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New resource unearths the UK’s humanist history as Humanists UK celebrates 125 years

Some 20th century humanists: Rosalind Franklin, WEB Dubois, Jennie Lee, and Ludovic Kennedy.

For too long, the history of humanism and of people motivated to do great things on the basis of humanist beliefs and values has been little represented and profoundly under-recognised in the UK. But that all looks set to change, as an in-depth new resource called Humanist Heritage has launched today, to celebrate the 125th anniversary of Humanists UK this very month.

By cataloguing hundreds of humanist people, ideas, organisations, and innovations, the new Humanist Heritage website aims to put one of the most important social movements in UK history in the spotlight for the first time.

This ranges from well-known national heroes whose humanist motivations have often been overlooked, like codebreaker Alan Turing, DNA discoverer Rosalind Franklin, and NHS founder Nye Bevan – to campaigners who have languished in obscurity for decades but whose influence on the UK today is so vast that that deserves to change. This includes people like May Seaton-Tiedeman, who in 1937 was instrumental in making it possible to get divorced because of cruelty or desertion; Elizabeth Swann, Chair of the First Annual Congress of the Union of Ethical Societies, who was instrumental in bringing about laws to regulate midwifery; and Gustav Spiller, who organised the First Universal Races Congress in 1911 in a bold attempt to challenge racism and encourage international understanding.

Humanists are non-religious people who think for themselves and act for everyone. Today YouGov polling suggests around 7% of people in the UK – almost 5 million people – primarily identify as humanists, while almost 30% hold humanist beliefs.

The research project was led by historian Madeleine Goodall, whose findings unearthed many activists, particularly women, buried or excised from history, or whose humanist convictions were left out of their official biographies. Commenting on the project, Ms Goodall said:

‘The Humanist Heritage project has been truly eye-opening in shedding light on a large number of forgotten figures, lost not only from the history of humanism but from that of the UK as a whole. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, freethinking individuals were pioneering changes in education, healthcare, law, and social welfare, the results of which we largely take for granted today. Looking afresh at these remarkable stories provides a new way of understanding the past and the present, as well as envisioning a future we can be proud of.’

Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented:

‘Many notable figures in UK history were humanists and expressed strong humanist motivations. Curiously however this fact has frequently been left out of their biographies, as well as from official histories of our nation’s laws and institutions. This is the case even when those individuals were leading members of humanist societies in their day.

‘Our 125th anniversary is a fitting time to right that wrong. We are therefore delighted to be able to share the Humanist Heritage resource with the world, and celebrate humanists that shaped the UK into the country it is today.

‘We see this as a resource for the future, which is destined to grow and grow as new heritage is uncovered and explored.’

125th anniversary events

Humanists UK has a whole series of events and activities planned around its 125th anniversary, of which the Humanist Heritage website is the flagship.

Events planned include ‘How humanist activists shaped society’, on 30 April: a look back with historians and long-time humanist activists like Diane Munday, who was instrumental in bringing about legal abortion in Britain. Other events later in the year include to the 42nd anniversary of the Gay Humanist Group (now LGBT Humanists, a section of Humanists UK); on the history of race equality and humanism; and another with a focus on faith schools, marking the anniversary of the Moral Instruction League being founded in 1897.

A history of Humanists UK

Humanists UK was founded in 1896 as the Union of Ethical Societies. The ethical culture movement focused on living well and acting morally, separating both from any notions of supernatural punishment or reward. The first ethical societies trace their roots back to the 1870s, and at their peak in the 1900s there were over 70. Today there is one ethical society left in the UK, namely Conway Hall in Holborn.

In 1920, the Union of Ethical Societies was renamed the Ethical Union. In 1963-7, the Ethical Union became the British Humanist Association, with the Happy Human logo being invented in 1965. The BHA further evolved into Humanists UK in 2017, and today has around 100,000 members and supporters, more than ever before.

Along the way, notable events included the first ever global antiracism gathering, the Universal Races Congress, which was held in 1911 and featured W.E.B. Du Bois, as well as three past or future UK Prime Ministers; the 1955 BBC broadcast ‘Morals without Religion’ by Margaret Knight, psychologist and later member of the Humanist Broadcasting Council, which broke new ground as the first-ever broadcast of its type, and led to an avalanche of complaints; the founding of the Humanist Housing Association in 1955 and Agnostics Adoption Society in 1963, to provide services that in their time had not been available to non-religious people, and which had a special interest in supporting racial minorities; fighting against section 28 in the 1980s through to helping bring about legal recognition of same-sex marriages in the 2010s; to prompting the abolition of England and Wales’s blasphemy laws in 2008; and the legal recognition of humanist marriages in Scotland in 2005 and Northern Ireland in 2018.

Other notable people with a shared history include a young Gandhi, who published translations of American humanist writings and was close friends with Florence Winterbottom, Secretary of the Union of Ethical Societies; the former UK Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, who was President of the Union in the 1900s; Jennie Lee, a humanist who founded the Open University; and Wole Soyinka, who spoke at the 2014 World Humanist Congress and today is a patron of Humanists UK.

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For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at press@humanists.uk or phone 020 7324 3072 or 07534 248 596.

Visit the Humanist Heritage website.

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by 100,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.

In 2021, Humanists UK is celebrating its 125th anniversary with a renewed focus on its history. The new website Humanist Heritage is a rich new web resource that uncovers the untold story of humanism in the UK – a story of people, groups, objects, places, movements, publications, and ideas.

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