Humanists are firmly committed to free inquiry and using science to discover truths about the world we live in. There is a long tradition of scientists who have questioned the status quo, and have had to overcome suspicion and threats from those religious people in searching for truths about the natural world. Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species, published in 1859, was highly influential in the ongoing contest between science and mainstream religion. It described evolution by natural selection over millions of years and confirmed that the Bible’s Genesis creation story could not be literally true. This was extremely important in convincing many of an alternative, non-religious perspective on life, and a many more scientists have since adopted a humanist perspective, just as Darwin did.
Pierre and Marie Curie are examples of pioneers in science who were not religious and who were motivated by a desire to know more about human beings and the world around us. They were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on radioactivity, and Marie Curie went on to win a Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Their work has been crucial in the development of x-rays in surgery.
Scientists such as Sir Arthur Keith, Sigmund Freud, Sir Julian Huxley and John Maynard Smith did much in the 20th century to spread understanding of science, human nature, and evolution. Albert Einstein, one of the greatest scientific minds in human history, was a humanist. He often wrote about his disbelief in gods, but found awe in the beauty of physics. He was involved in the movement principally through his Honorary Associate position with the Rationalist Press Association (a humanist charity based in London). Francis Crick, one of the discoverers of DNA, and Sir Richard Doll, who discovered the link between smoking and cancer, were both humanists.
Today, there are many humanist biology professors such as Richard Dawkins, who has continued to educate the public on Darwin’s theory of evolution, and Nobel Prize-winning scientists such as Sir Harold Kroto and Sir John Sulston. Popular scientists associated with the movement also include Jim Al-Khalili (President of the BHA), Alice Roberts, Carl Sagan, and Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Many humanists have used the values of empathy and reason to bring about positive changes to human society. They have drawn inspiration from historical figures who helped fashion the principles we now think of as humanist. Some of them were philosophers, like Voltaire, who famously defended the right to free expression and tolerance for other beliefs. John Stuart Mill’s case for free speech, as well as work on other moral and ethical issues, is still referenced by humanists today. David Hume helped lay the foundation for a scientific perspective on knowledge by arguing that we should only believe in things for which we have evidence.
The deists Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft were campaigners who tried to apply their principles of human equality to important causes. Paine made the case that humans were born with natural rights, should be treated equally, and have a say in their own government, rather than be ruled by powerful monarchs. He strongly influenced the founding fathers of the USA. Wollstonecraft was an early pioneer on feminist issues, and convincingly argued that human equality will only be realised when women are fully included in the political process.
These thinkers – who so articulately expressed the values of human equality, reason and empathy – heavily influenced those who then identified as humanists in the 20th century. These humanists used the very same principles to make lasting improvements to our society.
Some of these humanists helped found international co-operative institutions in the mid-20th century. Brock Chisholm helped found the World Health Organization, while John Boyd Orr founded the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Julian Huxley was an early President of the BHA who was the first director-general of the UN Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), where he promoted world-wide education and conservation of nature.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Joseph Rotblat and Peter Ritchie Calder were both noted humanists who campaigned for nuclear disarmament and world peace. In the UK, Baroness Barbara Wootton became the first woman to chair the proceedings of the House of Lords, and used her influence to speak up for humanist causes, especially on social policy.
Long before the term ‘humanist’ was used as it is today, writers and artists have espoused a non-religious tradition that placed human welfare at the centre of their work, and articulated views that still resonate with today’s humanists. In the ancient and medieval world, this is seen in the writing of Confucius, Socrates, and Epicurus, and in the poetry of Omar Khayyam.
In the 19th century, writers such as Mark Twain articulated essentially humanist values, using humour to bring to life the full range of humanity’s contradictions. Percy Bysshe Shelley, regarded as one of the finest of Romantic poets, was a passionate humanist. Thomas Hardy, also openly an atheist, wrote seminal novels such as Far From the Madding Crowd and Tess of the d’Urbervilles, as well as many poems that approached life and death with humanist instincts. George Eliot also wrote from a humanist outlook and produced work of deep psychological insight. Her novel Middlemarch is considered one of the greatest ever written. The influential 20th century novelists Virginia Woolf and E M Forster were also humanists, whose works were very much focused on capturing the essence of the human experience in a world of one’s making. Other important writers who wrote from a humanist perspective include Matthew Arnold, Aldous Huxley, and Jean-Paul Sartre.
In recent times, humanist writers have included Philip Pullman, Ian McEwan, Terry Pratchett, John Fowles, Arthur C Clarke, Kurt Vonnegut, Iain Banks, Natalie Haynes, and Stephen Fry, and poets Maureen Duffy, Seamus Heaney, Alan Brownjohn, and Tony Harrison. Humanist novelist Salman Rushdie spent many years fearing for his life when he was the subject of a fatwa for purportedly offending Muslims with his 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses. His case attracted global headlines, and since then has become representative of the threats which non-religious people and freethinkers face from religious extremists, and of the fact that the right to free expression cannot be taken for granted.
Humanist playwrights David Hare, Harold Pinter and Arthur Miller have continually written critically acclaimed drama for the stage. In the visual arts, painter Francis Bacon often articulated views that challenged religious conventions, while world-acclaimed sculptor Anish Kapoor is also a strong supporter of Humanism.
In popular culture, Gene Roddenberry portrayed a Utopian future informed by humanist values in Star Trek, while in Britain the science fiction show Doctor Who is thoroughly humanist in its approach to science, human relationships, and dealing with the unknown. Writers for Doctor Who over the years have included numerous humanist, including influential writers such as Mark Gatiss, Douglas Adams, and Russell T Davies. In the USA, the humanist writer Joss Whedon has explored humanist themes through his many TV shows, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly