British Humanist Association

British Humanist Association

British Humanist Association logo
Formation 1896 (1896)
Shappi Khorsandi
Chief Executive
Andrew Copson
Formerly called
Union of Ethical Societies (18961928)
Ethical Union (19281967)

The British Humanist Association (BHA) is a charitable organisation which promotes Humanism and aims to represent "people who seek to live good lives without religious or superstitious beliefs" in the United Kingdom[1] by campaigning on issues relating to humanism, secularism, and human rights. The organisation also supports humanist and non-religious ceremonies in England and Wales,[2] and maintains a national network of accredited celebrants for humanist funeral ceremonies, weddings, civil partnerships, and baby namings. The current President of the BHA is Shappi Khorsandi and the Chief Executive is Andrew Copson. The association currently has 70 affiliated regional and special interest groups and claims a total of approximately 40,000 members and supporters.[3]


The British Humanist Association's Articles of Association sets out its aims as:

The BHA also wishes to build itself as a sustainable and nationally-recognised organisation as a voice for non-religious people.[5]


The British Humanist Association was founded in 1896 by American Stanton Coit as the Union of Ethical Societies, which brought together existing ethical societies in Britain. In 1963 H. J. Blackham became the first Executive Director,[6] and the society became the British Humanist Association in 1967, during the Presidency of philosopher A.J. Ayer.

This transition followed a decade of discussions which nearly prompted a merger of the Union of Ethical Societies with the Rationalist Press Association and the South Place Ethical Society. In 1963 the discussions went as far as creating an umbrella Humanist Association of which Harold Blackham (later to become a President of the BHA) was the Executive Director. However, the BHA, the Rationalist Association and the South Place Ethical Society remain separate entities today and in 1967 the Union of Ethical Societies alone became the British Humanist Association.[7]

In the 1960s the BHA campaigned on the repeal of Sunday Observance laws and the reform of the 1944 Education Act’s clauses on religion in schools. More generally the BHA aimed to defend freedom of speech, support the elimination of world poverty and remove the privileges given to religious groups. It was claimed in 1977 that the BHA aimed "to make humanism available and meaningful to the millions who have no alternative belief."[7]

BHA supporters, including Andrew Copson and Polly Toynbee, taking part in a 'No Prayer Breakfast' event at the Labour Party Conference in 2012

At this time the BHA also supported a growing number of local communities, continuing today as a network of affiliated local humanist groups. A network of celebrants able to conduct non-religious funerals, weddings, naming ceremonies and same sex affirmations (before the law allowing gay civil partnerships) was also developed and continues today as Humanist Ceremonies.[8]

Social concerns have persisted in the BHA’s programme. The BHA was a co-founder of the Social Morality Council (now transmuted into the Norham Foundation), which brought together believers and unbelievers concerned with moral education and with finding agreed solutions to moral problems in society. The BHA has been active in arguing for voluntary euthanasia and the right to obtain an abortion. It has always sought an "open society".

The BHA claims that the rules on religious programming within the BBC constitute a "religious privilege"[9] and reserve particular criticism for the Thought for the Day slot on Radio 4's Today programme.[10] In April 2009 a "breakthrough" in the BHA's campaign saw Andrew Copson invited to participate as the first humanist representative in the BBC's new Standing Conference on Religion and Belief, replacing the Central Religious Advisory Committee.[11]



The BHA opposes faith schools because "The majority of the evidence [...] points towards their being an unfair and unpopular part of our state education system which the majority of people in Britain want them phased out."[12] In addition, they claim that faith schools are "exclusive, divisive and counter intuitive to social cohesion" and blame religious admissions procedures for "creating school populations that are far from representative of their local populations in religious or socio-economic terms."[13]

While BHA is opposed to faith schools receiving any state funding whatsoever it however supports the Fair Admissions Campaign which has a more limited scope because "it furthers our aims of ending religious discrimination and segregation in state schools; and secondly because we know how important this particular topic is."[14]

The BHA campaigns for reform of Religious Education in the UK including a reformed subject covered by the national curriculum which is inclusive of non-religious viewpoints, such as "Belief and Values Education". They believe that "all pupils in all types of school should have the opportunity to consider philosophical and fundamental questions, and that in a pluralist society we should learn about each other’s beliefs, including humanist ones".[15]

They also support humanist volunteers on the Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education which currently determines the Religious Education syllabus for each local authority. Educational issues have always featured prominently in BHA campaigns activities, including efforts to abolish daily worship in schools and to reform Religious Education so that it is objective, fair and balanced and includes learning about humanism as an alternative life stance.

The BHA opposes the teaching of creationism in schools. In September 2011, the BHA launched their "Teach evolution, not creationism" campaign,[16] which aimed to establish statutory opposition to creationism in the UK education system.[17] The Department for Education amended the funding agreement to allow the withdrawal of funding for free schools that teach creationism as established scientific fact.[18]

Constitutional reform

The BHA campaigns for a secular state, which they define as "a state where public institutions are separate from religious institutions and treat all citizens impartially regardless of their religious or non-religious beliefs."[19] They point to issues such as the joint role of the British monarch (both Supreme Governor of the Church of England and Head of State), the reserved places for bishops in the House of Lords, the status of the Church of England (the officially established church[20]), and other "discriminations based on religion or belief within the system" such as those in education and Public Services.[21]

Ethical issues

Richard Dawkins accepting the Services to Humanism award at the British Humanist Association Annual Conference in 2012

The BHA supports the rights for those who need assistance in ending their own lives, and has lobbied parliament for a change in the law,[22] on behalf of Tony Nicklinson and Paul Lamb, in their 'Right to Die' legal cases.[23] In 2014, it intervened in a Supreme Court case in which the court stated it would rule again on a potential declaration of incompatibility between restrictions on the right to die and the Human Rights Act should Parliament fail to legislate decisively.[24]

Persistent campaigns include retaining the legality of abortion in Great Britain and securing its legalisation in Northern Ireland,[25] defending embryonic stem cell research for medical purposes,[26] challenging the state funding of homeopathy through the National Health Service,[27] and calling for consistent and humane law on the slaughter of animals.[28] It has also campaigned for 'opt-out' organ donor registers to improve the availability of life-saving organs in the UK; Wales became the first part of the UK to adopt such a register in 2015.[29]

The BHA also campaigns on marriage laws, demanding full equality for same-sex and humanist marriage ceremonies throughout the UK. The BHA had been providing same-sex wedding ceremonies for decades, and had strongly supported legalising same-sex marriage years in advance of eventual UK and Scottish legislation.[30][31] In 2013, it secured an amendment to the same sex marriage bill to require UK Government to consult on letting humanist celebrants conduct legal marriages. Though the consultation result strongly indicated that legalisation should go ahead, ministers has held off on using order-making powers to effect the change. It also campaigns for same-sex and humanist marriages in Northern Ireland.[32]

Many of its campaigns are based on free speech and human rights legislation and it has paid special attention to the Human Rights Act 1998.[33] In 2008, the blasphemy law was repealed, an issue over which the BHA had long-campaigned.[34][35][36][37] It has called for unification of existing anti-discrimination legislation and has contributed to the Discrimination Law Review which developed the Equality Act 2010.[38]

Public awareness

Ariane Sherine and BHA Vice President Richard Dawkins at the bus campaign launch

On 21 October 2008, the British Humanist Association lent its official support to Guardian journalist Ariane Sherine as she launched a fundraising drive to raise money for the UK's first atheist advertising campaign, the Atheist Bus Campaign. The campaign aimed to raise funds to place the slogan "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life" on the sides of 30 London buses for four weeks in January 2009. Expecting to raise £5,500 over six months, the atheist author Richard Dawkins agreed to match donations up to £5,500 to make £11,000 total.[39] The campaign raised over £153,000,[40] enabling a nationwide advertising campaign to be launched on 6 January 2009.

On 8 January 2009 Christian Voice announced they had made an official complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority asserting that the Atheist Bus slogan broke rules on "substantiation and truthfulness".[41] In total the ASA received 326 complaints about the campaign, with many claiming that the wording was offensive to the religious,[42] however the BHA disagreed with the complaint and commented on the plausibility of the ASA making a claim as to the "probability of God's existence".[43] Robert Winston criticised the campaign as "arrogant".[44] The ASA ruled that the slogan was not in breach of advertising code.[42]

In 2011, the British Humanist Association campaigned to get atheists, agnostics and other non-believers to tick the "no religion" box in response to the optional religion question in the 2011 census (as opposed to writing in either a joke religion like "Jedi" or ticking the religion one grew up in). The BHA believed the question was worded in such a way as to increase the number of currently non-religious or nominally religious people who list the religion they grew up in rather than their current religious views, and thus the results would have been skewed to make the country seem more religious than it actually is. The BHA believes that this supposed overstatement of religious belief creates a situation where "public policy in matters of religion and belief will unduly favour religious lobbies and discriminate against people who do not live their lives under religion".[45]

Posters for the campaign which used the slogan "If you're not religious, for God's sake say so" were refused by companies owning advertising hoardings in railway stations following advice from the Advertising Standards Authority who believe the adverts had "the potential to cause widespread and serious offence".[46]

The Census results for England and Wales showed that 14.1 million people, about a quarter of the entire population (25%), stated they had no religion at all, a rise of 6.4 million over the decade. The BHA said the fall was "astounding", and calculated that Christians could be in a minority by 2018.[47]

Set up in 2010, the Resolution Revolution campaign aims to "[recast] the tired old New Year resolution – so often about breaking a negative habit – as a pledge to do something positive for others".[48] Participation is open to all and not restricted to humanists or the non-religious.[49]

"New Year is a time for renewal – but beyond diets and gyms, not just for ourselves. Resolution Revolution is a humanist social action initiative, turning good intentions outwards to others. The more people that get involved, even in a small way, the bigger the impact is. Spending cuts don't make a cohesive society, but generous actions do.”

In 2014, the BHA launched two public awareness campaigns. The first, called "That's Humanism!", was an Internet-based campaign revolving around four videos on humanist responses to ethics, happiness, death, and the scientific method, as narrated by its distinguished supporter, Stephen Fry. The videos, which were widely shared on social media, were intended to introduce non-religious people who were humanist in their outlook to the existence of a community of like-minded people living their lives on the basis of reason and empathy.[51] The second campaign, called "Thought for the Commute", was a London Underground campaign featuring posters depicting humanist responses from Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, Bertrand Russell and A.C. Grayling to the question "What's it all for?" The campaign intended to be a positive introduction to Humanism for commuters, as well as to highlight the exclusion of humanist voices from BBC slots such as Thought for the Day. After announcing that it intended to replicate it in other UK cities,[52][53] the campaign moved to bus posters in Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool for four weeks in November and December 2014, this time depicting humanist responses from Jim Al-Khalili, Jawaharlal Nehru, Natalie Haynes and Russell once again.[54]



In April 2011 it was announced that Professor A.C. Grayling would succeed Polly Toynbee as president of the BHA in July 2011.[55] However, in June the BHA announced that Professor Grayling had decided not to take up that position, because of what he described as "controversy generated by activities in another area of my public life." The BHA stated that Polly Toynbee would continue as President until a new appointment was made later in 2011;[56] she remained President for a further 18 months until in December 2012 it was announced that physicist Jim Al-Khalili would become President in January 2013.[57]


Humanist celebrants

Main article: Humanist celebrant

Humanist equivalents of otherwise religious celebrations are conducted by humanist celebrants, trained and accredited by the British Humanist Association across England, Wales and Northern Ireland,[59][60] while the Humanist Society Scotland performs similar ceremonies in Scotland.[61] Non-religious funerals are legal within the UK;[62] over 8,000 funerals are carried out by humanist celebrants in England and Wales each year.[63] Between 600 and 900 weddings and 500 baby namings per year are also conducted by BHA-accredited celebrants.[64] In England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, a Humanist wedding or partnership ceremony must be supplemented by a process of obtaining a civil marriage or partnership certificate through a Register Office to be legally recognised, but can be led by a Humanist celebrant.[65]

Young Humanists

Young Humanists logo.

Young Humanists is the BHA's youth wing, which launched early in 2015 with a number of events in cities across the UK.[66][67][68]


Numerous prominent people from the worlds of science, philosophy, the arts, politics, and entertainment are publicly aligned with the British Humanist Association including Professor Alice Roberts, Tim Minchin, Stephen Fry, Matty Healy, Sandi Toksvig and Philip Pullman.[69]


The BHA is a member organisation of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, International Humanist and Ethical Youth Organisation and of the European Humanist Federation.[70]

In September 2008, it was announced that the BHA, alongside religious organisations, teachers' unions and other human rights campaigns groups, were among the founding members of the Accord coalition.[71]

The National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies is formally part of the BHA; it is the organisation's student section and represents the BHA alongside Young Humanists at International Humanist and Ethical Youth Organisation events.[72]

The BHA keeps a directory of humanist groups throughout the UK which aim to encourage local campaigning, charity work, socialising and exchange ideas on a local level, and provides resources to assist the creation and running of local groups. Some of these groups are formally partnered with the BHA, which entitles them to added staff and promotional support, while others are affiliates. As of 2015, the number of partner groups stands at 47, with 15 affiliates.[73]

The BHA has also sponsored philosophical debates[74] at HowTheLightGetsIn Festival.


Bryan Appleyard has criticised both the British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society for their campaign that the Scouts' Oath of Allegiance is religious discrimination.[75][76] Similar views were expressed by Deborah Orr.[77] Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society argued that the oath should be modified, as it has in the past allowed non-Christians to become Scouts, so that the non-religious can participate in Scouting without having to compromise their human rights.[78]

See also


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  75. Petre, Jonathan (12 April 2008). "Scout's oath 'is religious discrimination'". Daily Telegraph. London.
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  77. Orr, Deborah (2 February 2008). "Labour promised social justice along with economic competence. It failed ...". The Independent. London.
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