Foote was defying a longstanding taboo

I’m reading a little book published in 1982: Vision and Realism: a hundred years of The Freethinker, by Jim Herrick.

There are some things that sound very familiar, amusingly so.

Foote joined with G.J. Holyoake when the two of them started the Secularist in 1876. They parted after two months, differing over the extent to which religion should be attacked…[p 6]

Oh yes? So it’s not just us, and it’s not just Paul Kurtz and Madalyn Murray O’Hair. It feels vaguely reassuring to know that.

The extent to which freethought journals should be aggressively anti-Christian was – and has remained – contentious. [p 9]

And in Foote’s case it was so contentious that he was sent to prison for a year for “blasphemy.”

In criticising religion by ridicule and sarcasm, Foote was defying a longstanding taboo. He challenged the assumption, which even respectable agnostics held, that religious views should be treated with reverence. He sought to establish that religion is a social phenomenon which should be open to the same range of comment, from vigorous intellectual analysis to polemical jibes, as other aspects of human behaviour. [p 10]

Very familiar.




  1. says

    Actually, Foote and Holyoake had very little in common. They were united briefly because they both disliked Charles Bradlaugh. Again, not unfamiliar. When Bradlaugh realized he couldn’t go on as the leader of the National Secular Society, he reconciled with Foote, who ascended to the top post in British secularism after Bradlaugh’s death.

  2. says

    It’s been bashed around these spaces before, but I feel again moved to repeat: the notion that it is inappropriate to be disparaging of religions even if you have thrown them over the side on your own behalf is, well, interesting.

    Thoughts I’ve had about the phenomenon, in no particular order:

    1) The general meme could generally be seen as an essential part of religions’ outer defensive layers. It may be impossible to keep everyone believing all the time, but keeping them silent (or at least mostly quiet and keeping to themselves) about their unbelief is achievable, so there are social mechanisms for encouraging this. It’s quite possible to stop believing in the god and hang onto this conditioning, and people regularly do.

    2) It could likewise be something of an extension of internal mechanisms in play all the time in religious communities. Doubt is a common feature of ‘the religious experience’ and ‘managing’ it is a necessary skill within the religion, and telling wavering believers hush, don’t worry about it, the doubts will fade if you just keep singing the hymns with sufficient enthusiam is probably a pretty standard technique (and probably works, to a large degree: one does tend to start to believe what they’re saying, so if you can just get people to say they do believe, they’re likely to start to do so–and see also ‘fake it until you make it’). Seeing the same mechanism, pushed outward beyond the religious community, isn’t really surprising. Again, the general notion that you’re supposed to suppress doubt or incredulity, just go along, let people sing their hosannahs and try to look happy about it is should be expected to pretty ubiquitous, given this social aspect of the whole deal.

    3) Whether or not the above phrasings really capture the essence of what’s going on, I do also suspect that to a degree, there’s a sort of post hoc rationalization going on in calling vocal expression of unbelief ‘antisocial’. Someone chosing not to express such unbelief is probably also considering the potential social costs of vocal disagreement as among their reasons; saying this simply the ‘right’ way of behaving justifies this choice, which they may also fear might be perceived, naturally enough, as cowardly.

    4) I’m often impressed by what I think are class-based aspects of it. I think I often see this attitude that look, not believing is fine if you’re powerful and wealthy and educated, but the weak and downtrodden and elderly and frightened, they need their illusions to get by. Don’t tell Grandma on her deathbed or the miserable in Cairo’s or Delhi’s slums or the guys who sweep the streets; let’s this just be our little secret, my fellow mover and shaker. Which isn’t so surprising either, given the social roles religion has played, and you just have to wonder how consistently and confidently the royals in the royal cults would have tended to believe they themselves were genuinely descended from gods when they also saw each regularly before their morning toilet; a little loose talk about how the Sun of Ra looks rather less godly before he’s had his facial would probably have been tolerated among those with sufficiently imposing titles… This odd thought extended: it does seem to me a big part of the recent furor over the Gnus has overtones of this. As in: hey, if the philosophers in their academies want to write books or a small elect want to sell each other books published by Prometheus Press, no worries; that’s a smart people thing; they’re allowed; let them have their fun. But if the unwashed start buying stuff by Dawkins by the millions at the chain bookstores, nuh uh, back in your boxes, ye with doctorates and big mouths. That’s not the deal. You’re allowed to talk to each other about it, but such knowledge is not to leak out too far beyond the grad student lounges, thank you kindly.

  3. Francisco Bacopa says

    Dang. I thought this post was going to be about Shelby Foote, who wrote the first full history of the Civil War from a Southern perspective without pulling any punches about what the South was really up to. Only Nixon could go to China, and only Shelby could set history right.

    Looks like this other Foote dude might have been almost as badass.

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