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Humanists UK and QMUL to co-host academic conference on 19th century humanism and freethought

Freethought in the Long Nineteenth Century: New Perspectives is currently calling for papers

Humanists UK is delighted to announce that in September 2022, it will be co-convening a dedicated academic conference exploring the rich history of 19th century humanism and freethought.

Freethought in the Long Nineteenth Century: New Perspectives, a groundbreaking two-day conference, is being led by Dr Clare Stainthorp of Queen Mary, University of London (QMUL), with support from Dr Anton Jansson of the University of Gothenburg and Humanists UK’s Humanist Heritage Coordinator, Madeleine Goodall.

The conference follows on from Humanists UK’s own extensive 125th anniversary celebrations, drawing special attention to the impact of humanists in history through its Humanist Heritage project and website. The project has to date highlighted not only the 125 years of humanist activism from Humanists UK, but how at the time of its foundation in 1896, Humanists UK in many ways was the inheritor, and later the primary vehicle, of a vibrant existing freethought movement in the UK.

As well as looking at that century again in more depth, the conference will showcase fascinating research and scholarship taking place on the subjects of humanism, secularism, and freethought from around the world, exploring how ideas and ideals circulated within and across nations between 1789–1914, and consider their legacy through to the present day.

Commenting on the conference, Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson said:

‘All this year, marking the 125th anniversary of Humanists UK, we’ve helped thousands of people to take a deeper look at the history of humanism in the UK. There they will find a rich and at-times surprising story about a diverse band of committed activists, thinkers, and organisers who were on the right side of history, time and time again.

‘We’ve also noticed, at the same time, greatly increased academic interest in the history of humanism, and of the incredible men and women who propelled the movement. This conference will be an important showcase for that research, and I hope it will inspire many more writers and researchers to uncover more secrets, more stories, and more treasures from humanism’s rich cultural heritage.’

The conference will take place 9-10 September 2022 on the campus of Queen Mary University of London. It is funded by the Leverhulme Trust, and organised in partnership with the International Society for Historians of Atheism, Secularism and Humanism (ISHASH).

Notes for editors

For further comment or information, media should contact Humanist Heritage Coordinator Madeleine Goodall at

In 2021, Humanists UK is celebrating its 125th anniversary with a renewed focus on its history. The new website Humanist Heritage is a rich new web resource that uncovers the untold story of humanism in the UK – a story of people, groups, objects, places, movements, publications, and ideas.

Read more about our 125th anniversary celebrations:

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by 100,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.

More about the conference

The conference aims to bring together researchers working across a diverse range of disciplines – from history and literature, to politics and sociology. The call for papers has just been issued so if you, or anyone you know, is conducting research in a related topic, do consider submitting a proposal.

About the organisers

Dr Clare Stainthorp is the leading authority on Victorian poet, philosopher, and scientist Constance Naden, the subject of her 2019 book and about whom she has written for the Humanist Heritage website. Dr Stainthorp’s current Leverhulme-funded research focuses on 19th century freethought periodicals – to which many pioneering humanist thinkers contributed.

Dr Anton Jansson is a researcher and associate professor at the University of Gothenburg, in History of Ideas and Science. At present, he is working on a research project on the history of atheism in Sweden. He is also a director for the International Society for Historians of Atheism, Secularism, and Humanism (ISHASH). Previously he studied ‘the role of humanistic knowledge in the Christian public sphere’ as a postdoctoral researcher at Lund University.

Madeleine Goodall is the coordinator of, and primary researcher for, Humanists UK’s Humanist Heritage project. Since 2019, she has been researching and writing about the 125 year history of Humanists UK (founded in 1896 as the Union of Ethical Societies), as well as the wider histories of humanism, secularism, and freethought in the UK. This research has centred on recovering humanism’s forgotten figures, and exploring the diverse causes to which humanists throughout history have been drawn – showcased on the project’s major output: Humanist Heritage.

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