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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

History of the National Secular Society

The National Secular Society was established in 1866 under the leadership of Charles Bradlaugh, when a large number of secularist groups from around the UK came together to give strength to their campaigns.

Mid-19th century secularism

British secularism really took off in the mid-19th century and was essentially a working-class movement with roots going back to the impact of the French Revolution in England. Inspiration came from early freethinkers such as Jeremy Bentham, the founder of Utilitarianism and Richard Carlile, who went to jail for nine years for publishing Thomas Paine‘s The Age of Reason, a vigorous critique of the Bible. Later leaders of the freethought movement included Robert Owen, George Holyoake — who first coined the word ‘secularism’ — and Charles Bradlaugh, each of them taking a more radical stance than his predecessor in his rejection of religious orthodoxy.

Early years of NSS

With his close friend and colleague Annie Besant, and hundreds of active supporters on board, Bradlaugh’s new national society emerged to play an important part in British politics. It stood against religious privilege and demanded a secularised society, including an end to all political support for religious purposes and especially the disestablishment of the Church of England. Charles Bradlaugh was a passionate republican who sought to bring about far-reaching changes by strictly constitutional means. It was this side of his work which gave the secular movement a central position in English radical activity during the lean years of working-class history following the collapse of Chartism.

Bradlaugh, Besant and freedom of publication

Charles Bradlaugh’s own early struggles and his political and social work taught him the need for freedom of publication. In 1877, when he and Annie Besant published a pamphlet on family planning, The Fruits of Philosophy, they were prosecuted under obscenity laws and convicted. The two were arrested, tried and sentenced to six months' gaol, but appealed and won on a legal technicality. Although the trial divided secularists, it showed how secularism was providing leadership on social and political issues, and also went some way to help reduce the large size of many Victorian families.

“I crave for every man, whatever be his creed, that his freedom of conscience be held sacred. I ask for every man, whatever be his belief, that he shall not suffer, in civil matters, for his faith or his want of faith. I demand for every man, whatever be his opinions, that he shall be able to speak out with honest frankness the results of honest thought, without forfeiting his rights as citizen, without destroying his social position, and without troubling his domestic peace..."

Annie Besant, ‘Civil and Religious Liberty’ (1882)

A place in Parliament for non-believers

Bradlaugh’s campaigns on secular issues, such as the rights of dissenters in church burial grounds, culminated in his famous struggle for newly-elected members of Parliament to affirm instead of taking an oath on the Bible. For six years after his election in 1880 he mounted a high-profile campaign to resolve the issue, which became a cause celebre of the day. On one occasion he was literally thrown out of the Palace of Westminster, on another he was imprisoned in a cell in the famous Clock Tower under Big Ben, the last person to be held there. In 1886 a new government finally allowed Bradlaugh to be sworn in, and later brought about a change giving all MPs the right to affirm.

Turn of the 20th century

G. W. Foote, editor of The Freethinker, became President when Bradlaugh died in 1891. The rise of modern party politics, together with developments in adult education, meant that the secular movement was no longer such a significant force within society. Foote claimed that the ‘heroic age’ of freethought had passed, but continued as editor and president until 1915.

Foote‘s successor was Chapman Cohen (president from 1915–1949), a prolific pamphleteer and author of books on religion and philosophy for a popular audience. In the first half of the twentieth century the NSS campaigned against the BBC’s excessive use of religion and for disestablishment and the abolition of religious education.

Post-war challenges

By the end of WWII life in Britain had become increasingly secularised, but there was still a pressing need for existing religious privileges to be challenged. Playwright Harold Pinter wrote in the 1966 NSS centenary brochure:

“The fact remains that children are still indoctrinated in schools at public expense, the Blasphemy Laws are still on the Statute Book, and many humane and rational reforms remain opposed…The work of the National Secular Society remains highly important”.

Notable presidents in the second half of the twentieth century were David Tribe and Barbara Smoker, who did much to increase the use of the media to put across secularist views.

Bye bye blasphemy!

In 2008, the blasphemy laws were finally abolished - the culmination of 140 years of campaigning by the NSS and the excuse for its 'Bye Bye Blasphemy' party! The historic change followed a letter written to The Daily Telegraph by MP Dr Evan Harris and the NSS, and was signed by leading figures including Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury.

Our archives

Following a collaborative archival project between Bishopsgate Institute and the Conway Hall Ethical Society, the National Secular Society's historical archives are now available to the public at Conway Hall.

Find out more.

NSS today

Terry Sanderson has been President since 2006, and has put his efforts into a new focus for the National Secular Society in the 21st century:

“I would like us to position ourselves as a purely secularist organisation with a focused objective, that will not only champion human rights above religious demands, but will also accept that religion has a place in society for those who want it, but on terms of equality, not privilege”.

In 1996 Keith Porteous Wood was appointed General Secretary, later Executive Director. He was closely involved in the campaign for the abolition of the blasphemy laws in 2008, has taken the campaign for secularism to the European Union, and is prominent in the media giving a secular perspective. In 2007 he received the Distinguished Service to Humanism Award from the International Humanist and Ethical Union for his work in building up the National Secular Society and campaigning for secularism both nationally and internationally.

In the twenty-first century the NSS thrives as an organisation campaigning in the UK and the EU for the removal of the privileged influence of religion on public life. Secularism has gained a new political and moral significance in recent years, with successive governments pushing for an increased role for religious groups, despite diminishing numbers of religious believers. In our multi-cultural, multi-faith society, secular values are more relevant than ever.

Secularism is the best chance we have to create a society in which people of all religions or none can live together fairly and peacefully.

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