Notes from the Blasphemy Depot
History is much on our minds this issue. This month we celebrate our 120th birthday.
Started in Johnson's Court off Fleet street as the Watts's Literary Guide ('Being a record of liberal and advanced publications') the early magazine doubled as a catalogue for books and pamphlets emerging from Britain's lively liberal and freethinking publishing industry, and an, initially cautious, vehicle for secular rationalism argument. Caution was required because of the strict blasphemy laws in place at the time – just three years before, in 1882, editor GW Foote had been jailed for publishing an article contravening these laws in his journals the Freethinker. But behind the mannered tone of the first editorial, the polite recommendations that this or that new book may 'provide food for reflection', you can, just, sense the subversive power of the arguments in these publications – about religion, philosophy, ethics and politics.
Though expressed in genteel language the ideas threaded through the magazine were anything but timid. And neither, it turns out, were the people, as Jonathan Rée discovers in his trawl through the archives (page 8). Something of the development of the tone of the magazine, and the movement it has paralleled for over a century, can be gleaned from its name changes. Watt's Literary Guide became, in 1894, the Literary Guide. In 1896, perhaps a sign of increasing confidence, 'and Rationalist Review' was added and this remained the name for sixty years. In 1956 it became The Humanist and finally, in 1971, New Humanist.
Bill Cooke's comprehensive history The Blasphemy Depot is the best source for more on this fascinating history (incidentally you can order it from us). And we are still here – continuing the fine tradition of goading, probing, and entertaining. A good year, 1885: Mark Twain published Huckleberry Finn, Louis Pasteur developed a vaccine against rabies, Britain saw its first cremation, and The Rover, the first real bicycle was launched (luckily the pneumatic tyre was also invented in that year). Humanists, humourists, cyclists and those who don't like rabies, all have reason to celebrate 1885.
In addition to publishing this magazine, throughout the early 20th century the Rationalist Press Association also put out the Cheap Reprints and Thinkers Library series whose affordable versions of great texts were for thousands of readers their first encounters with freethinking and rationalism. The influence was not confined to the west. In our article about Indian miracle exposers (page 18), Sanal Edamaruku, president of the Indian Rationalist Association, describes how these reprints helped build India's rationalist tradition.
As lawyers in Pennsylvania fight over whether or not Intelligent Design should mentioned in the same breath as evolution in science classrooms, it's worth recalling that the argument was philosophically dismissed by David Hume, in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Science, back in the 18th century (well before Darwin). The money quote: "How might we demonstrate the existence of an intelligent designer? There is an evident absurdity in pretending to demonstrate a matter of fact, or to prove it by arguments a priori. Nothing is demonstrable, unless the contrary implies a contradiction. What we conceive as existent, we can also conceive as non-existent. There is no being, therefore, whose non-existence implies a contradiction. Consequently there is no being, whose existence is demonstrable. I propose this argument as entirely decisive." But, kindly, Hume did retain a place for miracles: "Upon the whole we may conclude, that the Christian religion not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one."
Sir Hermann Bondi, president of the RPA died this September. Jane Wynne Willson offers her portrait of this extraordinary, energetic man on page 31. Hermann was just one of many independent-minded people upon whose voluntary support we depend. While we are currently without a figurehead, we continue to rely on our invaluable honorary associates – people who lend their name and time in support of our aims and the magazine. We asked them to reflect on how they see rationalism and secularism in the current moment. Their powerful responses are collected on pages 21-23.
And finally though comedian Ronnie Barker was generally given the most generous send off by the press, very few mentioned that he was a humanist. Here was a man who was modest and independent (he wrote sketches under a pseudonym so his colleagues wouldn't know it was him), and mystified the media by choosing family life and retirement over the media spotlight. He was intelligent and literate without being a snob. He gets the last gag: "The man who invented the zip fastener was today honoured with a lifetime peerage. He will now be known as the Lord of the Flies."