Liz Lutgendorff reviews the first ISHASH conference, which took place at Conway Hall over 4-5 June 2016.
In June this year, Conway Hall Ethical Society played host to the first conference for the International Society of Historians of Atheism, Secularism and Humanisms (ISHASH). The small society branched out from the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network (NSRN) to focus specifically on the historical phenomenon of non-religion. We’re still a relatively small group, but one that we hope keeps expanding in the future.
It was a truly international experience, with historians from three continents and 11 countries: Austria, Canada, England, Estonia, Finland, France, Japan, Scotland, Sweden, Turkey, the United States. The conference’s focus was to ‘examine the state of the field’ as the professional historical inquiry into non-religion has never been more popular. Having been the preserve of a small number of academics like Professor Ted Royle (York University, Emeritus), Professor David Nash (Oxford Brookes and my PhD supervisor) and Professor Callum Brown (University of Glasgow), the number of PhDs up and coming across the work is truly amazing.
The first session really set the tone for discussion over the two-day conference; Nickolas Conrad (University of California, Santa Cruz) and Atko Remmel (University of Tartu, Estonia). The discussion that resulted at the end of the talks reverberated throughout the weekend. What should our field of study be called? Does it matter if it’s unreligion, unbelief or nonreligion? Should it always be defined contextually? My favourite point made was by Umut Azak (Okan University, Turkey) who stated that in Islam, all terms are equally bad. Potential differences in the West or English suddenly would lose relevance in some ways, when translated to a global context.
That was the best part of the conference – that bringing together all these historians, studying different time periods, thematic areas and geographical regions probably raised more questions than it solved – showing that the field is maturing but also has a great deal to offer future historians. It was useful for me as a part-time PhD student, as I haven’t had the opportunity to share my work alongside historians who look at the same thematic areas as myself. In my intake at Oxford Brookes, there were more people studying Methodist painters than those studying non-religion.
Another fascinating area of exploration has been the pushing back boundaries of when atheism or non-religion really started. We’re all familiar with British history of Carlile, Holyoake, Bradlaugh and Russell but what about Yamagata Bantō? Shuhei Fujii from the University of Toyko gave a compelling argument about Yamagata’s atheist and materialistic outlook, in a time and place where you might not expect atheism to arise – 18th century Japan. As well, the very new book by Tim Whitmarsh, Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World, came up in conversation quite often.
What I enjoyed most was how much more complex the history of non-religion is becoming. Intersections between race and empire were examined by co-organisers Nathan Alexander (University of St Andrews) and Patrick Corbeil (Queen’s University, Canada) as well as other historians like Professor Tina Block (Thompson Rivers University, Canada) and Professor Lynne Marks (University of Victoria, Canada).
There has already been a fantastic investigation into women and atheism with Laura Schwartz’s book Infidel Feminism (which you can borrow from our library). At the conference we also had another look at women and atheism from Suvi Karila (University of Turku, Finland) with the excitingly titled “Female skepticism is social poison” which examined gender and atheism in the United States in the 19th century.
Our keyote speaker was Professor David Nash, who raised many questions about the future of the field. Is there a relationship between the history of emotions? Is atheism natural or inevitable? The questions raised by David Nash and throughout the weekend showed that we’re only beginning to shape the history of non-religion.
The overwhelming impression I had through the two days was genuine interest, enthusiasm and excitement about the quality of scholarly work investigating atheism, humanism, skepticism – or unbelief, unreligion or nonreligion. Even if the geographical area or time period was unfamiliar, similar themes would occur and parallels could be identified. It felt like a field coming together, searching for the edges of what this historical field is and what it might be in the future. It was with incredible positivity that in our wrap up session, we were already thinking of the next conference. Or the crisscrossing of conferences across the Atlantic to make sure that the conference and society stayed truly international.
Conway Hall, and our amazing library, were given great thanks for hosting the first conference. The conference highlighted the rich archive and radical history we have right under our noses. It was also a prescient reminder that it is important to preserve our history and the archival documents that we have, so future historians can do further investigation into the history of this movement.
The library has been an integral part of both my Masters and now my PhD research, especially with almost complete runs of periodicals of the time – which we’re really lucky to have preserved. I look forward to sharing even more of history where we can with exhibitions and future digitization projects. What I commented on at the time, and which David Rosenberg states at the end of Rebel Footprints, the physical history of the radical past (including atheism, humanism and secularism) is rapidly disappearing in London with the inevitable and inexorable rounds of redevelopment and gentrification. Conway Hall still remains as a beacon of that history, perhaps only still shared with the Leicester Secular Hall in the United Kingdom. The programming and education that we’re capable of to bring that radical history to the general public and to schools alike is something that I think early humanists like Frederick James Gould would be proud of. He thought that it was only through education that we’d be able to have a truly secular society (and was most often disappointed when it shifted from being a focus) from the societies and originations of his time. With renewed focus on expanding faith school selection, it’s more important than ever that we are emboldened by our charitable object – the study, research and education into ethical humanist principles.
I’m happy to carry on with my research and hopefully others will continue to join those of us at ISHASH. It’s a fascinating history, with campaigners and people of influence across many time periods and across the world – which we’re only beginning to uncover. I hope one day more people will know the reason behind our society and hall being named after Conway. But equally, they will be interested in the list of appointed lecturers and find out about the campaigners that helped the world become a more secular place – and maybe continue that work in the future.