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Difficult figures

Some of the important figures in the history of humanism in the UK held opinions and beliefs which humanists today unequivocally condemn. For example, some leaders of the Union of Ethical Societies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries expressed anti-semitic attitudes; some notable humanists in the early twentieth century espoused eugenics. These figures, particularly where other aspects of their life and work are of significance to the story of humanism, cannot be ignored – and should not be. 

The humanist approach to life is one that adapts to our developing understanding of human nature and the world around us and is therefore able to critique, dismantle, and reject certain positions held by individuals from the past as misguided or even outright wrong. Reevaluating beliefs in the light of changed understandings or robust self-criticism is central to the humanist approach, and contextualising and challenging these figures from the past is important in giving a complete picture of humanist heritage. By including them we do not celebrate or condone all their beliefs, but instead acknowledge that no history is unblemished, and that as humanists today we can recognise – and learn from – this.

For humanists, what is wise is what stands the test of time and experience, and influential ideas can be separated out from other beliefs that have not stood the test of scientific or ethical scrutiny.

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