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Happy Birthday, Thomas Paine

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“The world is my country and to do good my religion.”  Those words could get a man in trouble in Thomas Paine’s time.  Born in England in 1737, he arrived in America in 1774 and quickly became a spokesman for the revolutionary cause, writing first “Common Sense” and then “The Crisis” in support of the American revolution.  Returning to England he got in trouble for his writing, “The Rights of Man,” and then got embroiled in the revolution in France, where he got on the wrong side of powerful leaders and spent time in prison.  When he returned to America, his more recent activities and his freethought views on religious matters obscured his contributions to U.S. Independence.

“The world is my country and to do good my religion” was a declaration that could get a man in trouble when Paine died in 1809, and this was still the case one hundred years later.  There was little reward for thinking beyond the level of patriotism and even less for godless “religion.”

Things have improved since then.  A future President is unlikely to describe Paine, or anyone else, as a “dirty little atheist” as Theodore Roosevelt did in a biography of Gouverneur Morris, American ambassador to France when Paine was in prison there.  First published in 1888, the book was reprinted in 1899 without change, an event which caused a furor of protest from the freethought community.

Then again, not speaking unkindly of atheists may be more a matter of politeness than of true understanding and tolerance.  Politics and religion are more closely involved than ever, it seems. Certainly the ability both to think for oneself and to think an issue through to its logical conclusion seems to be in short supply in the political arena.  The media use of sound bites doesn’t help.

Note: some reports on Thomas Paine now give his birthdate as February 9.  This is because the calendar was adjusted in 1752.  The English calendar had become off by eleven days from the Gregorian calendar in use outside of Britain and its colonies..  In 1752, September 3 to 13 simply didn’t happen.  The changing of all dates before that shift seems excessive to me.  In the peak of the freethought era one hundred years ago, January 29 was the day for celebration.

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What do freethinkers celebrate?

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There seem to be a shortage of atheist/freethought holidays. A recent blog comment suggested that there is nothing between April Fool’s Day and Be a Pirate Day in September. 

While the word “holiday” has unfortunate origins, now largely ignored, I do think atheists, agnostics and freethinkers should find occasions to celebrate during the year.  One hundred years ago, gatherings were held on January 29, Thomas Paine’s birthday.  I don’t know how many still honor this occasion.

Robert Ingersoll, the most successful freethought lecturer of the nineteenth century, was immediately raised to “sainthood” beside Thomas Paine upon his death in 1899.  No miracles were needed.  January 29 was often celebrated as a “Paine-Ingersoll” event. 

Ingersoll declared himself to be agnostic, but he was in fact a humanist before the word came into popular usage.  The following quotation is typical:

“Reason, Observation, and Experience―the Holy Trinity of Science―have taught us that happiness is the only good, that the time to be happy is now, and the way to be happy is to make others so.”
(From “On the Gods”)

Why not honor Ingersoll on his own birthday, August 11?  Perhaps in those pre-airconditioning days of the early twentieth century August was an off time to hold a celebration.  Now, I think, an August “holiday” would be a good idea.

Another option would be to establish “Atheist Family Day” on July 17.  When Ingersoll died on that date in 1899 his wife and daughters took immediate action to preventthe  fraudulent claims of deathbed conversion which plagued every freethinking hero.  Ingersoll’s family was united in supporting the cause of freethought.

If these options don’t appeal to you, perhaps you have other ideas about what and when freethinkers should hold celebrations.