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Response to Review of Becoming Atheist: Humanism and the Secular West

Russell Blackford has been very generous in devoting such a long review to my book, for which I thank him hugely. He explains my method, analysis and conclusions pretty fairly – and, though he doubts it, his summary of the multiplier role of women’s loss of religion in the 1960s on pages 7–8 is actually spot-on with what I write. The gender analysis of being religious in post-1800 Britain has been my main focus for two decades, and this book marks my turn to the neglected study of the gender analysis of losing religion. In the process, though, I looked also to ethnic and age dimensions of the ways in which the 1960s generation lost faith, and then gave distinctive character to the religious unbelief they developed within themselves. Secularity – like Christianity, Judaism or any religion – is not one dimensional, but a spectrum that is culturally contingent, creating distinctive opportunities, difficulties and familial traumas for the individual atheist and humanist.

Blackford describes so much of my book with insight. The concept of men chaperoning women to church prior to 1960 – as he postulates in other terms – was one I have written about before, and thus when women stopped going, larger numbers of men (and also, inevitably, children) were released from this duty. Likewise, he observes quite correctly that those self-describing as humanists generally have a weak knowledge of humanist and philosophical literature; they learned humanist values, not philosophy, and did so for themselves from within themselves, and, consequent upon that, learned inadvertently that there was a name for their outlook. For most people, humanism is a lived, not a learned, experience. Oral history is the one way that I know of that can expose this, hopefully inciting more research to explain it.

Acknowledging that he is new to oral history, Blackford describes the rationale behind the methodology pretty well. Of course, there is a now a huge literature on oral history theory, and in the book I contextualise the way that I operated within the theory. The era of sampling and representativeness-chasing is largely over; it is the revelation of spectra of experience, of narrative and of cultural contingency that is now the priority. Losing religion and becoming practical atheists and humanists is a deeply personal experience that is rarely to be found in other sources; autobiographies give samples from various elites – scientists, philosophers, and clergy who lost faith (and mostly found it again, to be publicised pour encourager les autres) – but fails to tap the great demographic transition to mass unbelief in the West since the 1960s. In terms of oral history theory, a great deal of emphasis has fallen upon the learning of narratives from public discourse; my work suggests for the 1960s generation that the atheist narrative was so vilified in the era of the Cold War that many had to author their own narratives from scratch. Again, this applied especially to women, and my book exposes the strong links between a ‘lived feminism’ of post-war young women and loss of religion.

It is always interesting to get reviews of social history books from theologians and philosophers, for their conceptual apparatus in research is so different from that of the social and cultural historian. Since Blackford and I come from such different disciplines, we are bound to see the context of popular atheism very differently. His remarks concerning the Enlightenment origin of mass atheism are a little behind the curve of recent social history which stresses the universality of unbelief as part of the human condition. Work from a generation ago has long been overlooked (1) but more recent research – including that by Tim Whitmarsh on ancient Greece and Rome, and John Arnold on Europe in the Middle Ages – demonstrates that unbelief was much more common than has previously been allowed.(2) The supposed ruction between the two ‘Es’ – the Enchantment and the Enlightenment – is in the process of being thoroughly challenged in the long-term narrative of the Western condition, and in this, I would argue, oral history has a special place in exposing the permanent effect that materialism has had in undergirding a secular outlook.(3) By the same token, Blackford refers to the alleged ‘crisis of faith’ in Victorian Britain, and this is an (perhaps unusual) area where the religious historian and atheist historian can agree that it has been distinctly over-rated.(4)

Another, adjacent, issue that separates Blackford’s approach from my own is his attachment to the postulated ‘true atheist’. This is a miasma which the cultural historian does not set out to test for in an experiential study, just as s/he does not judge the ‘true Christian’ (as some religious historians do). Analysis of identity and life narratives demands that we accept self -categorisation as neither ‘true’ nor ‘false’, though the paradoxes of changing qualities and enumerations of these groups is perfectly valid. Truth and falsity present huge analytical and ethical issues for the historian analysing popular religiosity – especially for the oral historian who is rightly obliged by academic ethical regimes to extend respect to respondents still alive. More broadly, the shared conception of theologians and philosophers that thought and learning forms religionists and atheists is probably not the starting point for me or many in the field.

But I wish to finish by agreeing with my reviewer that the 1950s (by which I refer mostly to a ‘long fifties’ of 1945–63) constitute a conundrum. The aura of public and official religious culture was strong, intensified by the Cold War and American evangelisation of many shores, but yet seemingly contested by the sexualisation of the female form on stage and screen. Women were expected to exude moral respectability and sexual allure simultaneously – a point noted by many feminist scholars on both sides of the Atlantic – and gay men were pursued in equal measure by puritan-smitten Home Secretaries and vicious blackmailers. To portray religiosity in the 1950s, as Blackford does, as a mere veneer is perhaps to underrate religion’s power to imprison, disturb and affront both men and women. In Britain, the 1950s was a decade of cultural darkness for many, even in the metropolis where the London County Council enforced a Sabbath shutdown of leisure of all sorts, and the age of rationing from 1940 to 1954 was perpetuated for a decade more in the culture of shortages, domestic austerity and ‘mending and making do’. Meanwhile, in the United States and Canada (then more religious than its southern neighbour), the anti-Communist and pro-domesticity culture invested the evangelical frenzy of Protestant and Catholic churches alike. The shock of the secularising revolution of the 1960s cannot be appreciated in full if we knock the panoply of ways in which religion governed the lives of the people in the decades before. The crumbling of this oppressive moral cosmos in the Western world in the years after 1963, in one of the great cultural shifts of the last millennium, drove many to a practical atheism and humanist morality that has since captured the zeitgeist. It drives my research. Oral history is essential to that task – and quickly, ere that generation dies.

Notes

  1. C. Larner, The Thinking Peasant: Popular and Educated Beliefs in Pre-Industrial Culture (Glasgow, 1982); J. Edwards, 'Religious faith and doubt in late medieval Spain: Sorio c. 1450–1500', Past & Present, 120 (1988), 3–25; A. Murray, Reason and Society in the Middle Ages (Oxford, 1978); Susan Reynolds, ‘Social mentalities and the case of medieval scepticism’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society vol. 1 (1991), 21–41.Back to (1)
  2. Tim Whitmarsh, Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World (New York, NY, 2015); J. Arnold, Belief and Unbelief in Medieval Europe (London, orig. 2005, 2010); J. Arnold, ‘The materiality of unbelief in late medieval England’, in The Unorthodox Imagination in Late Medieval Britain, ed. Sophie Page (Manchester, 2005), 65–95; J. Butler, ‘Disquieted history in a secular age’, in Varieties of Secularism in A Secular Age, ed. M. Warner, J. Vanantwerpen and C. Calhoun (Cambridge, MA, 2010), pp. 193–216; S. Justice, ‘Did the Middle Ages believe in their miracles’, Representations, 103 (2008), 1–29; B. Robbins, ‘Enchantment? No, thank you!’, in The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now, ed. G. Levine (Princeton, NJ, 2011), pp. 74–94.Back to (2)
  3. C. G Brown, ‘The necessity of atheism: making sense of secularisation’, Journal of Religious History, forthcoming December 2017.Back to (3)
  4. T. Larsen, Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in Nineteenth-Century England (Oxford, 2006).Back to (4)