January 1

    Steve Benson

    Steve Benson

    On this date in 1954, Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Steven Benson was born in Sacramento, Calif., the grandson of Ezra Taft Benson, who served as secretary of agriculture under President Eisenhower and became president of the Mormons (1985-94). Benson was an Eagle Scout and graduated with a degree in political science, cum laude, from Brigham Young University in 1979. “I was on track to eternal Mormon stardom, reserved especially for faithful men in a church run by men,” he has written.

    He worked briefly as an editorial cartoonist for the Morning News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash., before starting a long association as a cartoonist with the Arizona Republic in 1980, where he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993. He and his wife Mary Ann, who have four children, left the Mormon Church in a highly publicized break in 1993, “citing disagreement over its doctrines on race, women, intellectual freedom and fanciful storytelling,” as he has written.

    Benson lists among the benefits of leaving religion: “Another day off, a 10-percent raise and getting to choose his own underwear.” Among his favorite sayings is Mark Twain’s adage: “Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.”

    An atheist, he has appeared at several FFRF annual conventions. He received a Tell It Like It Is Award (1999), an Emperor Has No Clothes Award (2002) and a Friend of Freedom Award (2003). For several years starting in 2001, Benson teamed up with FFRF Co-President Dan Barker for the inimitable “Tunes and ‘Toons” production, an irreverent look at freethought and religion in the news. Some of their jointly written parodies, “Godless America” among them, are recorded on the “Beware of Dogma” CD.

    “If, as the true believers claim, the word ‘gospel’ means good news, then the good news for me is that there is no gospel, other than what I can define for myself, by observation and conscience. As a freethinking human being, I have come not to favor or fear religion, but to face and fight it as an impediment to civilized advancement.”

    —Benson, "From Latter-Day Saint to Latter Day Ain't" (Freethought Today, December 1999)
    Compiled by Annie Laurie; photo by Brent Nicastro

    Carl Sandburg

    On this date in 1878, poet and Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Carl August Sandburg was born in Galesburg, Ill., to parents of Swedish-Lutheran heritage. The second of seven children, he quit school after the eighth grade and worked at a variety of jobs such as milkman, porter, bricklayer and farm laborer for the next decade. In 1897 he lived as a hobo. He would later perform the folk songs he learned on the road and compiled them into two song books.

    Sandburg enlisted in the U.S. Army during the Spanish-American War in 1898 and was stationed in Puerto Rico. After a two-week stint at West Point, he failed a math and grammar exam and left the military academy. He then attended the Universalist-founded Lombard College in Galesburg. Attracted to labor concerns, he became an organizer for the Wisconsin Social Democratic Party and met his wife-to-be Lilian Steichen at party headquarters in Milwaukee. They were wed in 1908 and had three daughters, Margaret, Jane and Helga.

    He worked from 1910-12 as a secretary for Emil Seidel, Milwaukee’s socialist mayor, then joined the Chicago Daily News as a reporter. Much of his poetry, such as “Chicago,” focused on the city he famously described as “Hog Butcher for the World/Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat/Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler,/Stormy, Husky, Brawling, City of the Big Shoulders.”

    Sandburg earned Pulitzers for the 103-poem Corn Huskers (1919), Abraham Lincoln: The War Years (1940) and Complete Poems (1951). His Lincoln work and the earlier Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years (1926)  became very influential histories. He was also remembered by generations of children for his Rootabaga Stories (1922). His 1927 anthology, The American Songbag, enjoyed enormous popularity, going through many editions. He often sang and accompanied himself on guitar at lectures and poetry recitals.

    A lifelong Unitarian, he died in 1967 at age 89 in his longtime home in Flat Rock, N.C.

    “To work hard, to live hard, to die hard, and then to go to Hell after all would be too damned hard.”

    —Sandburg, from his book-length poem "The People, Yes" (1936)

    Jules Feiffer

    On this date in 1929, cartoonist, playwright and author Jules Feiffer was born in the Bronx, New York. He studied at Pratt Institute (1947-51). His weekly editorial cartoon appeared in the Village Voice for 42 years. Feiffer won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning in 1986. His cartoons have been published in 19 books. He was named to the Comic Book Hall of Fame in 2004.

    Feiffer’s anti-military animated cartoon “Munro” won an Academy Award in 1961. His comedy “Little Murders” (1967) won an Obie. Among his other plays and revues is “Knock Knock,” which had a 1976 Broadway run starring Lynn Redgrave. Feiffer wrote the screenplay for the film “Carnal Knowledge” (1971), which spawned censorship and lawsuits.

    Feiffer has been married three times and has three children. His daughter Halley Feiffer is an actress and playwright. In 2016 he married freelance writer JZ Holden. The ceremony combined Jewish and Buddhist traditions. She is the author of Illusion of Memory (2013). 

    Feiffer reading at Politics and Prose in 2018 in Washington, D.C. Photo by SLOWKING under CC BY-NC.

    “Christ died for our sins. Dare we make his martyrdom meaningless by not committing them?”

    —Feiffer, cited by Warren Allen Smith in "Who's Who in Hell" (2000)
    Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

    James A. Michener

    On this date in 1907, writer James Albert Michener was born in New York City. An orphan, he spent his first few years at the Bucks County Poorhouse in Doylestown, Pa, until adopted by Edwin and Mabel Michener. As Quakers, they believed in social activism and took in several orphaned children. The family was extremely poor, moving often during Michener’s childhood. He felt that this gave him a strong sense of character, an acceptance of what life really looked like.

    In an interview with the American Academy of Achievement, Michener stated, “I think the bottom line … is that if you get through a childhood like mine, it’s not all bad. … The sad part is, most of us don’t come out.” Michener credited his mother for reading to him every night. “I had all the Dickens and Thackeray and Charles Read and Sinkiewicz and the rest before I was the age of seven or eight.” 

    Michener realized at a young age that there was a bigger world to see and, when he was 14, started hitchhiking around the U.S. with only 35 cents in his pocket: “I went everywhere, and I did it on nothing.” This interest in the world lasted a lifetime. Michener received a scholarship to study at Swarthmore College, graduating with highest honors. He studied at St. Andrew’s University in Scotland, returned home to teach, and then went on to become assistant visiting professor of history at Harvard University.

    At the onset of World War II, Michener joined the Navy and was stationed in the Pacific. In 1947 he wrote his first book, Tales of the South Pacific, relating some of his experiences in the Solomon Islands, for which he received a Pulitzer Prize. The story was subsequently turned into the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, “South Pacific,” which also received a Pulitzer.

    Spending many years living abroad and writing, he thoroughly researched whichever culture he was living in before he started writing. Among his books are: The Bridges at Toko-Ri, Sayonara, The Source (about religion), Hawaii, Chesapeake, The Covenant, Space, Poland, Texas and Alaska. Michener was also active in public service, was a member of the Advisory Council to NASA and was cultural ambassador to various countries. He considered himself to be a humanist, and during the 1960s spoke out, amid the concerns raised regarding John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism: “I’ve fought to defend every civil right that has come under attack in my lifetime. … I’ve stood for absolute equality, and it would be ridiculous for a man like me to be against a Catholic for President.” (The Historian, 2001.)

    Michener won several honors and awards, among them the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian award. He was married three times — to Patti Koon from 1935 to 1948, when they divorced, to Vange Nord from 1948 to 1955, when they divorced, and to Mari Yoriko Sabusawa from 1955 to 1994, when she died. He died of kidney disease at age 90 in 1997.

    PHOTO: Michener in 1991 at the 50th anniversary observance of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

    “I am terrified of restrictive religious doctrine, having learned from history that when men who adhere to any form of it are in control, common men like me are in peril. I do not believe that pure reason can solve the perceptual problems unless it is modified by poetry and art and social vision. So I am a Humanist. And if you want to charge me with being the most virulent kind — a secular humanist — I accept the accusation.”

    —Michener interview, Parade magazine (Nov. 24, 1991)

    Alice Walker

    Alice Walker

    On this date in 1944, novelist, poet and self-described “Earthling” Alice Malsenior Tallulah-Kate Walker was born in Eatonton, Georgia, the youngest of eight children in a sharecropping family. Blinded in one eye during a childhood accident, she went on to become valedictorian at her high school and attended both Spelman College and Sarah Lawrence College on scholarships. Walker graduated from Sarah Lawrence in 1965. She worked on voter registration drives in the 1960s and married fellow civil rights worker Melvyn Leventhal in 1967. They had a daughter, Rebecca, in 1970 and divorced in 1976.

    Her first book of poetry was published in 1970. Walker edited I Love Myself When I Am Laughing and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader in 1979, introducing and popularizing Hurston to a new generation.

    The Color Purple, Walker’s bestselling 1982 novel, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983 and was turned into a popular movie by Steven Spielberg. Walker introduced the term “womanist” to the feminist movement to describe African-American feminism. Her books of essays include In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Prose (1983), Alice Walker Banned (1996) and Anything We Love Can Be Saved: A Writer’s Activism (1997).

    Walker’s views on religion are expressed in “The Only Reason You Want to Go to Heaven Is That You Have Been Driven Out of Your Mind (Off Your Land and Out of Your Lover’s Arms): Clear Seeing Inherited Religion and Reclaiming the Pagan Self” (anthologized in Anything We Love Can Be Saved). Raised as a Methodist by devout parents, early in life she observed church hypocrisy, especially the silencing of the women who cleaned the church and kept it alive. “Life was so hard for my parents’ generation that the subject of heaven was never distant from their thoughts. … The truth was, we already lived in paradise but were worked too hard by the land-grabbers to enjoy it.”

    In The Color Purple, the protagonist rebels against a God who [vernacular ahead] “act just like all the other mens I know. Trifling, forgitful and lowdown.” Walker, rebelling against the misogyny of Christian teachings and the imposition of a white religion upon the enslaved, wrote: “We have been beggars at the table of a religion that sanctioned our destruction.”

    Walker added: “All people deserve to worship a God who also worships them. A God that made them, and likes them. That is why Nature, Mother Earth, is such a good choice. Never will Nature require that you cut off some part of your body to please It; never will Mother Earth find anything wrong with your natural way.”

    “It is chilling to think that the same people who persecuted the wise women and men of Europe, its midwives and healers, then crossed the oceans to Africa and the Americas and tortured and enslaved, raped, impoverished, and eradicated the peaceful, Christ-like people they found. And that the blueprint from which they worked, and still work, was the Bible.”

    —"Anything We Love Can Be Saved" (1997)

    Natalie Angier

    Natalie Angier

    On this date in 1958, Natalie Angier, Pulitzer Prize-winning science columnist for The New York Times, was born in New York City to a Jewish mother and a father with a Christian Science background. She attended the University of Michigan for two years, then transferred to Barnard College, where she studied English, physics and astronomy and graduated with high honors.

    At 22 she became a founding staff reporter for the science magazine Discover. Throughout the 1980s, Angier worked as a senior science writer for Time magazine, as an editor for the women’s business magazine Savvy and as a professor of journalism in a graduate program at New York University. She began writing for The New York Times in 1990 and won a Pulitzer after just ten months on the job for a series of science articles. She became a columnist in 2007 for the Times’ science section.

    Her books include Natural Obsessions (1988), about the world of cancer research, The Beauty of the Beastly (1995) and Woman: An Intimate Geography (1999), a National Book Award finalist and best-seller. Woman won a Maggie Award from Planned Parenthood, was nominated for the Samuel Johnson Award (Britain’s largest nonfiction literary prize) and was named one of the best books of the year by the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, People magazine, National Public Radio, amazon.com, Publisher’s Weekly, Library Journal and the New York Public Library.

    In 2002 she edited The Best American Science and Nature Writing and in 2010 edited The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science. Her writing has appeared in numerous magazines, publications and anthologies. She began serving a five-year term as the Andrew D. White Professor-at-Large at Cornell University in 2007, previously filled by Oliver Sacks, Toni Morrison, Jane Goodall and others who were “distinguished contributors to cultural achievement.”

    Angier, a self-proclaimed “lonely atheist,” was a guest on Freethought Radio in 2006. In The New York Times Sunday Magazine (Jan. 14, 2001), Angiers outed herself as an atheist in the article “Confessions of a Lonely Atheist”: “I’m an Atheist. I don’t believe in God, Gods, Godlets or any sort of higher power beyond the universe itself, which seems quite high and powerful enough to me. I don’t believe in life after death, channeled chat rooms with the dead, reincarnation, telekinesis or any miracles but the miracle of life and consciousness, which again strike me as miracles in nearly obscene abundance.”

    Angier received an Emperor Has No Clothes Award at the 2003 FFRF national convention. In 1991 she married Rick Weiss, a former science reporter for the Washington Post. They have a daughter, Katherine Weiss Angier, who graduated summa cum laude in 2018 from Princeton with a degree in biology.

    “Sure, I’m a soapbox atheist. But [my daughter] doesn’t have to take my word for anything. All she has to do is look around her, every day, to find the bible she needs — in the sky, sun, moon, Mars, leaves, lady bugs, stink bugs, possums, tadpoles, cardinals, the wonderful predatory praying mantises that have gotten really big and fat this year on all the insects this rainy year has brought. Life needs no introduction, explanation or excuse. Life is bigger than myth — except in California.”

    —Angier, Emperor Has No Clothes Award acceptance speech at the 2003 national FFRF convention
    Compiled by Bonnie Gutsch; photo by Brent Nicastro

    John Steinbeck

    John Steinbeck

    On this date in 1902, author John Ernst Steinbeck Jr. was born in Salinas, Calif. He studied marine biology at Stanford but did not graduate. His long list of humanistic novels includes the classics Of Mice and Men (1937) and The Grapes of Wrath (1939), which won a Pulitzer Prize. He also wrote Tortilla Flat (1935), The Red Pony (1937), Cannery Row (1945), East of Eden (1952) and The Winter of Our Discontent (1961), 33 books in all. He was awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize for Literature “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception.” 

    Asked to complete a routine medical questionnaire for his new doctor, Steinbeck did so and added a letter dated March 5, 1964: “I shall probably not change my habits very much unless incapacity forces it. I don’t think I am unique in this. Now finally, I am not religious so that I have no apprehension of a hereafter, either a hope of reward or a fear of punishment. It is not a matter of belief. It is what I feel to be true from my experience, observation and simple tissue feeling.” (Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, ed. Elaine Steinbeck, 1975.)

    He married Carol Henning in 1930, divorced in 1943; Gwyn Conger in 1943, divorced in 1948; and Elaine Anderson Scott in 1950, together until his death in 1968 at age 66 from heart failure. He had two sons with his second wife.

    “Literature was not promulgated by a pale and emasculated critical priesthood singing their litanies in empty churches — nor is it a game for the cloistered elect, the tinhorn mendicants of low calorie despair.”

    —Steinbeck, Nobel Prize acceptance speech (1962)

    Robert Frost

    Robert Frost

    On this date in 1874, Robert Frost was born in San Francisco. His family relocated to New England when his father died. In 1892 he married Elinor White, with whom he was co-valedictorian at Lawrence High School. Although Frost later served as poet in residence and professor of literature at several universities, he never received a degree from Dartmouth or Harvard, both of which he attended.

    The Frosts moved to England for a time, where he found success as a poet and was influenced by the work of Rupert Brooke, Robert Graves and Ezra Pound. The couple returned to New England, where his first two books of poetry were published to great acclaim in 1915, A Boy’s Will and North of Boston, followed by many other books of poetry.

    Frost was awarded the Pulitzer Prize four times. He was sly about revealing his position on religion, telling freethought encyclopedist Warren Allen Smith that the answer was to be found in his work (see quotes). “Frost never made his beliefs clear, prompting biographers and others to theorize he was, among others, an atheist, a Unitarian, an agnostic and a follower of Swedenborgianism, his mother’s religion.” (University of Buffalo news release, Jan. 18, 2013.)

    Jonathan Reichert, whose father was a Cincinnati rabbi who summered with Frost in Vermont, said Frost characterized himself as an “Old Testament Christian,” which Reichert interpreted to mean that Frost “saw that the laws that Judaism had built up really were not the essence, and that Jesus was a great prophet, rather than seeing Jesus as the son of God, or the savior.” (The New Antiquarian, Jan. 30, 2013.) D. 1963.

    I turned to speak to God,
    About the world’s despair;
    But to make bad matters worse,
    I found God wasn’t there.
    God turned to speak to me
    (Don’t anybody laugh)
    God found I wasn’t there—
    At least not over half.

    The kind of Unitarian
    Who having by elimination got
    From many gods to Three, and Three to One,
    Thinks why not taper off to none at all.

    —Frost, "Not All There," Poetry magazine (April 1936); Frost, "A Masque of Mercy" (1947)

    George Will

    George Will

    On this date in 1941, journalist and author George Frederick Will was born in Champaign, Ill. His father was a philosophy professor, specializing in epistemology, at the University of Illinois. Will has a bachelor’s degree from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. (1962), a master’s in politics from Oxford University (1964) and a Ph.D. in politics from Princeton University (1968).

    Will taught political philosophy at Michigan State University, the University of Toronto and then at Harvard. He served on the staff of U.S. Sen. Gordon Allott (R-Colo.) from 1970-1972. He edited National Review from 1972 to 1978. He’s generally regarded as a libertarian-style conservative. In 1974 he started writing a twice-weekly column for the Washington Post and by 1976 was a contributing editor and columnist for Newsweek. He joined ABC as a news analyst in the early 1980s and has since been a contributor to Fox News, MSNBC and NBC.

    Will won a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 1977. His Newsweek and newspaper columns have been published in five books and he has authored books on other subjects such as political philosophy and baseball. His book Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball (1989) was the top national best-seller for over two months. Will has three children from his first marriage with Madeline Marion (divorced 1991). He married Mari Maseng in 1991. They have a son together.

    Will taught a freshman seminar titled “Varieties of American Conservatism” at Princeton during the 2018-19 academic year.

    PHOTO: Will at a Nationals-Orioles baseball game in 2011; photo by Keith Allison under CC 2.0.

    “I’m an amiable, low-voltage atheist.”

    —Will interview, The Daily Caller (May 3, 2014)
    Compiled by Bonnie Gutsch

    Ariel Durant

    Ariel Durant

    On this date in 1898, Ariel Durant (neé Chaya Kaufman) was born in Proskuriv (now Khmelnytskyi), Ukraine. However, May 10 may not be her actual birthday. While immigrating to America, Durant and her four sisters were all registered as being born on May 10. She moved to New York in 1901 along with her large family to meet her father, who was already living in the U.S. and working as a newspaper vendor.

    She began attending the Ferrer School in New York when she was 13, where she met teacher Will Durant. They were married in 1913 when Durant was 15 and he was 28. She later changed her name from Ida to Ariel, a nickname her husband called her because she reminded him of Shakespeare’s sprite in “The Tempest.”

    The Durants co-wrote the extensive 11-volume The Story of Civilization (1927–75), a collection of influential books that document Western history. The popular books won two prizes: a Pulitzer in 1968 for Rosseau and Revolution (1967) and the Huntington Hartford Foundation Award for Literature for The Age of Louis XIV (1963). In 1965 Durant was named Woman of the Year by the Los Angeles Times. Durant had one daughter, Ethel, and an adopted son named Louis, who was her sister Flora’s child.

    Durant was raised in a Jewish family but she and her siblings gradually lost their faith. Her uncle Maurice was not religious and his views influenced Ariel. In the Durants’ A Dual Autobiography (1977), she wrote, “We never deserted our faith for any other, but we lost most of it as we rubbed against a harsh and increasingly secular world. … [M]y Uncle Maurice helped to free me from such nonsense, and awoke in me a desire to read books and enter the world of thought.”

    She died two weeks before her husband in 1981. They 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

    Seymour Hersh (Quote)

    Seymour Hersh (Quote)

    “Our country has been hijacked by a bunch of religious nuts. But how easy it was. That’s a little scary.”

    —Investigative reporter and Pulitzer Prize winning author Seymour Hersh (1937-), speech at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on March 1, 2004 (Wisconsin State Journal, March 2, 2004)

    E.O. Wilson

    E.O. Wilson

    On this date in 1929, biologist and author Edward Osborne Wilson was born in Birmingham, Ala. His father, Edward Osborne Wilson Sr., worked as an accountant. His mother, Inez Linnette Freeman, was a secretary. They divorced when he was 8. He had a nomadic childhood, mostly with his father, an alcoholic who would kill himself.

    Wilson earned his B.S. and M.S. in biology from the University of Alabama and a Ph.D. in 1955 from Harvard, the same year he married Irene Kelley. They had a daughter, Catherine. He joined the Harvard faculty in 1956, where he retired in 2002 at age 73, although he published more than a dozen books after that.

    Blinded in one eye by a fishing accident as a child, his research focus was in the field of myrmecology, the study of ants. He discovered the chemical means by which ants communicate. His books include The Insect Societies (1971) and The Ants (1990), co-written with Bert Holldobler, which won the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. Wilson’s On Human Nature won a Pulitzer in 1979.

    Wilson is perhaps best known for his intellectual syntheses, often connecting evolution and biology to other disciplines. His 1967 book, The Theory of Island Biogeography, which develops the mathematics of how species evolve in geographically small habitats, is influential in the fields of ecology and practical conservation. He worked out the importance of habitat size and position within the landscape in sustaining animal populations.

    In 1975 he published Sociobiology: A New Synthesis, which connected the evolution of social insects with other animals, including humans. At the time, the idea that human behavior is genetically influenced was very controversial and Wilson was criticized as racist and sympathetic to eugenics. During a 1978 lecture he had a pitcher of water poured on his head while the attacker exclaimed, “Wilson, you’re all wet.”

    More recently, Wilson was criticized by Monica McLemore, an associate professor at UC-San Francisco, for espousing “theories fraught with racist ideas about distributions of health and illness in populations without any attention to the context in which these distributions occur.” She added that “what works for ants and other nonhuman species is not always relevant for health and/or human outcomes. For example, the associations of Black people with poor health outcomes, economic disadvantage and reduced life expectancy can be explained by structural racism, yet Blackness or Black culture is frequently cited as the driver of those health disparities. Ant culture is hierarchal and matriarchal, based on human understandings of gender. And the descriptions and importance of ant societies existing as colonies is a component of Wilson’s work that should have been critiqued. Context matters.” (Scienfic American, Dec. 29, 2021) 

    Wilson expanded on the ideas propounded in Sociobiology in On Human Nature (1978), which spawned the discipline of evolutionary psychology. While initially widely accepted with some enthusiasm, some aspects of evolutionary psychology research became even more controversial than Sociobiology, with the line between the two fields becoming more blurred.

    Wilson’s parents were Southern Baptists though he was also raised by conservative Methodists. He abandoned Christianity before college, later describing himself as a “provisional deist” and agnostic. In On Human Nature, he argued that belief in God and rituals of religion are products of evolution. He disdained the tribalism of religion: “And every tribe, no matter how generous, benign, loving, and charitable, nonetheless looks down on all other tribes. What’s dragging us down is religious faith.”

    In Esquire magazine (Jan. 5, 2009), Wilson said: “If someone could actually prove scientifically that there is such a thing as a supernatural force, it would be one of the greatest discoveries in the history of science. So the notion that somehow scientists are resisting it is ludicrous.”

    He has been honored by the American Humanist Association twice, in 1982 with the Distinguished Humanist prize and again in 1999 as the Humanist of the Year. In 1990, he was awarded the Royal Swedish Academy of Science’s Crafoord Prize in ecology, considered the field’s highest honor. He died in Massachusetts at age 92. (D. 2021)

    PHOTO by Jim Harrison under CC 2.5.

    “So I would say that for the sake of human progress, the best thing we could possibly do would be to diminish, to the point of eliminating, religious faiths.”

    —Interview, New Scientist (Jan. 21, 2015)
    Compiled by Eleanor Wroblewski

    Pearl S. Buck

    Pearl S. Buck

    On this day in 1892, Pearl S. Buck (née Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker) was born in West Virginia to parents who were missionaries in China for the Southern Presbyterian Church. At 3 months old she moved with them to China, where she lived for the next 40 years except to attend college. She was fourth of seven children, but only one of three to survive to adulthood.

    She attended a women’s college in Virginia for four years and in 1917 married John Lossing Buck, an agricultural economist living in China. They lived in a rural province, which became the inspiration for The Good Earth, her 1931 best-seller, which won the Pulitzer Prize.

    The couple had a baby in 1921, which was born with phenylketonuria and was intellectually challenged. Buck had a hysterectomy when a tumor was found during the delivery. They adopted a child and taught at Nanking University. She started writing for The Nation, Atlantic Monthly and other publications. Her first novel was East Wind, West Wind. She moved back to the U.S. permanently in 1934, settling in Green Hills Farm, Pa. Her publisher, Richard Walsh, became her second husband in 1935 and they adopted six children.

    Despite writing 70 books she found time to devote to civil rights and women’s rights. She was routinely published in the NAACP’s magazine Crisis and by the Urban League. She was a 20-year trustee of Howard University and founded East and West Association to improve relations between the U.S. and Asia. She also founded the first international interracial adoption agency, Welcome House, in 1949, placing more than 5,000 children in homes. In 1964, she started the Pearl S. Buck Foundation to help Amerasian children. (D. 1973)

    PHOTO: Buck c. 1932; public domain photo by Arnold Genthe.

    “Like Confucius of old, I am so absorbed in the wonder of earth and the life upon it that I cannot think of heaven and the angels.”

    “It may be that religion is dead, and if it is, we had better know it and set ourselves to try to discover other sources of moral strength before it is too late.”

    —Buck, "Advice to Unborn Novelists" (1949); "What America Means to Me" (1947)

    Zona Gale

    Zona Gale

    On this date in 1874, Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist Zona Gale was born in Portage, Wisconsin. Following a siege of diphtheria, the once-stout child emerged with delicate health and a lifelong fragility and turned to imaginative play. Her mother was an ultra-religious Presbyterian but her father stopped attending church. A scoffer at an early age, Gale wrote in her unfinished autobiography that when her mother told her, at the age of 5, how Santa Claus comes down the chimney to deliver toys, she replied, “You can’t make me believe any such stuff as that.”

    She received a degree in literature from the University of Wisconsin in 1895, then worked for two daily newspapers. She earned her master of literature degree in 1899 while churning out gothic tales. In 1901 she became a reporter for the Evening World in New York City, then a freelance writer, subsisting on legendary birdlike meals while sending money home to her parents. Her first book, Romance Island, was published in 1906. Gale’s series of sentimental stories, “Friendship Village,” about small-town life, appeared in major periodicals and the stories were later published in four volumes (1908-19).

    She moved back to Wisconsin in 1911 and became an ardent supporter of progressive Sen. Robert M. La Follette, writing for his magazine. Her pacifism during World War I further radicalized her. She served as vice president of the Wisconsin Woman Suffrage Association and the Wisconsin Peace Society, shifting her writing from the sentimental to realism. Her important tragedy, Birth, was published in 1918, and Miss Lulu Bett (1920), an ironic, feminist look at small-town life, was a best-seller. Her dramatization of that novel brought her the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In midlife, she married Will Breese. She continued working on progressive causes until her death at age 64 from pneumonia. (D. 1938)

    ‘Who made bed-time?’ I inquired irritably.
    ‘S-h-h!’ said Delia. ‘God did.’
    ‘I don’t believe it,’ I announced flatly.
    ‘Well,’ said Delia, ‘anyway, he makes us sleep.’
    This I also challenged. ‘Then why am I sleepier when I go to church evenings than when I play Hide-and-go-seek in the Brice’s barn evenings?’ I submitted.”
    —Zona Gale, "When I was a Little Girl" (1913)

    Upton Sinclair

    Upton Sinclair

    On this date in 1878, Upton Beall Sinclair Jr. was born in Baltimore. As a boy, his two heroes were (the anticlerical) Shelley and Jesus Christ. Sinclair paid for his education at the College of the City of New York and Columbia University by writing for newspapers, magazines and weeklies for boys. Sinclair’s sixth novel, the muckraking classic The Jungle (1906), launched his literary career. The Jungle brought a presidential inquiry into stockyard regulations and resulted in passage of the Pure Food and Drugs Act and the Meat Inspection Act (1906).

    His father was a liquor salesman and his mother was a strict Episcopalian with whom Sinclair was later estranged from for 35 years. He was skeptically deistic as an adult, never quite losing his boyhood admiration for the moral teachings of Jesus, but going after organized religion in his book The Profits of Religion: An Essay in Economic Interpretation (1918). In the preface, which Sinclair wryly titled “Offertory,” he explained, “This book is a study of Supernaturalism from a new point of view — as a Source of Income and a Shield to Privilege.”

    A cursory scan of its chapters reveals its thrust: “The Priestly Lie,” “The Great Fear,” “Priestly Empires,” “Prayer-wheels,” “The Butcher-Gods,” “the Holy Inquisition,” “Hell-fire,” “Anglicanism and Alcohol,” “Bishops and Beer,” “Trinity Corporation,” “God’s Armor,” “The Unholy Alliance” and “Riches in Glory.”

    Sinclair was an active socialist who ran for public office unsuccessfully several times. He wrote 90 books, many of them political novels. He won a Pulitzer in 1942 for Dragon’s Teeth about the rise of Nazism. (D. 1968)

    “There are a score of great religions in the world … and each is a mighty fortress of graft.”

    Upton Sinclair's Magazine, April 1918

    Thelonious Monk

    Thelonious Monk

    On this date in 1917, the American jazz composer and pianist Thelonious Sphere Monk was born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. When he was 5, his family moved to Manhattan, where he started playing the piano, largely self-taught. His compositions “Round Midnight,” “Well, You Needn’t,” Straight, No Chaser,” “Blue Monk” and others have become standards in the jazz repertoire. “Round Midnight” is the most recorded jazz standard written by a jazz musician, appearing on more than 1,000 albums.

    Monk’s idiosyncratic style utilized unexpected melodic twists, dissonant harmonies (which are pleasing to jazz players), erratic percussive phrases punctuated by unexpected hesitations and silences. Despite these unorthodox qualities, Duke Ellington is the only jazz composer who has been recorded more often than Monk, who is one of only five jazz musicians to have been on the cover of Time (along with Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck and Wynton Marsalis).

    Like his music, Monk’s views on religion were also unorthodox. As a teenager, he played the organ for a traveling evangelist, but it appears he was an agnostic who held no religious beliefs of his own. Biographer Robin D. G. Kelly wrote that “Monk clearly was not a true believer” and that “most people who knew Monk remember that he rarely attended church and did not speak about religion in the most flattering terms.”

    According to his niece Charlotte, “He was never into religion. Religion was not his thing. … He never went to church or any of that. And his kids, he never took them to church. He said they had to have their own mind about things.” But he was tolerant of religion and sometimes accompanied his mother on the piano as she sang her beloved hymns while she was dying of cancer.

    He was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation. (D. 1982)

    PHOTO: Monk in 1947. William P. Gottlieb photo, Library of Congress.

    INTERVIEWER: “Do you believe in God?”
    MONK: “I don’t know nothing. Do you?”

    —"Thelonius Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original" by Robin D. G. Kelley (2009)
    Compiled by Dan Barker

    Eugene O’Neill

    Eugene O’Neill

    On this date in 1888, Eugene O’Neill was born in New York City in a hotel on Broadway, the third son of popular actor James O’Neill. As a youngster he traveled with his father, then was sent to a Catholic boarding school. O’Neill entered Princeton in 1906. After he was expelled he set off on adventures prospecting for gold in Honduras, working as a sailor and a variety of other jobs. While recovering from a bout of tuberculosis, O’Neill, influenced by his reading of Ibsen and other dramatists, determined to become a playwright.

    He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936 and four Pulitzer Prizes for Beyond the Horizon (1920), Anna Christie (1922), Strange Interlude (1928) and Long Day’s Journey into Night, written in 1939 but awarded posthumously in 1957. Some of his other works include Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), Ah, Wilderness! (1933), The Iceman Cometh (1936) and A Moon for the Misbegotten (1943).

    O’Neill had three wives and three children before dying at age 65 in 1953 after years of poor health exacerbated by alcoholism. He died in Room 401 in the Sheraton Hotel in Boston. According to biographer Louis Scheaffer, his whispered last words were “I knew it. I knew it. Born in a goddamn hotel room and dying in a hotel room.”

    “When I’m dying, don’t let a priest or Protestant minister or Salvation Army captain near me. Let me die in dignity. Keep it as simple and brief as possible. No fuss, no man of God there. If there is a God, I’ll see him and we’ll talk things over.”

    —O'Neill's instructions to his wife Carlotta, "O'Neill: Son and Artist" by Louis Scheaffer (2002)

    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

Freedom From Religion Foundation