The Humanist Tradition

China, India and Western Europe all have traditions of humanist thinking that can be traced back at least 2,500 years. This way of understanding the world, of finding meaning in life, and of grounding moral thinking is also found in many other cultures. You can trace the movement of humanist ideas through time in the following sections. You can also find out more about a selection of historical figures who have influenced humanist thinking or demonstrated humanist ideals in their lives or writings.

Many people have thought and expressed humanist ideas over many centuries all over the world, contributing to a humanist tradition. Though some of them may have believed in a god or gods, they were thoughtful, humane, open-minded people, and many of them fought against the ignorance and religious bigotry of their day, sometimes taking considerable personal risks to do so. Many of the great philosophers, scientists and moral thinkers were essentially humanist, because they did not accept traditional beliefs but thought for themselves and pushed human knowledge forwards.

Ancient world

The first recorded humanist thinking – in China, India, Greece and Rome. Key figures from this period include AesopDemocritusEpictetusEpicurus, and Protagoras.


How the Dark Ages in Europe ended, and science and the arts began to flourish. Key figures include Aphra Behn and Shakespeare.


The rise of reason and scientific thinking. Key figures include Immanuel KantDavid HumeThomas PaineVoltaireMary WollstonecraftBaron D’Holbach, and Denis Diderot.

19th century freethinkers

A time of political and religious turmoil and the development of modern social science. Key figures include Jeremy BenthamCharles Bradlaughthe CuriesCharles DarwinGeorge EliotThomas Hardy,George HolyoakeT H HuxleyRobert G IngersollJohn Stuart Mill, and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

20th century Humanism

Modern humanist thinkers and writers had an enormous impact on the last century. Key figures include A J Ayer, Harold Blackham, Fenner BrockwayJoseph ConradE M ForsterSigmund FreudThomas HardyJulian HuxleyMargaret KnightG E MooreNehruM N RoyGene RoddenberryBertrand RussellJohn Maynard Smith, and ‘Gora’.

Many of the founders of the mid-20th century international co-operative institutions – Brock Chisholm, Peter Ritchie Calder and John Boyd Orr were humanists. You can read more about them and other philanthropists and social activists from the humanist tradition in Humanists working for a better world.
And go to the Patrons of Humanism pages to find out about more 20th and 21st century humanists.