May 12

George Carlin (1937)

It was on this date, May 12, 1937, that stand-up comedy Hall of Famer George Carlin was born in The Bronx, New York City. He attended Catholic schools there, but left early. In a 1995 interview Carlin said, "I credit that eight years of grammar school with nourishing me in a direction where I could trust myself and trust my instincts. They gave me the tools to reject my faith." Carlin minces no words about his Atheism, as he said in 1999:

When it comes to bullshit, big-time, major league bullshit, you have to stand in awe of the all-time champion of false promises and exaggerated claims, religion. No contest. Religion has actually convinced people that there's an invisible man living in the sky who watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever 'til the end of time! But He loves you, and He needs money!
George Carlin summed up his feeling about Christianity by saying, "I would never want to be a member of a group whose symbol was a guy nailed to two pieces of wood."

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Katharine Hepburn (1907)

It was also on this date, May 12, 1907, that the First Lady of Cinema Katharine Hepburn was born in Hartford, Connecticut. She was the daughter of a doctor and a suffragette, both of whom always encouraged her to speak her mind and develop it fully. She grew up a tomboy and, after an initial period as "box-office poison," as critic Leonard Maltin describes it, distinguished herself in strong leading-lady roles. From Morning Glory in 1933, which won her her first Oscar — to On Golden Pond in 1981, which won her her fourth Oscar, Hepburn was considered a national treasure.

"I'm an atheist, and that's it," said Hepburn in an interview in the October 1991 Ladies' Home Journal. "I believe there's nothing we can know except that we should be kind to each other and do what we can for each other." (p.215) And, as for religion in politics, said Katharine Hepburn, "Our Constitution was not intended to be used by ... any group to foist its personal religious beliefs on the rest of us."

When Katharine Hepburn died, on 29 June 2003 at age 96, no major news outlet mentioned her Atheism.

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Florence Nightingale (1820)

Finally, on this date, May 12, 1820, the English nurse Florence Nightingale was born. Her father believed women, especially his children, should get an education. So Nightingale learned Italian, Latin, Greek, history, and mathematics. During the Crimean War she used her mathematics training to invent a statistical model to plot the incidence of preventable deaths in the military. She developed the "polar-area diagram" to dramatize the needless deaths caused by unsanitary conditions. As Nightingale demonstrated, statistics provided an organized way of learning and lead to improvements in medical and surgical practices.

"Were there none who were discontented with what they have," said Nightingale, "the world would never reach anything better." Few who know of her life realize that she despised the churches and was an advanced Rationalist. "I am so glad that my God is not the God of the High Church or of the Low," said Nightingale, "that he is not a Romanist or an Anglican — or a Unitarian" (quoted in Florence Nightingale as a Religious Thinker, W.G. Tarrant, 1914, p12). For most of her ninety years, Florence Nightingale pushed for reform of the British military health-care system and brought increased respect to the nursing profession.

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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance writer.
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