Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Autumn 1998

Secularism: The True Philosophy of Life, by George William Foote

reviewed by Roy Saich

George William Foote is a hero of the Humanist tradition. He was an active advocate from 1870 and adopted combative language against superstitions, particularly Christianity, at a time when religion was not only wealthy and powerful, as it still is today, but when it was confident enough to be intrusive in the lives of everyone from the nappy to the shroud.

He had little formal education, but worked as a librarian, writer and publisher, moving from Anglicanism to what is now called Humanism, but which was then generally called Secularism.

He was prosecuted three times in 1882-3, for blasphemous articles and cartoons in the paper he founded, The Freethinker, which is still published by the company which bears his name, and is still going strong. He suffered a year’s imprisonment.

A supporter wrote to him, “You carry on a brave battle, for the best of causes, personally profitless as you must know it to be, and my good wishes are with you.”

He must have been encouraged by this in his struggle against overwhelming odds. The same supporter also wrote “Of many failures comes the final victory, and to fail is neither shameful nor disheartening if our hearts are firmly set upon the cause we support.”

This reprinting of his pamphlet is particularly opportune at this time to remind us that personality clashes are often hidden behind fake claims of fundamental differences of principle.

Nicolas Walter is to be congratulated in producing this edition with its useful introduction and clear notes of explanation for modern readers. Otherwise references to the circumstances of the original publication might not be appreciated. It demonstrates how little has changed, and what progress still needs to be made to establish a civilised society not dominated by superstitions.

Some people claim that what they call “morality” can only be based on religion, and that you cannot have any morality without religion. Such people do not go so far as to also advocate that what they preach should be put into actual practice. As G W Foote pointed out in this pamphlet “Our Jurisprudence is not required to justify itself before any theological bar, nor to show its conformity with the maxims uttered by Jesus and his disciples; and he would be thought a strange legislator who should insist on testing the value of a Parliamentary Bill by appealing to the New Testament.” This does not stop peers and MPs quoting from “holy books” to support their prejudices when it suits them.

Humanists aim to promote happiness – that of themselves and others – and as G W Foote also says here, “Happiness is no degrading thing, but a source of elevation”.

The second booklet in this new series of Freethinker’s Classics, The Necessity of Atheism by Percy Bysshe Shelley, is also now available. Each costs £1.50, or £1 each for two or more copies, from G W Foote & Co. Ltd., 25 Red Lion Square, London WC1R.
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Created : Sunday, 1999-11-07 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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