Joseph McCabe

By Jin-yeong Yi

Joseph McCabe in 1910

“[T]he trained athlete of disbelief”

—H. G. Wells

“One of the giants of not only English atheism, but world atheism, Joseph McCabe left a legacy of aggressive atheist and antireligious literature that remains fresh and insightful today.”

—infidels.org

For me, Joseph McCabe (1867-1955), Irish English Roman Catholic priest turned atheist intellectual and writer, has been something of a patron saint of not only atheism and freethought, but also learning and education in general. One of his chief publishers, the Jewish American socialist intellectual E. Haldeman-Julius, declared him to be the “world’s greatest scholar.” Overpraise, perhaps, but there seems to be little doubt that he was a scholar of the first order. Even Christian apologist G. K. Chesterton, one of his most notable opponents, acknowledged his competence and sincerity and applauded his intellect, albeit ironically, writing: “He understands everything, and everything does not seem worth understanding.”[1]

Armed with tremendous mental energy, discipline, dedication (one non-contemporary commentator describes him as “a force of nature”); a thorough knowledge of Latin, Greek, German, French, Italian, and Spanish; as well as an unwavering belief in his mission and ideals, McCabe wrote extensively on religion, philosophy, evolutionary biology, chemistry, physics, politics, culture, and, above all, history, for half a century in a lifelong quest to disseminate knowledge and spread the gospel of scientific progress.

Although this Old Atheist no longer had “an atom of religion” in him ever since leaving the church, he was still very much the preacher, except that now he was championing atheism, science, freethought, democracy, secularism, rationalism, materialism, and Edwardian feminism. He wrote over 200 (250 by some counts) books. As he had a firm belief in the educability of all people, much of his output consisted of short booklets (some as short as a few dozen pages) that were designed primarily for working class laymen and laywomen. (I expect that he would be rolling in his grave if he knew of the exorbitant prices his books are selling for today.)[2]

McCabe was justifiably called a “one-man university” by contemporary Isaac Goldberg[3] and dubbed a “20th century Diderot” by biographer Bill Cooke (see his excellent biography on McCabe, titled A Rebel to His Last Breath: Joseph McCabe and Rationalism). When he wasn’t debating or drafting pamphlets, monographs, or encyclopedias with his sleek and lucid prose (which was not infrequently infused with subtle and dry wit), he gave lectures, delivering three to four thousand (according to his own estimate) of them by the end of his long life.

Unsurprisingly, McCabe was a controversial figure in his day. George Bernard Shaw is said to have once remarked that people smelled brimstone wherever the man went[4]. Also consider Hyman Levy’s hilarious recollection of him:

When I was a boy Joseph McCabe was taboo. He was the Bad Man who spread the gospel of wickedness, using Science, the gift of the Almighty, for his nefarious ends. And so when the Bad man came to Edinburgh to lecture the young boy slipped into the meeting (without paying), and listened enraptured to a discourse on the Evolution of the Universe, illustrated with a series of marvellous lantern slides.[5]

Few, if any, would claim that Joseph McCabe’s legacy is perfect. He was perhaps too keen on the atheistic Soviet Union (though he never actually embraced Marxism himself, having no use for dialectical materialism)[6], and, most unfortunately, had a proclivity for alienating other freethinkers with unremitting and unyielding criticism. Nonetheless, he always strove to keep a balanced view of the complex and multitudinous issues he tackled, and what he may have lacked in diplomacy he made up for with loyalty to his friends and all-around honesty. An individual who better represents the love of learning (as well as the love of teaching) would be difficult to find. It is hoped that his legacy will one day be revived and be given its rightful place in history.

Selected Quotes

“…Atheism grows in proportion to the growth of knowledge and freedom. No law of history is more consistently revealed in the records.”

(from “Is The Position Of Atheism Growing Stronger?”)

“Blessed are the ignorant, for they have no difficulties.”

(from “The Mythical History of the Jews”)

“[T]he most deadly solvent of religious belief—let the anti-evolutionists realize this—is the patient examination of the so-called evidence which is offered us in support of it.”

(from “The Myth of Immortality”)

“The mind which has been artificially repressed will, if the process be not continued too long, expand more rapidly than the mind which is suffered to grow normally.”

(from The Romance of the Romanoffs)

“It is one of the ironies of the history of religion that what we call the great, historical, or organized religions took their rise from prophets whose mission in life it was to denounce religion in the sense in which these organized bodies use the word.”

(from How Christianity Grew Out Of Paganism)

“Do not listen to those who say that critics crush the voice of the heart in the name of reason. We want all the heart we can get in life, all the strength of emotion and devotion we can engender. But let it be expended on the plain, and plainly profitable, task of making this earth a Summerland. Do that, as your leisure and your powers permit, and, when your day is over, you will lie down with a smile, whether you are ever to awaken or are to sleep forever.”

“No people is entitled to be called civilised which complacently tolerates war, squalid and widespread poverty, dense areas of ignorance, political corruption, and the many other remnants of barbarism which they tolerated. The twentienth century was the last hour of barbarism, lit by a few rays of the civilisation which dawned in the twenty-first century.”

(from The Tyranny of Shams)

“Death is the law of the universe. In the days when Plato worked out the first rational arguments for immortality, as distinct from mere religious tradition, the claim was not so exorbitant. The stars themselves, the Greeks thought, were immortal. They were small, undying fires set in the firmament. Plants and animals died, of course, but these stars made men familiar with things which never died.

Now we know that the stars—not three thousand of them, as the Greeks thought, but two billion—are born and grow and die just like dogs, except that their life is immeasurably longer. There is a time when each is a shapeless cloud of stardust. There will be a time when the most brilliant star in the heavens will fade from the eyes of whatever mortals there may then be. They are made of the same material as our bodies: of gas and earth and metal. They fall under the great cosmic law that things which come together shall in the end go asunder—shall die.”

(from “The Myth of Immortality”)

“Materialists do not deny the existence and importance of mind and its ideals.They deny that these are spiritual. But because the world has been accustomed to regard the mind and its ideals as spiritual, the cry is raised that ‘spiritual realities’ are in danger, when the question is merely whether they are spiritual or not. A great man of science like my friend the late Professor Loeb would smile at the idea that his interest in science ought to diminish when he came to the conclusion that the mind is only a function of the brain. Most of us ought to smile at the idea that we will turn the world upside down because we have come to the conclusion that it is the only world we shall ever know!”

(from “The Myth of Immortality”)

“Pardon my little ironies whenever I come to these anti-democrats. I have never been able to see why the blunders of an uneducated democracy, as ours still is (though many an artisan is a sounder politician than many a professor or property owner), recommend anything except a practical education of the people.”

(on Friedrich Nietzsche and Jacob Burckhardt)

“[N]early 40 years’ experience has shown me that a taste for beer and cowboy-stories is entirely consistent with a taste for perfect art and the highest intellectual exercises.”

“We are not only evolving, but evolving more rapidly than living thing ever did before. The pace increases every century. A calm and critical review of our development inspires a conviction that a few centuries will bring about the realisation of the highest dream that ever haunted the mind of the prophet. What splendours lie beyond that, the most soaring imagination cannot have the dimmest perception. …

“… Darwin was right. It is—not exclusively, but mainly—the struggle for life that has begotten higher types. Must every step of future progress be won by fresh and sustained struggle? At least we may say that the notion that progress in the future depends, as in the past, upon the pitting of flesh against flesh, and tooth against tooth, is a deplorable illusion. Such physical struggle is indeed necessary to evolve and maintain a type fit for the struggle. But a new thing has come into the story of the earth—wisdom and fine emotion. The processes which begot animal types in the past may be superseded; perhaps must be superseded. The battle of the future lies between wit and wit, art and art, generosity and generosity; and a great struggle and rivalry may proceed that will carry the distinctive powers of man to undreamed-of heights, yet be wholly innocent of the passion-lit, blood-stained conflict that has hitherto been the instrument of progress.”

(from The Story of Evolution)

“The end or purpose of life is what we choose to make it. There is no end or purpose written upon the stars. We make our goal; and the only end upon which we can agree, the ‘supreme good’ to which all other ideals are subordinate, is general happiness—the greatest happiness of the greatest number. …But what is happiness? I am not sure that I know.”

Notes

[1] Orthodoxy, Chapter 2: The Maniac

[2] From what I gather, in McCabe’s day, the books sold from anywhere between $0.05-$0.25, which translates into roughly $1.10-$5.50 today. Granted, they were cheaply printed pocket books, but considering the sheer quantity of volumes that McCabe was generating, it only made sense (no pun intended) to make them as affordable as possible. At present, $15-$25 price tags are the norm.

[3] Joseph McCabe: Fighter for Freethought – Fifty Years on the Rationalist Front 

[4] http://www.mclemee.com/id155.html

[5] A Rebel to His Last Breath: Joseph McCabe and Rationalism, Chapter 3: The Trained Athlete of Disbelief

[6] Also, considering the fact that he died long before the collapse of the USSR, it is difficult if not impossible to tell what a complete evaluation of the regime would have looked like.

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6 thoughts on “Joseph McCabe

  1. Gary says:

    What a fascinating man. I enjoyed reading this. Thanks.

  2. Gary says:

    Many of his works are available for free, llegally, at archive.org.

    http://archive.org/search.php?query=creator%3A%22McCabe%2C+Joseph%2C+1867-1955%22

  3. Jin-yeong Yi says:

    I remember Robby Berry’s deconversion story (http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/testimonials/berry.html) making a deep impression on me during my own deconversion process. At the time, I couldn’t fathom how one could possibly endure the thought of there being no afterlife.

    /The Age of Reason/ is a true classic if there ever was one. And that is fitting, considering the price Paine paid to have it published.

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