Thanks for taking the time to do this interview, Liz! Please tell us a bit about your current academic situation.
I am currently doing a part-time PhD in history – I’m about half way done and think I have another two to three years to finish. I’m at Oxford Brookes University (Oxford, UK) in the department of History, Philosophy and Religion (which is fun as I mostly study irreligion!) My supervisor is David Nash. In my day job I work for the Government Digital Service as a content designer.
Could you describe the focus and overall argument of your dissertation?
The overall argument of my dissertation is that there was continued secularist agitation post-1880 in the major social and political movements of the time – liberalism, peace and internationalism, and women’s suffrage. Secularists were also adept at using newly created international institutions to further secularist goals of freedom of thought and belief.
To clarify, what’s the geographical focus of your research? And assuming you pick up the story around 1880, how late do you intend to follow it from there?
I’m focusing solely on the UK movement, looking at various UK secularists and what they were interested in and what they campaigned for or wrote about. My main interest was looking post-1880s because that is where the historiography to a certain extent just stops. I’m going up to about the mid-1930s as I think I could only manage one World War’s worth of historiography.
How does your argument challenge the existing historiography of secularism?
I’m hoping that my PhD will directly challenge some of the long held opinions in the historiography of freethought and secularism. Looking beyond Charles Bradlaugh and the Oaths act, there were a great many active secularists involved in a wide range of activities all throughout the early 20th century. The movement didn’t die, but the way secularists campaigned for change involved less Bible-bashing that the previous century. Perhaps this is why it has been missed. It hasn’t been very hard to find them – the hard bit has been justifying that they’re secularists in the first place. There are some bizarre absences when discussing people’s lack of belief, so I have to go on these long digressions in arguing that they’re secularists before I get to the main thrust of my argument!
That’s very interesting! I encountered the same issue in my project, which covers the interwar period. Some people who called themselves communists or socialists were clearly drawing on the secularist or rationalist traditions, sometimes so heavily that activists who didn’t care about religion got frustrated with them. Is it your sense that the secularist movement gradually diffuses itself into other forms of politics as the century progresses? Or does it somehow retain its own unique identity?
I think secularism and secularists were less iconoclastic than their predecessors in the 19th century and so having a plurality of interests and campaigns were inevitable. However, I think there are those that still clearly identify with a secular movement, either by association or organisation. So they still belong to secular groups, write for secular journals etc. I think it’s more subtle an argument to have to make than just pointing to mass rallies and blasphemy trials. However, there are strong connections among individuals or within certain campaigns that had huge secularist support. I think at some point, it probably changes into it just being a thing, becomes more like one of many pressure groups or maybe is even just taken over by the kind of universalism of human rights that comes post-WW2 (but I’m not researching that far!)
Could you expand more on the specific causes that secularists took up? Why do you think they engaged with those particular issues?
So the bits that I’m mostly looking at, as mentioned, are politics, peace and suffrage. For politics, you see secularist links within the liberal and labour movements post-1900. You see a real concern for the continuation of the state being a provider versus the church. One example is the attitude that the state should provide for the poor rather than charities – one reason for this is because you had to be ‘the worthy poor’ to get help and this involved religion in some way or another.
Another area that I’m starting to write now is internationalism and peace. I think secularists were broadly internationalist rather than pacifists so they didn’t become disillusioned post-WW1. They got involved with the League of Nations, for example (this carries on post-WW2 as well with the UN) to help rebuild and prevent future wars. They were more likely to blame militarism and empire as a reason for WW1 and so wanted to strengthen international institutions to prevent it again.
The last area that I’m going to look at is suffrage. I know from previous research that the secularists were more likely than the average person to be in favour of universal suffrage and votes for women. The women secularist suffragettes were also super radical, which I find quite interesting. I haven’t done much on this yet though!
I think they got involved for a variety of reasons. There was still a lot of fighting for social justice that existed in the previous era. I think for the peace and internationalism, it was to make the world a better place. They were quite idealistic. It’s really quite adorable. I love them all to bits.
You mention the connections with liberal and labour politics; what’s your sense of the relationship between early-twentieth century secularists and the socialist movement? In North America during the same time period unbelief often gets tied up in the popular mind with communism and socialism. In the Canadian setting I found that secularists always had to stake out a position in relation with socialism and particularly with militant Marxism. What is that dynamic like in the UK?
My guys are more interested in liberalism than socialism so I haven’t delved into that aspect a whole lot. What I find fascinating is that Bradlaugh was so anti-socialism while he was around and then when he was gone, the historiography just assumes secularism turned into socialism. But those that I do look into (like Henry Snell) have a very strong secular streak even though they are socialists. I think for the banner of politics, it was very useful to identify as socialist (as liberals, radicals, etc., seemed to be on the wane) but many still were radicals in the sense of being anti-religion or secularist. I think because of the longer ties with chartists and radicals, you don’t get that confusion between socialism/communism as easily in the UK. It’s got longer roots and so was harder to conflate with other isms.
Are there any particular personalities that stand out in your study?
My favourite person is J.A. Hobson, he’s just everywhere. He’s a super fascinating guy and I think he’s having a bit of a renaissance (especially in economic history). I can barely read his hand writing though, oh my god. Worst handwriting.
How did you get interested in this project in the first place?
I was going to do my MA dissertation on something in early modern history but I took a course during my MA on the impact of Darwin. We had one class where we discussed the impact on religion of Darwin’s theories. We covered Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, etc. I asked the seemingly innocent question about what about the impact on atheists. My professor said there were no atheists. So my paper for that course was precisely that. Finding Conway Hall and the Bishopsgate archives were a revelation. As much as I loved the Thirty Years War and early modern military history, here was a chance to actually do some original research.
I ended up doing my MA on Frederick James Gould and from there carried on with more of these post 1880s secularists and their interests and campaigning effort.
You mention Conway Hall. Could you explain what Conway Hall is for readers who may not know? And could you also tell us about your work with it and how it relates to your research?
Conway Hall is a building in Holborn, London owned and run by the Conway Hall Ethical Society. CHES started life as a Unitarian Church and then became the South Place Ethical Society (we changed our name in 2012, as we moved from South Place a long time ago). I guess you could call its position early Humanism. Some of the other ethical societies did end up forming the British Humanist Association.
CHES now is an educational charity with the object of the advancement of study, research and education in humanist ethical principles. I became a trustee and then the chair of the trustees. This mainly came out of my research into my MA; CHES has an amazing archives and library, specifically lots of resources about the history secularism and humanism.
We put on lectures, courses, art exhibitions, dance, music and lots of other thing as well. Lots of this is historical (our concert series is the longest running in the world, I think) but the current trustees are interested in making sure that the society and the hall itself remain a bastion of rational, humanist thought in the centre of London.
It’s a fantastic place and only through my research would I have found it. It’s a lot of work (on top of normal work and my part-time PhD) but I feel knowing the history of the movement, I have a double duty to try and preserve it for everyone else.
Thank you for this fascinating glimpse into that history and the work you do researching and preserving it!
If you have further questions you can contact Liz at elizabeth.lutgendorff-2012[at]brookes.ac.uk.