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the Deism of Thomas Paine and the “Natural Religion” of Theodore Parker, than between the crude “infidelity" of Richard Carlile and the devout Stoicism of Lionel Holdreth. We do not thoroughly appreciate any form of religion till we know what are the classes of minds that reject it, and what sort of principles they accept in preference. And when the rejection of religion is itself tinged with a religious spirit, we may safely predict, not only that the current creed is too narrow for the age, but that a wider and deeper faith is already striking its roots in the hearts of men.
The popularization of Atheism in the working-class mind of England owes its first impulse to the labors of Richard Carlile, the editor of “The Republican.” Untutored, antagonistic, and coarse, but brave, devoted, and sincere, he initiated and sustained a twenty years' struggle for the free publication of the extremest heresies in politics and religion, at the expense of nine years' imprisonment (at different times, ranging from 1817 to 1835) to himself, and frequent incarcerations of his wife, sister, and shopmen. This movement, though vigorous to the point of fanaticism, was not widely supported, and it virtually died out, as a sort of drawn game between the government and the heretics. A somewhat milder revival of it took place in 1840 – 1843, when “ The Oracle of Reason ” was set on foot by a few energetic young Atheists, and several prosecutions took place. It was this movement which first introduced to the public the name of George Jacob Holyoake, who, having served his apprenticeship to propagandism by a sis months' imprisonment, rose in a few years to be the acknowledged leader of the sect. Under his influence, it has not only increased immensely in numbers, but has passed into a far higher stage of character, both moral and intellectual. This is strikingly illustrated in the case of Thomas Pooley, a poor, half-crazed Cornish laborer, who was in 1857 sentenced to a long imprisonment for “blasphemy.” Fifteen years previously, Mr. Holyoake's own imprisonment excited but little notice beyond a small circle, and not one petition was presented to Parliament for his release. But by the time that Pooley's case occurred, the Free-thinking movement was strong enough to reach the sympathies of liberal men in all sects, and thus to effect the reversal of an iniquitous sentence.* This event also illustrates the progress of Free-thought in another direction. The coarse language for which the poor laborer was indictedlanguage only too frequent in the pre-Holyoake era - found no defenders among the Secularists who petitioned for his release, but was unanimously objected to, as degrading to Freethought. And this double change, bringing both parties one step nearer to each other, is, there can be no doubt, mainly owing to the good sense, rectitude, and devotedness of George Jacob Holyoake.
But Mr. Holyoake's influence is not the only one observable in the Atheist party. Like many others, that party now possesses its right, left, and centre. For the improvement which took its rise from the establishment of “ The Reasoner," in 1846, has gradually come to tell upon the mixed elements of the Free-thinking party; and in 1855 a sort of reactionary “ split” took place, and the ultra-Atheistic Secularists set up a rival journal, “The Investigator,” for the avowed purpose of returning to the old traditions of hatred and ridicule, in opposition to Mr. Holyoake's more catholic and fraternal policy. The utterly shameless spirit in which the Investigator habitually treats of the human side of religion is quite sufficient to stamp its incapacity for touching what pertains to the Divine ; and its malignant and calumnious enmity towards Mr. Holyoake is a sufficient indication of the divergence between his advocacy and that of “ Old Infidelity,” as it is expressively termed. Counting this reactionary party as the lowest development of English Atheism, we next come to the party of the centre, namely, that party which is represented by Mr. Holyoake. This is much the largest of the three. Its idea may be stated in Mr. Holyoake’s words,—“that the light of duty may be seen, that a life of usefulness may be led, and the highest desert may be won, though the origin of all things be hidden from us, and the revelations of every religious sect be rejected;” †
* Pooley was sentenced to twenty-one months’ imprisonment. He was pardoned at the end of five months, most of which was spent in the county lunatic asylum, to which it soon became necessary to remove him. He was so judiciously treated there, however, that on the receipt of his pardon he was restored to his family. † Cowper-Street Discussion, p. 221.
in short, that Life, Nature, and Morals are self-sufficient, and independent of religion. Beyond this aspect of Atheism is yet another, numbering at present no definitely attached adherents besides its enthusiastic propounder, but evidently received with pleasure by many listeners during the last three years. This new Gospel owns to the paradoxical title of Religious Atheism, and is put forth by Mr. Lionel Holdreth, the most cultivated and coherent thinker of whom the Atheist party can boast. He does not, in fact, belong to the working-classes either by birth or education, although his sympathies with them are of the warmest. A little volume of poems, entitled “ Shadows of the Past,” is the only separate volume he has published; and all his other communications to the Free-thinking public have been made through the columns of the Rea
The reactionary “infidels” hate religion : Mr. Holyoake wishes to be neutral to it: Mr. Holdreth desires to reincarnate it in another form. Such are the three phases of the organized Atheistic party in England, — the central body
, shading off into the two others at either extremity. Passing by the first section, as presenting mere hollow word-controversy, untinged by any real passion for Truth, we propose to examine the second and third sections at some length.
The disintegrated state of Theology in the present day has given rise to the necessity for preaching the Gospel of Free Utterance, wholly distinct from any decision as to what is to be uttered. To preach this Gospel has been, in the main, Mr. Holyoake's vocation. But now that the right to speak has been so largely won, the question arises, “ What have you to say?” and the metaphysical and spiritual bearings of the subject come into prominence. To this question Mr. Holyoake has endeavored to give some coherent reply in his recent work, “ The Trial of Theism,” in which he has reprinted and revised the chief papers on theological subjects which he had written during the previous ten years, with other matter here first published. It is a singular book; utterly destitute of anything like systematic thought, and scarcely less deficient in any arrangement of its materials; painfully unequal, both in substance and tone. Frequently we come upon noble, earnest, manly writing, which indicates real intellectual power, and
fine perception; then comes some passage so puerile, so weak, so indiscriminating, as to cause quite a revulsion of feeling in the reader's mind. What makes this frequently-recurring contrast more singular is, that those chapters which are reprints of former papers are mostly revised with minute care, the alterations often indicating delicate discrimination and real expansion of mind. (Chap. 27, which is a reprint of “ The Logic of Death,” is an instance of this.) Yet the entirely new mat
. ter is often of quite inferior quality, both in thought and expression. It would seem inexplicable how a writer who could give us the better portions of this book could endure to put forth some other parts of it, were not this inequality a phenomenon of such frequent recurrence in literature as to be one of its standing anomalies. Intellectual harmony is almost as rare as moral consistency, and men of even the finest genius too often cultivate one side of their nature to the positive neglect of others. The prominent side of Mr. Holyoake's nature is the moral and practical. He belongs to the concrete world of men, rather than to the abstract world of ideas. The best parts of his book are the delineations of character, some of which are very felicitous. Chapter 14, on Mr. Francis Newman, and Chapter 29, on “Unitarian Theism,” give the highwater mark of his religious character-sketches. A man who could thus appreciate the leading ideas of his opponents might (one would think) do great things in theological reform. But note the limiting condition of his power ! — he can appreciate these ideas when incarnated in another human mind, but it is mainly through his human sympathies that he does so. Neither the religious instincts nor the speculative intuitions are sufficiently magnetic and passionate in his own nature to force their way to an independent creative existence. Whenever he turns to the region of abstract thought, his power seems to depart from him. And this book, which deals almost exclusively with speculative themes, is a marked illustration of it. It manifests all the weaknesses, and but very little of the best strength, of his mind. Thus it affords no clew to the real benefits which, in spite of grave errors, his movement has produced for many among the working-classes; while it shows plainly the barriers which must ever limit any movement, however sincere, which excludes religion from the field of human life.
We ought not, however, to quit this point without quoting the author's apology for some of the imperfections of his work.
“ If anything written on the following pages give any Theist the impression that his views, devoutly held, are treated with dogmatism or contempt, the writer retracts the offending phrases. Theological opinion is now so diversified, that he has long insisted on the propriety of classifying, in controversy, the schools of thought, and identifying the particular type of each person, so that any remarks applied to him alone shall not be found at large reflecting upon those to whom they were never intended to apply. If just cause of offence is found in this book, it will be through some inadvertent neglect of this rule.
“The doctrine is quite just that crude or incomplete works ought to be withheld from publication; and the author reluctantly prints so much as is here presented. If this book be regarded, as it might with some truth, as a species of despatch from the field of battle, the reader will tolerate the absence of art and arrangement in it. The plan contemplated — that of taking the authors on the side of Theism who represented chronological phases of thought — required more time than the writer could command. From these pages, as they stand, some unfamiliar with the present state of Theistical discussion may obtain partial direction in untrodden paths. Hope of leisure in which to complete anything systematic has long delayed the appearance of this book, after the writer had seen that many might be served even by so slender a performance. At length he confesses, in a literary sense (if he may so use words which bear a spiritual meaning),
• Time was he shrank from what was right,
From fear of what was wrong:
Because the foe was strong.
And sorer shame aside ;
Such aim at Heaven was pride.' – Lyra Apostolica.”
* Preface to “ The Trial of Theism."