Individuals and Organisations
Humanists rarely, if ever, attain positions of authority or influence in society as a direct result of their humanism, though humanist beliefs and values may well inform their choices of career and how they use authority and influence once achieved. But no individual humanist has authority over other humanists or can claim to represent them adequately in the public sphere. One reason for the development of humanist organisations around the world is to provide humanists with a public voice and representation to public authorities and governments.
Humanist organisations are democratic and egalitarian, usually run by representatives of their members and answerable to them as well as to institutions such as the Charity Commission in the UK. Their success is evaluated by members on grounds such as: Are they providing the services needed by members and the wider non-religious community? Are they responding to public affairs in the ways that members require? Are they recognised and respected as the public face of humanism?
Humanism had a much more gradual, less defined foundation than most religions, with few “leaders”. However, humanist ideas are part of a long and influential tradition of scepticism and belief in a non-religious basis for morality, and humanists have often been very active in world events.
Influential or inspirational thinkers from this sceptical, humanist tradition range from figures from ancient history such as Confucius, Cicero and Epicurus to contemporaries such Carl Sagan, Peter Singer and Richard Dawkins, with many, many in the centuries between. Their influence goes well beyond humanism.
Humanists have contributed to human welfare through science and medicine, including the discoverers of radium Marie and Pierre Curie, Professor Sir Anthony Epstein, one of the discoverers of the Epstein-Barr virus and Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys, discoverer of DNA fingerprinting. Others such as writers John Fowles, Ian McEwan, Terry Pratchett, Philip Pullman, and poets Alan Brownjohn and Maureen Duffy, have inspired through the arts. Many humanists have been active in politics, peace movements, the formation of the United Nations, and in campaigns for equality and autonomy.
Some key figures helped to establish the Ethical Churches which eventually, in Britain, evolved into the British Humanist Association. One of the founders of the British Ethical Society movement, Moncure Conway, started his career in America as a Unitarian minister. He fell out with his family over slavery and was dismissed in 1856 from his church over his abolitionist stance. In 1863, he came to London where he became the minister of the South Place Chapel, but he abandoned theism after one of his sons died, and he and his congregation eventually broke from the Unitarian Church. In the 1880s, led by Stanton Coit (who at his American university was called “the most sceptical man in our class but also the most spiritual”), the South Place Chapel evolved into the Ethical Church and then Ethical Society, but Coit continued using the word God to indicate the noblest good, and referred to “the Religion of Humanism”.
A more political, campaigning secularist was Charles Bradlaugh, who became Britain’s first openly atheist MP when he was elected by the voters of Northampton in 1880. As an atheist, he was not allowed to swear allegiance on the Bible or to affirm (a right which did not then exist) and so could not take up his seat in Parliament. Eventually, after he had been re-elected several times, he was allowed to swear allegiance, and the episode led to a change in the law allowing non-religious affirmations the same legal status as religious oaths.
It was still possible in the 1950s to shock Britain by saying, as humanist psychologist Margaret Knight did, that the moral education of children was too important to be built on the shaky foundations of religion. She and others such as Harold Blackham, A J Ayer and Julian Huxley were important in the mid-20th century as leaders of and advisers to the newly-formed British Humanist Association.
Though these 19th and 20th century figures were important in the development of humanism and humanist organisations, it has to be admitted that many humanists know little or nothing about them. Although humanists may have benefited from their work and campaigns, they could not be said to be directly influenced by them.
These and many others exemplify humanist moral and spiritual values such as searching for the truth, belief in human equality and shared values, and working actively for peace, progress and human welfare.