Opinion

‘Are we losing our religion?’

‘Are we losing our religion?’

That was the question posed in a large headline above a piece penned by Rachel Pegg in the Brighton Argus last October.

Pegg revealed that:

People in Brighton are less likely to follow a major religion than nearly anywhere else in the country.

Her information was gleaned through an analysis of the 2001 census.

Ethnic and religious data released by the Office of National Statistics shows 40 percent of people in central areas of Brighton say they have no religion at all.

Pegg added that:

Across the whole city, 66,955 people, or 27 percent of the population, have no faith – much higher than the national average of 15 percent.

Sure makes me proud to live here.

Why should Brighton be less godly than other places in the UK? Hove-based Bill McIlroy, a life-long secularist, a long-standing member of the National Secular Society, and a past editor of the Freethinker, asked himself the same question – then threw himself into detailed research to find the answer.

About two months after the Argus carried the “losing our religion” piece, Bill dropped in to visit me, and placed in my hands an untitled manuscript containing the fruits of his investigation, bashed out on a rickety old typewriter. (Bill’s debut into the world of electronic communications – like the Second Coming – has yet to materialise.)

I found it captivating – so much so that I immediately offered Bill techical help to get it published. Funding for the project was provided by the thriving Brighton and Hove Humanist Society, which often has standing-room only meetings in a room above the quaint Farm Tavern, in Farm Street, Hove.

This month Without the Faith: Freethinkers and Freethought in Brighton and Hove rolled off the presses. The timing could not have been more apposite, for it coincided with an Argus front page report which demonstrated just how deeply in decline Christianity in Brighton is.

This time the paper revealed that St Peter’s, known as the “city’s cathedral”, was about to be made redundant. It is one of 11 Brighton churches earmarked for closure. According to the Church of England, just 1.7 percent of Brighton and Hove residents attend church services, so there is simply no point in keeping them open.

St Peter’s is a huge, imposing landmark, and according to the Argus, news of its impending redundancy – revealed in a letter from the Diocesan Pastoral Committee, a C of E body in charge of Brighton’s churches:

Left wardens, parishioners, and residents in a state of shock.

I would very much doubt that residents give a fiddler’s fig about its demise. There has, to my knowledge, been far more wailing and gnashing of teeth over the closure last month of a far more useful facility just a short step from St Peter’s – the Co-op department store, housed in a monumental, grey Art Deco building on the London Road.

A palpable air of heart-wrenching sadness permeated the building prior to its closure, and, in the last days of this once grand old store, staff – many of them stalwarts who had worked there for the best part of their lives – stood forlornly by and tearfully watched as their departments were dismantled, and goods and shop fittings sold off under their noses for a pittance.

Which brings me back to Bill’s book – and the revelation therein that Brighton resident and leading Victorian secularist George Jacob Holyoake had played a leading role in the Co-operative movement.

A portrait of Holyoake by William Holyoake

A portrait of George Jacob Holyoake by William Holyoake

Bill reveals:

The 19th century was not an easy period for non-conformists of any stripe. Co-operative pioneers were vilified by the Anglican clergy and, as a secularist, Holyoake was doubly condemned.

Though anxious to distance himself from the more vigorous opponents of church and clergy, Holyoake’s chance remark at a meeting in Cheltenham (suggesting that the Deity should be put on half pay) resulted in six months’ imprisonment. And he once declared: ‘I shudder at the thought of religion and flee the Bible as a viper.’

Holyoake played a key role in the formation of Brighton Equitable Co-operative Society. There had already been small co-operatives in the town. Most were short-lived, but though they failed, the co-operative idea survived. It was fostered by supporters like Dr William King and Richard Russell, Licentiate of the Royal Society of Physicians. Lady Byron, widow of the poet, lived for a time in Brighton and was a generous supporter of the Co-operative movement.

The initial meeting of BECS took place at 29 Duke Street on 18 November, 1887. During the following months new members were enrolled and a committee elected. G J Holyoake was president.

The Society’s first shop was opened on 16 May, 1888, at 32 North Road. (The shop is still there, but in private ownership.) The staff of three worked a 73-and-half-hour week with a half-day off on Wednesday. These near-Utopian conditions infuriated local shop owners whose staff worked between 75 and 90 hours a week with no half-day off. And of course the Co-operative dividend on purchases was a boon to working-class families.

Holyoake’s long association with the Co-operative and freethought movements is reflected in a notable ‘double’. In 1844 he presided at the opening of Rochdale Co-operative store; in 1899 he chaired the inaugural meeting of the Rationalist Press Association.

Holyoake was just one of an array of amazing characters who have helped shape Brighton and Hove’s sceptical identity, and Bill – who has tirelessly carried on the tradition – has drawn them together in a marvellously detailed tapestry of scepticism. Not surprisingly, he has dedicated his 24-page booklet:

To all those who have helped make this city the most godless in Britain.

Without the Faith: Freethinkers and Freethought in Brighton and Hove is available here.

This piece first appeared on the Freethinker site on March 28, 2007. Sadly, Bill died last August, aged 85. The Brighton and Hove Humanist Society has since been renamed the Brighton Secular Humanist Society.

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