Our Humanist Heritage

This week is Humanist Week and the theme is humanist heritage. A new resource has been launched to catalogue Britain’s long humanist tradition at www.humanistheritage.org.uk and I have written on the topic over at the Guardian website today. You can read the article here or below:

Pat statements about Britain’s “Christian heritage” trip easily from the lips of Christians and non-Christians alike and these claims can sometimes be ludicrously expansive. I am used to sitting on a panel with some bishop or other to be informed that – although it may surprise me – democracy, volunteering, human rights, justice, the rule of law, freedom, equality, schools and hospitals are all artefacts of our Christian heritage. And motherhood. And apple pie.

No one can deny that Christianity has had an effect on our national culture. But there are obvious and serious flaws in such an account of British history (Christian opposition in Britain to many of these “good things” in the past for example, or the fact that pre-Christian and non-Christian societies seem to have achieved many if not all of these advances at various times without the spur of a belief in Jesus). It’s a useful corrective to this overweening narrative that the theme of this year’s Humanist Week is “humanist heritage”.

Men and women with humanist views have made a massive contribution to our national life and society. Did you know that the first heads of the UN Food and Agriculture OrganisationUN World Health Organisation, and UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation were all humanists? EM Forster is famous for his novels and the sumptuous Merchant Ivory adaptations of them, but did you know he was a lifelong humanist activist as well? The humanist Bertrand Russell is as well known as a campaigner for peace and social justice; less known are such humanist campaigners as 20th century anti-racism activist and advocate of Indian independence Fenner Brockway or Annie Besant, 19th-century campaigner against poverty and for contraception. Humanists who have made significant contributions to British science range from Charles Darwin to Brian Cox, Richard Dawkins to David King. But humanists in Britain have also made rich contributions to our artistic and literary heritage (think Thomas Hardy, John Fowles, George Eliot, Harold Pinter, Anish Kapoor) and to our intellectual heritage (Amartya Sen, A J Ayer, Karl Popper). Humanists from John Stuart Mill (anti-racist and pioneering feminist as well as the father of modern liberalism) to John Maynard Keynes to Clement Attlee demonstrate the beneficial influence of humanists on our political and social life.

Individual humanists have been in the forefront of life-improving developments in British science, politics, social policy, and charity in Britain. But we can celebrate not just people, but organisations too. Humanist organisations in the 19th-century pioneered housing and education projects and, in the 20th century, non-directive counselling. They ran housing associations and adoption agencies. This work continues today with humanist projects in Africa and India for education and the relief of poverty and in the provision of ceremonies such as funerals, attended by over 250,000 people in the UK each year and millions worldwide – a real service to the community.

This contemporary social action, support and work for the common good is backed up by a long British humanist heritage and we should all – humanist and non-humanist – be proud of this important strand in our shared history.

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