20th Century Humanism

The Twentieth Century – A Scientific and Secular Age


The twentieth century saw a revulsion against war, partly because of the horrors of the first and second World Wars, and partly because the mass media make us aware of atrocities and suffering all over the world. Both world wars, and especially the Nazi genocide against the Jews, made many question their faith in a loving god. We still have wars and the threats of war, but the United Nations exists to encourage negotiation and resolution of conflict by other means, and to police international law on the conduct of war and on human rights. Generally, there has been greater awareness and spread of human rights and democracy in the twentieth century.

Because of their belief that this world is the only one we have and that human problems can only be solved by humans, humanists have often been very active social reformers. The early Ethical Societies set up Neighbourhood Guilds to undertake social and educational work in city slums, where it was much needed in the days before a welfare state. Most humanists believe in democracy, open government and human rights, and support action on world poverty and the environment. Some were and are pacifists, and many are active in charities and politics. Ethical societies came together as the Ethical Union, which in the 1960s became the British Humanist Association, whose first director being Harold Blackham and whose first President Julian Huxley. The English social scientist and academic, and founder member of the BHA (now Humanists UK), Baroness Barbara Wootton (1897-1988) became the first woman to chair the proceedings of the House of Lords. She always spoke up for humanist causes, especially on social policy.

Religion and philosophy

The twentieth century saw a decline in religious belief and an increase in secularisation in the developed world. Fewer people in Europe are actively religious and people are free to declare their disbelief in gods with little fear of reprisal or social disadvantage. Mobile populations and the mass media have made most parts of the world aware of a range of belief systems, and more liberal attitudes mean that people often feel free to choose a philosophy for themselves. The growth of studies such as anthropology, pioneered in Sir James Frazer’s exhaustive collection of myths and customs, showed religions as natural human creations, and encouraged a more tolerant attitude towards other cultures.

Few Christian intellectuals nowadays defend the literal truth of the Bible, but focus instead on its metaphorical truth and the exemplary life of Jesus. Religious beliefs have tended to evolve, casting some doubt in the minds of sceptics about what exactly Christians believe these days, or what they mean by “truth” or “God”. Theologians such as Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), Deitrich Bonhoeffer (1906-45), William James (1842-1910) and Paul Tillich (1886-1965), and developments such as liberation theology and the ideas of the Sea of Faith group, have done much to liberate academic Christian theology from religious dogma and to integrate secular and scientific ideas into Christianity. Many humanists today see little point in attacking beliefs that are no longer held except by a tiny minority of people.

On the other hand, there is still much popular conventional belief and there is a growing trend towards new religions and ideas, many of which are little more than superstition, and some of which are dangerous. In some countries there has been a growth in religious fundamentalism. Religion is still given special status and privileges in most countries, and non-religious people have often had to organise and campaign for their views to be heard.

Most twentieth century philosophers have worked on the assumption that morality is independent of religious faith e.g Sir Karl Popper, A J AyerG E Moore, Mary Warnock, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Wallace Matson, Antony Flew, Peter Singer, though it was still possible to cause a scandal in Britain by suggesting, as did Margaret Knight in a radio talk in the late 1950s, that morality and religion could usefully be separated.


There have been huge developments in science and medicine which have affected people’s lives and the way they think. As more and more people around the word acquire education, understanding of science has become much more widespread, and once controversial ideas such as Darwin’s theories about evolution are generally accepted. Thanks to the relatively new sciences of sociology, anthropology and psychology, our understanding of human nature and society has developed rapidly. Many scientists were and are humanists. Some, such as Sir Arthur Keith (1866-1955), Scottish scientist and anthropologist J B S Haldane, Sigmund FreudSir Julian Huxley and John Maynard Smith did much in the 20th century to spread understanding of science, of human nature and of evolution. Albert Einstein, who worked out the theory of relativity, one of the greatest achievements of the human intellect, was essentially a humanist and was an Honorary Associate of the Rationalist Press Association.

Scientific and medical progress has produced new ethical dilemmas, and traditional religious teachings have not always been able to rise to the challenge.

The arts

Despite continued laws against blasphemy, artists and intellectuals have increasingly challenged religious privilege and conventions. In the first half of this century, the Bloomsbury Group (which included J M Keynes, Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), Leonard Woolf, E M ForsterBetrand Russell) were an influential group of writers, academics and artists, who were heavily influenced by the ethical theories of G E Moore, which stressed the values of friendship and aesthetic experience. Writers such as Thomas Hardy, George Bernard Shaw, H G Wells, and Joseph Conrad, were well-known free-thinkers and the novelist Arnold Bennett (1867-1931) was an Honorary Associate of the Rationalist Press Association from 1916.

Modern atheists and humanists

Surveys indicate that at least a third of the population of Britain are agnostic or atheist, and about 36% of the population also share the positive moral values of humanism and Humanists UK. Amongst them are many well known people who support the aims and values of Humanism. The work of many of these people underlines the fact that you don’t need religion to be concerned about what is right and wrong.


The non-religious tradition of Humanism has survived through centuries of writers’ work, and the written word is still important in spreading positive views. Humanist writers include novelists Philip Pullman, Ian McEwan, Terry Pratchett, John Fowles, Arthur C Clarke, Kurt Vonnegut Jr, Iain Banks, Maureen Duffy, and Stephen Fry, and poets Seamus Heaney, Alan Brownjohn and Tony Harrison. The author Naomi Mitchison was an influential rationalist, and Isaac Asimov was President of the American Humanist Association for many years. Nobel Prize winner Octavio Paz was a lifelong humanist. Umberto Eco, Italian novelist and semiotician, is a member of the American Academy of Humanism. Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, was a humanist, as was writer, actor and raconteur Peter Ustinov. Novelist Salman Rushdie became an international cause celebre when he was the subject of a fatwa for offending Islam in his 1988 novel, Satanic Verses and spent many years in hiding in fear of his life.

Humanist journalists include Jonathan Meades, politician Roy Hattersley, and Sir Ludovic Kennedy (who is also a broadcaster, campaigner, and past President of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, now Dignity in Dying). The well known “agony aunt” Claire Rayner was a writer, broadcaster and humanist. Previous Humanists UK President Polly Toynbee is well-known as a columnist for The Guardian.

The visual arts, theatre, and music

World-acclaimed sculptor Anish Kapoor supports Humanism, as does the art historian and former director of the National Gallery, Sir Michael Levey, who has written about Renaissance humanism, and painting during the Enlightenment. Painter Francis Bacon, generally considered one of the world’s most important post-war artists, challenged conventional religious imagery and had anti-clerical views.

Sir Michael Tippett the English composer, was an opponent of organised religion, and was a conscientious objector in the 1939-45 war. The well known director of plays and operas, Jonathan Miller, trained as a doctor and has retained an interest in medicine and psychology, for example, making television programmes about the human body and the history of atheism. Playwrights David Hare and Arthur Miller support Humanism, as do actors Steven Fry and Jane Asher. Harold Pinter and Vanessa Redgrave worked with Humanists UK in the 1960s, trying to reduce the religious bias in broadcasting, and to improve human rights.

Politicians and social activists

Politics is an important way of improving human rights and the quality of life, here and abroad. In India radicals like Nehru and M N Roy were humanists, supported in this country by activists such as MP and humanist Fenner Brockway. Many of the mid-20th century founders of international co-operative institutions – such as Brock Chisholm, Peter Ritchie Calder and John Boyd Orr were humanists. Well-known humanists in the period included Baroness Blackstone, Nick Brown, Frank Dobson, Michael Foot, Lord Peston, Ken Livingstone, and many other MPs and peers. The late Earl Russell, Lord Dormand, and Lord Jenkins of Putney were all members of the Parliamentary Humanist Group. Today, the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group has over 100 members.

In Britain, humanist Sir Kenneth Clucas was chairman of the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux for many years, while Sir Lou Sherman chaired the Housing Corporation.

Internationally, humanists continue to work for progress in human rights and overseas aid. Humanist organisations exist worldwide, varying their concerns and activities according to the situation in their country. For example in the USA, humanists are in the forefront of opposing the erosion of the constitutional commitment to separation of church and state. Humanists such as Conor Cruise O’Brien are ambassadors for the UN and international relations. Humanist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Professor Joseph Rotblat was also an important campaigner for nuclear disarmament and world peace. The Russian leader Mikhael Gorbachev, who led the USSR out of Communism, is a humanist.


From Aristotle and the ancient scientists in India and China onwards, scientists have been at the heart of the search for knowledge and truth without traditional ideas of god.

Writers and broadcasters on scientific topics, such as David Attenborough, Steven Pinker, Carl Sagan, and Richard Dawkins have done much to increase public understanding of science.

Today, there are many humanist biology professors such as Robin Dunbar  (evolutionary psychology and behavioural ecology), Richard Dawkins (Darwinian evolution), Sir Alec Jeffreys (genetic fingerprinting), Sir David Smith (symbiosis), Robert Hinde, Lewis Wolpert (embryology), Peter Goodfellow (biotechnology), Steven Rose (brain function), Steve Jones (genetics), Sir Hans Kornberg (biochemistry) and Sir Thomas Blundell (plant biotechnology); chemistry professors such as Peter Atkins (physical chemistry); Nobel Prize-winning scientists such as Sir Harold Kroto and Sir John Sulston; and eminent physicians and medical scientists such as Sir Anthony Epstein (who discovered viruses linked with herpes), Sir David Weatherall (blood disorders), Sir James Gowans (immunology and AIDS), Sir Kenneth Stuart (liver and cardiovascular disorders), and Sir Roy Calne (transplant surgery). The late Francis Crick, one of the discoverers of DNA, biologist John Maynard Smith, and Sir Richard Doll, epidemiologist and discoverer of the link between smoking and cancer, were all humanists.

Astronomers, mathematicians and physicists include the late Sir Hermann Bondi (former President of Humanists UK ), Sir Michael Atiyah (former President of the Royal Society), Lord Flowers (atomic structure), Sir Roger Penrose (topology and relativity) and Sir Francis Graham-Smith (radio astronomy, and former Astronomer Royal).


Many philosophers reject traditional ideas of god. They continue the non-religious tradition in philosophy, which has thrived from ancient times, and was developed by great thinkers such as David Hume, the Utilitarians, A J Ayer and Bertrand Russell (read his Why I am not a Christian), Sir Isaiah Berlin, philosopher and historian of ideas, was a non-believer and a member of the American Academy of Humanism. Humanist academics today include Simon Blackburn, Peter Singer (perhaps the most widely read current writer on ethics), Richard Norman, A C Grayling and Sheila McLean (medical ethics and law).


Historians such as Sir Keith Thomas have researched and written about human beliefs and attitudes. Humanist sociologists, anthropologists and psychologists such as Laurie Taylor, Richard Leakey, Lord Runciman, Professors Robert Hinde and Robin Dunbar have studied human behaviour and thinking, and contributed to our understanding of human development. Professor Bernard Crick (politics) was chosen to lead the Government’s work on Citizenship Education. The economist and Nobel prize winner Professor Amartya Sen is a humanist.

Read more about current Patrons of Humanism.