The move came after the world's second oldest publication, The Freethinker, adopted a new, non-aggressive stance after criticising and ridiculing religion for over 140 years
Life is a series of changes. Some you can anticipate and react accordingly. But others can blindside you—with seismic consequences.
Such was the case when I was informed on January 16 this year that my services were no longer required by The Freethinker, the world’s second oldest atheist magazine.
It was launched in 1881 in the UK by George W. Foote just eight years after D. M. Bennett gave America The Truth Seeker, proclaiming that the publication would devote itself to:
Science, morals, free thought, free discussions, liberalism, sexual equality, labor reform progression, free education, and whatever tends to elevate and emancipate the human race.
The board of management, for reasons best known to themselves, decided to take their publication in “a new direction”—one that represents a complete abandonment of Foote’s founding principles.
Under my editorship of almost 25 years, it adhered to the letter of those principles:
The Freethinker is an anti-Christian organ, and must therefore be chiefly aggressive. It will wage relentless war against Superstition in general, and against Christian Superstition in particular. It will do its best to employ the resources of Science, Scholarship, Philosophy and Ethics against the claims of the Bible as a Divine Revelation; and it will not scruple to employ for the same purpose any weapons of ridicule or sarcasm that may be borrowed from the armoury of Common Sense.G W Foote
It was judged that I was not the right person to continue editing a publication that had the motto “The Voice of Atheism since 1881″—perhaps because it was correctly anticipated that I would never go along with such a terrible betrayal.
I was naturally left reeling by my dismissal, not least because I had spent almost six months working flat out to prepare for The Freethinker’s debut on a new secular platform called OnlySky—a move that was approved halfway through 2021 by the board, and communicated to thousands of followers via our old site on Patheos, and via a weekly newsletter.
In sacking me, the board indicated that OnlySky was not where they wanted to be. Instead, they desired an independent site of their own, one that in my opinion so far indicates it will gently pussyfoot around contentious religious issues and not upset apple-carts by aggressively ridiculing religion as it did for almost a century and a half.
For example, this from a cowardly piece entitled “Free Speech in Britain: A Losing Battle?”:
Under the previous editor, the Freethinker regularly published Jesus and Mo cartoons. In the current climate, however, being a small operation, we have no faith in the ability or willingness of the UK authorities to ensure that our right to freedom of speech is defended against extremists. If other, better funded papers take the lead in publishing the cartoon involved, as they ought, we will follow.
The rebranding of The Freethinker involved ditching “The Voice of Atheism Since 1881” and substituting it with a masthead bearing the words “Liberty”, “Reason” and “Humanity” alongside the piss-poor image of a porker with a human face.
My take? it’s inadvertent signal that The Freethinker board has made a right pig’s ear of a brand I worked my guts out to help keep afloat.
With The Freethinker dead in all but name only, the “Voice of Atheism” now lies primarily in the hands of The Truth Seeker, which was founded in 1873 by Bennett. He was jailed for 13 months with hard labor for sending out an allegedly “obscene” leaflet via The US Mail.
This retreat from OnlySky, just days before OS launched, meant that a page specially created by for The Freethinker would hurriedly have to be converted into one simply bearing my name.
Who the hell is Barry Duke?
While The Freethinker was, until 2022, an internationally known and enduring brand—as one would expect after publishing without a break for so many years—the entity called “Barry Duke” means absolutely nothing to the world at large, even though, in 2017 I was handed a Lifetime achievement award by the UK’s National Secular Society (NSS).
In announcing its decision to honour me, the NSS said:
He has been a consistent voice for many years in the fight for justice and secular humanist principles. From resisting apartheid in his native South Africa to fighting for gay rights in Britain and Spain. Barry, who celebrated his 70th birthday in February, has always provided a strong rationalist voice.
After posting more than 80 articles on OS, I attracted a pathetic 1,103 visitors. This tells me two things: as a lone writer I stand no chance of getting the thousands of visitors that came daily to the Patheos site, and I will never see a cent for my efforts.
A huge financial blow
This is a Big Deal. The board kissed me off with a year’s wages to be paid in monthly increments. But when these payments stop next January, my income will be slashed by half.
So, in a bid to stave off penury in 2023 and prevent the loss of my home, I was compelled to launch a GoFundMe appeal. The last thing I want is to live out my last days in poverty.
By betraying Foote’s principles, the publishers of The Freethinker have effectively fast-tracked it to oblivion. Their new masthead makes no mention of atheism or secularism, which it was specifically established to promote.
I don’t for a moment regret joining OnlySky. Via Zoom meetings and regular communications with team members, I have learned a great deal about image editing, SEO, and much, much more. It’s been a pleasure to work with such consummate professionals.
Had the board moved over to OS, with or without me as editor, today it would not be saddled with the horrible, sickly green site that it now has. Instead, with a competent editor, it would be attracting the same sort of traffic it had on Patheos.
An indication of a blog’s success can usually judged by how frequently it’s updated, and the number of comments it receives. Between the beginning of 2022 and May 14, The Freethinker posted a grand total of 26 articles and garnered 15 comments, five of them from a single board member.
In the same period I had 76 articles published under my own name on OnlySky, which attracted almost 700 comments.
In the annals of abject corporate failures, the move away from unflinching atheism is up there with Ford’s launch of the Edsel.
Note: I penned an in-depth whistleblower’s piece about the publishers of this whole sorry saga. It was far too long to post here, but if anyone would like a copy in PDF form, please send a request to firstname.lastname@example.org