INVENTING SECULARISM: The Radical Life of George Jacob Holyoake

(Spring 2021, McFarland & Co., USA)


Secularism, the world’s most widely applied model for the separation of church and state, has freed peoples and their governments from control by religious authority. INVENTING SECULARISM is the first modern biography of the founder of Secularism. Written for the general reader, it traces the ebb and flow of democratic Secularism since Holyoake’s invention of the word in England in 1851. Today, in an age of brewing populism, Secularism – “the province of the real, the known, the useful” * – is under mounting challenge, especially in United States and the United Kingdom, from the divisive forces of evangelical Christianity and fundamentalist Islam. 



George Holyoake (1817-1906) was a radical editor and freethinker who confronted the religious and social attitudes of nineteenth century Britain when he devised the term Secularism and promoted it as a way of life that separates the public realm from religious faith. INVENTING SECULARISM charts the course of this social reformer from his trial and imprisonment for atheism to his creation of Secularism and his long struggle in support of public education, freedom of the press, women’s rights, universal suffrage, and the cooperative movement.

Holyoake lived a life of conflict and controversy. Editor of a radical weekly newspaper, estranged from his parents and challenged in a bitter rivalry for leadership of the Secularist movement, he was hailed at his death for having “won that freedom of speech which we take as a matter of course today.”  He also secured for atheists the right to affirm in court they were speaking truthfully, rather than having to swear on a Bible. Holyoake defied the British Stamp Act that put a sales tax on newspapers and facing a bill for £600,000 (£37,000,000 today, or $50,000,000), he offered to pay it off a shilling a week. His opposition to the tax helped bring about its repeal.

INVENTING SECULARISM reveals the compelling story of a neglected but key figure who played a transformative role in the shaping of the modern world. It also brings an important message for the 21st century: failure to defend Secularism risks the loss of civil rights and personal freedoms to a renewal of religious influence in lawmaking and public life. 

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. The Toronto Globe and Mail described Ray as “an author who writes exceptionally fascinating stories on social and cultural change.”

* George Jacob Holyoake. The Reasoner, 1860