Kathleen Nott and the ‘problem’ of the female atheist

A noteworthy absentee from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is Kathleen Nott (1905-1999), who I came across recently. Nott was a poet, novelist, humanist and philosopher, and I think she deserves more attention.[1]

I came across Nott because she wrote the introduction to a rare species of book – the autobiography of a female British humanist and atheist, Yvonne Stevenson, The Hot-House Plant: An autobiography of a young girl (London, Elek/Pemberton, 1976), that I bought (but failed to read until recently) in a second hand bookshop.  Nott seems not to have written her own autobiography, but has left a considerable body of work of interest to the historian of humanism.

Leading amongst this is her book, The Emperor’s Clothes (London, William Heinemann, 1953), which is a broad assault on the literary Christian revival which had started in the thirties but which peaked in post-war England. The book was directed against what she called the ‘dogmatic insolence’ of T.S. Elliot, Dorothy L. Sayers, C.S. Lewis, Grahame Greene and Evelyn Waugh. She described these men (and one woman) as those determined ‘to re-establish the intellectual sovereignty of theology’.[2] Her book is a close analysis of what she regards as their ‘neo-scholasticism’, which she portrays as attempting to subvert the place of science and rationalism by asserting the moral authority of Christianity over human action and development.

At the heart of her work is the application of what we might now call evidence-based analysis. This she applies when having ‘a go’ at a literary historian – Basil Willey who wrote a well-known book, The Seventeenth Century Background (1934). This she describes as seeking to take the science out of the Renaissance by commanding an alternative ‘truth’ from divinity, evident in something Willey describes as ‘the whole of reality’ (as distinct from merely the scientific reality).[3]

Nott has great fun undermining the evidential base of all these writers. She has particular enjoyment in tackling Dorothy Sayers in a chapter entitled “Lord Peter Views His Soul” (a reference to Sayer’s fictional detective, Lord Peter Wimsey). She describes Sayers along with C.S. Lewis as ‘fundamentalists’: “In both may be discerned again and again a wish to discredit scientific thinking which springs from a profounder wish to make theology paramount again.” She criticises Sayers’ attempts to ridicule scientists who fail to understand theological concepts – such as the theological meaning of the term “substance” (which, Nott argues, rests on a spurious effort to make it an equivalent to a scientist’s meaning).[4] Certainly, Sayers thrived on heaping scorn on atheists. She did the same in 1955 to Margaret Knight after her famous BBC humanist broadcasts, accusing Knight of being ignorant about the latest advances in theology (which Knight confessed to, but didn’t see as undermining a case for reason and humanism). Sayers did the same to astronomer Fred Hoyle, ‘lecturing him through spiritual pince-nez’.

Nott’s book was described as ‘controversial’. This seems mainly because it was written in the fifties by a woman – a decade when a female atheist was especially feared, in the midst of Cold War alarm about the undermining of women’s domesticity, that she could help to subvert the Christian West. Both Nott and Knight were described as “intolerant” and “ignorant” – even by Nott’s obituarist [5] – and Knight’s childless marriage was used as a hook for snide remark.  Though Knight and Nott, as well as a handful of other rationalists like Barbara Smoker (b. 1923),[6]were to rise to some greater prominence in the later 1950s, 60s and 70s, the tendency towards derision of female atheism was an inelegant feature of post-war Britain.

[1] Note that Wikipedia has a quite useful biography of Nott, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kathleen_Nott

[2] Kathleen Nott, The Emperor’s Clothes (London, William Heinemann, 1953), pp. 72, 255.

[3] Nott, p. 146.

[4] Nott, pp. 254-5.

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