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Humanism as a sustained attempt to live with reality cannot be limited to giving a rational picture of the world in general terms; it must go on to help the individual to live in that world…

H.J. Blackham, Humanism (1976)
Cover of The Humanist, October 1964, showing four leading figures of the humanist movement: Hector Hawton, Tolbert H. McCarroll, D.J. Stewart (Chairman of the University Humanist Federation), and H.J. Blackham.

From the early 1960s, with other members of the burgeoning British Humanist Association (now Humanists UK), H.J. Blackham pioneered a humanist counselling service – a direct forerunner of today’s Non-Religious Pastoral Support Network. Blackham and his colleagues felt that the initiation of ‘pastoral humanism’ was key to the development of the humanist movement, and a distinctive offer they might make to the wider community. Humanists in America, and elsewhere in Europe, were already experimenting with the offer of counselling, and these letters between Blackham and his counterpart in the American Humanist Association, Tolbert McCarroll, were part of an ongoing correspondence about the service. Along with these letters, held in the archives of the British Humanist Association at the Bishopsgate Institute, is a document titled ‘The Humanist Concern for Counselling’, which reads in part:

The message of Humanism has [at] its core, an appeal to human possibilities and human solidarity, and does not pride itself therefore on any kind of perfection, but is geared upon a humaneness with all the shortcomings and brokenness which cannot be sidestepped…

In his letter, Blackham expressed gratitude for materials provided by McCarroll concerning the AHA’s counselling programme, and stated his conviction that: ‘this service if properly developed could be one of the most important undertakings of an organised Humanist movement’.

In fact, the Humanist Counselling service was one of a number of major forays into active social work that the BHA took during the 1950s and 1960s, with others including the Humanist Housing Association and the Agnostics Adoption Agency. In the development of the counselling service, and those other projects, the work was defined by values at the heart of humanism: evidence-led, cooperative, pragmatic, and compassionate. The working group assigned to develop the service (which included Dr Peter Draper), saw a role for humanist counselling both in tackling ‘problems endemic to our society’ (such as purposelessness, failure to relate to others, work issues) and ‘specifically humanist dilemmas’ (such as in the case of two married people where only one was humanist, or a humanist teacher obliged to give religious instruction).

A key area in which humanist values could be put in practice, the service also recognised its potential limitations, and counsellors were trained to direct individuals to other support or services where more appropriate. In some cases, they were advised to direct their energies towards law reform rather than giving potentially law-breaking advice, as in the case of unwanted pregnancies prior to the Abortion Act of 1967 – the success of which was in large part attributable to the efforts of humanists.

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