Harold John Blackham (1903 – 2009)
Philosopher, writer, teacher, humanist
Born on the 31st March, 1903, near Birmingham, Harold Blackham studied literature and worked in farming and teaching before turning to philosophy and adult education. Though never a professional philosopher, he tutored adult education courses on philosophy and the history of ideas, and made substantial contributions to 20 th century humanist thinking in his many articles and books. These span half a century and include: Six Existentialist Thinkers (1952); Objections to Humanism (1963);Humanism (1968); The Future of Our Past (1996). Barbara Smoker, in Blackham’s Best (see below), describes his writing as driven by a desire to distill and communicate the wisdom of the past to others, and as “condensed, taut, aphoristic … with multiple layers of meaning – often more like classical poetry than modern prose”. Many of his ideas are as true and helpful today as when he wrote them:
“[Humanism] is the ordinary way of taking hold of the world, straightforwardly, by contrast with the far-fetched, the ancestral, the immemorial. Contrary to what many suspect or complain of, humanism not only has no mumbo-jumbo, it has no experts. Intellectuals and the man in the street speak the same language.” (The Plain View, 1963)
“Faith without works is not Christianity, and unbelief without any effort to help shoulder the consequences for mankind is not humanism.” (Objections to Humanism, 1968)
“Agnosticism… is the only position warranted by experience: recognition of the permanent nature and conditions of human knowledge, with its open horizon of continuous progressive investigation.” (Objections to Humanism, 1968)
In the early 30s, Blackham became prominent in the British Ethical Union, and with leaders of the main churches set up a moral education programme in Great Britain . Later he played an important part in the development of the Ethical Union into the British Humanist Association, becoming the BHA’s first Executive Director in 1963. He is also an Honorary Associate of the Rationalist Association. He retained his interests in education and moral education, writing on Education for Personal Autonomy and Education and Drug Dependence, and was a founder of the Journal of Moral Education. In the 1970s he was chair of the Social Morality Council of Great Britain.
He was also a key organiser of the World Union of Freethinkers’ conference in London in 1938, and, after World War II, was a founding member of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) and IHEU secretary from 1952 to 1966. He received the IHEU’s International Humanist Award in 1974, and its Special Award for Service to World Humanism in 1978.
Although he described his personal philosophy as Epicurean, others have seen him as a stoic. He wrote of “a resourceful, self-dependent, realistic, constructive attitude to life” – and his long and productive life, committed to a variety of progressive causes, demonstrates perhaps that good health and longevity can be fostered by living according to confident beliefs and values as well as by religion. He continued writing, lecturing, and officiating at humanist funerals into his nineties, eventually retiring to the Wye valley, where he used his “uninterrupted leisure in spectacular natural surroundings” to grow vegetables and continue his reading and writing.
Harold Blackham died on 23rd January 2009, aged 105. Former editor of New Humanist, Jim Herrick, described him as living “the exemplary humanist life, that of thought and action welded together.”
Blackham’s Best, a selection of extracts from for the general reader, compiled by Barbara Smoker from Harold Blackham’s writings over the years, first published in 1988 to mark his 85th birthday, and republished with additional material, to celebrate his 100th birthday in 2003.
- Transcript of memorial meeting held 8 June 2009.
- Jim Herrick’s excellent BBC Biography of HJ Blackham
- Answers.com on Harold Blackham
- H. J. Blackham’s What Is Agnosticism?
- The Times obituary: Harold Blackham: the driving force of the modern humanist movement.
- New Humanist obituary
- IHEU obituary
- The Guardian obituary
- The Independent obituary: Harold Blackham, philosopher and the first head of the British Humanist Association, by Barbara Smoker