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Secularism and the cultures of nineteenth-century scientific naturalism

  • MICHAEL RECTENWALD (a1)
Abstract
Abstract

This essay examines Secularism as developed by George Jacob Holyoake in 1851–1852. While historians have noted the importance of evolutionary thought for freethinking radicals from the 1840s, and others have traced the popularization of agnosticism and Darwinian evolution by later Victorian freethinkers, insufficient attention has been paid to mid-century Secularism as constitutive of the cultural and intellectual environment necessary for the promotion and relative success of scientific naturalism. I argue that Secularism was a significant source for the emerging new creed of scientific naturalism in the mid-nineteenth century. Not only did early Secularism help clear the way by fighting battles with the state and religious interlocutors, but it also served as a source for what Huxley, almost twenty years later, termed ‘agnosticism’. Holyoake modified freethought in the early 1850s, as he forged connections with middle-class literary radicals and budding scientific naturalists, some of whom met in a ‘Confidential Combination’ of freethinkers. Secularism became the new creed for this coterie. Later, Secularism promoted and received reciprocal support from the most prominent group of scientific naturalists, as Holyoake used Bradlaugh's atheism and neo-Malthusianism as a foil, and maintained relations with Huxley, Spencer and Tyndall through the end of the century. In Holyoake's Secularism we find the beginnings of the mutation of radical infidelity into the respectability necessary for the acceptance of scientific naturalism, and also the distancing of later forms of infidelity incompatible with it. Holyoake's Secularism represents an important early stage of scientific naturalism.

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1 Secularism will be defined and discussed throughout this paper, but for Holyoake's own words on the subject see esp. Holyoake George Jacob, The Principles of Secularism Illustrated, London: Austin & Co., 1871.

2 Grugel Lee, George Jacob Holyoake: A Study in the Evolution of a Victorian Radical, Philadelphia: Porcupine Press, 1976, pp. 23. In addition to Grugel's biography, for biographical sketches of Holyoake see Royle Edward, Victorian Infidels: The Origins of the British Secularist Movement, 1791–1866, Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 1974, esp. pp. 36, 7274 and 312; McCabe Joseph, Life and Letters of George Jacob Holyoake, 2 vols., London: Watts & Co., 1908; and Wheeler J.M., A Biographical Dictionary of Freethinkers of All Ages and Nations, London: Progressive Pub. Co., 1889.

3 Holyoake, op. cit. (1), p. 9.

4 Scholars have recently challenged the dominant accounts of secularization. For example, the philosopher Taylor Charles, in A Secular Age, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2007, criticizes accounts of secularization for their reliance on what he calls ‘subtraction stories’, or narratives of the progressive loss and compartmentalization of religious belief attendant upon the rise of science, industrialization, urbanization and so forth. Taylor argues that as a consequence of disenchantment resulting from religious reformism that began before the Protestant Reformation, faith was undermined as a default position, requiring that ‘belief’ become a matter of positive declaration. Unbelief became a distinct possibility for a growing number, and for non-elites, for the first time. The secular age is marked not by the hegemonic advance of unbelief, but by a condition under which choices are opened up for belief, unbelief and a suspension between the two. Rather than a history of progressive religious decline, secularity changed conditions for both belief and unbelief within itself. Taylor's account of secularization is useful for understanding Secularism as a nineteenth-century development. Royle Edward, in Radicals, Secularists and Republicans: Popular Freethought in Britain, 1866–1915, Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 1980, suggests that Secularism has little to do with modern notions of the secular. This is an unsatisfactory argument that ignores the relationship between Secularism and the broader phenomenon of secularity.

5 Larsen Timothy, Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in Nineteenth-Century England, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006, p. 11.

6 Royle, op. cit. (2), pp. 199–249.

7 Holyoake George Jacob, English Secularism: A Confession of Belief, Chicago: Open Court Pub. Co., 1896, pp. 4549.

8 According to the OED, the word ‘secular’ had referred to worldly as opposed to spiritual concerns since as early as the late thirteenth century. The first usage applied to clergy who lived outside of monastic seclusion (OED Online: www.oed.com/view/Entry/174620?redirectedFrom=secular). But never before Holyoake's mobilization had it been used as an adjective to describe a set of principles or as a noun to positively delineate principles of morality or epistemology (OED Online: www.oed.com/view/Entry/174621?redirectedFrom=Secularism, pp. 307–308).

9 Reasoner (1852) 12, p. 127 footnote. Holyoake thus advanced a demarcation argument over a century before Karl Popper in The Logic of Scientific Discovery (New York: Basic Books, 1959).

10 Reasoner (1852) 12, p. 34.

11 Holyoake, op. cit. (7), pp. 36–37. Cf. Herbert Spencer's later First Principles (London: Williams and Norgate, 1862), where he asserted the existence of the Unknowable.

12 Turner Frank M., Contesting Cultural Authority: Essays in Victorian Intellectual Life, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 132133. To locate these traditions, Turner harks back to eighteenth-century rationalism and Kant's metaphysics. For the most nearly contemporary traditions, he points to the institutions and publications of the nineteenth-century popular enlightenment – ‘the Mechanics’ Institutes, the Owenite Halls of Science, and the publications of Knight and Chambers'. Given its artisan provenance, he dismisses Secularism out of hand, because, he notes, the new publicists ‘had hoped to recruit support from the upper and middle classes’. Such a dismissal ignores the efforts and success of Holyoake's Secularism in securing such support (see discussion below). Turner credits Carlyle for the moral discipline and temperament of the later naturalists. It is just as conceivable, however, that the self-disciplined, self-improvement tradition of artisan freethought served as a moral example for the new naturalists. See also Lightman Bernard, The Origins of Agnosticism, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987, p. 4.

13 Wyhe John van, Phrenology and the Origins of Victorian Scientific Naturalism, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004, p. 12.

14 Desmond Adrian, ‘Artisan resistance and evolution in Britain, 1819–1848’, Osiris (1987) 3, 2nd series, pp. 77110; idem, The Politics of Evolution: Morphology, Medicine, and Reform in Radical London, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989; Secord James, Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000, pp. 299335.

15 Van Wyhe, op. cit. (13), pp. 11–12.

16 Bernard Lightman, ‘Ideology, evolution and late-Victorian agnostic popularizers’, in James Moore (ed.), History, Humanity and Evolution: Essays for John C. Greene, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989, pp. 285–309; idem, Victorian Popularizers of Science: Designing Nature for New Audiences, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007, pp. 264–265; Paylor Suzanne, ‘Edward B. Aveling: the people's Darwin’, in Endeavour (2005) 29(2), pp. 6671; Royle, op. cit. (2), pp. 149–177.

17 Moore James R., ‘Freethought, secularism, agnosticism: the case of Charles Darwin’, in Gerald Parsons (ed.), Religion in Victorian Britain, vol.: Traditions, Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1988, pp. 274319.

18 Dawson Gowan, Darwin, Literature and Victorian Respectability, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007, p. 151; Lightman, ‘Ideology’, op. cit. (16), p. 301; Mason Michael, The Making of Victorian Sexual Attitudes, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

19 Lightman, ‘Ideology’, op. cit. (16), pp. 287–288.

20 The stamp duty on news had been greatly reduced by 1836 and was eliminated entirely in 1855.

21 Holyoake George, Sixty Years of an Agitator's Life, 2 vols., London: T.F. Unwin, 1892, vol. 1, p. 142.

22 The Anti-persecution Union was established in 1843 to provide funds for legal aid to arrested freethought editors and booksellers.

23 Royle, op. cit. (2), p. 87.

24 Oracle of Reason (1842) 1, p. ii.

25 Oracle of Reason (1842) 2, p. iii; Royle, op. cit. (2), p. 74. Adrian Desmond, ‘Artisan resistance’, op. cit. (14), p. 86 n. 31, puts the highest circulation of the Oracle at six thousand. For Southwell's trial and imprisonment see Southwell Charles and Carpenter William, The Trial of Charles Southwell: (editor of ‘the Oracle of Reason’) for Blasphemy, Before Sir Charles Wetherall [i.e. Wetherell] Recorder of the City of Bristol, January the 14th, 1842, London: Hetherington, 1842.

26 Grugel, op. cit. (2), pp. 142–143.

27 Reasoner (1847) 3, p. 298.

28 The price ranged from one to two pennies. Edward Royle, op. cit. (2), Appendix III, pp. 302–303 and 321–323, tracks the prices, circulation and income of the periodical. For the hardships of publication see, for example, ‘Propagandism’, Reasoner (1847) 3, pp. 298–302.

29 Royle, op. cit. (2), pp. 302–303.

30 Oracle of Reason, Preface (1843) 2, p. iii.

31 Reasoner (1847) 3, pp. 607–610, 607.

32 Holyoake, op. cit. (21), vol. 1, pp. 238–239.

33 ‘The “Positive philosophy of Auguste Comte”’, Reasoner (1854) 16, pp. 8–9, 120.

34 Reasoner (1855) 10, p. 154, reprinted in Holyoake, op. cit. (1), back matter.

35 Grugel, op. cit. (2), p. 84.

36 Newman Francis W., Personal Narrative, in Letters: Principally from Turkey, in the Years 1830–3, London: Holyoake, 1856.

37 Holyoake, op. cit. (1), back matter.

38 Thornton Hunt to George Holyoake, 27 January 1851, the National Co-operative Archive, Manchester (subsequently NCA). Articles included ‘The National Charter and Social Reform Union’, Reasoner (1855) 10, p. 16.

39 Martineau Harriet, ‘Letter from Miss Martineau in reply to “Old Theology”’, Reasoner (1854) 16, p. 332; ‘Miss Martineau's answer’, Reasoner (1854) 17, p. 12; Harriet Martineau to George Jacob Holyoake, 17 May 1854, in Harriet Martineau: Selected Letters (ed. Valerie Sanders), Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990, pp. 127–128.

40 Royle, op. cit. (2), p. 216; Desmond, ‘Artisan resistance’, op. cit. (14), p. 107.

41 Lightman Bernard, ‘Huxley and scientific agnosticism: the strange history of a failed rhetorical strategy’, BJHS (2002) 35, pp. 271289, 284.

42 Holyoake, op. cit. (1), p. 25.

43 Desmond, ‘Artisan resistance’, op. cit. (14); Moore, op. cit. (17), pp. 284–285.

44 [Charles Southwell], Oracle of Reason (6 November 1841) 1(2), pp. 5–6.

45 Secord, op. cit. (14), p. 311.

46 William Chilton, Oracle of Reason (20 November 1841) 1(3), pp. 21–23, 21.

47 Wiener Joel, Radicalism and Freethought in Nineteenth-Century Britain: The Life of Richard Carlile, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1983, pp. 110112.

48 Holyoake, op. cit. (21), p. 142.

49 Chilton William, ‘Theory of regular gradation’, Oracle of Reason (19 February 1842) 1(9), pp. 7778.

50 Chilton, op. cit. (49), p. 78.

51 Secord, op. cit. (14), p. 311.

52 Chilton William, ‘Theory of regular gradation’, Oracle of Reason (2 April 1842) 1(15), pp. 123125.

53 Chilton William, ‘Theory of regular gradation’, Oracle of Reason (9 April 1842) 1(16), p. 134, original emphasis.

54 The first instalment of ‘Theory of regular gradation’ was on 6 November 1841.

55 Chilton William, ‘The cowardice and dishonesty of scientific men’, Oracle of Reason (4 June 1842) 1(24), pp. 193195.

56 Chilton William, ‘Theory of regular gradation’, Oracle of Reason (24 June 1843) 2(80), pp. 219221, 220.

57 J.A. Secord, ‘Behind the veil: Robert Chambers and Vestiges’, in James Moore (ed.), History, Humanity and Evolution: Essays for John C. Greene, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989, pp. 165–194, 182–187.

58 Chilton William, ‘Vestiges’, Movement (8 January 1845) 2, pp. 912, 12.

59 Chilton William, ‘“Materialism” and the author of the “Vestiges”’, Reasoner (1846) 1, pp. 78. See also idem, ‘Anthropomorphism’, Reasoner (1846) 1, pp. 36–37; Barton F.B., B.A., ‘The laws of Nature’, Reasoner (1846) 2, pp. 2530.

60 William Chilton to George Holyoake, 1 February 1846, NCA. Here Chilton reveals to Holyoake that he knows the name of the author of Vestiges.

61 Reasoner (18 July 1849) 7(164), pp. 33–37; Reasoner (25 July 1849) 7(165), pp. 49–53.

62 George Henry Lewes to George Holyoake, 8 August 1849, NCA.

63 Holyoake George, The History of the Last Trial by Jury for Atheism in England: A Fragment of Autobiography, London: Watson, 1850.

64 McCabe, op. cit. (2), vol. 1, p. 145; Royle, op. cit. (2), pp. 154–155; Blaszak Barbara J., George Jacob Holyoake (1817–1906) and the Development of the British Cooperative Movement, Lewiston: E. Mellen Press, 1988, p. 17; Ashton Rosemary, 142 Strand: A Radical Address in Victorian London, London: Vintage, 2008, pp. 89.

65 Royle, op. cit. (2), p. 154.

66 Thornton Hunt to George Holyoake, 18 December 1849, NCA.

67 Thornton Hunt to Henry Travis, 21 October 1850, Holyoake Papers, Bishopgate Institute Library, London.

68 Thornton Hunt to George Holyoake, 13 September 1852, NCA.

69 Thornton Hunt to George Holyoake, 18 December 1849, NCA.

70 Thornton Hunt to George Holyoake, 18 December 1849, NCA.

71 McCabe, op. cit. (2), vol. 1, pp. 162–163.

72 Herbert Spencer to George Holyoake, 17 September 1894, NCA; Herbert Spencer to George Holyoake, 4 April 1882, NCA. Spencer's avoidance of such public association with Holyoake is explicable in terms of the former's concern for his reputation in the press. It does not, however, negate the support that Spencer provided Holyoake otherwise. See the following section.

73 Royle, op. cit. (2), pp. 154–155.

74 Ashton, op. cit. (64). For Holyoake, see esp. pp. 8–9.

75 White Paul, Thomas Huxley: Making the ‘Man of Science’, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003, p. 70.

76 [Eliot George], ‘Mackay's progress of the intellect’, Westminster Review (October 1850) 54, pp. 353368.

77 Royle, op. cit. (2), p. 156.

78 Harriet Martineau, Boston Liberator (November1853), quoted in the Reasoner (1 January 1854) 16(1), p. 5. The quote circulated widely and was found as far afield as the Scripture Reader's Journal for April 1856, pp. 363–364.

79 [Syme Ebenezer], ‘Contemporary literature of England’, Westminster and Foreign Quarterly Review, 1 July 1853, p. 129. The article was a review of several books, including of the debate between Reverend Brewin Grant and Holyoake as recorded in Grant Brewin and Holyoake George, Christianity and Secularism: Report of a Public Discussion between Brewin Grant and George Jacob Holyoake, Esq., London: Ward, 1853.

80 [Binn William], ‘The religious heresies of the working classes’, Westminster Review (1862) 77, pp. 3252.

81 Desmond Adrian, Huxley: From Devil's Disciple to Evolution's High Priest, Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1997, p. 160.

82 Royle, op. cit. (2), p. 154.

83 Michael Rectenwald, ‘The publics of science: periodicals and the making of British science’, PhD thesis, Carnegie Mellon University, 2004, pp. 104–111.

84 Desmond, ‘Artisan resistance’, op. cit. (14), pp. 105–106.

85 Holyoake, op. cit. (21), vol. 1, p. 117.

86 Holyoake George, Bygones Worth Remembering, London: T.F. Unwin, 1905, p. 64.

87 Grugel, op. cit. (2), p. 155.

88 Eliot George quoted in Edith Simcox, ‘George Eliot’, Nineteenth Century (May 1881) 9, p. 787; Edith Simcox quoted in Clapperton Jane Hume, Scientific Meliorism and the Evolution of Happiness, London: K. Paul, Trench & Co, 1885, pp. viiviii.

89 Dawson, op. cit. (18), p. 120.

90 Desmond, op. cit. (81), p. 160.

91 Here I am recognizing the divergent views of Desmond and White; Desmond figures Huxley as a champion of industrial, middle-class values, while White sees him as working to construct science as part of an elite culture that stood in judgement of middle-class values.

92 Thomas Huxley to George Holyoake, 2 April 1873, NCA; John Tyndall to George Holyoake, 16 November 1876, NCA; George Holyoake to Thomas Huxley, 20 April 1887, T.H. Huxley Papers, Imperial College London (subsequently HP); Thomas Huxley to George Holyoake, 31 March 1891, NCA.

93 George Holyoake to Thomas Huxley, 26 March 1891, HP; Herbert Spencer to George Holyoake, 22 April 1860, NCA.

94 Herbert Spencer to George Holyoake, 14 July 1879, NCA; John Tyndall to George Holyoake, 18 June 1883, NCA; George Holyoake to Thomas Huxley, 26 March 1891, HP.

95 Thomas Huxley to George Holyoake, 2 November 1875, NCA; Herbert Spencer to George Holyoake, 28 April 1875, NCA; Tyndall to Evans Bell, 15 April 1875, NCA.

96 Dawson, op. cit. (18), p. 119.

97 Holyoake George J. and Bradlaugh Charles, Secularism, Scepticism, and Atheism: Verbatim Report of the Proceedings of a Two Nights’ Public Debate between Messrs. G.J. Holyoake & C. Bradlaugh: Held at the New Hall of Science … London, on the Evenings of March 10 and 11, 1870, London: Austin, 1870; George Jacob Holyoake, ‘The field of action’, Secular Review, 6 August 1876.

98 Royle, op. cit. (2), pp. 91–92.

99 White, op. cit. (75), p. 90; Desmond, op. cit. (81), pp. 232 and 319–321.

100 Thomas Huxley to George Holyoake, 2 April 1873, NCA.

101 Lightman, Victorian Popularizers, op. cit. (16), p. 264.

102 John Tyndall to George Holyoake, 21 July 1877, NCA.

103 Tyndall John, Fragments of Science: A Series of Detached Essays, Addresses, and Reviews, vol. 2, New York and London: D. Appleton and Company, 1915, p. 366.

104 See, for example, ‘Science – the British Association for the Advancement of Science’, New York Tribune, 27 September 1867, p. 2; ‘The priesthood of science: their visit to Norwich’, Reasoner Review, November 1868.

105 George Holyoake to Thomas Huxley, 21 June 1871, NCA.

106 Hinton Richard J., English Radical Leaders, New York: G.P. Putnam's sons, 1875, pp. 7172.

107 ‘Science – the British Association for the Advancement of Science’, op. cit. (104).

108 Herbert Spencer to George Holyoake, 28 April 1875, NCA.

109 John Tyndall to Evans Bell, 15 April 1875, NCA.

110 Thomas Huxley to George Holyoake, 2 November 1875, NCA.

111 Grant and Holyoake, op. cit. (79).

112 George Holyoake to Thomas Huxley, 20 April 1887, HP.

113 Thomas Huxley to George Holyoake, 31 March 1891, NCA.

114 Holyoake George Jacob, ‘Characteristics of Prof. Tyndall’, in idem, John Tyndall Memorial, Buffalo, NY: H.L. Green, 1894, p. 2.

115 Desmond, op. cit. (81), p. 501.

116 McCabe, op. cit. (2), vol. 2, p. 74.

117 Moore, op. cit. (17), pp. 303–304.

118 Index (1873) 4, p. 89.

119 See Green Jonathon and Karolides Nicholas J., Encyclopedia of Censorship, New York: Fact On File, 2005, p. 186.

120 Lightman, ‘Ideology’, op. cit. (16), p. 286.

121 Cooke Bill, The Gathering of Infidels: A Hundred Years of the Rationalist Press Association, Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2003, p. 14. The Agnostic Annual was to become the RPA Annual, the Rationalist Annual, and finally Question.

122 Brake Laurel and Demoor Marysa, Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century Journalism, Ghent: Academia Press and London: British Library, 2009, pp. 89; Cooke, op. cit. (121), p. 12.

123 Lightman, ‘Ideology’, op. cit. (16); idem, Victorian Popularizers, op. cit. (16), pp. 264–265; Cooke, op. cit. (121), pp. 5–29.

124 Paylor, op. cit. (16).

125 Royle, op. cit. (4), p. 165.

126 Lightman, ‘Ideology’, op. cit. (16); idem, Victorian Popularizers, op. cit. (16), pp. 264–265; Cooke, op. cit. (121), pp. 5–29.

127 Royle, op. cit. (4), p. 165.

128 For a list of RPA publications, including reprints and original publications, see Cooke, op. cit. (121), Appendix 1, pp. 305–317.

129 Desmond, op. cit. (81), p. 527.

130 Cooke, op. cit. (121), pp. 12–13, 38. Leonard Huxley was listed among the honorary associates of the RPA in the Agnostic Annual and Ethical Review (1907), p. 82.

131 Quoted in Cooke, op. cit. (121), p. 12.

132 In late 1883, Huxley wrote to Tyndall about Watts's ‘impudence’ for ‘printing this without asking leave or sending a proof, but paraded me as a “contributor”’. Thomas Huxley to John Tyndall, 25 November 1883, Tyndall Papers; Lightman, Victorian Popularizers, op. cit. (16), p. 264.

133 Cooke, op. cit. (121), pp. 12–13.

134 Huxley T.H., ‘Possibilities and impossibilities’, Agnostic Annual (1892), pp. 310. Vernon Jensen J., Thomas Henry Huxley: Communicating for Science, Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1991, p. 122, suggests that Huxley voluntarily published the essay in the Agnostic Annual.

135 Royle, op. cit. (4), p. 166. Bill Cooke, op. cit. (121), p. 38, argues that ‘Leonard Huxley's willingness to ensure his father's work was reprinted by the RPA is further evidence that his father had relented of his early low opinion of Watts’.

136 Desmond, op. cit. (81), pp. 527–528.

137 Cooke, op. cit. (121), pp. 12–13, 38.

138 Desmond, op. cit. (81), p. 580; Cooke, op. cit. (121), Appendix 2, p. 318.

139 Thomas Huxley to George Holyoake, 9 May 1884, NCA.

140 Thomas Huxley to George Holyoake, 2 April 1873, NCA; George Holyoake to Thomas Huxley, 20 April 1887, HP; Thomas Huxley to George Holyoake, 26 April 1887; John Tyndall to George Holyoake, 16 November 1876; John Tyndall to George Holyoake, 21 July 1877, NCA; Herbert Spencer to George Holyoake, 14 July 1879, NCA.

The author wishes to thank Lori R. Price for reading and commenting on numerous drafts of this paper.

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