Category Archives: Religion

April 8, 563 B.C.E. (?)

Colored lanterns in S. Korea at the Lotus Lantern Festival celebrating Buddha’s birthday.

Shakyamuni Buddha, the historical founder of Buddhism, was born Prince Siddhartha Gotama in the foothills of the Himalayas over 2,500 years ago. His birthday is traditionally celebrated on the first full moon day of the sixth month (Vesakha) of the Indian lunar calendar (which would be the fourth month of the Chinese lunar calendar) except in years in which there’s an extra full moon, and then Buddha’s birthday falls in the seventh month. Well, except where it starts a week earlier. And in Tibet it’s usually a month later…….

Oh, and in Japan, Buddha’s Birthday is always celebrated on April 8.

Confused?

Since the occurrence of the full moon varies from year to year, naturally the actual date varies from year to year (except in Japan).  In Southeast Asia, the day is called Vesak Puja or Visakha or Wesak.   “Puja” means “religious service,” so “Vesak Puja” can be translated “the religious service for the month of Visakha.”  This full moon day is the most commonly observed date for Buddha’s birthday.  Upcoming dates for Vesak Puja include:

  • 2010: May 21
  • 2011: May 10
  • 2012: May 28
  • 2013: May 17
  • 2014: May 6
  • 2015: May 25

In South Korea, Buddha’s birthday is a gala week-long celebration that ends on the first full moon day of the lunar month Vesakha.  Throughout Korea, city streets and temples are decorated with lanterns. At Jogyesa Temple in Seoul, the first day begins with religious ceremonies, followed by a street fair near the temple. In the evening a gala lantern parade stretches for miles through the heart of Seoul.  Here are upcoming dates for the celebration in South Korea:

  • 2010: May 15-May 21
  • 2011: May 4-May 10

Buddha’s birthday in Japan.

In Japan, Buddha’s birthday is always celebrated on April 8, although it is not a national holiday.  This day is called Hana Matsuri or “Flower Festival.” In China, the first celebration of the Buddha’s birth is said to have taken place on April 8 in the latter Chao dynasty (C.E. 319–355) and in Japan it was first held in 660 at the Ganko-ji temple near Nara by order of Empress Suiko. On this day, the statue of the infant Buddha is placed in a flower-decorated shrine symbolizing the beautiful Lumbini garden where the Buddha was born. Sometimes it is carried on a white elephant in a parade, recalling the legendary elephant that brought the Buddha from heaven to the womb of his mother, Queen Maya. People gather around the shrine and pour sweet tea on the statue of the infant Buddha as a substitute for the nectar which is said to have been sprinkled by celestial beings at the time of his birth. The service is therefore called the Kambutsu (Anointing the Buddha) Service.

Celebrating in Tibet.

The entire fourth month of the Tibetan calendar, which usually begins in May and ends in June, is called Saga Dawa (meaning “fourth month”). The seventh day of Saga Dawa is the date of the historical Buddha’s birth for Tibetans. However, the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and entry into Nirvana at his death are observed together on the 15th day of Saga Dawa, called Saga Dawa Duchen. This is the single most important holiday for Tibetan Buddhism, usually observed with pilgrimages and other visits to temples and shrines. The highlight of Saga Dawa Duchen is the raising of a huge pole which is festooned with prayer flags galore, as pilgrims circumambulate the central ring area with prayer wheels in motion.

March 28, 2009 (a Saturday)

.

On this date, the Chinese Communist Party bosses marked 50 years of direct control over Tibet by raising their national flag in the regional capital and commemorating a new political holiday honoring what they call the “liberation of slaves from brutal feudal rule”. Testimonials about the “misery of life” in old Tibet kicked off the short ceremony – televised live from in front of the Potala Palace in Lhasa – to mark the end of the Dalai Lama’s rule in Tibet. March 28 marks the date when Beijing ended the 1959 Tibetan uprising, sending the Dalai Lama over the Himalayas into exile and placing Tibet under its direct rule for the first time.

In contrast, the Tibetan government-in-exile said on its Web site that the new holiday, crowned “Serfs Liberation Day”, would be a day of mourning for Tibetans around the world. “Tibetans consider this observance offensive and provocative,” it said.

Press Statement: China’s Serf Emancipation Day Hides Repression in Tibet
The Kashag
27 March 2009

China’s decision to observe tomorrow as the so-called Serf Emancipation Day is aggravating problems in Tibet. Tibetans consider this observance offensive and provocative. We believe the observance of the “Serf Emancipation Day” on 28 March is aimed at destabilizing and creating chaos in Tibet by a few individuals with overriding self-interest. If the Tibetans, losing their patience, took to the streets in protest, the Chinese leaders will have the excuse to use even more brutal force to crackdown.

Already the whole of Tibet is under heavy security clampdown, with additional troops deployed. Despite these measures, Tibetans, considering conditions in Tibet unbearable, collectively and individually, are taking to the streets, distributing pamphlets calling for freedom, bringing down the Chinese flag and replacing it with the Tibetan flag. This year, Tibetans did not celebrate the Tibetan New Year to mourn those killed in last year’s crackdown on the widespread protests that erupted throughout Tibet. In a development unprecedented in the history of Tibet, Tibetans in Kanze in eastern Tibet have decided not to farm their fields in a unique form of civil disobedience to protest China’s heavy-handed rule. One monk, Tashi Sangpo of Ragya monastery in Golok in north-eastern Tibet was arrested on 10 March 2009, for allegedly hoisting a Tibetan flag. He escaped his captors and drowned himself in the nearby Yellow River. These acts and many more are the true Tibetan attitude to “emancipation” by China.

This day will be observed by Tibetans throughout the world and especially those in Tibet as a day of mourning. No less a figure than Hu Yaobang, the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, who visited Lhasa in 1980, apologized to the Tibetan people and said the conditions in Tibet were worse than pre-1959 Tibet.

The late Panchen Lama said in 1989, a few days before his untimely death, that on the whole China’s rule in Tibet brought greater suffering than benefit for the Tibetan people.

Since 1949/50 when China invaded Tibet, over 1.2 million Tibetans died as a direct result of Chinese communist rule and more than 6,000 monasteries were razed to the ground. Today, it is hard to come across a Tibetan family that has not had at least one member imprisoned or killed by the Chinese regime. This day will be observed as the day when the Tibetans as a people lost all vestiges of their basic individual and collective freedoms.

One justification for China’s “liberation” of Tibet is that old Tibet was feudal and repressive. This is a blatant distortion of the nature of Tibet’s old society. In the early mid-20th century, there was no big gap between the peasants in Tibet and China. Moreover, the Tibetan peasants enjoyed more freedom and better living conditions.

To prove that the old Tibetan society was repressive, the Chinese authorities are currently organising an exhibition of Tibetan prisons and the punishments meted out. However, the reality is that the size of Nangze Shar Prison in Lhasa, heavily used in Chinese propaganda, could accommodate not more than a score of prisoners. In fact, the total number of prisoners in the whole of Tibet before 1959 hardly crossed hundred. After the so-called liberation and emancipation of the Tibetan “serfs”, prisons have come up in every part of Tibet. In Lhasa alone, there are 5 major prisons with a total prison population between 3,500 – 4,000.

The best judge of whether they have been “liberated” is the Tibetan people. They vote with their feet and lives by crossing the Himalayas to seek freedom and happiness outside of their “liberated” Tibet. They also sacrifice their lives to inform the world of the terrible conditions prevailing in Tibet. This was massively demonstrated last year when a series of sustained and widespread protests erupted throughout Tibet. If the “serfs” are happy with their “emancipation”, why are they risking lives and limbs to protest Chinese rule in Tibet.

“Just as Europe can’t return to the medieval era and the United States can’t go back to the times before the Civil War, Tibet can never restore the old serf society era,” Zhang Qingli, the Communist Party boss of the region, told the crowd of more than 13,000. But his statement reflects how the Chinese government continues its deceit and propaganda: the people of Tibet, including the Dalai Lama, do NOT seek to institute a “serf” society. In 1963 the Dalai Lama promulgated a constitution for a democratic Tibet. It has been successfully implemented, to the extent possible, by the Government-in-exile.

Furthermore, at the risk of stating the obvious, the fact that a country is backward cannot justify invading it. Backwardness was often advanced as a justification for 19th century colonialism, what Rudyard Kipling called “The White Man’s burden” when he encouraged the United States to colonize the Philippines. The fact that China relies on the “backwardness” argument to support its occupation of Tibet is a further indication of a classic colonial occupation.

Thus, the Chinese invaded and annexed Tibet to exploit its untapped natural resources, pure and simple. “Tibet belongs to China, not a few separatists or the international forces against China. Any conspiracy attempting to separate the region from China is doomed to fail,” Zhang said.

Also, how could China have “liberated” Tibet in 1949 if it claims prior sovereignty? It is odd that China, on the one hand, claims that Tibet has been part of China since the 13th century, and then, on the other, claims that it “liberated” Tibet in 1949 from an unfortunate past. But, liberated it from what? You can only liberate a country from a situation that your country does not control. Therefore, the Chinese government’s use of the term “liberate” seems to be an admission that China has not governed Tibet contiguously since the Mongol invasions. Either this, or it would have to argue that it was liberating Tibet from circumstances that China created while Tibet was under its control.

It should be noted that numerous countries made statements in the course of UN General Assembly debates following the invasion of Tibet that reflected their recognition of Tibet’s independent status. Thus, for example, the delegate from the Philippines declared: “It is clear that on the eve of the Chinese invasion in 1950, Tibet was not under the rule of any foreign country”. He described China’s occupation as “the worst type of imperialism and colonialism past or present”. The delegate from Thailand reminded the assembly that the majority of states “refute the contention that Tibet is a part of China.” The US joined most other UN members in condemning the Chinese “aggression” and “invasion” of Tibet.

In the course of Tibet’s 2,000-year history, the country came under a degree of foreign influence only for short periods of time in the 13th and 18th centuries. Few independent countries today can claim as impressive a record. As the ambassador to Ireland at the UN remarked during the General Assembly debates on the question of Tibet, “[f]or thousands of years, or for a couple of thousand of years at any rate, [Tibet] was as free and as fully in control of its own affairs as any nation in this Assembly, and a thousand times more free to look after its own affairs than many of the nations here.”

In May 1991, the Senate of the United States of America passed a resolution declaring Tibet an occupied country whose true representatives are the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government-in-Exile. Over the years many more resolutions have been passed by various international bodies.

And what has “liberation” meant to the Tibetan people? The International Commission of Jurists (1959 and 1960) judged the Chinese guilty of genocide in Tibet, “the gravest crime of which any person or nation can be accused … the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group” and detailed atrocities to which Tibetans were subjected. These included public execution by shooting, crucifixion, burning alive, drowning, vivisection, starvation, strangulation, hanging, scalding, being buried alive, disemboweling and beheading; imprisonment without trial; torture; forced labour; and forcible sterilization. Many people, including children under 15 years, disappeared without trace.

The United Nations passed a resolution in 1959 calling for respect for the fundamental human rights of the Tibetan people and for their distinctive cultural and religious life based on the principles of fundamental human rights in the Charter of the United Nations and on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Communist China ignored this resolution and 1961 saw another resolution stating that the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights be followed and Tibetans be granted their rights, including the right to self determination. The same was repeated in 1965 by the United Nations General Assembly.

In the 2000s, many view the Chinese genocide in Tibet as the result of the territorial ambitions of the Chinese Communist Party bosses. It is seen as stemming from their systematic attempt to expand the traditional territory of China by annexing permanently the vast, approximately 900,000-square-mile territory of traditional Tibet. Tibet represents about 30 percent of China’s land surface, while the Tibetans represent .004 percent of China’s population. Tibetans were not a minority but an absolute majority in their own historical environment. Chinese government efforts can be seen as aiming at securing permanent control of the Tibetans’ land. For this reason, some observers see genocide in Tibet as not merely referring to the matter of religion, that is, of destroying Tibetan Buddhism. Chinese policies have involved the extermination of more than 1 million Tibetans, the forced relocation of millions of Tibetan villagers and nomads, the population transfer of millions of Chinese settlers, and systematic assimilation.

References:

March 25, 1955 (a Friday)

Allen Ginsberg

On this date, the U.S. Customs Bureau confiscated 520 copies of Allen Ginsberg’s book Howl, which had been printed in England. Ginsberg was openly gay, and this poem has a lot of references to homosexuality. The gay men in this poem generally do not seem to be involved in monogamous relationships with one other person.

Officials alleged that the book was obscene, particularly objecting to:

Line 36

who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy,

But the next two lines, among many others, seem equally provocative:

Line 37

who blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love,

Line 38

who balled in the morning in the evenings in rose gardens and the grass of public parks and cemeteries scattering their semen freely to whomever come who may,

(You can listen to Ginsberg read Howl on Poets.org.)

City Lights, a publishing company and bookstore in San Francisco owned by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, proceeded to publish the book in the fall of 1956. The publication led to Ferlinghetti’s arrest on obscenity charges. Ferlinghetti was bailed out by the American Civil Liberties Union, which led the legal defense. Clayton Horn (a Sunday school teacher) was the judge for the case and had achieved notoriety earlier that year for sentencing five shoplifters to a screening of The Ten Commandments. The defense brought literary expert after literary expert (9 in total) to the stand to testify to the poem’s literary and social importance and on October 3 Judge Horn ruled the poem was of “redeeming social importance” and Ferlinghetti was cleared.

March 25, 970 C.E. (Good Friday)

THE END IS NEAR

According to the Lotharingian computists, on this date the world was going to end.  They believed they had found evidence in the Bible that a conjunction of certain feast days prefigured the end times. Supposedly, it was on this day that Adam was created, Isaac was sacrificed, the Red Sea was parted, Jesus was conceived, and Jesus was crucified. Therefore, it naturally followed that the End must occur on this day!

The Lotharingian computists were just one of a wide scattering of millennial cults springing up in advance of that first Millennium. The abbot of Saint-Benoit of Fleury-sur-Loire sent a letter to his king complaining about the Lotharingians:

For a rumour had filled almost the entire world that when the Annunciation fell on Good Friday, without any question, it would be the End of the World.

The millennial panic endured for at least 30 years after the fateful date had come and gone, with some adjustment made to allow 1,000 years after the crucifixion, rather than the nativity.

March 23, 1769 (a Thursday)

William Smith's "A Geological Map of England and Wales and Part of Scotland" (1815)

William Smith’s “A Geological Map of England and Wales and Part of Scotland” (1815)

On this date, the English engineer and geologist William Smith was born. Smith was instrumental in extending the science of stratigraphy. His early work was as a miner and an engineer, for a canal-digging company. From this experience he observed the difference in rock layers. He also recognized that the same succession of fossil groups from older to younger rocks could be found in many parts of England, which he called the principle of faunal succession. He traveled the entire country to verify that relationships between the strata and their characteristics were consistent everywhere. Thus Smith created a profile of the entire country of England. His great geologic map of England and Wales (1815) set the standard for modern geologic maps. Many of the colorful names he gave to the strata are still in use today.

March 21, 1925 (a Saturday)

On this date, Tennessee Governor Peay signed into law the Butler Act, “prohibiting the teaching of the Evolution Theory” in all public schools and universities and making it unlawful in public schools “to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” This set the stage for the Scopes’ “Monkey Trial” in Dayton, Tennessee during the subsequent summer.

The author of the law, a Tennessee farmer named John Washington Butler, had introduced the bill into the state House of Representatives on January 25, 1925. Ironically, he later was reported to have said, “No, I didn’t know anything about evolution when I introduced it. I’d read in the papers that boys and girls were coming home from school and telling their fathers and mothers that the Bible was all nonsense.” After reading copies of William Jennings Bryan’s lecture “Is the Bible True?” as well as Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, Butler decided evolution was dangerous. During the trial, Butler told reporters, “I never had any idea my bill would make a fuss. I just thought it would become a law, and that everybody would abide by it and that we wouldn’t hear any more of evolution in Tennessee.”

March 14, 1879 (a Friday)

Albert Einstein, age 14

On this date, the physicist and mathematician Albert Einstein was born at Ulm, in Württemberg, Germany.  He is best known for his theory of relativity and specifically for the mass–energy equivalence, expressed by the equation:

E = mc2

Einstein’s many contributions to physics included papers on these ideas:

  • The special theory of relativity (1905), which reconciled the laws of Newtonian mechanics with the laws of the electromagnetic field. This conflict was famously illustrated by the velocity addition problem. Einstein showed that the observed independence of the speed of light on the observer’s state of motion required fundamental changes to the notion of simultaneity. Consequences of this include the time-space frame of a moving body slowing down and contracting (in the direction of motion) relative to the frame of the observer. This paper also argued that the idea of a luminiferous aether – one of the leading theoretical entities in physics at the time – was superfluous.
  • The first fluctuation dissipation theorem which explained Brownian (random) movement (1905). By explaining such movement as the consequence of molecular action, this paper supported the atomic theory.
  • The photon theory and wave-particle duality (1905), derived from the thermodynamic properties of light. Einstein put forward the idea that certain experimental results, notably the photoelectric effect, could be simply understood from the postulate that light interacts with matter as discrete “packets” (quanta) of energy, an idea that had been introduced by Max Planck in 1900 as a purely mathematical manipulation and which seemed to contradict contemporary wave theories of light.
  • The general theory of relativity (1916), a new theory of gravitation obeying the equivalence principle. The equivalence principle proper was introduced by Albert Einstein in 1907, when he observed that the acceleration of bodies towards the center of the Earth at a rate of 1g (g = 9.81 m/s2 being a standard reference of gravitational acceleration at the Earth’s surface) is equivalent to the acceleration of an inertially moving body that would be observed on a rocket in free space being accelerated at a rate of 1g.

The papers Einstein published in 1905 are the ones that history has come to call the Annus Mirabilis Papers.  At the time, however, they were not noticed by most physicists as being important, and many of those who did notice them rejected them outright.   Some of this work – such as the theory of light quanta – remained controversial for years.  Einstein received the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics “for his services to Theoretical Physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect.”

Einstein’s views on religion have often been misunderstood, distorted, and sometimes deliberately fabricated to suit the personal convictions of the reporter. Einstein clarified his religious views in a letter (1954) he wrote in response to those who claimed that he worshiped a Judeo-Christian god (as quoted in Albert Einstein: The Human Side (1981) edited by Helen Dukas and Banesh Hoffman):

It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal god and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.

In his book The World as I See It (1949), Einstein wrote:

A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms – it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man.

Einstein was also an advocate of humanism and a supporter of Ethical Culture. He served on the advisory board of the First Humanist Society of New York. For the seventy-fifth anniversary of the New York Society for Ethical Culture, he noted that the idea of Ethical Culture embodied his personal conception of what is most valuable and enduring in religious idealism. He observed, “Without ‘ethical culture’ there is no salvation for humanity.”

Einstein published a paper in Nature (vol. 146, pp. 605-607) in 1940 entitled “Science and Religion” in which he said that:

a person who is religiously enlightened appears to me to be one who has, to the best of his ability, liberated himself from the fetters of his selfish desires and is preoccupied with thoughts, feelings and aspirations to which he clings because of their super-personal value … regardless of whether any attempt is made to unite this content with a Divine Being, for otherwise it would not be possible to count Buddha and Spinoza as religious personalities. Accordingly a religious person is devout in the sense that he has no doubt of the significance of those super-personal objects and goals which neither require nor are capable of rational foundation … In this sense religion is the age-old endeavor of mankind to become clearly and completely conscious of these values and goals, and constantly to strengthen their effects…[Conflicts between science and religion] have all sprung from fatal errors…[E]ven though the realms of religion and science in themselves are clearly marked off from each other [there are] strong reciprocal relationships and dependencies … [S]cience without religion is lame, religion without science is blind … [A] legitimate conflict between science and religion cannot exist…[N]either the rule of human nor Divine Will exists as an independent cause of natural events. To be sure, the doctrine of a personal God interfering with natural events could never be refuted … by science, for [it] can always take refuge in those domains in which scientific knowledge has not yet been able to set foot.

In a letter to the philosopher Eric Gutkind on January 3, 1954, Einstein wrote:

…The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this. These subtilised interpretations are highly manifold according to their nature and have almost nothing to do with the original text.

March 8, 1841 (a Monday)

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

On this date, jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., was born in Boston, Massachusetts. He was the namesake and son of a famed physician. Holmes graduated from Harvard in 1861 and immediately enlisted in the Army, where he was seriously wounded three times.

After the Civil War, Holmes entered Harvard Law School, where his best friend was William James. The New York Times obituary on Holmes reported that the two young men went to Europe together: “while James went on, continuing in Germany his search for the meanings of the universe, Holmes decided that ‘maybe the universe is too great a swell to have a meaning,’ that his task was to ‘make his own universe livable,’ and he dove deep into the study of the law.”

Holmes was admitted to the bar in 1866. He became coeditor of the American Law Review in 1870. Holmes wrote his legal treatise, The Common Law, in 1881, a 15-year labor predicated on his belief that “The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience.” His recodification of the law from religious foundations to modern jurisprudence was pivotal to the evolution of legal scholarship. Holmes urged “judicial restraint,” or the divorcing of private views from legal opinions.

Scales of Justice

Scales of Justice

A professor at Harvard Law School, he was appointed at age 41 as an associate justice on the Massachusetts Supreme Court, eventually becoming chief justice. President Teddy Roosevelt appointed him to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1902. He retired in 1932, as the oldest judge to serve. Holmes earned the sobriquet, “The Great Dissenter,” for his many famous dissents, which have long since been adopted as mainstream by courts. Among his well-known legal adages: “The mind of the bigot is like the pupil of the eye: the more light you shine on it, the more it will contract.” “Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.” “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater. . .” “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.” Holmes, like his father, was a Unitarian, who believed in a god, but was creedless. In his obituary in 1935, the New York Times quoted Holmes:

When men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes can be carried out. That, at any rate, is the theory of our Constitution. It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment.

March 6, 1943 (a Saturday)

Page 8 of the handmade booklet Manfred Lewin gave to Gad Beck in 1942, now part of the collection of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.

In Nazi Germany, the racial laws classified Gad Beck as a “mischling”, or half-breed (his father was Jewish, but his mother had converted to Judaism). He and his father had been detained at a holding compound in the Rosenstrasse in central Berlin since 17 February 1943 awaiting deportation to the East.

After the non-Jewish wives of the prisoners launched a massive street protest that stunned the Nazis, the Beck family members were released on this date (6 March 1943). There were “thousands of women who stood for days… my aunts demanded, ‘Give us our children and men,’” Gad Beck wrote. The Rosenstrasse demonstration helped debunk the widespread myth in post-Holocaust German society that resistance against Nazism was futile.

Gad noted, “The Rosenstrasse event made one thing absolutely clear to me: I won’t wait until we get deported.” Following his release, he joined Chug Chaluzi, an underground Zionist resistance youth group, and played a key role in securing the survival of Jews in Berlin.

Beck had said on numerous occasions and during interviews over his lifetime that the single most important experience that shaped his life was his attempt to rescue his Jewish boyfriend, Manfred Lewin. When the Gestapo rounded up Lewin’s family in October 1942 for deportation to the East (by this time Gad knew what “transport to the East” meant), Beck borrowed a neighbor’s over-sized Hitler Youth uniform and marched into the transit camp in a bid to free his first love. Beck convinced an officer to temporarily put Manfred into his custody.

Manfred Lewin (left) and Gad Beck.

Once outside the camp, though, Lewin stopped dead in his tracks. “I was going out with him from the ‘locker’ and I said, ‘Manfred, now you are free – come!’ And he said no,” Beck recalled in an interview. “And it’s important to understand this: Manfred said, ‘I will never be free if I am not near my family. They are old and they are ill and I have to help them.’ And he went back to the locker without saying goodbye to me. I never saw him again. His entire family died in Auschwitz.”

As Gad returned home after leaving Manfred he said “In those seconds, watching him go, I grew up.”

Gad’s only memento of Manfred was a little notebook with poems, sketches, and essays which Manfred had written, plus a photograph. Gad treasured them throughout his life. Sixty years after it was written, he entrusted the booklet to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The exhibit curator notes: “It became evident how the meaning of this artifact was changed by Manfred’s deportation and death in Auschwitz and by passing years. The booklet, once only meaningful for Gad and Manfred, became a time capsule, a reminder of a friendship, of a group, and of the events that destroyed them all.” The booklet…”now allows us glimpses into the daily life of Jewish Youth in Berlin before and during the deportations. It reminds us of how difficult it is to really understand what happened and how much we can never know.”

____________________________________________________

____________________________________________________

In early 1945, a Jewish spy for the Gestapo betrayed Beck and some of his underground friends. He was subsequently interrogated and interned in a Jewish transit camp in Berlin. During the bombardment of Berlin in the weeks that followed, Gad’s cell was hit, and he was rescued from the rubble and hospitalized. Gad remained at the hospital until, on 24 August 1945, he was freed by the Soviets. “I was liberated by a Jewish soldier of the Russian Army, and he asked me in Yiddish, ‘Are you Gad Beck?’ I said I was. He was so beautiful I could have fallen in love with him. ‘Brother,’ he told me, ‘now you are free.’ And he kissed me.”

Since the war ended, Gad lived in Germany, Palestine, and Austria. He met his life partner, Julius Laufer, in Vienna. In later life he gave many presentations throughout the world and became head of the German Jewish Community.

Beck died 24 June 2012 in a retirement home in Berlin, just six days short of his 89th birthday. He is survived by Julius Laufer, his partner of 35 years. Gad Beck was the last known gay Jewish holocaust survivor alive. Now, literally nobody knows what it was like to be Jewish and gay in the horrors of the Nazi regime. No gay Jewish survivor will ever get to smile at any further milestones in equality for gay people.

References:

March 5, 1616 (a Saturday)

Cardinal Robert Bellarmine

On this date, the Copernican theory was declared “false and erroneous” by the Decree of the Holy Congregation of the Most Illustrious Lord Cardinals in charge of the Index (more commonly known as the Decree of the Index) written by Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, and issued by the Catholic Church in Rome. Further, no person was to be permitted to hold or teach the theory that the Earth revolves around the sun. When Galileo subsequently violated the decree, he was put on trial and held under house arrest for the final eight years of his life.

March 1, 1692 (Julian calendar/old style: a Tuesday)

Woodcut scene from the Salem Witch Trials.

On this date in Salem Village in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Sarah Goode, Sarah Osborne, and Tituba, an Indian slave from Barbados, were charged with the illegal practice of witchcraft. Later that day, Tituba, possibly under coercion, confessed to the crime, encouraging the authorities to seek out more Salem witches.

In June 1692, the special Court of Oyer, “to hear,” and Terminer, “to decide,” convened in Salem under Chief Justice William Stoughton to judge the accused. The first to be tried was Bridget Bishop of Salem, who was found guilty and executed by hanging on June 10. Thirteen more women and four men from all stations of life followed her to the gallows, and one man, Giles Corey, was executed by crushing. Most of those tried were condemned on the basis of the witnesses’ behavior during the actual proceedings, characterized by fits and hallucinations that were argued to be caused by the defendants on trial.

In October 1692, Governor William Phipps of Massachusetts ordered the Court of Oyer and Terminer dissolved and replaced with the Superior Court of Judicature, which forbade the type of sensational testimony allowed in the earlier trials. Executions ceased, and the Superior Court eventually released all those awaiting trial and pardoned those sentenced to death. The Salem witch trials, which resulted in the executions of 19 innocent women and men, had effectively ended.

February 17, 1600 (a Thursday)

The statue of Bruno in the place where he was executed.

On this date, the Italian philosopher and Dominican friar Giordano Bruno was brought to the Campo de’ Fiori, a central Roman market square. His tongue in a gag, tied to a pole naked, Bruno was burned at the stake as a heretic.

The Fraternity of St. John the Beheaded recounted Bruno’s burning in this account which is considered authoritative by the Catholic Church:

But he insisted till the end always in his damned refractoriness and twisted brain and his mind with a thousand errors; yes, he didn’t give up his stubborness, not even when the court ushers took him away to the Campo de’ Fiori. There his clothes were taken off, he was bound to a stake and burned alive [e quivi spogliato nudo e legato a un palo fu brusciato vivo]. In all this time he was accompanied by our fraternity, who sang constant litanies, while the comforters tried till the last moment to break his stubborn resistance, till he gave up a miserable and pitiable life.

Bruno’s execution followed his lengthy imprisonment and trial that had begun on 27 January 1593 under the Roman Inquisition.

Bruno was born at Nola, near Naples, in 1548. Originally named Filippo, he took the name Giordano when he joined the Dominicans, who trained him in Aristotelian philosophy and Thomistic theology. Independent in thinking and tempestuous in personality, he fled the order in 1576 to avoid a trial on doctrinal charges and began the wandering that characterized his life.

In his book De l’Infinito, Universo e Mondi (On the Infinite Universe and Worlds), which was published in 1584, Bruno argued that the universe was infinite, that it contained an infinite number of worlds, and that these are all inhabited by intelligent beings:

Innumerable suns exist; innumerable earths revolve around these suns in a manner similar to the way the seven planets revolve around our sun. Living beings inhabit these worlds.

In Cena de le Ceneri (The Ash Wednesday Supper), also published in 1584, Bruno defended the heliocentric theory of Copernicus, but it appears that he did not understand astronomy very well, for his theory is confused on several points.

In still another book published in 1584, De la Causa, Principio et Uno (On Cause, Prime Origin, and the One), Bruno seemed to anticipate Einstein’s theory of relativity when he wrote:

There is no absolute up or down, as Aristotle taught; no absolute position in space; but the position of a body is relative to that of other bodies. Everywhere there is incessant relative change in position throughout the universe, and the observer is always at the center of things.

Closeup of the statue of Bruno in the Campo de’ Fiori.

Some say that Bruno was executed because of his Copernicanism and his belief in the infinity of inhabited worlds, but it may have been for theological errors, such as denying the divinity of Christ. In fact, no one knows for certain the exact grounds on which he was declared a heretic because the volume or volumes of his Roman trial is missing from the Vatican archives. The only remaining record is a summary of the trial, rediscovered on November 15, 1940 and published in 1942. Some abstracts of Giordano Bruno’s works, his interrogations, some of the records of an earlier Venetian trial in 1592 against him, and some other documents copied from the original Roman trial converge in the summary, which was probably used by the Assessor of the Holy Office of that period. In this document, Bruno is quoted in one of the last interrogations by the judges of the Holy Office (maybe in April 1599) before his execution. He defended his theories as scientifically founded and by no means against the Holy Scriptures:

Firstly, I say that the theories on the movement of the earth and on the immobility of the firmament or sky are by me produced on a reasoned and sure basis, which doesn’t undermine the authority of the Holy Sciptures […]. With regard to the sun, I say that it doesn’t rise or set, nor do we see it rise or set, because, if the earth rotates on his axis, what do we mean by rising and setting[…].

Interestingly, while there is no definitive documentary evidence of Bruno’s sexual orientation, his homosexuality has long been assumed, principally on the basis of his association with figures such as Marlowe, the accusations of “immoral conduct,” and his authorship of Il Candelaio (1582). The latter is a satiric comedy for the stage whose very title, “The Candleholder,” is a homosexual slang word of the time, perhaps best rendered in contemporary English as “The Fudgepacker” or “The Butt-bandit.” The play presents three characters who are often seen as three of Bruno’s alter egos, or three facets of Bruno himself: Manfurio, a pedantic scholar who speaks tortured Latin and loses his glasses; Bonifacio, the “candleholder” homosexual who finally ends up in his wife’s bed; and Bartolomeo, the scientist and alchemist who tries to transmute base metals into gold but fails. The final words of Bruno’s introduction to Il Candelaio tell the reader, above all, Godete dumque, e si possete state sana, et amate chi v’ama (Therefore take pleasure in things, stay as healthy as you can, and love all those who love you).

Moreover, there is no evidence of any interest on Bruno’s part in opposite-sex sexual relations.

Both historian John Addington Symonds and aesthete Walter Pater discuss Bruno in detail. Each refers to Bruno’s homosexuality as a known, if covert, fact hidden in sly innuendo. Symonds devotes an entire chapter of his groundbreaking Renaissance in Italy to the philosopher, while Pater comments in an 1889 essay that for a man of the spirit, Bruno possessed “a nature so opulently endowed [it] can hardly have been lacking in purely physical ardours.” Symonds adds that his own development as a man was due to his readings of Walt Whitman, Goethe, and Giordano Bruno: they “stripped my soul of social prejudices [so that]… I have been able to fraternise in comradeship with men of all classes and several races.”

Italian gay activist and literary historian Giovanni dall’Orto cites Bruno in his 1988 survey, “Sodomy as Phoenix: Being Homosexual in the Italian Renaissance.” In a discussion of “unnatural” desires, he notes that part of the philosopher’s offense against the Church was to ascribe the Copernican world outlook to nature itself: whatever comes from within a man is by definition within nature. Hence, Bruno’s scientific outlook challenges the very notion of “natural law” and “crime against nature.” Again quoting Bruno from De la Causa, Principio et Uno (1584):

All things are in the Universe, and the Universe is in all things: we in it, and it in us; in this way everything concurs in a perfect unity.

On August 7, 1603, the Church placed all his works on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (List of Forbidden Books). Four hundred years (!) after his execution, official expression of “profound sorrow” and acknowledgement of error at Bruno’s condemnation to death was made during the papacy of John Paul II.

Following the 1870 Capture of Rome by the newly created Kingdom of Italy and the end of the Church’s temporal power over the city, the erection of a monument to Bruno on the site of his execution became feasible. In 1885, an international committee, including Victor Hugo, Herbert Spencer, Ernest Renan, Ernst Haeckel, Henrik Ibsen, and Ferdinand Gregorovius, was formed for that purpose. The monument was sharply opposed by the clerical party, but was finally erected by the Rome Municipality and inaugurated in 1889.

A memorial to Giordano Bruno.

On March 2, 2008, a 6-meter-tall statue of an upside-down figure, evocative of flames, was unveiled in Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz station as a memorial to Giordano Bruno and as a new reminder of the value and cost of free thought [Science 319(5869): 1467 (14 March 2008)]. The sculpture is by Alexander Polzin. Ernst Salcher of the Giordano Bruno Foundation, which helped fund the project, said the sculpture is designed to “irritate” the viewer into reflecting on the role of human reason in making the world a better place.

Also, the SETI League (not to be confused with the SETI Institute) has established “an award honoring the memory of Giordano Bruno, the Italian monk burned at the stake in 1600 for postulating the multiplicity of inhabited worlds.” It was first suggested by sociologist Donald Tarter at a SETI dinner held at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meetings in Atlanta on 17 February 1995 (coincidentally the 395th anniversary of Bruno’s death). The Bruno Award is presented annually to a person or persons making significant technical contributions to the art, science, or practice of amateur SETI.

References:

February 15, 1861 (a Friday)

Leonard Horner

On this date, in his presidential address during the annual general meeting of the Geological Society of London, Leonard Horner (1785-1864) proposed removing the world’s “creation” date of 4004 B.C. from the English Bible, citing geological evidence of a much older planet.

…It will be useful to look into the history of this date of four thousand and four years, given with so much precision for the creation, not of this our earth only, but of the universe, and to inquire into the authority by which an addition of so much import is made to the sacred text…

…I have thus laid before you the origin of this settled point in Sacred History as taught at this day in our schools, and, from its juxta-position to the text of the Bible, held in veneration by millions, there is every reason to believe, as an undoubted truth. The study of geology has become so general that those who are instructed in its mere elements cannot fail to see the discrepancy between this date and the truths which geology reveals…

…To remove any inaccuracy in notes accompanying the authorized version of our Bible is surely an imperative duty…

References:

February 15, 1564 (Julian calendar/old style: a Tuesday)

Galileo

On this date, the Florentine-Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei was born in Pisa, Italy. Galileo made a good discovery great. Upon hearing at age 40 that a Dutch optician had invented a glass that made distant objects appear larger, Galileo crafted his own telescope and turned it toward the sky. He quickly discovered that our Moon has craters, that Jupiter has its own moons, that the Sun has spots, and that Venus has phases like our Moon. Galileo, who lived to 1642, made many more discoveries. He claimed that his observations only made sense if all the planets revolved around the Sun, as championed by Aristarchus and Copernicus, and not around the Earth, as was commonly believed then. The powerful Roman Inquisition made Galileo publicly recant this conclusion, but today we know he was correct.

February 13, 1633 (a Sunday)

Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition.

On this date, Italian philosopher, astronomer and mathematician Galileo Galilei arrived in Rome to face charges of heresy for advocating Copernican theory, which holds that the Earth revolves around the Sun. Galileo officially faced the Roman Inquisition in April of that same year and agreed to plead guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence. Put under house arrest indefinitely by Pope Urban VIII, Galileo spent the rest of his days at his villa in Arcetri, near Florence, before dying on January 8, 1642.

Today, Galileo is recognized for making important contributions to the study of motion and astronomy. His work influenced later scientists such as the English mathematician and physicist Sir Isaac Newton, who developed the law of universal gravitation. In 1992, the Vatican formally acknowledged its mistake in condemning Galileo.

February 9, 1619 (a Saturday)

Portrait of Giulio Cesare Vanini, modeled by Ettore Ferrari, for the base of the monument to Giordano Bruno, in Campo dei Fiori square in Rome, Italy. Photo by Giovanni DallOrto.

On this date in Rome under the authority of Pope Clement VIII, the Italian philosopher Lucilio Vanini, or, as he styled himself in his works, Giulio Cesare, had his tongue cut out and was strangled at the stake; his body then was burned to ashes. Like Giordano Bruno, though considered intellectually inferior to him, he was  part of the movement to break with the dogmas of scholasticism and the authority of Aristotle, and made a courageous contribution to the foundations of a new philosophy.Vanini resembles Bruno, not only in his wandering life and in his death, but also in his unorthodox religious ideas.  What is remarkable about Vanini is that he was the first person to theorize the evolution of mankind — the first since the ancient Greeks of the Miletus School around 800 B.C.E. Anaximander had posited that life began in the sea. Vanini should have gone down in history as a wonderful hero and tribute to human ingenuity, as the man who enlightened two thousand years of ignorance.

Author Lynne Schultz states:

For Vanini, natural law was the divine. He rejected the idea of an immortal soul and was one of the first thinkers to view nature as (an entity) governed by natural laws. He also suggested that humans evolved from apes.

Born in 1585, Vanini studied theology and became an ordained priest. He went on to travel Europe promoting freedom of thought, rationalism, opposition to dogma, and opposition to the Catholic Church. After traveling Europe he returned to Italy, but was forced to flee for his life to avoid the Inquisition and charges of atheism. In an attempt to clear his name and satisfy the authorities he published a book of opposition to atheism in 1615, entitled Amphitheatrum Aeternae Providentiae Divino-Magicum, that ostensibly affirmed his belief in God. This was the first book he had ever published.

Once his name was cleared by this book, however, Vanini published another book in 1616, entitled De admirandis naturae reginae deaeque mortalium arcanis (Of the marvelous secrets of the queen and goddess of the mortal ones, nature), that made it clear his first book was a parody of religious belief and was not really reflective of his true views. This second book, which held that divinity could not be rationally conceived outside of Nature, triggered his condemnation and savage execution in Toulouse at age 34, just 19 years after Bruno’s martyrdom.

Vanini displayed incredible courage to the end — he pushed back a priest assisting the torturer and exclaimed “I’ll die as a philosopher!” Described as a charismatic man with verve, irreverence, and charm, who “collected patrons like flies around honey,” many mourned his death.

References:

  • Richard Corfield, Architects of Eternity: The New Science of Fossils (London, UK: Headline Book Publishing, 2001).

February 8, 1910 (a Tuesday)

On this date, the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) was incorporated by Chicago publisher William Boyce.

Mormon Scouts from Provo, Utah learning outdoor cooking (1916).

The BSA stands alone among Boy Scout organizations around the world, and among other youth-serving organizations including the Girl Scouts, the Big Brothers/Big Sisters Association, and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, in barring homosexuals. More than any other factor, the close relationship between the BSA and religious organizations like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) — the Mormons — explains why the BSA pursued its antigay policy all the way to the Supreme Court.

Imported from England just after the turn of the twentieth century, the fledgling Boy Scout movement found quick friends in the YMCA, largely because William Boyce, a BSA founder, and Edgar M. Robinson, the YMCA’s first international secretary for boys’ work, were acquaintances, according to David Peavy, a former member of the National Catholic Church Committee on Scouting. Some YMCA clubs hosted Scout troops, and Peavy describes Robinson as essentially the Scouts’ first chief executive.

The BSA eventually broke out on its own after receiving a Congressional charter in 1910. Modeled on the Scouting movement launched in England by war hero Lord Robert Baden-Powell, the American version differed in one key area: its more formal connection to religious practice. Baden-Powell had built British Scouting on religious principles, but the BSA added an 11th element to the Scout Law: “A Scout is reverent toward God. He is faithful to his religious duties.” In case anyone missed that “go to church” message, the BSA constitution said, “No boy can grow into the best kind of citizenship without recognizing his obligation to God.” And the BSA borrowed from the three-tiered focus on “mind, body, and spirit” in the YMCA’s mission statement, Peavy says, when it developed its Oath:

On my honor I will do my best
To do my duty to God and my country
and to obey the Scout Law;
To help others at all times;
To keep myself physically strong,
mentally awake and morally straight.

Consequently, Catholic and Protestant churches and the Mormon Church found Scouting to be a perfect fit: the boys loved it, it had Christian underpinnings, and the BSA encouraged churches to mold their local Scouting programs according to their own religious-education standards. The Mormon Church, in an amicus curiae brief filed with a Boy Scouts case before the US Supreme Court in 2000 (Boy Scouts of America et al v Dale) put it best:

Because of Scouting’s devotion to the spiritual element of character education and its willingness to submerge itself in the religious traditions of its sponsors, America’s churches and synagogues enthusiastically embraced Scouting. . . .

For many religious organizations . . . the Scouting program is a means of youth ministry. At the same time, sponsorship by religious organizations has enabled the Scouting movement to expand and increase its influence on the nation’s boys.

By 1915, 4,000 of the nation’s 7,373 Scout units were chartered to Protestant churches, according to an analysis by the American Family Association Center for Law and Policy. By then the BSA also had a “Commissioner for Scout Work in the Catholic Churches,” whose job was to promote Catholic units. In 1918, Peavy says, a letter from the Vatican bestowed the blessing of Pope Benedict XV on Catholic Scouting.

Mormon BSA patch.

But no group embraced Scouting more enthusiastically than the Mormon Church. On 21 May 1913, the Church became the first institution to be officially affiliated with the BSA program. Over the years, Scouting became the official youth-ministry program for Mormon boys. It serves not only for inculcating the beliefs of the Church, but as an outreach tool. Elder Robert Backman was recognized by the BSA in 1986 for his efforts in incorporating Scouting into the Mormon Church’s Young Men organization. He is quoted in the Aaronic Priesthood Boy Scout Guide:

As you know, we are vitally concerned about our youth and feel that with the proper attention we can save many more than we are doing at the present time. I am convinced that Scouting is a mighty activity arm to hold these boys close while they learn to appreciate the honor of holding the priesthood of God.

(. . .)

If we do all else and lose the young man, we have failed in our sacred stewardship. We must not allow a separation of priesthood, Scouting, or athletics.

(. . .)

Every phase of the Scouting program should help young men and their leaders understand that Scouting activities are carried out to accomplish priesthood purposes.

Apostle Thomas S. Monson said in a 1990 Mormon newsletter that the Church and its troops “serve together; they work together.” He added, “Every program I’ve seen from Scouting complements the objectives we are attempting to achieve in the lives of our young men, helping them strive for exaltation.” [Exaltation is the official expression in Mormon theology for a Saint becoming a god in the afterlife.]

The statement that the BSA does “not believe that homosexuality and leadership in Scouting are appropriate” first appeared in a letter in 1978 signed by the BSA’s President and Chief Scout Executive. However, it was an internal memorandum, never circulated beyond the few members of BSA’s Executive Committee, and remained, in effect, a secret Boy Scouts policy. Nevertheless, the organization later asserted that it was not a new policy to oppose and disfavor homosexuality — and, in support of that, to deny leadership roles to and occasionally expel “avowed” homosexuals. Rather, the BSA argued it was just enforcing long-held policy which had never been published or publicly challenged.

James Dale was awarded the rank of Eagle Scout — an honor given to only 3 percent of all scouts — after eleven years of Scouting. When he was a student at Rutgers University, Dale became copresident of the Lesbian/Gay Student Alliance. Then, in July 1990, he attended a seminar on the health needs of lesbian and gay teenagers. During the seminar, he was interviewed, and the work was subsequently published. James, who was an assistant Scoutmaster and looked forward to a lifetime in Scouting, was expelled after BSA officials read the interview in a local newspaper and Dale was quoted as stating he was gay. Never before hearing of any such rule against gays, Dale sued for reinstatement, charging BSA with violating New Jersey state civil rights laws which prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Interestingly, the BSA subsequently issued a Position Statement on Homosexuality in June, 1991 that states:

We believe that homosexual conduct is inconsistent with the requirements in the Scout Oath that a Scout be morally straight and in the Scout Law that a Scout be clean in word and deed, and that homosexuals do not provide a desirable role model for Scouts. Because of these beliefs, the Boy Scouts of America does not accept homosexuals as members or as leaders, whether in volunteer or professional capacities.

Dale’s case was first tried before Superior Court Judge Patrick J. McGann, who ruled against Dale, stating:

To suggest that the BSA had no policy against active homosexuality is nonsense. It was an organization which from its inception had a God-acknowledged, moral foundation. It required its members, youth and adult, to take the Scout Oath that they would be “morally straight.” It is unthinkable that in a society where there was universal governmental condemnation of the act of sodomy as a crime, that the BSA could or would tolerate active homosexuality if discovered in any of its members. . . . Men who do those criminal and immoral acts cannot be held out as role models. [Dale v. Boy Scouts of America, No. Mon-C-330-92]

Although McGann’s account of the BSA attitude toward homosexuals may be true, his interpretation of the “morally straight” clause in the Scout Oath as meaning heterosexual is certainly not. As mentioned earlier, the last clause of the BSA Scout Oath had its origin in the YMCA. [Ironically, the YMCA does not ban gays.] As historian Carolyn Wagner states:

The YMCA men in the Scouts gave the organization a distinctly Protestant orientation. In the rewrite of the Scout promise, they successfully lobbied for the inclusion of a line requiring the boy to be “physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.” This line spoke to the significance of the Y’s emblem, a triangle representing spirit, mind, and body which, in turn, referred to the organization’s goal of furthering “all round development.” The Y men thought it particularly important that the BSA incorporate this line in the promise because they regarded Christ as the perfectly developed man and, therefore the ideal role model for youth, ALL youth.

Including even an indirect reference to Christ, when the BSA is supposed to be a “non-sectarian” youth organization, is problematical. “Non-sectarian organizations” as a rule do not involve themselves in theology. BSA claims that theology and religious instruction is to be left up to the parents and religious leaders of the boy — be his religious faith Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Native American, etc. — not BSA.

A Scout demonstration, 1916, in the Deseret Gymnasium, Salt Lake City.

Furthermore, the historian George Chauncey notes that it was only in the 1910′s and 1920′s that the application of the term straight to a man who was considered — using the relatively new term — heterosexual, was first beginning to be used. However, Chauncey notes that the use of the term straight was a slang term and only used within the gay subculture. It’s first appearance in mainstream publications was in the glossary of a 1941 book on “sex deviants.” According to historian Jonathan Katz, this book identified the term straight as “being employed by homosexuals ‘as meaning not homosexual. To go straight is to cease homosexual practices and to indulge — usually to re-indulge — in heterosexuality.’” The definition of the term straight, meaning heterosexual, in society at large, did not occur until much later.

Eventually, Boy Scouts of America et al v Dale (530 US 640) was argued before the US Supreme Court. On 28 June 2000, a divided Court ruled that the First Amendment protects the BSA, as an “expressive organization” promoting the view that homosexuality is an unacceptable lifestyle, from excluding Scouts on that basis. Therefore, the organization has the authority to expel a gay assistant Scoutmaster. However, views with respect to homosexuality must be central to the BSA’s expressive purposes. Four Justices dissented, questioning whether admitting homosexual members, in the words of the BSA, “would be at odds with its own shared goals and values”:

BSA describes itself [in its own mission statement] as having a “representative membership,” which it defines as “boy membership [that] reflects proportionately the characteristics of the boy population of its service area.” . . . In particular, the group emphasizes that “[n]either the charter nor the bylaws of the Boy Scouts of America permits the exclusion of any boy. . . . To meet these responsibilities we have made a commitment that our membership shall be representative of all the population in every community, district, and council.” . . . (emphasis in original).

(. . .)

It is plain as the light of day that neither one of these principles — “morally straight” and “clean” — says the slightest thing about homosexuality. Indeed, neither term in the Boy Scouts’ Law and Oath expresses any position whatsoever on sexual matters.

(. . .)

BSA’s published guidance on that topic underscores this point. Scouts, for example, are directed to receive their sex education at home or in school, but not from the organization: “Your parents or guardian or a sex education teacher should give you the facts about sex that you must know.”

(. . .)

More specifically, BSA has set forth a number of rules for Scoutmasters when these types of issues come up:

(. . .)

“Rule number 1: You do not undertake to instruct Scouts, in any formalized manner, in the subject of sex and family life. The reasons are that it is not construed to be Scouting’s proper area, and that you are probably not well qualified to do this.” [emphasis in original]

(. . .)

Insofar as religious matters are concerned, BSA’s bylaws state that it is “absolutely nonsectarian in its attitude toward . . . religious training.” [and] “The BSA does not define what constitutes duty to God or the practice of religion. This is the responsibility of parents and religious leaders.” . . . BSA surely is aware that some religions do not teach that homosexuality is wrong.

After thoroughly examining the 1978, 1991, 1992, and 1993 written BSA policy statements regarding homosexuality, the dissenting Justices continued:

It speaks volumes about the credibility of BSA’s claim to a shared goal that homosexuality is incompatible with Scouting that since at least 1984 it had been aware of this issue — indeed, concerned enough to twice file amicus briefs before this Court—yet it did nothing in the intervening six years (or even in the years after Dale’s expulsion) to explain clearly and openly why the presence of homosexuals would affect its expressive activities, or to make the view of “morally straight” and “clean” taken in its 1991 and 1992 policies a part of the values actually instilled in Scouts through the Handbook, lessons, or otherwise.

(. . .)

In fact, until today, we have never once found a claimed right to associate in the selection of members to prevail in the face of a State’s antidiscrimination law. To the contrary, we have squarely held that a State’s antidiscrimination law does not violate a group’s right to associate simply because the law conflicts with that group’s exclusionary membership policy.

(. . .)

The evidence before this Court makes it exceptionally clear that BSA has, at most, simply adopted an exclusionary membership policy and has no shared goal of disapproving of homosexuality.

(. . .)

As noted earlier, nothing in our [previous] cases suggests that a group can prevail on a right to expressive association if it, effectively, speaks out of both sides of its mouth.

Emboldened by this Supreme Court decision, the National Executive Board of the BSA passed a formal resolution on 6 February 2002 that expressly excluded atheists and homosexuals from membership. Furthermore, the Executive Board resolved that all Councils and sponsoring organizations must sign a statement to the effect that they will enforce all policies of the BSA including the exclusion of homosexuals and atheists as members. All those applying for membership must also agree to abide by these policies.

The reason for the condemnation of homosexuality by the BSA, unusual among similar organizations in the United States, is clearly the close association between the BSA and certain religious constituencies, especially the Mormons and Catholics, as indicated in an amicus curiae filed by them in the Dale case. It begins:

Among all of Scouting’s supporters, there are none more important to Boy Scouts of America (“BSA”) than amici. The organizations joining in this brief are by far the largest religious sponsors of Scouting in America. Religious institutions charter over 60% of all Scouting units in the United States. Of these, a full two-thirds are chartered by amici. Nationally, amici sponsor over 50,000 Scouting units and almost 1.2 million scouts, with over 20,000 scouts in New Jersey alone.

For many decades amici have employed Scouting as a tool of religious ministry, making Scouting an integral part of their youth programs. The right of BSA and its sponsoring organizations to determine eligibility requirements for scout leaders is therefore of paramount importance, directly impacting the ability of these amici to organize and control their Scouting programs.

(. . .)

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sponsors over 400,000 scouts and over 30,000 Scouting units nationwide, making it the largest single sponsor of Scouting units in the United States. In New Jersey, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sponsors over 700 scouts and about 60 units.

After the above chest-thumping, under a section of the brief entitled “Coercing Boy Scouts of America to Install Openly Homosexual Scout Leaders Violates the First Amendment”, the Mormons state:

[Ruling against the BSA] threatens to fracture the Scouting Movement, destroying or at least severely diminishing BSA’s ability to advocate and inculcate its values. If the appointment of scout leaders cannot be limited to those who live and affirm the sexual standards of BSA and its religious sponsors, the Scouting Movement as now constituted will cease to exist. Amicus The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — the largest single sponsor of Scouting units in the United States — would withdraw from Scouting if it were compelled to accept openly homosexual scout leaders. The other amici would be forced to reevaluate their sponsorship of Scouting, with the serious possibility of reaching the same conclusion.

(. . .)

Given the extent of their support, losing any of these amici as sponsors, whether in New Jersey or nationwide, would seriously disrupt BSA’s ability to express and inculcate its message. The destruction or dismemberment of an expressive organization is perhaps the ultimate abridgment of the right of expressive association.

The Mormon threat in their brief is obviously coercive and also hypocritical — who, in fact, is coercing the BSA, the government or the Mormons? Also, the brief is deceptive because the chartering organization is (as it always has been) the one responsible to recruit and select their adult leaders — not BSA. Traditionally, if a Scouting unit in New Jersey decided to accept gay scouts, that would not compel a Mormon unit to do likewise. This tradition allows religiously-sponsored units to apply standards for membership and leadership appropriate to their own sect. What the Mormons want to do (and the BSA leadership is cooperating) is force Mormon standards for scouts and leaders on ALL other units nationwide.

After the Dale decision, public opinion in some communities turned against the BSA; corporations, charities, and even some local governments criticized the policy, threatening to either cut off financial support or block the Boy Scouts from using public buildings for their meetings. Going even further, the Secular Coalition for America has urged Congress to revoke the federal charter of the BSA, stating: “Our government must not entangle itself in religious organizations; nor should it establish, with government imprimatur, a private religious club.” Of course, while some segments of the public criticized the organization, other groups became more enthusiastic in their support of the Scouts.

Cub Scouts

Ironically, the BSA national leadership in the not-too-distant future will have to confront the fact that they are engaging in child abuse by following a policy of rejecting youth who identify as gay. The existence of BSA’s overt discrimination against gays sends the message to both youth and adults that it is okay to judge, ridicule, and hate another person — simply because they’re different. In the August 2001 issue of the American Journal of Public Health, researchers found boys with same-sex orientation were linked to a 68 percent greater likelihood of having suicidal thoughts than their opposite-sex oriented classmates. This study confirmed a Department of Health and Human Services Study (1989) which concluded that gay youth are often more likely to attempt suicide than others of their same age group. (See also Remafedi et al, 1998; Silenzio et al, 2007; Ryan et al, 2009.) Such suicidal tendencies do not reflect a pathology due to sexual orientation — rather, they result from societal stigmatization and oppression of those who are, or are perceived to be, homosexual.

Since its earliest days, the BSA has sought to maintain strong ties to church and state. However, in the United States legal system, these entities are largely kept separate, and for good historical reasons. Unfortunately, the BSA may not be able to cater to both much longer without inevitably running afoul of one or the other.

Suggested Reading:

February 5, 1770 (a Monday)

Alexandre Brongniart

On this date, the French mineralogist, geologist, and naturalist Alexandre Brongniart was born. He was the first person to arrange the geologic formations of the Tertiary Period (from 66.4 to 1.6 million years ago) in chronological order and describe them. He made the first systematic study of trilobites, an extinct group of arthropods that became important in determining the chronology of Paleozoic strata (from 540 to 245 million years ago). He also helped introduce the principle of geologic dating by the identification of distinctive fossils, called index fossils, found in each stratum and noted that the Paris formations had been produced under alternate freshwater and saltwater conditions. [Notice that the use of index fossils for the relative dating of rocks and fossils was established long before the use of radioisotopes for their absolute dating, contrary to what some "creationists" would have you believe.]

February 2, 1512 (Julian calendar/old style: a Monday)

Hatuey burned at the stake in Cuba.

Hatuey burned at the stake in Cuba.

On this date, the native American Taíno chief Hatuey (or Hathney) from the island of Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic) was burned alive by the Spanish on the island of Caobana (now Cuba) — arguably the first martyr of heroic resistance against the centuries of colonial onslaught to come. Ironically, the Taínos were the people who had offered a peaceful welcome to Columbus in 1493. Although Cuba was not his birthplace, Hatuey is today remembered and exalted there as a national hero.

The Taíno leader’s death was instrumental in shaping the seminal beliefs of one man: Bartolomé de las Casas. He was a slave owner-turned-Bishop-turned-chronicler who raged a life-long battle against the murderous injustices meted out to South American indigenous peoples by the European colonists. As “protector of Indians”, de las Casas was one of the first missionaries to uphold the rights of the oppressed and protect the lives of indigenous peoples.

In 1511, Diego Velázquez had set out from Hispaniola to conquer the island of Caobana. He had been preceded, however, by Hatuey, who fled Hispaniola with a party of four hundred in canoes and warned the inhabitants of Caobana about what to expect from the Spaniards.

De las Casas later recounted a speech Hatuey had made after showing the Taíno of Caobana a basket of gold and jewels:

Here is the God the Spaniards worship. For these they fight and kill; for these they persecute us and that is why we have to throw them into the sea… They tell us, these tyrants, that they adore a God of peace and equality, and yet they usurp our land and make us their slaves. They speak to us of an immortal soul and of their eternal rewards and punishments, and yet they rob our belongings, seduce our women, violate our daughters. Incapable of matching us in valor, these cowards cover themselves with iron that our weapons cannot break…

The Taíno people of Caobana could not believe Hatuey’s horrendous message, and few joined him to fight. Hatuey resorted to guerrilla tactics against the Spaniards, and was able to confine them to their fort at Baracoa. Eventually the Spaniards succeeded in capturing and executing him.

Before his execution, a Roman Catholic monk asked Hatuey if he would accept Jesus and go to heaven. De las Casas reported the incident:

[A] Franciscan monk, a holy man, who was there, spoke as much as he could to [Hatuey], in the little time that the executioner granted them, about God and some of the teachings of our faith, of which he had never before heard; he told him that if he would believe what was told him, he would go to heaven where there was glory and eternal rest; and if not, that he would go to hell, to suffer perpetual torments and punishment. After thinking a little, Hatuey asked the monk whether the Christians went to heaven; the monk answered that those who were good went there. The prince at once said, without any more thought, that he did not wish to go there, but rather to hell so as not to be where Spaniards were, nor to see such cruel people. This is the renown and honour, that God and our faith have acquired by means of the Christians who have gone to the Indies.

De las Casas saw, with rare insight, the ulterior motive of many conquistadors. Though the Spanish carried the Requerimiento – a royal document that outlined Spain’s divinely ordained right to sovereignty – into every battle, de las Casas believed that spreading the word of God was largely a ruse: an expedient mask. Ambition, not altruism, was the driving force; gold, not God, was their goal.

He believed that the conquistadors slashed and slaughtered their way like “ravening wild beasts” across the so-called New World not solely in homage to Christ, but to “swell themselves with riches”. He suspected they had crossed the Atlantic not only to spread the word of the Lord, but to find the gold that washed through the rivers of Amazonia and the minerals that lay beneath their rampaging feet. “Our work,” de las Casas said, “was to exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle and destroy.” The conquistadors destroyed lives and lands, and they told the Indians that to save their souls, they would need to become Christians.

"They made gallows just high enough for the feet to nearly touch the ground ... and they burned the Indians alive." Illustration by Theodor de Bry in "A Short Account of the destruction of the Indies."

“They made gallows just high enough for the feet to nearly touch the ground … and they burned the Indians alive.” Illustration by Theodor de Bry in “A Short Account of the destruction of the Indies.”

If the greed of the conquistadors knew no bounds, neither did the integrity and outraged courage of de las Casas. Revolted by the hypocrisy of men who proclaimed pious inspiration while distributing the horrors of hell, he was also influenced by a group of Dominican preachers who asked the conquistadors, “Tell me, by what right do you hold these Indians in such a cruel and horrible servitude? Are they not men?”

“So as not to keep criminal silence concerning the ruin of numberless souls and bodies that these persons cause,” de las Casas wrote, “I have decided to print some of the innumerable instances I have collected in the past and can relate with truth.” These truths, which became extensive writings about the mistreatment of the Indians – one of the most famous being A Short Account of The Destruction of the Indies he wrote in 1542 (published in 1552) – were instrumental in prompting King Charles V to issue his “New Laws” in 1542, which abolished slavery and the encomienda system, and resulted in the liberation of thousands of slaves.

Arguably the first white human rights’ activist in the Americas, de las Casas was driven not by a self-regarding agenda but by a deeply-rooted sense of justice. He knew the Indians were not inferior to their oppressors. He knew that “all the peoples of the world are men” – rational human beings, part of a single common humanity. “For all people of these our Indies are human… and to none are they inferior,” he said. However, the plight of the Indians did not lead even de las Casas to question the right to the land or the mission to Christianize.

References:

January 26, 1915 (a Tuesday)

Ashoka's Edict at Maski, Raichur district, Karnataka, India.  This edict confirmed the name ASOKA for "Devanampriya Piadassi".

Ashoka’s Edict at Maski, Raichur district, Karnataka, India. This edict confirmed the name ASOKA for “Devanampriya Piadassi”.

British gold mining engineer C. Beadon did not, in his wildest dreams, think he would soon be creating history when he went for a stroll around the hillocks of Maski in Raichur district’s Lingsugur taluk. Way back in 1915, on January 26, he chanced upon a minor edict on a boulder in a cavern. Historians and scholars of India and abroad were thrilled over the discovery because, for the first time, it revealed beyond doubt that the “Devanampriya” (Sanskrit, meaning “The Beloved of the Gods”) and Priyadarsi (Sanskrit, meaning “He Who Looks On With Affection”) referred to in a number of ancient edicts across the country was none other than the legendary Mauryan emperor Ashoka (or Asoka) the Great, one of the world’s most remarkable rulers.

Numerous stories about a great emperor called Ashoka appear in ancient Vedic literature, the Asokavadana, Divyavandana, and Mahvamsa. For many years, westerners considered them to be mere legend. They did not connect the Vedic ruler Ashoka, grandson of Chandragupta Maurya, to the stone pillars inscribed with edicts that are sprinkled all around the edges of India. The pseudonym “devanampriya” found in a number of edicts had, till the British engineer found the Maski edict, remained a mystery. Research scholars struggled hard to unearth the mystery but met with no success.

The Maski edict in Prakrit language, carved in Brahmi script and dated 256 BCE, changed the very course of historians and experts’ understanding of ancient Indian history. The Maski edict clearly told the world that it was Ashoka who had had the inscriptions carved under the name “Devanampriya”. The inscription has a mention of “Devanampriya Asoka”.

A few years later one more edict was found at Gujarra in Madhya Pradesh that also shows the Name “Asoka” in addition to the usual “Devanampriya Piyadasi”.

Ashoka’s edicts made during his reign are dispersed in more than thirty places throughout the areas of modern-day Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan and represent the first tangible historical evidence of Buddhism.

Zen stones

Ashoka was born in 304 BCE to the Mauryan emperor Bindusara and his queen, Dharmā (or Dhammā). He was the grandson of Chandragupta Maurya, founder of the Mauryan dynasty. It is from his mother’s exclamation “I am now without sorrow” upon his birth that Ashoka got his name. His name “aśoka” means “painless, without sorrow” in Sanskrit (the a privativum and śoka “pain, distress”).

Ashoka was given the royal military training knowledge. He was a fearsome hunter, and according to a legend, killed a lion with just a wooden rod. He was very adventurous and a trained fighter, known for his skills with the sword.

Bindusara’s death in 273 BCE led to a fratricidal struggle over succession. Ashoka managed to become the emperor by getting rid of the legitimate heir to the throne by tricking him into entering a pit filled with live coals. His coronation occurred in 269 BCE, four years after his succession to the throne.

Ashoka is said to have been of a wicked nature and bad temper. He submitted his ministers to a test of loyalty and had 500 of them killed. He also kept a harem of around 500 women. When a few of these women insulted him, he had the whole lot of them burned to death. He also built an elaborate and horrific torture chamber, which was like a hell on Earth. This torture chamber earned him the name of Chand Ashoka (Sanskrit), meaning Ashoka the Fierce.

Ashokan Pillar in Vaishali in the Indian state, Bihar.

Ashokan Pillar in Vaishali in the Indian state, Bihar.

While the early part of Ashoka’s reign was apparently quite bloodthirsty, he became a follower of the Buddha’s teaching after his conquest of Kalinga on the east coast of India in the present-day states of Orissa and North Coastal Andhra Pradesh. His 13th inscription (Rock Edict No. 13 [S. Dhammika]) tells us:

Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, conquered the Kalingas eight years after his coronation. One hundred and fifty thousand were deported, one hundred thousand were killed and many more died (from other causes). After the Kalingas had been conquered, Beloved-of-the-Gods came to feel a strong inclination towards the Dhamma, a love for the Dhamma and for instruction in Dhamma. Now Beloved-of-the-Gods feels deep remorse for having conquered the Kalingas.

Indeed, Beloved-of-the-Gods is deeply pained by the killing, dying and deportation that take place when an unconquered country is conquered. But Beloved-of-the-Gods is pained even more by this — that Brahmans, ascetics, and householders of different religions who live in those countries, and who are respectful to superiors, to mother and father, to elders, and who behave properly and have strong loyalty towards friends, acquaintances, companions, relatives, servants and employees — that they are injured, killed or separated from their loved ones. Even those who are not affected (by all this) suffer when they see friends, acquaintances, companions and relatives affected. These misfortunes befall all (as a result of war), and this pains Beloved-of-the-Gods.

It is even said that in the aftermath of the Battle of Kalinga, the Daya River running next to the battle field turned red with the blood of the slain. As the legend goes, when Ashoka was walking through the grounds of Kalinga after his conquest, rejoicing in his victory, he was moved by the number of bodies strewn there and the wails of the kith and kin of the dead. This sight made him sick and he cried the famous monologue:

What have I done? If this is a victory, what’s a defeat then? Is this a victory or a defeat? Is this justice or injustice? Is it gallantry or a rout? Is it valor to kill innocent children and women? Do I do it to widen the empire and for prosperity or to destroy the other’s kingdom and splendor? One has lost her husband, someone else a father, someone a child, someone an unborn infant… What’s this debris of the corpses? Are these marks of victory or defeat? Are these vultures, crows, eagles the messengers of death or evil?

The brutality of the conquest led Ashoka to adopt Buddhism. His conversion occurred around 260 BCE, and he used his position to propagate the relatively new religion to new heights, as far west as ancient Rome and Egypt.

After his conversion, Ashoka came to be known as Dhammashoka (Sanskrit), meaning “Ashoka, the follower of Dharma”. He defined the main principles of dharma (dhamma) as nonviolence, tolerance of all sects and opinions, obedience to parents, respect for the Brahmans and other religious teachers and priests, liberality towards friends, humane treatment of servants, and generosity towards all. These principles suggest a general ethic of behavior to which no religious or social group could object.

During the remaining portion of Ashoka’s reign, he pursued an official policy of nonviolence (ahimsa). Even the unnecessary slaughter or mutilation of animals was immediately abolished. Wildlife became protected by the king’s law against sport hunting and branding. Limited hunting was permitted for consumption reasons but the overwhelming majority of Indians chose by their own free will to become vegetarians. Ashoka also showed mercy to those imprisoned, allowing them leave for the outside a day of the year. He attempted to raise the professional ambition of the common man by building universities for study, and water, transit, and irrigation systems for trade and agriculture. He treated his subjects as equals regardless of their religion, politics, and caste. He is acclaimed for constructing hospitals for animals and renovating major roads throughout India. The kingdoms surrounding his, so easily overthrown, were instead made to be well-respected allies.

Some critics say that Ashoka was afraid of more wars, but among his neighbors, including the Seleucid Empire and the Greco-Bactrian kingdom established by Diodotus I, none could match his strength. Therefore, his new policies were most likely not for geopolitical reasons.

Asoka died in 232 BCE in the thirty-eighth year of his reign.

References:

January 20, 1633

Galileo

On this date, Galileo, at age 68, left his home in Florence, Italy to face the Inquisition in Rome. After two weeks quarantine (because of the plague) just outside Rome, he arrived there on 13 February.

By 22 June 1633, he had buckled under the threats and interrogation by the Inquisition, and renounced his “belief” that the Earth revolved around the Sun.

Aside from his theoretical works, Galileo made several contributions to “technology” such as an improved telescope, a thermometer, a military compass and many many others. So great was his legacy that he was called by Einstein the “father of modern science.”

January 20, 1692 (Julian calendar/old style: a Wednesday)

On this date [the year to Salemites was 1691, since the new year began on March 25 in those days] in Salem Village in the Massachusetts Bay Colony (present-day Danvers, Massachusetts), Abigail Williams, age 11, and Elizabeth Parris, age 9, began having “fits” involving behavior such as blasphemous screaming, convulsive seizures, trance-like states, and mysterious spells. Soon Ann Putnam, Jr., age 11, Mercy Lewis, age 17, Mary Walcott, also age 17, and other Salem girls began acting similarly.

So began one of the most famous travesties of justice in history – the Salem Witchcraft Trials. The proceedings were notable for their lack of empirical reason, skepticism, and humanitarianism; they were instead based on superstition, ignorance, fear, and intolerance.

The Witch House, the home of Magistrate Jonathan Corwin in 1692.

In mid-February, unable to determine any physical cause for the symptoms and dreadful behavior, the physician William Griggs concluded that the girls were under the influence of an “Evil Hand” – Satan. Under pressure from the Reverend Samuel Parris and magistrates Jonathan Corwin and John Hathorne to identify the source of their affliction, the girls named three women as witches: Tituba, the Parris’ Caribbean slave; Sarah Good, a homeless beggar; and Sarah Osborne, an elderly impoverished woman. On February 29, warrants were issued for their arrests.

Over the following weeks, other townspeople came forward and testified that they, too, had been harmed by or had seen strange apparitions of some of the community members. By the end of the witch hunt, more than 200 people had been accused of practicing witchcraft – the “Devil’s magic.”

To try the witchcraft cases, Governor William Phips on May 27, 1692 ordered the establishment of a Special Court of Oyer (to hear) and Terminer (to decide) for Suffolk, Essex, and Middlesex counties. The seven magistrates of this court based their judgments and evaluations on various kinds of intangible evidence, including direct confessions (some the result of torture), supernatural attributes (such as “witchmarks”), and especially the reactions of the “afflicted” girls. The latter involved spectral evidence, the appearance of the accused’s apparition or “specter” to an “afflicted” girl, and the test of touch, the sudden cessation of her fit after being touched by the accused witch. Spectral evidence was based on the assumption that a witch could send out his/her specter, an incorporeal being indistinguishable to those who could see them from the witch himself/herself. The specter had human powers of sight, hearing, speech, and touch and superhuman ones of locomotion, so it could torment and afflict the “saints” to lead them astray. The touch test was based on the assumption that the girl was made well by physical contact with the witch because it allowed the witch’s evil to flow back from the “afflicted” girl.

English courts, while recognizing the credibility of “spectral evidence,” refused to prosecute alleged capital offenses on the basis of “spectral evidence” alone. That was not the case in New England. During the witch trials the “afflicted” girls claimed that various people of Salem Town and Salem Village had appeared to them to lead them into witchcraft and to cast spells upon them. Furthermore, the girls claimed to see “specters” even in the courtroom. The magistrates accepted such evidence as credible and admissible for judgment and sentencing. Thomas Brattle described the court procedure in a letter he wrote (see below) to the General Court of Massachusetts in October:

First, as to the method which the Salem Justices do take in their examinations, it is truly this: A warrant being issued out to apprehend the persons that are charged and complained of by the afflicted children, (as they are called); said persons are brought before the Justices, (the afflicted being present.) The Justices ask the apprehended why they afflict those poor children; to which the apprehended answer, they do not afflict them. The Justices order the apprehended to look upon the said children, which accordingly they do; and at the time of that look, (I dare not say by that look, as the Salem Gentlemen do) the afflicted are cast into a fitt. The apprehended are then blinded, and ordered to touch the afflicted; and at that touch, tho’ not by the touch, (as above) the afflicted ordinarily do come out of their fitts. The afflicted persons then declare and affirm, that the apprehended have afflicted them; upon which the apprehended persons, tho’ of never so good repute, are forthwith committed to prison, on suspicion for witchcraft….

Gallows Hill

The first case brought to the special court was Bridget Bishop, an older woman known for her gossipy habits and promiscuity. She was tried on June 2 and, on June 10, became the first person hanged on what eventually became known as Gallows Hill. Troubled by this event, Governor Phips consulted the ministers of Boston, including Increase Mather and his son, Cotton. They wrote the Return of the Ministers Consulted, in which they advised caution in the witchcraft proceedings but concluded:

Nevertheless, we cannot but humbly recommend unto the Government the speedy and vigorous prosecution of such as have rendered themselves obnoxious, according to the direction given in the laws of God, and the wholesome statutes of the English nation, for the detection of witchcrafts.

Five people were sentenced and hanged in July, five more in August and eight in September. One accused witch (or wizard, as male witches were often called) was pressed to death on September 19 because he refused to enter a plea to the charges of witchcraft against him. On October 3, after 20 people had been executed in the Salem witch hunt, the Reverend Increase Mather, who was the father of Cotton Mather and then president of Harvard College, delivered a sermon entitled Cases of Conscience concerning Evil Spirits Personating Men, in which he denounced the use of spectral evidence – the girls’ visions – and said:

It were better that ten suspected witches should escape than one innocent person be condemned.

On October 8, 1692, Thomas Brattle, a merchant, mathematician, astronomer, and Fellow of the Royal Society, wrote an eloquent letter (quoted above) criticizing the witchcraft trials and convictions to the members of the General Court. This letter and Increase Mather’s Cases of Conscience apparently had great impact on Governor Phips, who on October 12 prohibited further imprisonments for witchcraft. On October 26, the General Court dismissed the Court of Oyer and Terminer, and on October 29, the Governor formally dissolved it. On November 25, 1692, the General Court created the Superior Court of Judicature to try the remaining witchcraft cases, but spectral evidence was now disallowed. This time, only 3 of 56 defendants were condemned, and Phipps pardoned them along with five others awaiting execution. In May 1693 Phips pardoned all those who were still in prison on witchcraft charges. They were free – provided they could pay their jail bills.

On August 25, 1706, Ann Putnam, Jr. publicly apologized in Salem Village Church for causing the deaths of innocent people and said it was due to a “great delusion of Satan.” Eventually, the colony admitted the trials were a mistake and compensated the families of those convicted. However, Massachusetts did not formally apologize for the events of 1692 until 1957 – more than 250 years later.

The tragic events in Salem Village in 1692 clearly illustrate why alleged supernatural entities or forces are no longer admissible in legal proceedings as evidence of the guilt or innocence of the accused. The Enlightenment, beginning in the late 1680s, contributed to the end of witchhunts throughout Europe and America by pointing out that there was no empirical evidence that alleged witches caused real harm and by emphasizing that the use of torture to force confessions was inhumane. The Enlightenment also resulted in replacing superstition with science, which does not use supernatural entities or forces to explain natural phenomena – such as the bizarre behavoir of Abigail Williams and Elizabeth Parris.

References:

January 15, 1929 (a Tuesday)

Martin Luther King, Jr.

On this date, Martin Luther King, Jr., was born in Atlanta, Georgia. The civil rights leader, Baptist minister and founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference believed in a strict separation of church and state. Although his many speeches are peppered with references to Jesus and God and often depend for the force of their authority upon “the natural law of God,” the Rev. King knew that the religious status quo tended to support segregation. In his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” dated 16 April 1963, King revealed his pique at continued criticism of the civil rights movement by clergy, pointing out that Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in the country:

In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churches stand on the sideline and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. . . . [H]ere we are moving toward the exit of the twentieth century with a religious community largely adjusted to the status quo, standing as a tail light behind other community agencies rather than a headlight leading men to higher levels of justice. . . . The contemporary Church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch-supporter of the status quo. . . Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?

References:

  • Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” 1963

January 11, 1844 (a Thursday)

Charles Darwin by G Richmond.

On this date, Charles Darwin wrote a letter to the botanist Joseph Hooker, revealing for the first time to another human being his theory of evolution by natural selection:

I am almost convinced (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable…I think I have found out (here’s presumption!) the simple way by which species become exquisitely adapted to various ends…

Darwin’s description of himself as “confessing a murder” was not entirely tongue-in-cheek – he genuinely feared that Hooker might be appalled by his ideas. Prior to the nineteenth century, naturalists had divided the study of nature into descriptive natural history and explanatory natural philosophy, and the prevailing natural philosophy had been “natural theology.” According to natural theology, organisms had been separately and instantaneously created in their modern forms by an Intelligent Designer, or God (the terms were synonymous).

However, in Hooker’s day, this distinction between catalogues and causes was breaking down – the “natural” system of classifying organisms suggested a genealogical, not theological, explanation for the origin of species. Hooker replied to Darwin, saying that there might well have been “a gradual change of species,” adding, “I shall be delighted to hear how you think that this change may have taken place, as no presently conceived opinions satisfy me on the subject.”   Darwin was pleasantly surprised.

January 5, 1982 (a Tuesday)

Scales of Justice

On this date, McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education was decided. An ACLU lawyer for the plaintiff dubbed it “Scopes II”, although the nickname didn’t quite fit this particular case. For one thing, Arkansas had already had its version of the Scopes trial in 1968, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the state’s ban on teaching evolution (Epperson v. Arkansas). In the 1980s, instead of banning the teaching of evolution, anti-evolutionists were using a different tactic. They were trying to force the schools to teach creationism alongside evolution. Creationism, or creation-science as it was referred to in Arkansas’ “balanced treatment” law, is the belief that each species was independently created de novo a few thousand years ago in its modern form, and consequently living things do not evolve.

The Biblical creation had allegedly taken seven days, but its trial, which began on December 7, 1981, took nine.

Federal Judge William R. Overton found that Arkansas’ law (Act 590) mandating equal treatment of creation science with evolution violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. In a decision that gave a detailed definition of the term “science”, the court declared that “creation science” is not in fact a science. Interestingly, to support his conclusion, Overton noted that the Arkansas law was a “model” bill drafted and promoted nationwide by Paul Ellwanger, a respiratory therapist from South Carolina. In explaining his model bill in a letter to Pastor Robert E. Hays, Ellwanger made it clear that he did not believe that creationism was a science:

While neither evolution nor creation can qualify as a scientific theory, and since it is virtually impossible at this point to educate the whole world that evolution is not a true scientific theory, we have freely used these terms – the evolution theory and the theory of scientific creationism – in the bill’s text.

Overton said that Ellwanger’s other correspondence on the subject showed “an awareness that Act 590 is a religious crusade, coupled with a desire to conceal this fact.” For example, in a letter to Senator Joseph Carlucci of Florida, Ellwanger wrote:

It would be very wise, if not actually essential, that all of us who are engaged in this legislative effort be careful not to present our position and our work in a religious framework. For example, in written communications that might somehow be shared with those other persons whom we may be trying to convince, it would be well to exclude our own personal testimony or witness for Christ….

Overton showed that creationism was not science by first listing the essential characteristics of science: (1) it is guided by natural law; (2) it has to be explanatory by reference to natural law; (3) it is testable against the empirical world; (4) its conclusions are tentative, that is, are not necessarily the final word; and (5) it is falsifiable. He then argued that creation science failed to meet these characteristics because it required a supernatural intervention which is not guided by natural law and which “is not explanatory by reference to natural law, is not testable, and is not falsifiable.” In support of this he pointed out that creationist methods “do not take data, weigh it against the opposing scientific data,” and then reach conclusions. Instead, creationists “take the literal wording of the Book of Genesis and attempt to find scientific support for it.” This argument made it clear that “since creation science is not science, the conclusion is inescapable that the only real effect of Act 590 is the advancement of religion.”

The court also found that the statute did not have a secular purpose, noting that the statute used language peculiar to creationist literature in emphasizing origins of life as an aspect of the theory of evolution. While the subject of life’s origins is within the province of biology, the scientific community does not consider the subject as part of evolutionary theory, which assumes the existence of life and is directed to an explanation of how life evolved after it originated. The theory of evolution does not presuppose either the absence or the presence of a creator.

Judge Overton’s most devastating critique of creation science was probably the following observation:

The proof in support of creation science consisted almost entirely of efforts to discredit the theory of evolution through a rehash of data and theories which have been before the scientific community for decades. The arguments asserted by creationists are not based upon new scientific evidence or laboratory data which has been ignored by the scientific community.