September 17

    Theodore Schroeder

    Theodore Schroeder

    On this date in 1864, Theodore Schroeder was born on a farm near Horicon, Wisconsin. Because his parents “intermarried” (one was Lutheran, the other Catholic), they were disowned by their families. His father became an agnostic, and Schroeder was also influenced by the legacy of the freethinking German immigrants who came to Wisconsin after the failed 1848 revolution. He took the injunction to “go west, young man” to heart and traveled for about a decade, taking odd jobs to support himself.

    In 1882 he entered the University of Wisconsin, studying engineering, then earning a law degree in 1889. He practiced law for 10 years in Salt Lake City, making a study of Mormonism. Schroeder worked for statehood for Utah, but grew alarmed at the Mormon theocratic hold, as well as the practice of polygamy, which he termed “sanctified lust.” In 1900 he moved to New York and formed the Free Speech League (a precursor to the American Civil Liberties Union) with Lincoln Steffens and other progressives.

    By 1908, when he moved to Connecticut, Schroeder was focusing his activism against religionist Anthony Comstock and the Comstock laws, which suppressed free speech relating to sexual matters, especially discussion of birth control. He helped defend his friend and anarchist Emma Goldman at her Denver trial, as well as many others prosecuted in blasphemy or obscenity cases, including progressive ministers. He wrote Constitutional Free Speech Defined and Defended in an Unfinished Argument in a Case of Blasphemy (1919).

    He turned his attention to what he called the erotogenetic theory of religion, which he developed after observing Mormonism. William James and others discredited the concept, but he found allies in Havelock Ellis and Chapman Cohen. He also worked with the National Liberal League, which became the American Secular Union. Schroeder became the victim of the censorship he had worked against his entire life when his will, instructing that his works be published as a collection, was found invalid by the Connecticut Supreme Court. The court called his freethought writing “obscene,” offensive to religion and of no social value. Judge O’Sullivan wrote, “The law will not declare a trust valid when the object of the trust, as the finding discloses, is to distribute articles which reek of the sewer.” D. 1953.

    “The freethinker has the same right to discredit the beliefs of Christians that the Orthodox Christians enjoy in destroying reverence, respect, and confidence in Mohammedanism, Mormonism, Christian Science, or Atheism.”

    —Schroeder, "Constitutional Free Speech Defined and Defended in an Unfinished Argument in a Case of Blasphemy" (1919). "The Encyclopedia of Unbelief"

    Sean B. Carroll

    Sean B. Carroll

    On this date in 1960, Sean B. Carroll was born in Toledo, Ohio (not to be confused with cosmologist Sean M. Carroll). He earned a B.A. in biology from Washington University after only two years and graduated with a Ph.D. in immunology from Tufts Medical School in 1983 when he was 22. Carroll worked as a professor of genetics and molecular biology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an investigator at the University of Wisconsin’s Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He primarily studied evolutionary developmental biology, a relatively new field that focuses on the evolution of the development of organisms. Carroll, now an emeritus professor, has two sons with his wife Jamie.

    Carroll is a strong advocate for evolution. When he was interviewed by Freethought Radio in 2008, Carroll stated that he often works with teachers who want to incorporate evolution into their curriculum and helps to develop high school lesson plans that include evolution. He has published three books about evolution: Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo (2005), The Making of the Fittest: DNA Evidence for Evolution (2006) and Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species (2009). He writes the “Remarkable Creatures” science column for The New York Times and was awarded the 2010 Stephen Jay Gould Prize for raising public awareness about the importance of evolution.

    In 2007, Carroll wrote the article “God as Genetic Engineer,” which debunked author Michael Behe’s book about intelligent design, The Edge of Evolution (2007). When asked in a 2003 interview by Nature magazine what he wished the public understood better about science, Carroll responded, “The depth and breadth of evidence supporting scientific ideas: compared with, say, the absence of evidence in areas like astrology, UFOs and ghosts.”

    PHOTO: By Jane Kitschier under CC 2.5.

    “If a designer was designing us, either they’re a terrible designer or they’ve got a great sense of humor, because we’re carrying around all sorts of genes that don’t work.”

    —Carroll, Freethought Radio interview (May 24, 2008)
    Compiled by Sabrina Gaylor

    Constitution Day

    Constitution Day

     

    Today is Constitution Day, celebrating the adoption in Philadelphia of the U.S. Constitution, a godless and secular document, on this date in 1787.

    Jerry DeWitt

    Jerry DeWitt

    On this date in 1969, Jerry DeWitt was born in DeRidder, La., the progeny of a long line of Pentecostal preachers. DeWitt was an evangelical pastor of two churches in DeRidder for 25 years. His journey to atheism was gradual, doubts beginning to form when he contemplated the idea of hell. He secretly joined the Clergy Project, a confidential online community for active and former preachers who no longer hold supernatural beliefs. When a photo of DeWitt and Richard Dawkins circulated, unintentionally outing DeWitt, he embraced his status as the first “graduate” of the Clergy Project, though not without cost.

    After coming out publicly as an atheist in 2011, DeWitt lost his wife, his job and many friends and relatives. Soon after he became the volunteer executive director of Recovering From Religion, serving until 2012. Speaking to Oklahoma freethinkers in 2012, he said, “Pretending has an adult word that we call faith. What religion calls faith is really pretending to believe.”

    In 2013 he wrote a book about his experiences, Hope After Faith and hosted the first meeting of the Community Mission Chapel, a so-called “atheist church” in his home state. DeWitt travels to freethought gatherings around the country, deploying the oratory skills he acquired from preaching to share his story and his thoughts on “the five stages of disbelief.” “I loved God for 25 years, but yet in my search was not able to find any true evidence or proof of his existence or intervention,” he told CNN (July 22, 2013).

    “Skepticism is my nature, freethought is my methodology, agnosticism is my conclusion after 25 years of being in the ministry, and atheism is my opinion.”

    —DeWitt, CNN interview (July 22, 2013)
    Compiled by Noah Bunnell

    Periyar

    Periyar

    On this date in 1879, Indian rationalist and social reformer Periyar (“respected one” or “elder” in Tamil), né Erode Venkata Ramasamy, was born in Erode, now part of Tamil Nadu, India. He was raised in a religious family with an older brother and two sisters. His father was an affluent businessman, and Periyar left school after five years and joined the business at age 12. When he was 19, his father set up a marriage with Nagammai. The couple had one child who died during infancy. Nagammai steadfastly supported Periyar’s social and political actions.

    In 1919, Periyar joined the Indian National Congress party and was eventually elected president of the Madras Presidency Congress Committee before leaving in 1925 when he learned the party was dominated by individuals from the Brahmin priestly caste who were indifferent or hostile toward his fight for equal rights. He later headed the Justice Party, which was dedicated to social and economic equity.

    Periyar propagated rationalism over Hinduism, which he began to question from a young age and believed to be a major contributor to inequality in his state. He spoke out against Brahmin oppression and was a renowned advocate of caste emancipation and women’s rights. According to Periyar, self-willed reason is the only factor necessary for freeing oneself from the enslavement of religion.

    He once stated, “Men today do not have self-confidence. They do not think that [it is] they who conduct [their affairs] on their own. They have made a muddle of God, God’s dictates, God’s philosophy, all of which were invented by man himself.” His Self-Respect Movement, aimed at generating pride among lower caste members, drove this point home further. He started his own political organization, Dravidar Kazhagam, to promote  rationalism and social justice and against invidious religious practices.

    After Nagammai’s death in 1933, he married Maniammai, who continued his social work, leading the Dravidar Kazhagam after his death. (As of this writing in 2023, it is headed by Krishnasami Veeramani.) Periyar is recognized as the “Father of modern Tamil Nadu” and has an iconic status in the state. Both major political parties in Tamil Nadu have been spawned from his political movement Dravidar Kazhagam. (D. 1973) 

    “He who created God is a fool, he who propagates God is a scoundrel, and he who worships God is a barbarian.”

    —Periyar slogan he repeated and popularized throughout his political career
    Compiled by Bill Dunn

Freedom From Religion Foundation