H. G. Wells (1866)
It was on this date, September 21, 1866, that English author Herbert George Wells, who wrote about 100 books, half of them novels, as H.G. Wells, was born in Bromley, Kent. About his early days he said,
I was indeed a prodigy of Early Impiety....There was a time when I believed in the story and the scheme of salvation, so far as I could understand it, just as there was a time when I believed there was a Devil....Suddenly the light broke through to me and I knew this God was a lie....I sensed it was a silly story long before I dared to admit even to myself that it was a silly story. For indeed it is a silly story, and each generation nowadays swallows it with greater difficulty....Why do people go on pretending about this Christianity?*
He studied biology under Thomas Henry Huxley, but failed to take a degree before turning to literature, the earliest examples of which reflected his scientific learning. But Wells's wide-ranging intellect would not be confined to one area and he delved into history, social criticism, and (naturally) science fiction.
Wells's first successful novel in the sci-fi genre was The Time Machine, a parody of English class division published in the year he married his second wife, Amy Catherine, 1895. He followed that with The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897) and War of the Worlds (1898). All four novels have been filmed at least once – and War of the Worlds was memorably, and in some respects tragically, broadcast.
Wells joined the Fabian Society in 1903 out of concern for social reform, but quarreled with fellow member George Bernard Shaw. He became involved with Rebecca West, a writer 26 years his junior in about 1914, as war was engulfing Europe. After the war, Wells published some nonfiction, including the well received by now forgotten Outline of History, published in the same year (1920) in which he met and spoke with Lenin.
Although Wells used caustic language about the Christian idea of God in his earlier works, he had an open-minded belief in a "divine will" – perhaps allowing his wishful thinking to posit such an ideal for the good of humanity, as he developed it in his God the Invisible King (1917). He abandoned that idea in his 1934 Experiment in Autobiography. Wells observes, perhaps too hopefully,
Indeed Christianity passes. Passes — it has gone! It has littered the beaches of life with churches, cathedrals, shrines and crucifixes, prejudices and intolerances, like the sea urchin and starfish and empty shells and lumps of stinging jelly upon the sands here after a tide. A tidal wave out of Egypt. And it has left a multitude of little wriggling theologians and confessors and apologists hopping and burrowing in the warm nutritious sand. But in the hearts of living men, what remains of it now? Doubtful scraps of Arianism. Phrases. Sentiments. Habits.**
Wells slipped more into an aggressive Agnosticism in his later years. In a September 1941 speech to the British Association, he spoke of the "dead religions that cumber the world" and said that "a dead religion is like a dead cat – the stiffer and more rotten it is, the better it is as a missile weapon."†
H.G. Wells died an Atheist on 13 August 1946. It was Wells who said, "I do not believe in the least that either the body of H.G. Wells or his personality is immortal."
* H.G. Wells, Experiment in Autobiography, 1934, quoted in from Ira D. Cardiff, What Great Men Think of Religion, 1945; repr. 1972.
** Quoted in from Ira D. Cardiff, What Great Men Think of Religion, 1945; repr. 1972.
† As reported in the News-Chronicle, 29 September 1941.
Originally published September 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.
Here’s your Week in Freethought History: This is more than just a calendar of events or mini-biographies – it’s a reminder that, no matter how isolated and alone we may feel at times, we as freethinkers are neither unique nor alone in the world. Last Sunday, August 5, but in 1850, French naturalistic writer Guy […]