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.
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.
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 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).
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).
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.
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:
The first Annual Congress of the Union of Ethical Societies takes place on 5 July, chaired by Elizabeth Schwann.
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 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.
In 1900, the Society of Ethical Propagandists publishes two essay collections outlining the major concerns of the Ethical movement.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The ‘Happy Human’, now the international symbol of humanism, is designed by Dennis Barrington for a competition organised by the British Humanist Association.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Atheist Bus campaign, funded by donations totalling £170,000, attracts worldwide attention and international imitation.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Northern Ireland decriminalises abortion and legalises same-sex marriage, both reforms which Humanists UK and Northern Ireland Humanists have long campaigned for.