National Secular Society

The National Secular Society (NSS) is a British campaigning organisation that promotes secularism.

The NSS 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.

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, 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, 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.

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