My March to Militant Atheism, and What I Fought on the Way
Author: Nigel Sinnott
(Talk given to the Atheist Society, Melbourne, on 10 November 2009)
In November 2007 Harry Gardner, Gideon Polya, Halina Strnad and I were asked to form a panel to address the Humanist Society of Victoria on the theme of "What Humanism Means to Me". My initial intention was to give a brief account of why I had come to hold the philosophical and social opinions that I did; but I soon realised that the eleven minutes allotted to each speaker made any exposition of why and how almost impossible. So I recast my speech and concentrated on what. The result was probably my best effort, in just over ten minutes, to describe clearly and comprehensively what mattered most to me, and it was published as "The Protest of Freedom, Reason and Scepticism".1
This evening, however, I would like to explain not just what my atheism is protesting about, but how I came to have atheist and related opinions. In other words, I am offering you an apologia pro vita mea, a detailed attempt to explain and justify my opinions in terms of, among other things, life experiences.2
At this stage I think it would be prudent to explain what I mean by militant atheism. First atheism, which, for the purposes of this talk, I will define as not believing in gods and goddesses in general, and in the god of monotheism (God, Jehovah or Yahweh) in particular. Unlike Catherine Deveny, who once described herself as an atheist and a "cultural Catholic"3, I am an atheist and a cultural freethinker, and I have disliked all forms of orthodox and conservative Christianity for more than fifty years. Furthermore, I do not believe in in the religious, emotional sense; and I reject the notion that faith (irrespective of the object of that faith) is "a good thing". As far as I am concerned, "true believers" are not the salt of the earth: they can be a menace, the sort of people who will form self-righteous, aggressive mobs and bully, persecute and worse. Any beliefs and opinions I have are, on the whole, tentative.
Next, militant. This needs clarification because, in an article in New Humanist on "True Disbelievers"4, Theodore Dalrymple wrote: "Militancy is usually a sign of impatience, as well as a lack of prudence, justice and temperance: and, as I am sure that I do not need to tell you, prudence, justice and temperance are three of the four cardinal virtues."
We could dispute for a very long and futile time what militancy is "usually a sign of". At any rate, by militant atheism I do not mean advocating atheism as an official orthodoxy or state ideology to be imposed on everyone as far as possible. I have been an almost lifelong advocate of secular education and of a secular state that treats equitably people of all religions and of none. By militant atheism I mean the sort of atheism held by people who are not prepared to grovel and cringe before the "church militant" or to bracket themselves with "cultural" Catholicism or "cultural" Christianity. In other words it is the sort of atheism espoused by people who do not seek to impose or oppress but who will assuredly stand up to be counted in the defence of unbelief and scepticism against religious privilege and triumphalism.
Now I have no desire to indulge in small-minded rhetorical tirades against, say, the Amish, Jains, Quakers and Unitarians as, to the best of my knowledge, such groups do not threaten the freedom of others around them. But where an ideology, religious or political, seeks domineering, privileged status, or seeks to oppress out-groups like Baha'is, "blasphemers", "heretics", homosexuals, Jews or Mandaeans, I maintain it is the duty of those who love freedom and justice to oppose that ideology, and to oppose it carefully, intelligently, thoroughly and very, very persistently. In other words, I advocate standing up to, or against, religious triumphalism.
Furthermore, my aversion to religions like Christianity and Islam is not based on just rejecting their supernatural beliefs. I dislike all authoritarian ideologies because they appeal to bullies and control freaks, and tend to impoverish and corrupt the intellectual and cultural diversity of society. I have loathed Stalinism and Maoism, for example, for as long as I have disliked Christianity. I do not want the world to be turned into a society where everything is either compulsory or prohibited and we are dictated to by a moralising, censorious, privileged élite caste, be they priests, cadres, gurus or gauleiters.
So why has Nigel Sinnott had a bee in his bonnet, or a hornet in his helmet, about atheism for so long? Am I, as has been alleged against Professor Richard Dawkins5, just someone with anti-religious Tourette's syndrome?
Well, there has been more than one hornet in my helmet over the years, as you will hear shortly. I have been a noisy nonconformist about a number of matters, but whether I was born or made this way, was shaped by my genes or my environment, is for you to judge. If you favour genetics I should mention that my paternal grandfather, who was born in the great religious melting pot of India in a more-Catholic-than-the-Pope Irish family, later scandalised his devout younger siblings by first, marrying a Protestant in England, and later rejecting Catholicism and Christianity. So much for the armchair psychologist's myth that eldest children are the conformists of the family!
And if you want environmental factors, there are plenty to choose from. Whatever the combination may be, I showed signs from an early age of being prone to kicking over cultural and social traces.
I was born in London in 1944. My father was a mechanical engineer serving in the British army. Both my parents were conservatives socially and politically, and my father was a church-going Anglican. My mother was more of a nominal Anglican. They did not like intellectuals, dissenters, lefties and eccentrics one little bit, and no doubt expected any child of theirs to be just like them. I must have come as a very nasty shock!
When my uncles were so rash as to take me fishing, I protested and demanded that the fish be returned to the water. After witnessing, at about the age of seven, a goose being killed in a slow and cruel manner, I went through a series of vegetarian "phases". Many years later I became and have remained a staunch vegan. And to the disgust of my rugby-playing father I loathed sports, other than archery, and detested ball games in particular. I was gifted in certain areas, but non-competitive, and liked the things most children hated, such as poetry, Latin and Greek. My contemporaries enjoyed cowboy films: mine was the dissenting voice (very much so in the 1950s) in support of the native Americans.
A very obvious influence on my early development was the printed word, and illustrated books in particular. I was charmed by the writings and illustrations of Beatrix Potter, author of Peter Rabbit, and by the Little Grey Rabbit books, written by Alison Uttley and illustrated by Margaret Tempest. I spent a fair time in the home of my maternal grandparents and there acquired books left behind from the 1930s by my uncles: they included The Children's Encyclopedia, edited by Arthur Mee, which, though imperialist and orthodox, did wonders for a youngster's imagination; and The Science of Life, by H. G. Wells, Julian Huxley and G. P. Wells. Even before I could read properly, I would ask my mother to explain the captions of illustrations in The Science of Life. It fired my life-long love of natural history and my respect for the scientific method. More than sixty years later, I still handle and consult this work with a sense of awe.
At the age of eight, in 1952, I was sent to boarding school in that home of lost causes (most of them élitist and unsavoury), the city of Oxford. Christ Church Cathedral School was a seedy, cramped, often cold institution in Brewer Street. It was originally just a choir school, but also took non-choristers, like me, and a few day-boys.
I loathed the place with an intense and steadfast passion, and was dreadfully homesick. My solace was the small, dingy library where I discovered the books of Grey Owl, pioneer environmentalist, and lover of Canada's forests, lakes, wilderness and the beaver. His story, "The Tree"6, reduced me to tears when I first read it. In fact I have never been able to read it without crying! Grey Owl claimed to be a half-breed (part Apache, part Scots); he was really a day-dreaming eccentric, Archie Belaney, born in Hastings, Sussex, who had gone off as a teenager to Canada, grown his hair long and reinvented himself.7 Today there is a Hastings-based Grey Owl Society, and it has one member in Australia. . .
Next door to the Church of England Cathedral School was a very Catholic institution, Campion Hall, the Jesuit seminary; and this, of course, attracted my curiosity.
If my mother was at home during the afternoon, she would often turn on the radio and listen to Woman's Hour, and if I was at home and had nothing better to do, I would sometimes follow it as well. The programme carried a regular serial, and one of these caught my attention: it was about a young lad who wanted to become a Catholic, and who pleaded with his mother for permission to do so.
The radio serial about the convert to Catholicism, the proximity of my school to Campion Hall, Cardinal Wolsey's wax (?) effigy in the school dining room, and stories I heard from the history of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries all combined to turn me into an ardent, romantic reactionary: a Jacobite and a would-be Catholic.
Having decided that I wanted to become a Catholic, I then gave Christianity some serious thought. I had plenty of opportunity for this as I was required, when at school, to attend the Cathedral (attached to Christ Church College) for prayers every weekday morning and twice on Sundays. The numerous monuments aroused my interest in heraldry, but the services for the most part bored me witless, except for occasional sermons, which included jokes for children, by the elderly Christ Church eccentric, Canon Claude Jenkins (1877 - 1959), who lived in a house crammed with 90,000 books.
While meditating on my allegiance to Christianity I eventually ran into difficulty. I had at first no problem understanding the concept of a creator god, God the Father, or that he could have an earthly son, Jesus (supposedly of Nazareth), with a beatified human mother, the Virgin Mary. But the concept of the Trinity - God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost - began to trouble me. The first two entities seemed reasonable enough; but what was the purpose and rationale for God the Holy Ghost?
I eventually came to the conclusion that I could not in conscience believe in the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Ghost. Thus began my path to apostasy. For some months I remained a closet Christian heretic - a binarian, if you like; but eventually - over a period of about six months - my disbelief in the Holy Ghost led me to start questioning the concept of God the Father as well. I came to the conclusion that I could not believe in this either.
By this time I was about ten and a half years of age. Being a proto-atheist and a Jacobite was, to put it mildly, an unstable ideological mixture, so it was ripe for dissolution. I tried discussing my religious doubts with one or two other boys: they were either dismissive or unhelpful. One told me he had discussed my views with a master - possibly the headmaster, but I cannot be quite sure now - who had commented: "Oh, Sinnott's only saying he's an atheist just to be different." Now Sinnott did like being different, but he also resented his integrity being impugned!
One afternoon I was wandering round a sort of common room where there were a couple of scrubbed kitchen tables. On one of the tables I noticed a couple of books: I picked them up and started to go through them. One was a children's book, and fairly new at the time. It was an evangelical publication, and dealt with a child who had Jewish and Arab friends. The child asks why Judaism and Islam should not be treated on a par with Christianity, and the book set out carefully to ridicule this concept.
Then I looked at the other book. It turned out to include a classic illustration of nineteenth-century anti-Semitism, a lurid steel engraving of a Jewish patriarch, with a knife, putting to death an adolescent who had converted to Christianity.
I was outraged by what I saw and decided that Christianity was not only false, but downright nasty to boot.
About a fortnight later I was back in the solitude of the small library. I had a penchant for history, and enjoyed reading about wars and battles. While browsing I came across a small stack of dog-eared back numbers of the Illustrated London News. Some were ten years old: here was history as it happened. I started leafing through an issue from about April 1945. There, spread before me, were graphic photographs of British troops using a bulldozer to fill mass graves after the liberation of the concentration camp at Belsen. Most of the emaciated corpses were Jewish. Now I knew to what loathsome depths anti-Semitism had led the human race.
I might, perhaps, have ended up as just a lapsed Christian or a quiet agnostic; but my experience of anti-Semitism served to strengthen my resolve to be not just a passive unbeliever, but a militant atheist. The process was completed soon afterwards by another literary find.
It was a warm, summer afternoon. Lessons were over, but the rough, dusty, asphalt playground did not appeal to me. I used to spend a lot of my time drawing - particularly battles and sailing ships - but on this occasion I decided to read. I got out a textbook with which I had been issued and started to go through it. It was a poetry anthology called The Dragon Book of Verse, and I found many of the poems enjoyable. Then I found myself reading Lord Macaulay's "Naseby"! It was about the great battle in Northamptonshire in June 1645 when Parliament's New Model Army routed the forces of King Charles I and Prince Rupert of the Rhine. It was the beginning of the end of notion in Britain of the Divine Right of Kings!
The words - put into the mouth of a Puritan soldier - rolled over me like an avalanche, and my mouth fell open in astonishment and delight.
Fools! Your doublets shone with gold, and your hearts were gay and bold,
When you kissed your lily hands to your lemans today;
And tomorrow shall the fox, from her chambers in the rocks,
Lead forth her tawny cubs to howl above the prey. . .
Down, down, for ever down, with the mitre and the crown,
With the Belial of the Court and the Mammon of the Pope;
There is woe in Oxford Halls; there is wail in Durham's stalls!
The Jesuit smites his bosom; the Bishop rends his cope.
I read and reread the poem, then looked for another one by Macaulay: it was "Horatius", the epic of heroic Roman republican virtue, and describes how a desperate young republic produced three volunteers, Horatius, Lartius and Herminius, who prevented the reimposition of the Tarquin monarchy by denying Lars Porsena's Tuscan army entry to Rome.
But the Consul's brow was sad,
And the Consul's speech was low,
And darkly looked he at the wall,
And darkly at the foe.
"Their van will be upon us
Before the bridge goes down;
And if they once may win the bridge,
What hope to save the town?"
Then out spake brave Horatius.
The Captain of the gate:
"To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late:
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his gods?
"Hew down the bridge, Sir Consul,
With all the speed ye may;
I with two more to help me,
Will hold the foe in play.
In yon strait path a thousand
May well be stopped by three.
Now who will stand on either hand
And keep the bridge with me?" * *
Stout Lartius hurled down Aunus
Into the stream beneath:
Herminius struck at Seius,
And clove him to the teeth:
At Picus brave Horatius
Darted one fiery thrust,
And the proud Umbrian's gilded arms
Clashed in the bloody dust.
In the jargon of a decade later, I blew my mind. If the result had been a lasting religious belief, you would very likely describe this emotional turmoil as a conversion experience. Instead, it sealed my irreligious atheism and my thirst for freedom and democracy.
A few hours earlier I had felt timid, vulnerable and desperately alone: who had I been to question the wisdom of my learned Anglican Tory elders? But now I had heard, across the valley of history, the clear, inspiring notes of the bugles of English radicalism, and the proud, resolute voices of the people who had brought down tyrants and persecutors like Charles I and Archbishop Laud. I had found my ideological home!
I had also discovered a new psychological mechanism, the Horatius complex; and I have had it ever since!
The young boy who was once a Jacobite sympathiser and a would-be Catholic went to bed that night tired and excited. I slept soundly as a convinced republican and militant atheist. I awoke - refreshed, and resolute.
I left Christ Church Cathedral School in 1957, but was then sentenced to another five years' boarding at Denstone College, on top of a windy hill in Staffordshire. It had been founded by Canon Nathaniel Woodard (1811-91) in the 1870s for "the Christian education of the sons of the middle classes".
I was a convinced atheist when I arrived at Denstone. Five years of its muscular Christianity, endless petty regimentation, and its official brutality and often bigotry did nothing to make me revise my opinions. It struck me as a miniature fascist community: lots of heavy-handed hierarchical authority, an emphasis on middle-class symbolism like jackets and ties, a superficial veneer of respectability; and just below the surface an ethos that I would summarise as: Think like we think or we'll ostracise you; do what we tell you or we'll thrash you.
Confirmation classes started at Denstone when I was about 14 years of age. I knew the time had come for me to make a formal stand. Whom should I tell first? I decided on a parent, rather than the school, so I spoke to my mother. I was never quite clear about her views on religion but, as she was very right-wing, I suspect she regarded Christianity as not necessarily true but good for keeping the working classes docile. Her reaction was "Don't be so ridiculous! You've got to be confirmed: you've been baptised!" I regarded this as quite absurd, so she consulted my father. He was a harsh, overbearing man, but at least he was a sincere Anglican. He took the view that if I had made up my mind on this matter, then that was the end of it. My mother was not at all happy but gave up berating me. When I got back to school I had no trouble in dropping confirmation classes. The chaplain, ironically enough, was one of the few moderately tolerant voices in the place and even (shock! horror!) voted Labour.
While at Denstone I also discovered the poetry of Shelley, atheist and vegetarian, and author, for example, of Prometheus Unbound and Queen Mab:
They have three words: well tyrants know their use,
Well pay them for the loan, with usury
Torn from a bleeding world! - God, Hell, and Heaven. . .
How ludicrous the priest's dogmatic roar!
The weight of his exterminating curse
How light! and his affected charity,
To suit the pressure of the changing times,
What palpable deceit! - but for thy aid,
Religion! but for thee, prolific fiend,
Who peoplest earth with demons, Hell with men,
And Heaven with slaves!. . .
Earth groans beneath religion's iron age,
And priests dare babble of a God of peace,
Even whilst their hands are red with guiltless blood,
Murdering the while,uprooting every germ
Of truth, exterminating, spoiling all,
Making the earth a slaughter-house!
The chapel services at Denstone were many and long. I resented the time I was forced to waste at them. (I refused to sing.) On several occasions I found I could partially escape the boredom by raising my head and listening to the chirpings of sparrows nesting high above. I appreciated the birds but, alas, others did not. One afternoon as I walked past the chapel I found a workman busy clearing out all the nests high up in the walls of the building. A wheelbarrow was piled to overflowing with débris and dead fledglings. I was appalled by this needless barbarity and, as you can see, I have maintained my rage.
I left Denstone in July 1962. As I was driven out for the last time I swore eternal enmity owards the Church of England. Three months later I came across, and immediately joined, the Oxford University Humanist Group. That term it enjoyed brief notoriety for being the university's largest student society.
My return to Oxford, however, was very short-lived, as within days of arrival I went down with severe depression, a problem that has dogged me, in varying degrees for the rest of my life. The beginning of 1963 found me in the London area, working in that splendid creation of nineteenth-century science, the Herbarium and Library of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Two or three months later I joined the Ethical Union and the Rationalist Press Association, and the umbrella body they had established, the British Humanist Association.
In November or December 1963, I found what I was particularly looking for in the form of the National Secular Society and the magazine closely linked with it, The Freethinker, and I promptly subscribed to both. I also received a circular from Lindsay Burnet, the group development officer of the Ethical Union. I responded to it and thus became, on 6 December 1963, at the age of 19, a founder member and the first secretary of the Richmond & Twickenham Humanist Group. One of my friends in this group told me that I would probably enjoy the poetry of Swinburne. I followed this up, and discovered she was quite right. Swinburne's passionate support in verse of Italian freedom, and his melancholy and often floridly anti-Christian poetry have regularly inspired or consoled me ever since.
You could argue, in fact, that Swinburne did not so much disbelieve in God as disapprove of God. Here is a short example of Swinburne at full Promethean throttle in "Hymn of Man"8:
O thou that hast built thee a shrine of the madness of man and his shame,
And hast hung in the midst for a sign of his worship the lamp of thy name;
Thou hast shown him for heaven in a vision a void world's shadow and shell,
And hast fed thy delight and derision with fire of belief as of hell;
That hast fleshed on the souls that believe thee the fang of the death-worm fear,
With anguish of dreams to deceive them whose faith cries out in thine ear;
By the face of the spirit confounded before thee and humbled in dust,
By the dread wherewith life was astounded, and shamed out of sense of its trust,
By the scourges of doubt and repentance that fell on the soul at thy nod,
Thou art judged, O judge, and the sentence is gone forth against thee, O God.
Ah! They don't do that old-time irreligion like this any more!
Later on I became an active member of the London Young Humanists, serving as membership secretary and chairman.
In about 1965 I was co-opted to the executive committee of the National Secular Society. In 1966 I was approached and asked if I was interested in becoming full-time editor of The Freethinker. The paper had been founded in 1881 by George William Foote who, soon afterwards, spent a year in Holloway Gaol for the pseudo-crime of blasphemy. I was tempted by the job offer, but, as I was suffering from a long spell of depression at the time, I did not think I would cope and declined with thanks. The editorship also became vacant in 1971. This time I applied, and was appointed. I served as editor from January 1972 to September 1973 and, despite the low salary, I thought it was the most fulfilling job I had ever had. In March 1976 I left London for Melbourne, where I soon made the acquaintance of a character called David Miller, who was already organising meetings of the Existentialist Society. A few years later he started Atheist Society meetings as well, which is why I am here tonight.
You may wonder what have I learned from being a militant atheist for about 55 years. Well, I did not have an easy childhood and, because of depression and other mischances, I have had a rather difficult adult life. In coping with life's disappointments and setbacks I have found merit in the old Graeco-Roman virtues of patience and stoicism. In other words, I have tried to do the best I can, when I can; but I accept that misfortune and worse often befall well-meaning and worthy people.
I do not subscribe to the notion that progress is inevitable: the rise of fascism in the 1920s and '30s was a good example of social retrogression. Similarly, I do not believe that human society is perfectable, but I do think it is worth while striving to improve society, even though this often involves disappointments, disagreements and compromise. If you want more justice and fairness in the world, then you must set an example of trying hard to be fair and just.
For some people atheism is simply disbelief in theism; but for others, who espouse what I call the Promethean strand of atheism, atheism implies a desire or duty to oppose theism, or at least organised, institutional theism, particularly where it attracts or demands special privileges just for being religious. Well, you can reasonably argue that the first duty of an opposition is to oppose. On the other hand, my atheism has been tempered by a remark I came across probably in 1969. Henry Labouchere was a member of parliament in Victorian England, and he shared the constituency of Northampton with Charles Bradlaugh, Britain's foremost atheist of the time and founder of the National Secular Society. Hesketh Pearson quotes Labouchere as saying, I suspect half-facetiously: "The mere denial of the existence of God does not entitle a man's opinion to be taken without scrutiny on matters of greater importance."9 Atheists, and particularly militant, articulate ones like me, would do well to bear Labouchere's sentiments in mind. There is, after all, no point in becoming a mirror image or a bizarre parody of the things we dislike. Beware of becoming the thing you hate!
It is also important to have a sense of humour and to recognise the ridiculous and absurd; to know what is appropriate and when; and to understand one's weaknesses and limits. I was half-amused, half-impressed by a recent comment by Monsignor Tony Doherty of Sydney: "The longest hills always come to an end if your heart doesn't give out first."10
But first and foremost I understand the importance of freedom, as I know what it was like to be deprived of freedom for ten years by Britain's smug, pompous Anglican Herrenvolk. Freedom has always been sneeringly derided by devotees of political and religious authoritarianism, usually as licence to be selfish or antisocial, or as freedom to starve; but I maintain that freedom is a vital ingredient for a worthwhile life in a just society, that freedom is always worth struggling and fighting for. In the years to come it will almost always be under threat from one source or another, religious or political. An obvious threat is the pernicious doctrine of ever-increasing population and economic growth, when what is really needed is careful stability. And sometimes the gains of today will be lost tomorrow. Should we persevere? I take comfort in the words of Matthew Arnold11:
Let the long contention cease!
Geese are swans, and swans are geese.
Let the have it how they will!
Thou are tired; best be still.
They out-talked thee, hiss'd thee, tore thee!
Better men fared thus before thee;
Fired their ringing shot and pass'd,
Hotly charged - and sank at last.
Charge once more, then, and be dumb!
Let the victors, when they come,
When the forts of folly fall,
Find thy body by the wall!
Only a very few people are fortunate or talented enough to make significant changes single-handedly, so I have also learnt the value of linking up with organisations and with other people in an effort to get things changed or done; co-operative ventures often achieve more in the long term than individual effort. And I also recognise the value, at times, of tuning in to the inspiration and appeals of the past: "Now who will stand on either hand /And keep the bridge with me?"
And the legend of Horatius impressed on me something else, with which I will conclude: It is better to die on one's feet than to live on one's knees. And it is better still to help other people to live on their feet.