BORN IN HERTFORDSHIRE, ENGLAND, Margaret Horsey attended Girton,
Cambridge, receiving her Bachelor's degree in 1926 and her Master's in
"I had been uneasy
about religion throughout my adolescence, but I had not had the moral
courage to throw off my beliefs until my third year at
Cambridge," Margaret wrote in the preface to Morals Without
philosophers such as Bertrand Russell: "A fresh, cleansing
wind swept through the stuffy room that contained the relics of my
religious beliefs. I let them go with a profound sense of relief, and
ever since I have lived happily without them."
From 1926-1936, Margaret worked as editor of the journal published by
National Institute of Industrial Psychology, and also as their
librarian and infor-
mation officer. She married Arthur Knight, a professor of psychology,
and moved to Aberdeen, Scotland, lecturing in psychology at the
Aberdeen from 1936-1970.
She wrote several textbooks with her husband, including Modern
to Psychology, first published in 1948, which went into a seventh
edition in 1966, and William James: A Selection from His Writings,
1950. Margaret became a celebrity across Great Britain when she
achieved the freethought coup of giving a series of freethought
lectures on the BBC radio.
"I was convinced that, besides millions of frank unbelievers,
there are today large numbers of half-believers to whom religion is a
source of intellectual and moral discomfort .... Today, the position
of the doubter is in some respects more difficult than it was in my
youth," pointing to the stereotype of "atheistic
"It is difficult, none the less, for the ordinary man to
cast off orthodox beliefs, for he is seldom allowed to hear the other
side.... Whereas the Christian view is pressed on him day in and
In 1953, several years after the Corporation had announced that it
the need to broadcast differing beliefs, even unbelief, Margaret
submitted a draft script. It got into the hands of a Catholic in a key
position, and "was rather forcibly rejected, "she recalled.
She did not give up, and in July 1954, was invited to Broadcasting
House to discuss her proposal, which centered on criticism of the idea
that moral education for children must be in the context of religious
instruction. The BBC suggested that since she was a psychologist, she
could broaden her approach to include "positive advice to
nonChristian parents on the moral training of children."
Her goal was "to show the intellectual weakness of the case
for theism, but
my chief aim was to combat the view that there can be no true morality
without supernatural sanctions. So I argued at length that the social,
or altruistic, impulses are the real source of morality, and that an
ethic based on these impulses has far more claim on our allegiance
than an ethic based on obedience to the commands of a God who created
tapeworms and cancer-cells."
She gave her first talk on January 5, 1955 to uneventful press, but
fireworks began. The Daily Express wrote an accurate account of
headlined: "Woman Psychologist Makes Remarkable Radio Attack on
Religion for Children." A Daily Telegraph columnist
demanded that God and the BBC forbid a second broadcast. The Sunday
Graphic ran a snapshot of Margaret next to a headline with
two-inch letters, "The Unholy Mrs. Knight." It began,
"Don't let this woman fool you. She looks-doesn't she-just
like the typical housewife; cool, comfortable, harmless. But Mrs.
Margaret Knight is a menace. A dangerous woman. Make no mistake about
After her second broadcast, the uproar continued, although she simply
solid, humanistic advice to parents, such as "to provide a
firm, secure background of affection so that it never occurs to the
child to doubt that he is loved and wanted." Parents can
help curb aggressive tendencies, without setting impossibly high
standards of unselfishness. The problematic act, not the child, should
be condemned, she said. Despite hyperbole and condemning headlines,
the accurate news reports conveyed her message to an even larger
audience. Following her final broadcast, she returned home to Aberdeen
to find five hundred letters awaiting her.
Her BBC lectures appeared in her 1955 book, Morals Without Religion.
compiled a Humanist Anthology in 1961 which was revised in 1995
for Secular Education
Without Superstition "No Gods No Masters"