by Charlie Lynch
In 1960, John Highet surveyed the religious demographics of the nation in one of Scotland’s earliest full-length works of sociology. Highet was a devout member of the Church of Scotland and was effectively their ‘in house’ sociologist. Yet his statistics revealed that even in the immediate aftermath of a large-scale religious revival, the number of Scots who were affiliated with churches was surprisingly low at around 66% of the adult population.1 Highet was keen to mitigate this perhaps embarrassing statistic, recruiting into the number of the absent 34% an unknowable number of ‘four door Christians’ – those whose only attendance at church might be when they were delivered for baptism in a pram, were driven in a taxi for their wedding, and finally, arrived in a hearse for their funeral. He further asserted – without recourse to evidence – that in any theological dispute most Scots would be ‘found on the side of the angels’.2
We cannot know how many atheists there were living in Scotland in the decade following the Second World War. No such statistics were collected and few if any had any interest or advantage in gathering them. While a large minority of Scots were ‘unchurched’, to be an atheist in such a culture was challenging and placed the individual outside accepted community norms. John Highet believed that atheism was sufficiently extreme and unlikely that atheists and agnostics (whom he grouped together) could only comprise an insignificant minority. He imagined ‘intellectually convinced’ atheists as marginal people, comparable in numbers to the ‘mentally somnolent’.3
Studying Atheists in post-war Scotland poses a series of difficulties. Firstly, they rarely belonged to organisations and as such are not readily identifiable. They were people who usually kept a low profile, seeking to present outward conformity in a society that was deeply suspicious of difference. Yet, the organic nature of religious doubt and rejection of religious teachings and ideologies meant that atheists could conceivably be discoverable across Scottish society. The evidence for their lives and beliefs is invariably fragmentary.
Atheism was widely associated with Communism. Within the context of the Cold War, communism and the state atheism of the USSR provided an alternative ideological system which explicitly dispensed with churches. It is likely that many atheists were indeed communists. In October 1956, these identities were scrutinised by the Court of Session, Scotland’s highest civil court, in a judgement that also highlighted the extent of legal discrimination against the non-religious. The attentions of the judges were focused upon a dispute between an estranged husband, the proprietor of a saw-mill in the Highland village of Golspie, and his wife over the custody of their seven year old daughter. She had produced written evidence that her husband had declared that he ‘believed in Communism and had no time for religion’. The judges were disturbed by such information and were only prepared to allow the child to remain with her father if his own mother ensured religious instruction was given. ‘It was almost impossible’, they asserted, ‘for a court in Scotland to award custody to an atheist without the prospect of the child being bought up without the solace and guidance of any religious teaching at all’.4
Conflation of atheism with communism characterised a revealing story of paranoia in small-town Scotland. The artist, David Sillars, recalled growing up with his pious relatives in the village of Lamlash on the Isle of Arran. ‘My grandmother’, he remembered, ‘had neighbours who had painted the woodwork of their house’s exterior red, in contrast to the green that was the norm. Further evidence of their supposed communism was that they didn’t go to church and that they erected a large aerial. I now know the gentleman was a ham radio enthusiast, but my grandmother was convinced they were sending messages to Russia’.5
David remembered his father – an elder in the Church of Scotland – disparaging the poet, Hugh MacDiarmid (C. M. Grieve) for both his atheism and communism. MacDiarmid was arguably the most famous atheist in Scotland during the mid-twentieth century, an outspoken contrarian whose unpopular political causes placed him firmly outside mainstream opinion. While not known for ideological consistency, MacDiarmid was a lifelong non-believer and, indeed, a freethinker in classic mode.6 In fact, he was a humanist who, when active in civic government in Montrose in during the 1920s, had conducted non-religious ceremonies.7
While both popular culture and much religious opinion conflated atheism with communism during the mid-twentieth century, fragments of oral history shed light on everyday unbelief and scepticism. They demonstrate the existence of atheists who were not communists. Instead, they were people who simply dissented from and objected to the existential claims made by churches and who wished to avoid connection with organised religion as much as possible. Sheila Whyte grew up in the 1940s in Clarkston, a suburb in Glasgow’s Southside. Her father, a teacher of Classics in elite secondary schools, was remembered as both silent about and indifferent to religion. Both he and her mother were ‘atheists who had no time for church at all’. The exception to these memories of silence and absence was that her mother had become alienated from churchgoing following an unknown incident, presumably back in the 1920s or 1930s. Sheila had no recollection of her father or his relations having had any religious affiliation at all, suggesting that their family could been one of an elusive minority – the ‘never churched’.8
Across the Clyde in Maryhill, James Morrison recalled his childhood in the 1950s. His father, a military veteran, ran a pet shop. Both of Morrison’s parents were atheists. Morrison senior was an ex-Catholic who had rejected the faith of his family and who had entered into a ‘mixed marriage’. He was remembered as being both dismissive of and disinterested in religion which he associated with sectarian conflict in Ireland, and he deplored the effects of the harsh moral strictures of the Catholic Church upon the lives of his pious brother and sister. His views might be characterised as a kind of ‘folk humanism’ which drew upon appeals to rationality, and he was fond of deploying ‘common sense’ arguments against religion. When asked by his son if he believed in heaven, he reportedly pointed at the family’s beloved Labrador and announced that he would refuse to go unless animals were permitted entrance as well.9
This post has provided a brief reconnaissance into the history of atheism in Scotland during the 1950s, a decade more conventionally associated with a conspicuous revival of interest in churchgoing and in Christianity. Although the number of atheists living in Scotland during the fifties remains unknowable, it seems that they were a minority amongst a somewhat larger minority of the ‘unchurched’. Their number may have been greater than John Highet was willing to admit. As it was not illegal, only unusual situations such as the 1956 Court of Session judgement bought atheism to the attention of the authorities. The snapshots of everyday atheism given here – however imperfect – show not only how some people sought to resist cultural and religious conventionality but imply the existence of an substrata of heterodox thought even during this most conformist of decades.
Dr Charlie Lynch is a Scottish historian sojourning in the North of Ireland, where he is a Research Associate at Ulster University, Belfast. He is working on a project entitled, ‘Queer NI: Sexuality Before Liberation’, and is co-author of The Humanist Movement, 1896-2021: Ethicists, Humanists and Rationalists in Modern Britain (Bloomsbury: Forthcoming). His journal article, ‘Moral Panic in the Industrial Town’ was recently published in Twentieth Century British History.
1 John Highet, The Scottish Churches (London, 1960), p. 54.
2 Ibid., p. 54.
3 Ibid., p. 147.
4 Edinburgh Evening Dispatch (10 October 1956).
5 David Sillars via email to Charlie Lynch (4 November 2021).
6 The National, ‘Hugh MacDiarmid: Our greatest poet who saw Scotland on an infinite level’ (15 July 2016), accessed 18 February 2022.
7 Gordon Wright, MacDiarmid: An Illustrated Biography (Edinburgh, 1977), p. 31.
8 Sheila Whyte via interview by Charlie Lynch (30 June 2021).
9 James Morrison via interview by Charlie Lynch (8 August 2016).
Ideas for Further Reading
- Brown, Callum, Becoming Atheist: Humanism and the Secular West (London, 2017).
- Bruce, Steve, Scottish Gods: Religion in Modern Scotland, 1900-2012 (Edinburgh, 2016).
- Highet, John, The Scottish Churches (London, 1960).
- Ruse, Michael and Stephen Bullivant, eds., The Cambridge History of Atheism (Cambridge, 2021).