The humanist contribution

‘Faith without works is not Christianity, and unbelief without any effort to help shoulder the consequences for mankind is not humanism.’

Harold Blackham, founder of the British Humanist Association

Often, religious individuals are credited with many of the steps that human beings have made towards social progress, and their faith is picked out as the motivating factor. Without denying the positive impact that many religious people have had on the world, it is important to recognise that many non-religious individuals have also made a significant contribution. As their work is motivated by what they see as our common humanity, it is often overlooked. However, humanists have played an active part in developing many modern institutions, laws, policies, and social norms that have transformed human life for the better.

Below are just some examples of the contributions individual humanists have made:

  • UNESCO: this international peace-building organisation was founded on humanist principles by its first Director-General, humanist Julian Huxley
  • UN Food and Agriculture Association: its first Director-General was humanist John Boyd Orr
  • World Health Organization: shaped by its first Director-General, humanist Brock Chisholm
  • The National Health Service: The availability of free healthcare for all in the UK owes to the pioneering work of humanists Nye Bevan, Clement Attlee, and William Beveridge
  • British Pregnancy Advisory Service: founded by the humanist activist Martin Cole
  • Citizens Advice: The UK’s national helpline was shaped by its influential early chairman humanist Sir Kenneth Clucas
  • British Association for Psychotherapy and Counselling: co-founded by the first Executive Director of the British Humanist Association, Harold Blackham
  • The Open University: this world pioneer in distance learning, which opened up higher education to millions, was founded by humanist Jennie Lee
  • University College London: founded as the first secular university by followers of the humanist philosopher Jeremy Bentham
  • Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament: co-founded by a group that included humanists JB Priestley, Bertrand Russell, Peter Ritchie Calder, Michael Foot, and Joseph Rotblat

Humanists make no attempt to claim that responsibility for the institutions above lies entirely with individual humanists, nor that humanism should take full credit for the impact they have had on human wellbeing. However, it is important to recognise that humanist ideas and individuals have played their part, and have made a positive impact on modern society.

Across the 20th century, Humanists UK ran secular housing associations, adoption agencies, and counselling services and funded international aid projects. These services were gradually taken over by the state as progressive ideals gained ground, and once they became almost universally accepted as positive features of society, humanists saw no need to run their own independent services. In the 21st century, Humanists UK has continued to create new services, such as non-religious pastoral support and apostate support programmes, to once again address unmet needs in wider society.

Question: How important is it that we put our beliefs into practice in our lives?

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This article is from the free online course:

Humanist Lives

Humanists UK