Many have been influenced by a humanist worldview to use their talents to try to make the world a better place. Some have been famous for their contributions to society, science, medicine and the arts, for example, Charles Bradlaugh, the first openly atheist MP, the Curies, Thomas Hardy and Percy Bysshe Shelley in the 19th century; and A J Ayer, Fenner Brockway, E M Forster , Sigmund Freud, Julian Huxley, Nehru , M N Roy, and Bertrand Russell in the 20th. Humanists Brock Chisholm, Peter Ritchie Calder and John Boyd Orr were instrumental in setting up the institutions of the United Nations in the mid-20th century. Today many distinguished and influential humanists continue to work to improve the world.
One of the founders of the British Ethical Society movement, Moncure Conway, quarrelled with his American family and was dismissed in 1856 from his Unitarian church ministry because he opposed slavery. Later, in London, he spoke for women’s suffrage. Britain’s first openly atheist MP Charles Bradlaugh (1833-91) had to fight to take up his seat in Parliament with a non-religious affirmation, and was sentenced to six months in prison in 1877 for publishing a pamphlet about family planning.
Humanist politician Fenner Brockway (1888-1988) devoted his life to world peace and racial equality. He too was imprisoned – for his opposition to the 1914-18 war. He played a leading role in bringing about the independence of Britain’s former colonies. He worked with knew the first Prime Minister of India, Pandit Jawarharlal Nehru (1889-1964), who, despite a peaceful campaign to establish independence, was sent to prison many times by the British government of India. Nehru observed how ignorance and religious dogma and traditions held back India and saw the need for secular democracy and social reforms.
Indian social reformer, Shri Goparaju Ramachandra Rao (also known as Gora) (1902-1975), motivated by atheism and despite his own high caste, strove to abolish the caste system with its ‘untouchables’, and the idea of ‘karma’ or divine fate.
After World War 2, Julian Huxley (1887-1975), an early supporter of humanist organisations, was appointed the first Director-General of UNESCO, where he promoted world-wide education, population control and conservation of nature.
Another early adviser to what was then known as the British Humanist Association, John Boyd Orr (1880-1971) put his belief that we should use our knowledge to eradicate hunger in the world into practice when he became the first Director of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). He was followed at the WHO by humanist Brock Chisholm (1898-1967) who dedicated much of his life to awakening the world to its responsibility for the present and future welfare of humankind, and to the problems caused by over-population.
Peter Ritchie Calder (1906-82), was a humanist, journalist, British delegate to UNESCO and UN Famine Conference, and adviser to Oxfam. He helped to start the UN Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy, as well as being active in the British Peace Council and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. He believed that science, used properly, could help the world.
Not all humanists have achieved fame of course. As one distinguished freethinker of the 19th century, writer George Eliot suggested: “… the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”