The National Secular Society and the British Humanist Association (now Humanists UK), and associated organisations and individuals, have had a mixed relationship over the last century and a quarter. Some people have been members or supporters of both; others have taken sides. The Freethinker and the New Humanist are both independent publications, but historically, the former tended to be more closely associated with the NSS, the latter with the BHA. This was so even though the Freethinker usually described itself as a ‘secular humanist’ publication – or, under David Collis’ nine-month editorship, a paper of ‘freethought and humanism’.
The image of the week is of the first editorial by Collis when he was the incoming editor of the Freethinker, published on 20th January 1967. Collis first congratulates the NSS, somewhat reservedly, on its first hundred years (it was founded in 1866). He then makes the point that many members of the British Humanist Association, which had been formed from the Ethical Union (formerly the Union of Ethical Societies) and the Rationalist Press Association in 1963, were also members of the NSS and the RPA. Collis also clearly considered himself a humanist. However, as he acidly points out, the RPA had subsequently withdrawn ‘from this companionate marriage’ with the BHA.
One of the gripes which certain secularists and freethinkers had long had with the ethical organisations and their humanist successors was to do with that ancient British bugbear, class. Although the BHA had shown much promise, it had quickly become, in Collis’ view, ‘heavily loaded with well-educated middle-class people … narcissistically Intellectual Humanists … disinclined to fraternise with working-class people.’
Whether this says more about the BHA or Collis is another matter. However, it would probably be fair to say that, in the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century, despite their overlap, the NSS and the Freethinker tended to address a working-class audience, while the ethical and humanist organisations and those associated with them tended to be more ‘establishment’, or at least respectable.
To the outsider, this historic rivalry might seem reminiscent of the conflict between the People’s Front of Judaea and the Judaean People’s Front. We make no comment about the relationship between the organisations or their political inclinations today – except to note that while there may be strength in numbers, there is also virtue in differences of opinion.
In closing, Collis emphasised the editorial independence of the Freethinker, even from the National Secular Society. As he put it, ‘I shall gladly consider articles on Freethought and Humanism from anyone, Roman Catholic Cardinals and Fundamentalist Hot-Gospellers included.’
We second this approach. Cardinals and Hot-Gospellers, humanists and secularists, progressives, conservatives and even liberal centrists, are all free to apply. We ask merely that they all abide by the same standard of clear argumentation on the basis of reason, logic and evidence.