Many artists, writers, actors, and musicians have identified as humanist, or expressed a worldview very much aligned with humanism. From composers like Eliza Flower and Benjamin Britten, to writers like George Eliot and Claude McKay, to lesser known artists active in the early Ethical movement, like Ernestine Mills and Charles Kennedy Scott, humanist history is full of those who have celebrated life, and explored emotion, through the creative arts.
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Today, the word ‘humanism’ suggests a belief in evidence, reason, and compassion: a positive affirmation about what we believe in, rather than what we don’t. Nevertheless, humanists are atheist or agnostic, believing that a good and moral life is possible without belief in a god. Some, like George Jacob Holyoake, have sought alternative terms, while others, like Gora, have emphasised the positive implications of the word ‘atheism’. In any case, for centuries of European history this was an extremely dangerous position to express, and the history of humanism is in part a history of the development (and suppression) of atheism.
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Humanists have been conducting ceremonies for the non-religious since the earliest days of the organised Ethical movement, and the tradition stretches back even earlier among communities whose guiding principles were essentially humanist, such as the Owenites and positivists. For as long as humans have been around, they have sought ways to mark significant occasions with ritual, made meaningful through sincere expressions of their beliefs. Whether celebrating new life, marking romantic commitment, or saying goodbye to a loved one, the history of humanist ceremonies is much longer than many realise.
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Education is at the heart of Humanists UK’s campaigns today, and has been central to the Ethical movement since its origins in the 1880s. Whether advocating for non-theological moral instruction, rational and honest sex and relationships education, or increased access to higher education, humanists have always been at the forefront of progressive change. The humanist commitment to reason, kindness, inclusivity, and freedom of thought, means the non-religious have always been the natural allies of education, whether under the label of ‘freethinkers’, ‘rationalists’, or ‘humanists’.
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The Ethical movement is the direct forerunner of organised humanism, arising in the late 19th century with an emphasis on ‘deed not creed’. Beginning with Felix Adler‘s New York Society for Ethical Culture in 1876, figures like Stanton Coit and Zona Vallance propelled the movement in the UK. The early ethical societies dispensed with the idea of gods, believing that human beings could live best through fellowship, active social reform, and a conscious engagement with morality, as arrived at through reason and observation. What began as the Union of Ethical Societies in 1896 became Humanists UK, with the original intentions of ‘well-being and well-doing’ still underpinning organised humanism today.
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The freedom to think for ourselves is at the heart of the humanist philosophy, and humanists and freethinkers have long defended the right to do so, often in the face of significant persecution. The history of the humanist tendency contains stories of many labelled heretics, infidels, or blasphemers, for pursuing their own reason and challenging the authority of the Church, from pioneers of ‘freethought’ such as John Toland and Anthony Collins, through self-described heretics in Cambridge and Ipswich, to international work for freedom of belief today.
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Closely allied with freedom of thought, humanists believe in the right to express opinions and beliefs freely and without fear; to question, inquire, debate, and discuss. Humanists have a strong tradition of defending freedom of the press, including during times of significant suppression, such as the early decades of the 19th century. Freethinkers like Richard Carlile, Matilda Roalfe, Robert Wedderburn, and Edward Truelove were all imprisoned on charges of blasphemous or seditious libel, but fiercely defended their right to speak, write, and publish in pursuit of the truth.
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In championing the rights of everyone to live full and healthy lives, humanists throughout history have worked for improvements in medicine and healthcare, including in areas unduly influenced by religion, such as reproductive rights. Humanists like Nye Bevan pioneered the creation of the welfare state and the National Health Service, while others spearheaded the formation of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service and the Abortion Law Reform Association. Within the organised humanist movement, individuals such as Peter Draper and H.J. Blackham saw health and wellbeing as a cornerstone of humanist responsibility, epitomised by initiatives like the Humanist Counselling Service.
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As believers in a philosophy which places human possibility and improvement at its heart, humanists have always championed human rights, both achieving and protecting them, on local and international levels. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights represents shared values rooted in our common humanity and our shared human needs. This regard for human rights, and the equal dignity of all human beings, has underpinned the efforts of humanists throughout history – in areas including suffrage, racial equality, culture and education – and continues to define many of Humanists UK’s current policies. The themes on this page provide myriad examples.
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Humanism places value on every individual’s right to follow their own conscience, and emphasises tolerance, cooperation, and empathy in action. Many humanists throughout history have been involved in efforts to maintain, or regain, peace, including through international bodies such as the League of Nations and UNESCO, and groups like the Rationalist Peace Society. The ethical societies were actively involved in efforts towards international cooperation and understanding, notably in the organisation of the First Universal Races Congress in 1911. Many humanists were also conscientious objectors during the World Wars, and active in efforts for nuclear disarmament.
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Many prominent philosophers have been humanists, and many humanists philosophers – whether professionally or otherwise. A number of the Union of Ethical Societies‘ (now Humanists UK’s) Presidents and Vice Presidents were influential philosophers, including L. Susan Stebbing, A.J. Ayer, and Bertrand Russell. The earliest ethical societies were formed by those seeking to take philosophical ideals and apply them to active social reform, drawing on a tradition stretching back to classical thinkers.
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Concerned with bringing about a better world for themselves and for others, humanists have often been active in politics. Innumerable members and leaders of the early ethical societies were political activists, MPs, or government workers, and many of those in the secularist movement of the 19th century sought to effect sweeping social change through political engagement. For those barred from direct involvement, the early humanist movement was closely linked with efforts to attain women’s suffrage, and plenty among earlier movements – such as Chartism – also expressed distinctly humanist ideals.
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Faith in evidence, the pursuit of ‘truth’, and an inquisitiveness about the world around us are defining values of science, and of humanism. Advancements in scientific understanding throughout history have increasingly challenged religious concepts of the world and its origins, and strengthened arguments for the role of human beings in defining meaning and morality without reference to the supernatural. Countless prominent and pioneering scientists have been humanists, including Charles Darwin, T.H. Huxley, Rosalind Franklin, and Stephen Hawking.
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Secularism describes a belief in the complete separation of Church and State, where state institutions are separate from religious ones, and Government is neutral on matters of religion or belief. Throughout history, the close relationship between religion and ruling bodies has led to the harsh persecution of dissenters, and the sometimes violent suppression of individuals and groups. Many have recognised and challenged this, even in times when it was distinctly dangerous to do so, and the history secularism is closely tied to that of humanism.
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The improvement of social conditions, enabling everyone the best chance to thrive, has always sat central to the organised humanist movement, but has an even longer history in the efforts of those who lived by humanist ideals before the emergence of the ethical societies. Among these were inspirers of revolution like Thomas Paine, pioneers of experimental communities like Frances Wright, and fervent abolitionists like Moncure Conway, all of whom sought progressive change along rational, compassionate, and egalitarian lines.
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