ISHASH Member Interview: Patrick Corbeil

In the second in our series of interviews with ISHASH members, Nathan Alexander interviews Patrick Corbeil.


Thanks for doing this interview, Patrick. First, could you briefly introduce yourself (where you’re studying, what level you’re at, who your supervisor is, etc.), and could you give a short “elevator pitch” describing your current research project?

Thanks for organizing this, Nathan. I am a fourth-year PhD candidate at Queen’s University at Kingston, Ontario. I am in the Department of History under the supervision of Sandra den Otter and Andrew Jainchill. My committee also includes Jeffrey Collins and Amitava Chowdhury.

The elevator pitch version of my dissertation is that I am looking at the development of Secularism in its imperial and global contexts. My time period extends from roughly 1840 to 1880. My project advances in two fronts. In the first instance, this concerns how ideas derived from the imperial encounter shapes the development of secularist ideas of secularity, modernity, and progress. In particular, I am looking at the uses of comparative religion. In the second part, I turn my attention to how secularists addressed issues related to empire and the globalizing universalism of the civilizing project. Central to this part of the project is their critique of Christian (particularly Protestant but also Catholic) missionaries, and the relationship between Christianity and the colonial state.

What do you mean by secularism and which figures are you including under that label?

For the sake of my project, I’m using Secularism in the fairly narrow sense of the movement which first emerged as independent freethought in the 1840s and adopted the name of Secularism via G.J. Holyoake in the early 1850s. My period runs up to about the time of the split between the National Secular Society and the British Secular Union.

Within this focus on the movement, my source base is rooted in the movement’s periodical press and the relevant published pamphlets and debates. I am particularly interested in the Oracle of Reason, The Reasoner, and The National Reformer. This means that, while much of my material comes from key leading figures like Holyoake, Charles Southwell, Charles Bradlaugh, Annie Besant, Charles Watts, William Chilton, and others, I also have access to letters submitted to the papers by more marginal and often anonymous figures.

I am also working to situate the ideas and arguments in the secularist press within the broader freethinking and radical context of the period, so my project encompasses figures like John Stuart Mill, Harriet Martineau, George Henry Lewes, George Elliot, Leslie Stephen, Richard Congreve, Frederic Harrison, Edward Beesly, etc. but the central focus, for reasons of coherence and practicality, remains on the secularist movement.

Before we get into more of the substance of your research, I am wondering how you got onto this topic?

In some respects I stumbled into it. My MA project at the University of Victoria concerned atheism in the philosophy of Bernard Mandeville (1670-1733). There wasn’t anything that immediately grabbed my attention for a PhD project in that field but I still wanted to work on issues related to unbelief, secularism, and secularization. At the same time, I’ve long had an interest in issues surrounding empire, modernity, and the complex interrelationship between the two. As I read into the historiography of Victorian Secularism and freethought, it seemed like there was plenty which could be written regarding the connections between Secularism (as one ideal of Western modernity) and imperialism, colonialism, and globalization. This, of course, condenses a fairly lengthy process of floundering in unfamiliar material and the arcane mysticism of my first major archival research trip into a tidy paragraph, but it gets to the heart of the story.

For my next question I will return to your “elevator pitch” and ask you how secularists used (or abused) comparative religion for their own ends? And on that point how accurate (if it’s possible to say this) were secularists’ understandings of non-Christian religions?

This is a really good question. The answer is complicated so if my response is confusing please let me know and I can do my best to clarify. First off, the whole comparative religion angle has been very entertaining. There are some real howlers. My particular favourite is an article which asserts the kinship of Catholicism and Tibetan Buddhism by virtue of their startlingly similar hats. That said, I’m not sure I would say they ever “abused” religious comparison. At least, not in the sense that they misrepresented the facts (such as they understood them). All of the writers certainly had an agenda, so their interpretations were skewed in favour of forwarding that agenda, but it seems to me that they never leaped from pushing their agenda as an editorial line to distorting data to suit their interpretation. Michael Rectenwald has an article (Rectenwald, Michael. “Secularism and the cultures of nineteenth-century scientific naturalism.” The British Journal for the History of Science. 46.2 (June 2013): 231-254) which makes the case for Secularism as a science popularization movement. I think their use of comparative linguistics, anthropology, and comparative religion fits within this same interpretation. From this perspective, they’re rather ideologically obligated to present the data as accurately as possible. There was a certain naive rationalism among some of the secularists. There is a sense that, if they can just disseminate enough scientific knowledge about the world, then superstition will necessarily wither away. This faith possibly stems from the fact that many of them were autodidacts with limited formal education. Regardless, there seems to be a heavy emphasis on presenting facts (often derived from orthodox Christian scholars, by the way) and then offering interpretations.

As for getting things right or wrong, that’s hard to say. Like I mentioned above, there are some really very amusing interpretations which crop up. However, the secularists couldn’t be any better than the scholarship and literature they drew from, and there are all sorts of conceptual and interpretive issues which surround comparative religion (both then and now). Many contemporary scholars have done good work unpacking how European/Western readings of non-Christian traditions advance from a number of conceptual preconceptions (the importance of holy texts, etc.) which fundamentally structure the way “religions” as both a category and as discrete cultural phenomena are interpreted. The secularists were by no means immune to any of this. Now, in terms of the relative quality of secularist uses of knowledge about other religions compared to others from the same period, that’s a different question. I’ve not become an expert on the whole of 18th- and 19th-century comparative religion (much as I would like to), but I have tried to read some of the more important or well known texts. The early freethinkers in the 1840s cite heavily from 18th-century Orientalists like Sir William Jones and Thomas Maurice. I’d say the freethinking attacks on Christian orthodoxy involve no greater distortions of fact than either Jones’s or Maurice’ s defences. However, compared to mid-century figures like F.D. Maurice (who took up the world’s religions in his Boyle lectures) or Thomas Carlyle (in On Heroes and Hero Worship), I’d say the secularists conduct rather less sophisticated readings. Given the intellectual acumen of both Carlyle and Maurice, I’d hardly say that’s damning to the secularists.

On the topic of bizarre comparisons, another one I have seen is a description of Wahhabism as Islam’s version of Unitarianism, a view that would hardly be accepted today. I’ve found that atheists, secularists, etc. were actually pretty favourable to Islam since, for one thing, it wasn’t Christianity, and it was seen to be a slightly more rational version of Christianity since it dispensed with the idea of the Trinity. My impression is generally that freethinkers and secularists were favourable to any religion that wasn’t Christianity, even though they thought for the most part all religions were false. Would you agree with my impression and do you think there were some religions they found more agreeable than others and if so why?

Many secularists, looked to Islam as a more rational religion. There’s a lengthy article series in the National Reformer from 1868 about Islam in universal history which makes the case for a) Wahhabi Islam as the Islamic equivalent of Unitarianism, and b) that Muslims were more likely to become secularists than Christians. This was not, I think, altogether unique in the period (See Peter Fox “Mohammedanism, Its Place in Universal History,” The National Reformer vol.12 (Sept. 20-Nov. 29, 1868)). Some Unitarians seem to have held a similar view of the compatibility of Islam and Unitarianism. For example, one of Harriet Martineau’s three prize essays which she wrote, I believe, for the Monthly Repository was “addressed to the disciples of Mohammed” and was titled The Faith as Unfolded by Many Prophets (2nd ed. 1833).

Getting at some of the rationale behind secularist comparisons, I think there are several things going on. First, and this applies especially for when they look at Hinduism and ancient Egyptian mythology, there’s a distinct effort to render Christianity as a historically subordinate offshoot of earlier paganisms. The purpose was to upend claims to divine revelation. I argue that this was a process of trying to sink Christianity into a morass of world religions. A second procedure, and this is less common and applies primarily to issues around Judaism is the effort to make Christianity “strange” or foreign. This is something that was going on in Biblical criticism of the time and the secularists pick up on it as a ideological tool (See Jonathan Sheehan, Enlightenment Bible). This helps explain things like Southwell’s crass “Jew Book” article (Oracle of Reason no.4). Third, the secularists looked to other traditions to find common moral conceptions. This allowed them to claim that all existing practical morality, by virtue of its universality, was already secular (read: natural) and thus religion was unnecessary. Finally, they liked making Christianity seem inherently irrational because they were very much committed to an Enlightenment-style vision of the primacy of reason.

How do the secularists’ views of non-Christian religions influence their views on imperialism?

It’s been a tough one for me because it is precisely the problem I’m tackling in my project right now and I don’t have a satisfactory answer yet. I guess at the moment I would say that to try and parse this you have to try and make a distinction between imperialism and the civilizing mission.

I’ll get to that in a moment. First things first, I need to be clear that I don’t think I’ve seen the word imperialism show up until the latter 1870s. There’s discussions around the shape and structure of the empire, but it’s not until the last third of the century that I see it being discussed as a distinct ideology. Once that discussion begins, the secularists are quickly on board (for the most part from what I’ve seen) with opposition to imperialism.

Before that, there seems to be broad criticism of colonial governance and of imperial endeavours in general but that seems to largely relate to opposition to what the secularists saw as how the colonies were managed rather than to the idea of colonies per se. It seems to me that the key is the idea of a civilizing mission. The way particular non-Christian religions or cultures are represented by the secularists is really structured by the threat secularists see in the negative impact from Christian missionaries. So, with Islam there’s a sense of a more rational religion which will be debased by conversion. In Southern Africa, a sense of primordial rationalism and materialism undermined by Christian supernaturalism, etc. So, in each case, the secularists perceive the missionaries as part and parcel with the colonial state (a point which is very open to debate in the scholarship around missionaries), and therefore see the imperial project as threatening what they see as the civilizing mission proper.

In this sense, the empire can’t be considered as a separate problem from the secular project at home. They are of a piece in a single universal project. In this respect, the secularists are rather like what I’ve read in scholarship about the various groups of evangelical missionaries. There’s an interest in civilizing both at home and abroad. Moreover, they work in a sort of dialogue. Success in the civilizing mission on the home front (growth of secular societies, home missionaries in the Owenite tradition, success in the push for secular education or in the fight over oaths) creates a better secular society for export. On the other hand, the imperial field offers justifications and impetus for that secularization. So, the plurality of religions in the empire becomes part of the argument in favour of secular education and “uncivilized” practices (once duly compared to superstitious practices in Christianity showing that it is no balm to the problem) become a justification for the diffusion of rational, secular governance.

Building on your last point that one can’t separate the secular project in Britain from the secular project in the empire, it seems it’s now common in imperial history to stress that the metropole didn’t simply transmit its influence outward to the colonies, who then passively received it, but rather that there was a lot of intellectual back and forth. So I wonder if you could talk about how travel to various parts of the empire or correspondence with indigenous people influenced the development of secularism in Britain?

The perception of mutual construction is very much part of imperial scholarship these days. Post-colonial scholars have been pushing back against the notion of colonial passivity for decades and the new imperial history (among other scholarly traditions) has been emphasizing the various ways the empire impacted Britain (socially, culturally, intellectually, etc) since the 1990s. So, I have to confess that my conclusion on that front is not terribly novel in terms of a wider tradition of British history. It’s relatively novel for our little sub-field but that speaks more to the absences in the field more than any real failure in scholarship. One of the things that set me off on this course of investigation was the sense of empire’s absence from Prof. Royle’s seminal texts on the secularists. The subject gets a few paragraphs in Radicals, Secularists, and Republicans and that’s about it. I suspect that’s partially a result of an enduring Thompsonian element in that era’s social history which held that empire was a preoccupation of elites rather than the working class. However, I don’t recall Royle ever saying as much so I don’t mean to say that in an accusatory or certain way. More, it’s the nature of scholarship for perspectives to change, and it would hardly be fair to criticize someone writing in the 70s and 80s for a connection that that seems “obvious” in the 2010s.

Getting to the meat of your question, I’m not sure I can quite answer it. I have some opinions but I don’t know if I could support them with enough evidence to present them publicly at the moment. I can tell what we do know. John Stenhouse has his wonderful article (Stenhouse, John. “Imperialism, Atheism, and Race: Charles Southwell, Old Corruption, and the Maori.” Journal of British Studies 44:4 (October 2005): 754-774) about Charles Southwell’s tenure in New Zealand and how his obsessions with Old Corruption linked him with virulent anti-Maori racism and pro-settler politics. In that case, there seems to be a clear line of connection between the secular politics of the metropole and emigration to the colonies. Similarly, Mark Bevir has an article (Mark Bevir, “In Opposition to the Raj: Annie Besant and the Dialectic of Empire,” History of Political Thought 19, no.1 (1998): 61-77) which connects Annie Besant’s early experiences with secularism and socialism as important connective tissue in her turn to support the Indian independence movement (in addition to her theosophy). So, there we have evidence of secularism influencing politics surrounding empire. How emigrants and native colonial subjects influenced secularism in the metropole is a little more difficult to read. There was dialogue of course. Especially with India (and especially with Bengalis). The Reasoner was distributed in Calcutta and Delhi and there were favourable notices of groups like Young Bengal in the secular press. My sense is that the strongest influence this had was on the critique of missionaries and the colonial state we discussed above. The secularists had a well-developed and stereotypical caricature of missionaries which was supplemented by co-opting missionary reports for their own use and reports from native correspondents critical of missionaries and their relationship with the colonial state. The other key line of connection is the element of comparative religion. This is influence one step removed, but we can’t ignore the fundamental importance on colonial subjects in creating that knowledge. For example, the Orientalist scholarship that Southwell, Hetherington, Holyoake, and others aped in order to contest the divinity of Christianity was itself a product of a negotiation between Europeans like Sir William Jones and the pandits and native scholars that helped them translate and interpret that knowledge. The same applies throughout the empire. However much the knowledge the secularists tried to weaponize was filtered through the perspectives and knowledge structures of European reporters (especially missionaries), at the very root of that knowledge tree was a native colonial person and it’s important to remember that, because even when that non-European influence is utterly obscured, it’s still there and it’s still formative.

Gregory Claeys’s recent book, Imperial Sceptics, gives the positivists, the followers of Auguste Comte, a prominent place in the anti-imperialist movement. I wonder how much the secularists’ views of empire were influenced by the positivists, and vice versa?

The Claeys book is quite good. Having it handy has been really helpful in my project. I suspect there is influence there. This is material I’m just wrangling with now and I’ve not come across explicit reference but Holyoake was in some degree of correspondence with Congreve and Harrison, so it’s certainly reasonable to conclude that, especially in the 1860s, the positivists had an impact on what the secularists were up to.

My final question is more of a speculative one: To what extent do you think nineteenth-century secularist ideas have filtered up to our own time, and particularly how have their ideas of empire influenced secularists (and atheists, etc.) today?

Well, there’s the million dollar question, no? This is one where we have to really stretch beyond the immediate evidence available to one project (at least a graduate project). In conversation with Elliot Hanowski and Liz Lutgendorf (whose periods stretch from the end of mine up to WWII) and then following the modern movement, I’d say there is a connection. But it’s a tangled one bound partially in institutional continuation and bound partially in the fact that the implications of empire I’m looking at in the formative years of secularism were bound up with certain imperial and colonizing elements which are intrinsic to the values of modern western secularity. To get to this answer more fully, we’d have to apply the questions we’re asking here to the sort of diffusion project that Liz is conducting. She’s looking at folks like G.W. Foote and J.M. Robertson and tracking what other organizations and movements they got involved in. Indeed, I think if we’re going to come to a better understanding of all the ways the secularism of the 1850s, 60s, and 70s frames the secularism of today, we’ll need a lot of cooperative research asking these very questions in a lot of different places and times. The answer my own research offers is both less and more than that ideal. It is less because I don’t in any way presume to show precisely how essays in The National Reformer about the irrationality of Christianity are used by someone like Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris or the denizens of internet spaces like reddit’s /r/atheism. But it is “more” in the sense that I think my project gets at issues of ideological formation which creates a set of values that are dynamic and adaptable (and thus historical) but are also something which creates a coherent tradition that connects the secularist concerns of the nineteenth century with those of today (for both good and ill).

I think this is a good place to wrap up. You definitely suggest some ways further research can progress in this area and I can’t wait to read the dissertation (and book!) when it’s finished. Thank you again for doing the interview.


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