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There was a freethinking society active between 1846 and 1848 and this group called themselves, The Aberdeen Utilitarian Society (named after Utilitarianism developed by the philosophy Jeremy Bentham). The Society issued a manifesto and held a discussion with Free Church minister Rev. George Ogilvie and University of St Andrews Professor of Moral Philosophy William Martin. Members included James Shirrou (Chairman) and Archibald Watson, bookseller, Gallowgate. The discussion was very controversial and the arguments were played out in the secularist periodical The Reasoner and Utilitarian Record (edited by pioneering secularist George Holyoake from 1847 onwards). William Lindsay, bookseller, in his autobiography, recounted that he had attended some of the group’s meetings and viewed the group as the forerunner to the later secularist societies.

Related entries: William Lindsay and Secularist Societies (Aberdeen).

References: Some Notes Personal and Public by William Lindsay (W&W Lindsay, Aberdeen, 1898), The Aberdeen Journal, The Reasoner and Utilitarian Record, Victorian Infidels: the origins of the British Secularist Movement 1791 – 1866 (Edward Royle, Manchester University Press, 1974) and Radicals, Secularists and Republicans: Popular Freethought in Britain 1866 – 1915 (Edward Royle, Manchester University Press, 1980).

Sources: unknown.

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A group was formed in 1837 by followers of the social reformer Robert Owen (1771 – 1858). Owen had been active for 30 years establishing various social reform schemes and associations, such as New Lanark, co-operative communities across Britain and a Grand National Consolidated Trade Union. In 1835 he established an Association of All Classes of All Nations (renamed as the Universal Community Society of Rational Religionists in 1839), boldly adopting ‘Socialism or The Rational System of Society’. These associations between 1837 and 1845 had hundreds of branches across the country, composed of individuals involved in the earlier co-operative, free-thinking, trade unionist and republican movements. It is not clear whether there was an ‘official’ branch in Aberdeen, like there were in Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow. In 1837 an Owenite socialist committee was formed in Aberdeen after a lecture in Concert Court, Broad Street, held by the Owenite Robert Buchanan. A committee was formed with the purpose of keeping the subject of socialism before the attention of the people of Aberdeen. William Lindsay, bookseller, was a member, and in 1841 Lindsay and colleagues invited Robert Owen to Aberdeen and he came in 1842 and lectured in the hall of the Royal Hotel.

Related entries: William Lindsay.

References: Some Notes Personal and Public by William Lindsay (W&W Lindsay, Aberdeen, 1898), The Aberdeen Journal, The Republican, Victorian Infidels: the origins of the British Secularist Movement 1791 – 1866 (Edward Royle, Manchester University Press, 1974) and Radicals, Secularists and Republicans: Popular Freethought in Britain 1866 – 1915 (Edward Royle, Manchester University Press, 1980).

Sources: Association of All Classes of All Nations papers are held at the International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam.

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It is not clear whether there was an active group under this name, as the evidence is only in letters written to Richard Carlile’s publication, The Republican, between 1824 and 1826. It is clear though that there were individuals active in Aberdeen, calling themselves freethinkers and republicans.

Carlile (1793 – 1843), a Devon tinsmith, turned journalist and propagandist, was a follower of Thomas Paine (1737 – 1809), author of The Rights of Man (1791-1792), one of the founding father of the United States of America, and an honorary citizen of the new French revolutionary state. The followers of Paine were shaped by his ideas of the twin evils of ‘kingcraft’ and ‘priestcraft’. Carlile had established his publication, The Republican, in 1819, following the Peterloo massacre, yet he was soon imprisoned for 3 years for sedition and blasphemy for his publication and for republishing the writings of Paine.

What is clear then is that there were followers of Carlile and readers of his publications. In February 1824, in a letter to The Republican, a William Taylor of Aberdeen, writes that ‘the friends of liberty held a meeting here, on Thursday the 29th ultimo. for the purpose of celebrating the anniversary of the birth day of Thomas Paine’….The individuals who composed it were chiefly from amongst the working classes, and of that description of them, who have taken the liberty to think for themselves, and who have also taken considerable pains in forming a correct opinion as to what would ultimately have a tendency to promote their own happiness, and that of society at large’. Taylor goes on to state the birthday toasts which included Paine, Carlile, the independence of America, the Mechanics’ Institutions and Liberty.

A later letter to The Republican in December 1825, from a George Weir, states that ‘The Friends of Free Discussion in Aberdeen, desire to congratulate you on your liberation from the Dorchester Bastile’. In 1826 another letter of support is written from Aberdeen, by a William Inman from Woodside.

References: The Republican, Victorian Infidels: the origins of the British Secularist Movement 1791 – 1866 (Edward Royle, Manchester University Press, 1974) and Radicals, Secularists and Republicans: Popular Freethought in Britain 1866 – 1915 (Edward Royle, Manchester University Press, 1980).

Sources: unknown.

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There were ‘freethinkers’ in Aberdeen from the 1820s, followers of Richard Carlile and Robert Owen, themselves heirs of Thomas Paine. There was renewed attempts to form a society in Aberdeen in 1855, and a John Fraser of Aberdeen, wrote an article for ‘The London Investigator’, stating that there were plenty of freethinkers in the city, and appealing to form a new society. The high point of the Secularist movement was between the 1850s and 1880s under the leadership of George Holyoake and Charles Bradlaugh (founder of the National Secular Society (NSS) in 1866). There were numerous societies throughout Britain in the 19th century/early 20th century, including in Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow.

In Aberdeen a group was active between 1870 and 1878 and it would seem was part of the Scottish Secular Union, which was for a time a Scottish equivalent of the NSS. There was also a society, which was an official branch of the NSS, between 1892 and 1894. A further group is noted as being active between 1899 – 1901. In the society which was active in the 1870s, the officers included, George Middleton (President), Joseph Campbell (Treasurer), James Maitland (Financial Secretary) and Keith Murray (Secretary). The society met every Sunday at Aberdeen Reform House, Guestrow. Also of note is that the radical and freethought journal ‘The National Reformer’ (edited by Charles Bradlaugh), was available in Aberdeen from booksellers, George Middleton at Skene Square. Middleton was a key member of the movement, as a local agent for secularist publications and also because his premises were used as a meeting place. He was also a publisher and issued pamphlets attacking the church and local ministers (see, The Comet: Or Letters To Bon-Accordians, 9 issues produced between 1884 – 1887).

Related entries: Utilitarian Society (Aberdeen).

References: The Comet: Or Letters To Bon-Accordians (George Middleton, Aberdeen, 9 issues, 1884 – 1887), Victorian Infidels: the origins of the British Secularist Movement 1791 – 1866 (Edward Royle, Manchester University Press, 1974), Radicals, Secularists and Republicans: Popular Freethought in Britain 1866 – 1915 (Edward Royle, Manchester University Press, 1980), Aberdeen Booksellers of Bygone Days (William Walker, Aberdeen Book-lover 2, 1918), The London Investigator, The National Secular Society Almanack, The Secular Chronicle and The Workers’ Herald (1892)

Sources: unknown.

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The Aberdeen University Ethical Society was established by the Arts class of 1880 – 1884, yet was not an officially recognised society by the University. The Society was established as a discussion circle for free religious debate and guest speakers were invited to attend. The Society discussed disestablishment, miracles and poverty. One of the supporters of the Society was Professor Alexander Bain, Professor of Logic and Rhetoric and University Rector on two occasions. He was a social reformer, was friends with philosopher John Stuart Mill and had an anti-theistic approach in his studies.

Ethical societies were a feature of the Victorian era and were a non-theistic movement which promoted ethics independent of theology. There are close connections between the ethical societies and the foundations of humanism.

References: Aberdeen University Arts Class 1880 – 1884 Album and The Student Community in Aberdeen 1860 – 1939 (RD Anderson, Aberdeen, 1988).

Sources: see above.

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Aberdeen University Humanist Society was founded in 1958 under their Honorary President, Margaret Knight, lecturer in psychology at the University, and proponent of Scientific Humanism. The aim of the society was to spread cultural views that promote reason as opposed to superstition, and humanity rather than spirituality.

In 2009 the society revived and was called the Secular, Humanist and Atheist Society (soon to become named the Humanist Society again).

References: University Freshers’ magazines.

Sources: unknown.

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Margaret Knight was born in 1903 and moved to Aberdeen in 1936 to take up a teaching post at the University. She was a committed and outspoken proponent of Scientific Humanism founded on atheism and is most famous for presenting two BBC radio talks and a third discussion programme called ‘Morality Without Religion’ in the 1950s. The talks were published in 1955 as ‘Morals Without Religion, and Other Essays’. She argued that scientific humanism would be better for children than Christian teaching and that there is a value of a humanist approach to moral training in which the power of reasoning, rather than scriptural authority, should dominate.

She argued that scientific humanism deals with hypotheses, not dogmas – hypotheses that are constantly tested and revised in the light of new facts, rather than with alleged immutable truths that it is heresy to question. And humanist because it is concerned with human beings and with this life, rather than with supernatural beings and another world, She believed that the primary good lies in human happiness and development – men and women realising to the full their capacities for affection, for happiness, and for intellectual and aesthetic experience.

After her broadcasts she was met with a torrent of abuse. It had already taken her three attempts to get the BBC to broadcast and she and the BBC received thousands of letters, press outrage (such as from the Daily Telegraph) and abuse. The BBC were accused of permitting attacks on Christian faith, Christian values and on the Christian monopoly of religious education for children.

Initially she attacked the Church on philosophical grounds but she was increasingly drawn into a wider appreciation of the harm caused by the Church and religion in general. She began to be drawn into historical Christianity and therefore teaching and its propaganda. She attacked historical Christian support of slavery (past and present), violation of human rights and woman’s rights. She saw how the Church has been indifferent to social progress and retarded human progress for centuries.

She was a leading member of the National Secular Society and the Euthanasia Society. She was also an outspoken supporter of euthanasia, woman’s abortion rights and human rights where she felt they were compromised by Christian belief and action. She died in 1983.

References: see below.

Sources: papers held at University of Aberdeen Library.

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