Alternatives to Religion

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End Date: 31st December 2014
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1892 Event Programme
1892 Event Programme

A collaboration between Bishopsgate Institute and Conway Hall.

Over an 18 month period the archival project, Alternatives to Religion, at Conway Hall and the Bishopsgate Institute has now been completed. Many treasures were discovered after being painstakingly catalogued by Nicky Hilton. The archives are now available online from the websites of the Bishopsgate Institute and Conway Hall.

We’ve now made a short video featuring Robin Ince, which shows some of the items contained within the archives.

Robin Ince
Robin Ince

“Unique Partnership wins National Award to open up the Archives of ‘Alternatives to Religion’.” Press release.

Alternatives to Religion is a partnership project to catalogue the archives of three key organisations whose records document a core strand of radical thought and action in the UK over the past two centuries:

Conway Hall Ethical Society (formerly South Place Ethical Society)
National Secular Society
British Humanist Association

The project has been made possible by a grant from the National Cataloguing Grants Programme for Archives.

As the project develops this microsite will spark exploration of some of the ways people have tried to make sense of the world and live together ethically without the need for faith in a God or gods.


The key themes linking this broad movement are Freethought, Ethics, Humanism, Rationalism and Secularism.

Freethought encompasses a long tradition of radical groups and thinkers of earlier centuries who refused to allow their intellectual exploration to be limited by dogma. In the 19th century this strand formed close links to the search for principles of Ethical behaviour free of religious prescription, and to the adoption of Humanity (not God) as the starting point and yardstick for the Good Life.

Humanism from the 1930s onwards, shaped itself around the principles of being doctrine-less and that we only have one life. Consequently, there is no space for religion or superstition in Humanism. Instead, reason, experience and shared human values allow us to create meaning and purpose for ourselves.

Rationalism traces its roots further back to the philosophers of ancient Greece, and then forward via the thinkers of the 18th century Enlightenment to the scientists of the last two centuries. For them Reason and Science were and are the alternative keys to understanding the World.

Secularism asserts secular values and principles in behaviour and politics, in opposition to ecclesiastical authority and power. Secularists past and present are found campaigning to expose superstition and bigotry, and to promote secular and Humanist values in their place.


The history and archives of several key organisations embody the evolution of these themes. Conway Hall (formerly South Place) Ethical Society embodies the Freethought spirit, from the dissenting congregation of the 1780s to the present day lectures and debates on hot issues. The Ethical Churches movement that grew away from the South Place ‘congregation’ in the 1890s and 1900s became eventually the British Humanist Association. The Rationalists’ focus on education and the dissemination of ideas spawned the Rationalist Press Association, now the Rationalist Association. And combative Secularists found a home from 1866 in the National Secular Society.


Questioning, fresh thinking, publishing and campaigning, driven by key leaders – heroes, warriors, saints and martyrs have propelled the various strands over the past two centuries. The unique ethos of South Place was shaped over the 19th century by William Johnson Fox and Moncure Conway. Stanton Coit forsook South Place to promote what became Humanism. George Jacob Holyoake was the inspiration for many who followed him in the campaign for Secularism, particularly Charles Bradlaugh who, with Annie Besant, founded the National Secular Society in 1866. Linked to Bradlaugh and the National Secular Society were the publishers Charles Watts and his son Charles Albert Watts, a key figure in the Rationalist (Press) Association, and George William Foote who founded and edited the influential journal ‘The Freethinker‘.

Contemporary Relevance

The questions these pioneers asked and the ideas they promoted have not lost their contemporary relevance. The need to define, model and campaign for ethical behaviour – in business, in politics, in personal and international relations – seems never to have been more urgent. In personal relations the role of the citizen, respect and tolerance, the boundaries and rights of the individual, are central concerns. Alternatives to Religion are as vital as ever.

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