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The British Humanist Association was founded in 1896 by American Stanton Coit as the Union of Ethical Societies, which brought together existing ethical societies in Britain. It became the British Humanist Association in 1967, during the Presidency of philosopher A.J. Ayer.

This transition followed a decade of discussions which nearly prompted a merger of the Union of Ethical Societies with the Rationalist Press Association and the South Place Ethical Society. In 1963 the discussions went as far as creating an umbrella Humanist Association of which Harold Blackham (later to become a President of the BHA) was the Executive Director. However, the BHA, the Rationalist Association and the South Place Ethical Society remain separate entities today and in 1967 the Union of Ethical Societies alone became the British Humanist Association.

The 1960s the BHA campaigned on the repeal of Sunday Observance Laws and the reform of the 1944 Education Act’s clauses on religion in schools. More generally the BHA aimed to defend freedom of speech, support the elimination of world poverty and remove the privileges given to religious groups. Ambitiously, it was claimed in 1977 that the BHA aimed “to make humanism available and meaningful to the millions who have no alternative belief.”

At this time the BHA also supported a growing number of local communities, continuing today as a network of affiliated local humanist groups. A network of celebrants able to conduct non-religious funerals, weddings, naming ceremonies and same sex affirmations (before the law allowing gay civil partnerships) was also developed and continues today as Humanist Ceremonies.

Educational issues have always featured prominently in BHA campaigns activities, including efforts to abolish daily worship in schools and to reform Religious Education so that it is objective, fair and balanced and includes learning about humanism as an alternative life stance. Gaining recognition for humanism as a lifestance has been a constant theme.

Do you see the essential paradox?

PS The current chair-human of the BHA is Polly Toynbee but don’t let that bias you.


  1. Sam Duncan says:

    Yep. One thing I never understood about Humanists – atheists I’m fine with, even if I disagree – is why they want to create a religion around their having no religion (and this more or less proves my point). They want the ceremonies and rituals, but with all the God stuff taken out. Why, if you don’t believe in God, do you need a Christening… sorry, “naming ceremony”? Give the kid a damn name and shut the fuck up about it.

    We agnostics are always getting stick about wavering in the middle or some such. Bollocks. I’m absolutely dead certain that I can’t know whether there’s a God or not. It’s these sandal-wearing lettuce eaters (come on, you know they do) who want it both ways.

  2. NickM says:

    I think it’s worse than that. I don’t bother God and expect the same courtesy from Her but whilst the God(s) of the long-established religions are impossible to disprove these secular Gods – be they Keynsian, Marxist or even Randish are most definitely human inventions. I mean documentarily so. What I’m trying to get at is the difference between a priori and a posteriori. The general Christian (to use one example idea of God) is logically bound. The good logically precedes God if you will. Secular “gods” are not so bound and these gods are human innovations. Some good, some bad, some middling. Like you Sam I am a genuine agnostic. Unlike the BHA I don’t need to fill a “god-shaped hole” with some cockamamie bollocks which, unlike genuine religious sentiment is, clearly invented. If I had such a hole that needed filling I’d go to church or something. I have no time for vegeburger religion. I do though rather like vegeburgers but that’s something else.

    Do these people even realise how pathetic they sound? Do they even realise the extent to which they worship an empty tabernacle? And then there is the straw men. Marriage is a key example here. I got married a bit over four years ago. Civil ceremony in Manchester Registry Office. Do they not understand that God cannot even be mentioned in an English civil wedding? I was told by the registrar I couldn’t even have any even vaguely religious music played. Neither the missus nor I wanted it but she cited the example of that great hymn, “Angels” by Robbie Williams as something banned. I was vastly more offended by being taken for a fan of that talentless salad dodger than possibly being Christian. Anyway, we had Sir Elton chained in the basement and on a diet of gruel until he agreed to tinkle the ivories.

    It was a very nice ceremony. The lady who conducted it had charisma.

    I have been considering a big post on marriage law (it’s a mess). It might happen after Crimble.

    P.S. Whilst I lied about detaining the “Rocket Man” you ain’t seen David Bowie recently have you? Got Ziggy in five point restraints in a shed. I feed him cat food when he’s lucky and he shrieks like a girl when I take the ball-gag out. I merely shredded Pete Doherty. I also know what The Edge keeps under his hat. Not even Julian Assange knows that.

  3. Paul Marks says:

    Whenever an American conservative talks about “the religion of secular humanism” (which is rammed down people’s throats at school and so on) the media (and so on) scream that there is no such thing. However, by their own words it is clear that this form of religion does exist – and this organization is (and its counterparts in the United States such as the vile “People for the American Way”, which is anything but, and the, socialist founded, ACLU) part of it.

    A.J. Ayer (and his ilk) is almost a cartoon example of what the most uncharitable religious people assume athiests are like. A man who openly mocked the very concpets of good and evil (believing that lies and other wickedness were fine for him – and that any objection on moral grounds was just the use of “boo and cheer words”), a man who claimed that the concepts of good and evil were just sillyness, nothing compared to his “scientific” logical positivism.

    He might as well have grown a twisted tash and tied some lady to the railroad tracks – although (given his personal wickedness as well as his political beliefs), perhaps he did murder a few people now and then (just to “study the sansation” you understand).

    However, what is wrong is to assume that people like Ayer (and the organizations they dominate) are typical of most athiests.

    That simply is not true – and people of faith must never think it is true.

    Ayer and co are cartoon bad guys (very real if one has the misfortune to cross their path – but not typical), they represent no one but themselves and prove nothing other than that some people are no good.

    Something that has always been known anyway.

  4. Paul Marks says:

    By the way if someone must have an athiest religion – Randian Objectivism is perhaps the best one on offer.

    Yes Ayn Rand had a lot of odd things about her (who does not?), but as this person is now dead (and, by her arguments, no longer capable of thought or issueing instructions) and her “intellectual heir” is no longer considered a secular Pope by most Randian Objectivists, the philosphy and way of life can not be consided a power grap by a person or persons.

    Also there is the basic factual point – Randian Objectivists do not dominate the schools, universities and media. They are not a powerful force (like the left side of secular humanism) out to brainwash the young and impose their opinions, by force, on everyone else.

    Also when there is conflict – the Randians always show up, and they are always on the right side (not all libertarian groups can say that).

    One can count on them – and that makes them good people.

    They do not tend to lie (which maks them the opposite of the left “Secular Humanist” crowd) and they keep their word, nor will they touch stuff that does not belong to them (no small point – and it will get more important as things run short as this period of history comes to an end). Also they often help those in need – althought they hate the word “charity” (the word “altruism” of course sends them into a rage) – they much prefer the word “benevolence” if they use any word at all (to those they help I doubt the words, or lack of words, matter much).

    “But Paul – they do not believe in God, and you do”.

    So what?

    A God who insists on people believing in Him, and will send to Hell someone who lives decently (just because they do not believe in Him) has a massive insecurity problem. That does not sound like a great and good being.

    This obsession with “faith” and (even more) the doctrine of “justification by faith” has always left me cold – and I am a person of faith.

    “Pelagian heretic” – guilty as charged.

    Remember there is no point in denying that – as God sees into someone’s soul (He does not just go by what they say and write).

    So if God (rather than his self appointed representatives) demands that everyone believes in justification by faith – then I am in trouble whatever I say or write.

    “But it would save you from persecution and death at the hands of the followers of Augustine” – true enough, but there are no longer many armed representatives of Augustine’s doctrine about.

    And, by the way, Augustine’s docrtine of justification by faith is in contradiction with his doctrine of predestination. And this “greatest theologian of all time” could no more read the New Testiment in the original Greek than I can (not unusal for a man born in 1965, but Augustine was brought in a wealthy Classical home in the 4th century – so what was his excuse). And no, putting God “outside of time” solves nothing.

    At this point the Augustinian produces his “argument” of thumb screws and the rack. But I have never considered such things a very effective argument – at least from the point of view of logical reasoning.

  5. Paul: it would make my day if you explained why you believe in God. I find such belief, on the part of an obviously highly rational person, utterly mysterious.

    Re: the preferred spelling here of “atheist”: “I’ve met some athy people in my time, but you are the athiest”. Sorry, it just gets me every time.

    I consider myself an atheist (or at least athier-than-thou), not an agnostic, because most of the descriptions of God I’ve come across seem to me riven with contradictions which oblige one to rule out the existence of such a being. For example, as I understand it the Christian God is supposed to be good and loving, and at the same time is supposed to condemn large numbers of people to eternal torment in a lake of fire. I’m not sure, but I imagine even AJ Ayers would balk at pulling off a nasty stunt like that. Personally, I wouldn’t condemn my worst enemy to an eternity of listening to New Age Music – and I’m not even an especially nice person. An eternity of anything at all sounds like the purest sadism as far as I’m concerned. A sadistic God is admittedly a workable hypothesis, but it’s not the one we’re told to swallow (except by people like Blake and the Gnostics, who nevertheless think there’s a better one on offer once you wean yourself off the first).

    As for Humanists, Sartre got it just about right in La Nausée. Worth a read in the Xmas break. Used to be in translation in Penguin.

    I have never met a Randian Objectivist, but you’re making me wish I had. They sound, from your description, like Quakers but without the oats.

  6. Sunfish says:

    Quakers without the oats?

    I don’t know who’d shriek louder about the comparison, the objectivists or the Quakers.

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