Sunday, July 10, 2011

Charles Bradlaugh: Remembering a 19th Century Secular Hero

by Gary Berg-Cross

I recently ran across of a review of a book by Bryan Niblett called Dare to Stand Alone: The Story of Charles Bradlaugh, Atheist and Republican. It tells the story of a Charles Bradlaugh, who I hadn’t heard of. This was a great find since he was one of Britain (and the 19th century’s) leading atheist and secular voices who also practiced law and tried a hand at politics. (But then, by some counts Britain has much longer list of political atheists than even the US ). Bradlaugh (1833 – 1891) was (like Robert Ingersol) famous in his time, but is less known now. As Ferdinand Mount, the reviewer of Niblett’s book notes this is the first new biography for nearly 40 years. It:

“…makes us understand why Bradlaugh deserves more than a footnote in political and legal history. His contemporaries understood this well enough. Half a dozen biographies were published in his lifetime and several more after his death. His funeral procession to Brookwood Crematorium required three special trains and was attended by many young men who were to be heard much of in the next century, notably Gandhi and Lloyd George. Lord Queensberry was also present, to bear witness to his loathing of ‘Christian tomfoolery’. So was Walter Sickert, who painted the enormous portrait of Bradlaugh that now hangs in Manchester Art Gallery.

To me it was interesting to find parallels between Bradlaugh and Robert Green Ingersoll. They were both brilliant lawyers, great orators and took on the establishment in several ways. This was something so obvious that it was celebrated earlier in 1933 with a book called Bradlaugh and Ingersoll : a centenary appreciation of two great reformers. And there is a blog site called Ingersoll Bradlaugh discussing how their analysis and oratory took on preachers and interpretations of the Bible.

Bradlaugh was a freethinger and called is daughter Hypatia after the 4th-century women said to have been the last librarian of Alexandria. See my In Praise of Libraries and Librarians- ancient and modern for more on theis.

Bradlaugh perhaps had more famous legal and political battles and a greater role in leading a host of secular organizations. He rose from humble origins and started work early (11) as an office boy. By 17, he published his first pamphlet, A Few Words on the Christian Creed. After serving in the army in India he took a post as a solicitor's clerk, rising to be a legal advocate with a grasp fine procedural points. This is something which served him well since he suffered numerous attacks as a secular reformer. By 1858 he was President of the London Secular Society and in 1860 he became editor of the secularist newspaper, the National Reformer that advanced reform on many fronts. In 1866 he co-founded the National Secular Society.

From this era I especially enjoyed writings like the 1864 A Plea For Atheism (see more links to his writings). Like Ingersoll’s writings these are succinct, thought provoking, insightful and still contemporary on many issues. He had much to say about atheism as well as secularism and the relation of the two. On atheism he reminds me of Dawkins and his 7 point scale (see my Framing Arguments: You say Flaming Atheists and I Say Non-Confrontational Humanist).

Bradlaugh wrote in his 1876 book The Freethinker's Text Book that:

Atheism is without God. It does not assert no God. The atheist does not say that there is no God, but he says 'I know not what you mean by God. I am without the idea of God. The word God to me is a sound conveying no clear or distinct affirmation. I do not deny God, because I cannot deny that of which I have no conception, and the conception of which by its affirmer is so imperfect that he is unable to define it for me.

He reminds me of Chomsky answering questions he considers trivial and unworthy of a strained conversation with this quote on the topic of God from the National Reformer:

I do not deny "God", because that word conveys to me no idea, and I cannot deny that which presents to me no distinct affirmation, and of which the would-be affirmer has no conception. I cannot war with a nonentity. If, however, God is affirmed to represent an existence which is distinct from the existence of which I am a mode, and which it is alleged is not the noumenon of which the word "I" represents only a speciality of phenomena, then I deny "God", and affirm that it is impossible "God" can be.

-- Charles Bradlaugh, in the National Reformer, quoted from Jim Herrick, "Bradlaugh and Secularism: 'The Province of the Real'"

Perhaps my favorite writing is in his later period and includes Humanity's Gain From Unbelief (1889 & 1929) where he conducts and informal cost benefit analysis on the value of unbelief versus religion and takes a long term view of society.

Will any one, save the most bigoted, contend, that it is not certain gain to humanity to spread unbelief in the terrible doctrine that eternal torment is the probable fate of the great majority of the human family?

The ameliorating march of the last few centuries has been initiated by the heretics of each age, though I concede that the men and women denounced and persecuted as infidels by the pious of one century are frequently claimed as saints by the pious of a later generation.

No religion is suddenly rejected by any people; it is rather gradually outgrown. None sees a religion die; dead religions are like dead languages and obsolete customs: the decay is long and -- like the glacier march -- is perceptible only to the careful watcher by comparisons extending over long periods. -- Charles Bradlaugh, all from "Humanity's Gain From Unbelief"

In 1868, for writings like the above the Reformer was prosecuted by the British Government for blasphemy and sedition. This was the first of many run-ins with the powers that be to reform society. After fiery controversy in the courts and the press, Bradlaugh was eventually acquitted on all charges. Almost 10 years later in 1877 his acquittal (with long time secular friend Annie Wood Besant) ended Britain's ban on disseminating contraceptive advice.

Unlike Ingersoll Bradlaugh pursued politics to advance reform and despite controversy won a seat to the British parliament. But as an atheist he was not allowed to enter the parliament because he claimed on principle the right to avoid a religious oath of allegience and affirm (see Oath of Allegiance). Lord Randolph Churchill opposed this and talked about "the indelible stain" of admitting "an avowed atheist". When his claim was denied Bradlaugh offered to take the oath "as a matter of form". When this was rejected he effectively forfeited his seat but still attempted to take his seat. Then he was arrested and briefly imprisoned. The fight continued as Bradlaugh was re-elected by Northampton four times in succession till in 1883 he took his seat and voted three times for which he was fined £1,500 for voting illegally. We get the spirit and tone of the man in an 1883 speech in which he addressed Parliament:

The House, being strong, should be generous ... but the constituents have a right to more than generosity.... The law gives me my seat. In the name of the law I ask for it. I regret that my personality overshadows the principles involved in this great struggle; but I would ask those who have touched my life, not knowing it, who have found for me vices which I do not remember in the memory of my life, I would ask them whether all can afford to cast the first stone ... then that, as best judges, they will vacate their own seats, having deprived my constituents of their right here to mine.

-- Charles Bradlaugh, speech in 1883, in a further attempt to pass a Bill giving atheists the right to affirm, quoted from Jim Herrick, "Bradlaugh and Secularism: 'The Province of the Real'"

Only in 1886 was Bradlaugh finally able to take the oath, but still under the possibility of prosecution from the Parliamentary Oaths Act. Two years later, in 1888, he secured passage of a new Oaths Act, which may be solemnly affirmed, enabling atheists to take affirmation in the name of truth rather than sworn to God. As a member he proved to be exemplary member, fighting the India Office to assert the rights of the actual Indians, which earned him Gandhi's respect. He died of exhaustion in 1891 at 57. To the last, Bradlaugh remained a pioneer of new rational customs. Because he and his secular allies forced them into consciousness and conversation and then into law we now take then for granted.


Slowe said...

...a book called "Bradlaugh and Ingersoll : a centenary appreciation of two great reformers". I looked for this book and could only find a copy for sale on Amazon for $65, and a copy at the Library of Congress. I have this book on reserve in the Main Reading Rooom of LOC if anyone else wants to see it this week or next. Steve Lowe. The book is filed in Alcove 7 under the letter "L ".

Gary Berg-Cross said...

I was able to find cheaper used copies on AbeBooks.

One of the books for sale also had this info on Chapman Cohen (1868-1954)the author of the book.

Cohen probably spent more time in a leadership capacity in the freethought movement than any other man. He was active in freethought for over sixty years, with thirty-four of those years being spent as president of the National Secular Society. He was also editor of THE FREETHINKER for thirty-five years. He was an omnivorous reader.(who) seems to have had little reportable life outside of his reading, writing, and thinking for freethought.His life was a total commitment to the freethought cause". Gordon Stein, Freethought in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, A Descriptive Bibliography, London: Greenwood Press, 1981. The present title is a nicely penned example of his especially clear writing style, being fairly lengthy contrasting biographies of the two giants of the Golden Age of Freethought. Students of freethought will recognize the date as the 100th anniversaries of the births of Bradlaugh and Ingersoll. An interesting coincidence only. {Certainly not as unusual as the births of Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln on the same DAY in 1809}.