The history of secular Jewish people in the humanist movement is deeper and more interesting than many realise. From its inception as an organised non-religious movement in the 1870s, through to the present day, Jewish humanists in the UK and around the world have played an outsized role in the development of the modern-day humanist movement.
In a conversation with Andrew Copson for Humanists UK’s podcast What I Believe, Jewish comedian, writer, and humanist David Baddiel explained his own Jewishness as ‘an ethnic and cultural identity,’ and one which has ‘nothing to do with believing in god.’ For hundreds of years, many secular Jews have felt the same way, and – whether outside or as part of the organised movement – have exercised significant influence on humanism in the UK.
Some of the most influential figures in the history of Humanists UK have been of Jewish descent, from Ethical Culture leader Felix Adler, to organiser of the First Universal Races Congress Gustav Spiller, through to former Humanists UK President Claire Rayner. Below are just some of the many Jewish people who played a key role in the history of the humanist movement, as well as leaving a lasting legacy in the world at large.
Born in Amsterdam in 1632, Spinoza has been called the ‘founding father of modern unbelief’. He rejected the concept of miracles, and denied the efficacy of prayer, asserting that God was the substance of nature. For some, Spinoza’s name became synonymous with atheism, for others with pantheism, but though he never argued against the existence of a deity, he nevertheless placed the responsibility for living squarely with humankind. In dispensing with supernaturalism, and emphasising instead human beings’ capacity to strive for goodness – with no expectation of divine intervention, punishment, or reward – Spinoza laid the groundwork for the vocabulary of humanism today.
Polish-born atheist, abolitionist, and advocate of women’s rights Ernestine Rose was a remarkable freethinker with a passionate devotion to social reform. Rose had ‘a forcible voice, the most uncommon good sense, a delightful terseness of style, and a rare talent for humor,’ an anonymous female journalist wrote in 1860, and became infamous as a tireless freethinking feminist. Firm in her rejection of all religion from an early age, Rose’s lifelong advocacy of rationalism and humane social reform helped pave the way for generations of humanist women who came after her.
Felix and Margaret Moscheles were founding members of the West London Ethical Society in 1892, and actively involved in the Ethical movement for decades. Felix Moscheles – born in 1833 into a German Jewish family in London – was a painter, peace activist, and promoter of Esperanto, whose advocacy of a ‘universal language’ was rooted in the desire to overcome international conflict and division. Margaret (Greta) Moscheles (née Sobernheim) was also an artist, and both she and her husband were active in the international peace movement. Felix was president of the International Arbitration and Peace Association, and nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize no fewer than 19 times.
Felix Adler – the son of a rabbi – was the founder of the Ethical Culture movement, whose motto of ‘deed not creed’ centred on the possibility of establishing a system of morality without reference to theological ideas. Adler was a significant influence on Stanton Coit, who was a driving force in the popularising and growth of the organised Ethical movement (later the humanist movement) in Britain. Adler’s wife, Helen Goldmark Adler (1859-1948), was from a rationalist Jewish background, and also played a notable role in the Ethical Culture movement in America.
Josephine Gowa was a driving force in the Hampstead Ethical Institute (later Hampstead Humanist Society, and part of what is now Humanists UK) for over three decades, many years of which she spent as its honorary secretary. Gowa, like many others in the early Ethical movement, was also actively engaged in Liberal politics and the peace movement: she was the honorary secretary of the Women’s Branch of the Hampstead Liberal and Radical Association, on the executive committee of the Rationalist Peace Society, and represented the Union of Ethical Societies (Humanists UK) at the International Peace Congress of 1908. In his history of the British Ethical movement, Gustav Spiller singled Gowa out for her active devotion to the life of the Hampstead humanist group.
Austrian physician Sigmund Freud remains one of the most recognisable names in psychology: the founder of psychoanalysis, who helped bring the study of mental health to the public eye and mainstream media. Born into a largely non-observing Jewish family, Freud was a lifelong atheist, who wrote of religion as a comforting illusion, and became an Honorary Associate of the Rationalist Press Association. Freud’s ideas on the origins of the religious impulse were a significant contribution to a tradition of scientific humanist thought, in which research and reason were the means of uncovering truth. They also served to highlight the powerful resonance of childhood influences on adult lives, not least in the realm of religion.
Hungarian-born Gustav Spiller was a leading figure in the Ethical Movement, and a key driver of its internationalist outlook. On behalf of what is now Humanists UK, Spiller helped to organise the First International Moral Education Congress, and the First Universal Races Congress. This latter conference, a pioneering anti-racist effort, Spiller followed up with the World Conferences for Promoting Inter-Racial Concord – an organisation whose goal was ‘to promote cordial relations between all divisions of mankind, without regard to race, colour, or creed’. Spiller later became a key figure in the newly founded League of Nations, and in 1934 wrote a history of the British Ethical movement.
Chapman Cohen’s first foray into religious debate was in defence of a man in Victoria Park whose speech impediment had been mocked by a Christian lecturer, but he ultimately became a prominent freethought writer and lecturer, and President of the National Secular Society for over three decades (1915-1949). As editor of The Freethinker for 36 years, as well as the author of numerous books and pamphlets, he espoused a reasoned, compassionate, but unflinching rationalism, and shifted the focus from ‘bible-bashing’ to the more positive benefits of thinking freely, and arguments from history, philosophy, and science. Chapman’s father Enoch Cohen was a confectioner, and though the family was Jewish, Cohen’s childhood was not especially observant. He would later confess that ‘In sober truth I cannot recall a time when I had any religion to give up’.
Born in Germany and raised in a secular Jewish home, Albert Einstein was – as well as perhaps the most famous physicist in history – a thoughtful humanist. Einstein actively supported the Ethical Culture movement in the US, was a founder member of the First Humanist Society of New York, and an Honorary Associate of the Rationalist Press Association in the UK. In 1955,with fellow humanists Bertrand Russell and Joseph Rotblat, Einstein co-authored a manifesto calling for peace and disarmament, and always emphasised the need for humanity in the application of science. Although his scientific contributions are well recognised, Einstein’s humanist philosophy is often forgotten.
Leonard Woolf was a Jewish atheist writer, the husband of Virginia Woolf, and one-time lecturer for the South Place Ethical Society (now Conway Hall), as well as for other humanist groups. An eloquent atheist and a deeply compassionate man, Woolf’s humanist credentials were evident in his close working relationship with Gilbert Murray, his tenure as Vice President of the Progressive League – a humanist campaigning organisation – and his becoming, just before his death, an Honorary Associate of the Rationalist Press Association.
Lithuania-born Morris Ginsberg was a sociologist and philosopher, who was President of the Ethical Union (now Humanists UK) 1954–7. Although he spoke little of his childhood, Ginsberg grew up in a tight-knit Jewish community, and was – according to friend and colleague Maurice Freedman – ‘entirely Yiddish-speaking’ into his early adolescence. On migrating to England, Ginsberg excelled first in philosophy, but his greatest legacy was in the field of sociology. Writing in the LSE Magazine after Ginsberg’s death, Donald G. MacRae paid tribute to his influence on the discipline:
During many years he had carried the burden of sociology in this country almost alone. What the subject has of rigour, order, clarity, scholarship, creative doubt and humane concern in 1970 is the legacy, above all of Ginsberg.
Harold J. Laski was born into a prosperous Manchester family, who were prominent in the city’s Jewish and political communities. With his marriage to Frida Kerry in 1911, Laski rebelled against the traditional values of his parents, who disapproved of his marrying a non-Jew. He struggled to reconcile the tenets of religion with science and personal freedom, ultimately becoming an outspoken rationalist. An academic and a political activist, Laski was active in the Labour movement and in Fabian circles, a suffragist and a socialist. Of Laski’s impact, his biographer Michael Newman wrote:
…few people have devoted such energy to a sincere attempt to combine liberty, equality, and internationalism in theoretical terms and to promote these ideals through teaching and participation in public life. He deserves full recognition for this.
Karl Popper is remembered as one of the 20th century’s greatest philosophers of science, as well as an influential rationalist and philosopher. Popper’s definition of an ‘open society’, as outlined in his 1945 work The Open Society and Its Enemies, exerted significant influence on the policies of the British Humanist Association (now Humanists UK) during the 1960s and 1970s, epitomised by the 1969 conference ‘Towards an Open Society’. Popper was a member of the British Humanist Association’s Advisory Council, and contributed an essay to the 1968 collection The Humanist Outlook, edited by A.J. Ayer.
Ellen Gottschalk Roy was a German-Jewish radical, writer, and close collaborator with her husband, Indian revolutionary M. N. Roy. With Roy, she was active in the organisation of the Radical Humanist movement in India, including as editor of its journal, and strongly advocated for international sympathy and cooperation.
Polish-born Jacob Bronowski was a mathematician, historian, and broadcaster whose landmark 13-part series The Ascent of Man explored the development of humankind through its understanding of science. Bronowski, a writer of poetry and devotee of William Blake, also challenged the false dichotomy of art and science, always emphasising the humanity of the scientific process. He was actively involved in the British Humanist Association (now Humanists UK), and the International Humanist and Ethical Union (now Humanists International), his central humanist philosophy underpinning a lifetime devoted to the exploration and celebration of life.
Nobel Peace Prize-winning physicist and humanist Joseph Rotblat devoted his life to advocating the responsible use of science, and working for international peace. Acutely aware, through his own involvement in atomic research, of the dangers of nuclear weapons, Rotblat was a signatory to what became known as the Russell-Einstein manifesto, calling on world leaders to ‘remember your humanity, and forget the rest.’ He was a founding member of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs – which brought scientists together to discuss issues of nuclear weapons and world peace – and, as Rotblat himself recalled, ‘approached the problems in the spirit of scientific objectivity’. Through education, cooperation, and a sense of responsibility, Rotblat hoped that peace could be achieved. ‘Ending war sounds utopian,’ he wrote, ‘but I believe it is possible nonetheless.’
Philosopher and humanist A.J. Ayer was the first President of the British Humanist Association (now Humanists UK) under that name, as well as of the Agnostics Adoption Society. Although Ayer’s mother, Reine Citroën, was from a Dutch Jewish background, Ayer had no religious upbringing. In his introduction to The Humanist Outlook (1968), Ayer offered a description of his personal philosophy – and definition of humanism – which epitomised his personal warmth and passionate activism, and has been widely quoted:
In common with other humanists, I believe that the only possible basis for a sound morality is mutual tolerance and respect: tolerance of one another’s customs and opinions; respect for one another’s rights and feelings; awareness of one another’s needs.
Hermann Bondi was a mathematician and cosmologist who, for almost two decades, was President of the British Humanist Association (now Humanists UK). He remains the longest serving President, but was just one of a number of Jewish humanists who held the title. In his tenure as President, Bondi worked actively to encourage the growth of the humanist movement and a wider awareness of humanist values. For Bondi, humanism meant ‘a willingness to change the world’, and he expressed this nowhere better than in his 1992 Conway Memorial Lecture:
I quote Thomas Paine: ‘We live to improve’, he said, ‘or we live in vain’. I am not quite clear from the context whether he means improving the world we live in or improving ourselves, indeed I am not at all sure he distinguished between the two. ‘We live to improve or we live in vain’, is a very wise saying. It is in service to others, it is as members of the community, that our existence lies.
The work of crystallographer Rosalind Franklin was crucial to the discovery of the structure of DNA, enabled by a passionate devotion to science. Born in London into a distinguished Jewish family, Franklin became a firm and eloquent humanist, who rejected Judaism in favour of a rationalist faith in humanity itself. In an oft quoted letter to her father, Franklin defended herself against a charge of making a religion of science, arguing that ‘science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated’ but adding that science offered only ‘a partial explanation of life’. Her philosophy, rooted in scientific reasoning and the creation of meaning by working for others, was a humanist one.
George Melly was a singer, writer, critic, and President of the British Humanist Association (now Humanists UK) 1972-4. He lived an ebullient and unapologetic life, and, believing there to be just one, revelled in music, art, and relationships, embracing the joys he felt were all the sweeter without any notion of an encore. Melly featured – along with another Humanists UK President of Jewish descent, Claire Rayner – in The Great Human Detective Story, a film created by the BHA in 1991 exploring the ideas and impact of humanism. In it, Melly expressed his sense of the active, positive qualities of the humanist philosophy.
Journalist and broadcaster Bernard Levin was born into a Jewish family in London, but at home ‘followed hardly any Jewish observances’. A bright child, he won a scholarship to Christ’s Hospital school in Sussex, and later wrote: ‘I left school having sampled two of the world’s great religions and derived nothing of importance from either.’ After studying at LSE under Harold Laski and Karl Popper, Levin embarked on a successful journalistic career, writing for The Spectator, The Daily Mail, and The Times. He wrote a column for the latter for almost thirty years. Compassionate, enthusiastic, and inquisitive ‘about almost everything’, Levin was an admired writer, a beloved friend, and an influential humanist voice.
Lewis Wolpert was a developmental biologist and Vice President of the British Humanist Association (now Humanists UK), who did much to raise the public profile of mental illness with his 1999 book Malignant Sadness: The Anatomy of Depression. Born in Johannesburg, Wolpert was raised in a strict Jewish household and trained initially as an engineer, before switching to the study of biology. Like many scientists on this list, Wolpert was an advocate of the wider use and relevance of science, chairing the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science 1993-8. He was also a prominent voice for rationalism and humanism. In an article for the New Humanist in 2017, Wolpert wrote of his belief ‘like the anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski, that religion itself had its origin in relation to death by introducing a belief system that helps to reduce the fear of it’. He concluded his article: ‘I hope that when I die a few people will mourn me – but please, no religious ceremony.’
Born to Jewish parents in Hackney, Harold Pinter became one of the 20th century’s most influential dramatists: a humanist and activist described by his biographer Michael Billington as ‘a permanent public nuisance, a questioner of accepted truths, both in life and art’. Pinter was a member of the Advisory Council of the British Humanist Association (now Humanists UK), and in 2002 was among more than 100 public figures who protested to the BBC over a ban on atheist contributors to BBC Radio 4’s Thought For The Day. He was an active supporter of many humanist causes, including the abolition of blasphemy laws, and secular education. Through his plays he offered, wrote Roger Manvell for The Humanist, ‘an original diagnosis of our human nature, as well as an expression of his own particular vision of humankind’.
Claire Berenice Rayner (née Berkovitch) was a nurse, journalist, broadcaster, novelist, and agony aunt, who used her long career to impart thoughtful, compassionate advice to all who came to her. Rayner’s humanism imbued her life and work, and as an advice columnist and journalist, she emphasised compassion and frankness, not least in those areas typically viewed as taboo. As her husband, Des Rayner, recalled: ‘Through her own approach to life she enabled people to talk about their problems in a way that was unique.’ Rayner was awarded the OBE for ‘services to women’s issues and health issues’ in 1996, and became President of Humanists UK in 1999.
Doctor, comic, writer, and broadcaster Sir Jonathan Miller was born into a Jewish family and grew up in Hampstead. Working first as a hospital doctor, he ultimately became best known as a writer, performer, theatre and opera director, television presenter, and producer – remembered above all for the remarkable range of his interests and talents. A longtime member of Humanists UK, Miller was passionate about humanism and keen to shed light on what he saw as an under-explored history of humanist thinking and its positive impact on society. In 2004, he wrote and presented Atheism: A Rough History of Disbelief, which aired on the BBC and explored his humanism and ‘the hidden story of atheism’ around the world.
Like her father, Jacob Bronowski, Lisa Jardine was a historian and humanist whose interests ranged broadly across science and the humanities – refusing any notion of the ‘either-or’. An expert in the early modern period, Jardine became a professor of Renaissance Studies at University College London (UCL), and published an array of books – true to her father’s wry comment at the start of her career: ‘Make sure you write the big books, Lisa; then they cannot accuse you of being lightweight.’ Although she carved her own niche in the world of academia, creating spaces for interdisciplinary study and examining the historic role and education of women, Jardine delivered the 2014 Conway Memorial Lecture on Jacob Bronowski, titled ‘Things I Never Knew About My Father’. On her death the following year, Jardine – a lifelong humanist – was remembered for her scholarship, her humour, and her warmth.
This article first appeared as ‘Jewish and humanist: secular Jews who helped shape the humanist movement in Britain‘