The Late-Victorian Agnostic Popularizers

Charles Albert WattsBernard Lightman’s “Ideology, Evolution and Late-Victorian Agnostic Popularizers” in Moore’s  History, Humanity and Evolution (1989) deserves special mention. He argues that agnosticism was presented as a religious creed that had evolved out of Christianity by agnostic propagandists such as Charles Albert Watts (1858-1946), William Stewart Ross (1844-1906), Richard Bithell (1821-1902), Frederick James Gould (1855-1938), Samuel Laing (1811-97), and others.

In the 1880s and 1890s, Victorian agnostics were facing mounting tensions. On the one hand, some agnostics wanted to appeal to the masses, and therefore had to attune their message to Victorian sensibilities. On the other hand, other agnostics were committed to the full force of their message, and therefore would not “debase” it, contenting themselves to the few who could grasp their complex scientific and philosophic concepts.

Yet during this time a new form of agnosticism emerged that would appeal to a wider English audience. It chief popularizer was Charles Albert Watts, son of English secularist Charles Watts (1836-1906). Both father and son were “immersed in the world of radical publishing,” particularly the writings militant atheist Charles Bradlaugh (1833-91). The elder Watts however had dissociated himself from Bradlaugh over the publication of atheist Charles Knowlton’s (1800-1850) pamphlet on birth control, The Fruits of Philosophy (1832). Watts was prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act when his printing company, Watts & Co., published the pamphlet. In court Watts claimed he had never read the document. After breaking ties with Bradlaugh over his increasing militancy, Watts later he joined George Jacob Holyoake (1817-1906) in forming the British Secular Union (BSU) in 1877, a dissident group from Bradlaugh’s National Secular Society (NSS).

The son Watts respected his father’s non-militant approach. He also had a high regard for T.H. Huxley (1825-1895), Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), John Tyndall (1820-1893), and other scientific naturalists, who were “at the peak of their power during the 1880s.” According to Lightman, “Watts thought he could use elements of the successful strategy adopted by the scientific naturalists in combination with non-militant methods previously adopted by his father” in order to appeal to a wider audience, and to subvert the growing influence of the NSS. Unlike the “atheist,” “infidel,” and “freethinker,” Watts saw agnosticism as representing the “most up-to-date phase of scientific unbelief.” Watts thought that the best way to increase the influence of the BSU and other dissident secular groups was through the press, by “inundating the reading public with material on agnosticism and [particularly] evolution.” Watts thus focused “on reaching likely converts through the publication of quality pamphlets, books and periodicals.”

Watts took over his father’s publishing business in 1884. That same year he began publishing The Agnostic Journal, its aim was to establish “a monthly periodical of cultured liberal thought, which, by its moderation and ability shall commend itself to the attention and support of advanced thinkers of every grade.” The following year Watts published Albert Simmon’s Agnostic First Principles (1885), a summary of Spencer’s First Principles (1862). Also in the same year Watts published Watt’s Literary Guide, a publisher’s circular, “advertising publications of Watts & Co., reviewed current books, and, beginning in 1893, added a monthly supplement condensing important works on progressive thought and science.” Right before the turn of the century, Watts, in his continued collaboration with Holyoake, founded the Rationalist Press Association (RPA), an organization that acted as a “propaganda machine for freethought and agnosticism that would outdo any of Bradlaugh’s publication efforts and would rival the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and the Religious Tract Society.” Its central aim, as Lightman puts it, was the transform “dissident Secularism into a respectable, middle-class organization.”

Watts also had other collaborators. William Stewart Ross, who “belonged to the Holyoake tradition of non-militant dissident Secularism,” joined Watts in transforming The Secular Review of the 1880s, which he assumed full editorship in 1877 from Holyoake. Ross agreed with Watts that an “advanced thinker” is “like a scholar and a gentlemen, [and] that the best arguments for Secularism were drawn from philosophy and modern science, and that the less said about party politics the better.” Another collaborator was Richard Bithell, who through Watts & Co. published a number of agnostic tracts, including The Creed of Agnosticism (1883), Agnostic Problems (1887), The Worship of the Unknowable (c. 1889) and A Handbook of Scientific Agnosticism (1892). Another important collaborator and popularizer of dissident secularism was Frederick James Gould, who, along with Bithell, helped Watts found the Propaganda Press Committee, which later came to be known as the RPA. Samuel Laing was yet another collaborator and popular author, his repertoire included Modern Science and Modern Thought (1885), A Modern Zoroastraian (1887), Problems of the Future (1889), and Human Origins (1892), and was also a consistent contributor to Watts’ The Agnostic Review.

This “stable of agnostic propagandists” aimed their writings to younger readers and the working classes. They had a “missionary zeal” and “desired to demonstrate that modern science could present an integrated and rational world view, encompassing every realm of thought.” This world view was governed by the belief in “fixed and uniform laws” of nature. Evolution was “applied to the development of both the organic and the inorganic worlds; it applied to man as a physical being and to the products of man’s so-called spiritual being, including religion and ethics.” Indeed, as Lightman aptly observes, “the new agnostics were…primarily attracted to the cosmic evolutionism of Herbert Spencer, and they often ranked him as Darwin’s superior.” Evolution manifested the “power of the Unknowable.” Engaging the emotions and religious sensibilities of the Victorian reader, the new agnostics often exaggerated theistic themes found in Spencer, Huxley and other elite scientific naturalists. They even “tried to establish,” Lightman tells us,  “an Agnostic Temple in southwest London.”

They were also rather politically conservative. With their increasing popularity, the new agnostics “entered the bourgeoisie.” They wanted to eliminate both radicalism and socialism from the social order. Most interestingly, they “used evolutionary theory to legitimate a conservative vision of social order.” Socialism, as they saw it, was maladaptive, contrary to nature and science. The political creed of Darwinism could only be Individualism. They developed an evolutionary theodicy to answer the problem of evil, seeing its existence as “part and parcel of the evolution process, an inevitably by-product of the laws of nature.” But evil would ultimately disappear, they maintained, with the progressive course of evolution. This theodicy appealed to those with either religious or from religious backgrounds, as it created a sense of “contentment in the current stage of a dynamic, self-adjusting, divinely sanctioned process.” It was indeed a “theodicy designed to engage the religious sensibilities of a lower middle-class audience.”

This undoubtedly religious agnosticism was often referred by Laing as a “reverent and devout agnosticism.” According to Lightman, this new agnosticism was thus not a “negation of Christianity, but as the next step in its orderly progressive development.” Interestingly, there was also a penchant for “Eastern thought, mysticism, spiritualism and theosophy” among these agnostic propagandists. Ross described evolution as “the upward passing through Karma to Nirvana.” Laing attempted to “rehabilitate the old Persian religion of Zoroastrianism.” But elite agnostics, such as Huxley, could not stomach the increasingly religious and liberal element in the new agnosticism. Huxley saw Laing’s agnostic creed as unscientific. In turn, the new agnostics saw Huxley as insensitive to the “religious and mystical dimension of the doctrine of evolution.” This eventually lead to the acute controversy between Laing and Huxley in 1890 over the politics of democracy and aristocracy. Laing read Huxley’s “On the Natural Inequality of Men” (1890) as an example of an elite naturalist using “scientific arguments against democracy.” Laing went so far as to accuse Huxley of propounding Tory principles. “The Laing/Huxley controversy,” Lightman concludes, “shows graphically how readily evolution could be adapted to suite the new agnostics’ social aspirations.” In the end, “the flexibility of evolutionary theory as a social dynamic made it a potent weapon for attacking elite scientific naturalists who temporized about democratic reforms, as well as for criticizing unscientific socialists and radical Secularists who were too impatient to wait for the inevitable.”


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