‘A rebel to his last breath’: Joseph McCabe

Bill Cooke

It is an interesting question: how does a person who has written over 200 books and monographs and given more than 4000 lectures around the world over half a century come to be so completely ignored? Joseph McCabe was one of the most remarkable polymaths of the twentieth century, and yet is unknown, even by specialists working within relevant fields. How is it that a man who once featured regularly in the English Who's Who and was acknowledged as an expert on the Roman Catholic Church, and a populariser of science with a world-wide reputation, is now rarely mentioned, even in passing?

There are several possible answers. His publications are scattered around the world, with no centre having a comprehensive collection of his work. Also, McCabe’s output was so broad that few people are capable of assessing his work, which covers a range of subjects. And the almost total absence of any previous work on McCabe acts as a disincentive to beginning the task.

It is also true that McCabe has been lumped in with the large cohort of anti-Catholic writers. Much of this sort of writing, usually from anti-Catholic Protestants, is so prurient and conspiratorial that many people are put off, even for the purposes of study. Often a reverse prejudice swings into operation: anyone who writes works critical of the Roman Catholic Church must be prejudiced or fanatical.

McCabe has also been neglected because he was not a recognised academic himself. Thinkers outside the universities are often treated more as examples of trends in thought, rather than as people whose thought deserves consideration on its own terms. McCabe was offered a doctorate at Louvain University while still a Franciscan monk, and much later in his life was paid by Columbia University to lecture at its school of history. But it is chiefly as a populariser that McCabe’s reputation rests, and it was McCabe’s fate to be a populariser long before that was seen as an honourable vocation.

But there is another reason as well. What helped guarantee McCabe’s isolation was his readiness to identify himself as an atheist, materialist and feminist long before these terms were even remotely respectable. It is difficult to appreciate now quite how reviled these concepts have been – and in many parts of the world still are. Few people knew this more than McCabe. A public profession of atheism in McCabe’s day was often seen as a public confession of moral and intellectual bankruptcy. Things were little different for those calling themselves materialists or feminists. But for one who publicly and proudly used all three? This was more than most people could manage – even other freethinkers.

McCabe was a lone, and often despised, pioneer for these systems of thought which are now breaking tremendous new ground. He also deserves to be remembered as an extraordinary scholar - as one of the twentieth century’s most complete polymaths. He not only believed in, but acted upon, the Enlightenment ideal of the emancipatory qualities of science and reason. McCabe believed that, when presented with the simple facts, all honest people could and most will accept those facts and make such changes to their thoughts and beliefs as is found to be necessary. After all, this is what he had done.

From Father Antony to Joseph McCabe

Joseph McCabe was born on November 11 1867 into a family of modest, though not destitute, means. As the second-born, Joseph was always destined for the Church, which he duly entered at 16 to study for the priesthood. This despite an occasion of sexual abuse, which he did not disclose until he was 74 years of age.

McCabe’s rise through the ranks was rapid, because he was a precociously bright youth, with a particular facility for languages. On one occasion he was reprimanded for reading a Greek grammar – not a common offence among 17 year-old boys. McCabe’s problem was that he was too bright, and the Church dealt poorly with the occasional doubts that entered his mind. The favoured response was known as the blush technique - ridicule. ‘How dare I, an ignorant boy, doubt what such legions of great men believed!’

Father Antony, as was his name while dead to the world, rallied repeatedly, expelling his growing doubts, and rose inexorably through the ranks. He did so well in his study that he was appointed Professor of Philosophy and Ecclesiastical History at a seminary in London in 1890, aged only 23. He writes movingly of fellow priests driven mad by sexual frustration, ruined by drink, or sunk into a banal triviality as the only means of surviving the unnatural regime they found themselves in.

From 1893 onwards, Father Antony’s doubts became, as he said, dark and permanent, and he spiralled inevitably into a crisis of faith at the end of 1895. On Ash Wednesday 1896 he left the Church to begin a new life in the wide world. Joseph McCabe was 28 when he emerged into the world, and was remarkably untutored in its ways. He had to buy a book on etiquette so as to learn its ways.

As penniless young men have done for centuries, McCabe drifted to London in search of a new life. He quickly found one, becoming associated with the fledgling Rationalist Press Association. Thanks to assistance from Sir Leslie Stephen, who took a shine to the young man, McCabe was introduced to men of influence. As he had done in the Catholic Church, McCabe rose quickly through the ranks of the RPA. By 1914, a Christian opponent described him as the RPA’s ‘leading spirit’. For more than half a century McCabe made his living from his pen, writing an extraordinary range of books, monographs, pamphlets, magazine and newspaper articles and encyclopedia entries, and indeed, entire encyclopedias.

As well as the extraordinary written output, McCabe gave more than 4000 lectures around the world, from Melbourne to the Rhineland, from Glasgow to the plains of Kansas. He spoke to august bodies like the Harvard Club in the United States, and also to coal miners on the South Island of New Zealand. As well as lectures, McCabe took part in at least a dozen major debates with religionists, creationists and spiritualists in different parts of the world. The most notable debate was with the eminent spiritualist, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in 1920. The research McCabe undertook for that debate alone was sufficient to produce two books. In his autobiography, McCabe recalled the high expectations he had of freethought organisations. He remembered almost hoping the world would prove as wicked as his sermons had once represented, but he was sure that ‘anti-clerical movements would be entirely honest and courageous. I found at once that my expectation had the enthusiasm of youth and inexperience.’ What McCabe never came to terms with was that people arrive at whatever brand of freethought they embrace by a bewildering mixture of routes. He had taken the passionate route of the betrayed believer, one that had cost twelve years of his life and a large amount of suffering and isolation. McCabe always found it difficult to accept that others, whose path to freethought was different, were equally sincere.

It took a quarter of a century, but over that time, McCabe managed to offend just about everyone in Rationalist circles on both sides of the Atlantic. McCabe was a prickly personality, and not unduly endowed with a sense of humour. G W Foote, commented unkindly, though not inaccurately, that if flowers are like light literature, McCabe was more at home among the sturdy and nutritious vegetables. After a torrid bust-up with the RPA in 1928, McCabe spent the rest of his life in self-imposed exile in Golder’s Green. He continued to publish with the RPA, but it was mainly due to the evergreen loyalty of the eclectic American publisher Emmanuel Haldeman-Julius that McCabe remained in print. He died on January 10 1955, aged 87. He had expressed a wish (unfulfilled) to have as his epitaph, ‘He was a rebel to his last breath’.

McCabe’s rationalism

Most of the weaknesses commonly ascribed to rationalists do not apply to McCabe. For example, it is usually asserted that rationalists are guilty of scientism, or placing faith in science as an agency of salvation. This is not true of McCabe. Rather than giving ‘laws of nature’ a pompous cosmological inevitability, he wrote of them straight-forwardly as trustworthy ‘only insofar as [the scientist] knows it to have been based on extensive observations. He keeps an open mind until repeated observations all the world over have brought the same result.’ McCabe made the simple observation that we ‘do not want to substitute the word science for the word God.’ It would be entirely wrong, therefore, to see McCabe’s understanding of scientific law or scientific method as ‘hegemonic’, ‘marginalising’, or any of the other currently fashionable buzz-words. McCabe’s circumspection looks good when compared with one of his religious opponents who declared it a law, carefully defining a law as an observed uniformity such as may be made the basis of prediction, that all western Europeans would be delighted by the Toreador song in Carmen.

The same can be seen with McCabe’s treatment of evolution. Rationalists are often accused of scientism, anthropocentrism, speciesism, progressionism (among other things) in their treatment of evolution. This is not the case with McCabe. The outstanding feature of McCabe’s understanding of evolution, looked at eight decades later, is its breadth and accuracy. He had an admirable ability to distinguish a genuine intellectual development from a passing fad. And on most of the occasions when he departed from the conventional wisdom of the time, it was to assert a strictly Darwinian reading of the issue at hand. In doing this, of course, events have largely proved him correct. But what makes this achievement even more admirable is that, as we must always remember, McCabe was a populariser, writing for the general reader, and was frequently disparaged by the academic professionals in the field, not infrequently the same academics whose views are now recognised to be untenable.

Contrary to another fondly held prejudice of opponents of rationalism, McCabe was intelligently sceptical of fads such as Social Darwinism, which he denounced in 1914 as a ‘pseudo-scientific application of evolutionary views to social problems’, insisting that there is no scientific justification for a doctrine of eternal struggle. He was also scornful of the fad among some evolutionists between the wars known as ‘emergent evolution’, which sought to emphasise a vitalist creativity in each new evolutionary development. McCabe understood this all too clearly, and dismissed emergence as nothing more than ‘mystic machinery’. He noted that it was this variety of evolutionary thinking that the Church of England had in mind when it declared that evolution was taking up views more favourable to religion. It was also favoured by evolutionists with a theistic bent as it helped them reconcile religion with science.

This is only a taste of McCabe’s clear and remarkably contemporary understanding of issues surrounding evolution. In the other field he was well known for, that of criticising the Catholic Church, McCabe was equally perceptive. No better example can be given than to compare McCabe with John Cornwell’s book, Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII, which was published in 1999 amid great lamentation. John Cornwell, an intelligent Catholic researcher, experienced ‘moral shock’ having completed his study of Pius’s relations with totalitarianism. The important point is that every substantial claim made by Cornwell in his book was made by McCabe as those events were unfolding. Cornwell accuses Pius of indifference to the fate of the German Centre Party and indeed of German democracy (or democracy at all, for that matter); and of silence in the face of successive Nazi outrages against human rights, world peace and even the Holocaust itself. Apologists can cry foul, but they can’t dispute facts, and Cornwell is to be congratulated for his courage and honesty. But if this is true, how much more extraordinary was McCabe, who accurately called events as they were happening? Only once or twice did McCabe err, and these require the easy wisdom of hindsight to see properly. Before the war, McCabe was insufficiently sceptical about the vice trials the Nazis stage-managed against a large group of Rhineland Franciscans. And after the war, he made stronger claims about the papacy’s thirst for war against the Soviet Union than he had evidence to support. But in a record of 49 publications criticising the Catholic Church, this is a very modest list of failings. Particularly as he faced a constant barrage of calumny and abuse from Catholic journals throughout his life.

And finally, the least known aspect of McCabe’s work. McCabe was an outspoken feminist as early as 1899. His three main publications in this area; The Religion of Woman (1905), Woman in Political Evolution (1909) and Key to Love and Sex (1928) remain the most unjustly neglected examples of rationalist feminism in the twentieth century. Radicals like Havelock Ellis, C E M Joad and H G Wells have been criticised for a degree of hypocrisy in their feminism. Journalists like Ruth Brandon have asserted that behind their eloquence and rhetoric lay a conventional stereotyping of women as wives and mothers, and bearers of the next generation. Brandon did not examine McCabe, but had she done so she would have found this accusation does not apply. McCabe frequently criticised males who advocated female liberation merely so that they could have a freer access to problem-free sex. McCabe argued for the equal legal recognition of unwed couples and defended casual liaisons as a way that women can enhance the range of social and sexual options open to them. He sternly refuted all the prejudices of the day about women being more emotional, less rational, more religious, less capable of sustained action than men. He even devoted time to defending blondes from the usual accusations.

Even where he was wrong, McCabe is an inspiration. For example, he defended the notion of ether far longer than was seemly. This made it difficult for him to accept Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. But when, by the mid 1920s, he did finally accept he was wrong, he launched into explaining Relativity to his readers. In other words, when the evidence became overwhelming, he was prepared to change his opinion and adopt new views. This is rationality in action and acts a standing rebuke to postmodernists and others who either claim this never happens or attempt to belittle these changes under a smokescreen of psychoanalysis.

To conclude, Joseph McCabe was a gifted and responsible populariser of contemporary thinking to non-specialist readers. Despite being largely self-taught, he avoided all the fashionable errors of his day and gave his readers sensible, balanced and reliable overviews on a staggering variety of subjects. His books, whether on evolution, the Catholic Church, feminism, or a host of other subjects, anticipated current ideas by two generations. McCabe deserves to be linked with Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan as among the most intelligent, acute and lucid popularisers of the twentieth century.

Bill Cooke is a Senior Lecturer at the Manukau School of Visual Arts, University of Auckland at Manukau, New Zealand. He is author of A Rebel to His Last Breath: Joseph McCabe and Rationalism (Prometheus, 2001), The Gathering of Infidels: A Hundred Years of the Rationalist Press Association (Prometheus, 2004), Dictionary of Atheism, Skepticism and Humanism (Prometheus, 2006) and other books. His email is bill.cooke@manukau.ac.nz.