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  • Contesting the Moral High Ground: Popular Moralists in Mid-Twentieth Century Britain by Paul T. Phillips
  • Ian Hunter
Contesting the Moral High Ground: Popular Moralists in Mid-Twentieth Century Britain. By Paul T. Phillips. [McGill-Queen’s Studies in the History of Religion, ser. 2, no. 62.] Ithaca, NY: McGill-Queen’s University Press. 2013. Pp. xvi, 227. $100.00 clothbound, ISBN 978-0-7735-4111-5; $32.95 paperback, ISBN 978-0-7735-4112-2.)

Start with a good idea; think about how to organize your diffuse material; write briskly, objectively, with an eye for the telling detail. Paul Phillips has followed this recipe and produced a fascinating book. Phillips’s good idea is to examine shifts in public morality in mid-twentieth century Britain, particularly during the decade sometimes called “the long 60s.” This challenging topic could easily get out of control, but the author’s organizational plan precludes that.

Phillip’s opening chapter (“The Setting”) is a model of organization and academic concision. He examines the declining influence of Christianity, the fracturing of denominations, the pervasive impact of science—or, more accurately, “scientism”—that habit of mind that presupposes that only that which is empirically verifiable can be true, and the effect of World War II on growing British secularism. All this is accomplished in a chapter of thirty-seven pages. This chapter alone makes Phillips’s book important.

In the next four chapters, Phillips shifts his focus and examines the contribution made by four British intellectuals whose writings helped to shape debate on public [End Page 801] morality: Julian Huxley, Bertrand Russell, Malcolm Muggeridge, and Barbara Ward. More than just potted biographies, Phillips analyzes how these complex figures related to their time and, to some extent, to each other.

Scientist Huxley (1887–1975) advocated a new Christianity, one stripped of revelation and subordinate to science, which Huxley called “evolutionary humanism.” This would be achieved, he suggested, by a threefold methodology: accepting agnosticism, promoting natural science, and entrusting the future to the expanding field of psychology.

Mathematician and philosopher Russell (1872–1970) regarded Christianity—indeed, all religion—as antiquated superstition, damaging alike to the individual who held religious beliefs and to the community. Religion, he considered, fostered fear and dependency; he once wrote, “… religion is a disease born of fear and a source of untold misery to the human race” (p. 83). Russell’s lifelong campaign against nuclear weapons and his vocal opposition to the war in Vietnam, may have had a slight influence on Christian debates about just-war theory and pacifism, but otherwise his influence on Christianity was negligible (befitting, perhaps, an author whose most popular book was Why I Am Not a Christian [New York, 1957]).

Barbara Ward (1914–81), the daughter of a Quaker solicitor, was educated in convent schools and then, in 1932, went up to Somerville College, Oxford. She became a journalist, writing frequently from Europe (where she advocated European Union decades before it came to pass) and was prescient about the looming danger posed by Nazi Germany. When war broke out, she insisted publicly that the Western allies fight not only against Nazism but for something. What? Unfortunately, Ward’s main (perhaps only) answer was a kind of insipid socialism that for the rest of her life she promoted under the banner “social justice.” When the Catholic Church did not move fast enough on social justice issues, she wrote to her parents: “I dislike Catholics and I do think the Church vile, humanly speaking, and it does very little for England” (p. 134). Ward was a frequent panelist on the BBC Brains Trust television program where she clashed with another panelist, Muggeridge, who treated her views with thinly-veiled contempt.

Muggeridge (1903–90) is the most complex and elusive of Phillips’s subjects. Author, playwright, teacher, and master communicator, he defies standard categorization. Still, Phillips’s analysis of Muggeridge is insightful, particularly the parallels he draws between the twentieth-century Catholic convert Muggeridge and the nineteenth-century convert John Henry Newman.

Given the stark differences among the four public intellectuals here profiled, it is a daunting task to draw any coherent conclusion, and it may be that Phillips...


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