Page images
PDF
EPUB

done. I am speaking of what has been done during the last few years. Our organisation has been such that we have played a part in the political action of the country which has made itself felt” (p. 56). Mr Holyoake answers: “Mr Bradlaugh wanders through this land proclaiming the principles of secularism as though they were atheism, and arguing with the clergy. Why, when I go now to Glasgow, to Huddersfield, to Liverpool, to Manchester, I find the secularists there unadvanced in position. Even in Northampton, which Mr Bradlaugh knows, I found them lately meeting on the second floor of a publichouse, where I found them twenty or twenty-five years ago. In Glasgow they are in the same second-rate position they were in twenty-five or thirty years ago. What have we been doing? Does not this show an obsolete policy? Ranters, Muggletonians, Mormons, and men of their stamp, are superior to acting so. Any party in the present state of opinion in the world could with thought have done more. The most ordinary sects build or hire temples, and other places, where their people decently meet. Mr Bradlaugh, with all his zeal and appeals, finds to-day that all London can do is to put up this kind of place in which we now meet opposite a lunatic asylum, where people, so the enemy says, naturally expect to find us. He is even obliged to tell you that at the West-end of London he does not think highly of their state. Now, we who have principles of materialism, and descant incessantly on their superiority and efficacy, what halls of splendour and completeness we. ought to put up! ... All that Mr Bradlaugh said about the organisation of the party was not an answer to what I said. I spoke of the organisation of ideas in it. I spoke of the number of your paying members that belong to your societies in any part of the country. Look at the poverty of their public resources. Look at the few people of local repute that will consent to share their name and association. Why do they not do it? Because they find no definite principle set down which does not involve them in atheism and infidelity. The truth is, that there are liberal theists, liberal believers in another life, liberal believers in God, perfectly willing to unite together with the extremest thinkers, for secular purposes, giving effect to every form of human liberty—but they refuse to be saddled with the opprobrium of opinions they do not hold, or do dislike.”

These two estimates of the strength and progress of secularism by its two best-known representatives are very different, and yet probably they are not really contradictory. I am inclined to believe that they are both fair and unexaggerated statements, and that if we combine them, instead of contrasting them, we shall come tolerably near to

the truth. If secularism be dissociated from atheism it may be as strong as Mr Bradlaugh represents it to be, while if explicitly committed to atheism it may be as weak as Mr Holyoake represents it to be. Some of the advocates of atheistic secularism speak as if they represented the great body of the artisans of our large towns. This would be most alarıning if it were true ; but no real evidence has been produced to show that it is true, and I for one entirely disbelieve it. I should be surprised if in Edinburgh, for example, there were not on the communion rolls of many a single congregation the names of more artisans—and skilled artisans too-than there are of avowedly atheistical secularists in the whole city; and yet, I daresay, what secularists there are could get a large number of signatures to petitions in favour of purely secular education, the disestablishment and disendowment of the National Church, the abolition of the House of Lords, and a great many other things, wise and foolish. On the other hand, it may not improbably be the case that the strength of the most thorough secularism is by no means fully represented by the number of its avowed adherents ; that many are decidedly in sympathy with it who do not decidedly attach themselves to it; and that many are on the way which would lead to acceptance of the atheism which it teaches who have not yet reached that goal. I believe that atheism

is more diffused at present among the literary classes of this country than among the labouring classes; but no doubt it is far too prevalent among the latter also—so prevalent that piety and patriotism both demand that every wise effort be made energetically to counteract it.

Secularism is the most prevalent form of unbelief amongst the manual workers of this country ; it is almost confined to them; and the chief causes of its spread, and of the character which it bears, must be sought for in their history. It has always been closely associated with political dissatisfaction, and no candid and well-informed person will deny that the political dissatisfaction has been to a considerable extent reasonable and just. The French Revolution caused even in this country not merely a temporary reaction from the kind of unbelief which prevailed before it, but a sort of general anti-revolutionary terror, largely characterised by blindness, bigotry, and violence. The terror gradually died away; and the blindness, bigotry, and violence discredited even what was true in the principles with which they had been associated. The long war with France and a selfish and unjust commercial legislation spread wide and terrible suffering among the poor; and the blind opposition of the governing classes to political progress, and of the clergy to religious freedom, naturally produced a dangerous irritation which gave rise at once to

demands for the most radical political changes, and to the most sweeping rejection of the hitherto accepted religious beliefs.

Mr Owen, whose socialistic views found for a time a multitude of believers sufficiently sincere to endeavour to realise them in practice, severely denounced all the religions of the world, but he never ceased to be a theist, and latterly became a spiritualist. Jeremy Bentham and several of the group of thinkers who gathered around him were atheists; but, although far from timid men, they had not courage enough to avow publicly their real sentiments on the subject of religion, lest by doing so they should lessen their influence as political and juridical reformers. It was only from the ranks of the working classes that there came forth men with the full courage of their convictionsmen who not merely dared openly to avow atheism, as well as republicanism and socialism, but to defend their atheism before the courts of law, and to endure for it imprisonment and other penalties. Such men were Charles Southwell, Thomas Cooper, George Jacob Holyoake, Thomas Paterson, &c.; and these men are to be regarded as the founders and first propagators of Secularism. It would be unjust to refuse them the honour due to their courage and honesty; and there can be no doubt that by their brave and self-sacrificing conduct they merited well of their fellow-countrymen, no

« PreviousContinue »