Nathan Alexander: Exploring the deep roots of Scottish secularism

PhD candidate at the School of History, University of St Andrews, Nathan Alexander examines the roots of secularism in Scotland

IN listening to opponents of secularism in Scotland, one would think that challenging Christian privilege was somehow a recent phenomenon here.

There is no doubt that the nation boasts a long Christian history, but one can equally find a long history of a bold questioning of the authority of Christianity - certainly not always prominent or mainstream, it is true, but present nonetheless.

Thomas Aikenhead (c. 1676-1697) might be one of the earliest figures in this alternative tradition. In his third year studying at the University of Edinburgh, Aikenhead was charged with blasphemy in late 1696.

There is no question that the nation boasts a long Christian history, but one can equally find a long history of a bold questioning of the authority of Christianity.

Among his crimes were ridiculing the Bible, dubbing theology "ill-invented nonsense", and asserting that both Jesus and Moses were merely magicians who had learned their craft in Egypt. Aikenhead's indictment was based on blasphemy laws dating from 1661 and 1695, which prescribed death for those who denied God or the trinity.

Despite desperate pleas from the young Aikenhead that he had repented his irreligious views and that he was a minor, not yet 21 years old, he was convicted in December and subsequently hanged on 8 January 1697, though not, it should be noted, without some Christians arguing for leniency.

Aikenhead's execution - the last one for blasphemy in Britain - sent shockwaves throughout Britain and continued to be infamous in later centuries and indeed up to the present day.

But secularism in its current form did not begin to take shape until the early 19th century. Robert Owen (1771-1858), though born in Wales, made his first contributions to secularism while living in Scotland.

Owen's utopian socialist experiments first began in Scotland at New Lanark, a cotton mill owned by his father-in-law, David Dale. His reforms ranged from the sensible - reducing working hours and improving factory conditions - to the somewhat bizarre - ensuring children received hours of dancing instruction each day.

Secularism in its current form did not begin to take shape until the early 19th century. Robert Owen (1771-1858), though born in Wales, made his first contributions to secularism while living in Scotland.

But Owen also believed that all religions were equally false and prevented the full adoption of his socialist principles. After a brief period in America in which Owen tried (and failed) to establish a utopian community, he returned to Britain in 1829, this time to lead several abortive working class movements aimed at the promotion of his ideas.

Nonetheless, his idea of creating a 'new moral world', free from the shackles of religion, attracted many adherents.

It was from this movement that modern secularism grew. George Holyoake (1817-1906), a devotee of Owen from Birmingham, coined the term secularism in the 1850s. He regarded secularism in a much more expansive way than most people mean today.

While most today would define secularism as the separation of church and state, Holyoake saw it as a positive philosophy of life that was unconcerned with questions of theology and instead dedicated to improving lives through science and other worldly means.

Under Holyoake's leadership, secular societies blossomed throughout Britain. The late 19th century represented the high point and there were flourishing of secular societies in Scotland, with major centres in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Perth, Dundee, and Paisley. In particular, Glasgow's secularist society had roots dating to the beginning of the century that built on its tradition of working class activism.

It was from this movement that modern secularism grew. George Holyoake (1817-1906), a devotee of Owen from Birmingham, coined the term secularism in the 1850s.

Many well-known Scottish secularists eventually drifted to London, where they made key contributions to the development of the movement, with John Mackinnon Robertson (1856-1933) likely the most prominent.

Born in Brodrick on the Isle of Arran, Robertson worked in various clerking jobs in Stirling and Edinburgh as a young man. He would lose his faith in his youth, but his break with Christianity was complete after hearing the popular atheist lecturer Charles Bradlaugh come to Scotland on a speaking tour.

Robertson became active in the Edinburgh Secular Society and through his writing became noticed by his fellow secularists in London, who soon lured him south to put his writing talents to use there.

Robertson's interests were eclectic, ranging from Shakespeare scholarship to Eastern mythology to radical politics. At a time when imperial fervour was at its height, Robertson was one of the rare voices to speak out against the legitimacy of extending British rule over foreign peoples.

While most today would define secularism as the separation of church and state, Holyoake saw it as a positive philosophy of life that was unconcerned with questions of theology.

This was most notable in the case of Egypt, where he championed the rightful claims of its deposed monarch, Abbas II, and carried on a lengthy correspondence with the king.

This secularist tradition extended well into the 20th century, in Glasgow in particular. While it is true the figures discussed here were often lonely voices against Christian authority, this is becoming less true everyday as recent poll numbers show about half of all Scots claim no religious affiliation.

The argument therefore that Christianity deserves special status or that Christians deserve more rights than any other groups because of their numbers or their tradition is on very shaky ground indeed.

While the nature of secularism has evolved over the years - the aims of the movement have narrowed since Holyoake's day - the same spirit of fighting for freedom of (and from) religion continues to animate the movement.

These modern secularist campaigners can look back and see that theirs is a tradition that too has deep roots in Scotland.

Picture courtesy of Thomas Hawk