My Old Kentucky Homesite

A Petition I Won’t Sign — and Why

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 02/08/2010

Sometimes, even alleged freethinkers can be sooooo dense.

I received an email from the American Humanist Association asking me to sign a petition addressed to President Obama. What the petitition requests is that he proclaim February 12, 2010 as Darwin Day. The desired proclamation would contain the following words:

I call on all Americans to recognize the importance of Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution by natural selection, to endeavor to preserve scientific discovery and human curiosity as bedrocks of American society, and to commemorate this day with appropriate events and activities.

That’s a great sentiment, and it would be excellent for an American president to express it. Not on February 12, however.

February 12, 1809 was noteworthy not only for the birth of Charles Darwin, but for the birth of Abraham Lincoln, as well. Lincoln, as even the most militant of atheists would acknowledge, may well have been the most important president in American history.

When I was growing up, we in the North celebrated Lincoln’s birthday in a pretty big way. Americans in the South? Not so much.

The battle between the Northern and Southern worldviews is still reflected in our politics today. The ignorance of religionists is a major factor in the ballot boxes of the “red” states, among which are most of those in the South.

Because of Lincoln’s pre-eminence in American history, quotes both pro- and anti-Christian have been attributed to him. It’s difficult to know which are authentic, and which the work of writers with a specific philosophical axe to grind.  But although it’s debatable whether or not Lincoln was an atheist – I’d say: most probably not – he seems to have had little use for oh-so-pious Christian zealotry:

My earlier views of the unsoundness of the Christian scheme of salvation and the human origin of the scriptures have become clearer and stronger with advancing years, and I see no reason for thinking I shall ever change them.

I am approached … by religious men who are certain they represent the Divine Will. … If God would reveal his will to others, on a point so connected to my duty, it might be supposed he would reveal it directly to me.”

Both [North and South] read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes his aid. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully.

It is an established maxim and moral that he who makes an assertion without knowing whether it is true or false is guilty of falsehood, and the accidental truth of the assertion does not justify or excuse him.

Darwin was a brilliant thinker and, as such, is revered by many of us in the skeptical community. We should definitely mount a campaign that President Obama proclaim the importance of his life and work. But perhaps we should urge the White House to designate November 24, 2010 as Darwin Day. That would correspond with the traditional anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. (“Traditional” because the book actually may have been published about three weeks earlier.) November 24th would be a very nice juxtaposition to the next day, the pseudo-religious feast of Thanksgiving.

(And, yes, paradoxically enough for the argument I’m making here, Thanksgiving was proclaimed as a one-time national holiday in 1863 by … President Lincoln. Before he  announced that specific day as a time of prayer throughout the entire Union, various yearly Thanksgivings had been celebrated — primarily in the Northern states — on different dates.  The unifying war measure was urged upon Lincoln by, along with many others, the elderly editor Sarah Josepha Hale, writer of such major works as “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”)

Whether or not Lincoln believed in a supernatural entity, and, if so, what kind of deity he recognized, is unknown. He certainly was able to use the simplistic American version of “God” to achieve his own political ends. As I’ve said, I suspect that Lincoln was not an atheist. But our friend Darwin never claimed to be an atheist, either. If we want an honest-to-no-god Atheist Day of Joy, we should look to other persons or events for commemoration.

However, what should be significant to American freethinkers about Lincoln is his symbolic position as a leader in the fight to civilize our country, a fight which we’re still waging in 2010. Those atheists who focus their battle against ignorance only in the arena of science vs. superstition sometimes give short shrift to the value of literature, of history, of political philosophy, of culture in general. In those areas, Lincoln should be held up as an exemplar, a champion of reason.

We faithfreeists have few enough heroes to celebrate. Why lump two of our greatest into the same 24-hour period, merely because of a coincidence of birthdate? Since when have we become astrologers? Let’s not be so overeager that we turn stupid.

February 12th should continue to be, as it has been for many years, reserved for Lincoln.


21 Responses to “A Petition I Won’t Sign — and Why”

  1. Don’t you think it was a sign from god that both Lincoln and Darwin were born on the same day? He’s trying to tell us something.

  2. Another reason: it’s my birthday!
    I dislike “President’s Day.”
    That is all.

  3. Another reason: it’s my birthday!

    See? More evidence from god.

  4. srsny said

    I do not think there needs to be a Darwin day. All we do to celebrate Lincoln’s or Washington’s (now embarrasingly transformed into Presidents’) Day, is encourage people to go out and buy cars. What would we do on Darwin Day – go shopping for boats? Or beagles? Um, perhaps Jeans?

    And tying it in with Thansgiving is even worse. Looking at the overgrown bird we traditionally either dress (South)or stuff (North), and carve up to eat with canned red stuff (that tastes vaguely like cranberries) turns the term Natural Selection into an absurd oxymoron.

  5. SI:
    Well, February 12th is also the birthday of Cotton Mather, so I can’t imagine what message god was trying to send.

    Happy birthday, a few days early. I haven’t received any petition to make February 12th “Going Like Sixty Day,” but I might sign one if I did. As long as the president added something like: “to commemorate this day by taking it easy.”

    I would love a new pair of jeans. The ones my parents gave me don’t seem to be working as well as I’d like.

    Here’s what people should do to celebrate Darwin Day: evolve (although they may not use that specific term while doing it).

    And just think of what a great feast we could have on that holiday. We could celebrate it as the day homo sapiens inherited the ability from their evolutionary forebears to find real food. No pre-prepared anything, including French-cut canned stringbeans. Yay!

  6. Here’s what people should do to celebrate Darwin Day: evolve (although they may not use that specific term while doing it).

    In that case, Darwin Day should be on MY birthday. Or at least my wedding night…err…day.

  7. SI:
    Do you limit yourself to once a year?

  8. the chaplain said

    Is anyone up for the idea of celebrating Lincoln’s birthday by buying a beagle named Darwin?

  9. Chappy:
    How about celebrating your beagle’s birthday by buying a set of Lincoln logs and using them to reconstruct Darwin’s amazing thought processes?

    Or we could just chuck the holidays entirely and spend the day rereading some of the inspiring writings of both Abe and Charley. Of course, we’d have to take a break now and then to walk the unnaturally selected dog.

  10. The most to-the-point Lincoln quote:

    The Bible is not my book nor Christianity my profession.
    — Abraham Lincoln, quoted by Joseph Lewis in “Lincoln the Freethinker”

    I am currently reading an excellent book on the Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson. Based on McPherson’s work, it seems to me that Lincoln really had an unappreciated genius beyond most Americans’ knee-jerk fawning over him. With a number of weak or incompetent generals, internal conflict, and the skilled maneuvering of his political enemies, Lincoln was able to surmount obstacles beyond what had taken down great empires of the past.

    In terms of modern politics, I am interested in the rhetoric of that time period’s Democrats. Except for the pro-business zealotry that belonged to the Republicans even back then, the Democratic Party’s ideals closely reflected current Republican ideals on topics ranging from states’ rights to classical Bible-thumpery. It is notable that some of the real monsters of that war were hyper-religious men like Nathan Bedford Forrest (Fort Pillow Massacre, possible first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan).

    It is a very interesting read. I read McPherson’s This Mighty Scourge in December which seemed to focus more on that kind of thing than Battle Cry, which is a pure history.

    Both Darwin and Lincoln were truly outstanding citizens of the world, but their contributions to humanity were in such disparate fields as to render any reasonable comparison all but impossible.

  11. John Evo said

    Wasn’t it DARWIN who said; “4 score and 300 million years ago, our fathers came forth upon the continents”?

  12. Des:
    I’m skeptical about the authenticity of Lewis’s Lincoln quote. Joseph Lewis was an atheist who founded both The Freethinkers of America and The Freethought Press. He published a number of books about famous “freethinkers”: Voltaire, Franklin, Paine, Jefferson, Lincoln, and even Luther Burbank. Although these books do contain verifiable facts and quotes, some of the information seems to be unsubstantiated (like the claim that Thomas Paine drafted the original version of the Declaration of Independence). While I’d like to believe that Lincoln really said what you wrote in your comment, I’m dubious because of its only source: a 1924 speech given in New Yawk by Lewis.

    But don’t feel bad, because I’m not convinced of the accuracy of two of the quotes I, myself, included in the post.

    But whether or not one lone quote is genuine doesn’t matter when we look at the totality of Lincoln’s life and work. You’re definitely right about his being a genius. I’d also add that he was — refreshingly for a politician, particularly when viewed from the vantage point of 2010 — a no-bullshit kind of guy, a freethinker in the literal sense. One of my favorite writings of his is a short note he sent to the feckless George McClellan in October of 1862:

    I have just read your despatch about sore-tongued and fatigued horses. Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigue anything?

    I agree with you entirely that there’s no standard by which to compare Darwin and Lincoln. But why bother to try? Let’s continue to give Lincoln his due honor, as we have for decades, on his birthday. And let’s find another appropriate day to celebrate Darwin’s achievements.

    4 score and 300 million years ago, our fathers came forth upon the continents …
    Yes, exactly, give or take a few hundred million years.
    … a new species, conceived through Natural Selection, and dedicated to the proposition that all living things were not created, but, rather, evolved.

  13. John Evo said

    “to the feckless George McClellan”

    You sure about that? How could he be a general and never get laid?

  14. Evo:
    That one really made me groan and laugh.
    The answer to your question is: He couldn’t locate his privates.

  15. John Evo said

    Much groaning and laughing tonight!

  16. srsny said

    Perhaps youshould title ALL of your posts, “Pun Formation”

  17. You’re skeptical of an unattributed quote first documented 59 years after the death of its alleged author? Oh, ye of little faith…

    I remember another quote from Lincoln to McClellan that betrays an anti-bullshit attitude:

    “If General McClellan isn’t going to use his army, I’d like to borrow it for a time.”

    McClellan’s tendency to grossly overestimate the enemy’s numbers reminds me of the Democrats these days. They are shitting their pants at the Republicans’ overwhelming 41 Senate seats to their own mere 59. Too bad we don’t have a Lincoln to buckle down and fire their sorry backsides. Of course, Lincoln did take his sweet time tossing out McClellan.

    We have the advantage of hindsight, but still, when a general routinely overestimates his opponent’s numbers by 50%-200% while never underestimating their numbers, it’s time for him to go.

  18. Is anyone up for the idea of celebrating Lincoln’s birthday by buying a beagle named Darwin?

    Is anyone up for the idea of celebrating Lincoln’s birthday by taking my cat that pisses all over everything and renaming him. You don’t need to buy him. I may even pay you.

  19. Srsny:
    Perhaps you should title ALL of your posts,“Pun Formation.”
    Now you tell me. Where were you when I was trying to come up with a name for this blog?
    But even better would be: Wholly Shit.
    Also, see my response to SI, below.

    Great analogy between McClellan and today’s Democrats. Halleck could be Reid and Burnside could be Pelosi. I’m afraid that Hooker would have to sit this one out as Eliot Spitzer, although really, he could be any member of the totally silent majority, willing to trade his or her alleged values for political favors.

    To celebrate Darwin day, we could name your cat Richard Pawkins or Pistopher Hitchens. I’d rather lump your piddler with the opposition though: David Purrlinski? William A. Dampski? Fill’erup Johnson? Weewee Jennings Bryan? Whatever his name is, that puss needs to visit the Urination Museum.

  20. John Evo said

    SI, cats like their liter box to be clean and fresh. Get off your butt once a day and scoop that bitch!

  21. The irritating thing is that I do that, once a day. The little fuckers are pampered, I tell you. Yet the carpet under my feet as I type this seems to be considered a second litter box by one of them.

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