All posts by Nathan G. Alexander

ISHASH Member interview: Nathan Alexander

In the sixth installment in our series of interviews with ISHASH members, Anton Jansson interviews Dr. Nathan Alexander, who is coming out with a book on atheism and race from 1850 to 1914.


Hello Nathan, and congratulations on your forthcoming book! First of all, would you like to introduce yourself briefly, including your current academic position?

Thanks, Anton! I’m originally from Canada. I did my BA and MA there, before moving on to do my PhD in Modern History at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. My PhD thesis formed the basis for my current book. Right now, I am a postdoctoral fellow at the Max Weber Centre for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies at the University of Erfurt, in Germany.

Your book is called Race in a Godless World: Atheism, Race, and Civilization, 1850-1914. I am interested in how this book came into being. How did you decide to write this book, and how did you become interested in the topic of atheism and race?

I got interested in the history of racial thought when I was studying for my master’s. Initially I was going to focus on African history, but shifted from this slightly and ended up writing about British views of the Asante Empire (in present-day Ghana in West Africa) in the nineteenth century. While finishing up my master’s, I realized that religion intersected in many ways with the history of race and racism, for example, in debates between monogenesis (the idea of a single origin for all humanity in Adam and Eve) and polygenesis (the idea that each human race had its own separate origin), or in debates about evolution, or in Christian justifications for slavery or imperial conquest. There had been some scholarship about the links between Christianity and racial thought – particularly Colin Kidd’s The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600-2000 – but there had not been anything about what nonreligious people thought about race, so this is what I decided to do my PhD about. (Obviously this process seems more straightforward in hindsight!)

And so you did. Your aim of this study – as the title suggests – is to investigate how ideas about race, atheism and civilization were interconnected within the freethought or atheist movement during its peak on both sides of the Atlantic. What were your main findings? Ambivalence seems to have been a key word?

Yep, ambivalence is key. On the one hand, white atheists and other nonreligious people seemed to accept the idea that whites were on top of the racial and civilizational hierarchy. In this, they were in line with other white people in Britain and the United States.

On the other hand, though, these same atheists were often marginalized within their own societies, due to their lack of religion, but also their class (since many came from the working classes). They were, therefore, outsiders who were discontented with their Christian-dominated societies. This outsider perspective, combined with the same skepticism that led them to give up religion, caused them to question racial and civilization superiority in ways that were extremely radical for their times.

So, while you also acknowledge the darker sides, you seem to suggest that the atheist movement is somewhat more progressive than their contemporaries in questions regarding race?

Yes, I think that’s right in general. This is not to suggest that atheists had a monopoly on subversive views about race and civilization, but I do think on the whole their views were far outside the mainstream, and that these kinds of subversive views were found disproportionately among atheists and other non-believers. This is because of a general skeptical mindset among atheists, but also the experience of marginalization made them more likely to question things that others took as obvious (like racial superiority).

Could you give one specific example of how these questions played out? Darwinism, for instance, must have been an important strand of thought here?

One example is the way in which white atheists portrayed so-called “savage” societies as, in many ways, superior to western ones. These societies seemed to be more egalitarian and more moral than their western counterparts, without the need for religion. For example, one author, Emily G. Taylor, quoted in the Truth Seeker newspaper in 1895, discussed the so-called Hottentots of South Africa. She wrote that “in the excellence of their morals,” they “surpassed all nations of the earth,” despite (or because of) their lack of religion. Likewise, their society was much more egalitarian than that of the West: “Peace and prosperity reigned; no wealthy class was supported in idleness by the toiling poor; no dens of infamy, no saloons, and – no churches.”

The issue of Darwinism is complicated. On the one hand, there is no doubt people could and did draw upon ideas of evolution and “survival of the fittest” to suggest that certain races were less evolved or less fit than others. On the other hand, though, we also see examples of atheists suggesting that Darwinian evolution refuted racist conceptions of humanity. One atheist author, James F. Morton Jr., in his 1906 book, The Curse of Race Prejudice, said that the true lesson of Darwinian evolution was “that the human race is one in all essential characteristics” and that talk of superior and inferior races therefore made no sense. Morton even thought that in the future, people would have difficulty believing that people in the past accepted racism, particularly in light of Darwinian science: “‘What!’ we may suppose them to say, ‘Did these crude notions prevail in an age when Darwin’s epoch-making scientific achievements had made the common origin of the human race a matter of schoolboy knowledge?’”

That’s very interesting. Earlier, you mentioned “white atheists”, and it seems that most of the people in the movement and in the journals you have investigated were white. Is that a correct observation? What was the status of black freethought at the time? And what role do black freethinkers play in your book?

Yes, that’s right. My main focus is on white atheists and freethinkers, since these made up the majority within freethought organizations, though I do discuss black and other non-white freethinkers briefly. Black freethinkers were often few and far between in the nineteenth century, but their numbers begin to increase towards the end of the century. Examples include the famous sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois, who was not involved in the freethought movement, and the socialist activist Hubert Harrison, who was. The full story of black freethought is to be found in Christopher Cameron’s book, Black Freethinker: A History of African American Secularism, which comes out this September. I was fortunate to read an early version of that book and I can highly recommend it.

In your book, you study both Britain and the United States. Why did you decide to include both? Is it, so to speak, one movement existing on both sides of the Atlantic? Because I imagine some aspects must differ, not least when it comes to race. What were the main similarities and differences of atheism between the two contexts during the era you have studied, according to you?

It’s a good question. I think there was a great deal of coherence to the movements on both sides of the Atlantic, such that it made sense to consider them in the same framework. Of course, it is true that the political and social context differed for each country, and this coloured the goals and composition of each movement. But there was a great deal of overlap intellectually. Similar themes are present in each, in terms of their critiques of religion and their support for science and reason, and it is clear that atheists in both countries read the work of their cousins on the opposite side of the Atlantic. Likewise, most of the leading figures in either country made speaking tours in the opposite country at some point in their lives. Some even spent significant periods of their lives in both countries, like Thomas Paine, Robert Owen, and Moncure Conway.

The book is not an explicit comparison between Britain and the US, but clearly there were contextual differences which shaped the way they thought about race. For the US, of course, the presence of millions of black people in the country was a context not shared by Britain. This made race much more of a concrete issue to white atheists in the US and they grappled with the legacy of slavery and the place of newly emancipated blacks within their society. Those in Britain watched the developments of the Civil War and its aftermath with interest, but this was always more of an abstract issue to them, though of course Britain also dealt with the legacy of slavery in their Caribbean colonies. Empire was another difference between the two countries. Britain possessed a wide-reaching empire in the nineteenth century. Questions of imperial conduct in India, Africa, and Australasia were hugely important and more pressing to British atheists than American ones. By the end of the century, Americans began to build up an overseas empire, particularly in the Pacific and the Caribbean, but this never came close to rivaling the extent of the British empire.

Another thing I thought about was your disciplinary home. You are an intellectual historian, educated at St Andrews, which has one of the leading centres of intellectual history in the world right now. What would you say that intellectual history brings to the study of atheism, and what is the advantage of an intellectual-historical perspective in comparison with, say, political or social history, or a more non-historical sociological study of atheism?

This is a really great (and challenging) question. I think, in large part, one’s topic will determine one’s methods. I don’t think there is a single, correct approach one should take to studying atheism, but I do think approaching the history of atheism from an intellectual history perspective can be valuable. Very tentatively, I would suggest perhaps that atheism is itself an intellectual phenomenon, at least for much of its history. By this I mean that one could be a Christian (or whatever the dominant religion of the time and place was) and not necessarily have given this position a great deal of thought. For atheists, at least for much of history, this was not the case, since they needed to consciously throw off the religion with which they were raised. This perhaps makes atheism almost inherently intellectual. This will then require a study of the various ideas around them and their own intellectual journey. (Of course, it is more and more true that as secularization continues, people will grow up without religion and will never have to consciously think about it.)

Another point is that intellectual history, at least as I understand it, forces you to study the world of ideas from the perspective of one’s subjects. Intellectual history cautions against projecting our own present-day notions backward into the past and assuming they would make sense or be important for the people there. One therefore needs to closely read sources from the time to attempt to understand their intellectual context. Likewise, again, as I understand the best kind of intellectual history, one cannot look at a handful of works by towering figures and then construct a history based on those cases. Rather, one needs to look at a broad section of thinkers to begin to understand the story.

Finally, I would say that intellectual history pays attention to the language historical actors use. For example, what did people mean by “atheism” in the past? What did people intend to do by describing themselves and others as “atheists”? These are not straightforward questions as historians, especially of the early modern period, have discovered. These terms themselves have histories and historians cannot take their meanings for granted.

Actually, if it’s permitted to turn the question around on you, what are your thoughts?

It is permitted, but I don’t want to take over your interview! However, I think you make a couple of good points. As you say, and I would stress that especially during the end of the 19th century, the freethought movement was very tied to ideas connected to central figures in intellectual history. Making sense of this movement must entail a sorting out of how freethinkers tried to overcome and challenge religion, which they did by seeking alternatives in the philosophers and scientists of their time, and of the philosophical canon. As you say, I also think that the intellectual (and conceptual) history perspective provides a nuanced way of studying past discourses, which is necessary to fully understand the history of atheism, secularism, etc. in its manifoldness. But I very much appreciate when this is tied to social, religious, and political history. All these sides are important.

Then, turning it around, I also think that the study of atheism is important for the field of intellectual history. If you look at the history of ideas, a persistent and totally central question for thinkers up until the 20th century has always been the existence of God, what and how God is, and how this relates to human affairs. The explicit negation of God is a very important shift in this history, and therefore needs to be explicitly studied. So all in all, intellectual history and atheism is a good pairing.

And after having stolen space from your interview, I guess I could conclude by saying that your book confirms the constructiveness of this pairing. And I recommend everyone to check it out when it comes out in September!

Thanks, Anton!!

Nathan Alexander’s book Race in a Godless World: Atheism, Race, and Civilization, 1850-1914 is out this September through Manchester University Press and NYU Press, and available for pre-order now. If you have any further questions, you are welcome to contact Nathan at nathan.g.alexander50[at]


Special Issue of Secularism and Nonreligion

Call for Submissions: Special ISHASH Issue of Secularism and Nonreligion

Dear Colleagues,

At our conference in June, attendees agreed that the next logical step in the development of the International Society for Historians of Atheism, Secularism, and Humanism was to pursue a publication. A number of options were considered and mooted. Further exploration of the project has led the directors to agree that our best course of action is to pursue the publication of a history-specific, ISHASH issue of the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network’s journal Secularism and Nonreligion. To that end, we are now accepting article proposal abstracts as a first step in getting our special issue off the ground. While first priority will be given to submissions from participants at the inaugural conference, we welcome contributions from all members of ISHASH and all scholars working on the history of atheism, secularism, and humanism. The purpose of this initial canvas for proposals is to ensure that we have sufficient material to produce a complete journal issue.

While the thematic focus of the ISHASH issue will be the historical study of atheism, secularism, and humanism, broadly conceived – there are no temporal or geographical boundaries to what we will consider – we encourage contributors to highlight the conceptual, methodological, and explanatory value that historians bring to the academic study of secularism and nonreligion. S&N is a multi-disciplinary journal, so in addition to publicizing the excellent work of ISHASH-affiliated scholars, we want to use this platform to engage non-historians and advertise the value of thinking historically about the process of secularization, the lived experience of nonreligion and secularity, and the development of ethical and theoretical objections to religion.

Please submit proposal abstracts to by November 20, 2016.

2016 Conference

International Society for Historians of Atheism, Secularism, and Humanism

Inaugural Conference: Exploring the State of the Field

4-5 June 2016, Conway Hall, London, UK

To download the program as a PDF: ISHASH Conference Program

For the Call for Papers, see here.

Schedule: Saturday 4 June, 2016

8:45-9:15 – Registration

9:15-9:30 – Welcome

9:30-10:30 – Panel 1: Defining Unbelief

Nickolas Conrad (University of California, Santa Cruz, USA) – “An Argument for ‘Unbelief’”

Atko Remmel (University of Tartu, Estonia)- “On Some Features of ‘Atheism’ in the Soviet Union”

10:30-10:45 – Break

10:45-12:15 – Panel 2: Unbelief in Canada

Lynne Marks (University of Victoria, Canada) – “Racism and Irreligion in British Columbia, 1880-1914”

Elliot Hanowski (University of Winnipeg, Canada) – “Unbelief in Canada, 1920-1940”

Tina Block (Thompson Rivers University, Canada) – “Exploring Journeys to Unbelief in Canada, 1950-1975”

12:15-1:15 – Lunch

1:15-2:15 – Panel 3: Positive Atheism: East and West in the Long 18th Century

Shuhei Fujii (University of Tokyo, Japan) – “Yamagata Bantō: An Atheist in the Edo Period”

Charles Devellennes (University of Kent, UK) – “Radical Atheism: The Political Theory of Atheism in France from Bayle to Diderot”

2:15-2:30 – Break

2:30-3:30 – Panel 4: Atheism and Islam

Umut Azak (Okan University, Turkey) – “Secularism, Islam and the Possibility of Atheism in Turkey”

Rayhana Sultan (University of Warwick, UK/Council of Ex-Muslims Britain) – “Free Speech and Humanism in Bangladesh”

3:30-3:45 – Break

3:45-5:00 – Keynote speech

David Nash (Oxford Brookes University, UK) – “Secularist History: Past Perspectives and Future Prospects”

Schedule: Sunday 5 June, 2016

9:30-11:00 – Panel 1: Intellectual History Approaches

Sampsa Andrei Saarinen (University of Vienna, Austria) – “Intellectual Secularization and the History of Emotions”

Anton Jansson (University of Gothenburg, Sweden) – “‘A Swedish Voltaire’: The Interpretation of Ingemar Hedenius, 20th-century Atheist”

Patrick Corbeil (Queen’s University, Canada) – “Imagining a Secular World: Secularization and the Global Conceptions of Secularism”

11:00-11:15 – Break

11:15-12:45 – Panel 2: Race, Gender, and Unbelief

Edward Royle (University of York, UK) – “Secularism – White, Male and Working Class?”

Suvi Karila (University of Turku, Finland) – “‘Female skepticism is social poison’ – Interplay of Gender and Atheism in the Nineteenth-Century United States”

Nathan Alexander (University of St Andrews, UK) – “Atheism, Race, and the Uses of Polygenesis”

12:45-1:45 – Lunch

1:45-3:15 – Panel 3: Religious Change in the West

Callum Brown (University of Glasgow, UK) – “The Humanist Condition: How the West was Re-Moralised for Atheism”

Matt Sheard (Oxford Brookes University, UK) – “The Academy, Politics and the Secularisation Debate”

Liz Lutgendorff (Oxford Brookes University, UK) – “Agents of Secularisation in the 20th Century”

3:15-3:30 – Break

 3:30-5:00 – Roundtable Group Discussion

The Future of the History of Atheism, Secularism, and Humanism, and the Future of ISHASH

We are grateful for the financial support of the following organizations:


2016 Conference Call for Papers

Call for papers:
International Society for Historians of Atheism, Secularism, and Humanism
Inaugural Conference:
Exploring the State of the Field
Date: 4-5 June 2016

Interest in the history of atheism, secularism, and humanism has taken off in the past decade. Previously, only a handful of academics dealt with the history of unbelief in any systematic way, but in recent years this has begun to change. Dynamic studies of this history now cover a range of national, international, and temporal contexts from a variety of different subdisciplinary perspectives. The International Society for Historians of Atheism, Secularism, and Humanism (ISHASH) was formed in late 2014 to take advantage of this interest by providing a forum for the growing number of diverse scholars working in this field to network and collaborate.

We are therefore pleased to announce the inaugural ISHASH conference, taking place on 4-5 June 2016 at Conway Hall in London. The aim of this conference is to bring together scholars who study the history of atheism, secularism, and humanism to discuss the current state of research in this field.

We invite abstract proposals of approximately 250 words for 20-minute presentations that address such questions as, but not limited to:

• Which aspects of the history of atheism, secularism, and humanism are the most pressing areas of study?
• Can we discuss this history across cultures and periods?
• What would a global history of atheism look like?
• Which subdisciplines of history are best equipped to studying this field?
• How can categories of analysis like gender, race, or class be useful in studying this history?
• What is the ideological content of atheism, secularism, or humanism?
• Is the history of atheism, secularism, and humanism a coherent field at all?

We hope to provide travel bursaries to those postgraduates and early career researchers traveling from overseas. The bursaries will be for travel only, with any accommodation to be covered by the participants. Tea and coffee will be available throughout the day and a light lunch will be provided both days.

Please email the following by 31 January 2016 if you are interested in participating:

• 250-word abstract
• a short CV
• if you would like to be considered for a travel bursary


Nathan Alexander (University of St Andrews, UK)
Patrick Corbeil (Queen’s University, Canada),
Elliot Hanowski (University of Winnipeg, Canada),
Liz Lutgendorff (Oxford Brookes University, UK)



ISHASH member interview: Suvi Karila

 In the fourth of our series of interviews with ISHASH members, Nathan Alexander interviews Suvi Karila.


Thanks for doing this interview, Suvi. 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 summary of your current research project?

I’m a second year PhD candidate at the Department of Cultural History, University of Turku, Finland. I work under the supervision of the department’s professors Marjo Kaartinen and Hannu Salmi and senior lecturer Tiina Mahlamäki from the Department of Comparative Religion. In my PhD dissertation I focus on the intersection of gender and non-religion: I study the “lived non-religion” of unbeliever women in the 19th century United States. Currently, I’m working with archival material as a Visiting Fulbright Fellow at the History Department of Harvard University.

 Which women are you looking at? What do you mean by “lived non-religion”?

The women I focus on are Ernestine L. Rose (1810-1892), Lucy N. Colman (1817-1906), Elmina D. Slenker (1827–1908) and Voltairine de Cleyre (1866-1912). The reason I chose these four women in particular is that I wanted to look at people with different backgrounds. They all abandoned religion at different stages of their lives and they all had very different religious upbringings, ranging from experiences in a Catholic convent to a Jewish ghetto. I’m interested in looking at the ways in which these differences play out in their practices and understandings of unbelief. Of course, one important factor was also to find women who actually have left enough source material, which luckily these women did as they all wrote quite a bit about not only their “infidelism,” but a variety of topics from abolitionism to anarchism.

What I mean by “lived non-religion” is that I want to look at non-religion as a comprehensive, lived experience that can affect one’s life on many levels. Thus we can’t fully understand the history (or the present for that matter) of non-religion by only viewing it on a communal level, or only by focusing on the history of theology and philosophy. That’s why I want to bring these individuals and their experiences to the front, and look at how it actually felt to be a non-religious woman in this context, how their unbelief developed and what it consisted of. Also, I find the term “non-religion” practical when studying the experiences of these women since they describe their own conviction with a variety of terms ranging from “infidel” and “atheist” to “skeptic,” “unbeliever” and “freethinker.” Non-religion seems to work as a good starting point, umbrella term, to describe the object of study.

Could you give a short biography of each woman?

Ernestine L. Rose rebelled against her rabbi father already in her childhood, spent in an eastern European Jewish ghetto in 1810s and 1820s. She left her home at the age of 17, when she had already declared herself an atheist, and traveled across Europe. In England she became involved with the utopian socialist movement of Owenites, among whom she met her husband. With a group of Owenites, they traveled to the United States in 1836. She became one of the very first explicitly spoken atheist women in the antebellum United States. During the thirty-three years she spent in the country, she was an active lecturer in several of the era’s reform movements, including the nascent women’s rights movement. After moving back to England in 1869, she continued to attend the activities of these transatlantic movements in her new homeland, where she died in 1892.

Lucy N. Colman spent her childhood in the 1830s New England. Her religious upbringing coincided the Protestant revival of religion sweeping the area. However, the Presbyterian and Methodist teachings did not convince her. As she grew up, she found her faith with the Universalists. At the age of 18, she married another Universalist, but was widowed only six years later. Her second marriage tragically also ended in the husband’s early death, but the marriage left her a daughter. Facing single parenthood at the age of 37, Colman continued her career as a school teacher. This work put her face to face with the reality of segregation of white and black children in the educational system. She made her best to overrule the segregation and also began to get more actively involved with the abolitionist movement. At this point she was no longer a Universalist, but a Spiritualist. After the early death of her daughter, she chose not to have a religious funeral service and also gave up on Spiritualism. In addition to her work for the emancipation of the slaves, she now directed her efforts for the cause of freethought, which she continued until her death in 1906.

Elmina D. Slenker, born in 1827, was exposed early to freethinking ideas as her father, a radical Quaker preacher, turned the family’s home into a salon, dedicated to discussion of issues such as freethought and abolitionism. According to herself, she officially became an unbeliever after her mother had asked her to read the Bible in exchange of one dollar. From a teenager until her death she was one of the most devoted writers for freethought. Her wide-ranging contributions include editing her own paper, Little Freethinker, dedicated to freethinker children. However, she is most often remembered of her jail sentence in 1887. Slenker, who was not afraid to write about controversial topics such as free love, was accused of spreading promiscuous material in letters. Slenker died in 1908.

In 1866, in Michigan, Voltairine de Cleyre was born to a freethinker father and was named after the famous Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire. However, she was sent to a Catholic convent for formal education. Her experiences in the convent were marked by the feeling of isolation, fear of death and beyond. This all resulted in her becoming a full-blown freethinker and atheist before her 20th birthday, and at a later stage in her life, one of the important figures of the anarchist movement in the United States. Before her early death at the age of 45 in 1912, she had traveled across the country speaking and writing not only essays, but also novels and poems, about the subjects of social justice, women’s rights and mental freedom. She never married, but had one child.

What they all had in common was the urgent need to do what they considered to be right, even if it caused them a lot of pain. They did this in different ways, but for all of them, their non-religion was at the very core of their understanding of themselves and the driving force behind their moral views.

It seems like nineteenth-century freethinkers in the US were a fairly tight-knit community since their numbers were quite small, so I wonder if these four women knew/corresponded with each other?

Yes, they knew each other to some extent, but I haven’t found any correspondence. They all were active members in the freethought movement, but in somewhat different stages of its development in the United States. Rose was most active in the movement in the middle of the century, whereas Colman became part of the movement only then. The two met at some of the abolitionist and women’s rights movement events though, and had common friends including Susan B. Anthony and William Lloyd Garrison. There are mentions that Rose visited Slenker’s childhood home as a guest, but I haven’t yet discovered any comments on that from Slenker herself. Finally, de Cleyre was the youngest of the four: she wrote about Rose, Slenker and Colman in a very respectful tone, but yet she was quite different from the three as she represented new, more radical freethought, emerging towards the 20th century.

Presumably these women’s gender and irreligious views doubly marginalized them in American society, but how did their gender influence their role within the freethought movement, which seemed to be dominated by men?

That is a very interesting question. The position of the freethought movement towards women was indeed quite ambivalent. Mostly this was due to freethinkers, like the majority of Americans, considering women as emotional beings to be the naturally more religious gender. This meant two things.

On the one hand, as Evelyn A. Kirkley has pointed out in her book Rational Mothers and Infidel Gentlemen (2000), “the woman question” was central for the mission of the movement. If they managed to release women from the shackles of superstition, priests and preachers would no longer have their most reliable supporters. Also, women were responsible for the important task of giving proper upbringing for the “little freethinkers,” future infidels. On the other hand, some freethinkers doubted if releasing women was actually too difficult a task, at least at the moment. That is why not all freethinkers of the nineteenth century, no matter how radical they were otherwise, supported the voting right for women, which was the major debate of the latter half of the century. This was not limited to men: some women also argued they should not be given the ballot.

What this sort of thinking meant for the women I study is one of the major questions in my dissertation. At the moment I think the freethought movement offered for them rhetorical spaces that no other movement could, but it did not mean their gender had no effect. Especially when a conflict emerged, it seems their gender was used against them. As infidel women were considered by the general public to be an even greater threat than infidel men, women proclaiming unbelief also attracted more negative publicity for the movement – sometimes this was a problem too. Of course, in the case of Ernestine L. Rose it was not only her gender that raised prejudice, but her Jewish background as well. Still, all the women were able to have a voice in the movement and they also aimed to transform some of those prevailing ideas that hindered women’s participation. Whether or not they had success can be debated. What is still true today is that women remain a minority in most non-religious groups in the United States and elsewhere.

You mentioned a number of the radical causes “your women” were involved in (abolition, women’s suffrage, anarchism, and so on), and I wonder how (or if) their irreligious views informed their other political views?

I think it’s really difficult to distinguish their irreligious views from their political views. Considering that in this context, being an openly irreligious woman was a very bold decision to make as it labeled a person an immoral monster, it’s not really surprising that for these women it was a very defining component of their identity and political activity. Every time they spoke for things like women’s suffrage and abolition, in some sense they had to also speak for irreligion. In their argumentation, the women relied strongly on the view that religion was harmful, especially for women, and moreover, religious conviction was morally inferior to irreligious one, which was proven by religious argumentation for things like slavery. When the women wrote about their deconversion, they highlighted the moral conflict they perceived to exist with what they felt was right, just and morally correct, and what they were told God had ordered or demanded. The way the women saw it, their work for the rights of slaves and women stemmed from this realization.

There’s been a few works on the relationship between atheism/irreligion and gender in the 19th century (Infidel Feminisms and Rational Mothers and Infidel Gentlemen are two that spring to mind). How does your work fit with this literature? Does your work provide further support for their conclusions or does it offer new interpretations?

Of course, I’m still at a relatively early stage of my dissertation, so we’ll see where I’ll end up. But I think my approach is different: I will focus more on the individuals and their lives and experiences than to the freethought movement and its connections to the women’s rights movement. Hopefully, my work will not only provide further support for previous research, but also give us new perspectives by approaching the theme from a different angle. I also hope to develop the ways in which we can use non-religion as a category of historical analysis.

What can these women’s experience tell us (if anything) about gender and non-religion today?

One of my favorite anecdotes about Ernestine L. Rose is her discussion with Susan B. Anthony, a close friend and fellow women’s rights advocate. Anthony writes in her diary on April 4, 1854, of her questioning Rose’s uncompromising nature, her way of demanding perfect integrity from herself and others when it came to reform issues such as women’s rights and abolitionism. Rose admitted her guilt, saying she couldn’t help herself, though it sometimes caused her a lot of pain. Anthony wanted to offer sympathy for her anguished friend and offered her a copy of a religious hymn for consolation, which made Rose cry for Anthony’s astonishment. When Anthony, not seeing her mistake in trying to comfort her atheist friend with a Christian text, asked whether she had hurt her feelings, Rose responded: “No, but I expect never to be understood while I live.”

Though a lot has changed since 1854, I’m not certain if Rose would be understood by many even today. Unbeliever women of the nineteenth century were a minority within a minority, as are unbeliever women in the 21st century United States. They craved to share their struggles with others in similar situations, and did their best to find women of past and present to identify with. This was very difficult for pioneers like Rose, but as women wrote about each other and their predecessors during the course of the century, they produced a sort of “alternative history” of unbelief, from the point of view of women. Voltairine de Cleyre, for example, wrote highly of all three, Rose, Slenker and Colman.

However, the women’s writings have later been left out of the historical canon, and today the history of non-religion presented to us is dominated by men. This places unbeliever women currently struggling with their identities in some ways very much in the same position as Rose and her contemporaries. That’s one of the reasons why I want to bring forth those forgotten experiences. I believe they can give us some perspective to the development of non-religious identities and the major role gender has played within that development.

Thanks again for this fascinating interview, Suvi.

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.