George Holyoake, through a mixture of persistence and privation, became a standout figure in the twin traditions of humanism and secularism in the 19th Century. In the 125th anniversary year of Humanists UK, the body has been keen to promote Holyoake whom it describes as “a towering figure in humanist history, from advancing secularist ideals, to conducting non-religious ceremonies.”
Yet, only last year in anticipation of his upcoming book, Holyoake’s biographer, Ray Argyle lamented that:
for some unknowable reason, Holyoake has virtually vanished from history, unheard of by the public. There is no mention of his name in one of the most eminent of books on secularism, Charles Taylor's A Secular Age.
If unknowable, speculation might allow for the possibility of his having been eclipsed by one of the greatest scientists of all time, Charles Darwin, whose metaphorically young earth-shattering work set in motion such an intellectual challenge to orthodoxy, that the origin of secularism was unlikely and unable to keep pace with the Origin of Species.
Inventing Secularism has salvaged Holyoake and brought him to the surface. In Argyle’s estimation Holyoake:
changed the life experience of millions around the world by founding secularism on the idea that the duties of a life lived on earth should rank above preparation for an imagined life after death.
Born in Birmingham to a family of working-class stock Holyoake found himself jailed for expressing the view in public that God should be put on half pay to reduce the burden of tithes on poor families. In prison he embraced atheism although came to understand the harsh effect the term could have on ears sensitised by religious sentiment. For this reason, in 1851, he coined the term secularism, giving rise to a global phenomenon perhaps best encapsulated in its French inflexion, Laïcité.
A prolific writer, between books and pamphlets, Holyoake notched up around 160 published works. Yet it would be mistaken to see him as a one trick pony.
There was considerably more to his activism than secularism. Driven by a humanist view of the world he might today be described by admirers and critics alike as a social justice warrior. Immersed in campaigns around universal suffrage, trade unions, freedom of inquiry, he sought to enhance the quality of life and peace of mind of the timber of humanity, crooked or not.
Ray Argyle, 2021, Inventing Secularism: The Radical Life of George Jacob Holyoake. ISBN-13: 978-1476684215. Publisher: McFarland.
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