January 17

    Sean Danielsen

    Sean Danielsen

    On this date in 1982, Sean Danielsen was born in California. He began performing as lead guitarist and vocalist with Smile Empty Soul, an alternative rock band affiliated with Lava Records, in 1998, when he was still a high school student. Danielsen is the band’s primary songwriter. Smile Empty Soul released their popular self-titled album in 2003. Their other albums include “Anxiety” (2005), “Vultures” (2006), and “Consciousness” (2009). Their song “Who I Am” appeared on the “Spiderman 2” (2004) soundtrack.

    Smile Empty Soul is a decidedly freethought band. “Religion is just such a big bad part of my life that it’s going to come out [in my music],” Danielsen explained to journalist Jeff Nall, who wrote about Smile Empty Soul, Bad Religion, Greg Graffin and Ani DiFranco in the October 2004 issue of Freethought Today. The song “Every Sunday” on their first album, “Smile Empty Soul” (2003), contains the lyrics, “I don’t want your religions,” and the video for their song “Nowhere Kids” tackles the issue of sexual abuse by priests.

    Danielsen’s devoutly religious mother sent him to live at a Christian commune in an abandoned summer camp in Maine for three years, beginning when he was only 7. “My mom lets religion rule her life and I feel religion is a kind of safety blanket. If you’re afraid, you cling onto religion, and I just don’t want to be like that,” Danielsen said in a June 25, 2003 interview with MTV.

    In an Oct. 1, 2003 interview with lasvegascitylife.com, Danielsen said that his mother “was blown away by how much the album attacks her beliefs. She just couldn’t understand it at first. I just had to explain to her that this is how I believe, that I have a whole different set than hers and this is how I deal with them.”

    Photo by Jax 0677 under CC 4.0

    * The number of deaths attributable to religion in the quote below is in dispute. One example is here regarding Christianity.

    “I’m definitely against all organized religion just because, when you really look at it, organized religion has caused most of the deaths in the history of this planet. Most of the wars were fought over organized religion.”

    —Danielsen to journalist Jeff Nall, quoted in Freethought Today (October 2004)
    Compiled by Sabrina Gaylor

    Javed Akhtar

    Javed Akhtar

    On this date in 1945, Javed Akhtar (né Jadoo Akhtar) was born in Gwalior, India. His father was an Urdu poet and Bollywood songwriter, and his mother was a teacher and writer. Akhtar earned a bachelor’s degree from Saifia College in Bhopal, then moved to Mumbai in 1964, where he worked as a scriptwriter. In the 1980s he focused on writing lyrics for films. He has written lyrics for over 70 films, for which he has received several National Film Awards. In 2001 he received the National Integration Award from the All-India Anti-Terrorist Association. He serves on the advisory board of the Asian Academy of Film and Television.

    Akhtar married Honey Irani, with whom he had two children, Farhan and Zoya Akhtar, both film directors and actors. After divorcing, Akhtar married Shabana Azmi, the daughter of Urdu poet Kaifi Azmi.

    Muslims “have to improve their lot by lending strength to secular forces and by becoming more and more secular themselves,” he said in an interview with the Times of India. (“Questions and Answers,” March 28, 2002.) “Arms, drugs and spirituality – these are the three big businesses in the world. … Spirituality nowadays is definitely the tranquilizer of the rich,” he said in a 2005 speech at the India Today Conclave.

    “I am an atheist, I have no religious beliefs. And obviously I don’t believe in spirituality of some kind.”

    —Akhtar, India Today Conclave speech, “Spirituality: Halo or Hoax?” (Feb. 26, 2005)
    Compiled by Bonnie Gutsch

    Desmond M. Clarke

    Desmond M. Clarke

    On this date in 1942, Desmond M. Clarke, a distinguished political philosopher and former Catholic priest, was born in Dublin, Ireland. After secondary schooling, Clarke joined the Capuchin Order and after novitiation attended University College Cork, completing a B.S. degree. Clarke earned a licentiate of theology from the University of Lyon followed by a bachelor of philosophy from the University of Leuven in Belgium. Later he earned a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Notre Dame, where he met his future wife Dolores Dooley, a former nun.

    In 1974 he started teaching at University College Cork with his wife. They remained members of the university’s department of philosophy until retirement. Clarke published internationally recognized works on 17th-century philosophy, human rights theory and legal theory. In 1991 he was awarded a doctor of letters degree by the National University of Ireland. In 2014 he was awarded the gold medal by the Royal Irish Academy for his outstanding scholarly contribution to the humanities.

    Unafraid to challenge authority with intellectual truth, Clarke was known as a courageous fighter for justice. Despite his Catholic roots, he was a fearless speaker against religious interference in Irish government. In his highly influential book Church and State: Essays in Political Philosophy (1984), Clark offered a powerful criticism of the Catholic Church’s stranglehold on Irish society, outlining how the autonomy of the individual citizen is one of the first victims in the oppression of the state by religious ideologies. It is a tribute to Clark’s bravery that he published this book at a time when few Irish academics were willing to address the controversial subject of religiosity in government. D. 2016. 

    “If one insisted that publicly funded schools should always reflect the beliefs of the majority, then the results would be obvious in a state where a voting majority is Marxist, Muslim, Mennonite or Calvinist. If that is unacceptable to Catholics, it cannot be avoided by inviting a state to decide which theology is ‘true,’ since states are incompetent to decide that question.”

    —Clarke interview, The Irish Times, "Should the State fund religious schools?" (Jan. 27, 2015)
    Compiled By Molly Hanson

    Sebastian Junger

    Sebastian Junger

    On this date in 1962, journalist and filmmaker Sebastian Junger was born in Belmont, Mass., to painter Ellen Sinclair and physicist Miguel Chapero Junger, who emigrated to the U.S. from Germany in 1941 because of his paternal Jewish ancestry. The younger Junger said he was raised in “a very rational household.” In a 2016 New York Times interview, he said, “I grew up with parents who were essentially antireligious, and so I never attended church. John Stuart Mill’s ‘Utilitarianism’ gave me the kind of ethical guidance that every person needs — religious or otherwise.” He studied cultural anthropology in Connecticut at Wesleyan University, which became independent of the Methodist Church in 1937, and graduated in 1984.

    He started working as a freelance journalist while taking other jobs to support himself, later successfully selling pieces to publications like Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, National Geographic Adventure, Outside and Men’s Journal. Researching hazardous jobs like commercial fishing led to his first book, The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea (1997), which became a bestseller and a movie in 2000 starring George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg. Fire (2001) was a nonfiction collection about more dangerous pursuits — diamond mining, firefighting, peacekeeping in Kosovo and guerrilla warfare in Afghanistan. The previous year he had received a National Magazine Award for his Vanity Fair piece “The Forensics of War.” He received the 2007 Winship/PEN Award for A Death in Belmont, a book about the 1963 rape and murder of Bessie Goldberg.

    He and British photographer Tim Hetherington teamed up on the award-winning “The Other War: Afghanistan,” shown on ABC’s “Nightline” in 2008. Junger’s book War (2010) revolved around a U.S. Army airborne platoon in Afghanistan. He and Hetherington co-directed a related documentary film, “Restrepo,” nominated for a 2009 Academy Award. Three documentaries about war and its aftermath followed: “Which Way Is The Front Line From Here?” (2013, about Hetherington’s 2011 death while covering the Libyan civil war), “Korengal” (2014) and “The Last Patrol” (also 2014). Another book was published in 2016, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.

    Hetherington’s death made Junger question his own willingness to put himself in harm’s way to get the story and helped him decide he’d had enough. “I suddenly was realizing the effect of Tim’s death on everyone he loved, including me, and I just didn’t want to risk doing that to everyone I love.” (Cultist, 2013.) During a 2014 ethics panel discussion hosted by the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, he was asked if he was an atheist in a foxhole and answered, “As an atheist, I think about that phrase and I think, what is it really about an artillery bombardment that leads you to the conclusion that God is involved in this? I really see it the other way around: Clearly, God has nothing to do with what’s going on today.” Asked a similar question in a 2016 C-SPAN2 interview about there being no atheists in foxholes, he said, “I know empirically that’s not true.”

    Junger married Daniela Petrova in 2002. They divorced in 2014. As of this writing, he lives in New York City and Cape Cod, Mass.

    PHOTO: U.S. National Archives, public domain photo, 2013 

    “The reason I think I am an atheist is because I haven’t encountered a tangible reason to believe in God.”

    —Sebastian Junger interview, C-SPAN2 "Book TV" (July 3, 2016)
    Compiled by Bill Dunn

    Benjamin Franklin

    On this date in 1706, Benjamin Franklin was born. The Boston-born printer, publisher, inventor, author, aphorist and statesman quit the Presbyterian Church in 1734, according to his Autobiography. Franklin was a deist in the mode of the Enlightenment, retaining only a belief in a god and future life. After the Constitutional Convention of 1787 had been underway for a month, the octogenarian Franklin suggested that the so-far secular convention conduct a prayer. Records show that Franklin’s proposal created polite embarrassment, and that the convention adjourned without any vote on the motion.

    Franklin was part of a distinguished committee, including Adams and Jefferson, which adopted the United States’ secular motto “E Pluribus Unum” (“Out of many, one”). At one point, the pragmatic Franklin suggested that currency should contain the phrase “Mind your business.” From 1732-58 he published the annual pamphlet “Poor Richard’s Almanac” using the pseudonym Richard Saunders. In the 1754 almanac he wrote, “When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it so that its professors are obliged to call for help of the civil power, ’tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.” D. 1790.

    “The way to see by Faith is to shut the eye of Reason.”

    —Franklin, "Poor Richard's Almanac" (1758)

Freedom From Religion Foundation