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Humanism is a non-religious approach to life that pursues rational thought and promotes moral action. Although the word is comparatively recent, the humanist attitude has found expression for thousands of years, and has inspired some of the world’s greatest artists, writers, scientists, philosophers and social reformers.

Throughout recorded history there have been people who have believed that this life is the only life we have, that the universe is a natural phenomenon with no supernatural side, and that we can live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. They have trusted the scientific method, evidence, and reason to discover truths about the universe and have placed human welfare and happiness at the centre of their ethical decision making.

Roman statesman and sceptic Cicero (106-43 BCE), whose De Natura Deorum (On the Nature of the Gods) discussed the philosophies of Epicureanism, Stoicism, and Skepticism © The Trustees of the British Museum

Roman Britain (until 410 CE)

For four hundred years, from the first century CE until the fifth century, most of Britain was a province of the Roman empire and this is the first period for which we have any written evidence of the beliefs and values of the culture of which Britons were a part. The culture of the Roman empire was one in which both religious and non-religious philosophical schools of thought co-existed. Many people had humanist ideas and these ideas had a rich heritage stretching back to ideas from ancient Greece beginning in the 400s BCE.

A marginal illustration of the ploughing of the fields, from the Luttrell Psalter c. 1325-40 © British Library

The dark ages

For many long centuries after the end of the Roman empire in Britain, elite culture was dominated by Christianity and much of the eight hundred years of humanist thought that had been recorded and written in the ancient world was lost forever. Even during this period in Britain, however, there were people willing to challenge and resist religious thinking both within the social elite and in popular culture. Popular culture also had a secular aspect in which many humanist ideas about life were present.

Philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who identified ignorance, anxiety, and curiosity as the ’causes’ of religion. Painting by John Michael Wright, c. 1669-1670 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Renaissance: 1485 to 1600s

In the Renaissance – a movement of cultural revival which began in continental Europe – many educated Britons began to rediscover the culture and learning of the pre-Christian world. This inevitably brought more humanist ideas into the culture of elites, as did the gradual opening up more generally of debate and argument that became possible. Popular culture and the arts also continued to have a humanist tendency, but Christianity and conformity were also powerful forces and the state maintained a high level of control over the opinions that could be safely expressed.

An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump by Joseph Wright,, 1768 which depicted a scientific subject in the reverential manner typically reserved for religious or historical scenes

The Age of Enlightenment: from the late 1600s to the early 1800s

The period of western history called the Enlightenment started in the British Isles in the 1600s and reached its high point in the late 1700s. The thinkers of the Enlightenment believed that human reason could discover the natural laws of the universe, determine the rights of humankind, and achieve continuous progress in human knowledge, technology, and society. 

In this same period, exploration and commerce brought British people into contact with different cultures and ancient civilisations very different from their own, challenging received wisdom and fixed ideas. 

By the end of this period, the humanist philosophy of utilitarianism (an ethics founded on shared human needs rather than religion) had become extraordinarily influential among the middle classes and people of all social statuses were willing to challenge older ideas and think more freely.

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Cover of the Report of the Trial of Susannah Wright, tried and imprisoned on charges of blasphemous libel, along with many others during the 1820s.

The Victorian Age: the early 1800s to 1900

The early nineteenth century saw a Christian reaction against the growing humanism of the eighteenth century in the form of a Christian ‘Evangelical revival’ and political repression of freethinking, because of government fears about its potential for revolution.

But as the nineteenth century proceeded, scientific progress and advances in the study of history and further study of cultures outside of the western world stimulated a growth in humanist ideas. Ideas of human equality, equal citizenship, equality between men and women, and other liberal humanist ideas began to be expressed more clearly – and began to have a political effect.

The century also witnessed the growth of movements which were strongly secular in focus, emphasising social change along rational lines, and setting concepts of morality apart from religious ideas. These included the socialist Owenites, the positivists and their ‘religion of humanity’, the National Secular Society, and the ethical societies, forerunners of Humanists UK.

By the end of the Victorian age, there were many people in the UK whose beliefs were humanist rather than religious, and humanist community organisations of various kinds had formed.

Feminist and freethinker Julia Huxley (1862-1908), who urged her son Aldous (pictured) to ‘judge not too much and love more’.

The early twentieth century

The early twentieth century saw the continuing growth of non-religious groups like the ethical societies, who were also actively involved in wider efforts towards social reform, notably in the fight for women’s suffrage, and the pursuit of international cooperation and human rights, culminating in the formation of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (today Humanists International). Writers, artists, and philosophers more freely expressed humanist ideas and individuals became increasingly willing to be open about their humanist beliefs. There was also a decline in religious belief throughout the wider population, including fewer people attending church.

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Humanist activist and campaigner for abortion law reform, Diane Munday

The Humanist Revolution: since the mid-twentieth century

In the years since the 1950s, many humanist values have become the ‘common sense’ of the majority of people in the UK. Surveys indicate that over half the population of Britain are non-religious and around a quarter share humanist beliefs and values. Humanists campaigned to challenge religious privilege, particularly in the education system, and to promote freedom of religion and belief around the globe. The popularity of humanist ceremonies (weddings and funerals) grew as people looked for alternative ways to mark important moments in their lives.

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