November 20

Nadine Gordimer (1923)

It was on this date, November 20, 1923, that South African novelist and short-story writer Nadine Gordimer was born the daughter of a Jewish-Lithuanian emigrant in Springs, outside of Johannesburg. Gordimer was educated in a convent school and spent a year at university, but took no degree. Her first short story was published when she was fourteen. She made her reputation on novels set in South Africa and dealing with racial and moral issues in the changing social, moral, and political ravages of apartheid there.

Gordimer was a founding member of Congress of South African Writers. She won the Booker Prize (1974) and the 1991 Nobel Prize in literature. In her 1991 Nobel lecture, Gordimer makes a brilliant if veiled charge, using theistic language, that writers are more powerful with their words than religions are with their dogmas. While rejecting Liberalism, her novels also offer no hope of help from God. Nadine Gordimer is an Atheist.*

* According to the Celebrity Atheist Web site and "Justice in the Interregnum? Law, Politics and Society in Selected Novels of Nadine Gordimer," by Thomas Patrick Gannon, in Legal Studies Forum, Volume 15, Number 2 (1991).

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Edward Westermarck (1862)

It was also on this date, November 20, 1862, that Finnish philosopher and sociologist Edward (Edvard) Alexander Westermarck was born in Helsinki, the son of a university Latin professor. He learned English to study Darwin and other naturalists, and became a professor himself — at the London School of Economics and Political Science (1907-1931), at the University of Helsinki (1906-1918), and at the University of London (1907-1930).

Westermarck's landmark work, written in English, was The History of Human Marriage (1891). He is remembered for first noting that infants raised together are unable to form incestuous feelings for one another as adults, regardless of their genetic relationship. This became known as the Westermarck effect.

It was Westermarck who noted, "It has taken nearly 2000 years for the married woman to get back that personal independence which she enjoyed under the later Roman Law, but lost through the influence which Christianity exercised on European legislation. And it may be truly said that she regained it, not by the aid of the churches, but despite the opposition."*

He did not write specifically on religion, but Westermarck was known to his friends as an Agnostic, and was an honorary associate of the British Rationalist Press Association until his death on 3 September 1939. It was Edward Westermarck who said, "The patient and impartial search after hidden truth, for the sake of truth alone ... is of course the very opposite of that ready acceptance of a revealed truth for the sake of eternal salvation, which has been insisted by the Churches."**

* Edward Westermarck, Christianity and Morals, London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1939.
** Ibid.

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Thomas Chatterton (1752)

Finally, it was on this date, November 20, 1752, that the poet generally regarded as the first Romantic poet in English, Thomas Chatterton, was born in Bristol, the posthumous son of a local schoolmaster. Poverty and rejection were the story of his life, but in the brief 17 years of his existence, Chatterton forged mediŠval poetry and prose of such quality — the "Rowley Poems" — that it deceived even Horace Walpole.

It is true that Chatterton used theistic language in some of his poems, but from his satirical "Last Will and Testament" (1770) we find these lines:

I also leave my religion to Dr. Cutts Barton, Dean of Bristol, hereby empowering the Sub-Sacrist to strike him on the head when he goes to sleep in church. My powers of utterance I give to the Reverend Mr. Broughton, hoping he will employ them to a better purpose than reading letters on the immortality of the soul. I leave the Reverend Mr. Catcott some little of my free thinking, that he may put on spectacles of reason and see how vilely he is duped in believing the scriptures literally.*
Chatterton was too proud to accept charity and too depressed at the poor payment for his poetry by leading London publishers. On 24 August 1770, he poisoned himself by drinking arsenic in water. Too late, Burns, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Coleridge and other poets declared him a genius and a prodigy. Thomas Chatterton had written to his family shortly before his death, "I am no Christian."**

* "Chatterton's Will," Easter Eve, 17 April 1770. Selected Chatterton poems can be found online at this link. The commentator at the Web site ("Anne") notes, "Interesting that he did not go to church for God, but to admire the ancient architecture and the memorial stones."
** David Masson, Chatterton: A Story of the Year 1770, London: Macmillan,1874.

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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance writer.
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