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The National Secular Society is a British campaigning organisation that promotes secularism, the separation of church and state. It holds that no-one should gain advantage or disadvantage because of their religion or lack of religion. It was founded by Charles Bradlaugh in 1866. The society is a member organisation of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, and endorses the Amsterdam Declaration 2002.


Under the banner "Challenging Religious Privilege", the Society campaigns for: the disestablishment of the Church of England; the withdrawal of state subsidies to religious schools; the end of tax exemption for churches and an end to the public funding of chaplains in prisons, hospitals and the armed services, as well as keeping religious influence out of health care, legislation, Human Rights and equality issues. It was recently highly involved in the abolition of the blasphemy laws. Another issue it campaigns about is the conscientious objections by doctors and pharmacists to administer certain procedures or treatments and their refusal to treat certain patients.

Although the organisation was explicitly created for those who reject the supernatural, the NSS does not campaign to eradicate or prohibit religion, arguing that freedom of religion, as well as freedom from religion, is a human right and that state sponsorship of selected religions encroaches upon that right. It holds that belief should be a private matter for the home or place of worship and does not belong in the public sphere. In seeking to represent the interests and viewpoints of atheists, the NSS is often critical of what it sees as the damaging effects of religion.

The NSS also campaigns actively in Europe against what it regards as the privileged influence of religion in political, law-making and Human Rights issues.


The NSS is incorporated as a UK Company Limited by Guarantee, no. 01418145.[1] The Society's income in the year 2006-7 was £232,149, as quoted in the Accounts submitted to the authorities at Companies House (not available on public website). It receives no funding from the government or outside bodies; its campaigning is wholly supported by membership subscriptions and donations.

Education and faith schools

Education is one of the NSS’s prime concerns and it continues to campaign against public funding of faith schools. It holds that morality, ethics and citizenship should be taught outside a religious framework. They also oppose the teaching of creationism, or Intelligent Design as an alternative to science. It also opposes the appointment of teachers and support staff according to religious criteria, as part of a more general campaign against exemptions from anti-discrimination legislation for religious bodies. The Society has successfully campaigned for the legal right of older pupils to opt themselves out of religious assemblies at school.

The Society also argues that children of families of no-faith and “the wrong faith” are being increasingly discriminated against in admission procedures because of the high number of religious schools.[2] Together with City Technology Colleges (which also have admissions privileges), the Society would like to see these schools become community schools, although it accepts the need for a transition period to achieve this goal. The NSS has drawn attention to recent statistical research supporting its claims of discrimination in faith schools based on selection of pupils from wealthier families.[3] Specifically, religious schools take in 10% fewer poor pupils than are representative of the local area. However, both representatives from the Church of England and a separate Parent Association denied the existence or evidence of selection to their own schools being based on social background and a spokesman for the Centre of Economics has indicated that the the bias in social background may stem from those more likely to apply to a religious school, not the selection process.[4] The National Secular society has also argued that faith schools exacerbate religious, ethnic and cultural divisions by separating children from those of other faiths and cultural backgrounds.

Other campaigns

NSS Poster

NSS campaign poster

The NSS has been at the forefront of the successful campaigns to abolish the Blasphemy law in the United Kingdom.

Other campaigns involve freedom of expression, women’s rights, gay rights, religious broadcasting (the NSS has long argued, for example, that Thought for the Day is religious propaganda broadcast by the BBC at licence-payers’ expense), the removal of the 26 bishops from the House of Lords, exemption of religious organisations from discrimination laws, and attempting to persuade the Scouts to amend their oath so as to remove the wording "do my duty to God".

The NSS is frequently invited to submit consultation documents to Government and major UK organisations. For example, it has written about faith-based welfare, doctors’ conscientious objections, the prosecution of racist and religious crimes, the census, organ donation and equality issues.

It co-sponsored the launch of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain and a conference for International Women’s Day – Women’s Rights, the Veil and Islamic and Religious Laws.

As well as its activities in the UK, the NSS has been active in Europe and at the UN, often as a representative for the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU). Most notable have been interventions at the Council of Europe and the European Parliament.

At a Council of Europe conference in San Marino its interventions caused the closing communiqué to be changed to require consultation on inter-cultural matters to give much more emphasis to civil society, as opposed to religious bodies. In Strasbourg the NSS argued against what it saw as undue religious influence on the Council of Europe. Close links have been maintained with the politicians and secretariat.

The NSS started assisting Roy Brown on the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva and continues on a broader front raising awareness of its problems with a growing list of international bodies. Executive Director Keith Porteous Wood is now working closely with Mrs Asma Jahangir, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief.

In the European Parliament (EP), the NSS is involved with the Separation of Religion & Politics Working Group, and attended the launch of the Brussels Declaration. Wood also spoke at a meeting in the EP sponsored by Catholics for Choice on Religion & Politics in the New Europe and made a representation in a debate to the EP President about an invitation to the Pope to address the EP. The Society continues to be consulted by politicians seeking information or proposals. Wood spoke about problems with the United Nations Human Rights Commission at a UDHR 60th Anniversary Conference in Brussels and at the Libre Penseé Conference at the Senate in Paris.


Charles Bradlaugh

Charles Bradlaugh was the founder of the National Secular Society.

The National Secular Society was founded in 1866 with Charles Bradlaugh as President and Charles Watts as secretary. There were a number of secularist groups around the UK and they joined up to coordinate and strengthen their campaigns. The word secularism was coined by George Holyoake in 1851. The NSS’s principles asserted that ‘this is the only life we have, and that we should work for its improvement’.

In 1877 Bradlaugh and Annie Besant were prosecuted for publishing a book containing birth control information, The Fruits of Philosophy by the American doctor, Charles Knowlton. They were convicted, but acquitted on appeal. The issue of contraception divided secularists and a breakaway group, the British Secular Union, was formed. It closed after a few years.

Bradlaugh’s struggle to enter Parliament became an important moment in the development of nineteenth century secularism. He was elected for Northampton in 1880. He believed he had the right to affirm rather than swear on the Bible, but when refused, said he would take the oath. He was told that since he did not believe in the Bible he could not swear on it. For six years he struggled to overcome this problem, by legal and electoral methods. In 1886 a new government allowed him to be sworn in. He later brought about a change giving all MPs the right to affirm. He was a very active MP on behalf of the poor, the Irish and Indian independence.

Bradlaugh, who died in 1891, was succeeded as President by G. W. Foote, editor of The Freethinker. Foote noted that the death of Bradlaugh brought the "heroic period" of freethought to an end [5], and he never succeeded in galvanising NSS members as Bradlaugh had done. 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 religious broadcasting policy, for disestablishment and for secular education.

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. And in the twenty-first century the NSS continues as an organisation campaigning in the UK and the EU against what it regards as religious privilege in public life (see section on Campaigns).


The Society's position has been criticised by various figures, most notably Baroness Warsi who claimed that the society's key agenda was "driven by the political-elite, who have hijacked the pursuit of ‘equality' Adding that 'faith brings them closer to their neighbour, it’s the driver for their voluntary work, their social action. And for many, faith is the basis for some of the best schools in our Country." [6]


Honorary Associates

The NSS describes Honorary Associates as "our supporters who work and speak on our behalf in politics, human rights, science, philosophy, the arts, writing, journalism and broadcasting."[7]

Honorary Associates of the society include:

Secularist of the Year award

Each year, the NSS holds the Secularist of the Year award ceremony at which the Irwin Prize of £5,000 is presented.

Previous winners of the Irwin Prize have been:

Nominations for the Secularist of the Year are made by members of the National Secular Society; the winner is chosen by the Officers of the National Secular Society along with Dr Michael Irwin, who has donated the funds which underpin the award.


  • Cohen, Chapman (1940). Almost an Autobiography: confessions of a freethinker. London: Pioneer Press.
  • Royle, Edward (1974). Victorian Infidels: the origins of the British Secularist Movement, 1791-1866. Manchester: Manchester University Press. ISBN 0-7190-0557-4 Online version
  • Royle, Edward (1980). Radicals, Secularists and Republicans: popular freethought in Britain, 1866-1915. Manchester: Manchester University Press. ISBN 0-7190-0783-6
  • Smoker, Barbara (2002). Freethoughts: atheism, secularism, humanism - Selected Egotistically from "The Freethinker. (Selections of contributions to The Freethinker). London: G.W. Foote & Co. ISBN 0-9508243-5-6.
  • Tribe, David (1967). 100 Years of Freethought. London: Elek Books.
  • Tribe, David (1971). President Charles Bradlaugh, MP. London: Elek Books. ISBN 0-236-17726-5

See also


  1. "Companies House". Companies House. Retrieved 2009-01-04. 
  2. "Faith Schools". NSS. Retrieved 2008-10-04. 
  3. "Religious schools show bias for rich". The Observer.,,2261448,00.html. Retrieved 2008-07-21. 
  4. "Melanie Mcdonagh: Faith schools work. Until you take the faith away". The Independent. Retrieved 2008-10-04. 
  5. Cited in Royle, Radicals, Secularists and Republicans, p.38.
  7. "Honorary Associates". NSS. Retrieved 2009-01-04. 

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