Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Secular Press

Most of us have heard a good deal of the “infidel publications" which are said to exercise a strong influence over a considerable part of the population of our great towns; but we doubt whether many of our readers have ever seen papers belonging to that department of journalism. They are, however, worth some attention for the sake of the evidence which they afford as to the mental calibre of the persons by whom anti-religion opinions are professed, and as to the nature of the influence which they exert.

The most conspicuous, if not the only, London newspaper of this description, is the Reasoner, and London Tribune, which describes itself as “A weekly journal to explain secular principles, enforce secular practice, and record secular progress." This paper is the organ of a newly-invented creed, which has taken to itself the name of “Secularism." Its professors are distinguished from the rest of the world by having erected into a cardinal virtue and a fundamental theological tenet what is generally considered—under the name of worldly-mindedness—as something far enough removed from either. There is nothing very new or very striking in the theological, or rather anti-theological, part of the undertaking. It is far from being amusing, or even exciting. It is a little odd, at first sight, to see a journal set up for the express purpose of expounding, enforcing, and recording what one would suppose needed little enough either of exposition or exhortation; but on looking a little further, we discover in the Reasoner a curious illustration of one of the most characteristic infirmities of the English mind. We are, as we are constantly told, an eminently practical nation; and the first thing that occurs to us when any one a little less practical than the rest of the community hits upon a theory, is to organize it at once into a movement, to embody it in a cry, and to set up a newspaper to preach it. As our readers are aware, one of the latest intellectual developments which has appeared in the world is what is known as “Positive Philosophy." It was originally excogitated by M. Auguste Comte, and by him expounded and applied to a great many subjects, in books which one would not have considered, a priori, as particularly attractive, for their subject-matter is abstruse, and their style anything but popular. They have, nevertheless, become the gospel of the new sect which we have mentioned, and, in order to fit them for the purpose, they have undergone one of the strangest processes of transformation that can be imagined. Positive Philosophy, claims to explain not only what is generally called natural science, but also all those subjects which relate to the feelings and the will. Indeed, the very peculiarity by which it has given so much offence is its pretension to submit the operations of those functions to precisely the same processes, and to consider them as being subject to the same laws, which it applies to the sciences which depend upon weight, measure, and number. By careful observation and analysis, the Positive philosopher hopes that he shall ultimately be able to explain all that ever has happened, and to foretell all that ever will happen; but, be this as it may, it is obvious that, in order to do so, he has no interest in disturbing any existing belief or opinion whatever. He regards its exertions as a fact, notes it down, and draws his conclusions from the manner in which it operates on those who maintain it. It is therefore clear enough that no system can be less adapted for the purposes of popular agitation. Positive Philosophy is a theory, and necessarily a moat imperfect one. It has as yet made scarcely any progress in collecting the materials for its final decision in human life and its affairs. At some indefinitely distant period, it may be able to explain to our posterity what their fathers meant by Christianity, and why they believed it, and how far they were right or wrong in doing so; but at present it leaves this and a thousand other questions on one side, as not being yet ripe for solution. This, however, does not at all suit the purposes of the Reasoner. It must have a short, compendious set of principles of its own; and in order to get for these principles the credit of being something very grand and philosophical, it dubs itself “a secular newspaper," and claims to be the exponent of “Positive Philosophy." What it means by this phrase we will leave it to say for itself. Our readers will see that its views upon the subject are about as remote from positive philosophy as from common sense. To say that “positivism" has nothing to do with the invisible (in the same breath in which it is stated that it is concerned with the invisible laws of Nature), that it has no concern with history—in other words, with human life—that it confines itself to “Nature," in the sense of the operations of mute matter, is to display an ignorance which puts entirely out of court the person who makes such assertions. We extract the following from an article on—
‘The Study of Positive Philosophy—The great want of the age is, that men’s minds should be withdrawn from speculation, tradition, authority, and superstition, to the facts and laws of Nature——the only incontestible criterion of truth, and the only safe rule of action; in a word, that supernaturalism should give place to naturalism, or Positive Philosophy. . . . . .
The Positive Philosopher, confining himself to facts and the laws of nature avoids fruitless and irritating controversies. For instance, the Positive Philosopher, from his conviction of the immutability of Nature's laws, denies the probability of miracles, and therefore at once repudiates all professed revelations founded on miraculous evidence, and feels himself no more called upon to discuss the truth of Christianity or the Bible, than that of the Koran, the Shaster, or the Vedas. The religious disputant, taking for his foundation tradition and history—most uncertain and fallacious evidences—and the Positive Philosopher taking for his basis the facts and laws of Naturc, the two, so far, occupy platforms totally different. The Positive Philosopher contents himself with pointing out the facts and laws of Nature, which are at variance both with the foundation of supernatural revelation, and with many facts contained in the record of that revelation. The Positive Philosopher, knowing that science cannot ascertain absolute or ultimate causes, and that it is cognizant of phenomena, of the visible—that it has nothing to do with the invisible —for which science the maxim holds, de non apparentibus et de non existentibus eadem est ratio—enters into no discussions (necessarily merely verbal ones), respecting the existence and nature of a Supreme Cause, or of the soul, or of a future state. There being no positive evidence on these subjects, inquiry must be useless, as leading to no certain and satisfactory conclusion. On these subjects he probably takes the position of the Hon. R. Dale Owen, and neither affirms nor denies.’
Every one of the subjects which the “Positive Philosopher" is represented as passing over, forms part of the very facts from which he is to deduce his “laws of Nature;" and his very first task is to describe, collect, and classify them in a complete and satisfactory manner. The ludicrous misconception of his own authorities which this passage shows, is a fair sample of the qualifications, in point of logic and of knowledge, for the somewhat arduous task which he has imposed upon himself.

Perhaps an even more curious characteristic than logical deficiency is the narrow sectarianism in which the journal before us so closely resembles the religious newspapers of the day. The Record and the Reasoner differ in many respects. The Record is bitter, false, and malignant. The Reasoner is not, by any means, taxable with these faults—it is written with calmness, and admits contradiction with candour. The Record is eternally prying into private affairs—the Reasoner appears to us to confine itself within the limits of fair criticism. The Record and the Reasoner are both ignorant, and not over logical; but the Reasoner is far the least offensively written of the two. On the whole, orthodoxy apart, we like Square better than Thwackum, but with these differences they have one singular point of resemblance. Both of them attach infinite importance to a certain set of opinions—both of them believe that their respective views are the indispensable condition of all human progress and happiness—and each of them goes on gyrating in its own small circle, grinding its own small assortment of tunes on the same barrel, over and over again, and never showing the smallest result. You may read the Record for ever without finding that the exclusive possession of religious truth makes the possessor wiser or better than his neighbours in the ordinary affairs of life. He may be the only person in the world who knows anything about the relations of men to their Maker, but he most assuredly knows next to nothing about their relations with each other. In just the same manner, the exclusive possession of irreligious truth does not seem to make secularists particularly noticeable in respect of secular knowledge. In three numbers of a paper which is intended to “enforce secular practice and record secular progress," the most interesting pieces of secular information that we can find are a dreary dissertation about chronology, “by Luke Burke," followed by no less than six columns, equally dismal, about Teetotalism—in which it is maintained that it is wrong of teetotallers to be more angry with moderate drinkers than with habitual drunkards, and which offer solutions of the interesting questions, “If a friend at my table asked me to give him poison to drink, would I do it?" "If I invited a cannibal to lunch, should I give him his favourite cutlet?" The list is completed by three letters, written by Mr. F. Newman, describing his travels in Turkey in 1830—a short dissertation on the Miracle Plays which preceded Shakspeare —and a review of Spencer's Principles of Psychology, by “our valued and able contributor, F. B. Barton, B.A.," who "furnished us at our request with an analysis of the work,"—consisting, we may remark, of two paragraphs from Mr. Barton's pen, containing together thirty lines, and a column and a half for which we are indebted to that able gentleman’s scissors. This is all the secular information which this secular journal gives its readers, with the exception of a meagre article on “The Week." The rest of the paper is filled with correspondence between various persons, upon subjects which fill us with an ineffable weariness. To borrow one of the “barbaric yawps " of that “disorderly sensual kosmos," Walt Whitman, “no array of terms can say how much we are at peace about" fate, free-will, and foreknowledge. We are utterly sick of all the cuts, and all the guards, the fatalist thrusts, and the free-will parries. The controversial art of the Reasoner can, we should think, interest no human being of more than twenty-three years of age, and of the most moderately good education. It is full of letters with such headings as “Theistic Polemics," and “An Apology for Atheists;" and from an answer to one “Anthony Atheos," in the replies to readers, we suppose that there is little risk of its columns running short of this class of contributions.

There are some peculiarities in the manner in which the Reasoner is conducted which illustrate its sectarian feelings in a curious manner. It apes the style of the religious journals, inverting it in a way which is at times irresistibly ludicrous. Those who are accustomed to the short notices of provincial missionary meetings and other religious assemblies which are to be found in the Record, will be amused at the following strange, undesigned inversions of them. It will be a satisfaction to our readers to learn, from the following advertisement, that there are some doubts whether death is a necessity:—
Great public Discussion. Is Death a Necessity?—A scientific discussion of the above all-important topic will take place in the Literary Institution, John-street, Fitzroy-square, on Tuesday evenings, March 18t and 25th, 1856, between S. Rowbotham, Esq., (author of “Zetetic Astronomy," “Chemical Biology," “Death not a Necessity,” and other scientific works), who maintains the Negative; and Dr. G. Sexton, F.R.G.S., F.E.S. (Lecturer on Anatomy and Physiology at Dr. Kahn's Museum, author of “The Benefits and Beauties of Science," “Anatomical View of the Question of Men with Tails," “Lectures on Physiology," &.c.), who maintains the Affirmative.’
The following are lively sketches of the usual—we cannot call it worship—of Secularists. There is something exquisitely grotesque in the morning portions which Mr. Holyoake selects, and in is maintenance of “the religious sentiment on atheistic grounds:"—
London Secular Society.—Last Sunday, Mr. L. H. Holdreth delivered the second lecture of his course, the subject being the “Faith and Facts" of Christianity. The treatment of the topic was powerful and striking, and called forth much approval. Some points were particularly instructive to Christians as portraying the moral and logical errors of Christianism, and to Secularists, in selecting points of discussion. The reply delivered by the lecturer to the speeches of opponents was as striking and forcible as the lecture itself. Mr. G. J. Holyoake presided, and read the morning extract from Greg's “Creed of Christendom.” The attendance of Christians and stranger: is desired by the committee.
The reading last Sunday morning, preceding the lecture, at the Hall of Science, was by Mr. G. J. Holyoake, from Theodore Parker's “Atheism and the Popular Theology." Mr. Holdreth’s concluding lecture, on “Duty, the Religion of Secularism," was listened to with great interest, and called forth more controversy than any preceding lecture. The novelty was the maintenance, on atheistic rounds, of the existence of the religious sentiment. At the close acknowledgments were made by the President, on behalf of the Secular Society’ for the very valuable and instructive course of lectures delivered by Mr. Holdreth'
We must find room for the following exquisite sketch of the missionary operations of the Secularists in New Zealand:—

‘From another 'Correspondent:—The Auckland Secular Society lost its mainstay when our friend A. C. left for the farm. He kept the Society working and workable. However, our consignment of books from Fleet-street having arrived, a revival may be expected. Last Sunday night our library was opened, and our four dozen “Logic of Death” sent forth to the world.  We shall hear of the result in good time. We have now fifteen paying members, though only seven or eight can meet on Sunday, the others being scattered over the country from ten to forty miles. We are making an effort to get a hall of our own. A deputation is appointed to wait upon the superintendent of the province to get his advice and co-operation to secure a grant of land from Government or that purpose. Should that be refused, we expect Mr. P. will do something for us. At all events, we know he sympathises with the movement. He subscribed for our books, and he has named his son after the venerable Robert Owen. Two of our members likewise have named their children after the “good old man." So you see his name will not be forgotten among the children of his people to the uttermost ends of the earth.’

 More curious still is the light which the Reasoner throws upon the prospects and machinery of the "Secularist Propaganda." Editor and contributors alike throw off the usual reticences in a most curious manner. There is a certain Mr. Lionel H. Holdreth of whom great use is made, and about whom we find an astonishing quantity of information in a short space. He is, we are informed, the author of “something new in secular literature— a volume of original poetry, which includes transitions of opinion in Christianism, Scepticism, and Humanism." We are also informed that he is “a young man, scarcely twenty"—that he contributes to the Reasoner an article called “The Week"—and that during the week ending March 30th, he was "incapacitated by ill-health and pressure of business from bestowing thereon the attention and care he had hitherto bestowed on it." The editor steps forward even more obtrusively. He is a man whose name is well known by his own constant advertisement of the fact that he was the last person tried in England for a blasphemous libel. Since that time he has, as he tells his readers in a column headed “Secular Propagandist Fund," “undertaken the responsibility" of continuing the publication of the Reasoner, an of managing the "Fleet-street house"—a sort of irreligious tract depot. It is curious to see what the nature of the business is, and as Mr. Holyoake publishes his affairs to all the world, with a touching confidence, it is as well to let Christians know what are the pecuniary prospects of a professional Atheist. Mr. Holyoake—as his circular informs the public—started in business on a borrowed capital, and this is the third year of the establishment of the “Central Secular Publishing House and Committee Rooms," over which he presides. He finds himself in debt to the extent of £600, but his creditor is willing to “acquit him of £200," if he will pay up the other £400. For this purpose, every “friend concerned or the honour and efficiency of free thought" is desired to "cause his subscriptions for 1856 to reach us;" and the smallest contributions from “friends of secularism" are thankfully received and duly acknowledged, being entered according to their amounts, either in “the 10s. list," or in another place in which smaller donations are recorded. From these lists it appears that 148 subscriptions of 10s. have been collected—one munificent person contributing 10s. a-week, whilst others, as P. McC. and A. G., club together with an economy which we might expect from a McC., in order to entitle themselves to the proud position of the 10s. list. A. gives 6d.; A friend, 6d.; A secular friend, 6d.; X., per publisher, 12s. 4d.; whilst Mr. John Foster has paid twenty-seven monthly subscriptions of 2s. Altogether, in the course, we suppose, of three years, the “secular friends" have contributed to the extent of £107. 8s. 3d.  We cannot help thinking that, under the circumstances, the excellent gentleman who is willing to settle his claim of £600 for £400, is not altogether so wonderfully munificent as his debtor supposes him be. At all events, it may be some comfort to nervous Christians to be informed, on the highest authority possible, that after ten years’ painful struggling, and three years of “Central Secular Publishing," you may expect to find yourself £400 in debt, with an eleemosynary £107. 8s. 3d. to meet your liabilities. In acknowledging the liberality of a certain “Aliquis," who promises to raise his £5, 5s subscription to £10, 10s for the next we years, the editor gives his subscriber and contributor the following graceful puff:—
‘Acknowledgment is due, not more to the generosity of Aliquis than to the friendly words with which he accompanies his gift. If he made no other contribution than the able, exhaustive, and admirable papers in which be expounds or defends fundamental principles, the cause of Freethought would be greatly indebted to him. But the so solicitude which he expresses that others should be delivered from the hell of superstition, implies that honourable feeling which elevates Freethought from a negation into a philanthropy.’
We are very much afraid that, even with such mutual endearments as these, the Reasoner is hardly destined to witness the triumph of its principles. Whether it will elevate freethought into a philanthropy may be questionable—at present the chances seem decidedly against its elevating the credit side of its account to a surplus. Its general character and its financial condition are a curious illustration of the base ingratitude with which an indifferent public receives the gratifying intelligence that they are very little better than brute casts—that nothing in this world has any claims upon their reverence, and hardly anything upon their affections—and that, if there is another world, which in all probability there is not, there is no conceivable reason why it should afford any compensation for the degradation and misery of this. It also affords an illustration of the wisdom of tolerating the expression of what used to be called “blasphemous libels." There is not a number of the Reasoner which would not, thirty or forty years ago, have brought Mr. Holyoake before the public, vexing the spirits of the judges, straining the consciences of juries, and tasking the eloquence of the Attorney-General. At present he is far enough from being a martyr, but we should on at, from the poverty of the Ten-shilling list, that he would, in the course of no very longtime, have to divert his energies into some other channel, and leave to more fortunate and more convincing Reasoners the task of "subverting superstition."

Saturday Review, April 5, 1856

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