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The Biography

The Biography

Today, February 8 completes three years on this blog.  It has had its busy and its slack times, but I’ve enjoyed it all.

I began this blog to publicize my biography of John Emerson Roberts. This was one piece of an effort which involved a variety of Linked In Groups and even Linked In Ads, as well as connecting with other bloggers.

I named this blog “Freethought and Metaphor” in part because I hoped that I would in

My new poetry collection

My new poetry collection

future have poetry books to advertise – and now I have one.  I realized as soon as I came up with the title that these are indeed two sides of my mind, as my subhead says.  My left brain thinks about ideas and my right brain creates poetic material.  Sometimes these two sides cooperate, sometimes they wander down different trails.  And there are times when my left brain pretends to cooperate but really wants to run the show.  Those times do no produce successful poems.

Humans are bilateral, but who really had only two sides?  A third place where I put my energy is work on hunger and justice issues.  There are disputes about what constitutes justice, but most people agree on what hunger is, even when it is hidden under fancy names like “food insecurity.”

I was delighted to discover Word Soup, an organization which uses poetry to support hungry people by asking for a small donation to their local food bank to accompany submissions.  I couldn’t pass up the chance to combine these two usually separate parts of my mind.  They accepted two of my poems, which can be found at: http://wordsoup.weebly.com/issue-five-february-2015.html

My father-in-law used to count his age not by years completed, but by the year he was in.  He was well into his 99th year when he died.  Today is not the end of three years for this blog.  It is the beginning of the fourth year.  And I plan to keep going, though I have no plan laid out for it.

Please check back to see what I come up with.  And check out my books on the Books page.

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Atheists Together

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A friend brought my attention to an article from Time magazine earlier this month about atheist “churches.”  I was interested to learn that there is a new “freethought church” in Kansas City, MO.  I wonder if they know about the long tradition they belong to, about the “Church of This World” founded in 1897 by John Emerson Roberts.

From their website www.kcoasis.org

From their website http://www.kcoasis.org

So many of the  leaders among the atheist/agnostic communities have come out of the Christian denominations.  Leading a community is what they have been trained to do.  When their beliefs change, they take these skills to a new audience.

There are some who think these communities are a bad idea.  Bill Maher is quoted in the article as saying, “It undermines the whole point of atheism, because the reason why people need to get together in religion is precisely because it’s nonsensical.”

Would it parallel this statement to suggest that people attend football games in great numbers to support each other in the nonsensical belief that these games really matter?

If Maher can’t separate a belief system from the human desire for community, I wonder what he thinks the “whole point of atheism” is.  To reject the idea of god does not require one to be live in isolation.  To enjoy fellowship is not a crutch.  Nor is the idea of finding like-minded people to join in doing good in the world a statement of faith.

94933_CoverFrontI have a sneaking suspicion that when convinced atheists reject fellowship it is because they really would rather not put up with agnostics, who have not committed themselves to the understanding that there is no god.  This reflects another element which I think is characteristic of humanity: the desire to draw lines and strive for purity.

John Emerson Roberts, on the other hand, would be delighted to know there is a new community of freethinkers in Kansas City, MO.

Thanksgiving Thoughts

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People have given thanks for the harvest since long before any major religions were formulated.  This giving of thanks always has something of a religious quality.  The relation of religion to the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday has long been tangential at best, however.  Those paper pilgrim hats and feather headdresses from grade school weren’t about religion; they were about making us citizens with a common heritage, a shared history, incomplete though it was.

94933_CoverFrontThe role of religion in the Thanksgiving holiday made it a subject that liberal preacher John Emerson Roberts spoke on almost every year; the hypocrisy of talking about religious services and preferring feasting and games was an obvious target.  Here, from the biography, is a summary of his thoughts on the subject in 1895:

At this time, the day still had to be set by the annual proclamation from the president (The proclamations are still made, even though Congress fixed the day as the fourth Thursday in November in the mid-twentieth century.) These proclamations have religious overtones that go back to the Puritans. Grover Cleveland’s 1895 proclamation called for giving thanks “in our accustomed places of worship,” and for prayer that God would continue to show mercy to and guide the nation. Roberts applauds the people of the country for being ahead of the platitudes of the proclamation: they use the day for feasting, fun, and football games. He notes that even the newspapers, supposedly holding up the pious conventions, give far more space to reporting sports than to church services. The people know what they need and they act accordingly.

When the Kansas City Star published an editorial objecting to what Roberts had said. he used the papers themselves as evidence to support his argument. In the four daily papers published in Kansas City on the day after thanksgiving, he counted 568 lines covering religious events for the day and 6,480 on football alone. “These figures prove nothing,” Roberts admitted, but they showed what the editors judged to be “what the public was interested in on Thanksgiving day.”

What would Dr. Roberts say today about Black Friday and the way it has recently leaked into Thanksgiving Day?  Would he assert that “the people know what they need and they act accordingly?”  Or would he perceive a pressure of corporate capitalism throwing society out of balance, as I do?  My perspective is affected by the fact that I have what I need, and when I make a big purchase it is usually because something has broken and I want to replace it.  When something does break, I’m not likely to wait for sales or the crowds that go with them. I give thanks that I can avoid Black Friday.

An additional note on Thanksgiving:

I recently heard an ad for some worthy cause in which the speaker said, “People remember the thanks but they don’t always remember the giving.”  Another blow to language: giving thanks is not a two-part action.

Comments Roberts made on other Thanksgivings, and his comments on many other subjects are reported in John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher.  See more on the Books page.

John Emerson Roberts: His Significance in Freethought History

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The Council for Secular Humanism has published on their website an article I wrote describing John Emerson Roberts’s pivotal position in the development of freethought from liberalism to radicalism.  You can find it at:

https://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php/articles/356994933_CoverFront

If the article makes you interested in more background, consider ordering my biography, which gives much attention to the context in which Roberts worked and what made him successful.  You can get a new, signed copy from me via Amazon, through ERYBooks, at:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/aag/main/ref=olp_merch_name_9?ie=UTF8&asin=1462876919&isAmazonFulfilled=0&seller=AW0M3U1KS6UKI

J. E. Roberts in later life with his fourth wife, Frances (Hynes Bacon) Roberts

J. E. Roberts with his fourth wife, Frances (Hynes Bacon) Roberts

In the Sign of Libra

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John Emerson Roberts

John Emerson Roberts, subject of my biography

September 28, 2013 is the 160th anniversary of John Emerson Roberts’s birth.  This makes ‘Kansas City’s Up-to-date Freethought Preacher” a Libra according to astrology.  My father and my son, Dr. Roberts’s grandson and great-great-grandson, were also born in this sign.  Libra is the Latin word for balance.  I am not sure in what sense all Libras should exhibit balance, but equilibrium has not been characteristic of any of these three men.

It would make more sense if “Libra” were connected “liber,” the Latin work that means free, as in liberation, and book, as in library.  All of these men have been freethinkers according to their times.  None of them has believed in a conventional god, and they have embraced the new, each in his own way.  John Emerson Roberts explored new ideas of all kinds: science, theology and humanism.  My father was an exponent of new ways of looking at language (as developed by Noam Chomsky).  My son has made his career in computer software development.

Paul McHenry Roberts

My father, Paul McHenry Roberts

One tradition in astrology focuses on the elements (earth, air, fire, water) associated with each astrological sign.  Libra is an “air” sign.  This connects it with the mind, with ideas.  The sign is associated with intellectual creativity and intensity.  This fits my three men well.

But I, a deep water Scorpio, also focus on intellect.  Where does my freethinking, intellectual approach to “life, the universe and everything” come from?  How does inheritance relate to astrology?

I like to explore astrological theories, because it seems reasonable to me that there are resonances at multiple levels throughout the cosmos.  However, no interpretation I’ve come across yet has been able to capture the subtleties of such possible influences.

Another Anniversary

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Today is the 116th anniversary of John Emerson Roberts’s departure from the Unitarian Church.  This move to leave the denomination and create his own “Church of this World” is what makes his an interesting story.  Without that move he would have been one of many successful liberal preachers in the denomination, hardly noticed in the world beyond.

In 1906, when Dr. Roberts decided to take a break from “the Church of this World” after nine years, a reporter for the Kansas City Journal declared that Roberts had fallen away from religion “because his name was Emerson.”  The writer (perhaps it was the paper’s editor) claimed that Roberts was imbued with “Emersonian mysticism.”  He didn’t address the fact that it was Dr. Roberts’s good Baptist parents who gave him this middle name.  Mysticism was not what led Dr. Roberts away from the denominations.  On the contrary, even the Unitarians had too much mysticism for his rational mind.

94933_CoverFrontThis June is also the second anniversary of the publication of my biography of Roberts.  A year ago I was giving talks about the book, which I enjoyed doing very much.  I had to admit, however, that the return on the cost of traveling was not worth it.  Through internet connections I did sell a few books, so this past winter I used LinkedIn ads to draw attention to this site when I posted selections from the book.  I got a nice increase in “views” but no sales.

I was ready to say, “Okay, I’ve done what I could.”  I’d sold some books.  I’d placed them in a few appropriate bookstores.  I’d sent review copies here, there and everywhere.  It seemed like time to put the project behind me.  Then two things happened this spring: the book was given a very favorable review in the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society Journal, and I was invited to write a short summary of Dr. Roberts’s success for Free Inquiry Magazine.  I wait to see what the 117th year since John Emerson Roberts left the Unitarian Church to create his “Church of this World” will bring.

Clarence Darrow, Friend and Colleague of J. E. Roberts

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Darrow0001 Clarence Darrow was a few years younger than Roberts, and like him was gradually making a name for himself in the nationwide freethought community represented at the American Secular Union conference in Cincinnati in 1900.  Darrow was not yet the widely known figure that the Leopold and Loeb case and the Scopes Trial would later make him.  This event in 1900 was apparently the first time these two men came into personal contact.

Born in Kinsman, Ohio, in 1857, Darrow had a different background from the majority of freethinkers: he was born into it.  His father had trained to be a Unitarian minister, but lost his faith. Darrow looked up to his father as “the village infidel” and sought to emulate his moral commitment and intellectual courage. Darrow studied at AlleghenyCollege in Pennsylvania and at the University of Michigan, but earned no degrees. He became a lawyer through apprenticeship in a law office in Youngstown,   Ohio, passing the examination in 1878, the same year Roberts completed his education for the ministry.

Darrow married in 1880. After a few years in smaller towns, the couple moved to Chicago in 1887. There Darrow soon got involved in local and then wider politics. He worked closely with John P. Altgeld, helping to elect him governor of Illinois in 1892. In addition to giving political speeches as a member of the Democratic Party, Darrow also gave popular lectures.

Darrow’s fame spread beyond Illinois with his defense of Eugene Debs following the Pullman Strike of 1894. In 1896, he hoped to be elected representative from Illinois’s 3rd District. He spent more time campaigning for the top of the ticket William Jennings Bryan and for Governor Altgeld’s reelection than for himself; all three lost. In the process, Darrow developed a long-lasting dislike of Bryan.

Clarence Darrow was a restless man, not at all a homebody. His work and political activity took him away from home a lot, and his wife Jessie’s disappointment pushed him further away. After several years of this, he asked her to divorce him. No fault divorce was unheard of in this era. Jessie could have found plenty of faults with Clarence. Instead, she graciously allowed him to divorce her, though charges had to be invented, for the sake of his career. The divorce was filed in 1897.

Darrow would marry again in a few years, but when he and Roberts shared the podium in Cincinnati in 1900, he was living as a bachelor. According to several reports, he tended to look rather scruffy and ill-dressed. If Roberts’s appearance lived up to the photographs available, they would have made a striking contrast. In addition to questions of dress, Darrow’s square face contrasted with Roberts’s narrow one. Both men would have their ups and downs in the years to come. Although Darrow was only four years younger than Roberts, his fame beyond Illinois would not peak until the 1920s, with the Leopold-Loeb Trial and the Scopes Trial. Roberts, in contrast, though he did not know it, was close to his peak of popularity, which would come in 1902. This may have been partly because Roberts’s style of speaking retained more of the nineteenth century than that of Darrow. Location and contacts were also factors in the difference.

The two men shared an admiration for Ingersoll, but they developed quite different philosophies. While Roberts followed Ingersoll in style and substance, often quoting him, Darrow admired Ingersoll for his success in broadening awareness of freethinking, but he took his own views from other sources. In spite of this difference, Roberts and Darrow maintained a long friendship. Darrow was frequently available to speak at Roberts’s podium, and Roberts usually made use of Darrow’s presence to raise a little extra money. They shared a love of civil argument, and the pleasure of speaking before an audience.

This post is taken from the biography, John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date”Freethought Preacher.  There’s more information and a link on the Books page.

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