History / Opinon

Death-bed conversions

One of the things that I found fascinating when studying the Reformation was the discovery of reliquaries. These objects, containers holding all sorts of religious emblems of veneration (from the last breath of Christ to hands, ribs, feet, blood, pieces of the true cross and everything in between) were far outside my cultural framework. Having had a very detached relationship with religion, ditching Calvinist Catechism for Air Cadets, I could not really comprehend it. I still get overly excited when I find reliquaries in museums, which to my mind, is where most of them should be.

I remember reading about how Martin Luther had to convince the Elector of Saxony to finally bury all the relics he owned. Not an insignificant thing, given that because of the size of the Elector’s collection had become a site of pilgrimage (and a source of income) in Early Modern Germany.

However, these things still exist. Fast forward to two years ago on a trip to Montreal. My partner and I went to visit St. Joseph’s Oratory, even though we’re atheists we tend to go to churches and other religious site because they’re usually quite large and impressive. And so too, is St. Joseph’s Oratory. The construction started in 1924 but it took until 1967 to complete.

As we started walking towards it, there was a pilgrim slowly walking up, stopping to kneel and pray on every one of the many steps.

But the weirdest thing was Brother André’s heart, enclosed in a giant safe. Brother André helped make St. Joseph’s a reality but died in 1937. However, that was not the end of his story, being beatified in 1982 and canonised in 2010. Even though this was almost 80 years ago, I find it incredibly weird that they preserved his heart, almost in expectation that his canonisation would be inevitable. I guess that’s faith for you. I suppose in my own mind, reliquaries exist in a pre-Reformation society and seeing it replicated in the 20th century seems so incredibly…ghoulish.

I feel the same way about reports of death-bed conversions of prominent atheists. I felt this was also a thing of the past but this week The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist was published by Larry Alex Taunton. This has already been pilloried by Padraig Reidy and Nick Cohen, so I can direct you to those for admirable takedowns of that book.

However, it was like a blast from the past. While Cohen and Reidy both mention Thomas Paine and Robert Ingersoll, there was of course, another famous English Atheist death-bed conversion story.

Charles Bradlaugh, prominent atheist, campaigner, republican and generally bombastic orator of the 19th century had similar spurious stories told about him when he died. So much so that his daughter Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner forcefully rebutted them over and over again.

Bradlaugh is often credited with being the first open Atheist Member of Parliament in the UK. He was originally unable to take his seat as MP of Northampton as he couldn’t swear an oath to God. Eventually a change of government and a Speaker of the House who didn’t allow a debate on it, allowed Bradlaugh to take his seat. His major legislative reform was to harmonise the patchwork of laws that allowed for the various religious and nonreligious subjects of the United Kingdom swear or affirm in whatever way they pleased.

In a biography of Bradlaugh, written by Hypatia Bradlaugh-Bonner and another stalwart of the secularist movement J M Robertson, it states:

“But his daughter had been driven to take the precaution of procuring signed testimony, from those who had been attending him, that during his illness he was never heard to utter one world “either directly or indirectly bearing upon religion or any religious subject.” 1

But this wasn’t any odd behaviour on behalf of Hypatia – secularist credentials (up to the very end) of various campaigners and activists were published in secularist journals. One to celebrate their lives but the other to counter the often anonymous accounts of death-bed conversions back to Christianity.2

I think the reason these sort of ghoulish (and they are ghoulish) speculations of people’s innermost thoughts about religion and life show the inability of some religious people to comprehend the depth of secularist, atheist or humanist sentiments.

Henry Snell, a secularist MP and later Labour Lord, makes a plea for understanding the difficulty of conversion to atheism. He himself experienced a lot of anguish in finally leaving religion behind. In what is one of my favourite quotes from my PhD research so far, he states:

“The cheaper kind of religious advocate loves to assert that the doubter enjoys his scepticism, because he is willfully wicked and deceitful of heart. How little these shallow preachers know of the spiritual anxieties and perplexities, the temporary accommodations and renunciations, the hopeful searchings and the reluctant partings, that the sceptic experiences before he find peace in a new and more satisfactory theory of life.” 3

To think that a conversion from religion is any less difficult than to it, really underscores the inability of some religious advocates that there can be ethical and moral motivations separate from religion. And that those motivations can be equally as deep, powerful and life affirming as those with faith. But as secularisation continues (hopefully, in the direction of the British Social Attitudes Survey), this like modern reliquaries, will probably become more ghoulish and distasteful to all, religious and non-religous alike. Then death-bed conversion stories to any faith really will become history.

  1. Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner and J M Robertson, Charles Bradlaugh: a record of life and work (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1908), 420.
  2. Susan Budd, “Loss of Faith. Reasons for Unbelief among Members of the Secular Movement in England, 1850-1950” Past and Present 36 (1967): 107.
  3. Henry Snell, Of Men, Movements and Myself (London: J M Dent and Sons, Ltd, 1938), 29-30.

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