Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Atheist class wars

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There's been a bit of a debate going on over at the Guardian's Comment is Free Belief section as to whether, to sum things up, atheists are all smug and middle class or not. Basically, their Belief editor Andrew Brown says they are, and have simply replaced sneering at the poor with sneering at believers, while Atheist Bus Campaign creator Ariane Sherine says atheists are actually really nice and class is nothing to do with it at all – they're an inclusive bunch (the sub-head of her piece says "club", although we doubt this was Ariane's choice), and it makes no difference if you're rich or poor.

All of which got us thinking about the history of atheism in this country, particularly that of our own organisation, the Rationalist Association. The Rationalist Press Association, as it was known for much of its history, started as quite the opposite of a smug middle class concern, and we'd like to think that still is not the case. So I wrote a response to the debate - the Guardian didn't go for it, so I may as well put it up here (I'd particularly recommend reading Jonathan Rée's piece on the history of our organisation, if you're interested in learning more).
Ariane Sherine quite rightly lambasts Andrew Brown for his assertion that the “new atheism” is a firmly middle class phenomenon (the poor, you see, simply think "it's all rubbish" – no snobbery apparent there), and suggests that atheism is a club open to all. By “atheists” Ariane presumably means anyone from among the millions of Britons who don’t believe in some form of supernatural deity, so if they were in fact to come together as an organised “club” we’d be looking at quite a varied coalition of people. Suffice to say, it’d be fairly impossible to characterise that club according to the old working/middle/upper class distinctions. So in this sense, the argument over whether British atheists are middle class or not is a fairly futile one.

However, if by British atheism Andrew Brown is referring to the intellectual tradition of secularism and free thought which arose in the 19th century in response to the cultural dominance of the Church, he should perhaps have brushed up on his history before declaring it to be an exclusively middle class concern. Fearless campaigners such as Annie Beasant and the National Secular Society’s founder Charles Bradlaugh (himself a working class boy from the East End) dedicated their lives to challenging the Anglican status-quo in Victorian England, and encouraging the working classes to look beyond the rigid teachings handed down to them by the Church. Beasant and Bradlaugh played a vital role in promoting the use of birth control, having realised the important role it could play in the emancipation of the poor, which earned them both jail sentences in the 1870s (although they were eventually successful in overturning the verdict).

At the same time Charles Watts, a London printer whose father Charles senior had been involved in the founding of the NSS, set about establishing Watts Literary Guide, a periodical dedicated to publishing “literary gossip” of interest to freethinkers. The publishing firm behind this, Watts & Co, would soon become the Rationalist Press Association, which continues today as the Rationalist Association (publisher of New Humanist magazine, the modern incarnation of the Literary Guide). From the end of the 19th century Watts expanded the activities of the RPA to include the publication of books and pamphlets, including the hugely successful and celebrated Thinkers’ Library, a series of cheap reprints which, as Jonathan Rée writes in this history of the RPA, “made the works of sceptical Victorians like Darwin, Huxley, Arnold and Mill available to working people at only sixpence a volume”. If the popularity of the Thinkers’ Library is anything to go by, we can at least surmise that Andrew Brown’s assertion that the poor think "it's all rubbish" did not apply to the working classes in 19th and 20th century Britain.

And as for the 21st century, we know that readership of New Humanist is growing, along with membership of the Rationalist Association, the British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society. I’m afraid that at New Humanist we don’t ask new subscribers to indicate their social class when they fill out their subscription form, but what we can tell from the correspondence we receive from readers, as well as the many corners of the UK (and the world) in which they live, is that copies of our magazine do not just end up “in lavatories nicely warmed by Agas”. And neither, I should think, will copies of Ariane’s Atheist's Guide to Christmas.

7 comments:

la said...

So many of the Guardian's writers still in class stereotypes. In this case it seems Andrew Brown is using it as a shorthand to sneer at people he finds threatening. Even if his assertion were true, that the rational were primarily middle class, what would that matter?

George Jelliss said...

Anyone who thinks this is a point worth arguing or blogging about must be middle-class or at least chattering-class.

Tom Morris said...

How many logical fallacies are there left on Andrew Brown's list? Is it his life's mission to explore the previously known limits of wrongness?

We've had a class-based ad hominem, an appeal to ridicule, an appeal to tradition (all that stuff about new atheism), some giant straw men, an appeal to an utterly irrelevant property (if you grant organised secularism of BHA/NSS/New Humanist/Dawkins et al. is middle-class, why is it that this is a point against organised atheism and not against, say, other pressure groups, political parties and so on - it's not an argument against global warming to say that environmentalists are middle class), poisoning the well, genetic fallacy, guilt by association, emotional appeals and many more.

Is it too much to ask The Guardian to maybe set limits for Mr. Brown. You know, more than three logical fallacies per article and he loses his job - something like that. I want to like The Guardian, and I want to read it - but Andrew Brown and Madeleine Bunting are just too dishonest, illogical, stupid or pageview-whoring for me to take.

Tim Maguire, Humanist Celebrant said...

While it's clear that plenty of people enjoy nothing more than arguing about the number of atheists that can dance on the head of a pin, my experience as a celebrant of the Humanist Society of Scotland suggests that most of my ceremonies are conducted for working, rather than middle or upper class people, if those terms still have any meaning.

And when I ask why they've chosen to have a secular ceremony rather than a religious one, they rarely class themselves as atheist; it's more often the case that they say that they're 'just not religious'.

They often also say that humanism is something they had never previously heard of but stumbled upon, and having done so, and read the Amsterdam Declaration, realised that they'd been humanists all along.

Not philosophically rigorous, perhaps, but heartening all the same.

Colin said...

Hasn't the Bishop of Reading just told us that the CofE is too _middle_ class? So how can atheism be anti-working-class?

I think he could have made a better case (still a very bad one) that atheism in Europe is associated with anti-americanism.

valdemar said...

Who the f-ck is this Andrew Brown, that I should be mindful of him?

As someone from a Sunderland working class background, I feel resentment against middle-class Christian apologists who make condescending remarks about the supposed 'ignorance' of people like me. But obviously, since Browny Boy has proved by rhetoric that I can't possibly exist, I don't know why I bothered to type this.

Ken said...

We were all skeptics when I were a lad...but you tell young people nowadays and they don't believe you.