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‘Humanists at Help’: a history of humanist care

Julia Stephen with Virginia on her lap, 1884 by Henry H. H. Cameron. Smith College Libraries

19th century

Prior to the establishment of humanist care organisations or networks, many humanists in public and in private lived their values through informal or professional caring roles, or in campaigning efforts to improve social welfare and healthcare more widely. Although many of the most famous examples of this, such as Florence Nightingale, were motivated by their religious faith, the non-religious challenged the idea that care was the preserve of the faithful, both in deed and word.  One example was humanist Julia Stephen‘s defence of the ‘agnostic woman’, written in 1880, in response to an article by Bertha Lathbury in The Nineteenth Century. Lathbury had suggested that in losing their religious faith, women would simultaneously lose those caring qualities which defined them. Stephen’s essay (though unpublished in her lifetime) noted that people of all creeds and none could and did provide care to others. The non-religious were focused on helping others in this world, with no hope of afterlife or divine reward. In nursing, she wrote:

We are not thinking that we shall gain a glorious immortality, that we shall be crowned as saints because we have helped our fellow creatures… We are bound to these sufferers by the tie of sisterhood and while life lasts we will help, soothe, and, if we can, love them. Pity has no creed, suffering no limits.

Julia Stephen, ‘Agnostic Women’ (1880)
Henry Snell, 1st Baron Snell by Bassano Ltd., 7 April 1936 © National Portrait Gallery, London

First World War

During the First World War, the Ethical Union (now Humanists UK) arranged visits to conscientious objectors in Wandsworth Prison. Gustav Spiller recalled in his history of the Ethical movement:

Two war activities deserve special mention. One was the Soldiers’ Friendship Committee of the Union, ‘appointed to keep in touch with and promote the comfort of members and friends serving in His Majesty’s Forces’. A kindred activity was that described in the Report for 1917/18 under Prison Visits: ‘The Council was asked early in the year to arrange for visits to be paid to men who were in prison for conscientious objection to military service, and the Secretary [Mr. Harry Snell] has regularly visited Wandsworth Prison, and held suitable services in accordance with the prison regulations. The Prison Commissioners, at his request, also agreed to recognise The Message of Man as a devotional book, and this has been supplied to each of the men visited.’ In the Report for 1918/19 we further read that ‘the regular visits arranged by the Council to conscientious objectors in Wandsworth Prison have been continued throughout the year, addresses having been given to a maximum of 27 men’.

Harry Snell, who conducted these visits, was a politician, secularist, and prominent humanist. In 1931 he was made President of the Ethical Union, and on his death was described by his friend and colleague Clement Attlee as having ‘devoted his life to the service of humanity. No man I have known had less care of himself or more for others’. The Message of Man was a book of extracts and quotations gathered by Stanton Coit, a founder of Humanists UK as the Union of Ethical Societies.

Anenurin Bevan, Minister of Health, on the first day of the National Health Service, 5 July 1948, at Park Hospital, Davyhulme

Mid 20th century – creation of the NHS

In very public ways, humanists were instrumental in reforming healthcare provision in the UK, most notably in the creation of a National Health Service. When Nigel Lawson said in 1992 that the National Health Service was the ‘closest thing the English have to a religion’, he may have inadvertently alluded to the very non-religious beginnings of the institution, the origins of which lie in the bold humanist thinking of three pioneering figures: Aneurin BevanClement Attlee, and William Beveridge. Beveridge was an economist and social reformer, whose landmark ‘Beveridge Report’ paved the way for the welfare state, recommending state-organised care for all citizens from birth to death in the aftermath of the Second World War. Clement Attlee was one of at least three non-religious 20th century Prime Ministers, and one whose socialist and humanist values underpinned his commitment to implementing sweeping reforms in social welfare. Aneurin ‘Nye’ Bevan was a proud humanist who, as Minister of Health from 1945-1951, oversaw the NHS’ foundation in 1948.

Humanism as a sustained attempt to live with reality cannot be limited to giving a rational picture of the world in general terms; it must go on to help the individual to live in that world…

H.J. Blackham, Humanism (1976)
Cover of The Humanist, October 1964, showing four leading figures of the humanist movement: Hector Hawton, Tolbert H. McCarroll, D.J. Stewart (Chairman of the University Humanist Federation), and H.J. Blackham.

Humanist Counselling and beyond

From the early 1960s, with other members of the burgeoning British Humanist Association (now Humanists UK), H.J. Blackham pioneered a humanist counselling service – a direct forerunner of today’s Non-Religious Pastoral Support Network. Blackham and his colleagues felt that the initiation of ‘pastoral humanism’ was key to the development of the humanist movement, and a distinctive offer they might make to the wider community. Humanists in America, and elsewhere in Europe, were already experimenting with the offer of counselling, leading to an exchange of information and inspiration. Writing to the American Humanist Association’s Tolbert McCarroll, Blackham expressed his belief that a counselling service ‘could be one of the most important undertakings of our organised humanist movement.’ One outgrowth of Blackham’s work in this area was his co-founding of the British Association for Counselling (now the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy) in 1977.

The Humanist Counselling service was one of a number of major forays into active social work that the BHA took during the 1950s and 1960s, with others including the Humanist Housing Association and the Agnostics Adoption Agency. The work of all of these was defined by values at the heart of humanism: evidence-led, cooperative, pragmatic, and compassionate.

Later, SOS (Secular Organisations for Sobriety) was another network formed to meet the needs of the non-religious, or anyone seeking to root recovery from addiction in personal responsibility, rather than through appeal to a ‘higher power’ (as in the case of Alcoholics Anonymous). In 2001, humanist David Ibry founded the Humanist Bereavement Project, a counselling service designed to meet the needs of non-religious people coping with trauma and loss.

Prison visiting

As the 20th century continued, more concerted efforts were made to offer services for non-religious people where they existed for the religious. One key area was in prison visiting, where chaplaincy services provided support to prisoners of faith, with no established equivalent for humanists or non-believers. In 1990, a British Humanist Association briefing document titled ‘Discrimination Against Non-Religious Prisoners?’ outlined the case of a prisoner at HMP Leyhill. In this case, following a direct request, visits were undertaken by Nigel Collins of Cotswold Humanists and Rationalists, but (unlike in the case of chaplaincy visits) these had to take place instead of – rather than as well as – those by family members. The document, prepared for The Guardian, asked:


The Home Office has stated that the British Humanist Association is not a pastoral organisation, so cannot have pastoral visits to prisoners. But this term, with its implications of a network of pastors and their flocks, does not apply to Humanism, which lays emphasis on individual questioning of faith and knowledge. However, the existing network of local Humanist groups fills the social and philosophical role of churches… Although the BHA is small, some 34 per cent of the British population does not have a religion. This does not mean they should be left in a moral and spiritual vacuum. Perhaps established traditions should change to take account of the increasing secularisation of society!

The archive shows subsequent communications with the Ministry of Defence (both Army and Navy), as well as Cruse Bereavement Care, offering information on the humanist provision of pastoral support.

We aim to ensure that non-religious people have the opportunity to access appropriate and effective likeminded pastoral support that is tailored to work for them.

Non-Religious Pastoral Support Network (2023)

Humanist Care today

In 2016, Humanists UK established the Non-Religious Pastoral Support Network (NRPSN) under the banner of Humanist Care. Membership of the NRPSN is not limited to humanists and is open to all those who hold a non-religious belief system that is consistent with a democratic society. The NRPSN are a network of trained and accredited non-religious pastoral carers, who aim to meet an ongoing gap in provision for non-religious people in UK institutional and community settings. They also promote the need for non-religious pastoral support within organisations across the UK.

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