A very brief history of the Rationalist Association

Born in 1885 in Fleet Street, London, the RA has been promoting reason, science and humanism and standing up to irrationalism and religious intolerance ever since. We publish the very best arguments, ideas, debates and commentary, in print and online and in person.

Einstein, Bertrand Russell, HG Wells, Claire Rayner, Iain Banks and Philip Pullman joined because they support our values and our work. You should too.

Black and white photo of guests seated at the RA dinner

Rationalist Press Association Dinner, Trocadero, London. 16th of May 1936

A slightly less brief history of the RA

The Rationalist Association was founded, as the Rationalist Press Association , by the radical publisher Charles Watts at his print works in Johnson’s Court, just off Fleet street, London, in 1885. As a publisher of books and pamphlets dedicated to free thinking, science and a critique of organised religion Charles was following in the footsteps of his father, also called Charles, who was a prominent figure in the Victorian freethought movement and founding secretary of the National Secular Society. In 1874 Charles Snr had taken charge of a well-established secularist publishing business and when he began spending much of his time in North America, control of this was handed to his son.

In addition to publishing books Charles Watts put out Watt's Literary Guide, the forerunner of New Humanist, which he set out to print "literary gossip" that might be of interest to freethinkers, together with "a complete record of the best liberal publications in this country". Within its pages the Christian establishment was criticised on every imaginable front, from science and metaphysics to history and poetry.

Watts organised an organisation to support his work, initially called the Propagandist Press Committee (later incorporated as the Rationalist Press Association), which provided him with a large group of subscribers and enabled him to expand the Guide until it averaged 20 large pages an issue, with thousands of grateful readers not only in Britain but around the world.

Towards the end of the 19th century, Watts & Co started to expand from producing the Guide and a range of propagandistic pamphlets, to publishing books, including a celebrated series of Cheap Reprints which made the works of sceptical Victorians like Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley and John Stuart Mill available to working people at only sixpence a volume. In 1929 Watts began publishing another famed series of books, the Thinker's Library, which printed 140 volumes over 22 years, including works by HG Wells, Bertrand Russell, Mark Twain and JBS Haldane.

In 1924 Watts acknowledged in the Guide some of the eminent supporters who had been associated with the RPA over the years – these included the philosopher Herbert Spencer, Ramsay Macdonald, and the bombastically freethinking Marquis of Queensberry.

Charles Watts died in 1946, but this did not spell the end for the RPA. The book publishing arm became less prolific in the post-war years, but publication of Watt's Literary Guide continued, as did publication of the RPA Annual. This had started as the Agnostic Annual in 1884, becoming the Rationalist Annual in 1927 and Question in 1968, before ceasing publication in 1980. Great names published in the Annual included Bertrand Russell, Karl Popper and HG Wells.

Watt's Literary Guide dropped the name of its founder in 1956, becoming simply the Literary Guide. This name was changed to The Humanist in 1966 and in 1972 the magazine adopted its current title of New Humanist.

One lesser known part of the RPA was the Rationalist Benevolent Fund, a charitable arm established after the First World War for the "relief of distressed rationalists". In an age when welfare services and relief were often provided by the church, it seems that the trustees of the RPA sought to provide a similar service for its members, who would not have wished to turn to religious organisations in order to make ends meet. In 1992 the RBF was wound up and its funds and function transferred to a new charity, the Rationalist Trust, which was committed to the wider charitable objective of advancing rationalism, humanism and education.

In 2002 the Rationalist Trust was succeeded by the Rationalist Association and the RPA's membership was transferred to this new body, the RPA itself becoming dormant. The RA is a charity whose aims are to promote reason and evidence-based understanding of life. A great deal of this work is done through the publication of New Humanist, a website and blog, and also public lectures and events and raising funds, for example for secular humanist schools in Uganda.

Part of this piece is extracted from Jonathan Rée's article on the history of the Rationalist Association, written to celebrate our 120th birthday in 2005. Further details taken from Bill Cooke's The Blasphemy Depot: A Hundred Years of the Rationalist Press Association.

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