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Beginner’s Guide to Humanist Heritage

[Humanism] is older by nearly a thousand years than Christianity… and older by more than a thousand years than Islam. It is richer and more profound than either, and it is as fresh now as it was in its beginnings.

AC Grayling, The Wiley Blackwell Handbook of Humanism (2015)

Humanism is a non-religious approach to life based on reason and compassion, with roots across the globe and stretching back to the ancient world.

The Humanist Heritage project celebrates the rich history and influence of humanism in the United Kingdom, charting the impact of hundreds of people, places, groups, publications, and events on everything from science and the arts to human rights and social reform.

Humanist Heritage

The Humanist Heritage website was launched in 2021 to celebrate 125 years of Humanists UK, which was founded in 1896 as the Union of Ethical Societies.

See a flowchart of this history, and read more about the Humanist Heritage project here.

Using this website

The Humanist Heritage project seeks to research and share the rich and remarkable history of the humanist approach, and those who have lived it, and includes many ways of doing so. You can explore our map or timeline, browse pages according to theme, delve into special subject articles, or take a look at our self-led walks.

For another way of uncovering the story, why not start with our History of Humanism in 100 Objects?

A history of humanism

Humanism lacks a neat linear history. It has no founding figure or text. However, humanism is a worldview that has endured. Sources of wisdom or inspiration for humanists today can be found in the words and deeds of a wide variety of people across time and place. What is held to be of value to humanists is that which has stood the test of time and experience – those ideas which still chime today with our best understanding of human nature and human wellbeing.

The word ‘humanist’ has only been used in its modern sense for the previous hundred years or so. In many cases the word would not have been used to describe the people featured on this website while they were alive (other labels such as ‘atheist’, ‘secularist’, or ‘freethinker’ may have been applied). However, in the ways they lived their lives and the values that guided them, these thinkers and activists form part of the rich humanist tradition.

Read more about the words we use to describe the humanist approach here.

Global humanism

Evidence of a philosophy we would today call ‘humanist’ can be found across cultures and continents from ancient times to the present day.

Naturalistic thinking, compassionate morality, and an emphasis on human flourishing have formed the basis of philosophies including those of 4th century BCE Chinese thinker Mencius, ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, 6th century India’s Lokāyata (or ‘wordly ones’), and African concepts such as Ubuntu: ‘I am because you are’. Today, the global humanist movement is represented by Humanists International, which was founded in 1952 as the International Humanist and Ethical Union.

Many of these traditions – and humanist thinkers from across the world – have interacted with and influenced humanism in the UK.

You can read more about them here.

Humanism in the UK

Humanist ways of thinking have a long history in the British Isles, in spite of many hundreds of years of repression during the Middle Ages and beyond. During the 19th century, a number of secularist and humanist societies began to emerge including, in 1896, the Union of Ethical Societies – known today as Humanists UK.

Explore a visual history of Humanists UK here.

Lady Florence Dixie by Théobald Chartran, 1884

If you are new to humanist history, why not start with reading about some of these people:

Felix Adler (1851–1933), philosopher, reformer, and founder of the first ethical society.

Lady Florence Dixie (1855–1905), journalist and explorer who championed freedom of belief.

Gora (1902–1975), Indian humanist who campaigned for human rights and social welfare.

Jennie Lee (1904–1988), politician and humanist who pioneered the Open University.

Main image: British Humanist Association pamphlet, c. 1968. Bishopsgate Institute Special Collections and Archives

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