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September 3, 2006

Labor Day Message

Herewith a selection from this book in progress, involving nineteenth-century British atheist leader Charles Bradlaugh. The point today is to note that atheism in Bradlaugh's day was a working-class movement:

In March 1859, Bradlaugh was scheduled to speak at the Guildhall in Doncaster, to the north of London. In response, a group calling itself "Friends of Religion" felt called upon to issue a "caution to the public" in which it advised the town's population to make sure Bradlaugh would gaze "on the unpeopled interior of the Guildhall." In fact, the interior of the Guildhall in Doncaster, when Bradlaugh mounted the stage, was "crowded to excess," according to the Doncaster Herald, which nevertheless dubbed Bradlaugh's talk a "frantic panegyric in honor of hell."

"There boldly, defiantly, recklessly," that newspaper sneered, "stood the Creator's work, toiling, sweating, laboring strenuously to heap slander upon his Creator." The Herald's correspondent expressed "disgust" and "horror" that a "young and accomplished man" could stand in front of a crowded hall "while the beauteous moon marches aloft in the vast and indefinable firmament" and dare state "that no God lives!"

Bradlaugh returned to Doncaster later that year. This time the "Friends of Religion" were better organized: He was denied use of any of the town's halls. So Bradlaugh spoke outdoors on a temporary platform erected under the roof of the corn market. "He is a person possessing great fluency of speech, of ready wit," another paper, the Doncaster Chronicle, conceded, "and the declamatory style of his oratory is well calculated to excite and carry away a popular audience." With no walls to restrict its size, the "popular audience" that evening was reported to include four thousand people. The city quickly forbade Bradlaugh from speaking in the market, so the next evening he spoke from a wagon in an open area near the market. The subject that night, a Bradlaugh standard, was the "History and Teaching of Jesus Christ." More than seven thousand people turned out to hear him question that history and that teaching.

One defender of Christianity that evening managed to hit Bradlaugh in the head with a stone as he made his way back to his lodgings. Nonetheless, some percentage of the people of Doncaster clearly had an interest in the subject of atheism. Some percentage of the people - working-class people - evinced a similar interest in cities all across Britain in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at September 3, 2006 9:27 PM


Two of the Fox network's most prominent show, House and Bones feature atheist protagonists. One episode of House might have been title "House vs God". (It ended in a tie). The patient was a young faith healer who heard the voice of God. In the course of the show this faith healer cured someone of cancer. House set out to find the natural explain for the phenomena presumably so the preacher would accept treatment knowing what was happening wasn't "of God".

My point is there seems to be quite an interest in atheism now.

Posted by: Boelf at September 3, 2006 11:05 PM

Hmm, pretty interesting story. Would like to think your analysis the right one, Mitch. But I'm wondering how much of that crowd, working class particularly (b/c other forms of entertainment not easily purchasable), was there for the controversial aspects of it? being castigated by authority the previous night sounds a lot like how people still act in terms of being drawn to celebrity, controversy etc. ?

I'm also more drawn to the comments of the journalist about Bradlaugh's rhetorical skillfulness and how much of a connection there is there to your ancient Greek buds like Carneades, have to admit. The power of rhetoric to argue seeming unrealistic points (e.g., suggesting there's no creator when marveling at the heavens etc) and perhaps to persuade people to accept new ways of understanding not unknown to others prominent in your book (Jesus maybe being one of them, I say as a committed non-xian).

Couple of the posts just after this one also connect in my head: the Sartrian idea of 'hell is other people' surfacing in the book review; the idea of using language to talk about the veiling of 'truth' re: the 'lesser light'... language the thread here, for me at least. ...

Posted by: JM at September 11, 2006 11:55 PM

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