Victorian Literature Atheism and Secularization
David Nash
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 July 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0044


The secular movement of the Victorian period grew out of Enlightenment deism, which was an important constituent part of radicalism during the period of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Thomas Paine’s deist works (notably The Age of Reason) were an inspiration to others who would seek to challenge the authority of both monarchs and priests. By the 1820s a new champion, Richard Carlile, had emerged to rekindle the anticlerical fire and embark on a campaign of radical publishing that would see him, his wife, his sister, and an army of shopmen and women receive various prison sentences. Alongside this clear anticlericalism was a species of rationalism that came fully to fruition in the Owenite movement of the late 1830s and 1840s. Such followers of Robert Owen considered the elimination of religion as fundamentally important to the prosperity and preservation of the “New Moral World.” This movement collapsed at the end of the 1840s, leaving those interested in the antireligious program with no ideological home. This led George Jacob Holyoake to coin the term secularism in 1851–1852, and to collect the remnants of the membership under this banner, which was a defensive posture aimed at protecting the membership from the onslaught of Christian apologists. Holyoake was an indifferent writer and a poor speaker, but he had gained notoriety as an individual prosecuted for blasphemy, an issue that would resurface throughout the period. By the 1860s Holyoake faced the arrival of Charles Bradlaugh, a more aggressive opponent of religion than Holyoake, who was always more conciliatory. Bradlaugh made secularism a national cause through his National Secular Society (still in existence today), and he was the center of much of its campaigning activities. Although now disputed, it was once a truism to suggest that secularism as a cause never survived his death, and that the actual secularization of society aided its premature demise. Even a cursory look at the contemporary world reveals that the essential battles and areas of contention evident in the Victorian world have scarcely become unrecognizable, as evidenced by the “New Atheists” and their confrontation with both established and diffuse forms of religiosity. This has been engaged with by some commentators critical of the idea of the secular and the confidence it exhibited as perhaps the apogee of modernism. Thus, issues concerning the role of religion in the machinery of the state, the provision and consumption of education, and cultural authority remain common currency in the Western world. Likewise, issues of secularization have become of dramatically enhanced academic importance, as intellectual paths leading from the loss of faith in science, the democratization and individualization of religious belief, the rise of the irrational, free speech, and artistic integrity all lead back to this theory, its formulations, and implications. The “crisis of faith” (and indeed, as one entry in this bibliography suggests, the “crisis of doubt”) was an important cultural theme in the second half of the 19th century, and its influence upon a vast range of writers is immense.

General Overviews

These are specific histories of the secular movement in the Victorian period, and these serve as an introduction to this varied movement. Royle 1974, Royle 1980, Budd 1977, and Tribe 1967 focus upon events and movement culture, while Berman 1988, Smith 1967, and Mullen 1987 offer a specific overview of the ideas that influenced this period and the individuals who shaped the religious (and irreligious) culture of the period.

  • Berman, David. A History of Atheism in Britain: From Hobbes to Russell. London and New York: Croom Helm, 1988.

    A useful survey covering a very long time span (in detail from the 17th century). This makes a useful companion to the works by Royle and Budd, since it adopts a more obviously “history of ideas” approach, and thus there are only a handful of pages on Holyoake and Bradlaugh. Nonetheless, it fills in material on the prehistory of Victorian secularism, especially its ideological lineage.

  • Brown, Marshall G., and Gordon Stein. Freethought in the United States: A Descriptive Bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1978.

    An early bibliographic survey of the little American literature available. Gordon Stein was a noted freethought scholar who bequeathed his extensive and exhaustive library collection to the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York, where it is a cornerstone of this institution’s impressive freethought library.

  • Budd, Susan. Varieties of Unbelief: Atheists and Agnostics in English Society, 1850–1960. London: Heineman, 1977.

    An interesting volume that overlaps the coverage offered by Royle’s Radicals, Secularists, and Republicans (Royle 1980) but extends further into the 20th century. By and large Budd is more interested in the biographical and sociological aspects of the development of unbelief, and she has less to say about the movement’s history, battles, and individual personnel.

  • Mullen, Shirley Annette. Organized Freethought: The Religion of Unbelief in Victorian England. New York: Garland, 1987.

    Another account of the secular movement that focuses upon the central figures of Holyoake and Bradlaugh. This one sees its ideological rejection of religion as paradoxically drawing idioms and ideas from religion itself. The book accepts at face value the idea of secularism in irretrievable decline by the end of the century, seeing it substantially outflanked by a growing coherence in Christianity and the seductive allure of trade union and socialist politics.

  • Royle, Edward. Victorian Infidels: The Origins of the British Secularist Movement, 1791–1866. Manchester, UK: University of Manchester Press, 1974.

    This is the first of two volumes that together constitute an impressive overarching history of secularism in the 19th century. It covers the early period reaching from the start of the century through to the mid-Victorian period. It indicates the early links with the Owenite movement and is also useful for filling in the 17th and 18th century “prehistory” of secularism. See Royle 1980 for a continuation of this history.

  • Royle, Edward. Radicals, Secularists and Republicans: Popular Freethought in Britain, 1866–1915. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1980.

    Probably the single most comprehensive volume on the organized secular movement in Victorian England. Has chapters on the chronological history of the movement, strategy, tactics, and leadership. Comprehensive and authoritative, yet often capable of suggesting new avenues and directions for research, largely from the hints contained in the text. A number of avenues present themselves from this work as valuable places to commence future work.

  • Royle, Edward, ed. The Infidel Tradition from Paine to Bradlaugh. London: Macmillan, 1976.

    A collection of original documents that emphasizes the establishment of what secularists would look back upon as a “Paine-Carlile tradition” of militant and eliminationist secularism (seeking the removal of religion from the public sphere). Operates as a good companion to Royle 1974 and Royle 1980.

  • Smith, Warren S. The London Heretics, 1870–1914. London: Constable, 1967.

    Coverage of the secular movement is sparing in this book, but it is useful because it views the movement within a much wider culture of moral and ideological dissatisfaction. Thus secularists are considered alongside theosophists and Marxists, and their journeys seen as parallel versions of the response to this sense of crisis.

  • Tribe, David H. 100 Years of Freethought. London: Elek, 1967.

    An introduction to the broad field of secularism and secular movements. Although the actual narrative history is brief, there are also sections on Continental and international secularism. The second section contains an interesting series of thematic chapters about personalities involved in the late-19th and early-20th-century movement, as well as on “Education” and “Freedom and Reform” by which is meant personal morality and civil liberties.

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