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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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