Bill Cooke hails the history of the RPA
The Rationalist Press Association has embarked on one of its most ambitious publishing project in over a decade: its centenary history. Nicolas Walter, past editor of the New Humanist and Managing Director of the RPA, was originally going to write this history, but died before he could complete the project. So, from the other end of the world came an offer to take the project up. A specimen chapter was sent to the RPA and a contract was duly signed. In January this year I swapped my jandals and t-shirts for the heaviest clothes I could find and spent four weeks researching the RPA's history in the magnificent library at Conway Hall. It takes a special type of person to pant with excitement at the prospect of poring through dusty minute books, and I am such a person. The RPA's minute records go back to 1934. The earlier minutes were – I think – lost in a fire in London in 1944 which also destroyed the library of Charles Watts, the founder of the RPA. But as well as the minutes there is correspondence from some very famous people; Karl Popper, J G Frazer, H G Wells, among others. And then there is the extraordinary collection of the RPA journal; the Literary Guide, then the Humanist, now the New Humanist.
But of course the history of an organisation is more important than the recitation of details like this. It will be worthwhile to set the record straight with this RPA history. It is a continuing source of frustration to me and to other people interested in the history of rationalism and humanism that so few scholars take any serious interest in the history of the movement. Histories of all sorts of different subjects are written which completely ignore the often substantial contribution made by organisations like the RPA. Claims are made about the total irrelevance of humanism to the secularisation process. Rationalism – when it is noticed at all – is often mocked as behind the times, sectarian, 'as bad as religion', dry, overly intellectual, and so on.
The fact is, of course, that none of this is true. The history of the RPA provides a fascinating insight into the nature of humanism and provides an illuminating mirror to (and of) the wider society. The RPA is in the paradoxical position of now being small and struggling precisely because it was once successful. That we can now walk into any bookshop and buy heretical, unorthodox, even seditious or salacious material, is due in no small way to the RPA. In other areas we find remarkable parallels with the past. The struggles to overturn the ridiculous blasphemy laws, which became serious public disputes in the Gay News case in the late seventies and the Satanic Verses episode a decade later had their parallels before the First World War. The problem of privileged access to the media for the pious goes back to the 1920s.
This is not to shrug our shoulders and lament that there is nothing new under the sun. It is a call to be familiar with our history so that we may learn from it. My two earlier books have served as a preparation for this work. They are Heathen in Godzone: Seventy Years of Rationalism in New Zealand (NZARH, 1998) and 'A Rebel to His Last Breath': Joseph McCabe and Rationalism (Prometheus Books). Joseph McCabe is, in fact, the uniting thread which runs through these three books. McCabe really was a remarkable man: about a hundred books, 120 monograph-length publications, a similar number of pamphlets, hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles and thousands (literally) of lectures. If this history does nothing more than remind us of these extraordinary people it will be worthwhile.