19th Century Freethinkers

The Nineteenth Century


Most of Europe went through a period of rapid industrialisation and urbanisation, and the conditions of the poor in the cities was the cause of much concern. The works of the novelist Charles Dickens often exposed the wrongs of nineteenth century society, as did the pioneering researches and reports of Edwin Chadwick and Henry Mayhew.

In response to these hardships, many charities were born in the nineteenth century. Religious people did much to alleviate conditions in the slums, and the Churches did much valuable social and educational work. But it has to be said that, in an era when most people still professed to be Christians, they must also have been the owners of factories, mines and land who employed workers, amongst them women and young children, for long hours at low wages. Most of those who exploited and mistreated their servants, visited prostitutes, and fathered illegitimate children (who were often abandoned by their frightened and destitute mothers), must also have been religious believers. Religious people opposed contraception, treatment of sexually transmitted diseases (which were seen as punishments for “sin”) and any attempt to put legal controls on prostitution (which would have meant recognising prostitution as a fact of life). “Victorian values” were often repressive and hypocritical, and there was much intellectual reaction against them.

Some philanthropists were non-believers. George Baillie (1784-1873) offered prizes to encourage rationalist and deistic writing. He endowed Baillies’s Institute in Glasgow, which opened in 1887 for the education of workers. Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919), the Scottish-born American industrialist and philanthropist, claimed to reject all creeds, and when asked why he had donated organs to many churches, replied that the hoped “that the music would distract the audience from the rest of the service.” Ethical Societies in Britain and America (see below) took on some of the social and educational work that had traditionally been done by churches.


The most influential publication of the nineteenth century was Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. Published in 1859, it described evolution by natural selection over millions of years and confirmed what many had suspected, that the Genesis creation story was not literally true. Many people became agnostics when they learnt how life on earth evolved and realised that there was no need for a god to have created it and that Earth and all the life forms on it were not created in six days, though others continued to prefer the biblical account. Scientists like Pierre and Marie Curie were not religious and motivated by the desire to know more and to improve the human condition.


Although the nineteenth century is often thought of as a very pious age, it was a period of doubt and loss of faith for many thoughtful people. The intellectual and religious climate was already changing by the beginning of the nineteenth century and there were in America and England some very liberal churches and congregations, which, for example, rejected the doctrine of Hell, or who were, like the Unitarians, deists. There was widespread non-attendance at church, particularly amongst the urban working class: a survey carried out in England and Wales in March 1851 revealed that, out of a total population of 17,927609, only 7,261,032 had attended church that Sunday.

Humanist thinking developed rapidly in the nineteenth century because it was closely associated with new scientific thinking and discoveries. Darwin’s ideas, and new biblical research and scholarship coming from Germany, provoked a crisis of faith in many Victorian intellectuals, movingly evoked in Matthew Arnold’s famous poem Dover Beach. Darwin’s defender T H Huxley, coined the word “agnostic” to describe his belief that there were things that we could not possibly know.

The Positivist movement of Auguste Comte put forward a personal and humanistic religion, and was fashionable and profoundly influential for several decades. The German theologian and philosopher Feuerbach attacked conventional Christianity in a book translated by Mary Ann Evans / George Eliot asThe Essence of Christianity (1854), and suggested that religion was “the dream of the human mind”, projecting onto an illusory god our own ideals and nature. German scholarship also demonstrated that the books of the Bible were fallible human constructions, not divine revelation.

The first Ethical Society in Britain was established in 1888 when the congregation of a dissenting Unitarian chapel in South Place, London, led by its American minister Moncure Conway, rejected belief in the existence of God. Other Ethical Societies followed, coming together to discuss ethical issues, to do good works, and to provide alternatives to church on Sundays in the form of concerts, lectures and dances. You can read some extracts from “Social Worship”, an Ethical Church / Ethical Society “hymn book” here (pdf). In 1896, led by another American, Stanton Coit, they united to form the Union of Ethical Societies, which became the Ethical Union, and was eventually renamed the British Humanist Association in the 1960s.


Moral philosophy became increasingly detached from religion. Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Milldeveloped a “Utilitarian” definition of and basis for goodness. Friedrich Nietzsche attacked Judeo-Christian morality. The American psychologist William James speculated about the roots and varieties of religious experience.

Politics and Society

Britain’s first openly atheist MP, Charles Bradlaugh, was elected in 1880. The radical theorist of communism Karl Marx called religion “the opiate of the people”, seeing it as a comforting illusion for the poor and oppressed, and its abolition as necessary for real happiness.

This period also saw the rise of polemicists and publishers who openly challenged organised religion and theology, though some were still persecuted, like Richard Carlile (1790-1843), journalist and radical reformer, who was imprisoned several times for printing Thomas Paine’s and other political works, and G W Foote, who was imprisoned for blasphemy in 1883. In 1842, G J Holyoake became the last, and possibly also the first, person in Britain to be tried and imprisoned for atheism. Anti-religious and secularist organisations were formed to campaign for the rights of atheists and against religious privilege in society. Polemicists such as Robert G Ingersoll raised similar issues in the USA.

The arts

Many artists and intellectuals of this period expressed doubts about religion. In America, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) and Mark Twain (1835-1910) were essentially humanists and spoke widely on secular themes. The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and the novelist and poet Thomas Hardy were openly atheists, and George Eliot was an agnostic. The writer Edmund Gosse, in his autobiographical novelFather and Son 1907) tells of the efforts of his father, a Christian and a zoologist, to accommodate evolutionary theory to his fundamentalist beliefs, and the rifts within families that Darwin’s ideas produced. Others who expresses religious doubt in their work included Matthew Arnold, Samuel Butler and John Ruskin. Ruskin, Arnold and, later, Walter Pater, put art and beauty at the centre of man’s existence, sometimes seeing them as substitutes for religion. Many intellectuals felt the loss of a comforting religious belief acutely; for example, when the historian Thomas Carlyle was told that the manuscript of his book The French Revolution has been burnt, he exclaimed: “Oh, that I had faith!”

For teachers

Humanist Perspectives 1 and Humanist Perspectives 2 (BHA) contain more concise versions of humanist history, together with student pages on a range of issues designed for easy photocopying and much useful information for teachers.