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Humanists who have helped shape our destiny

Updated: Apr 26, 2023

John Coss explores the Humanist Heritage project, which was recently awarded a grant of just over £160,000 from The National Lottery Heritage Fund to expand its work.

"It brings to life the impact which humanism has had on art, literature, and social, political, and ethical culture throughout UK history."

The Humanist Heritage website was launched in 2021 to celebrate the 125th birthday of Humanists UK, which was founded in 1896 as the Union of Ethical Societies. As well as the history of the organisation, the website charts the significant presence and impact of humanist thought in the UK throughout history, and it:

‘...aims to bring to life an often overlooked but historically influential aspect of our heritage – humanism and the impact it has had locally and nationally on art, literature, and social, political, and ethical culture throughout UK history’ and ‘explores the history, development, and influence of humanism and humanist ideas in the United Kingdom. As well as places, events, and organisations, it profiles various individuals of importance to this history. Some were actively involved in humanist organisations, others lived before humanist organisations had formed or were not actively involved. Sometimes, we profile people whose approach to life was not fully humanist but who expressed important humanist ideas and opinions, or who were particularly influential on the development of humanist thought.’ In discussing their approach, they acknowledge that ‘some of the important figures in the history of humanism in the UK held opinions and beliefs which humanists today unequivocally condemn.’

In exploring the site, a good start is this beginner’s guide, which discusses how to use it. Here is the introduction: ‘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.’ I found the timeline an especially interesting feature.

The site comprises a large number of articles, grouped in a range of categories or themes: people, places, groups, objects, articles, walks, and events, with a map showing the location of many places with humanist links. The articles in each category can be accessed via the tab at the top right-hand corner of each page, except for ‘events’ (for which there is a link in the beginner’s guide). Most of the articles themselves provide links to other related articles, and some of them provide suggestions for further reading. Overall, Humanist Heritage provides a fascinating and authoritative guide to the development of humanism in the United Kingdom. However, as the theme for this month is ‘people who have shaped our destiny’, in the remainder of this article I focus on the ‘people’ section of the website.

First, a few statistics. There are articles on 175 people, roughly 40/60 women and men, mostly British or active in the UK, though I noted a few others, including Felix Adler (US), Auguste Comte (France), W.E.B. Du Bois (US), Epicurus (Ancient Greece) and Mahatma Gandhi (India). A feature that took me a little getting used to is that they appear in alphabetical order of first name. There are a couple of filters that can select according to theme and time period, which work either separately or together (two or more themes can be combined, and so can two or more time periods).

Not surprisingly, most of the people included were active in the 19th century or the first fifty years of the 20th century. Relatively few of those listed were active after 1950, since no living person is included, and nor are several distinguished humanists who died recently. There are others from earlier times who might well have been included, for example from the Scottish Enlightenment period, but overall this is a reasonable selection.

The analysis by theme is also interesting. The Humanist Heritage themes are: The Arts, Atheism, Ceremonies, Education, Ethical Movement, Freedom of Belief, Freedom of Speech, Healthcare, Human Rights, Peace & Pacifism, Philosophy, Politics, Science, Secularism, and Social Reform. Over half the people listed were concerned with social reform, and over one-third were involved – in descending order – with human rights, atheism, politics, education and philosophy. And over one-quarter, again in descending order, were involved in freedom of belief, the ethical movement, and art. Of course, many of the people listed were concerned with more than one of the Humanist Heritage themes, the average being a little over four each.

I had heard of about 60 per cent of the men and about 25 per cent of the women, but was unaware of much of the detailed information provided in their profile: in some cases I hadn’t appreciated they were humanists or contributed to the development of humanism. Those I did know of were mostly philosophers, politicians, scientists, or writers, or one of the more celebrated members of the humanist movement. A considerable proportion of the women were engaged in the struggle for access to abortion and contraception, for legal reform of women’s rights, including marriage law reform and the right to vote, and for other aspects of the role of women in modern life that we now mostly take for granted in this country. It is instructive to see how many less well known women in the humanist tradition were active in what at the time were very progressive causes. Of course, many of the men who are listed supported their aims.

The articles in the people section of the website provide a quotation, an overview, and accounts of their life and influence, together with links to other related articles and in some cases external material. As an indication of the style of the overview section, here are a few examples:

Lady Florence Dixie (1855-1905)

Florence Dixie was a writer, war correspondent, suffragist, and traveller, who threw off the restraints of Victorian domesticity to pursue adventure and advance her causes. Dixie argued for complete equality between the sexes, for amendments to the marriage service and divorce law, as well as for the abolition of blood sports. She was a supporter of Irish home rule and contributor to The Agnostic Journal. A fierce advocate of rational and empathetic reform, Dixie championed many of the values central to humanism today, and brought a distinctly feminist viewpoint to bear on her criticisms of religion.

Frederick James Gould (1855-1938)

F.J. Gould was an influential educationist, writer, and humanist, whose tireless work towards secularising education helped to lay the groundwork for the ongoing efforts of Humanists UK today. As an organiser in the Ethical movement and a lifelong advocate of moral instruction in schools, Gould’s ideas became well known among teachers throughout the UK, and internationally. He was a leading light in many of key initiatives surrounding secular education, as well as a founding member of the East London Ethical Society, and the Rationalist Press Association.

Olga Jacoby (1874-1913)

From a life cut short by illness, Olga Jacoby left behind a collection of letters between her doctor and herself which reveal a timeless and deeply humanist attitude to living and dying. In them, she made a case for morality without religious faith, for the pleasures of life and family, and for the right to die with dignity. Jacoby’s letters provide a valuable glimpse into the humanism of the ‘ordinary’ person in Victorian and Edwardian Britain, whose values were shared by a far larger number than is often supposed.

Karl Popper (1902-1994)

Karl Popper is remembered as one of the 20th century’s greatest philosophers of science, as well as an influential rationalist and philosopher. Popper’s definition of an ‘open society’, as outlined in his 1945 work The Open Society and Its Enemies, exerted significant influence on the policies of the British Humanist Association (now Humanists UK) during the 1960s and 1970s, epitomised by the 1969 conference ‘Towards an Open Society’. Popper was a member of the British Humanist Association’s Advisory Council, and contributed an essay to the 1968 collection The Humanist Outlook, edited by A.J. Ayer.

Dorothy Thurtle (1890-1973)

Dorothy Thurtle was a humanist and activist, who campaigned tirelessly for reproductive rights, especially those of working class women, and for social welfare. Dorothy was the daughter of Labour MP George Lansbury (an early member of both the East and West London ethical societies), and the wife of Ernest Thurtle, a fellow politician and Secretary of the Rationalist Press Association 1932-41. Both Dorothy and Ernest lived lives devoted to improving the existence of others, motivated not by any religious belief, but by a firm sense of fairness rooted in compassion, conscience and experience.

National Lottery Heritage Fund grant

Madeleine Goodall - Humanist Heritage Coordinator

The Coordinator of Humanist Heritage is Madeleine Goodall, and I am grateful for her help with writing this article, especially as to how they plan to use the grant of just over £160,000 from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, which they received recently. This will be a two-year project entitled Humanist Heritage: Doers, Dreamers, Place Makers, with space, place and community as its unifying strands. The focus for the first year is Conway Hall, centred on the creation of an interactive virtual tour of the building. In the second year, they will focus on the 45th anniversary of LGBT Humanists (founded in 1979 as the Gay Humanist Group). The various project strands represent a vibrant and ongoing history of challenging the status quo, and of creating space – physical and metaphorical – to foster community. The project will reveal, explore, and share this heritage.

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