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Are humanist groups an endangered species – and does it matter?

By David Warden

David is chairman of Dorset Humanists, a partner group of Humanists UK. In this article he makes a plea for humanists to consider the social and community obligations which are implicit in identifying as a humanist.

I’m a member of a national network of humanist groups in the UK and a recent discussion has highlighted a conceptual gap between those who wish to build local humanist communities and those who see “community engagement” as something which can be done by humanists in their local community. For example, a humanist celebrant can offer their services to the local community without necessarily belonging to a humanist group or community. Of course, a humanist celebrant does not have to belong to a humanist group but, to me, this is like a local priest offering religious ceremonies in his or her own local community without belonging to a church community. It would be a very strange state of affairs, as if aspects of church life could be outsourced to unattached service providers.

Taking the long view, modern humanism started out in the 19th century as an ethical alternative to religion and there is still a faint whisper of this original concept in Humanist International’s 2022 Amsterdam Declaration which states that “Humanism meets the widespread demand for a source of meaning and purpose to stand as an alternative to dogmatic religion”. Religion normally finds corporate expression in churches, temples, mosques, synagogues and gurdwaras in addition to private communion with God. Likewise, there’s been a long tradition of humanist groups and ethical churches and so on. But current estimates are that only about 37 groups are active in England and Wales, which is slightly fewer than the number of ethical societies which existed 120 years ago. We can blame exogenous shocks such as the pandemic but, whatever the causes, community humanism in this local sense has failed to grow. It hasn’t died out altogether, but I fear that it may do in the years ahead if we do not make strenuous efforts to save this endangered expression of humanism. Meanwhile, we can expect to see many new mosques, churches, temples and gurdwaras being built in every town and city, even as traditional Christianity declines. Religious people often take their religion seriously. Why is it that humanists think that a laissez-faire approach to humanism is good enough?

We do, of course, need to accept that “Not everyone wants to join a humanist group”, as was stated in our recent group discussion. But to me this sounds like passive acceptance of our increasingly atomised and individualistic society with its epidemic of loneliness and lack of community cohesion. Humanism celebrates the liberty of the autonomous individual but it seems increasingly clear to me that this has been taken to an extreme in Western culture. We may crave freedom from social ties, from family obligations and duties, from marriage vows, from community engagement and commitment, from traditions and rituals, but if we break all such bonds we can end up as isolated and rootless individuals, living alone, addicted to electronic media, with atrophied social skills, and lacking the essential support which we need as social primates. It’s a bleak prospect.

“Not joining a humanist group amounts to believing without belonging.”

I was born in 1959 and I grew up in a church which provided a weekly rhythm of services, a beautiful Victorian gothic building (still in pristine condition), membership of the choir, and a youth fellowship. Studying for a degree in theology destroyed my belief in God but, identifying as a humanist some twenty years later, I knew I had to join a local humanist community. The humanist group I found in Bournemouth was on the verge of shutting down but with renewed enthusiasm we managed to keep it going and today it continues to thrive with around 190 members and a regular programme of events. We grow together as humanists, we develop our understanding of applied humanism, we form friendships which last for decades, we provide a refuge for those who have left high control religions, we give social support to each other, we remember and honour deceased members who contributed so much, occasionally our members get married to each other, and we are a positive presence in our local community. So when I hear people say “Not everyone wants to join a humanist group” there’s a part of me which wants to say that identifying as a humanist should entail at least some minimal obligation to “the humanist community”. You are, of course, at liberty to identify as a humanist and then just do as you please. But a completely individualistic approach deprives other humanists, and the human community more generally, of what you may have to contribute. You may not want to join a humanist group but you could consider doing so out of a sense of obligation and solidarity. If you actually value humanism why would you not want to help build it up in your local area so that it may more easily be discovered by others? I know that some of our members and volunteers do not always want to turn up to our events, especially on a sunny day when they could go to the beach instead, but they do so out of a sense of obligation and self-sacrifice. I do recognise, of course, that many humanists are involved in their local communities in other ways, and not necessarily as “humanists”.

So – if you do have the capacity – why not consider joining, or helping to set up, a humanist group, contributing your skills, knowledge, time, and presence in order to help build a living humanist community in your local village, town or city. I’m not saying you can’t be a humanist unless you join a humanist group, just as Christians do not have to join a church in order to be a Christian. But in both cases, if your belief system is a private, individual affair it seems to me to be lacking the “thick”, engaged, visible social dimension of what it means to have a religion or a worldview. It amounts to believing without belonging. You’re not only depriving other humanists of your presence, and your local community of a visible and flourishing humanist community, but you may be missing out on all the social, emotional and intellectual benefits which can accrue from belonging and collaborating with others.

“Fundamentalist religions will take advantage of our complacency.”

Of course I realise that this is swimming against the cultural tide. But that is what humanists should be doing. We of all people should appreciate that Homo sapiens is a social primate and that we have social, corporate needs as well as the desire for individual freedom and autonomy. We may not feel like joining a humanist group, but we can be sure that members of fundamentalist religions will take advantage of our complacency. They will continue to lure vulnerable people into their belief systems with offers of cake and salvation. If we really value humanism then we should inject a sense of urgency, commitment and competitiveness into it. Humanism can help to transform our world for the better – but only if we come together to form strong and effective humanist communities.

I’m going to conclude by quoting the controversial and opinionated US commentator Ben Shapiro who is a conservative Jew. What he said in a recent interview resonates with what I have been arguing in this article. In contrast to a society of “free radicals” he said this:

“The biggest thing that we’re not talking about is the failure to form actual communities centred around values… the biggest factor in the breakdown of everything… the way you fix that in real time is by doing a thing that I think people are loathe to do now which is commit to a community, commit to an institution, commit to a church, sometimes before you even believe in it… Institutions shape you – it's not just the other way around. Doing the act of virtue makes you virtuous. Engaging in a community makes you a community-minded person. Going to church… it might not end with you believing the same things the rest of your churchgoing friends believe but it gives you a set of values that give you a sense of community. [It] means actually investigating the roots of your civilisation, a set of traditional values – in some ways good and in some ways bad – but without that I think that society is on a quick road to dissolution.”

Shapiro added “as religion declines... I’m not sure that there's a secular replacement for that”. Humanism has always claimed to be a secular alternative to religion but, so far, history seems to be on Shapiro’s side. Humanists have so far failed to create a thriving alternative to community-based religion, maybe because humanists prefer to be “free radicals”, belonging nowhere. But there’s no reason why we should give up on the founding vision of humanism. This is what I believe humanism should be doing – forming actual communities centred around humanist values. It’s hard work, and it requires giving up a bit of our cherished individualism, but it’s incredibly rewarding and it can help to restore our fractured and lonely societies to good health.


Ben Shapiro interview was with Triggernometry – the relevant clip is at 58:50

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