One of the reasons I’m pleased to be a member of the Philosophy Department at University College London (UCL) is that it has the reputation of being a thoroughly secular institution, in contrast to many other universities in the UK which have at least a nominal connection with the Church of England or Scotland. No Chapel, no Dean, no department of theology.
This, so the story goes, is a consequence of the origins of the institution. At its foundation in 1826 the only universities in England were Oxford and Cambridge, and their students were required to express allegiance to the Church of England as a condition of entry. UCL (then called the University of London – a name it would like to get back) was, from the start, open to non-conformists, Catholics and Jews. Derided as ‘godless’ by the religious orthodoxy, this reputation has stuck.
One way or another I have been at UCL since 1980 and have repeated this story many times. However, recently I took a look at the official history of UCL and its Philosophy Department, and found that things are not quite so clear cut. The founders of UCL were united by one thing: opposition to the Church of England, and this can take many forms. Essentially there were two camps. The one we remember is that of the philosophical radicals, who were followers of the elderly Jeremy Bentham, including James Mill (father of John Stuart) and George Grote, and other Victorian atheists and agnostics. The other group were leading religious non-conformists of the day, such as Congregationalists and Unitarians.
At the foundation of UCL two Chairs in Philosophy were announced, one in the Philosophy of Mind and Logic, the other in Moral and Political Philosophy. To the former, the Rev John Hoppus was put forward. His appointment was blocked by George Grote and others, on the grounds that an ordained minister could not hold a Chair at a secular institution. Charles Hay Cameron, better known as a subject for his young wife Julia Margaret Cameron’s pioneering photographs, was proposed for the Chair in Moral and Political Philosophy. This was opposed on the grounds, set out by Zachary Macaulay, that ‘there could be no satisfactory teaching of ethics except on a religious basis’. So on foundation of the university neither of the Chairs was filled. The tension between the non-conformists and the atheists remained for decades, perhaps right up to the second world war.
I have written up an informal talk on this, available for download for those with nothing better to do. (Scroll to the bottom of the list.)