one of the main reasons for his literary success.

    Under Two Flags, one of her most famous novels, described British life in Algeria and sympathized with French colonists and, to some extent, the Arabs. The novel was adapted for the stage and was filmed six times. She never married, and her lavish lifestyle eventually led to penury. She died at age 69 from pneumonia in Italy, where she had lived for some time. Friends organized a public subscription in Bury St. Edmunds, where they had a fountain for horses and dogs installed in her name. (D. 1908)

    “Christianity is a formula: it is nothing more.”

    —Ouida, "Views and Opinions" (1895)

Freedom From Religion Foundation