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Supporting Civil Rights for Atheists and the Separation of Church and State
George J. Holyoake by Madalyn Murray O'Hair
by Madalyn Murray O'Hair
Atheism has grown individual by individual, each finding his way — starkly alone — to its tenets. It has never had either mass appeal or mass followers. By its very nature it demands that each man think for himself.
The history of Atheism is replete with treachery, backbiting, mindless rivalry, bickering, stealing, defamation, and infighting. A constant bias has been apparent particularly against the activists, those with limited finances, the women, or the converted Jews. The ordinary Atheist, if one can be said to exist, has always had a certain loathing for himself, aspiring constantly to be accepted by the theists, to be on equal footing with them, to have the respectability which he feigns to see in a dominant religion. He seeks the company of the theists to accept the crumbs which fall from their tables, even if only in debate. He constantly fawns before the rich and powerful Atheist who has no constraint against speaking — ah! but politely and with deference shown to the religious.
As an Atheist leader appeared from out of nowhere, the son of no peer, here and there, now and then, scattered, self-educated, bold enough to speak out, the rank and file Atheist either ostensively loved him, or covertly or openly loathed him, but never supported him. Each one has had to take his risks with addressing the subject of Atheism in the public arena, while personally attempting to sustain himself, his family, and ultimately his cause. Each one of the appearing leaders has seen the need for organization and education, and has — of necessity — had to fight his own to obtain some modicum of outreach usually against all odds.
George J. Holyoake, in England, was the last Atheist to be tried by a jury on the charge of blasphemy in that country. He had started his life in Birmingham, as a working man, employed for thirteen years in an iron foundry with his father. As an adult, he chose to accept the theories of Robert Owen, a socialist. Owen had taught that men are what they are by virtue of their surroundings, and that the improvement of these surroundings was the only possible means of raising the individual. Holyoake then became an organizer and lecturer for Owenism. At this time, being age twenty-four, he was still a Christian. But within the next year he changed his mind and he was soon working with Charles Southwell, publishing the Oracle of Reason, a basically anti-Christian weekly with a defiant motto:
We war not with the church but the altar — not with the forms of Christianity but with Christianity itself — not with the attributes but with the existence of deity.
Southwell was arrested and incarcerated for publishing an article in this journal titled, "The Jew Book." Holyoake decided to visit him in jail. On the way, he undertook a lecture and made some anti-religious remarks for which he was arrested and tried on the charge of "Atheism." His trial was held on August 2, 1842. He was found guilty and sentenced to six months' imprisonment in Gloucester gaol. He was at that time twenty-five years of age.
Because his crime was Atheism, he received special treatment in jail, knowing only cold, darkness, privation, isolation, and insult. During his incarceration, his family did not have money enough to subsist, and his daughter, Madeline, age about eight, died of malnutrition. No one came to his or his family's assistance.
Once out of jail he returned to Birmingham. Within a short time, he had his own small journal. When he refused to pay tithes to the church, a distraint order was issued against him, followed by seizure of some of his goods: one year his clock, another year reams of blank paper. From that time until 1855 he fought the tax on papers — until the British government abandoned it.
Not wanting to be openly identified as an Atheist after his jail experience, he coined the term Secularist and formed The British Secular Institute of Communism and Propagandism in London in the mid-1800s. He defined Secularism at some length. Subsequent writers have explained that while Free Thought is a method of finding out the truth, Secularism is a method of applying the truth. In this vein Holyoake wrote:
Secularism teaches the good of this life to be a rightful object of primary pursuit, inculcates the practical sufficiency of natural morality apart from Atheism, Theism, or the Bible, and selects as its method of procedure the promotion of human improvement by material means.
The thrust of his work was to obtain a free press in England, educate the workers, fight for the rights of women including birth control, socialism, peace, and improved nutrition. However, he also had quickly associated himself with and became a champion of industrial cooperation, recognizing the rights of the managers of capital while seeking to work out solutions for the working classes. This came to be known as the "Cooperative Movement."
In pursuit of his ideas regarding social reforms he published the Reasoner journal from 1849 to 1862. Later, he founded and continued a publishing house in Fleet Street, from which issued "every kind of publication of fair intent dispassionately written." It became a major business operation.
George Holyoake died in 1906, by which time he was an accepted spokesman for Liberalism in England, with a broad circle of powerful political friends, included among which were not only William Gladstone, the prime minister of England; John Stuart Mill; Lajos Kossoth, the Hungarian patriot; and the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin; but also both Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-1872) and Giuseppe Garbaldi (1807-1882), Italian patriots and friends of the political turmoil which had swept throughout Europe and the British Isles in the latter half of the nineteenth century.
Holyoake pulled himself up by his own bootstraps; educated himself by reading and involvement in the affairs of the human community in his nation and his time; and was able to offer a significant contribution to human freedom.