September 12

There are 4 entries for this date: H.L. Mencken Catherine Fahringer Avijit Roy Neil Peart

    H.L. Mencken

    H.L. Mencken

    On this date in 1880, H.L. (Henry Louis) Mencken, atheist and journalist, was born in Baltimore. Although his father was agnostic, his Lutheran mother sent him to Sunday school, which he later defined as “a prison in which children do penance for the evil conscience of their parents.” (A Mencken Chrestomathy,1949.) The cigar-chomping, iconoclastic journalist worked most of his life at the Baltimore Sun, where he began his trademark column, “The Free Lance,” in 1911.

    Mencken also co-edited Smart Set magazine (1914-23) and edited The American Mercury magazine (1925-33). His lifetime production of 28 books included a six-volume collection of his essays, Prejudices (1919-27), In Defense of Women (1917), Treatise of the Gods (1930) and an autobiographical trilogy, ending with Heathen Days, published as one volume in 1947.

    A sardonic critic of the “booboisie,” he coined the term “Boobus americanus” and was famed for his coverage of the 1925 Scopes trial in Dayton, Tenn. Mencken’s many epigrams include: “Faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable.” (The New York Times Magazine, Sept. 11, 1955). “The chief contribution of Protestantism to human thought is its massive proof that God is a bore.” (Minority Report, 1956.) “No one in this world, so far as I know … has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.” (“Notes on Journalism,” Chicago Tribune, Sept. 19 1926.) “Puritanism — the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.” (A Mencken Chrestomathy, 1949.)

    In 1930, after a seven-year courtship, he married Sara Haardt, a professor of English at Goucher College in Baltimore and an author 18 years his junior. Haardt had led efforts in Alabama to ratify the 19th Amendment. Haardt was in poor health from tuberculosis throughout their marriage and died in 1935 of meningitis. Mencken suffered a stroke in 1948, which left him aware and fully conscious but nearly unable to read or write and able to speak only with difficulty. He died in his sleep on Jan. 29, 1956.

    “I believe that religion, generally speaking, has been a curse to mankind — that its modest and greatly overestimated services on the ethical side have been more than overcome by the damage it has done to clear and honest thinking.”

    “I believe that the evidence for immortality is no better than the evidence of witches, and deserves no more respect.”

    —"Mencken's Creed," cited by George Seldes, ed., "The Great Thoughts" (1985)

    Catherine Fahringer

    Catherine Fahringer

    On this date in 1922, Catherine Fahringer was born in Utah to a military family. After living in various places in the U.S. and abroad, her family settled in San Antonio, Texas, when she was 12. Raised as an Episcopalian, she was urged by family members to introduce her children to religion. While living in England, where her husband was stationed, she dutifully purchased The Golden Book of Bible Stories. Perusing it before she read the stories to her children, she had an epiphany: “I said to my husband, ‘I can’t teach this stuff to my kids. I’m nicer than God.” (San Antonio Express-News, March 24, 1991.)

    Fahringer found a venue for activism when she became involved with FFRF in 1987. She created and hosted “Freethought Forum,” a cable TV show. She became a well-known public figure in San Antonio, monitoring and challenging numerous, egregious state/church violations there. With wit and aplomb, she protested city prayer breakfasts and religious symbols on public property and kept freethought in focus with numerous op-eds, letters to the editor and educational letters to government officials and media.

    In the 1990s she even managed to persuade then-Gov. Ann Richards and city officials to make proclamations commemorating freethought. Fahringer’s media appearances included being featured on TV’s “Sally Jessy Raphael Show,” where she quipped about rejecting the idea of a “Big Spook in the Sky.” She served as a national FFRF officer and on its governing council.

    She died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 86. FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said of her, “We loved and miss her. She was not only one of FFRF’s best activists, but she was one of our best friends, best boosters and best advertisements for freethought.” FFRF offers the Catherine Fahringer Youth Activist Memorial Award in her honor. D. 2008.

    “We would be 1,500 years ahead if it hadn’t been for the church dragging science back by its coattails and burning our best minds at the stake.”

    —Fahringer interview, San Antonio Express-News, "Portrait of an Atheist" (March 24, 1991)
    Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor; photo by Robert McLeroy

    Avijit Roy

    Avijit Roy

    On this date in 1972, Avijit Roy, author, atheist/social activist and martyr to the secular cause, was born in Bangladesh to Ajoy and Shefali Roy. Ajoy, his father, was a physics professor at the University of Dhaka. Avijit Roy earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology and a master’s and doctorate in biomedical engineering from the National University of Singapore. While working in his field, Roy in 2001 started a Yahoo group named Mukto-Mona (Free Mind) for Bangladeshi secularists, rationalists and atheists to discuss issues related to human rights, secularism, humanism and the impact of religious doctrines — especially Islam and Hinduism — on politics in South Asia. Mukto-Mona was born as an online platform in 2002 and expanded its reach worldwide.

    Roy moved from Singapore to the U.S. in 2006 to work as a software engineer. He’d met Atlanta resident and eventual wife Rafida Bonya Ahmed, known as Bonya, on Mukto-Mona. They settled in Alpharetta, Ga., with Bonya’s daughter Trisha, and Roy became a U.S. citizen. He wrote prolifically on many varied subjects, including religion, atheism, cosmology, homosexuality and Rabindranath Tagore. Seven of his books were published in Bangladesh.

    In a 2013 column in Free Inquiry magazine, he and Trisha Ahmed, then a high school senior, wrote an essay defending Bangladeshi atheists: “Nonbelievers are not only valuable contributors to society; they also constitute a large fraction of the world’s intellectual and academic community.” (Baltimore Sun, March 2, 2015.) As a free-speech advocate, Roy took an active role in protesting the arrests of atheist bloggers and the murder of others in Bangladesh. His writing and activism brought him the ire of fundamentalist Muslims, and on Feb. 26, 2015, he was hacked to death with machetes by militants at a book fair in Dhaka. Bonya was severely injured but survived.

    Trisha wrote on the day he died: “He and my mom started dating when I was six years old. In the twelve years that followed, he became my friend, my hero, my most trusted confidante, my dance partner (even though we’re both terrible dancers), and my father. Not once did he tell me to simmer down or be more polite; he taught me to be informed, bold, and unafraid.” (CNN column on the first anniversary of Roy’s death, Feb. 26, 2016.)

    In 2018, the Freedom From Religion Foundation and Bonya announced the first recipient of the Avijit Roy Courage Award: Roopbaan, the first gay magazine published in Bangladesh. One of its founders was murdered by Muslim fundamentalists. FFRF established the $5,000 award in 2018 to recognize “a person who has been working toward the spread of rational and logical discourse, toward diminishing the influence of regressive fundamentalist religious thinking, toward building a society based on humane laws and without discrimination.” 

    “If one thing is certain, it is that the virus of faith is dangerously real.”

    —Avijit Roy, "The Virus of Faith," posthumously published in Free Inquiry magazine (April/May 2015)
    Compiled by Bill Dunn

    Neil Peart

    Neil Peart

    On this date in 1952, Canadian musician Neil Ellwood Peart (pronounced peert) was born in Hamilton, Ontario. He had a happy childhood and started playing drums when he was 13 and played in local bands before moving to England to further his musical career.

    As a child, he said he was “merely ambivalent” about religion after his parents enrolled him in Sunday school. He felt validated about his doubt after reading The Passover Plot, in which someone else, i.e., skeptical author Hugh Schonfield, had “dared to disbelieve.” (The Masked Rider: Cycling in West Africa, 1996.) Later in that memoir, Peart wrote, “I’m a linear thinking agnostic, but not an atheist, folks.”

    After returning to Canada from London, Peart signed on as the drummer for the six-year-old, Toronto-based band Rush in July 1974, two weeks before the group’s first U.S. tour. Before long he was the band’s primary lyricist and went on to record 18 Rush albums and perform as many as 300 gigs a year before his 2018 retirement after being diagnosed with glioblastoma, a brain tumor. 

    In annual polls of readers conducted by Modern Drummer magazine, Peart was voted best rock drummer nine times. He also incorporated jazz and swing elements into his style, which furthered his renown as one of the world’s premier percussionists. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013.

    Peart wrote seven nonfiction books focused on his wide-ranging travels and personal stories. His lyrics for Rush included secular, humanitarian and libertarian themes. “Roll the Bones” (1991) says “Faith is cold as ice/Why are little ones born only to suffer/For the want of immunity, or a bowl of rice?”

    In “Freewill” (1980) he wrote: “You can choose from phantom fears/And kindness that can kill/I will choose a path that’s clear/I will choose free will.” In “Faithless” (2007) he wrote: “I don’t have faith in faith/I don’t believe in belief/You can call me faithless/I still cling to hope/And I believe in love/And that’s faith enough for me.”

    Peart and his common-law wife Jacqueline Taylor had a daughter named Selena who died in a car accident in 1997 at age 19. Taylor died of cancer 10 months later. He married photographer Carrie Nuttall in 2000. Their daughter Olivia Louise was born in 2009. Peart died at age 67 of glioblastoma on Jan. 7, 2020. He had become a U.S. citizen and was living with his wife in Santa Monica, Calif. D. 2020.

    “I looked for the good side of faith. To me it ought to be your armor, something to protect you and something to console you in dark times. But it’s more often being turned into a sword, and that’s one big theme I’m messing with.”

    —Peart, on writing songs for Rush's album "Snakes & Arrows" (Billboard, Sept. 11, 2006)
    Compiled by Bill Dunn

Freedom From Religion Foundation