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Humanism in Britain

David Nash


The outlook for Secularism, freethought and humanism in Britain, unlike many western European countries did not have its roots in conventional European socialism, or similar such socialist organisations. Whilst very early nineteenth century Secularism can trace its roots back to the British representatives of utopian socialism (the ideas and followers of Robert Owen) it was conspicuous how much this particular tendency failed to make a deep and lasting impact upon British Secularism. It is also the case that whilst the Anglican Church remained powerful throughout the nineteenth century, what anti-clericalism that existed in Britain was never sustained as a popular political or cultural movement.

Humanism in Britain would regularly draw from Liberalism and Britain’s liberal heritage to emphasise the concept of an “enabling society”. This focused upon the nature of society as the key to producing vibrant and self-realising citizens. A concept that would later come to be rephrased in the twentieth century idea of “human flourishing”. This was a classically Liberal stance since it argued for the dismantling of institutions and structures that it considered fostered privilege and maintained vested interests against the common welfare of the people. Ideas that the secular movement as a whole in Britain also inherited from its own past were those around the freedom of discussion and opinion. These had been in the forefront of arguments offered by Richard Carlile, Susannah Wright and others when they addressed the court in their respective blasphemy cases. They believed utterly that questioning religion was central to the progress of humankind. In this they created liberal arguments for the social utility of free speech that would be fully and eloquently expressed in J.S. Mill’s On Liberty. The stance of this individualism was also reflected in the opinions of Secularism’s late nineteenth century leaders Charles Bradlaugh and George William Foote. Bradlaugh, initially, had been enthusiastic about the First International but subsequently withdrew early from it. Thereafter he regularly showed a distrust for continental socialism which contrasted with his reverence for English law and English institutions. His time in the English Parliament was marked by a defense of the rights of independent small producers against privilege and bureaucracy. He also adopted a fiercely anti-imperial stance that echoed the mid-century non- interventionism of Richard Cobden alongside the critique of aristocratic imperial and economic adventure that emerged in J.A. Hobson, another individual associated with British Humanism’s birthplace South Place Ethical Society.1

It was other influences with roots in Christianity which took hold within British Socialism, so that more obviously politically liberal traditions had some considerably greater influences upon secular and Humanist outlooks leading into the twentieth century. This explains nineteenth century secularist interest in disestablishment, anti- vaccination causes and support for the first stirrings of modern peace movements. These were all thoroughly liberal causes. Together this series of political, cultural, demographic and campaigning legacies were to have distinct echoes in the twentieth century.

In speaking to the Fifth Congress of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU, now Humanists International (HI)) the Scottish Liberal politician Jo Grimond, during the early 1960s, displayed the potency of this legacy since he continued arguing for a species of progressive individualism. Grimond asserted that the two more extreme ideologies of both state Communist and Capitalist Society had succumbed to the sapping intervention of the bureaucrat. This led him to argue that active democracy ought to be empowering citizens grasping on to the slogan ‘power to the people’. This he saw as ‘... a demand for a more open democracy’ and that ‘participation is valuable and an invaluable human right’.2 In this it actually harked back to elements of nineteenth century radicalism that wanted to spread both political knowledge and political experience by having participatory democracy. These branches had seen the Labour movement in Britain turn itself into a parliamentary party that had unconsciously had the pitfalls of unaccountability foisted upon it.

Britain’s religious history was arguably fossilised by the eventual failure to remove a state church (at least in England and Scotland), whilst that same state church progressively allowed liberalisation of its own religious positions, alongside wider social and cultural progress. This factor alone coloured the stance of secular and Humanist organisations and movements within Britain. Although politicians would sometimes claim, as late as the 1960s, that Britain was a Christian country, Humanists would quickly take issue with this.3 Many of the approaches to Victorian Secularism had stemmed effectively from the history of ideas and this brokered an especial appeal to lower middle class autodidact thinkers and the dissident cultural elites that served them so well after the repeal of the early nineteenth century taxes upon knowledge.4

With no pillarisation-style recognition of them as a separate religious entity, amid a series of small battles won, or small areas of territory readily conceded by religion, the strategy and tactics of humanism and Secularism in Britain readily appeared to be ambivalent. Addressing the needs of their own members was important, whilst never being a wholly transforming part of the agenda. Humanism and Secularism were never embedded in anti-clerical communities the way they were in some parts of Europe. Likewise, campaigns against religion were never able to land a decisive or crushing blow to religion’s status, or indeed its future ambitions to recolonise ground that had been conceded. Yet, perhaps its intellectually powerful arguments may have partly persuaded the churches to recognise their diminished importance in the lives of the population at large. Retreating from a position of authoritarian prescription, to one more obviously of promoting the God of the gaps, was partly a response to the new liberal theologies that pervaded the post war world.

However, the credibility of the alternatives and especially the individualism offered by humanism created a markedly less compliant audience for organised religion to address. Humanists lost no time, however, in noting and exposing that Christianity was fragmenting. The humanist broadcaster Ludovic Kennedy noted that in the early nineteen sixties he had interviewed the Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, who had declared that a belief in the literal Resurrection of Christ was the central Christian belief. Kennedy noted that twenty five years later the Bishop of Durham declared that such beliefs were unnecessary and arguably superfluous to modern Christianity.5 The irony was that humanism viewed such beliefs as a dilution and evidence that the credibility of Christianity was crumbling. However, Christianity itself and the new theology behind it argued that this was purely modernisation, something which preserved Christianity and enhanced its credibility in a changed culture. Again such a stand-off meant that liberal attitudes of incremental progress for humanism, against the claims of religion, seemed the most effective course of action.

A sustained adherence to liberal principles also meant a distrust of the two main political groupings in Britain. The right, in its various manifestations, supported vested interests at its softer end and in its extreme form upheld forms of totalitarianism. Many would also come to carry long memories of the Roman Catholic Church’s support, tacit or otherwise, for the Fascist regimes in Germany and Italy. Nonetheless, whilst not politically active some individuals still espoused some form of individualism which could date its origins back to the latter half of the nineteenth century. As the twentieth century wore on many humanists would more readily identify with the political left, yet even here this allegiance could be conditional or highly qualified. Such individuals may have embraced elements of socialism and its principles, but could equally express considerable reservations about the scope and nature of state intervention and what this might do to culture and society. Further critiques of communism, in the twentieth century inspired by the example of Soviet Russia, persuaded many that it displayed all the traits of a dangerously authoritarian religion. Another element of having grown up with the liberal programme of the nineteenth century was its attachment to single issue politics. Nineteenth century liberalism had been a rainbow coalition of those arguing for disestablishment, temperance, anti-vaccination, Home Rule for Ireland and free trade. Elements of this approach were to be central to humanist thinking throughout the twentieth century and can be seen to be prevalent in each decade.

This situation of appearing somehow ‘once removed’ from the world of British politics created its own discussions within humanist circles and we can see these dilemmas played out in some debates that took place in the 1950s and 1960s. At the end of the 1950s it was suggested that the Humanist Association should consider recommending that it would support any political party which advocated the abolition of nuclear testing, condemned racial discrimination and entertained concrete plans for helping under developed economies and societies. However a decade later in the 1960s a suggestion that the freethought movement ought to be fielding its own political candidates was rebuffed by humanism’s leading light Harold Blackham. This was largely because it conflicted with a still common belief in the power of lobbying, something at once again inherited from a thoroughly liberal past where pressure groups politics had gained much success. Moreover, he also discerned a tendency for humanists to display stark traits which made them perhaps unsuitable for politics.6

The outlook this produced for British humanism was well summed up by the Humanist News with its pronouncement that ‘Humanists are specially concerned in the Western countries with the Christian outlook and Christian methods. Christianity is a militant body which seeks to dominate appropriate spheres concerned with opinion moulding. In this it resembles Communism. Neither of these outlooks is compatible with democracy... Christians are willing to have humanism discussed just as Communists are to have capitalism and social democracy mentioned, provided it is done by themselves’.7

The religious climate in Britain and its Liberal heritage (both described above) had some ideological impact upon the character of twentieth century British humanism. The absence of “pillarisation” and its encouragement of communities of separate development led British humanism to place a considerable emphasis upon the cultivated constitution of the individual and their autonomous existence. It was a focus upon this that led to periods of closer co-operation with the religious as much as periods of considerable antipathy to it. The insecure status of humanists, in a society devoid of “pillarisation” also made many adopt narratives of ‘struggle’, ‘fight’ and ‘victory’. Modern Western societies were to be judged by their ability to produce and nurture such individuals and humanist policies in education and elsewhere would readily reflect this.

A sustaining belief in Liberal progress was effectively updated by the twin ideas of Rationalism and Scientism which gave more modern ideological weight to the humanist world and life-stance. Having lived through the dark apparent impotence, and eventual discredit, of interwar Liberalism, both in Britain and upon the continent of Europe, the end of the Second World War produced cause for optimism amongst humanist viewpoints in Britain. The defeat of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan had ended totalitarianism’s grip upon the world – although British humanism would quickly come to define itself in opposition to the totalitarianism and assaults upon personal freedom represented by the emerging Soviet Bloc. Whilst foreign events had been a caustic reminder of failure, when humanists looked within their own society they could see how their influence was potentially bearing fruit. The 1944 Education Act seemed to display at least some acknowledgement of their ideals, and also could be seen to have relegated the role of religion away from arguments that it was fundamental to morality.8 Similarly, the establishment of a National Health Service (NHS) immediately after the war also appeared to be an embodiment of Liberal related humanist ideas associated with an enabling society. One that would provide the base level care from cradle to grave – thereby empowering the individual. By the middle of the twentieth century this Liberalism had morphed into an ingrained distrust of the totalitarian solutions. This had produced stark and crude questions around the apparent earlier century impotence of liberalism in the face of economic slumps and the rise of totalitarian politics and its draconian methods.9 An earlier century profound reliance upon the twin ideas of Rationalism and Scientism had begun to seem unwieldy and far more ambivalent than first realised – especially when faced with the unpleasant truths of human history as the second third of the century unfolded. Thus a new impetus seemed required. The ideological backbone of this particular stance was a text penned by Karl Popper – The Open Society and its Enemies. The influence of this was cited in an article by David Pollock in the August/September 1970 edition of Humanist News. This suggested that the “Open Society” exhibited a ‘minimum of division but a maximum of differentiation’. Tolerance of all produced sustained encouragement to creativeness, originality and experimentation.10 Pollock was optimistic that Britain was one of the societies best placed to eventually attain this. Much of this was to be realised through a continuation of political style lobbying that would also latch onto the greater accountability of governing institutions that would evolve to become agents of their citizens. Individuals who themselves would be encouraged to participate in society to a greater degree.11 Nonetheless, in practice the ideal of openness, diversity, toleration and inclusion could fall foul of situations within the real world. Humanist critiques of the ‘troubles’ in Ulster would regularly invoke the failure of humanism to make an impact in the province and the flourishing of entrenched positions as a result.12

One response to the philosophy of Popper and the call to enable an “Open Society” was a sustained interest in media and its possibilities. This was instrumental in the British Humanist Association’s (BHA, now Humanists UK) involvement in the creation of TRACK, an organisation of writers and producers who wanted to explore the possibilities of television and radio reaching a wider audience with high standards of informed discussion and debate.13 This was swiftly followed by the launch of the Cosmo Group which went further on the offensive to ‘... demand the scheduling of specific programmes of public interest which have encountered puritanical, religious, or political obstacles to their production and transmission.’ This was clearly seen as a riposte to morality campaigners, such as Mary Whitehouse, who were using Christian narratives to censor and police the limits of what could be broadcast.14 But again the relationships between TRACK and the Cosmo group followed the pattern of effort and causes splintering and diversifying agendas and efforts within a small area of campaigning.

The “Open Society” concept also subsumed forms of factionalism and sectarianism since it argued for diversity and the desirability of wider goals. Given this the BHA’s attachment to these ideas was realised in the appointment of David Pollock to the Chairmanship in 1970. In his statement to the press he declared that humanist attitudes were now endemic within Liberal Christianity and now enabled close cooperation between erstwhile opponents. This was manifest in the work of the Social Morality Council and the Council for Moral Education.15 The former organisation eventually came to argue that modern societies depended equally upon the essence of both the Christian and the freethinking traditions. Harnessing the power of institutions and seeing them as forms of potential was, in a sense, a technocratic vision that exemplified the age. Nonetheless the faith that humanists placed in the potential power to transform looked to everything from Trade Unions, through enabling and informing professions, to political parties and think tanks for hope and inspiration.16


British humanists quickly recognised that education in the post-war world was a battle ground, yet one that could be especially favourable for them. In 1957 Virginia Fleming noted that Christianity had influenced ‘generation after generation’, yet it was insufficiently influential ‘to make Christian faith and doctrine the real form of their lives.’ This was an opportunity for humanists to shape an educational future and thereby gain control of the teaching and shaping of the population’s moral lives.17

The influence of Popper’s “Open Society” concept was frequently reflected in education policy documents produced by the BHA. Indeed it was also evident at the international level where the IHEU regularly reiterated that ‘education should be the centre of the campaign for a Humanist morality’.18 A pamphlet from 1972, Education for the Open Society prefaced its discussion of educational ideals with a statement which noted that the “Open Society” was ‘the antithesis of the authoritarian society’.19 It asserted that education, to become opening and enabling, thus needed to ‘...stop being elitist and seek to develop every child “a levelling up”’.20 This also entailed seeking an apparent end to ‘authoritarianism in education’ which appeared to be a consequence of the pursuit of examination results, and its corollary, training children in ‘uncritical conformity’.21

Education for the Open Society noted this as its guiding principle declaring: ‘The Open Society is the name given to a society which respects all viewpoints and traditions present in it and in which the ideas of democracy are extended to include a much expanded participation of individuals in decision making and the conduct of affairs’.22

This again argued against elitism within education, and against the ethos of some institutions, thus advocating a reverse principle of ‘levelling up’. This would enable a striving for the declared wish of the “Open Society” that, ‘everyone should feel valued.’ It went on to argue that these could be embodied in the basic principles – ‘... to love and be loved, to achieve self-esteem, to contribute to society, fully develop skills and abilities, to develop a valid perspective upon the world’.23 This perhaps contrasted with the post-war planning ethos which gripped much of Western Europe. This humanist paradigm consciously set itself up as a challenge to instrumentality and social innovation without consultation. The pamphlet went on to suggest the realisation of the “Open Society” was ‘... not to provide helots to serve the industrial machine but people capable of guiding the social and industrial complex in the service of the continuous enhancement of the quality of human life’.24 Again diverging from the planning ethos was a determination that school should be ‘... self-transforming by the active participation of all who are involved in it’.25

One other aspect of campaigns to effect change in education was a targeted campaign against the compulsory clauses of the 1944 Education Act, provisions which demanded compulsory religious assembly and subsequent religious instruction in all schools. This instigated the formation of a Campaign for Moral Education which also embraced a membership of sympathetic Jews and Christians. This argued in simple fashion against the favouritism shown to Christianity by the law. However, it also indulged more subtle arguments, initially offered by Christians, that suggested the teaching of Christianity as a subject had its own pitfalls. Pupils who failed to academically achieve in this, and by extension morality, would simply consider this an unpopular part of the curriculum, rather than a life stance or philosophy – an objection that Humanists cheerfully echoed.26

The British Humanist Association commissioned a survey of individuals to discover public preferences around religious and moral education in 1969. The resulting document – Moral and Religious Education: What the People Want – was cast as delivering conclusions that the BHA had long since suspected. Social change had outpaced statutory provision for religious education so that ‘clauses a quarter of a century old’ had been rendered almost meaningless. The survey concluded that amongst all age cohorts interviewed, the importance of religious education was a considerably low priority, and it had been replaced with a desire for education intended to promote career goals, followed by a sense of civic citizenship that had overtaken religion. This finding was also strong amongst the older age groups who also showed a little more enthusiasm for religion than the young but this was scarcely overwhelming. The survey also found that knowledge of statutory contents of the curriculum was remarkably sparse, with even self-confessed humanists and atheists astonishingly ignorant of the fact that elements of religious instruction were prescribed by law.

This seemed to argue that the population at large were simultaneously unaware of the existence of religion as a compulsory part of the curriculum, but also considered its provision as substantially irrelevant to the apparently more important purpose of education. This was now considered to include a thoroughly secularised version of morality. Such findings led the BHA at the end of this report to argue more vociferously for the abolition of religious worship in schools and an ending of the compulsory element of religious instruction.27 The BHA’s discovery of the apparent indifference of the population at large towards religion could seem all the more galling when aspects of the British establishment were prepared to carry on as though nothing had happened. Humanists noted that the findings of the Chadwick Commission’s investigations into church state relationships advocated not a removal of religious influence from the Upper Chamber of government, but instead an active extension of it by inviting new representatives of other faiths.28 By 1975 the BHA actively suggested rewording the 1944 act to allow pupils or their parents to seek exemption from religious education, intending to instill the full and all-embracing policy of religious voluntarism upon pupils and teachers.29

The “Open Society” concept would also see humanists take a libertarian stance around issues concerning free speech. One such occasion was the Oz Obscenity Trial which resulted in a protest from the BHA. A statement from David Pollock outlined such censorship showed a disregard for ‘the values of tolerance and acceptance of diversity which are basic to an open, civilised society.’ One further perceived threat to this was the danger of unrestricted population growth, alongside the effects of pollution and the reckless consumption of natural resources. This resulted in 1972 in the publication of People First which was a humanist manifesto arguing for a range of conservation measures, consumer choices and whistleblowing which would hopefully stem the tide of despoliation.30 The Manifesto rapidly sold out and hastily had to be reprinted.

Investigating the membership of humanism proved less than illuminating in many respects but did highlight that the central tenets of liberalism were, within the movement, grafted onto a form of broad church twentieth century socialism. Humanist News declared: ‘The standard BHA member is middle class, male, left wing, unlikely to be Scottish or under 20, and passionately concerned about social problems’.31 This picture of a predominantly metropolitan movement, dominated by the indigenous middle class population seems confirmed by investigating the branch activities reported by humanism’s media.

Institutional history

Humanism in England owed much of its original impetus to the growth of Comteian Positivism which had quite influential members around late nineteenth century freethinking circles. People like Malcolm Quin and Frederick James Gould had eventually had to take their worship of humanity outside the secular movement. This was because its mainstream would not move very far from its more materialist roots. In the twentieth century Positivism was effectively wound up by the end of the 1930s.32

Humanism in Britain, at least as an organisational/institutional phenomenon owes many of its origins to South Place Ethical Society, located at Red Lion Square in London. In its early guise, under the American ethicist Stanton Coit who had studied under Felix Adler, it was the ideological flagship behind attempts at religious dialogue and ecumenism with many of late Victorian England’s liberal religious tendencies. Coit had presided over an organisation, the Church of England Comprehension League, which aimed at smoothing over the differences between the religious and humanist outlooks. These initiatives attracted some, and were perhaps enshrined in the emphases later brought to the movement by Harold Blackham. Overtures by the churches produced organisations seeking to further the logic of the Unitarian position, such as the International Council of Unitarians and other Religious Thinkers, which evolved into a later organisation in the mid-1930s. This was generally marked only by very limited success and only represented an obviously more liberal end of the movement. Its emphasis upon universalising and sharing ethical outlooks had exerted a similar influence in the Christian Churches. This had been an important element in the turn of the century religious landscape.

By the middle of the twentieth century Harold Blackham was convinced that the outlook for the liberalism of both sides of the religious divide had evaporated. This had happened on the back of the challenges to the optimistic view of man’s ethical capabilities that the first half of the century had posed. We might also reinterpret this as evidence of the confidence in secular solutions, backed up with the rational proof provided by experts in the areas of social, political and cultural development. All importantly funded by the cash supplied by post-war plans and initiatives of both restoration and forward looking development. The apparently hollow good intentions of well-disposed people were eclipsed by more intensive and effective initiatives – something Blackham actively advocated in his desire to make all humanists activists. The new impetus that assisted in the creation of post- war humanism in Britain was given inspiration, as Ethicism had been at the end of the previous century, by developments in America. By 1941 an American Humanist Association (AHA) was in existence and seemed to be successful. Such developments had inspired Harold Blackham, but the Second World War intervened before anything in support of these views could be organised in Britain.

It was in part the different emphases of separate wings of freethought, but also a legacy of their traditions in England, that influenced the course of subsequent events. The National Secular Society (NSS) had been a campaigning organisation which had appealed to the working class autodidacts of Victorian England. Other branches of religious doubt from higher up the social scale had, initially in the nineteenth century, been attracted to Deism and Unitarianism, but by the end of the century a later generation had entered the circles espousing Positivism or Ethicism. Likewise, some coalesced around the production of a rational curriculum and rational view of culture and its purpose. This was espoused by the Rationalist Press Association (RPA) which had been a centre of publishing operations since the beginning of the twentieth century.33

These organisations (which also included the Ethical Union), all with more obviously middle class origins, came together in the Humanist Council of 1950. Eventually three years later an invitation to the NSS meant that, for a time, a merger or the evolution of single umbrella organisation seemed likely. Eventually, this loose coalition of organisations continued as it was. As the 1950s turned into the 1960s movements towards a closer relationship again developed with a new organisation, Humanist Group Action, which sought to reach beyond the freethought world to have closer links with a number of classically liberal and libertarian causes; such as abortion law reform, civil liberties and organisations that eventually became Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and Amnesty International respectively. There was also a close link with the Howard League for Penal Reform.34

What always prevented these organisations from merging was a mismatch of strategic aims as well as a slightly enduring legacy of the single issue elements of liberal politics, as broadly defined. Yet also some aspect of the legacy that also proved a hindrance during the first half of twentieth century and into the 1960s was the differing financial fortunes of these organisations. Because of this situation, and the temporary attitudes it regularly created, these could never be brought into alignment at periods when merger seemed most possible. This obstacle was only surmounted when the RPA divested itself of its nineteenth century publishing legacy and was able to enter profit and partnership with the Ethical Union. Thus, the organisations stood apart from one another, but were eventually joined by the original manifestation of the British Humanist Association which was launched in May 1963. They were, however, always closely related to the extent that membership fee for the BHA automatically included membership of the Ethical Union and the RPA. Eventually, after battles over charitable status had legally questioned the partnership between the British Humanist Association and the Ethical Union it was dissolved as a result.35 The Ethical Union eventually moved forward by changing its name to become a single organisation known as the British Humanist Association in 1967. This precise issue would occasionally re-emerge, and Humanist organisations’ charitable status as promoters of ‘education’ would periodically come under scrutiny.36

The direction of the British Humanist movement became evident at its first Annual Meeting in July 1965. It passed a motion on the separation of church and state and one seeking disestablishment. It also issued a call ‘for a reform of those laws which are justified only or chiefly by Christian beliefs’ which it cited as being those surrounding ‘sunday observance, marriage, divorce and illegitimacy, homosexuality, abortion and sterilization.’ Such views were to be publicised and advanced through seeking a greater Humanist presence in broadcast media.37

Very quickly this body began sprouting organisations which focused upon smaller issues of broader concern to the movement generally. Moral education seeking to replace religious education was in the forefront of this.38 Alongside such developments sub-organisations under the BHA umbrella were founded which addressed health and counselling needs (something of a discovery learned from the American context where such provision could be heavily laced with evangelical religion). There were also initiatives addressing the needs of the youthful membership and promoting outreach work to a wider potential membership. This form of activity gradually spawned similar groups in outlying branches.39 The South Place Archive shows letters of support and thanks as well as numerous newsletters from local groups in the London area and predominantly from the Home Counties, as well as fledgling groups established at English universities.40 It was evident that such groups were to organise social action and host discussion and foster the humanist agenda amongst already identified group audiences.41

This seemed a philosophy of permeation which was already familiar to early century radical groups. Humanist holidays and their organisation was also seen as an utterly necessary method of providing opportunities for the likeminded to congregate, but also to make connections with overseas groups.42 Concentration upon campaigning needs was the role of an initiative named Humanist Lobby that had been created by David Pollock. This aimed at establishing individuals in Parliamentary constituencies that would lobby for abortion law reform, homosexual law reform and reform of Sunday observance laws.43

In its quest to establish a high public profile, humanism has regularly drawn attention to the range of important and influential individuals identifying as humanist and it has, by turns, adapted such publicity to address varied constituencies. It has had precious little active support from politicians. Again this might be explained by an absence of pillarisation which again failed to establish humanism and freethought as recognised constituencies from whom representation in politics might be sought. But politicians themselves have been equally slow, and even actively reticent, to identify with humanism. There appeared, for most of the century, to be a wish for an unspoken nominal Christianity to be presumed as the religious life stance of all in politics. Such an attitude was again possible as a result of the undogmatic and relaxed stance of England’s Anglican state church. Instead other professions have been identified and offered as role model Humanists. Academics like A.J. Ayer, Hermann Bondi, Jacob Bronowski and Bertrand Russell were highlighted as offering important guidance to a society that needed it as well as, in the case of Russell being a regular spokesman and prominent author on humanist philosophy and action. From the Arts, authors like John Mortimer, Harold Pinter and Joan Littlewood professed humanist beliefs; whilst the world of entertainment offered Stephen Fry, and the musicians Ewan MacColl and George Melly.44 This association with celebrity has been continued into the present day with recent social media advertising fronted by the television presenter and professor for the advancement of science, Alice Roberts.

Much of this was to popularise such beliefs, but was also a response to the fact that many of the orthodox means of communicating religious and philosophical beliefs to the population at large were often closed to atheist and humanist beliefs. Radio Four’s Today Programme had traditionally offered a mainstream Christian message to the nation over its breakfast tables. As time went on this was augmented by the inclusion of Christian minorities, eventually to be extended to all the Abrahamic religions. Latterly Sikhs and Hindus were represented in recognition that the radio station was broadcasting to a multicultural society. Yet this never included the humanist minority which, despite frequent petitioning, would continue to be excluded.45 One concession arrived in 1997 with the creation of a spot for atheist and humanist beliefs to be broadcast over the much less popular medium of the BBC World Service radio network. Entitled Pause for Thought this initiative, however, only lasted a mere two years.46

Invoking the phenomenon of the celebrity also had a useful function in both suggesting the variety of people attracted to humanism but also, this was defusing its reputation for overtly earnest seriousness. Barbara Smoker noted this in her depiction of Stephen Fry as a humanist noting ‘there’s plenty of room in Humanism for laughter and enjoyment of life’.47 There would also be room, though, for extreme earnestness in the shape of the more combative personalities of Peter Hitchens and Richard Dawkins who brought a new atheism to the British media.48 This periodic reputation for seriousness was also a part of the character of “English Christian Nonconformity”, which was a label transferred to many humanist individuals and organisations by both contemporaries and historians. This was an attempt to suggest that secularism and humanism had been a natural part of Britain’s leaching away from Christianity. Far from seeing secularism and humanism as an early natural outgrowth from the development of the Enlightenment this suggested it was a late symptom of Christianity’s decline.49

Death and the Humanist

A central focus of humanist activity throughout the twentieth century has been to publicise and promote alternative attitudes to death, dying and disposal. This legacy began in the nineteenth century, but faced new challenges in the twentieth.50 One crucial aspect of this was the nominal nature of membership of the established Church of England. Even from quite early in the century most individuals retained paper membership of the Church of England which would only be invoked when seeking christenings, marriage or burial. Although nonconformists had broken this stranglehold around burial in the nineteenth century, atheist and humanist attitudes to death only became effectively recognised in the 1890s. Although secularists and humanists hoped to sever the link between the population at large and religious funerals, as the twentieth century progressed this goal became initially illusory. Eventually this arguably became increasingly irrelevant as other agendas emerged.

Whilst utterly replacing the Christian death culture of early twentieth century Britain was inevitably a forlorn hope, securing many of the rights of citizenship in this area for Secularists and humanists had been an important motivation for campaigning during the nineteenth century. As the twentieth century progressed Secularists and humanists produced orders for funeral services which strongly emphasized the idea of providing advice and help by those who wanted an especially quiet and private funeral. What started to develop within this was the textual emphasis upon the provision of practical help, with mourners actively encouraged to offer assistance to the bereaved.51

Although this obviously placed, in contrast to Christian funeral services, an emphasis on the here and now and the continuation of life for the mourners, this was the start of a process that took humanist burial services in a wholly different direction. By the start of the twenty-first century almost all ideological content had vanished from secular Humanist burial services. Instead there was considerable emphasis upon the provision of choice and a multiplicity of ways in which the personality of the deceased could be displayed and respected. This apparent variety explored and discussed methods of disposal (versions of cremation versus burial). Alongside this, the choices available for those wishing to compose their own burial services were augmented by a supplied range of possible texts and suggestions for music. Numerous sample ceremonies were gradually added to the canon of non- religious choice. Various needs within the population at large were addressed by composing possible ceremonies to both cover all eventualities, and to highlight the limited scope for adaptation evident in traditional religious funerals. Beyond the obvious examples of the old, less obvious examples such as the suicide of a young man, the death of a two year old child, and the death of a disabled individual, broke new ground.52 As time went on further examples were added to include victims of murder, double suicide, AIDS, anorexia nervosa, alcoholism and accidental death.53 The issue of place also emerged with suggestions around conducting funeral services away from religiously consecrated premises.54

What was evident here, in the explicit and intentional provision of choice, was to open up an ideal of the personalised humanist funeral service. This targeted a new consumer market that was growing increasingly detached from the religious infrastructure of their forebears. These people had not become militantly irreligious or anti-clerical in any meaningful sense, but they had certainly cultivated tastes, interests and a greater sense of individualised identity which humanist funeral services strove to meet.55 Ironically, this was almost an achievement of a form of unofficial self-fashioned “pillarisation”. There was not an actual ‘moment’ when state recognition of the size and wishes of the secular community in Britain would be granted. The ever ambitious capture of the market by secular funerals, and the secular humanist role in public life gave a de facto recognition and status within the community. It became a preference that had cleverly espoused choice and individualism as an identity, something that also had clear echoes in the ethos of an “Open Society”.

International developments

Although establishing a recognizably humanist domestic organisation took some time, at least when the depth of its nineteenth century lineage is considered, international relationships were arguably quicker to take off. Harold Blackham had a considerable track record of espousing and publicising the benefits of international co-operation. As early as the 1920s he had been involved in a local branch of the League of Nations and had also been deeply involved in the World Union of Freethinkers (WUF) Congress held in London in 1938. This had fallen under the shadow of the Munich Crisis and had attracted the unhelpful epithet of ‘The Godless Congress’. Although refuting such attacks, the fears generated by the link between atheism and Russian communism left their mark on the movement in Britain and reinforced British humanism’s ideological standpoint of shunning both extremes.56 But attitudes and relationships were to change. After the Second World War the WUF, at its London meeting in 1946, demonstrated a willingness to listen to what humanism could bring to the table. Significantly the international world of freethought still considered humanism as a ‘tendency’ rather than an integral strand of the movement.

Certainly, humanism’s independence was confirmed when the Dutch, American and the British Humanists formed the IHEU at a meeting in Amsterdam in 1946. Blackham saw this initiative as leaving behind the WUF with its taint of uncompromising Communism, but also as looking forward to a more positive approach which Blackham found he shared with Jaap van Praag and the Dutch Humanist Association (Humanistisch Verbond – HV).57 Blackham seemed a natural ally with which van Praag could express his lingering concern that Europe had not resisted the totalitarianism of the thirties with any lasting conviction or effectiveness. Its first congress, held in Amsterdam in 1952, listed the British Ethical Union as one of its founder organisations. The second congress in 1957 was held in London and featured an opening address by Jaap van Praag, as well as lectures by Lord Boyd Orr, Jacob Bronowski and John Strachey. Over one hundred and fifty individuals from Britain attended the congress (an increase of nearly five-fold from those attending the first congress) with other sizeable representations from the Netherlands and the USA.58 In response to the Cold War, and the fears it generated Blackham’s ingrained suspicion of Communism and its potential appeared to being realised in the wake of the Korean War, as well as armed Soviet intervention in Hungary. This led to the IHEU passing resolutions condemning nuclear weapons. Blackham’s pivotal role would eventually be recognised in the presentation of an International Humanist Award by the IHEU in Amsterdam in 1974.59

In future years the IHEU would discuss a range of issues threatening the peace, security and well-being of the world. These included the perennial nature of human rights violations, racial discrimination, living conditions, the menace of drugs, family planning, the rise of the Aids epidemic, freedom from hunger and continual assaults upon the sustainability of the environment.60 Technology in the shape of cybernetics alongside its problems and possibilities was mentioned. The IHEU grew in stature and the results of its proceedings and congresses began to find their way into the public domain with increasing regularity and effectiveness. In Britain all of these developments helped fuel debates on the issues mentioned above and the permeation of such progressive ideals could claim to have influenced legislation, policy and change.


Although campaigning was to remain an important part of the humanist mission in the post-war world, its ability to flourish as a philosophical viewpoint was utterly fundamental to any definition of the movement’s success. Just how credible could this be to individuals seeking a life stance in a country which saw its religious heritage leach away, but importantly not chiefly at the behest of a secular or humanist revolution? As a movement, post Second World War humanists in Britain could count themselves more fortunate than their forebears. They had been lucky in that innovations in communications media had made them less isolated from one another than before. High profile advocates had always been in the orbit of Secularism and humanism, but now they were household names amongst those wholly unrelated to the Secularist and humanist world. As a philosophical life stance it had never attained official recognition as a crucial pillar of its society. But it had nonetheless generated debate, and had informed the opinions of both its own likeminded and that of opponents. In describing what he called the human ethos, Harold Blackman realised early on the virtues of promoting British humanism’s recognition of humanity’s self- worth and attractively comforting outlook. He arguably spoke for many when he conveyed the noble contentment that humanism promoted, and glorying in the achievements of humanity more widely, what both were able to offer to their late twentieth century advocates and fellow travellers: ‘The ethos of human life, then, is affirmation, striving, becoming, upsurge and attainment, springing from the body and manifested in the work of the hands and the utterance of the mouth... There is room on earth for all temperaments and for all types: there are forbidden places, inaccessible peaks and abysses, and there are the domestic provinces; there are cities and villages diverse and innumerable; there are seasons and climates, there is the past and the future; there is much else, far more than any human being can entertain or enter into. Life is excess’.61


  1. See David S. Nash, “The Credulity of the Public seems infinite. Charles Bradlaugh, biography and attempts to resacrilise fin de siecle England,” Journal of Victorian Culture 7, no. 2 (2002); David S. Nash, “The Many Chameleon Destinations of Republicanism. Charles Bradlaugh and India,” Republicanism in Victorian Society, ed. D.S. Nash and A. Taylor (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2000); David S. Nash, “Learning from the Colonies: English Republicans, India and the attack upon the Aristocratic Empire,” in Citoyenneté, Empires et Mondialisation, ed. Timothy and Raphaelle Espiet-Kilty (Clermont-Ferrand: Presses Universitaires Blaise Pascal, 2007); Edward Royle, Radicals, Secularists and Republicans: Popular Freethought in Britain, 1866-1915 (Manchester: University Press, 1980).
  2. Jo Grimond, “Power to the People,” in To seek a Humane World: Proceedings of the fifth Congress of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, Howard B. Radest (London, Pemberton Books), 36-45.
  3. See The Humanist Alternative (London: Barrie and Rockliff, s.d. (circa 1965?)), 3.
  4. See Royle, Radicals, Secularists and Republicans, passim and C.D. Collet, History of the Taxes on Knowledge (London: Watts and Co., 1933).
  5. Ludovic Kennedy, An End to Belief?: Voltaire Memorial Lecture (London: British Humanist Association, 1984), 14.
  6. See Harold J. Blackham, Humanism (Hassocks: Harvester, 1976), 169. Blackham characterised them as inhabiting three types ‘Radicals’, ‘Anarchists’ and ‘Realists’ implying each tendency lacked pragmatic engagement with the others.
  7. Humanist News (December 1964).
  8. See Harold J. Blackham, Humanism, 172.
  9. This was discussed by Harold Blackham in Ibid. See chapter eight, ‘Friends and Enemies’.
  10. This would also appear in the British Humanist Association’s policy documents. See for example: British Humanist Association, General Statement of Policy (London: British Humanist Association, 1985 (reprinted 1992)).
  11. Humanist News (July 1970): 4; 6.
  12. See for example the article: John D. Stewart, “Ulster,” Humanist News (December 1970); “N. Ireland – One Humanist's View,” Humanist News (November/December 1971): 5; and “Northern Ireland BHA Statement,” Humanist News (January/February 1972): 1.
  13. Humanist News (January 1966): 1.
  14. Ibid. 2.
  15. Humanist News (October 1970): 1.
  16. See: “The Social Institutions of an Open Society,” Humanist News (October 1972): 1-2.
  17. Virginia Fleming, Humanist Parents and Teachers (London, The Ethical Union, 2nd edition 1957), 18-19.
  18. Humanist News (September 1966): 2.
  19. British Humanist Association, Education for the Open Society (London: British Humanist Association, 1972).
  20. Ibid. 3.
  21. Ibid. 4.
  22. Ibid. 3.
  23. Ibid. 3-4.
  24. Ibid. 20.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Humanist News (March 1969).
  27. National Opinion Polls Ltd, Moral and Religious Education: What the People Want (London: British Humanist Association, 1969), 6; 31-3.
  28. Humanist News (January 1971): 1.
  29. British Humanist Association, Objective Fair and Balanced: A New Law for Religion in Education (London: British Humanist Association, 1975), 40-57.
  30. Humanist News (Spring 1972).
  31. Humanist News (November/December 1971).
  32. See David Nash, Secularism, Art and Freedom (Leicester: Pinter Press, 1992); Malcolm Quin, Memoirs of a Positivist (London: George, Allen and Unwin, 1924); Frederick James Gould, Life-Story of a Humanist (London: Watts and Company, 1923) and T.R. Wright, The Religion of Humanity: The Impact of Comteian Positivism on Victorian Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).
  33. For the RPA see: Bill Cooke, The Blasphemy Depot: A Hundred Years of the Rationalist Press Association (London: Rationalist Press Association, 2003).
  34. See Humanist News (May/June 1964): 3-4.
  35. Humanist News (February 1967): 1-2.
  36. See: Humanist News (March 1971): 1 for information about the Department of Education and Science’s decision to strike the Humanist Trust off the charities list. A month later the same fate befell the Rationalist Press Association. See Humanist News (April/May 1971): 1. The matter was eventually debated in the House of Lords in December 1972. See: Humanist News (January 1973).
  37. Humanist News (September 1964).
  38. For a discussion of the wider history of secular moral education in the earlier twentieth century, see: Susannah Wright, Morality and Citizenship in English Schools (London: Palgrave, 2017).
  39. See for example Humanist News (April 1964) for details of the launch of the New Epicureans Youth Club which co-ordinated these activities for an area of outer south London. See Humanist News (February 1965): 2 for the London Young Humanists.
  40. South Place Ethical Society Archive file NSS/4/4/9.
  41. A.F.M. Brierley, The Humanist Group (London: The Ethical Union, 1960).
  42. British Humanist Association, Groups’ Bulletin (August-September 1968): 3-4. Marjorie Mepham described a Humanist holiday in Oslo where contact was made with Norwegian Humanists. This followed earlier unsuccessful attempts to host Humanists visiting Britain from the Netherlands. See Robin Payne letter to William McIlroy, 19 May 1966, South Place Ethical Society Archive file NSS/4/4/9.
  43. Humanist News (February 1966): 3; (April 1967): 5-7. See also letter from the BHA Committee to the membership, May 1966.
  44. s.n, Humanist Dipper: A Source Book on Humanism and its Non-Theistic View of Life (London: British Humanist Association, 1991), 20-21.
  45. There were occasional exceptions to this broadcasting policy. Bertrand Russell was able to broadcast in 1947 a lecture entitled ‘The Faith of a Rationalist’ and three talks were given by Julian Huxley, Gilbert Murray and J.H. Oldham in 1944. For the last of these see: Huxley, Murray and Oldham, Humanism (London: Watts and Co., 1944).
  46. Surviving episodes of Pause for Thought have been archived by the Conway Hall Digital Collections and are available at
  47. Barbara Smoker, Humanism: An Update for the New Millennium (London: British Humanist Association, 1998), 56.
  48. Idem, 22.
  49. This is the view of Victorian Secularism offered in F.H. Amphlett Micklewright, “The Local History of Victorian Secularism,“ Local Historian 8, no. 6 (1969): 221-227. A twentieth century version of this was T.S. Eliot’s suggestion that Bertrand Russell could not cease being a Christian until he became something else and that his Atheism was simply not credible. Eliot argued Russell’s ‘... Non-Christianity is merely a variety of Low Church sentiment’. Quoted in: David Berman, A History of Atheism in Britain from Hobbes (London: Routledge, 1988), 232-3.
  50. See David Nash, “‘Look in her face and lose thy dread of dying’: The Ideological Importance of Death to the Secularist Community in Nineteenth Century Britain,” in Journal of Religious History 19, no. 2 (1995): 158-180.
  51. s.n, Ethical Funeral Service (London: Rationalist Press Association, 1938).
  52. Jane Wynne Wilson, Funerals Without God (London: British Humanist Association). Editions were published in 1989, 1990, 1992, 1995, 1998, 2006 & 2014.
  53. Carole Mountain, Out of the Ordinary: Ceremonies Where the Circumstances are Unusual or Tragic (London: British Humanist Association, 2000), 59-147.
  54. Jane Wynne Wilson, Funerals Without God (London: British Humanist Association, 2014), 8.
  55. For more on this see David Nash, “Negotiating the marketplace of comfort: Secularists confront new paradigms of death and dying in twentieth-century Britain,” Revue Belge de Philologie et d’Histoire 95 (2017): 963-988.
  56. For more of this see David Nash, Blasphemy in Britain 1790-Present (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 1999), 218-238.
  57. Bert Gasenbeek and Babu Gogineni, ed., International Humanist and Ethical Union 1952-2002: Past Present and Future (Utrecht: De Tijdstroom uitgeverij, 2002), 19; See also Howard B. Radest, The International Humanist and Ethical Union 1952-1977: A Record of its 25 Years (Utrecht: International Humanist and Ethical Union, 1977), 2.
  58. International Humanist and Ethical Union. Proceedings of the Second Congress London 26-31 July 1957. (Utrecht: International Humanist and Ethical Union, 1957).
  59. Gasenbeek and Gogineni, International Humanist and Ethical Union 1952-2002, 51.
  60. For a snapshot of the emergence of such agendas see Statements of the International Humanist and Ethical Union 1952-1968 (Utrecht: 1968).
  61. Harold J. Blackham, The Human Tradition (London: Routledge & Paul, 1953), 146-7.


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  • Cooke, Bill. The Blasphemy Depot: A Hundred Years of the Rationalist Press Association (London: Rationalist Press Association, 2003).

  • Fleming, Virginia. Humanist Parents and Teachers (London: The Ethical Union, 1957).
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  • Kennedy, Ludovic. An End to Belief?: Voltaire Memorial Lecture (London: British Humanist Association, 1984).
  • Micklewright, F.H. Amphlett. “The Local History of Victorian Secularism,” Local Historian 8, no. 6 (1969).
  • Mountain, Carole. Out of the Ordinary: Ceremonies Where the Circumstances are Unusual or Tragic (London: British Humanist Association, 2000).
  • Nash, David S. Blasphemy in Britain 1789-Present (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 1999).
  • Nash, David S. “‘Look in her face and lose thy dread of dying’: The Ideological Importance of Death to the Secularist Community in Nineteenth Century Britain,” Journal of Religious History 19, no. 2 (1995).
  • Nash, David S. “Learning from the Colonies: English Republicans, India and the attack upon the Aristocratic Empire,” in Citoyenneté, Empires et Mondialisation, edited by Timothy and Raphaelle Espiet-Kilty (Clermont-Ferrand: Presses Universitaires Blaise Pascal, 2007).

  • Nash, David S. “Negotiating the marketplace of comfort: Secularists confront new paradigms of death and dying in twentieth-century Britain” Revue Belge de Philologie et d’Histoire 95, no. 4 (2017).
  • Nash, David S. “The Credulity of the Public seems infinite. Charles Bradlaugh, biography and attempts to resacrilise fin de siecle England,” Journal of Victorian Culture 7, no. 2 (2002).
  • Nash, David S. “The Many Chameleon Destinations of Republicanism. Charles Bradlaugh and India,” in Republicanism in Victorian Society, edited by David S. Nash and A. Taylor (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2000).
  • Nash, David S. Secularism, Art and Freedom (Leicester: Pinter Press, 1992).
  • National Opinion Polls Ltd. Moral and Religious Education: What the People Want (London: British Humanist Association, 1969).
  • Quin, Malcolm. Memoirs of a Positivist (London: George, Allen and Unwin, 1924).

  • Radest, Howard B. The International Humanist and Ethical Union 1952-1977: A Record of its 25 Years (Utrecht: International Humanist and Ethical Union, 1977).
  • Royle, Edward. Radicals, Secularists and Republicans: Popular Freethought in Britain, 1866-1915 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1980).
  • s.n. The Humanist Alternative (London: Barrie and Rockliff, s.d.).
  • s.n. Education for the Open Society (London: British Humanist Association, 1972).
  • s.n. Ethical Funeral Service (London: Rationalist Press Association, 1938).
  • s.n. Humanist Dipper: A Source Book on Humanism and its Non-Theistic View of Life (London: British Humanist Association, 1991).
  • Smoker, Barbara. Humanism: An Update for the New Millennium (London: British Humanist Association, 1998).
  • Wilson, Jane Wynne. Funerals Without God (London: British Humanist Association, 1989/1990/1992/1995/1998/2006/2014).

  • Wright, Susannah. Morality and Citizenship in English Schools (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).
  • Wright, T.R. The Religion of Humanity: The Impact of Comteian Positivism on Victorian Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

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Nash, David. “ Humanism in Britain ” In Looking Back to Look Forward, edited by Niels De Nutte and Bert Gasenbeek, 95-113. Brussels: VUBPress, 2019.

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