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.