In memoriam: Barbara Smoker was atheist activist, leader

Humanist activist and freethought advocate Barbara Smoker, 96, died April 7.

She was president of the United Kingdom’s National Secular Society from 1972–1996, chair of the British Voluntary Euthanasia Society (now known as Dignity in Dying) from 1981–1985 and an honorary vice president of the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association in the United Kingdom.

Barbara is featured in the anthology, Women Without Superstition, edited by FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

She was born in London on June 23, 1923. She served in the Women’s Royal Naval Service from 1942–1945 in Southeast Asia.

Barbara Smoker

The National Secular Society wrote the following in her obituary: “Barbara, who at one stage had herself considered becoming a nun, claimed she became an atheist at precisely midday on Nov. 5, 1949, when she concluded that the Catholic claim of papal infallibility was impossible. This was no sudden conversion, rather a tipping point for a young woman harboring increasing doubts.”

She was managing director of the Rationalist Press Association and editor of The Humanist.

In 1950, Smoker joined the secular humanist movement when she became a member of the South Place Ethical Society, where she was critical of seeking redress on religious grounds. Eventually she became president of the National Secular Society for nearly 25 years. In that capacity, she represented the atheist viewpoint in print, on lecture platforms, speaking tours, on radio and television.

She was in demand to give addresses at secular funerals and eventually officiated at nonreligious funerals, wedding ceremonies, gay and lesbian commitments and baby namings. She was active in various social campaigns, such as the abolition of the death penalty, nuclear disarmament, legalization of abortion and for the Voluntary Euthanasia Society. She financed the manufacture of the first “Make Love, Not War” badges that were popular in Britain during the 1960s.

In 2019, she published her autobiography My Godforsaken Life: Memoir of a Maverick.