By Callum Brown
In 1955 Margaret Knight became the most hated woman in Britain. She was vilified and demonised in virtually every British newspaper, and thousands of letters attacking her were sent by ordinary Britons to the BBC, to the papers and to her personally. Parents wrote fearing for the safety of their children, bishops and priests criticised her impudence, whilst well-known authors like Dorothy L Sayers castigated her ignorance. Hounded by journalists and pursued by photographers, the smiling image of Mrs Knight in her ‘Sunday-best hat’ and coat appeared in most newspapers. She was the nation’s number one ‘folk devil’ of 1955.
What had she done to deserve this? Had she molested children? Was she exposed as a spy and a traitor? Had she sold secrets to the Russians? None of these. What she had done was broadcast two thirty-minute talks on the BBC Home Service in January 1955 in which she called for children to be educated about morality without religion. She was a psychology lecturer at Aberdeen University, and spoke in simple terms of how as a humanist and atheist she believed that there were better ways of leading children to an ethical life than by drilling religious irrationality into their young minds. Such views are commonplace now in the twenty-first century and, whilst not without controversy, they are routinely debated by protagonists and opponents in the media. But in 1955, things were very different.
Margaret Knight was the first female atheist to be allowed to broadcast her views in Britain. A few male philosophers had appeared on radio to argue for atheism, notably Bertrand Russell in the late 1940s. Indeed, Britain in mid century was renowned for the depth of her atheist or agnostic stars, including philosophers A.J. Ayer and Stephen Toulmin, the novelist E.M. Forster, the historian A.J.P. Taylor, and scientists like Jacob Bronowski (who would go on in the late 1960s to make the acclaimed TV series The Ascent of Man).
So why then was Margaret Knight so controversial? Why did she achieve a banner front page story in the popular Sunday Graphic, headed ‘THE UNHOLY MRS KNIGHT’, in which it was said that the BBC had ‘allowed a fanatic to rampage along the air lanes, beating up Christianity with a razor and a bicycle-chain’?
First, it was culturally shocking in the 1950s for a woman to express atheist views. This was a decade in which a woman was expected to be chaste in singlehood and devoted in marriage to nurturing children and homemaking. To advocate scientific humanism went contrary to all expectations of what a woman should stand for. This was nowhere so well put as in the Sunday Graphic where, beside a photograph of Knight, it wrote: “Don’t let this woman fool you. She looks ― doesn’t she? ― just like a typical housewife: cool, comfortable, harmless. But Mrs Knight is a menace. A dangerous woman. Make no mistake about that.” The Anglican Bishop of Coventry, Dr Neville Gorton, was quoted in the Daily Express under a banner headline, ‘BISHOP CHECKS Mrs KNIGHT': “This bossy female,” he called her “this brusque, so-competent, bossy female,” adding: “She seemed a very simple-minded female to me.” (He was later forced to make an apology, admitting this was an “unchristian remark.”) Many newspapers, including the News Chronicle and the Express, made much of the fact Knight was unqualified to talk about children’s education because she was childless, or ‘barren’ as one of them put it.
Second, there was intellectual snobbery at work in mid-century. Just as the prosecution in the Lady Chatterley trial some five years’ later would suggest it improper for a gentleman’s servants and wives to read salacious novels, so it was argued that working-class people were ill-equipped intellectually to handle atheist views. The columnist Cyril Aynsley in the Daily Express wrote that “if Mrs Knight has torn a hole of doubt in 10,000 and more beliefs by her one broadcast, then it might be impossible to patch that hole.” In any event, as the Revd Dr Donald Soper said, Knight’s talk “consisted mainly of undigested bits of moral philosophy, bristling with mistakes.”
Third, the mid-1950s was the height of the Cold War. A Daily Telegraph leader noted that the “BBC does not allocate official time to Communists to explain their views, and yet what Communism is in matters political atheism is perhaps in matters metaphysical.” The paper accused the BBC of “A Sponsoring of Atheism,” fearing that “agnostic propaganda” was akin to “a serious apologia for polygamy, or homosexuality, or any other manifestation of the frailties of human nature.”
The furore lasted barely a month. But the fallout was great. It unleashed liberal criticism of religious broadcasting on the BBC and led to major reforms. Within five years, mockery of religion on TV and radio became common in the ‘satire boom’ of the 1960s. So great was her impact that broadcaster Ludovic Kennedy wrote: “Before Mrs Knight, Britain had been a more or less Christian country; after her it became a more or less secular one.”
Callum Brown is professor of religious and cultural history at the University of Dundee. His latest book, Religion and the Demographic Revolution: Women and Secularisation in Canada, Ireland, UK and USA since the 1960s, is due out from Boydell & Brewer in November. Read his article “‘The Unholy Mrs Knight’ and the BBC: Secular Humanism and the Threat to the ‘Christian Nation’, c.1945–60″ in The English Historical Review free for a limited time.