Andrew Brown continues his quest to turn the Guardian into ‘Thought for the Day’.
This time, he appears to be channeling Sarah Palin.
Educated atheism is of course an entirely middle-class phenomenon. If you turned off the soundtrack, it would be impossible to distinguish a meeting of the British Humanist Association from the Quakers or an Anglican discussion group. There is nothing like compulsory chapel to produce a superior atheist.
Subscribe to a set of pious hopes about reason and progress, read a few of the right books, and you have found a clear social identity. It offers a set of enemies who are both harmless (when they’re Christians) and sinister (when they’re Muslims). Obviously, it is no longer done to sneer at the working classes for being idle, brutish, smelly, and breeding too much. But it’s perfectly OK to sneer at ‘faith heads’ for all these things: that shows you’re enlightened. It’s pure coincidence that the despicable believers are for the most part lower class as well.
Andy contrasts the limp-wristed, latte-drinking atheism above with the working-class, street-fighting faithful:
Robert Runcie was the son of a ship’s hairdresser; George Carey was a secondary modern boy from Dagenham, and even Rowan Williams came from the less fashionable quarters of Swansea. But they all ended up in the House of Lords. For all of them, the Church was the essential means of social mobility and it has functioned that way for a surprising number of priests today.
And the church of England has far deeper and closer contacts with the poor than any other middle class institution. The parish system ensures that the vicar feels, or should feel responsibility for everyone in the community. It may prove unsustainable in the long run, but for the moment it is astonishingly efficient. If I want to know what is going on somewhere I will ask the parish priest before quizzing the trainee who is all the staff left on the local paper.
A few points. Andy provides no evidence for his cartoon idea of shallow, pampered heathens versus an earthy pro-faith proletariat. But then, you wouldn’t expect him to.
Yet he does ignore UK-based thinkers and activists from the developing world, such as Maryam Namazie, who isn’t known for her wealth or social status.
In fact Andy commits the sin of snobbery himself in this para:
But in this country, unlike the US, the poor are not devout. They’re hardly atheist on principle; they just reckon that ‘it’s all rubbish’, along with every other system of organised thought.
Andy thinks that poor people can’t be atheists, because they’re too ignorant to understand what the word means.
It may astonish Andy to know that the poor now have access to cheap and free books and articles, via libraries and cheap broadband connections.
In fact, I even know some working-class people who have been to university!
Perhaps, like Sarah Palin, Andy perceives that once you have read a few books and formed a couple of independent opinions then you automatically become, whatever your background and income, a bourgeois intellectual.
Even if that’s true, I can’t help thinking it is something to be cherished, not mocked.
Update: This is a response from the New Humanist, which the Guardian apparently declined to print:
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.