INVENTING SECULARISM: The Radical Life of George Jacob Holyoake — an Excerpt

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“Holyoake and his influence on the development of almost every modern progressive cause has been a secret kept for too long within the humanist movement. Argyle’s scrupulously researched historical analysis brings this at last to light in both a scholarly and accessible way.”

— Andrew Copson, Chief Executive, Humanists UK

An Excerpt: Introduction

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 appals so many. He who has the manly passion of free thought, has no fear of anything, save the fear of error.—George Jacob Holyoake, English Secularism: A Confession of Belief, 1896

To know in the twenty-first century of the nineteenth century life of George Holyoake is to know two different worlds. Although vastly dissimilar, they are in some manner much alike. Our century enjoys access to a broader range of knowledge but our ability to apply what we know seems no greater. The Victorian Age was loath to accept human existence as a bio-logical phenomenon unaffected by any higher power. We are reluctant to act on what we have learned about the precarious balance of life on a small, blue planet that is subject to plagues, tsunamis, and climate change.

George Jacob Holyoake was born in Birmingham, England, in 1817 and died in Brighton, England, in 1906. Notwithstanding his origins in the nineteenth century, Holyoake was a man for the modern age. His vision encompassed ideals of social justice that would become universally accepted nearly two hundred years after he first expressed them. Through a long, controversial, and conflict-filled life, marked by as many mistakes as triumphs, he was in the vanguard of almost every struggle to improve the lives of ordinary people — public education, the Co-operative movement, freedom of the press, trade unions, women’s rights, and universal suffrage. He was hailed after his death as “one of the men who fought for and won for Englishmen that freedom of speech which we take as a matter of course today.”

For a man largely neglected in popular history, he played a transformative role in the evolution of modern life and the rise of democratic rule in Britain and the West. Holyoake’s great, original idea—and the one for which he is primarily recognized—was that our first duty is to look to the well-being of our fellow citizens in this life, rather than to an imagined life after death. He called his concept Secularism and announced it to the world in 1851. Holyoake came to the idea of Secularism after enduring hardship, persecution, and imprisonment as a social missionary for capitalist turned reformer Robert Owen and his Socialist utopian movement, the Society of Rational Religionists.

After a Christian upbringing, George Holyoake fell into atheism with the imprisonment of a friend for blasphemy and his own arrest for a speech in which he declared he no longer believed in such a thing as a God. Convicted of blasphemy, Holyoake reflected on the conditions of English life during his six months in the Gloucester County Gaol. He came out convinced of the need for a new social order that would release the individual from the grasp of enforced religious doctrine.Having originally seen Secularism as an alternative to Christianity, Holyoake came to embrace the coexistence of the secular and the religious: “Secularism divides life into what is secular and what is religious and would consign all matters of religion to the sphere of private interests.” With separation of state institutions from religious institutions, Secularism would become the universal model for social organization throughout most of the world.

The idea of atheism, Holyoake had realized, was weighed down by a public misconception that in rejecting God, one was left with a devilish alternative of immorality and indecency. He struggled for the next decade to articulate a more acceptable vision. After much reflection, he created the word Secularism. He was acting on principles set out as early as the Greek philosopher Epicurus and as recently as the Enlightenment thinker John Locke, who inscribed a difference between civil society and religious life; the one concerned with “free and peaceable enjoyment of all good things,” and the other dedicated to gaining “happiness after this life.”For the word itself, Holyoake drew on the English adjective secu-lar, descended from Late Latin— saecularis, “worldly, of an age”— and Old French— seculier— to create the new English noun, Secularism. Over the next one hundred and fifty years, extending into the twenty-first century, variations of Secularism would become central to not only how Western countries govern themselves, but of some of the oldest societies of the Eastern world.

After inventing the word Secularism, Holyoake wasn’t entirely sure what to do with it. Was it to be an alternative to Christianity, open only to atheists, as some advocated? An ethical creed or ideology setting practi-cal moral standards for daily life? Or a social movement that would recruit thousands—or millions—of adherents? It would take years of conflict among secularists and a slow change in public attitudes for Secularism to emerge in various forms—its most notable variant based on a public sphere free of religious intrusion.

Holyoake’s views led him into fierce controversy with Charles Brad-laugh, a young and militant rival who envisioned Secularism as a mechanism for the abolition of religion and the replacement of superstition with rational thought. Holyoake, an indifferent organizer and a diffident speaker, lost the battle to control the secularist movement. But the princi-ples of Secularism and rational rule were being adopted with the decline of religious influence in English law, morality, politics, and society. Bradlaugh became the first avowedly atheist Member of Parliament and founder of the National Secular Society, while Holyoake, his secularist work largely done, became an advocate and historian of the Co-operative movement.

Holyoake married twice, fathered five children—two of whom died at an early age—and led an enormously productive literary life. He popularized Secularism as a radical journalist, author, and tireless lecturer. He wrote for many newspapers, authored 160 books and pamphlets, and was editor of eighteen radical papers. The longest-lived of these was The Reasoner, his chief exponent of Secularism between 1846 and 1861. His writing style was eminently Victorian: excessively formal, unduly polite in its arguments, and verbose to an eye-dazzling degree. His appeal to modern readers is limited although there is much that is enjoyable in his use of metaphors and epigrams: “A page of laughter is a better defence against a worthless adversary than a volume of anger.”

Biographer Joseph McCabe knew Holyoake during the last years of a long life that spanned the entire reign of Queen Victoria when the Brit-ish Empire was at its height. “Though weak in voice, well trained in delivery, witty, and never sententious … his refined and dignified bearing won all who met him,” McCabe wrote: “His grave, well-cut features, framed in dark long hair, did much to disarm those who came to hear him retail the ‘horrid blasphemies’ of disbelief.

Upwards of one hundred countries now affirm support for Secularism. The United States has functioned as a largely secular state despite a continuing presence of religiosity in its public life; the United Kingdom, secular in many respects, retains an established church with appointed bishops in its House of Lords, religious schools, and a monarch who is head of both the church and the state. Canada, nominally secular, recognizes “the supremacy of God” in its constitution and provides public funding for Roman Catholic schools. Its French-speaking province of Quebec bans wearing of hijabs by public sector workers in positions of authority.

British-controlled India adopted Secularism for its promise of harmony between Hindus and Muslims, a hope that has receded under the long-reigning Modi government. Other countries such as Israel, Turkey, and Indonesia are more ambiguous. Three states that were once secular—Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan—have enshrined Islam as their official religion.As demonstrated in recent soundings of public opinion, religious belief is in free fall everywhere in the West. People of no religion (the “nones”) account for 52 percent of the population of England and Wales, and one-quarter of the population of the United States and Canada. Only 12 percent of Britons are affiliated with the Church of England, down from 40 percent in 1983. There is almost universal support for Secularism in France, along with the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Australia. China pays lip service to Secularism but uses its atheist ethos to oversee its Christian citizenry and oppress its Muslim minority.

In contrast to these trends, Secularism finds itself in a state of siege in many countries. Christian evangelists are pushing to have their religious ideas enacted into public policy in fields as diverse as health, education, foreign aid, and law. Islamic fundamentalism uses the blunt force of terrorism to attack rival faiths and the infidel idea of Secularism. Secular states must respond to the pressures of twenty-first century migrations and the accommodation of non-secular traditions. I address these challenges in my Epilogue. I have written this book in the hope it will give readers a greater appreciation for George Holyoake’s achievements in widening our horizons and freeing people to seek their own truths. If it also deepens our commitment to defend democratic Secularism— and its philosophical cousin, Humanism—from the challenges ahead, my purpose will be amply fulfilled.


Author Ray Argyle, a biographer of Charles de Gaulle and other leading figures, has drawn on years of research into Holyoake’s writings (160 books and pamphlets), archival sources in England, and interviews with present-day secularist authorities to produce a book filled with intimate detail and framed by historic authenticity. He is based in Kingston, Ontario.

* George Jacob Holyoake. The Reasoner, 1860