At the close of each year, those close to Barbara Smoker looked forward to receiving what Freethinker magazine Editor Barry Duke affectionately referred to as Smoker’s “‘egotistical’ year-end newsletter.” In Smoker’s 2018 missive, her correspondents learned that in May the beloved UK atheist activist had been diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. In disclosing her diagnosis, Smoker also revealed that she had decided to forego the surgery recommended by her doctors. “My decision was as rational and irrevocable as the one I made on the 5th of November 1949 when I renounced religion.” After a nearly two-year battle with the disease, Smoker died on April 7, 2020.
Born in London on June 2, 1923, Smoker grew up in a conservative Catholic family and was, as she said, “torn between the ambitions of becoming a nun or a writer.” But after serving in the Women’s Naval Service in Asia from 1942 to 1945, Smoker’s faith was severely shaken. By the age of twenty-six, she was an avowed atheist. She described the moment she realized her faith was gone—and the sphere of humanism was before her—as “like an orgasm.” Once Smoker entered the world of humanism, she never turned back.
Although Smoker had expressed disappointment that she had not fulfilled her childhood ambition of becoming a writer, that was a bit of a skewed perspective. Smoker was published several times. In 1973, she authored a book aimed at teenagers, simply titled Humanism, which was cited in many school curricula around England. Other of her published writings include Good God! A String of Verses to Tie Up the Deity (1977), a book of satirical verse; Atheism on a Soap-Box (1985); and Freethoughts (2002), selections of Smoker’s contributions to the Freethinker magazine. In addition to Freethinker, Smoker was popular with other humanist publications, including, of course, Free Inquiry. Last, her autobiography, My Godforsaken Life: Memoir of a Maverick, was published by Thornwick Press in 2018.
It’s hard to see how such a producer of words could think of herself as “not a writer.” Even as a young woman, before she had ever been formally published, she used to earn some money with her writing: she would enter a literary contest each week, which she would invariably win. She would use that money to “get by” and to, as she put it, “make a bit extra on the horses.”
Barbara Smoker was prolific in more than just her personal and public writings. She was also involved in a plethora of organizations in the humanist and humanist-adjacent circles of London. For over seventy years, Smoker not only railed against religion but decried war—particularly illegal wars and nuclear weapons. Says Duke, “At the same time she was championing humanism, women’s right to choose abortion, prison reform, freedom of speech, and voluntary euthanasia.” Among her many titles, she was president of the National Secular Society (1972–1996), the country’s leading atheist organization; chair of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society (now Dignity in Dying) (1981–1985); founder (1960) and chairwoman (1973–2003) of South East London Humanists; and vice chair of Humanists UK, the national humanist organization.
Throughout her long career of atheist activism, Smoker received awards and accolades. In 2005, she was the recipient of the Distinguished Service to Humanism Award from the International Humanist and Ethical Union at that year’s Humanists International general assembly in Paris. This took place nearly half a century after she helped to organize that organization’s second World Humanist Congress in 1957. She also received a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2019 from the National Secular Society, of which she had formerly been president for almost twenty-five years.
Smoker will be remembered fondly by her colleagues and fellow humanists throughout the world. Our own Tom Flynn, FI’s editor, had this to say: “Barbara and I had a long correspondence—the old-fashioned way, by trans-Atlantic snail mail—as she had with literally hundreds of others. A colorful character; she’ll be missed.”
Barbara Smoker was not afraid of death. She observed that “It’s fear of death which is the main reason for becoming religious.” Besides, she found the idea of an afterlife unpalatable. She wryly noted, “[religious believers] want an afterlife! It would be terrible—an eternity in heaven—that would be hell.” Barbara Smoker won’t be living on in a terrible place called “heaven” for an eternity, but here on earth her legacy will certainly live on for nearly as long.