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Dear David... emails to the Editor

Humanism: Silent or Strident?

From Barry Newman - a humanist schools visitor and a co-opted member of Dorset Humanists Committee

I think the January edition of Humanistically Speaking was excellent. The two articles on immigration were very complementary - one ethical and empathetic [by Susan Bryson and Cathy Silman] and the other [by David Warden] more pragmatic and factual. Humanistically Speaking gets better every month!

I'm mainly writing to you, however, about the public profile and promotion of humanism which seems to be a recurring issue of dissent among humanists. Opinions vary between those in favour of a more vigorous approach to advancing awareness of humanism and those who are concerned that active promotion will undermine humanism by making it appear as simply another proselytising and self-promoting sect, seeking attention and acolytes in a crowded marketplace of faiths. This view of humanism seeks a quietly alternative rather than an overtly competitive position, so that humanism should not appear to indulge in any of the proselytising techniques of currently dominant western religions. This concern that promotion aligns humanism with religions in the public consciousness appears to be a dominant factor in driving the reluctance to actively promote humanism. Whether this concern is justified is unclear and may be based on an assumption that the public are unable to differentiate between a theistic faith and atheistic beliefs. This concern to differentiate humanism from religion extends to the debate about capitalisation of the title - 'humanism' vs 'Humanism'. Does the act of capitalising humanism set it up as a competitor to religions which capitalise their titles? Such are the crippling sensitivities about how to present and promote.

The view that humanism is one 'worldview' among many, thereby placing it in the same category as religions, may make humanism less threatening to theists and more socially acceptable, but in blurring the distinction between religion and humanism by focusing entirely on similarities, explicit differences may be obscured. This conflation under the banner of 'worldviews' may aid acceptance of humanism by muting its challenge to religion, but simultaneously undermines the view of humanism as a clearly distinct alternative to religion.

A further inhibition to the active promotion of humanism is the very nature of humanism as summarised in the Humanists UK slogan: 'Think for yourself. Act for everyone.' This may be interpreted as a call to reject the unquestioning dogmas of religion. However, the active promotion of humanism may be seen by some as a misguided and counterproductive attempt to impose a dogma or instruction, even if the dogma of humanism is that of no dogma!

A further line of reasoning that blurs the distinction between religion and humanism and may limit the promotion of humanism may be found in debates about the meaning of the word 'religion'. Words are audible symbols of meanings, and acquire their meaning only through usage. As usage changes so meanings transform - as can be witnessed by the annual additions, modifications and deletions in the Oxford English Dictionary. Currently, the word 'religion' is invariably associated with an acceptance of supernatural beliefs. If there is anything that unites humanists, it is a rejection of this belief. However, ambivalence about accepting the current meaning of the word 'religion' can be found in a talk by John Coss to Dorset Humanists entitled 'Is Humanism a Religion?' (August 2017, reported in Dorset Humanists Bulletin October 2017). If we cannot agree that humanism is not a religion, how can we promote it as an alternative?

"...there exists a deep well of frustration that humanism languishes in the shadows of social acceptance, despite the ubiquitous view among humanists that promotion of its principles could have very positive impacts on society if only they were better understood and adopted."

The dominant view seems to be that humanism ought to be unobtrusive, and should rely on being discovered. This approach is perhaps compatible with the idea that most people are latent humanists who should arrive at that realisation spontaneously, or at least with minimal provocation. A process akin to revelation or a relatively passive approach to the spread of humanism seems to be the current strategy of Humanists UK, which accords with an apparent view that humanism should strive for evolutionary progress where revolution and promotion play a limited part. A personal experience of this reluctance to promote humanism is the relative failure of a trivial initiative to raise awareness of humanism - viz. the production of a benign car window sticker bearing the word HUMANIST and the happy human logo.

Notwithstanding the above arguments for taking a passive approach to the promotion of humanism and its basic principles, there also exists a deep well of frustration that humanism languishes in the shadows of social acceptance, despite the ubiquitous view among humanists that promotion of its principles could have very positive impacts on society if only they were better understood and adopted. Are most humanists content to be members of an obscure and somewhat elite club? I say 'obscure' because the commonest response to my self-declaring as a humanist is the question “What’s that?”. And by 'elite' I mean a club for mostly intellectual types. If we are content with this status quo, then no change of attitude is required. Are we content?

Feedback on the new format of Humanistically Speaking

From Jeremy Rodell, South West London Humanists

Happy New Year! Really enjoying the new issue and the new format.

From Richard, Cambridge

Congratulations on your move to web pages rather than PDFs.


Thank you for the latest edition of Humanistically Speaking. It is a much needed addition to what is available to support local Humanist groups. New Humanist has become more general in focus and the Humanists UK newsletter is focused on institutional matters. Humanistically Speaking hits the middle ground with shorter articles which are ideal for provoking thought and discussion.

You asked for feedback on the new format. Well I have to say that I found it very convenient in the old format. The pdf could be read linearly and it was handy to pass on to the schools and other I know in Uganda. But if the new format eases the production then I am sure we will get used to it.

Keep up the good work.

From Graham Connell, Stockport Humanists

I have been reading Humanistically Speaking for several months now. I actually liked the earlier format. I like that it mirrored the format of a paper magazine which allowed you to effectively flip a page and read part way through the next article before deciding whether to carry on reading it or skip to the next. The new format doesn't allow me to do that so easily. I have to dip in and dip out of each article. It's like walking down a street with lots of shop windows but at each shop most of the window is obscured, so you have to go into the shop and look around before deciding if there's something in there worth buying. Rather than making a decision based on what you can see in the shop window itself. The articles themselves, though, are as good as ever.

So that's my thoughts. Doubtless others will think differently and, anyway, I will continue to read this informative and interesting magazine regardless.

From John Dowdle, Watford Humanists

I was uncertain initially as to how to access the new online version of Humanistically Speaking. Eventually, the proverbial penny dropped and I realised we were now having to look at each article individually, involving using the backwards and forwards buttons to work my way through the articles.

My overall impression of the new format is that I think there is more content than before and the reading of individual articles at a time, plus having to move forwards and backwards through the articles, has increased the overall amount of time needed to access the content. Consequently, I would like to suggest to you and the editorial team that this new format should be sent out on a weekly – not monthly – basis. That way, you could programme sending out three or four articles at a time, which would take a reduced amount of time overall to read each month. This should ensure that all the articles are read in full, as there can be a danger that readers may ‘give up’ reading if it takes too much time.

I have for some time been posting hyperlinks to the magazine on to the Facebook sites for Watford Humanists, Humanists UK, Humanists UK Friends and Humanists International, among others.

Editors’ note: The new format enables us to post individual articles to a variety of social media platforms throughout the month.

From Brian Quinn, North Yorkshire

Well, since you did ask for feedback on the new format - I’ve really enjoyed reading all your previous editions but I think the new format is just horrible. The beauty of the pdf version was that it could be downloaded and input to an e-reader like Apple Books and then read at leisure off-line. The new format requires an internet connection wherever I happen to be and then navigating backwards and forwards in a web browser to find the individual articles. It’s a really clumsy chore and I’m not going to slog through it. I do hope that you might reconsider!

Editors’ note: We're looking into whether and how the new format can be downloaded to an e-reader.

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