The 20th century

Although Humanism is a way of seeing the world which has been around for millennia, the 19th century was an important time for Humanism as a movement, as it was late in the century that many ‘ethical societies’ and humanist organisations, such as the British Humanist Association (BHA), were founded. These associations developed quickly over the 20th century, and Humanism came to be understood more widely across society.

At the same time, particularly in western Europe, non-religious people began to find it easier to express and argue their ideas openly, and as a result of this, humanist ways of thinking became increasingly influential in politics and culture. Scientific discoveries which challenged religious conceptions of the universe also continued to be accepted, and the popularity of religion in the developed world underwent a steady decline.

The early 20th century: humanist ideas flourish

World War I and World War II had a devastating impact on Europe and they helped to shape the humanist movement in this time just as they did many other movements. The horror of the war and events such as the Holocaust prompted many people to question whether religion had the answers to the world’s moral and ethical problems, or could explain the world around them. At the same time, easier travel and research in fields such as anthropology and psychology made it clear that religions were human creations, practised by different cultures around the world. Scientific progress also made it obvious that much of what is in religious texts cannot be literally true. As scientific education became more widely available, important concepts such as Darwin’s theory of evolution became widely accepted. This cast more doubt on the credibility both of literal interpretations of religious texts and the figurative interpretations which attempted to reconcile religious stories with the world as we understood it.

A new generation of social reformers and activists were also heavily influenced by philosophers and intellectuals from the 19th century who wrote about people making a difference in the world, and looking out for each other, without regard to religion. Many had posited it was not only possible to live well without religion, but also to advance the cause of a fairer world by looking to evidence and people’s experiences, rather than on guidance from the writers of ancient religious texts who knew relatively little about the world and nothing about modern issues.

A humanist social reformer named William Beveridge laid the foundations for the ‘welfare state’ and the National Health Service in the UK in the 1940s. The Prime Minister who implemented many of these changes, Clement Attlee, was a non-religious person who was deeply committed to the ‘ethics’  which many associated with religions while opposed to ‘mumbo-jumbo’. Beveridge’s recommendations appealed to him because they advanced the cause of a more ethical and fairer society on rational, evidence-based, and empathetic grounds. Later, the humanist Roy Jenkins’ tenure as Home Secretary in the 1960s was identified with three major advances in society: the decriminalisation of abortion and homosexuality, and the repeal of the death penalty. Humanists in Parliament would later group together as the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group, and their number grew to 100 by the end of the century. Elsewhere, the humanist Sir Kenneth Clucas was instrumental in the formation of the Citizens Advice Bureau.

In other parts of the world, humanists began to exert a greater influence. Jawaharlal Nehru, first Prime Minister of India, and M N Roy, were both influential humanists in India. Humanist Michael Gorbachev as Russian leader led his country out of Communism. Other humanists have played key roles in peace movements and international institutions such as the United Nations. Brock Chisholm helped found the World Health Organization; John Boyd Orr founded the UN Food and Agriculture Organization; and BHA President Julian Huxley founded the UN Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), where he promoted world-wide education and conservation of nature.

Outside of the political sphere, popular figures in the writing and art world, as well as on the radio, openly criticised religious attitudes to modern problems. The writers, artists, and academics of the Bloomsbury Group (which included John Maynard Keynes, Virginia Woolf, E M Forster, and Bertrand Russell) were inspired by the humanist philosophy of G E Moore, and looked to nature, empathy, and reason to answer questions about human nature, morality, and how we should run societies. They were very influential; Virginia Woolf and E M Forster made a permanent impression on the English literary tradition, while Keynes’ ideas gave shape to the modern global economy. Forster and Russell were both very involved in the BHA as Vice Presidents, and worked hard at securing social reforms which would come about only after their deaths. Outside of Bloomsbury, postwar radio presenter Margaret Knight scandalised England by calling for an end to undue religious influence in education, something which attracted many members to BHA.

The humanist movement comes of age

Meanwhile, the Ethical Union, formed by concerned humanists who wanted to do social work in the inner city, rebranded as the British Humanist Association and worked with its counterparts in the US, Vienna, and the Netherlands to form the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), so that humanists around the world could take a greater role in global affairs and support the growth of fledgling humanist groups and communities elsewhere.

It was in this context that a symbol for Humanism became a necessity. The BHA created the Happy Human in 1965, and its adoption by IHEU coincided with an explosion of new humanist groups around the world linked to that organisation. This in turn formed a consistent international identity for humanist organisations, and these symbols began to spread quickly across Europe and the Americas, and soon to Australia, Africa, and parts of Asia.

Humanists in Britain also pioneered the development of humanist ceremonies so that non-religious people could mark life events with appropriate and sincere ceremonies for funerals, namings, and weddings, and the numbers of people choosing to have them increased steadily across the century, particularly in northern Europe.

The humanist movement was now a joined-up, cogent, well-organised, and democratic vehicle for the views and beliefs of non-religious people around the world. In the UK, the late 60s saw the passing of crucial legislation to protect a woman’s abortion rights, in spite of fervent religious opposition. By the end of the century, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had been enshrined into UK law and that of other countries, and humanists in Europe began to make social progress in other areas. The year 2000, at the start of the next century, saw the first in a range of reforms which would bring about equality for gays, lesbians, and bisexuals.