The Freethinker (J.B. Priestly)

I went to see Patrick Stewert in “Johnson Over Jordan” at Leeds Play
House many years ago; with a friend that had never seen a play before but knew Next Generation better then I ever could. That night he fell in love with the theatre and I with J.B. Priestly who came from my friend’s hometown of Bradford.

So it was with great delight a few weeks ago that stopping in St Agnes I came across a 1941 edition of J.B. Priestly’s book “Out of the People” at an honesty box village stall. Overjoyed, because his books are out of print, I willingly paid more than asking price. As you can imagine, the book is how real democracy contrasts with the Nazis, and traditional Toryism.

The play “Johnson Over Jordan” is about a person coming to terms with their life after death. While there is the setting of an after life, who orchestrates, let alone faith allowing admission, is put to one side. This is a personal journey not so much in terms of highs and lows of a life, but the realisation of Johnson’s character as revealed to them in how they behave in the after life. This catharsis leads to acceptance, realisation of self, enlightenment and finally peace.

Priestley was a Christian and believes that an obstacle to democracy is religious decay, which he argues in chapter 7 of the book I am reading. The argument is not against the free thinker but the person that “could neither use faith as a crutch nor reason as a weapon” (Priestly, p.53) whom he feels has a void in their atheism because they do not care about their fellow creation as they lack a social conscience due to not feeling dignity as a part of creation. He defends free thinkers as we know them, as befits the play writer of “Johnson over Jordan”, having avoided whether the world would be a better or worse off without devout religious fervour:

“Again, we must make a sharp distinction between this decay of religious belief and the militant crusading spirit of the freethinker. The later is no longer a familiar type, and hardly belongs to the present era. Whether right or wrong in his conclusions, there was nothing decadent or defeatist about him. He was nearly always both an optimist and a fighter, and often as ardent and selfless in his attempts to deny God as the saints have been to affirm Him. With men of this temper, who nearly always combined a passion for radical reform with their freethinking, a vital democracy was always possible and they would have been among its most public-spirited citizens.” (ibid, p.52-3)

This humanism is in contrast to the apathy of those that not only deny existence of god, but lack any empathy with their fellow human beings. I have to take issue with Priestly that with God vanishing a leader like Hitler can pick up many honours that allow their palpable authority of force to rule without question. Their power empirically proved unlike a creator (ibid, p.54). One only has to think of Napoleon, who increased his power by claim of divine destiny and that all forms of government will tend to monarchism even if only in power but avoid the name but dress in it’s colour. A device the Caesars knew well, and that the religious imperative a way to Men’s hearts that laws could not touch and laid the provenance for others to copy in hopes of emulating the glory of the Empire (or at least as Caesar in their domain).

I think the freethinkers time has come; indeed the Second World War showed that religion and secularism were not enough to bring peace on earth and good will to all (I shall exclude the male pro noun now). It would rather be a an idea that would challenge those that would use the masses as a means to their will. It was the very action of being a free thinker ready to question using people as the playthings of gods, clerics or rulers. That the state, nor church, could decree the thoughts of people. That freedom means honest debate and dissent from other’s opinions. That there really was one form of government that could do justifce to this liberty of conscience, and that under it’s imperfect apparatus the people could triumph over the machinations of fascist tyranny.

It is democracy – and long may we be prepared to defend it as a means of freedom to the people, and ever guard our freedoms, and those of others. It may not mean peace on earth, for ever will the unscrupulously ambitious try to usurp the people. But life is not the same value without it and at times it has it’s price.

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