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In memoriam: Tribute to Philip Appleman, freethought poet laureate

Marjorie and Philip Appleman speak at FFRF’s convention in 2002.
Photo by Brent Nicastro
Philip and Marjorie Appleman at the 2002 FFRF Convention.
Photo by Brent Nicastro

By Annie Laurie Gaylor

Philip Appleman — renowned poet, friend, avid nonbeliever and After-Life Member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation — died April 11, 2020. Before Richard Dawkins pleaded in Unweaving the Rainbow for more integration of science into the arts, Phil was doing it. His nine books of poetry, three novels (two with explicitly freethinking themes) and six volumes of nonfiction largely examined Darwin, natural selection or skewered religious belief, including the bible.

Although a distinguished professor of English at Indiana University, he was such a Darwin scholar that he was asked to edit the Norton Critical Edition, Darwin. Phil liked to point out that he was conceived the same month that John Scopes was arrested for the crime of teaching evolution in violation of Tennessee law. In his “12 years of education, including a high school course in biology, I never heard the name of Charles Robert Darwin,” he later wrote, which he called the educational equivalent of the Flat Earth Society abolishing gravitation. Phil’s life-altering experience came after serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, when he signed up as a Merchant Marine, and took along for reading material Darwin’s The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man.

“I am sure it is difficult for anyone reared in a more enlightened time and place to imagine the sense of exhilaration in a young person schooled in Midwestern fundamentalism, reading Darwin and understanding evolution for the very first time,” Phil recalled.

Born in Indiana on Feb. 8, 1926, he later earned degrees from Northwestern University, the University of Michigan and University of Lyon, did his dissertation on Darwin, edited an abridged version of The Origin, edited the Norton Critical Edition on Darwin, and wrote a series of Darwin-inspired poems, including Darwin’s Ark. Mourning the fact that about half the American public still doubts that biological evolution occurred, Phil suggested “perhaps poetry and satire can be of some assistance.” Darwin, Phil wrote, finally released him from allegiance to the “incredible creation myths of Genesis,” so he also turned his wit and incisive pen to the bible.

I still remember the moment Dan (Barker) came into my office in the early 1990s, back when I was editor of Freethought Today, holding a small book called Let There Be Light, excitement catching in his voice as he started reading from Philip Appleman’s book of poems, subtitled, “The Bible Retold for Grownups.”

Phil’s spare, ironic voice captured Eve (“I didn’t ask to be cursed with curiosity, I only wanted the apple”), a confused, querulous Noah (“already six hundred years old, more than a little weary from all that virtuous living”), and Sarah, who, after retelling the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, trenchantly concludes about God, “ . . . if there’s a Judgment Day, as some folks think, He’s going to have a lot to answer for.” Phil had reached out to Dan after seeing him on some talk show or another, sending a copy of his 1991 book of poetry on the bible. And then we thankfully reached out to Phil.

While New and Selected Poems,1956-1996, is the most comprehensive overview of his poetry, Phil wrote prolifically and inspiredly into his mid-80s, including some lighter (yet deep) verse in Karma, Dharma, Pudding & Pie (2009) as well as Perfidious Proverbs and Other Poems: A Satirical Look at the Bible (2011). Freethought Today was honored to have been first to publish several of his later poems, and to have featured his regular poetry column, “Head’s Up” for many years.

Phil was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, the Castagnola Award from the Poetry Society of America, a Friend of Darwin Award from the National Center for Science Education and was published in The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, The Nation, New Republic, Paris Review, Poetry, Sewanee Review and Yale Review. Sadly, The New York Times, of which he was an avid reader, has yet to publish an obituary.

What’s some consolation is that we can not only read Philip Appleman’s words and poetry, but see and hear him recite them. Bill Moyers, a fan, invited Phil on his show in 2015, when Phil was about 88, thus lending him a kind of immortality. To experience Phil reading and talking about his views and his poetry, you have only to Google “Bill Moyers Philip Appleman” to watch the interview and many bonus poetry readings. On that show, Phil read “Five Easy Prayers for Pagans,” including the stanza that concludes with this line, one of my favorites: “ . . . and before our world goes over the brink, teach the believers how to think.”

On that show, Phil also read his short, devastating poem, “A Simple Explanation for Everything,” which briefly listed religious violence throughout history, concluding with the refrain: “Why did they kill? They killed for the Lord.”

Dan has set to music several of Philip’s poems, including “Fleas” (on FFRF’s CD, “Beware of Dogma”), Phil’s clever riff on the saccharine poem “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer. Where Kilmer prayerfully declaims, “I think that I shall never see/A poem as lovely as a tree,” Phil rejoins: “I think that I shall never see/a poem as ugly as a flea…” Dan also set to music “In a Dark Time” (on FFRF’s CD, “Adrift on a Star”) written in 2006 at the height of the U.S. war against Afghanistan and Iraq — a poem I have often thought of in the past four years:

The warnings come in whispers and in shadows,

The messages are fire and black contagion

As prophets rise to chant their midnight terrors,

And empires all atremble charge their legions:

The winds are blowing cold above the cities

And lights are going out around the world.

Even as the preachers thunder Treason,

And holy horrors dance with petty scandals,

Even in this dusk, the dream of reason

Beckons with its flickering bright candles.

But winds are blowing cold above the cities

And lights are going out around the world . . .

Dan likewise set to music Phil’s satiric poem, “God’s Grandeur” (on FFRF’s CD, “Friendly Neighborhood Atheist”), a delicious take-down of a deity who, when “they hunger and thirst . . . I send down a famine,” and whose motto is, “never apologize, never explain.” Dan set to music one of Phil’s musings on romance, “Summers of Love” (reprinted by Freethought Today, and on FFRF’s CD, “Beware of Dogma”).

Speaking of love, one cannot memorialize Phil without remembering his love for the women in his life: his mother, Gertrude; his mother-in-law, Martha; and his dear wife, Marjorie. He immortalized his mother in an eponymous, unforgettable poem about the right to die with dignity, beginning, “I wish that all the people who peddle God could watch my mother die . . .” He remembers her “young, lovely in gardens and beautiful in kitchens,” then racked by “thirty years of pain,” followed by stabbing cancer, and her plea, “Philip, I want to die.” He also described the needless suffering of mother-in-law, Martha Haberkorn, a loving individual tormented at the end of her life by religious fear of her “sins.”

And he cherished and celebrated his wife Marjorie, who survives him, “all sleep and love, there in the sun with sea birds calling,” as he put it in his 1968 book of poems, “Summer Love and Surf.” He promised in “S*x After S*xty”: “You kids in your fifties, listen, if you think it’s perfect now, just hang around: the best is yet to come.” He honored Marjorie’s beauty and youth in a poem FFRF ran in his poetry column about her endurance through health crises, including a mastectomy, sending us a photograph to run with it showing the two of them, a young, glamorous couple on a beach vacation in Spain, Marjorie impossibly lithe and lovely.

Phil and Marjorie, a devoted couple, attended and spoke at three national FFRF conventions, bringing down the house as they read his classic, humorous epic, “Noah” (I won’t give it away, but it has to do with “termites”). Marjorie, a playwright, read the female parts while gentle Phil, a closet ham, reached convincingly stentorian strains as the vengeful biblical deity. About 10 years ago, they gamely did an audio recording in a New York studio, to which Dan, on piano, and Abigail Cantor, on sax, added appropriate musical interludes. Watch it on YouTube:

Phil’s intellectual curiosity had taken him from Darwin to Malthus, and he became so concerned with overpopulation that he wrote a book about it, called The Silent Explosion, then edited the Norton Critical Edition on Malthus. Phil believed the problem of overpopulation is “deplorably neglected,” as do I. Phil noted that “the continued proliferation of human bodies and human needs, with the resulting competition for limited resources, destruction of natural habitats, growing pollution of the environment, endangering of other species, even the threat of extinction itself: all of these are ultimately Malthusian as well as Darwinian themes.” Phil, 94, died in the midst of a pandemic partly caused by human encroachment on other species’ habitats.

One of my favorite poems (reproduced on the previous page) is Phil’s “Last-Minute Message for a Time-Capsule,” which warns, so truly, “to beware the righteous ones.” (Despite its modern misuse as a new word for “cool” or “excellent,” the primary definition of “righteous” is “acting in accord with divine or moral law: free from guilt or sin.” Phil got that warning right.)

The couple retired to New York City, and were together for nearly 67 years at the time of his death, from unknown causes, which, sadly, was not reported for about six months.

In his last book, The Labyrinth: God, Darwin, and the Meaning of Life, really a monograph, published in 2014, Phil fearlessly wrestled with religion and reality: “People in general have never exhibited much passion for the disciplined pursuit of knowledge, but they are always tempted by easy answers. God is an easy answer.” He wrote that “God” may “soothe some minds temporarily, as an empty bottle may soothe a crying baby; the nourishment from each is the same.”

His writings are studded with secular epiphanies, compassion and yes, a slow-burning indignation over those “easy answers” that unfortunately have led the human race astray. As the FFRF bumper sticker he suggested says: “The truth shall set you free . . . from religion.” Philip Appleman, the person, the freethinker, the poet and the friend, has added immeasurable joy and understanding to our lives. He will be greatly missed. I look forward, when this pandemic is over, to once again walking daily past the framed photograph of Phil and Margie gracing FFRF’s editorial wing.

Here is my epitaph for him:

Philip Appleman decreed: Let there be Enlightenment. And it is good.

Annie Laurie Gaylor is co-founder and co-president, with Dan Barker, of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Most of Philip Appleman’s books of poetry may be found at