Sunday 26 September 2010

Humanist Heritage

Hamish MacPherson of

We often hear how Britain has a Christian heritage. That is certainly true and whether we are Christian or not I think it's important to understand and appreciate that history. But we also have a long tradition of non-religious thinking.  Many people in the United Kingdom and Ireland have made great contributions - as humanists, freethinkers, sceptics and secularists - to the arts, science, philosophy and fighting for democracy, equality and freedom.

That is why I wanted to create - a website for people to explore the vital contribution of those people to our collective heritage. Whether it’s mathematician Alan Turing who spent his genius working for Britain during the Second World War despite a lifetime of persecution, or novellist Joseph Conrad (who wrote “Scepticism is the tonic of mind, the tonic of life, the agent of truth. It is the way of art and salvation.)”

With the support of the British Humanist Association (BHA) and a number of knowledgeable volunteers we've tried to
create a clear, accessible resource where anyone can find out more about historical figures – and the places in the United Kingdom and Ireland associated with them – who have influenced humanist and secularist thinking or demonstrated humanist ideals in their lives.

The place aspect is particularly important. Our Christian heritage is apparent from the hundreds of beautiful churches across our countries, but humanism is also part of the physical landscape around us. Whether it's memorials and graves, the buildings where people lived and worked or the prisons where people were held for their beliefs.

For example in Birmingham's own Centenary Square is Industry and Genius a sculptural tribute to the great printer and typographer John Baskerville. And the catacombs at Warstone Lane Cemetery are where he was buried in 1898 - more than 100 years after he died!

Birmingham has produced a number of other great freethinkers. Harold Blackham was born in 1903, near Birmingham and went on to play an important part in the formation of the BHA, becoming their first Executive Director in 1963.

George Jacob Holyoake was an English writer who coined the term 'secularism'. Born in 1817, the son of a Birmingham whitesmith, he started evening classes at the Birmingham Mechanics Institute where he first came under the influence of the ideas of Robert Owen, a founder of socialism and the co-operative movement. Holyoake himself became the figure-head of the secularist movement until the mid 19th century.

These just a few that we're aware of. For the site to be really be successful we need people to help us piece together our heritage by exploring their local stories and sharing them with us in words and pictures. The site is just the starting point though - as well as exploring places by themes or with our map, you can follow our reading suggestions, watch a video, take a heritage walk, book a speaker or attend an event. It's your heritage too and I hope you can help keep it alive.

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