Books on Science and Religion #38: Nick Spencer’s ‘Atheists and the Origin of the Species’ Part 6

Books on Science and Religion #38: Nick Spencer’s ‘Atheists and the Origin of the Species’ Part 6

Stephen Friberg

To believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Mar 15, 2015

Manchester in the 1840s

In the last several blogs, we have been studying the history of atheism as outlined in the excellent and informative Atheists: The Origin of the Species, written by Nick Spencer, research director of the Christian think-tank Theos.

Most of the time, we have been studying the atheism of the intellectual elite – in Britain it was the atheism of the romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, of Jeremy Bentham, the founder of modern utilitarianism, and of the not-quite-an-atheist Charles Darwin.

However, differently than was the case in France, Germany, and Russia, the strongest promoters of 19th century British atheism were not the elite thinkers, but rather working class intellectuals.

Most of us, if I judge correctly, are unfamiliar with working class movements in Britain in the 19th century, despite their enormous importance and their leading role in the English-speaking industrial societies of the world. The British working class was the first industrial working class in the same way that the British industrial revolution was the first industrial revolution.

Usually we have heard of Robert Owen, the founder of utopian socialism and the cooperative movement. Although a manager and visionary entrepreneur, he is mainly known for improved the working conditions of factory workers. But he also was a prominent atheist – more about his views later in the blog. And there were many other influential working class thinkers, writers, and intellectuals whose contributions were the equal of – or even more important than those of – the elite intellectuals we usually consider to everyone else’s exclusion. And many of them were atheists.

English Working Class Atheism

Richard_Carlile_SketchRichard Carlile

One of the earliest of the influential working-class intellectuals was Richard Carlile, the son of a shoemaker and who became a radical pamphleteer and magazine publisher. He made significant contributions to freedom of the press and towards universal suffrage (amazingly, the right to vote was not granted to everybody in the United Kingdom until 1928!).

Initially, he was a deist. But when he was imprisoned for publicizing the government’s role in the infamous Peterloo Massacre in 1819 (a government cavalry charge had killed 15 people and wounded 400-700 in Mancheste)r, his views hardened. Defiantly, he wrote “there is no such a God in existence as any man had preached, nor any kind of God.”

“Carlile’s atheism,” Nick Spencer writes, “like that of many who followed him, was not a rationalized reflection on philosophical, let alone theological, arguments, but rather a visceral reaction against the religiously justified system that so oppressed him.”

Robert Owen

robert owen Robert Owen was the most famous of 19th century British labor reformers. He had risen to prominence in Manchester (the center of the English Industrial revolution) as a mill manager. He then became a partner in an entrepreneurial team that purchased the New Lanark mills in Scotland. There, he proved to be a reformer and a philanthropist of dramatic and sweeping vision.

The online History Guide describes the theory which he put it into effect at New Lanark where he created public buildings that housed the educational institutions (specifically the New Institution for the Formation of Character, the Infant School, and the Store) that implemented policies for the welfare of his workers:

Owen’s general theory was that character is formed by the effects of the environment upon the individual. Hence, education was of central importance to the creation of rational and humane character, and the duty of the educator was to provide the wholesome environment, both mental and physical, in which the child could develop. Physical punishment was prohibited and child labor was restricted. Man, being naturally good, could grow and flourish when evil was removed.

but his welfarism … had a practical side. His store helped to raise real wages and the infant school enabled mothers to return to work when their children reached the age of one year.

New LanarkOwen denounced religion, probably too explicitly. His views could be quite extreme. Once, in a public meeting, he said that “There is no sacrifice…which I…would not have…willingly and joyously made to terminate the existence of religion on earth.”

Spencer reviews his perspective as follows:

Owen’s atheism was like Bentham’s, in its utilitarian rather than positivistic guise. Religion wrecked human well-being and happiness with its gross misconception of human nature. Christianity, Owen believed, was based on the absurd notion ‘that each [person] … determined his own thoughts, will, and action, and was responsible for them to God and his fellowmen, a notion that turned man into a weak, imbecile animal; a furious bigot and fanatic; or a miserable hypocrite’.

Owen knew otherwise. Environment and education made the man. People were the product of their ‘constitution or organisation at birth, and of the effects of external circumstances upon it from birth to death’. A man’s entire character – physical, mental and moral – was formed independently of himself. Ultimately, no one ‘is responsible for his will and his own actions’.

And he acted on his anti-religious ideas:

Owen’s genius and claim to fame lay not so much in his atheistic ideas, many of which simmered in the British slipstream of Paine’s anti-clerical deism, as in what he did with them. Not only did he debate the merits of God in public, establish socialist missionaries who proclaimed a new world order with millenarian fervour, and set up various societies and sects, such as the Universal Community Society of Rational Religionists, but he also reformed New Lanark in line with his ideas.

By 1840, Owen had started a “Rational Society” with Sunday services held in “halls of science”, with social hymns, and with paid rational missionaries. To some, he seemed too bent on paternalistic control. And his social experiments of the New Lanark kind, at least in the near term, were hard to reproduce elsewhere. But clearly his influence led to the increasing acceptance of atheistic thought (although by the time he died in 1858, he was a spiritualist.)

George Jacob Holyoake

200px-Holyoake2George Jacob Holyoake, the man who first coined the term “secular” and the editor of a secular newspaper, becoming widely famous for his atheism (or, as he termed it, his “secularism” or his “agnosticism”). At first an Oweniite, and then an anticlerical Owenite missionary, he strongly supported a secular society: Britain’s 23,000 clergymen, he claimed, drained society’s moral energies, its “active spirit,” and blocked “independence and social amelioration”. He, famously or infamously depending on your views, thought religious morality was retarded

and sought to replace it with scientific morality, and positive principles, arguing that without such principles, ‘secularism will fall back into the aimlessness and chaos of old Infidelity, which never had cohesion except when persecution was present’.

Eager to present his views as respectable and reasonable, he managed to let loose an unreasonable phrase or two that landed him in deep trouble. At one lecture in 1842, he replied to a question about whether or not there would be churches and chapels in a Socialist society, his reply included the phrase “I flee the Bible as a viper, and revolt at the touch of a Christian.” It landed him in jail.

Despite that experience, he was not adverse to working with Christian to advance his ideas. But to Holyoake’s critics, his stance seemed muddled and divisive. This divisiveness became a big problem, Spencer writes:

The division was typical of those that dogged nineteenth-century British atheism. Without the all-encompassing ideas of a Saint-Simon or a Comte or a Hegel or a Marx, it was a more ad hoc affair, reactive, unsystematic and, more than its continental cousins, led by the working class. It was far from devoid of a sense of promise and expectation, whether through Bentham’s godless utilitarian Utopia or Owen’s godless socialist one. But the absence of a systematic vision meant that it was never clear whether it was atheistic or pantheistic or socialist or secularist or merely anti-clerical.

Charles Bradlaugh

BradlaughPositivism, which had seemed so thrilling in France, had limited traction in England. A London Positivist society was founded in 1867 with the intent to “replace the Church of England with the religion of humanity” but the idea a planned society and a scientific priesthood didn’t sit too well with the British public. So, positivism morphed into an Ethical Movement with ethical churches complete with altars and pulpits, imitating the religion it wished to replace.

This rather tepid state of affairs was interrupted by the rise of a bolder figure, the angry and earnest atheist Charles Bradlaugh. Rising through the ranks of the London secular Society and co-founding the National Secular Society with Annie Besant, Bradlaugh became the shining star of British working class atheism. At the heart of his system of thought was the issue of authority. The problem with Christianity was that it

required submission to authority. There were, he argued, two possible intellectual positions in life: ‘One, the completest submission of the intellect to authority: to some book, or church, or man. The other, the most thorough assertion of the right and duty of individual thought and judgement.’ There was no compromise between the two. Those who felt ‘the promotion of Human improvement and Happiness’ was mankind’s ‘highest duty’ had only one option they could choose.

An excellent orator, it was “his public atheism and desire for open warfare that would shape the secular movement in the last quarter of the century.”

In 1880, he was elected to Parliament, but refused to swear the oath of allegiance on account of its religious language. Six years later, after four re-elections and eight lawsuits, he finally took his seat. But this was the peak of English 19th century atheism:

Not surprisingly, interest in the secular movement peaked in the 1880s and membership reached around 4,000, roughly where it stands today. Almost all were men. Debates would attract crowds but many came simply for the show. Membership was often temporary. People joined in a state of fury at some injustice – often the realization that the atheist was not a full citizen. However, once the situation changed, they tended to calm down a bit and found the political or legal situation less egregious than they had imagined. One secular leader once remarked that secular societies were like Turkish baths: good to pass through but not to live in.

The historian Owen Chadwick remarks that

the 1880s was the closest Britain ever came to seeing the working classes go secularist and anti-Christian. Unlike France and Russia, however, they never did, largely because the nation was willing to accommodate heartfelt atheism, like Bradlaugh’s, within its structures. Once Bradlaugh had taken his seat, everyone rapidly forgot what the fuss was about, and Parliament passed a new Oaths Act, allowing MPs to affirm rather than swear. In Chadwick’s words, ‘the old Christian state was dismantled by Christians for the sake of keeping the people Christian’.

Next Blog

In the next blog, we will continue our review of the history of atheism and the book Atheists: The Origin of the Species.


This is the 38th in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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