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125 Years of Humanists UK: a visual history

Humanists UK was formed in 1896, but the history of the organised humanist movement began earlier. In the UK, it started in the 1880s with ethical societies: groups formed with social reform and sociability in mind. The ethical societies focused on living well and acting morally, separating both from any notions of supernatural punishment or reward.

The societies – the first of which was formed in 1886 – drew on the Ethical Culture movement started by Felix Adler in the US a decade earlier, but formed part of a much longer tradition of freethought, secularism, and rationalism in the UK and worldwide. You can view a flowchart of this history here.

Felix Adler in 1874

1876 – Birth of the Ethical Culture Movement

The Ethical movement begins in New York with German-born American Felix Adler, the son of a rabbi, who introduces a philosophy centred on ‘deed not creed’. Adler is active in numerous efforts towards social reform and inclusive education, and founds the New York Society for Ethical Culture in 1876.

Sophie Bryant (née Willock) by W. & D. Downey, published by Cassell & Company, Ltd.,1894 © National Portrait Gallery, London

1886 – the first English ethical society

The London Ethical Society, the UK’s first, is established by a group seeking to advance a philosophy of ‘well-being and well-doing’, free from questions of theology. Their focus is on fellowship and education, particularly through cooperation with existing bodies seeking to expand access to higher education for all.

Henry Sidgwick, President of the Cambridge Ethical Society

1888 – Cambridge Ethical Society

Henry Sidgwick is the founding President of the Cambridge Ethical Society, whose subscribers include botanist Francis Darwin (son of Charles), scholar and teacher Elizabeth Phillips Hughes, and economist John Neville Keynes (father of John Maynard).

Gustav Spiller, first Secretary of the ELES

1889 – East London Ethical Society

A small group, including F. J. Gould and Stanton Coit, form the East London Ethical Society in Mile End. Its object is ‘the development of good character and the promotion of right conduct on a purely human basis.’

Ruth Homan, founding member of the WLES.

1892 – The West London Ethical Society

The West London Ethical Society, always one of the largest, is founded in 1892, its aim being the pursuit of the ‘good life’ based on the concept of ‘man as a rational and social being’.

Its executive committee includes writer and historian Leslie Stephen, politician Russell Rea, surgeon Dr. Charles William Bass, draper’s assistant William Frederick Champion, London School Board member Ruth Homan, suffragette Laura Morgan-Browne, composer Emily Josephine Troup, and trade unionist Florence Routledge (daughter of George Routledge, founder of the publishing house).

Surrey Masonic Hall, Camberwell, where the society met from 1894

1892 – The South London Ethical Society

The South London Ethical Society is formed in Peckham, in November 1892. Its first Secretary is Florence Aspasia Law, the daughter of famed freethought lecturer Harriet Law. In a sketch of the Society written for The Ethical World in 1898, Law describes ‘democratic sociability’ as ‘the leading feature of the South London Ethical Society’.

Like the existing West and East London Ethical Societies, the South London group’s object is ‘the development of good character and the promotion of right conduct on a purely human basis’.

In 1895, a North London Ethical Society is formed.

Stanton Coit, a key figure in the development of organised humanism.

1896 – The Union of Ethical Societies

The Union of Ethical Societies (which will become Humanists UK) is formed by the North, South, West, and East London groups, who seek federation ‘for the more effective carrying out of objects common to them all’. These objects are:

  1. By purely natural and human means to assist individual and social efforts after right living.
  2. To free the current ideal of what is right from all that is merely traditional or self-contradictory, and thus to widen and perfect it.
  3. To assist in constructing a theory or science of Right, which, starting with the reality and validity of moral distinctions, shall explain their mental and social origin, and connect them in a logical system of thought.

The first Annual Congress of the Union of Ethical Societies takes place on 5 July, chaired by Elizabeth Schwann.

First page of the IEU’s Manifesto, 1896

1896 – The International Ethical Union

The first meeting of the International Ethical Union (a precursor to Humanists International) is held in Zurich, Switzerland in September.

As well as delegates from the Union of Ethical Societies in the UK, members are in attendance from the US, Germany, Switzerland, and Austria.

The Garden of Childhood, a book ‘prepared with the sanction and in accordance with the syllabus of the Moral Instruction League

1897 – The Moral Instruction League

The Moral Instruction League is formed, closely connected to the Union of Ethical Societies, in order to advocate for non-theological moral education (rather than religious instruction) in schools. Campaigning for inclusive education will remain central to the work of the ethical societies from their beginnings through to Humanists UK’s education work today.

Founders of the League include Stanton Coit, Gustav Spiller, and F.J. Gould.

Leslie Stephen, writer, historian, President of the West London Ethical Society, and father of Virginia Woolf

1900 – Ethical Democracy & Ethics and Religion

In 1900, the Society of Ethical Propagandists publishes two essay collections outlining the major concerns of the Ethical movement.

Ethical Democracy: Essays in Social Dynamics includes contributions from James Ramsay MacDonald, Zona Vallance, and Margaret McMillan, and is edited by Stanton Coit.

Ethics and Religion, features essays from an international group of ethical thinkers, including Felix Adler, Henry Sidgwick, Georg von Giźycki, and Leslie Stephen.

11 Hardman Street, Liverpool by Phil Nash (Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0), former home of the Liverpool Ethical Society

1906 – Peak number of UK ethical societies

In 1906, there are 26 individual ethical societies affiliated with the Union of Ethical Societies, and groups exist from Belfast to Battersea.

Across the UK, over 70 ‘ethical centres’ will be formed, 46 of which will be officially linked to the Union at various times.

Cover and publisher’s note in Gandhi’s Ethical Religion, 1907

1907 – Gandhi’s translation of Ethical Religion

In 1907 Mahatma Gandhi, inspired by William Salter’s Ethical Religion, publishes translations of a number of chapters in Indian Opinion.

Gandhi is strongly sympathetic to the ideas of the Ethical movement, and a close friend of Florence Winterbottom, Secretary of the Union of Ethical Societies.

President of the First International Moral Education Congress Sir Michael Ernest Sadler, 1914 by George Charles Beresford © National Portrait Gallery, London

1908 – The First International Moral Education Congress

The First International Moral Education Congress takes place at the University of London in September 1908, welcoming 1800 members from a diverse range of backgrounds, interested in the use of non-theological moral education in schools.

The Congress’ driving forces are German educationist, pacifist, and philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Foerster and Secretary of the International Ethical Union Gustav Spiller.

A further five conferences take place in subsequent years: 1912, 1922, 1926, 1930, and 1934.

The interior of the Ethical Church, Bayswater, showing a painting by Walter Crane above the ‘altar’

1909 – Stanton Coit leases the ‘Ethical Church’

With financial support from his wife, Adela Coit, leader of the West London Ethical Society Stanton Coit leases a church in Bayswater for experimentation with ‘ethical worship’.

Coit’s ‘Ethical Church‘ is devoted to the worship and pursuit of the good, redefining religion to mean devotion to this, rather than to a god. Other ethical churches are later established in Forest Gate and Liverpool.

Coit’s church is decorated with the portraits and busts of admirable figures from history, including works by the group’s members – such as an enamel work by suffragist Ernestine Mills commemorating Zona Vallance.

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, author, sociologist, historian, activist, and delegate at the First Universal Races Congress

1911 – The First Universal Races Congress

The First Universal Races Congress, arising from an idea of Felix Adler‘s, takes place in London in July 1911. It is organised chiefly by Gustav Spiller, and includes official representatives from at least 17 countries.

The Congress aims:

to discuss, in the light of science and the modern conscience, the general relations subsisting between the peoples of the West and those of the East, between the so-called “white” and the so-called “colored” peoples, with a view to encouraging between them a fuller understanding, the most friendly feelings, and a heartier co-operation.

One delegate, W.E.B. Du Bois, will say of the initiative that: ‘it would have marked an epoch in the racial history of the world if it had not been for the World War.’

Page from the minute book of the Women’s Group, showing their motto, written by Florence Winterbottom, held in the Bishopsgate Institute archives

1915 – The Women’s Group

In 1915, the Women’s Group of the Ethical Movement is formed, and issues a call for peace. In a manifesto printed in Jus Suffragii, the group proclaim their ‘unquenchable faith in the power of human spirit and reason to discover new methods of dealing with international difficulties’. They continue:

Our principles teach us to work for the good of mankind from the knowledge of man’s nature and activities, as it has come down to us through the ages, and we believe that such principles have a more ennobling influence than those which merely emphasise individual growth and progress.

Active in the group are a number of remarkable humanist women, including Nellie Freeman, Lillie Boileau, Florence Winterbottom, May Seaton-Tiedeman, and Dr. Alice Vickery.

Annual Report of the Ethical Union, held by the Bishopsgate Institute archives

1920 – The Ethical Union

At the 25th Annual Congress of the Union of Ethical Societies, held in Sheffield, a motion to change the name is passed, and the Union of Ethical Societies becomes the Ethical Union.

Dora Winifred Russell (née Black); Bertrand Russell, 1922 by Lady Ottoline Morrell © National Portrait Gallery, London

1927 – Bertrand Russell’s ‘Why I am Not a Christian’

In a talk given at Battersea Town Hall on Sunday 6 March 1927, prominent humanist and eminent philosopher Bertrand Russell makes a powerful case for the humanist philosophy of rationalism and compassion:

We want to stand upon our own feet and look fair and square at the world – its good facts, its bad facts, its beauties, and its ugliness; see the world as it is, and be not afraid of it.

In the same year, Bertrand and Dora Russell found their experimental Beacon Hill School in Sussex.

Invitation to the opening of Conway Hall, courtesy of the Conway Hall Humanist Library and Archives

1929 – Official opening of Conway Hall

On 23 September 1929, Conway Hall – the new home of the South Place Ethical Society – opens in Red Lion Square.

The history of South Place dates back to 1793, with a congregation of religious dissenters led by Elhanan Winchester, followed by a series of figures who lead the group through Unitarianism to humanism.

1933 – Retirement of Stanton Coit

After more than four decades leading the West London Ethical Society, and the Ethical Church, Stanton Coit steps down.

Chapman Cohen, chair of the Congress’ Executive Committee

1938 – The World Union of Freethinkers at Conway Hall

The International Congress of the World Union of Freethinkers is held at Conway Hall, London between 9-13 September 1938. Organised by the National Secular Society, the Rationalist Press Association, the South Place Ethical Society, and the Ethical Union.

The World Union of Freethinkers had been founded in 1880 as the International Federation of Freethought Associations, and its first and fourth congresses (in 1881 and 1887) had also been held in London.

Among the organisers of the 1938 congress are Harold Blackham, Chapman Cohen, and Charles Bradlaugh Bonner.

Hector Hawton, initiator of the Humanist Council

1950 – Formation of a Humanist Council

The Humanist Council is formed ‘as a liaison committee to link the Rationalist Press Association, the Ethical Union and South Place Ethical Society, which was not at that time affiliated to the Ethical Union’.

The English Positivist Committee is also associated with the Council, joined in 1953 by the National Secular Society.

Participants of the inaugural IHEU Congress, 1952, at Oudemanhuispoort, University of Amsterdam

1952 – International Humanist and Ethical Union

Five humanist organisations (the American Ethical Union, American Humanist Association, British Ethical Union (now Humanists UK), Vienna Ethical Society, and the Dutch Humanist league) hold an inaugural congress in Amsterdam, founding the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), now Humanists International.

A statement outlining ‘the fundamentals of modern, ethical humanism’ is agreed upon at the congress. This shared definition of humanism comes to be known as the Amsterdam Declaration.

Margaret Knight, psychologist and humanist, whose 1955 broadcast ‘Morals without Religion’ broke new ground in the public advocacy of humanist education

1955 – Morals without Religion

After long negotiation the BBC allows Margaret Knight, psychologist and humanist, to broadcast two talks on Morals without Religion. They cause a sensation, sharply dividing opinion with some in the press crying scandal.

Rose Bush, Lindsay and Mora Burnet, leading figures in the Humanist Housing Association, in front of Rose Bush Court, c. 1968

1955 – First meeting of the Ethical Union Housing Association

The first meeting to establish an Ethical Union Housing Association (later the Humanist Housing Association) is held at Conway Hall in January 1955.

The main speaker is Mora Burnet, and donations for the Association’s establishment are received from the Hampstead Ethical Society, South Place Ethical Society, the Rationalist Press Association, the Ethical Union, and the National Corporation for the Care of Old People.

The Association seeks to apply humanist values of inclusiveness, autonomy, community, and human dignity to the provision of housing, and ongoing support for tenants.

Extract from the minutes of the 61st Annual Congress of the Ethical Union, 24 March 1956

1957 – The Humanist Association

In 1957, the Ethical Union and the Rationalist Press Association form the Humanist Association, to foster closer collaboration between the two bodies. This dissolves the Humanist Council, though an ongoing relationship with the National Secular Society is intended.

E.M. Forster, a member of the Humanist Broadcasting Council. Photograph c. 1947. Archives of American Art

1959 – The Humanist Broadcasting Council

In response to the bias against non-religious viewpoints in broadcasting and on the BBC, the Humanist Broadcasting Council is established.

Prominent members include A.J. Ayer, E.M. Forster, Margaret Knight, and Bertrand Russell.

David Tribe, first chair of Humanist Group Action (1961-1964) © Jamie Williams Photography

1961 – Humanist Group Action

Humanist Group Action is formed in 1961 to work actively for social change and humanitarian efforts. Its constitution states:

The aim of the Group is to foster and practise corporate Humanist activities. Humanism we define as concern for the best interests of our fellow man, insofar as these interests can be ascertained by impartial investigation of general experience, based entirely on democratic human sanctions. Our activities comprise humanitarian work on behalf of individuals, and initiation and support of whatever reforms of our laws and mores are needed to foster the physical, cultural and moral welfare of society. The Group is unconnected with any political organization, but is prepared to co‑operate with any organization, political or otherwise, on specific social issues.

Its first chair is David Tribe, who is also on the executive committee of the National Council for Civil Liberties, and a president of the National Secular Society.

Julian Huxley, A.J. Ayer, and Harold Blackham

1963 – British Humanist Association

On 17 May 1963, a dinner is held at the House of Commons to inaugurate the British Humanist Association, an ongoing partnership between the Ethical Union and the Rationalist Press Association.

Sir Julian Huxley is its first President; A.J. Ayer Vice-President; and Harold Blackham its first Executive Director.

Cover of a pamphlet produced by the British Humanist Association entitled ‘Humanists at help’, held in the Bishopsgate Institute archives

1963 – Humanist counselling and adoption

1963 also sees a host of efforts towards the practical application of humanist principles, particularly in the realm of social welfare.

The Humanist Counsellors programme is initiated to investigate the possibility of a coordinated network. The BHA’s Executive Director, Harold Blackham, is a co-founder in 1977 of the British Association for Counselling (the BACP today).

Responding to the difficulties experienced by non-religious couples wishing to adopt children, the Agnostics Adoption Bureau is also formed in 1963. Its Secretary is Gillian Holroyde, a sociologist.

Original drawing of the ‘happy human’ by Dennis Barrington, held in the Bishopsgate Archives

1965 – The Happy Human

The ‘Happy Human’, now the international symbol of humanism, is designed by Dennis Barrington for a competition organised by the British Humanist Association.

Baroness Barbara Wootton, Vice-President of the British Humanist Association in 1965. Photograph by Walter Bird, 20 August 1964 © National Portrait Gallery, London

1965 – Loss of charitable status

In July 1965, the Ethical Union is removed from the charity register as being a ‘propagandist’ organisation. The Rationalist Press Association is forced to withdraw from the BHA (whose objects include those of the EU) but in short order all the humanist organisations are struck off. Unable to finance a legal appeal, the EU remains non-charitable until after the South Place Ethical Society wins a High Court action in 1980.

1967 – The Ethical Union becomes the British Humanist Association

The Ethical Union winds up the now redundant ‘joint’ BHA and at an Extraordinary General Meeting, held on 14 January 1967, agrees to change its name to the British Humanist Association and adopts a constitution as a membership organisation with affiliated local groups rather than a federation of such groups.

The objects of the BHA, as stated in the Memorandum of Association, are:

  1. To advocate a responsible self-governing way of life which is of service to the community.
  2. To promote the knowledge of the psychological and social foundations of morality as an essential factor in the advance of civilisation.
  3. To give practical service to the community as an example of and in pursuance of the preceding objects.

1968 – Humanism by Harold Blackham

H.J. Blackham‘s Humanism is published by Pelican Books, and becomes one of his most widely read works.

In the same year, Blackham retires from the British Humanist Association.

From the annual report of the BHA 1969-70

1969 – Towards an Open Society

At the Royal Festival Hall in December 1969, the British Humanist Association hold a two-day conference on the ‘open society’. In a paper delivered there, A.J. Ayer defines the morality of the open society as:

universal in its extension. It is not based on self interest, either the narrow self interest of the individual, or the slightly wider self interest of the group, but on what I call a religious conception. By religious I do not mean theistic, I mean religious in the good sense of the word: a conception of the dignity and rights of man.

The papers are later published as Towards an Open Society, and include essays by Bernard Crick, Dipak Nandy, Jo Grimond, and James Hemming.

Jennie Lee by Walter Bird, 1965 © National Portrait Gallery, London

1969 – A University of the Air

In April 1969, the Queen grants the Royal Charter of The Open University. The granting of the Charter and subsequent success of the project is thanks in no small part to the tireless efforts of humanist Minister for the Arts Jennie Lee.

The OU aims to increase access to high quality higher education for all, and stands for openness as to people, places, ideas, and methods.

Lee will later say of the scheme:

Now it seemed to me just logic to try to bring the best in higher education within reach of people who felt that they could be advantaged by it.

Teaching begins in January 1971, and by the end of the decade 6000 students a year are graduating with the degrees from the Open University.

1974 – Birmingham Agreed Syllabus

On 28 January 1974, the Birmingham Conference for the revision of the Agreed Syllabus (which included Harry Stopes-Roe, who became as a result a prominent humanist) propose an ‘Agreed Syllabus of Religious Education & Handbook of Suggestions for Teachers’, which takes the significant step of including the teaching of non-religious stances for living as valuable in their own right.

The proposed Syllabus is vigorously opposed, not least by the National Society (Church of England) for Promoting Religious Education, and rejected by the City Council.

The following year, the BHA publish Objective, Fair and Balanced, arguing that ‘Religious Education’ should be replaced with ‘Education in Stances for Living’, which has objectivity, fairness, and balance as its central aims.

In response, Mary Whitehouse launches a campaign to ‘Save Religious Education’.

1979 – Founding of the Gay Humanist Group

The Gay Humanist Group (now LGBT Humanists) is founded at the Campaign for Homosexual Equality conference in Brighton. The group is formed partly in response to the successful prosecution of Gay News on charges of blasphemous libel, and Mary Whitehouse’s description of the ‘intellectual/homosexual/humanist lobby’ she claimed were vilifying her in the trial’s wake.

1983 – A practical guide to non-religious funerals

In 1983, Nicolas Walter prepares a practical guide to non-religious funerals, published in the New Humanist. Also containing suggestions for readings and music, it prefigures Jane Wynne Willson’s Funerals Without God, published six years later in 1989.

Humanists have been conducting ceremonies since the earliest days of the organised movement in the late 19th century, and even earlier. Other publications of note include 1871’s The Secularist’s Manual of Songs and Ceremonies, edited by Austin Holyoake and Charles Watts, and F.J. Gould‘s Funeral Services without Theology (1906).

1988 – Education Reform Act

With school worship in steady decline, the Government legislates in the 1988 Education Reform Act to reinforce the law, specifying that non-faith schools must have daily worship ‘wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character’.  The BHA promotes minimal ways of compliance, focusing on interpreting ‘worship’ (etymologically ‘worthship’) as ‘deserving to be held in esteem’. The Act requires all education authorities to set up Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education (SACREs), with four voting groups, including one for the Church of England and another for all other denominations and religions. In 1994, however, the Government bans humanists from membership of the latter group.

Members of the Gay Humanist Group at the Manchester march against Section 28, which 25,000 people attended

1988 – Humanists fight Section 28

Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 prohibited local authorities from ‘promoting’ homosexuality, and schools from teaching ‘the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’. Humanists are among the thousands who mobilise to protest, and the BHA campaigns against the clause.

13 Prince of Wales Terrace, from the BHA annual report 1971

1990 – Move from Prince of Wales Terrace

The BHA moves from its premises at 13 Prince of Wales Terrace to Lamb’s Conduit Passage, annexed to Conway Hall. They are soon sharing with the Rationalist Press Association.

1993 – The Big Breakfast

A humanist wedding ceremony screened as part of Channel 4’s The Big Breakfast, led by celebrant and BHA treasurer David Williams, draws 2 million viewers: the show’s largest audience to date.

Hermann Bondi, President of the BHA 1981-1998, pictured in the annual report for 1994

1994 – a Humanist Centre

The British Humanist Association moves from Lamb’s Conduit Passage to 47 Theobalds Road, owned by the National Secular Society. This new arrangement means the BHA, Rationalist Press Association, NSS, and South Place Ethical Society share common premises, and creates a ‘humanist centre’ in Holborn.

The annual report jovially records that ‘those involved in the heroic – not to say traumatic – business of removal would hotly dispute that a change is as good as rest’.

1998 – The Human Rights Act

The Human Rights Act incorporates the fundamental rights and freedoms established at the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into domestic British law. This means citizens can take any breach of their rights to the UK courts, including in matters of religion or belief, freedom of expression, and education.

The Act comes into effect in 2000, and from 2002 the BHA begins to use it in campaigning, claiming it outlaws State discrimination against non-religious beliefs.

2000 – Age of Consent

The Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act equalises the age of consent for gay men, lowering it to 16 (17 in Northern Ireland). This follows decades of campaigning by LGBT Humanists, and the BHA.

Among those who champion the amendment within a hostile House of Lords is Conrad Russell, 5th Earl Russell, the son of Bertrand Russell.

Report of an ‘ethical marriage’, 1899

2002 – Campaign for humanist marriage

Responding to Government plans to reform registration law, the BHA begins campaigning for the legal recognition of humanist marriages, which have been performed since the earliest days of the Ethical movement.

2003 – Move to Gower Street

The British Humanist Association moves to new offices at 1 Gower Street, with the Rationalist Press Association and the International Humanist and Ethical Union.

Gower Street is also home to University College London, the first university in England to admit students regardless of religion. Naturalist Charles Darwin lived on the street 1838-42.

2005 – Legal humanist marriages in Scotland

Scotland grants legal recognition to humanist marriages. By 2019, there will be more humanist than Christian marriages taking place in Scotland, with Humanist Society Scotland providing more marriage ceremonies than any other religion or belief group.

Cutting from the Islington Gazette, 27 January 1908, reporting the efforts of the Union of Ethical Societies (now Humanists UK) to abolish blasphemy laws. Harry Snell became President of the Union in 1931.

2008 – Abolition of blasphemy laws

Following over a century of campaigning, blasphemy laws are abolished in England and Wales. A briefing published by the BHA in January, had highlighted blasphemy laws as contrary to the principle of free speech and lacking in credibility.

The year also sees the launch of the Accord Coalition, which campaigns for unbiased admissions policies in all state-funded schools, free from discrimination on grounds of religion or belief.

2008 – Atheist Bus campaign

The Atheist Bus campaign, funded by donations totalling £170,000, attracts worldwide attention and international imitation.

Young Peoples’ Group of the Ethical Movement, founded in 1923

2009 – Humanist Students

Known initially as the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist, and Secular Students, and later simply as Atheist, Humanist, and Secular Students (AHS), the group becomes Humanist Students in 2017.

Predecessor bodies include the Young Peoples’ Group of the Ethical Union, and the Student Ethical Movement, both founded in the 1920s, and the University (later Student) Humanist Federation, active throughout the 1960s.

Protest the Pope march and rally, 18 September 2010

2010 – Protest the Pope

The British Humanist Association and human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell coordinate a ten thousand-strong Protest the Pope march and rally, in response to Pope Benedict XVI’s state visit.

Speakers at the rally include Andrew Copson, Richard Dawkins, Maryam Namazie, Pragna Patel, and Terry Sanderson.

2012 – Holy Redundant

The BHA launches Holy Redundant, a campaign to remove bishops from the House of Lords.

The campaign challenges the presence of Anglican Bishops, who sit alongside peers in the House of Lords, and are allowed influence ‘solely by virtue of their religion, their gender and their position in the hierarchy of one particular denomination of one particular Church’.

BHA briefing on prisons visits for the non-religious, 1990

2012 – Pastoral Care in prisons

Humanist pastoral support in prisons begins at HMP Winchester, offering non-religious prisoners the opportunity to speak to someone who shares their worldview. The BHA has been making a case for equal provision in prison visiting since at least 1990.

The tradition of humanist prison visiting is long, and includes visits by members of the Ethical Union (now Humanists UK) to conscientious objectors in Wandsworth during the First World War.

Image from a brochure produced by the Pink Triangle Trust during the 1990s, offering humanist commitment ceremonies for same-sex couples

2013 – Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act

The Government legislates for same sex marriage, long supported by humanists who have frequently performed ceremonies for same-sex couples. The Act takes effect on 13 March 2014 for England and Wales, with a similar law enacted by the Scottish Parliament later the same year.

The BHA takes advantage of the Government’s reform to lobby intensively for legal recognition of humanist marriages. Government hostility at every stage, despite strong Opposition and backbench support, frustrates the campaign but forces the Government to introduce an amendment requiring them to run a public consultation and giving them the power to introduce regulations recognising ‘belief marriages’. Despite overwhelming public support the Government prevaricates, with long delays and two separate references to the Law Commission. In 2020 the High Court rules that the law breaches the human rights of humanist couples but allows the Government yet more time to decide what to do.

2013 – the BHA moves to Clerkenwell

The BHA moves to 39 Moreland Street, Clerkenwell.

In the same year, both the Scout Association and Girlguiding UK adapt their membership pledges to be inclusive to the non-religious, working exclusively with the BHA to do so. The Guides’ new pledge comes into effect in September, and the Scouts’ follows in January 2014.

The BHA also intervenes in assisted dying cases in the Supreme Court, including those of Jane Nicklinson and Paul Lamb, for which prominent humanists A.C. Grayling, John Harris, Richard Norman, Simon Blackburn, and Terry Pratchett all provide witness statements.

Author and humanist Wole Soyinka, a speaker at the 2014 Congress

2014 – World Humanist Congress in Oxford

The BHA hosts the biggest ever International Humanist and Ethical Union (now Humanists International) Congress in Oxford, under the theme Freedom of thought and expression: forging a 21st century enlightenment.

Bangladeshi humanist blogger Asif Mohiuddin wins a special Free Expression Award, shared posthumously with the late Ahmed Rajib Haider, murdered in 2013 for supposed blasphemy.

2014 – Teach evolution, not creationism

The ‘Teach evolution, not creationism’ campaign, launched in 2011, is successful in ensuring evolution was on the primary curriculum, and that state schools could not teach pseudoscience in any subject.

The campaign was led by the BHA, and supported by organisations including the Association for Science Education and the British Science Association. Thirty leading scientists, among them Sir David Attenborough, also supported the efforts.

2016 – Humanists in hospitals

In a UK-first, Leicester Hospitals employ a non-religious pastoral carer: the first humanist pastoral care appointment in an NHS hospital. Though a member of the ‘Chaplaincy Team’, BHA accredited Jane Flint‘s title, ‘Pastoral Carer’, reflects her provision of non-religious emotional support to staff and patients.

In September, Paul Noble becomes the second paid humanist pastoral carer, taking on a role for the University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust.

Faith to Faithless founders Aliyah Saleem and Imtiaz Shams

2017 – Faith to Faithless

Faith to Faithless, a network of support for ‘apostates’ and the ex-religious, founded by Aliyah Saleem and Imtiaz Shams in 2015, becomes part of the British Humanist Association.

2017 – Relationships and sex education

Following decades of campaigning by the British Humanist Association, alongside a powerful coalition of education and children’s rights experts, the Government approves proposals to make Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) compulsory in all English schools.

BHA Education Campaigner Jay Harman comments that:

Children will be safer as a result, more resilient to discriminatory attitudes and stereotypes, and more able to engage in happy, healthy relationships.

Nevertheless, the BHA remain vigilant on the prospect of faith school opt-outs, continuing to campaign for accurate, evidence-based education for all children, regardless of their religious or non-religious background, and the type of school they attend.

2017 – Humanists UK

The name Humanists UK is adopted. In an email to members, Chief Executive Andrew Copson writes:

Humanists UK represents not just a new logo, but a totally new, friendly look that captures the essence of humanism: open, inclusive, energetic, and modern, with people and their stories placed first and foremost in all our broad and varied work.

2018 – Legal humanist marriage in Northern Ireland

A High Court judgment based on human rights leads (despite a Government appeal) to the first legally recognised humanist marriages happening in Northern Ireland in August.

In 2019, Jersey also gives legal recognition to humanist marriage.

2018 – Remembrance Day

Following years of campaigning by Humanists UK and its armed forces section, Defence Humanists, the non-religious are officially represented at the Cenotaph for the first time.

Attending the London ceremony on behalf of Humanists UK and Defence Humanists, Andrew Copson acknowledges the sacrifices of non-religious armed forces personnel who have served their country in conflict and war, and the significant number of those currently serving who have no religious beliefs.

Representatives from Northern Ireland Humanists also take part in the official ceremony in Belfast, and Humanist Society Scotland’s John Bishop represents the non-religious at the official ceremony in Edinburgh.

2019 – Great strides in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland decriminalises abortion and legalises same-sex marriage, both reforms which Humanists UK and Northern Ireland Humanists have long campaigned for.

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