When I was a boy first studying history outside American textbooks, the United Kingdom was at first an image of pomp and period drama, not so alien to the lovers of high end film and television but exotic and mystic to her North American descendants in its antiquity. As I became more experienced in the present though (which honestly could be said to be the great criterion for growing up), I became more aware of Britain’s status as an uncanny cleric state among the secular first world. Westminster Parliament, despite its fame as the originator of its namesake approach to government worldwide, still invests ceremony in religious and feudal hierarchies dating from before popular representation ever was a thought for the times, with a full array of Lords Spiritual and honors for the state church beyond what any other monarchy in modern Europe has continued to grant.
Meanwhile, the religious fervor of the country is far more subdued then in the United States, with participation in Anglicanism and other churches most seen as an eccentric quirk among native Britons, while the communities of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs all are far more influenced by day to day British life than strict adherence to sacred texts. As a result, the secular movement in Britain is less zealous in combating a religious right which has long since dwindled to an obsolete tribe of moral guardians and instead has historically focused its efforts on working with the left wing to curtail the culture of patronage within British politics.
The tiniest traces of this particularly focused secular agenda can first be observed in the Protestant dissidents who waged war against the encroaching absolutism of the Stuart era monarchy and church, only to be marginalized under the successive establishments of Cromwell and the Restoration, but a greater movement towards modern irreligion would only come about in the writings of the Enlightenment, followed by the culture of reform and Radicalism that pushed for change in the early nineteenth century. While the Radicals and their contemporaries are best remembered for their campaigns for the rights of the common man, such as the Chartist goals of enfranchisement and the push for a more accurate parliamentary districts, by the 1840s writers had turned their attention to the forces most in charge of society—businesses, banks, the law, and finally the established church-and begun for a serious reevaluation of national values.
Enter George Jacob Holyoake, a man not too frequently discussed among the second generation of post-Enlightenment radicals and most relevant to the secular cause by first outlining its principles. Holyoake was born in the urban center of Birmingham, on the thirteenth of April 1817, to a proletarian couple, then became interested in the ideas of Owenism (a form of communitarian socialism which emphasized the redistribution of land ownership and local responsibility) while studying at a local mechanics’ institute and set out spread the word of utopian socialism when he was rejected from teaching for his unorthodox views. It is in this time that he became influenced by the positivistic socialism of French thinker Auguste Comte, one of the first writers to devise a full social system to replace organized religion, and his English translator and fellow atheist sociologist Harriet Martineau, the latter of whom became a professional partner and friend and solidified Holyoake’s commitment to exploring a new vision of society which centered itself around positivist notions of reason and social improvement.
The nation which Holyoake and his contemporaries already had mellowed far from the religious dogmatism of the 17th century; however the institutions of religion still held undue power over the law of the land, resulting in the agitator’s 1842 arrest and trial for blasphemy over lectures he had given at Cheltenham, where he used his publicity to argue unconditionally for the benefits of uncensored discussion for all aspects of society but acquitted only because his supported managed to appeal the issue to Home Secretary Sir James Graham. Nonetheless Holyoake would stand as the last person in Britain to stand trial for such charges, while in affairs of government the position of the Anglican Church gradually decayed to an empty formality as the empire stretched through the century and into the Great War.
If Holyoake and his contemporaries can be faulted for one oversight, then that would be that in their discussions of reformation concerning the individual and society along the lines of rational thought, they often neglected to explain how best a renewed populace could best face any entrenched oligarchies that used the law extend their reign; by contrast this must be the priority of all irreligious groups in today’s developed world now that atheism is rapidly becoming accepted by the common man.
Still the six months he spent in prison for the sake of his convictions, plus the need to step away from the Oracle paper in favor to found the more palatable Reasoner, encouraged him to seek out more freethinkers interested in founding some of the world’s first irreligious campaign groups. He helped to build the still standing National Secular Society alongside noted freethinker Charles Bradlaugh (better known as the first openly atheist member of Parliament as well as for his eccentric habit to walk in to each session, then promptly dare God to strike him dead) but split over personal differences, and also constructed the society at Leicester, in fact the oldest of such a kind in the world since 1851.
Holyoake also would set his permanent mark in the history of freethought and reasoned policy discussion by coining the very word secularism, and would continue to use this as a way to summarize the entirety of his mission towards the curbing of undue religious power in all spheres; he also was the first to popularize the use of the term jingoism, a concern that is still at the forefront of many of of the political class’s most foolish decisions over the last twenty years. The editor by contrast devoted his political attention to the establishment of co-operative institutions dedicated to direct service of both employees and patrons, a possible antidote to today’s division between the struggles of low ranking workers and demands of consumers. In his own time he adopted the term “agnostic” as it had been coined by Thomas Henry Huxley, and helped to bring the idea into the mainstream through his own legacy.
Such a legacy would be codified in his memoirs, Sixty Years of An Agitator’s Life, which chronicled his activities from adolescence and today would smash apart any signs of age based stereotyping in the field of activism, as well as his continuation of the rising tradition that binds secular worldview to progressiveness and creativity within the political arena. Holyoake finally passed from his work in Brighton on January 22, 1906, less than a decade shy of watching the reactionary state of Europe implode on itself in one final confrontation as well as the rise of Labour as a prominent force for change in British politics.
The party’s successors of today, in addition to the left of America and the rest of the democratic world, would be served well by emulating his commitment to the political side of secularist cause; this is already a frequency among the activists of OnlySky and its comrades, but now thought should also be put into how the legacy he and the other reformers of the time gave to the world can serve as a model in how the irreligious can create a culture of learning and progress apart from the traditional symbols of state.
“Free thought means fearless thought. It is not deterred by legal penalties, nor by spiritual consequences. Dissent from the Bible does not alarm the true investigator, who takes truth for authority not authority for truth. The thinker who is really free, is independent; he is under no dread; he yields to no menace; he is not dismayed by law, nor custom, nor pulpits, nor society—whose opinion appalls so many. He who has the manly passion of free thought, has no fear of anything, save the fear of error.”English Secularism: A Confession of Belief
(though I would say error need not be feared so much as corrected whenever possible)
“Eternal perdition for conscientious belief, whether erroneous or not, is humanly incredible. The devisors of this doctrine must have been unaware that belief is an affair of ignorance, prejudice, custom, education, or evidence. The liability of the human race to eternal punishment is the foundation on which all Christianity (except Unitarianism) rests. This awful belief, if acted upon with the sincerity that Christianity declares it should be, would terminate all enjoyment, and all enterprise would cease in the world. None would ever marry. No persons, with any humanity in their hearts would take upon themselves the awful responsibility of increasing the number of the damned. The registrar of births would be the most fiendish clerk conceivable. He would be practically the secretary of hell.”English Secularism: A Confession of Belief
(I do not think any writer has managed to surpass this in how to explain the unmitigated consequences of sincere belief the damnation of the human race.)
“The power of prayer has been the hope of the helpless and the oppressed in every age. Every man wishes it was true that help could be had that way. Then every just man could protect himself at will against his adversaries. But experience shows that all entreaty is futile to induce Providence to change its universal habit of non-intervention. Prayer beguiles the poor but provides no dinner. Mr. Spurgeon said at the Tabernacle that prayer filled his meal barrel when empty. I asked that he should publish the recipe in the interests of the hungry. But he made no reply.”English Secularism: A Confession of Belief
(I would try such a comeback to the sects nowadays who insist that God bow to their prayers and whims.)
“Popular theology, it must be owned, has many repulsive aspects. The vulgarest and most illiterate believer is encouraged to profess a familiar and confident knowledge, hidden from the profoundest philosophers. It is an unanswerable position that had God spoken, the universe would have been convinced. Had Deity desired that his personal existence should be daily recognised and eternally bruited abroad among men, he would have placarded the fact on the walls of nature in letters of light—so luminous, that time should never pale them; so indelibly, that the war of elements should never efface them; so plainly and conclusively, that no priest should ever be able to misconstrue them; and no wayfarer, in this hurrying world, ever be in doubt about them.”The Limits of Atheism, or Why Should Skeptics be Outlaws?
(Yet again George is our speaker. Is this not the inherent position of disbelief in any form of theism?)