Modern Humanism: A Social and Cultural History

UK, Ireland, Canada and USA, c.1945 to the present
Callum G. Brown
Professor of Late Modern European History, University of Glasgow
My Home Page


This webpage describes my academic research project on the history of modern humanism, atheism, agnosticism, skepticism and secularism in the English-speaking North Atlantic world. The aim is to explore through oral history interviewing the ways in which atheist / agnostic / humanist / skeptic / freethinking ideas and outlooks have developed since the end of the Second World War, and how this has impacted on the lives of individuals - in terms of careers, family formation, moral outlook, and so on.

The topics

I have particular interest in the following:
• how people may have lost a religion - at what age and in what circumstances?
• the impact of childhood, of personal trauma, or religious struggle
• how people journey from a religion towards humanism, atheism, agnosticism or secularism
• how parents' religion impacted on their children
• how men's and women's experiences may have differed
• the impact of war, the 'swinging sixties', feminism, or other trends
• the impact of education, reading, intellectual encounters
• influence of changes in human rights (over apartheid, race issues, gay revolution, etc.)
• sexual revolution

These are the kinds of things I will broach in interview. But the interviewee will be encouraged to mention any relevant topics that explains their religious condition

The interview

The interview is an informal process designed as a conversation, and definitely not as an interrogation. The interviewee should be relaxed and comfortable, able to develop strands of ideas and discussion according to their own experiences. The interviewer will always be responsive, and will adapt the questions and direction of discussion to fit the individual. In the end, most interviewees find the process a pleasurable one, and often later have ideas stimulated that they send to the interviewer by email or letter. Such 'after-interview' responses are most welcome.

The interview would be ideally one-to-one, though an interview with two people (such as a couple, parent and child, or good friends for instance) is also possible. Group interviews can pose technical and ethical problems, and are generally avoided.

The interview will be recorded on a small digital sound recorder and later transcribed. The interview would characteristically last 60 to 90 minutes, The interview is best conducted in a quiet indoor location, such as the room of a house or similar. (Interviews out of doors, in cafes, or similar, make recording difficult.) The interviewee may refuse to answer any question, and can ask for the interview to be paused or abandoned at any time (with no reason required).

The questions

There is a range of around 20 principal questions or themes which can be raised in the interview. They can be viewed here - Question Schedule.  However, these questions are not rigid, and some may not be relevant. In turn, other issues may arise. The process is designed to be flexible and responsive to the circumstances of each interviewee. If there are any questions that you may not wish to explore, please tell the interviewer.

Ethical approvals

Prior to the interview starting, the interviewee is given an Informed Consent & Participation Sheet which they are asked to sign. After the interview has concluded, the interview is asked to sign a Copyright Release Form.

The oral history interviews will be conducted under the conditions of the Ethical Approval for Oral History granted by the University of Glasgow. In addition, Callum Brown adheres to the principles outlined for practitioners by the Oral History Society of Great Britain.

Written responses

I am always pleased if those who I cannot reach to be interviewed email or write me with written thoughts on the issues. For instance, you can use The Question Schedule as a trigger for your thoughts (even using it as a questionnaire if you prefer). I would be delighted with this. If in any doubt, contact me by email and we can discuss your requirements.


Archiving: According to both legal and good-practice requirements, the recordings are made available for future scholars to access under strict guidelines. The interviews will be archived in at least one public archive equipped to store oral history material. The intention is to offer them to the following: University of Glasgow Archive, and Bishopsgate Institute Archive, London (which specialises in materials of secularist organisations). The items to be stored include the digital sound files and the transcribed computer files.

Research outputs

The project has already generated a number of research articles, book chapters and conference papers. Books on how people lose religion, and on the nature of Humanist lives, are also planned. Public lectures and conference papers, teaching seminars and teaching materials, will also arise from the project.

More information

If you wish more information, or would like to be interviewed, please do not hesitate to contact Callum Brown by email or write to me at:-
Callum Brown
School of Humanities
1 University Gardens
University of Glasgow
Glasgow G12 8QQ