On this date in 1822, Ulysses S. Grant, 18th president of the United States, was born in Ohio. The Union victory at the end of the Civil War was credited to Grant, who became General of the Army. Grant was U.S. president from 1869 to 1877. He was a favorite of irreverent author Mark Twain, who gave the keynote at a toast for Grant at the Palmer House in Chicago in 1879, as part of an illustrious line-up of speakers that included agnostic Robert G. Ingersoll. Twain was entrusted to publish Grant’s Memoirs. Grant was not a member of any church, and was never baptized. After receiving eight demerits as a cadet at West Point for failure to attend chapel, he protested in a letter that it was “not republican” to be forced to go to church (Brown’s Life of Grant, p. 329, cited by Franklin Steiner, The Religious Beliefs of Our Presidents). Grant was on record in favor of taxation of church property. In an annual address to Congress in 1875, he warned of “the importance of correcting an evil that if permitted to continue, will probably lead to great trouble in our land . . . It is the acquisition of vast amounts of untaxed Church property . . . I would suggest the taxation of all property equally.” D. 1885.
“Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the Church, and the private schools, supported entirely by private contributions. Keep the church and state forever separate.” ~ Ulysses S, Grant, address delivered in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1875
“Daniel Dennett, in Freedom Evolves, writes that it makes no difference whether our moral impulses are evolved or learned. “[T]he theory that explains morality … should be neutral with regard to whether our moral attitudes, habits, preferences, and proclivities are a product of genes or cultures.” I think this is true because culture itself is ultimately a product of evolution. Whether you think “instinct” is purely biological or a learned habit, or a combination of the two, it comes down to the same goal: the minimization of harm to biological organisms.” ~ Dan Barker, Life Driven Purpose, pg 66
“The rise and fall of religious beliefs is difficult to predict with assurance. It’s doubtful whether many Romans in the early second century would have predicted the rise of Christianity, whether many Europeans in the early sixteenth century would have predicted the Reformation and the subsequent rejection of Catholicism by much of the continent, whether many Americans in the early twentieth century would have foreseen the simultaneous decline of mainstream Protestant denominations and the rise of Protestant fundamentalism, or whether many in the West anticipated the recent spike in atheists, agnostics, and other nonbelievers. Perhaps over the next one hundred years, some faith will sweep aside other beliefs; perhaps religious beliefs, in general, will decline precipitously and all but disappear. Either outcome is possible.
However, a much more likely outcome is a significant increase in the number of nonbelievers, accompanied by a decrease, but not a collapse, in the number of believers. This increase could come fairly quickly if nonbelievers reach a critical mass, which would allow for greater acceptance and the sense among many nominal believers that it’s no longer socially injurious to acknowledge that one is an atheist or agnostic. The big break in the United States will come if and when a number of politicians who are open atheists and nominal believers to come out of the closet. But even if there is an exponential increase in the number of nonbelievers, it’s improbable that religion will be completely abandoned. Religious belief is resilient. Some debate whether religious belief has a genetic basis, but regardless of whether it has a biological foundation, it’s undeniable it has deep cultural and psychological roots. Beliefs that have had a firm grip on the human psyche for millennia are unlikely to vanish in a century.” ~ Ron Lindsay, (The Necessity of Secularism, pgs 15-16)
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)
On this date in 1830, Clémence-Auguste Royer was born in Nantes, France. Her parents were Catholic royalists, and Royer’s early education took place in a convent school. Royer became a republican following the Revolution of 1848, and began to question other common views at that time. Royer obtained a teaching certificate and taught at girls schools in Wales, where she mastered English, and in France. She read widely on science in these school libraries. In 1855, as a result of her inquiries, she rejected Catholicism thoroughly, and devoted herself to science. She began to offer lectures on science and logic for women in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1858. Royer translated Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species into French in 1863. She famously wrote a preface to the work which used Darwin’s mechanism for evolution as part of an anti-religious argument which Darwin himself did not make — by this time, the book was in its third English edition and contained several strong references to a creator. Royer had been an evolutionist before reading Darwin, having been strongly influenced by the writings of Jean Baptiste LaMarck. French scientists, especially atheists and anthropologists, were strongly influenced by evolution and natural selection as framed by Royer, who also discussed the implications of evolutionary theory for human beings and society in her introduction (it would be almost ten years before Darwin himself grappled with these issues in The Descent of Man). Royer continued as Darwin’s official French translator until the third French edition of Origin was published in 1870.
Royer, despite not being a research scientist, remained a popular interpreter of science as well as a philosopher of science throughout her life. As a woman, she was denied access to many learned societies, as well as university teaching positions. It has been argued by Jennifer Michael Hecht, among others, that Royer opened doors to women within the freethinking movement. Royer was a feminist who argued passionately for the rights of women, married and unmarried, to child custody, property, education and equality with men. In 1866, she had a son by her lover and life partner, Pascal Duprat, a married man, which sharpened her concern about the major legal obstacles then present to unwed mothers and their children. She published many books and articles throughout her life, and considered the pinnacle to be 1900’s Natura rerum, her theory of nature. In 1900, Royer was named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor for her contributions as “a woman of letters and a scientific writer.” D. 1902
“Yes, I believe in revelation, but a permanent revelation of man to himself and by himself, a rational revelation that is nothing but the result of the progress of science and of the contemporary conscience, a revelation that is always only partial and relative and that is effectuated by the acquisition of new truths and even more by the elimination of ancient errors. We must also attest that the progress of truth gives us as much to forget as to learn, and we learn to negate and to doubt as often as to affirm.” ~ Clémence Royer, preface to Charles Darwin, L’origine des espèces, in Jennifer Michael Hecht, The End of the Soul
“… the fact that the universe itself may have no purpose doesn’t affect our purpose, in fact it’s the incredible height of solipsism to assume that without us the universe doesn’t matter, and that if the universe is purposeless we don’t matter. We make our own purpose, and it seems to me life is more precious because it’s temporary and accidental, and we should take advantage of that. And we have evolved brains and that allows us to ask questions not just about how the universe works but how we should behave.”
~ Lawrence Krauss, (born May 27, 1954) is an American-Canadian theoretical physicist and cosmologist who is Foundation Professor of the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University, and director of its Origins Project.
On this date in 1966, philosopher David John Chalmers was born in Australia. Chalmers earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and computer science from the University of Adelaide in 1986. He was briefly a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, but transferred to Indiana University at Bloomington, where he obtained a Ph.D. in 1993 in philosophy and cognitive science. He worked at Washington University in St. Louis from 1993 to 1995, and at the University of California – Santa Cruz from 1995 to 1998. He worked in the Department of Philosophy and the Center for Consciousness Studies at the University of Arizona from 1999 to 2004. Since 2004, Chalmers is professor of philosophy and director of the Centre for Consciousness at Australian National University. As of 2009, he is also a part-time professor of philosophy at New York University. His 1996 book, The Conscious Mind, is considered a seminal work on consciousness. His numerous papers and books have had great influence in the realms of cognitive science, philosophy of the mind and philosophy of language.
“Now I have to say I’m a complete atheist. I have no religious views myself and no spiritual views, except very watered down humanistic spiritual views. And consciousness is just a fact of life. It’s a natural fact of life.” ~ David Chalmers in an interview on “Encounter” with Margaret Coffey for Australian ABC National Radio, April 10, 2011
On this date in 1857, Clarence Darrow, later dubbed “Attorney for the Damned” and “the Great Defender,” was born. For a time he lived in an Ohio home that had served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. His father was known as the “village infidel.” Darrow attended the University of Michigan Law School for one year, then passed the bar in 1878 and moved to Chicago. There he joined protests against the trumped-up charges against four radicals accused in the Haymarket Riot case. Darrow became corporate counsel to the City of Chicago, then counsel for the North Western Railway. He quit this lucrative post when he could no longer defend their treatment of injured workers, then went on to defend without pay Socialist striker Eugene V. Debs. In 1907, Darrow successfully defended labor activist “Big Bill” Haywood, charged with assassinating a former governor. His passionate denunciation of the death penalty prompted him to defend the famous killers, Loeb and Leopold, who received life sentences in 1924.
His most celebrated case was the Scopes Trial, defending teacher John Scopes in Dayton, Tenn., who was charged with the crime of teaching evolution in the public schools. Darrow’s brilliant cross-examination of prosecuting attorney William Jennings Bryan lives on in legal history. During the trial, Darrow said: “I do not consider it an insult, but rather a compliment to be called an agnostic. I do not pretend to know where many ignorant men are sure–that is all that agnosticism means.” Darrow wrote many freethought articles and edited a freethought collection. His two appealing autobiographies are The Story of My Life (1932), containing his plainspoken views on religion, and Farmington (1932). He also wrote Resist Not Evil (1902), An Eye for An Eye (1905), and Crime, Its Causes and Treatments (1925). His freethought writings are collected into Why I Am an Agnostic and Other Essays. He told The New York Times, “Religion is the belief in future life and in God. I don’t believe in either” (April 19, 1936). D. 1938.
“I don’t believe in God because I don’t believe in Mother Goose.” ~ Clarence Darrow, speech, Toronto, 1930.
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)
Agnostic Atheism: as anyone fluent in the contemporary debate between atheists and theists knows, is common parlance among nonbelievers. Roughly, the idea here is that when one uses the term “atheist” they’re making reference to their belief, whereas when one uses the term “agnostic,” they’re making reference to their knowledge. In this way, so the argument goes, one can be an atheist in the sense that they don’t believe that God exists (or that they positively believe that God does not exist) but nevertheless be an agnostic in the sense that they don’t know, or claim to know, that God does not exist.
Further, there is an additional distinction that is made between soft (or weak) atheists and hard (or strong) atheists. On the one hand, soft atheists are those who claim only to lack belief in God. On the other hand, hard atheists are those who claim to know or believe that God does not exist.
Now, descriptively speaking, this taxonomy seems to correspond pretty closely to the way that many atheists now days construe their atheism. So, as far as semantics go, this seems correct. However, and I say this as an atheist, in terms of its philosophical rigor, this construal of atheism seems a bit lacking. To demonstrate this, try to imagine an atheist using the distinction between atheism and agnosticism, as well as the distinction between soft and hard atheism, with respect to any other conception of god apart from the standard, Western monotheistic conception. That would be peculiar, would it not? So, the question is why don’t we atheists bother to qualify our rejection of Zeus or Odin with the caveats of agnosticism and a mere lack of belief? And if we don’t need to do this, why, then, must we do this with respect to the god of Christianity?
Well, frankly, I don’t think we need to. The mere fact that I don’t know *for certain* that Zeus doesn’t exist does not mean that I have to be an agnostic with respect to his existence, any more than the fact that I can’t know for certain that I’m not just a brain in a vat means I have to be agnostic about whether or not I’m just a brain in a vat. In other words, the sort of certainty that agnostic atheists point to in order to distinguish between their atheism and their agnosticism is itself based on a rather sophomoric understanding of epistemology that is quickly done away with by the slightest of philosophical inquiry. I may not know for certain that God does not exist, but this is not at all to say that I’m not entirely rational in going ahead and affirming my belief in the nonexistence of God all the same. And I don’t have to call myself an agnostic while doing so.