On this date in 1943, author Peter 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 United States. 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. His books include: 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 has said (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 (December 11, 2005), Watson replied: “I lead a perfectly healthy, satisfactory life without being religious. And I think more people should try it.” He went on to say, “I do not believe in the inner world. I think that the inner world comes from the exploration of the outer world–reading, traveling, talking. I do not believe that meditation or cogitation leads to wisdom or peace or the truth.” Since 1998, Watson has been a research associate at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, at the University of Cambridge. He lives in London, England.
“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.” ~ Peter Watson interview, CBC News (May 5, 2007)
Today in 1755 Samuel Johnson’s “A Dictionary of the English Language” was published in London. It was a mammoth undertaking, requiring almost a decade of work and it remained the definitive authority until the Oxford Dictionary was completed nearly two centuries later. It had been deliberately commissioned as pre-existing dictionaries were relatively poor and incomplete. Johnson’s dictionary is a little different from the relatively dry descriptions and meticulously researched etymologies that we are used to today, for example:
Cough: A convulsion of the lungs, vellicated by some sharp serosity. It is pronounced coff
Excise: a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid
As it was, Johnson’s dictionary was so large and expensive that it cost more to print than Johnson’s entire remuneration on the project and sold at around 200 copies per year for the next three decades. Although it was hardly without flaw or error, it was hugely influential for more than a century.
On this date in 1949, writer and columnist Christopher Hitchens was born in Portsmouth, England. He attended Cambridge and graduated from Oxford in 1970, reading in philosophy, politics and economics. From 1971-1981 he worked as a book reviewer for The Times. In 1981 he emigrated to the United States. Hitchens wrote “Minority Report,” a column for The Nation, from 1982-2002. He then wrote for Slate, The Daily Mirror, as a contributing editor to The Atlantic Monthly and Vanity Fair, and also wrote for Harpers and many other U.S. newspapers and journals. As a foreign correspondent, he covered events in 60 countries on all five continents. Hitchens wrote a host of books, but is best-known in freethought circles for authoring God Is Not Great (2007). His criticisms of Clinton and pro-Iraqi war views made Hitchens increasingly controversial among progressive readership, but he remained a stalwart atheist and iconoclast. In “Papal Power: John Paul II’s other legacy” (Slate.com, April 1, 2005), Hitchens pointed out that the pope “was a part of the cover up and obstruction of justice that allowed the child-rape scandal to continue for so long.” Hitchens became a U.S. citizen in 2007. D. 2011.
“Gullibility and credulity are considered undesirable qualities in every department of human life—except religion . . . Why are we praised by godly men for surrendering our ‘godly gift’ of reason when we cross their mental thresholds? . . . Atheism strikes me as morally superior, as well as intellectually superior, to religion. Since it is obviously inconceivable that all religions can be right, the most reasonable conclusion is that they are all wrong.”
~ Christopher Hitchens, “The Lord and the Intellectuals,” Harper’s (July 1982), cited by James A. Haught in 2,000 Years of Disbelief (1996)