Joseph McCabe: Atheist Prophet for Our Time (October 2003)

In any field of thought or action it is often said that the theorists and doers of today “stand on the shoulders of the giants who have come before them.” In the field of freethought there have been a great many “giants,” from Epicurus to Giordano Bruno, to Voltaire, to Thomas Paine and Robert Ingersoll.

There have also been many others whose works have been largely forgotten–or perhaps I should say “more forgotten”–by the general public and even other freethinkers. One of these forgotten giants is Joseph McCabe. Emanuel Haldeman-Julius, famous atheist publisher of the “Little Blue Books” (and the lesser known “Big Blue Books”) described Joseph McCabe as “the world’s greatest scholar” and as “the atomic bomb of the intellectual world.” A close friend, Edward Clodd, said that “reading McCabe was like having a pistol fired close to his ear.” Amazingly enough, this formerly world-renowned freethought scholar and writer has been almost completely forgotten throughout the nearly five decades since his death in 1955. Indeed, Bill Cooke’s book Joseph McCabe and Rationalism: A Rebel to his Last Breath, published in 2001, is the only full-length work on the life of Joseph McCabe.

Fortunately, Cooke’s fine book goes a long way in providing strong evidence for Haldeman-Julius’s claim that McCabe was truly “the greatest scholar of his time and possibly the 20th century’s greatest freethinker and atheist writer.” Joseph McCabe was born in Macclesfield, Cheshire (England), on November 11, 1867, the second of eight children. Both of his parents were Catholic, although of different outlooks.

His father, William Thomas McCabe, was born in Ireland and had inherited the faith. He fled famine and poverty in Ireland and wound up in the Lancaster slums of England. Joseph’s mother, Harriet Kirk, was English and converted to Catholicism when she married William. She remained a Catholic through her life. Harriet named her second son Joseph, hoping he would follow his namesake’s lead and enter the church. The McCabe children attended the local Catholic schools where Joseph attained the stature of a model pupil and a zealous believer. (The details of McCabe’s early life can be found in his great autobiography and literary freethought classic, Eighty Years a Rebel, published by E. Haldeman-Julius in 1947 as part of the series of “Big Blue Books.”

Joseph served, early in his life, as an errand boy in the Manchester Merchant House. Then at the age of 16 (1883) he entered the preparatory college at the Gorton Franciscan Monastery. He was ordained at age 23 (1890) and became a Roman Catholic priest. Then, in recognition of his outstanding intellectual prowess, he was appointed to a prominent post of “professor of philosophy.”

However, as his knowledge deepened his doubts grew. At the age of 23 his reasoning powers led him inexorably to the position of atheism. He renounced the church and thereafter dedicated his life to promoting intellectual emancipation and a purely scientific point of view. It was during the Christmas break of 1895, while at the Franciscan Monastery, that he “descended” into the final crisis of faith. He had long fought against his growing doubts about the Catholic Church and the whole Christian mythology in general. Finally, he put those doubts in order and wrote the following: “I took a sheet of paper, divided it into debt and credit columns on the arguments for and against God and immortality.

On Christmas Eve I wrote ‘bankrupt’ at the foot. And it was on Christmas morning 1895, after I had celebrated three Masses, while the bells of the parish church were ringing out the Christmas message of peace, that, with great pain, I found myself far out from the familiar land–homeless, aimlessly drifting. But the bells were right after all; from that hour on I have been wholly free from the nightmare of doubt that had lain on me for ten years.”

Joseph McCabe remained a British citizen throughout his life. However, his main publisher, E. Haldeman-Julius, was an American who lived in Gerard, Kansas. McCabe also wrote extensively for the well-known English publication, The Literary Guide, from 1898 to March 1926. McCabe was a very popular lecturer and gave many thousands of lectures for over five decades throughout the world, including frequent lecture tours in the United States. McCabe himself stated that, “At least one million folk have heard me lecture in America and Britain.” McCabe was also one of the founders of one of the oldest freethought associations in the world, the Rationalist Press Association. His lectures were often sponsored by this as well as other freethought organizations of his day. McCabe exchanged many letters with well-known politicians, scientists (most notably, Ernst Haeckel), and writers of his time. This correspondence included such famous men as Bertrand Russell, Arthur Conan Doyle, Francisco Ferrer, a Spanish anarchist, and the famous historian and writer, H.G. Wells, among many others.

It was McCabe’s influence that is largely credited with convincing H.G. Wells of the nefarious nature of the Catholic church, to such an extent that Wells went on to write, “The most evil institution in the world is the Roman Catholic Church.” McCabe also at one time debated such well-known Catholic literary apologists as G.H. Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc. Cooke’s book lists three other contemporaries of McCabe, now also largely forgotten, as McCabe’s intellectual “heroes.” They were Robert Owen, George Jacob Holyoake, and Sir Leslie Stephen.

Joseph McCabe’s long absences, caused to some extent by his frequent, worldwide lecture tours, put an irreparable strain on his marriage. McCabe divorced his wife of 26 years, Beatrice, in 1925. He described the parting as “by mutual consent.” Joseph and Beatrice had four children, two boys and two girls.

Haldeman-Julius once wrote that, “If I had done nothing more than bring McCabe’s talents to the attention of what has become a world-wide audience–if I had done only this job, I believe I’d have established myself as a force for mass education and enlightenment with immediate and constructive effects on the thinking portion of the population. My association with McCabe has been enough to build a career for anyone.” Cooke’s treatise mentions many of McCabe’s amazingly voluminous writings. He points out, in particular, three outstanding scholarly volumes of significance: (l) The Key to Culture (40 volumes beginning in 1929), (2) The Key to Love and Sex (8 volumes beginning in 1929), and (3) The Rise and Fall of the Gods (6 volumes beginning in 1931). All of these were published by Haldeman-Julius in the “Big Blue Book” format.

As would be expected, McCabe was an ardent student and supporter of the theory of evolution. His translation of Ernst Haeckel’s work on evolution in 1900 (McCabe retitled it The Riddle of the Universe) put McCabe on the world’s literary map. McCabe’s translation sold an astonishing number of copies for that or any other period of time–over half a million copies in Germany alone and a quarter of a million copies elsewhere! McCabe once wrote amusingly of a time when he met Mrs. Thomas Huxley, the wife of the famous scientist and evolutionist–“Darwin’s Bulldog” as he was known. “I once amused Mrs. Huxley by telling her that I devoted a whole novena (nine days of prayer) for her late husband.”

The novena was, of course, during an earlier time when he was studying to be a monk in a Catholic monastery as a youth. In 1949 E. Haldeman-Julius stated that by his own reckoning McCabe had written 121 “Little Blue Books” and 122 “Big Blue Books,” for a total of some 7,600,000 words.

For this monumental output the author was paid a total of about $100,000, which was no paltry amount even for those days. McCabe, according to his own estimate, claimed that in his 50 years of writing he had penned the astonishing total of 15 million words–a record that may never be equaled in all of literary history! McCabe’s trenchant criticisms of religion, especially of the Catholic Church, are rich in extensive use he makes of history, economics and politics. Here, for example, is a classic, eloquent rendering of a century that had been steeped in religion: “Try to picture to yourself the life of nine out of ten in Christendom at that time. Cut out those pictures of occasional saints or scholars, or silk-robed merchants and gay tournaments. Follow the life of the man working from dawn to sunset, then returning to a sty, the floor unpaved, the cesspool and mudheap at the door, the filthy interior without the cheapest comfort or adornment.

Imagine the woman bearing her seven or eight children in it, doing twice the work of the poorest modern woman, brutally treated by most husbands; a cow . . . and the same gossipy and crassly superstitious little village round her from cradle to grave, the scold’s bridle or the dunking stool if she dare assert herself, the superstition of witchcraft if she wondered if the gentle Jesus did really arrange all of this, the sudden departure of the man for war, the famine drawing on with fiendish slowness, the plague spreading over the countryside. And there you have the true picture of the thirteenth century.”

As Isaac Goldberg, one of Haldeman-Julius’s finest atheist writers, said of Joseph McCabe: “The greatest tribute one can give to a writer is that it is simply enough to read him.” Freethinkers, rationalists and atheists: You owe it to yourselves to acquaint and reacquaint and enrich and enlighten your life by learning more about this most remarkable man, Joseph McCabe–Atheist Prophet for our (and all) time.

Freedom From Religion Foundation