History of Humanism in the UK since 1896

A joint three-year project at University of Glasgow and Oxford Brookes University, funded by Humanists UK

The project

Started in September 2018, this joint project at the Universities of Glasgow and Oxford Brookes, with the funder Humanists UK, will research the history of British Humanism since 1896. This will be a history that covers the organisations, the campaigns, the international initiatives, and the role of leading figures in the movement and beyond. But it will also be a social and cultural history of ordinary members and affiliates, drawing upon the issues, life events and inspirations that led them to the Humanist life stance. Combining archival, oral history and written personal accounts, the project will interact with Humanists UK members, and with its local and specialist branches, and over the 3 years will produce regular reports, talks and briefings intended to provide guidance from the past on policy, campaigning and recruitment issues today. At the end of the project, a detailed analytical history of modern British Humanism will be produced. 

The staff

The project is co-ordinated within Humanists UK by trustee David Pollock


Humanism has developed into a major force in British life. In the last century it has transformed the philosophical and belief landscape of the nation, battled and won significant campaigns for freedom of thought and against religious privilege, and in recent decades has offered to tens of thousands of people Humanist marriages and baby-naming ceremonies and the celebration of life in Humanist funerals. Now it is also offering pastoral care alongside chaplains in hospitals and prisons. Humanists have transformed the civil and moral life of the nation, contributing to equality legislation, freedom of speech, homosexual law reform, gay marriage, a woman’s right to choose abortion, ending censorship, advancing sex education, and pressing for non-doctrinal beliefs and values education in schools, equal access to broadcasting concerned with religion and belief, and assisted dying for the incurably and terminally ill. 

Humanists UK has been at the heart of this work. In 1896 it started as a union of local ethical societies. In the 1960s it transformed itself into the British Humanist Association, creating an institutional framework for influencing the life of the nation. The BHA, now known as Humanists UK, has attracted philosophers, scientists, medical reformers, teachers and moral campaigners, as well as tens of thousands of ordinary people, to claim a moral identity free from religion. As the churches have declined, so the Humanists have articulated and promoted a moral vision for the nation, lobbying MPs and government for principled domestic and foreign policies.

This project will provide a detailed and authoritative account of the development of the early ethical societies and the BHA. The project is led by the two leading historians of modern Humanism and non-belief who bring complementary skills to explore the ways in which humanism organised itself to influence the British nation as it faced the moral issues of the modern world.