Elliot Hanowski draws on the history of Canadian unbelief to argue that ideological labels should not overshadow the pragmatic way unbelievers of all stripes actually behaved when dealing with the broader society.
Ideas never stay pure and unadulterated when they spread through human societies. Likewise, ideological labels rarely reflect the pragmatic ways human beings appropriate, revise, and apply those ideologies based on the needs of the moment. Historians of nonreligion, who often trace the social history of ideas, need to be keenly aware of this fact. For example, the twentieth century saw a wide variety of labels applied to unbelievers: from rationalists, humanists and freethinkers, to secular socialists, anarchists and communists. Their diversity has been one reason that a unified social history of unbelief has been slow to develop. A broader approach is possible, but it will require historians to look at unbelievers not just as repositories of a particular intellectual formulation, but as people who took practical steps to navigate and contest a culture that was hostile to their views.
An anecdote may help illuminate the point. In his biography Tom McEwen, a veteran Communist, recalled that his ‘most embarrassing experience’ took place in the early 1920s. Then a blacksmith living in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, he had just gotten involved with the Communist Party’s forerunner, the Worker’s Party of Canada. One of his new comrades was a carpenter named Franski. Aside from being a communist, the German-Canadian carpenter was also a militant unbeliever who wished to follow freethinkers like Robert Ingersoll and Joseph McCabe on the ‘god-blasting trail.’ (McEwen 1974 p. 97)
Franski challenged a local minister to a debate on the question ‘Does the Bible serve any useful purpose?’ The Saskatoon branch of the Worker’s Party wanted nothing to do with the event, but McEwen agreed to help out by reading aloud the Bible passages on which Franski wished to speak. When the big night came, the hall was packed to capacity with an eager audience.
McEwen recalled, ‘Franski had selected a large number of what he thought were the most salacious paragraphs from various books of the Old Testament (out of context, of course), which I had to read and upon which Franski would offer rather crude comment. When I got to the prophesy in Deuteronomy (23,1) which reads, “He that is wounded in the stones or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord,” the audience roared – and the women folk more so when Franski got going with his intriguing elaboration. As for me, I’d had enough of reading for one night and surrendered the Book to Comrade Franski.’ (McEwen 1974 p. 97-98)
Once the dust settled, the minister was unanimously declared the victor, and the Worker’s Party told Franski to ‘try and learn the difference between a philosophical atheist and one who doesn’t know what he is trying to talk about.’ (McEwen 1974 p. 98)
McEwen’s story illustrates one major divide between different types of twentieth-century unbelievers: those who saw religious delusion as their primary opponent, and those who saw it as a symptom of some other, deeper malady. This dividing line has sometimes been drawn between Marxists and non-Marxists or between rationalists and socialists. But the incident above suggests that the distinction was often as tactical and situational as it was philosophical.
Communists often cautioned each other to hew to orthodox Marxism, which saw religion as ‘the sigh of the oppressed,’ a reaction against suffering and injustice, which would dissipate on its own when material conditions had been altered by the revolutionary working class. The main goal was organizing the workers, not arguing metaphysics with them. This position was also highly practical; as Franski discovered, offending someone’s religious sensibilities was a sure-fire way to turn them against the cause. For example, in the early 1930s Ukrainian-Canadian communists were reminded by organizers that the struggle against ‘the narcotic of religion,’ while essential, must be conducted ‘with dexterity and tact,’ because religious people were very sensitive. Therefore any discussion with the unaffiliated should begin not with religion but ‘by drawing him into the struggle for his immediate daily needs.’ (Kolasky 1990, p. 110)
In different settings, however, we can find Communists and other Marxists deciding that religion was an ideological buttress of the capitalist system and therefore some vigorous god-blasting was in order. It should be recalled that Franski drew from both the freethought and communist traditions, and he was not an aberration. In the 1920s, the Marxist One Big Union printed a great deal of skeptical material in its newspaper and sponsored a cross-Canada tour by famed British rationalist Joseph McCabe. When the OBU’s stance cost it support, however, it performed an about-face. New editorials argued that pure Marxism stressed actions, not metaphysical beliefs, and that Christians and atheists could work together against capitalism.
Many non-Marxist rationalists and secularists also had to calculate their priorities. To be sure, some saw religious belief as the main cause of human suffering. If people stopped gazing up at the next world and lowered their eyes to this one, the argument ran, they would be motivated to make the best of this life. On a pragmatic level, however, many of these unbelievers had leftist sympathies but found themselves involved with an association (or even a publishing concern) which, for its own survival, had to appeal to the widest possible audience. Politics could be too divisive a topic. It was thus simpler to focus on religious fallacies instead. But the need for an audience could cut both ways. Marshall Gauvin, a rationalist lecturer based in Winnipeg, had a substantial working-class following throughout the Great Depression. Gauvin was an idealistic socialist with serious reservations about Russian Communism. During the mid-to-late 1930s, however, his audience was so supportive and interested in Communism that Gauvin gave numerous lectures praising the movement, including a particularly fervent one entitled ‘Russia: Humanity’s Living Christ.’ He would later regret these talks, but at the time they seemed necessary to retain his popularity.
The examples above are drawn from my own research into Canadian unbelief, but I suspect that scholars seeking to understand the history of nonreligion elsewhere in the twentieth century will also encounter these sorts of tensions and divisions. I would urge them, from my standpoint as a social historian, to consider how intellectual or ideological stances were often negotiable, driven by the desire for influence or the need for survival.
Kolasky, J. (1990). Prophets and proletarians. 1st ed. Edmonton: Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies Press, University of Alberta.
McEwen, T. (1974). The forge glows red. 1st ed. Toronto: Progress Books.
Elliot Hanowski is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. His dissertation research focuses on militant unbelief and religious controversy in interwar Canada.