January 1

    Niall Shanks

    Niall Shanks

    On this date in 1959, Niall Shanks was born in Cheshire, England. He earned his bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Leeds in 1979, his master’s degree in philosophy from the University of Liverpool in 1981 and his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Alberta, Canada. Shanks taught philosophy, biological sciences, physics and astronomy at East Tennessee State University (1991–2005) and at Wichita State University in Kansas (2005–11). He was especially interested in evolutionary biology and wrote several books, including Brute Science: The Dilemmas of Animal Experimentation (with Hugh LaFollette, 1997), God, the Devil, and Darwin: A Critique of Intelligent Design Theory (2004) and Animal Models in the Light of Evolution (2009).

    Shanks was a self-described atheist who strongly supported evolution education. In his article “Fighting for Our Sanity in Tennessee,” published in Volume 21 of Free Inquiry magazine, he described his experience of being a nonbeliever who taught evolution in the bible belt: “I am an atheist for the same reason that I am an ‘asantaclausist.’ There is no convincing evidence to support claims about the existence of either alleged entity. Actually Santa may be the better off of the two, for the sincere testimony of small children is a tad more convincing than that of wily adults with sophistical arguments and axes to grind.”

    In God, the Devil, and Darwin, Shanks denounced creation science: “The real motivations of the intelligent design movement … have little to do with science but a lot to do with politics and power — in particular, the imposition of discriminatory, conservative Christian values on our educational, legal, social and political institutions.” Shanks continued, “While we in the West readily point a finger at Islamic fundamentalism, we all too readily downplay the Christian fundamentalism in our own midst. The social and political consequences of religious fundamentalism can be enormous.”

    He died in Wichita in 2011 at age 52 following a lengthy illness.

    “Of God, the Devil and Darwin, we have really good scientific evidence for the existence of only Darwin.” 

    —Shanks, "God, the Devil, and Darwin" (2004)
    Compiled by Sabrina Gaylor

    Fred Whitehead

    Fred Whitehead

    On this date in 1944, Fred Whitehead was born in Pratt, Kansas. He graduated from the University of Kansas in 1965 and earned his Ph.D. in English from Columbia University in 1972. Whitehead, an editor and freethought historian, edited the quarterly newsletter Freethought History, which describes the history of atheism and freethought. He writes articles for publications, including Free Inquiry.

    With Verle Murher, Whitehead edited Free-thought on the American Frontier (1992), a collection of essays from early freethinkers of the American West. Whitehead and Murher wrote: “From the earliest days of colonization, there has been a struggle between Christianity and freethinkers on this continent.” In 1989 Whitehead was given an Award for Exceptional Service by the Kansas Writers Association. He edited Culture Wars: Opposing Viewpoints, published in 1994.

    “Far from being marginalized, as is presently the case, nineteenth-century freethought was a social movement at the core of our national life.”

    —"Free-thought on the American Frontier," eds. Fred Whitehead and Verle Murher (1992)
    Compiled by Sabrina Gaylor; photo courtesy of Fred Whitehead

    Peter Watson

    Peter Watson

    On this date in 1943, Peter Frank Patrick Watson was born in Birmingham, England. An intellectual historian and investigative journalist, he was educated at the universities of Durham, London and Rome, later living in the U.S. He has written for The Observer, The New York Times, Punch and The Spectator and is the author of fiction, as well as many books on art history, biography, psychology and true crime. Between 1997 and 2007, he was a research associate at the Illicit Antiquities Research Centre at Cambridge University.

    His books include The Age of Nothing: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God (2014, published in the U.S. as The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God), The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities from Italy’s Tomb Raiders to the World’s Greatest Museums (2006, with Cecilia Todeschini), Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud (2005), Modern Mind: An Intellectual History of the 20th Century (2001) (also published as A Terrible Beauty), Sotheby’s: The Inside Story (1998), Landscape of Lies (1989) and The Caravaggio Conspiracy (1984).

    In Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, Watson seeks a new way to tell the history of the world from prehistory to modern day, asserting that human knowledge is divided into two realms: inward (philosophy and religion) and outward (observation and science). His stance supports the latter. Twins: An Uncanny Relationship? (1982), explores behavior patterns shared by identical twins, “to offer a rational alternative to mumbo jumbo for explaining many of the coincidences reported in twin studies, ” according to a Los Angeles Times review.

    “A few saints and a little charity don’t make up for all the harm religion has done over the ages,” he said on CBC News, May 5, 2007. When asked about the good that religion has done in the world in an interview by The New York Times Magazine (Dec. 11, 2005), Watson replied: “I lead a perfectly healthy, satisfactory life without being religious. And I think more people should try it.”

    Watson speaking at Cambridge; Juan Jaen photo under CC 2.0.

    “Religion has kept civilization back for hundreds of years, and the biggest mistake in the history of civilization, is ethical monotheism, the concept of the one God. Let’s get rid of it and be rational.”

    —Watson interview, CBC News (May 5, 2007)

    Compiled by Jane Esbensen

    Edward Gibbon

    Edward Gibbon

    On this date in 1737, Edward Gibbon was born in England. The historian’s most famous work is The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which appeared originally in six volumes from 1776-88. Oxford-educated, Gibbon represented Lymington in Parliament for many years. He was a highly skeptical and unreligious Deist who was particularly critical of the Catholic Church.

    In Volume V of The Decline and Fall, commenting on John XII, Gibbon wrote that the 10th century pope “lived in public adultery with the matrons of Rome; that the Lateran palace was turned into a school for prostitution, and that his rapes of virgins and widows had deterred the female pilgrims from visiting the tomb of St. Peter, lest, in the devout act, they should be violated by his successor. The Protestants have dwelt with malicious pleasure on these characters of Antichrist; but to a philosophic eye, the vices of the clergy are far less dangerous than their virtues.”

    The “melancholy duty” of the historian, Gibbon wrote, was to discover “the inevitable mixture of error and corruption” of religion.

    Volume I of The Decline and Fall contains Gibbon’s explication of early Christianity. He observed, “it was not in this world that the primitive Christians were desirous of making themselves either agreeable or useful.” Gibbon took a pessimistic view over awakening the masses to the falsity of religion, writing in the same book: “A state of scepticism and suspense may amuse a few inquisitive minds. But the practice of superstition is so congenial to the multitude that, if they are forcibly awakened, they still regret the loss of their pleasing vision.”

    Gibbon believed that Christianity introduced a new and negative element into religion in damning those who would not accept its teachings. “These rigid sentiments, which had been unknown to the ancient world, appear to have infused a spirit of bitterness into a system of love and harmony. The ties of blood and friendship were frequently torn asunder by the difference of religious faith; and the Christians, who, in this world, found themselves oppressed by the power of the Pagans, were sometimes seduced by resentment and spiritual pride to delight in the prospect of their future triumph.”

    Gibbon wrote several other major histories. He died of peritonitis at age 56. (D. 1794)

    “The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful.”

    —Gibbon, "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" (Vol. 1, 1776)

    Howard Zinn

    Howard Zinn

    On this date in 1922, historian, author and peace activist Howard Zinn was born in New York City to Jewish immigrants. As a 17-year-old, Zinn attended a political rally in Times Square at the urging of neighborhood Communists and was knocked unconscious by police. He joined the Army Air Corps in 1943, received an Air Medal and, upon returning home, placed his medal and military papers in a folder on which he wrote “Never again.”

    Zinn attended New York University and received a doctorate in history from Columbia University. He became chair of the history and social sciences department of Spelman College, the historically black college for women in segregated Atlanta, in 1956. He participated in the civil rights movement, served on the executive committee for SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and inspired many of his students, including Alice Walker.

    Fired for “insubordination” from Spelman in 1963 (for his criticism of the school’s failure to participate in the civil rights movement), Zinn took a position teaching history at Boston University, which he held until retirement in 1988.

    An aggressive and early opponent of the Vietnam War (and war in general) and champion of liberal causes, Zinn’s 1967 Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal, was the first book calling for immediate withdrawal from the war with no exceptions. His A People’s History of the United States, published in 1980 with a small printing and little promotion, was a best-seller, hitting 1 million in sales by 2003. In his 1994 autobiography You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Zinn wrote, “I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it.”

    While his publications were numerous, some of the highlights include the plays “Emma” (1976), about radical feminist and atheist Emma Goldman, “Daughter of Venus” (1985) and “Marx in Soho: A Play on History” (1999), and books such as Artists in Times of War (2003), History Matters: Conversations on History and Politics (2006), and Failure to Quit: Reflections of an Optimistic Historian (1993).

    Zinn received the 1958 Albert J. Beveridge Prize from the American Historical Association for his book, LaGuardia in Congress; the 1998 Eugene V. Debs Award from the Debs Foundation; the Upton Sinclair Award in 1999; and the 1998 Lannan Literary Award. Zinn’s wife and lifetime collaborator, Roslyn, died in 2008. Zinn died of a heart attack while swimming at the age of 87 in 2010.

    Zinn at the Pathfinder Bookstore in Los Angeles in 2000. CC 4.0

    “If I was promised that we could sit with Marx in some great Deli Haus in the hereafter, I might believe in it! Sure, I find inspiration in Jewish stories of hope, also in the Christian pacifism of the Berrigans, also in Taoism and Buddhism. I identify as a Jew, but not on religious grounds. Yes, I believe, as Pascal said, ‘The heart has its reasons which reason cannot know.’ There are limits to reason. There is mystery, there is passion, there is something spiritual in the arts — but it is not connected to Judaism or any other religion.”

    —Tikkun magazine interview, "Howard Zinn on Fixing What's Wrong" (May 17, 2006)
    Compiled by Bonnie Gutsch

    Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

    Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

    On this date in 1917, Arthur Meier Schlesinger Jr., was born in Columbus, Ohio. He graduated from Harvard University summa cum laude in 1938 at age 20. He was a historian who was interested in liberal politics and the American presidency and who wrote more than 20 books, including The Age of Jackson (1945), The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom (1949) and The Cycles of American History (1986). He became an associate professor at Harvard in 1946, but resigned to serve as a special assistant to John F. Kennedy until Kennedy’s death in 1963.

    In 1965, he published a book about his time at the White House: A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House, which received the 1966 Pulitzer Prize and the 1965 National Book Award. He also won the 1946 Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Jackson (1946). He married Marian Cannon in 1940 and they had four children: Stephen, Katharine, Christina and Andrew. After their divorce in 1970, Schlesinger married Alexandra Emmet in 1971 and they had a son, Robert.

    Schlesinger described himself as “agnostic” in Robert Kennedy and His Times (1978). In a blurb for Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism (2004) by Susan Jacoby, Schlesinger gave his support for freethought and the separation of state and church. He wrote, “In view of the tide of religiosity engulfing a once secular republic, it is refreshing to be reminded by Freethinkers that free thought and skepticism are robustly in the American tradition. After all, the Founding Fathers began by omitting God from the American Constitution.” (D. 2007)

    “As a historian, I confess to a certain amusement when I hear the Judeo-Christian tradition praised as the source of our concern for human rights. In fact, the great religious ages were notable for their indifference to human rights in the contemporary sense. They were notorious not only for acquiescence in poverty, inequality, exploitation and oppression but for enthusiastic justifications of slavery, persecution, abandonment of small children, torture, genocide.”

    —Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., "The Opening of the American Mind" (New York Times, 1989)
    Compiled by Sabrina Gaylor

    Tariq Ali

    Tariq Ali

    On this date in 1943, scholar and author Tariq Ali was born in Lahore, a city then part of British India, and now in Pakistan. A self-described lifelong atheist, Ali was raised in an intellectually activist family where independent thought was encouraged. His parents were Mazhar Ali Khan, a journalist, and Tahira Mazhar Ali Khan, activist and daughter of Sir Sikandar Hyat Khan, who in 1937 became chief minister of the Punjab, a region bordering India and Pakistan.

    Ali became politically involved at a young age, organizing demonstrations against Pakistan’s military dictatorship, while studying at the Punjab University. “We grew up in Lahore, which had been one of the most cosmopolitan towns in India. Then you had the partition of India, and you had massive killlings. This is not much talked about these days, but nearly two million people died, as Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs slaughtered each other to create this state.,” he said in 2003.

    Finishing his university education at Exeter College at Oxford, Ali studied philosophy, politics and economics. Elected president of the Oxford Union debating club during the Vietnam War, he debated Henry Kissinger. More and more critical of American/Israeli foreign policies, Ali eventually became the voice of criticism against American foreign policy around the world, not the least of which has been his criticism of American policy in Pakistan.

    An active voice for the New Left Review for the past 40 years, Ali is a vocal and prolific personage, writing political satires as well as political historical works, historical fiction, nonfiction and political essays. He owned his own independent television production company and has been a regular broadcaster for BBC Radio. His lengthy bibliography, spanning from 1970 to the present, includes Conversations With Edward Said (2005), which he edited, Rough Music: Blair, Bombs, Baghdad, London, Terror (2005), Speaking of Empire and Resistance (2005), and a previously censored screenplay about the last days of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, titled “The Leopard and The Fox,” originally written in 1985, which, in October 2007, was adapted and staged as a play.

    Ali lives in London with his longtime partner Susan Watkins, editor of the New Left Review. He has three children.

    Ali in 2010. CC 2.0 photo. 

    “How often in our house had I heard talk of superstitious idiots, often relatives, who hated a Satan they never knew and worshipped a God they didn’t have the brains to doubt?” (Ali, “Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity,” 2002)

    “I grew up an atheist. I make no secret of it. It was acceptable. In fact, when I think back, none of my friends were believers. None of them were religious. Maybe a few were believers but very few were religious in temperament.” (“Islam, Empire, and the Left: Conversation With Tariq Ali,” UC-Berkeley, May 8, 2003)

    Compiled by Jane Esbensen

    Sharlot Hall

    Sharlot Hall

    On this date in 1870, historian and freethinker Sharlot Mabridth Hall was born in Lincoln County, Kansas. She moved with her family to Arizona at the age of 11. She worked for room and board to attend Prescott High School briefly to escape ranch life but was forced to return home when her mother became ill. Hall took up photography and explored ancient Indian cliff dwellings with her brother. Seeing the lot of women of her era and taking a jaundiced view of the “egotism of the average man,” she vowed never to marry.

    When her family attended lectures by freethinker Samuel Putnam in Prescott in 1895, the 24-year old Hall joined him on the platform. She wrote for The Truth Seeker, a major freethought periodical, as well as for many newspapers, and met many leading reformers such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Two volumes of Hall’s poetry were published. She began taking oral histories of Arizona pioneers. In 1909, territorial governor Richard Sloan appointed her territorial historian, giving her a Phoenix office.

    Supported by the Federation of Women’s Clubs, she traveled throughout Arizona collecting history. After statehood was won, the first governor dismissed her in 1912. After a reclusive retirement caring for family members, she returned to work at age 57 in 1927 when she was given a life lease on the governor’s mansion to restore it as a museum of history in the city of Prescott. The mansion and Sharlot Hall Museum remain open to the public. D. 1943.

    With a Box of Apples

    Suppose a modern Eve would come
    And tempt you with an apple,
    Say just about the size of these?
    Would you temptation grapple
    And manfully declare: ‘I won’t?’
    Or, would you say: ‘Well, I
    Think since you’ve picked them
    They’d be best in dumplings or in a pie.
    And, let us ask the serpent in
    To share with us at dinner.
    A de’il with taste for fruit like that
    Can’t be a hopeless sinner.

    —Sharlot Hall, freethought ditty
    Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

    Will Durant

    Will Durant

    On this date in 1885, William James “Will” Durant was born in North Adams, Mass., one of 11 children born to French-Canadian parents. Durant earned his B.A. from St. Peter’s College in New Jersey in 1907 and his Ph.D. in philosophy from Columbia University in 1917. He was an accomplished historian and philosopher who wrote numerous books, including The Story of Philosophy (1926), but his fame was achieved mainly through the comprehensive 11-volume The Story of Civilization (1927–75), co-written with his wife, Ariel Durant.

    The books document the entire history of Western civilization. The Durants were awarded a Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 1968 for Rosseau and Revolution (volume 10 of The Story of Civilization) and the 1963 Huntington Hartford Foundation Award for Literature for The Age of Louis XIV.  Durant wrote numerous other historical and analytical works and three were published posthumously, including Heroes of History (2001) and Fallen Leaves (2014).

    Durant was born into a Catholic family and spent seven years at Jesuit schools, including St. Peter’s College and Seminary. Then he lost his faith to the point that he could “no longer think of becoming a priest.” (Quoted in A Dual Autobiography, 1977.) Durant wrote: “By the end of my sophomore year, I had discovered, through Darwin and other infidels, that the difference between man and the gorilla is largely a matter of trousers and words; that Christianity was only one of a hundred religions claiming special access to truth and salvation; and that myths of virgin births, mother goddesses, dying and resurrected deities, had appeared in many pre-Christian faiths, and had helped to transform a lovable Hebrew mystic into the Son of God.”

    Before getting his doctorate, he taught at Seton Hall University and at the Ferrer Modern School, where one of his pupils was Chaya (Ida) Kaufman. They married in 1913 when she was 15 and he was 28. He nicknamed her Ariel after the imp in Shakepeare’s “The Tempest” and she later legally changed her name. They had a daughter, Ethel, and raised a foster son, Louis, whose mother was Flora — Ariel’s sister.

    The Durants died within two weeks of each other in 1981 and are buried in Los Angeles.

    “Does history support a belief in God? If by God we mean not the creative vitality of nature but a supreme being intelligent and benevolent, the answer must be a reluctant negative.”

    Will and Ariel Durant, "The Lessons of History" (1968)

    Compiled by Sabrina Gaylor and Eleanor Wroblewski

    Thomas Carlyle

    Thomas Carlyle

    On this date in 1795, historian Thomas Carlyle was born in Ecclefechan, Dumfries, Scotland, the son of a Calvinist stonemason. He entered Edinburgh University at age 15 and earned his B.A. in 1813. “Intended” for the ministry, he prepared to become a Church of Scotland minister for five years until rejecting Christianity after reading Edward Gibbon. He taught at schools and tutored and helped popularize German philosophy in England, translating a work by Goethe.

    His pantheistic, semi-autobiographical Sartor Resartus (1834) was his first successful book. Carlyle married Jane Welsh, the vivacious and well-informed daughter of a physician, who corresponded with many eminents of her era. Carlyle met John Stuart Mill, who introduced him and his wife to Emerson, who became a longtime correspondent. Among the 30 volumes by Carlyle were French Revolution, Frederick the Great, Life of Sterling and Life of Tennyson. He became rector of Edinburgh University in 1865 and refused the Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath.

    Carlyle said of Voltaire: “He gave the death-stab to modern superstition. That horrid incubus, which dwelt in darkness, shunning the light, is passing away. … It was a most weighty service.” (Cited in 2000 Years of Disbelief by James A. Haught) (D. 1881)

    “I have for many years strictly avoided going to church or having anything to do with Mumbo-Jumbo.”
    “We know nothing. All is, and must be, utterly incomprehensible.”

    —Carlyle's remarks to poet William Allingham, "William Allingham: a Diary" (eds. H. Allingham and D. Radford, 1907)

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