Prayers of Our Fathers

Prayers of Our Fathers

Mini Teaser: Why American politicians eagerly adopt evangelical platforms, while British leaders avoid even mentioning God.

by Author(s): Patrick Allitt

Thus, while American Christianity was growing by leaps and bounds, under the galvanizing ministry of Charles Grandison Finney and dozens of lesser revivalists, the C of E was becoming increasingly vulnerable to attack and fragmentation.


AMONG THE greatest religious contrasts between the two nations was that an aggressive secularist movement was gathering force in Britain. While Americans found religion and the pursuit of happiness entirely compatible, a growing chorus of voices on the other side of the Atlantic was arguing that the way to happiness was to get rid of religion once and for all. The Church, said secularists, exercised a malign economic, political and psychological power. It tyrannized minds and consciences. The way to happiness and human liberation, they believed, lay in its destruction.

Who were these secularists? Among the most famous, equally in Britain and America, was Tom Paine, the radical ex–customs officer who came to America just before the Revolution and helped inspire the Declaration of Independence with his pamphlet Common Sense (1776). Paine was a popular figure in America so long as he confined himself to political agitation, but when, later in life, he attacked organized religion with his book The Age of Reason (1794), he enraged large and influential parts of the public. He spent his last years in New York and died there, poor, neglected and resented, in 1809. Angry clergymen made sure that the remains of this infidel were not permitted burial in sacred ground.

Secularism in Britain, by contrast, honored Paine. It then gained intellectual weight from the utilitarians, philosophers whose criterion of the good society was explicitly this worldly: the greatest happiness of the greatest number. John Stuart Mill was their most influential writer. He was also a pillar of Victorian moral rectitude and argued that religion should be rejected because it promoted not just unhappiness but also immorality. The God of the Old Testament was vengeful; to worship him would be to endorse his unscrupulousness. In his Autobiography (1873) he explained that he had inherited this view from his father, the Scottish economist and philosopher James Mill:

My father’s rejection of all that is called religious belief, was not, as many might suppose, primarily a matter of logic and evidence: the grounds of it were moral, still more than intellectual. He found it impossible to believe that a world so full of evil was the work of an Author combining infinite power with perfect goodness and righteousness. His intellect spurned the subtleties by which men attempt to blind themselves to this open contradiction. . . . He looked upon [religion] as the greatest enemy of morality: first, by setting up fictitious excellencies,—belief in creeds, devotional feelings, and ceremonies, not connected with the good of human kind,—and causing these to be accepted as substitutes for genuine virtues: but above all, by radically vitiating the standard of morals; making it consist in doing the will of a being, on whom it lavishes indeed all the phrases of adulation, but whom in sober truth it depicts as eminently hateful.

Mill also noticed that happiness itself, though central to the utilitarians’ project, was not something people could aim at directly. “Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness. . . . Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so.”

Younger English writers picked up the theme where Mill left off. Critic and poet Edmund Gosse had a very different kind of childhood, being the son of a well-meaning but zealously religious man, what we would call a fundamentalist. Philip Gosse, the father, a marine biologist, refused to accept Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) because it contradicted the Genesis account of creation. He was gradually marginalized in the scientific community for his unconvincing attempts to refute the theory of natural selection. He agonized over his son’s developing skepticism, believing that it would lead to eternal damnation, and this division poisoned their relationship. Edmund, writing fifty years later in his classic account Father and Son (1907), sighs: “What a charming companion, what a delightful parent, what a courteous and engaging friend, my Father would have been, and would pre-eminently have been to me, if it had not been for this stringent piety which ruined it all.”

Gosse, like Mill, treated religion as a source of unhappiness:

It divides heart from heart. It sets up a vain, chimerical ideal, in the barren pursuit of which all the tender, indulgent affections, all the genial play of life, all the exquisite pleasures and soft resignations of the body, all that enlarges and calms the soul, are exchanged for what is harsh and void and negative. It encourages a stern and ignorant spirit of condemnation. . . . There is something horrible, if we will bring ourselves to face it, in the fanaticism that can do nothing with this pathetic and fugitive existence of ours but treat it as if it were the uncomfortable ante-chamber to a palace which no one has explored and of the plan of which we know absolutely nothing.

A long succession of British secularists journeyed to the United States in the nineteenth century, hoping to persuade the Americans to throw off the shackles of religion. At home they enjoyed a growing measure of success; abroad they failed almost completely. The voluntaristic religious situation in America simply prevented most citizens from feeling that they were being oppressed. In 1829, for example, the British utopian socialist Robert Owen debated the spellbinding American Protestant preacher (and a founder of the Disciples of Christ) Alexander Campbell in Cincinnati in front of an immense audience. After eight days of claims and counterclaims, Campbell challenged members of the audience to stand up if they believed in Christianity and wanted it to dominate the world. More than a thousand people instantly stood; just three people remained seated!


AMERICA HAD its secularists too, certainly, but most were isolated figures, rarely enjoying a widespread following. English secularism, on the other hand, gained confidence, recruits and popularity with each passing year. Activist Charles Bradlaugh founded the National Secular Society in 1866, made bravura speeches against Christianity and campaigned successfully for a seat in Parliament in 1880. As an atheist, he refused to take the oath of office, at that time a requirement for MPs. As a result, Parliament refused to seat him—Winston Churchill’s father, Lord Randolph Churchill, led the anti-Bradlaugh faction. A by-election was held. Bradlaugh’s indignant constituents reelected him. Then they did it again and again until finally, after a prolonged standoff, he gained his point. George Bernard Shaw, William Gladstone and many other leading figures in British intellectual life supported his stand on antireligious principle.

Bertrand Russell carried the secular tradition into the twentieth century. He too understood religion and happiness to be polar opposites. Adopting utilitarian principles early in life, he was also a pioneering advocate of contraception, and he denounced Christians who opposed it. In a 1927 speech, “Why I am Not a Christian,” Russell linked these themes:

There are a great many ways in which . . . the church, by its insistence upon what it chooses to call morality, inflicts upon all sorts of people undeserved and unnecessary suffering. And of course, as we know, it is in its major part an opponent still of progress and of improvement in all the ways that diminish suffering in the world, because it has chosen to label as morality a certain narrow set of rules of conduct that have nothing to do with human happiness.

Not surprisingly, Russell’s advocacy of free love and contraception, along with his irreligion, led to a brouhaha when he was invited to teach at the City College of New York in 1940. The Episcopal bishop of New York led a protest movement against his appointment, while the mother of a college student who feared for her daughter’s moral safety prosecuted him. The judge, an Irish-American Catholic, found in favor of the anxious mother, and the school was compelled to terminate Russell’s contract.

Indeed, it is easy to make lists of famous twentieth-century British secularists but difficult to make lists of famous twentieth-century British Christians. There is really only one whose name approaches widespread familiarity—C. S. Lewis—and even he is more famous for his children’s stories than for his religious apologetics. He too, as he grew up, seemed to be treading the familiar British path to atheism but then something got in the way, an experience he described in his spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy (1955).

At unexpected moments throughout his childhood, Lewis was beset by feelings of overwhelming happiness. He loved them, but they tantalized him; no sooner had they come upon him than they were gone, and in vain he sought to induce them to return:

It is difficult to find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me. . . . It was a sensation, of course, of desire. . . . and before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased. It had taken only a moment of time; and in a certain sense everything else that had ever happened to me was insignificant in comparison.

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