By Dr Mike Flood
Mike is Chair of Milton Keynes Humanists and Chair of the Future of Humanism Group. In this article he asks whether humanists could do with some new straplines — and perhaps be more proactive in our dealings with the public.
I’ve often said to people when the topic of humanism comes up in conversation, "Don’t worry I’m not into proselytising". But I’m beginning to wonder whether I, or rather we, should be more assertive about our humanist beliefs.
What started me thinking about this was a delegate at the World Humanist Congress in Copenhagen who commented on the fact that I was wearing a "Happy Human" badge. The young woman, who was from Lithuania, explained that she had been brought up as a strict Christian and that having escaped from the clutches of that orthodoxy, she was only too glad not to be wearing a symbol of her beliefs!
Reflecting on this, I took a closer look at the mountain of photos from the Congress to see how many of the delegates were sporting a humanist badge, and I was surprised to find it was relatively few. This started me wondering whether the humanist movement could afford to be missing out on such a large potential advertising platform: its members. When it comes to publicity, "every little helps"!
I’m not proposing that people copy Humanist UK's former CEO, Hanne Stinson (photo right), who pledged to have the "Happy Human" icon tattooed on her arm if her fundraising appeal raised £20,000. This was in 2009 and Hanne generously offered to increase the size of the tattoo in proportion to funds raised over and above the target figure. And she did!
Should humanists proselytise?
I respect the fact that many humanists consider their beliefs to be a private matter and prefer to engage in activities that help promote dialogue or critical reflection. Some will choose not to proselytise simply out of respect for others' views and beliefs. And clearly for some, wearing icons or slogans that broadcast the fact that they are non-believers may actually be dangerous, although, thankfully, this is not a serious issue here in the West. Wearing a badge can help spark a conversation (as happened to me in Copenhagen), and it can help raise awareness about humanism and possibly dispel misconceptions. I suspect there could be more of a demand for new badges amongst our younger colleagues than from old fogies like me, and especially if we/they can come up with some slogans that they find "cool", amusing or "wicked". I think seeing others sporting humanist badges is heartening; it can make you feel proud to be part of a global community working to make the world a better place. I felt this in Copenhagen.
Badges (and tattoos) are a way of making a public statement, and some have been very effective — think of "Me Too", "Black Lives Matter", and (heaven forbid) "Make America Great Again", or in earlier years: "Make Love Not War" and "Nuclear Power? No Thanks!" These are powerful statements that help movements gel, get ideas noticed, and set people thinking. Having something equivalent for humanism and humanists is important, especially if campaigning is stepped up a notch and takes on what Jaap van Praag called the "Great Fight" (see note 1) in the face of growing threats to democratic government, escalating habitat destruction and biodiversity loss, and rapid climate breakdown. This is something a number of us have been pressing for.
What do current straplines say about humanism?
I’ve been wondering how our current slogans might look if they were packaged in a different way, and I’ve explored this below. I’ve also suggested some new straplines that people might like to consider. But first, how well do our current slogans do the business? I’m not convinced that they present a very coherent picture of what humanism is all about or what our movement has to offer.
"Good without a God" is a great slogan, which has been used for some years by the American Humanist Association. But for me it sounds more atheist than humanist, just like a previous slogan which read: "No god? No problem!" — the AHA ran this on hundreds of billboards and buses in more than a dozen cities. I don’t know how effective it was. Another AHA catch phrase is better (from a humanist perspective) — "Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness' sake" — but perhaps we could just have: "Humanism: be good, for goodness’ sake!" I note in passing that the AHA has the original "Happy Human" design in its logo. This was the winning entry in a competition organised by Humanists UK back in 1965 and it has stood the test of time.
And what about "For the one life we have", the slogan used by the British Humanist Association (together with a "bendy" version of the Happy Human)? Many people of faith will find this a very disturbing thought, and especially if they had the idea of a God and immortality drilled into them from an early age. Without the prospect of an "afterlife" or "heaven", they may feel that their existence here on Earth is futile and meaningless. Humanists have a rather different take on this, as was so well summed up by Tom Stoppard. When asked about eternity he replied “What a terrible thought. I mean, where's it going to end?" For humanists, the very fact that life is time-bound gives it greater meaning, because if you only have a short period to experience life, you’re more likely to go out and make the most of it. This is not a recipe for hedonism (as some religious folk like to suggest), but rather an opportunity to find meaning in working with others to help create a more tolerant world where rational thinking and kindness prevail.
“The things that make life worthwhile and give us a sense of purpose are family, friends, relationships, work, hobbies, curiosity, social action and love. Trying to give human life meaning by postponing fulfilment to some post-mortem paradise actually threatens to rob life of what is most precious.” Andrew Copson, CEO Humanists UK
Interestingly, there have been studies that support the idea that "temporal scarcity" — the feeling that you have only a limited time left to enjoy something — makes you happier.
Another humanist slogan "Think for yourself, act for everyone" was thoughtfully explored in Humanistically Speaking earlier in the year by humanist philosopher Richard Norman, who (with respect to the first part) noted that “our thinking is enriched by the traditions on which we draw”. Indeed, we wouldn’t “be able to think at all except in a shared culture, with a language which we inherit, and that immediately shapes a great deal of what we think.” But, as he goes on to say, we can also be trapped by these factors, and too many people “go along with accepted beliefs simply because everyone else does... and it’s [this] uncritical conformism that humanism seeks to challenge”.
As for "act for everyone", taken literally, it’s impossible. However, as Richard pointed out, it is sometimes important “to stand back from our immediate situation and respond to the wider picture, to ask ourselves what we can do to support others in our society who can’t afford food or heating, whether to help those whose lives are being destroyed by war or famine in other parts of the world, what we can do to combat global warming and environmental destruction and protect our world for future generations... Central to humanism is the recognition of the deep-seated human capacity for empathy, the fact that we are moved by the joys and sufferings of our fellow human beings. We do not necessarily act on it, but it is the starting point for thinking about the needs of others. And that is what is captured by our six-word slogan.”
And many will recognise this familiar slogan, from the Atheist Bus Campaign: "There’s Probably No God. Now Stop Worrying and Enjoy Your Life". This was a cheeky response to a website that promised non-Christians “an eternity of torment in a lake of fire.” (See note 2.) As Humanists UK said at the time: “Worrying about what God said in this or that religious text is a distraction from thinking about what we can say ourselves about values, happiness and society.”
Do we need some new straplines?
I’d like to see a competition for new humanist straplines, ones that are unambiguously positive, factual and thought-provoking, perhaps even a little naughty or amusing, like the cartoon I once saw with two grinning faces and the punch line "Humanists go to church... for the architecture".
To start the ball rolling, I’ve provided some possible designs in the box, where I’ve repackaged (and with some, slightly modified) existing slogans. I’ve stuck with the (conveniently androgynous) Happy Human motif, which I think presents a powerful, welcoming image, and one that exudes confidence and authority.
You will note that I’ve smuggled in a badge on "truth decay". This is in the hope that it will encourage more humanists to think about what we can do as a movement to address the threat posed by deepfakes and other forms of misinformation. (We made some suggestions about this in the "Future of Humanism Manifesto", published earlier in the year.) And here are two other suggestions for badges: "Humanism: giving value to life", and "Humanism: leaving a worthy legacy"; and one for reflection: "Humanism: doing what is right when no one is watching".
I appreciate that the idea of focusing on the Happy Human icon may not be well received by some at Humanists UK, which chose to rebrand in 2017 and opted for the "wireman" logo of someone appearing to be enjoying life. But let’s have a mature discussion about which images work best in different contexts. As I noted in comments I made after the World Humanist Congress, humanists around the world are now represented by a wide variety of colourful logos. This raises the question of whether the very diversity of images enhances or detracts from the notion of a "global humanist movement". Some logos, like that of Humanist Association of Nigeria, bear very little resemblance to the Happy Human.
To conclude, let me recall the celebrated social reformer Felix Adler, who in 1876 launched the Ethical Culture Movement in the United States. One of Adler’s more memorable quotes is this: “I spell God with two o’s — and the Devil without the d”. I wonder if this was the inspiration behind "Good without God"? Interestingly, the logo adopted by the Ethical Culture movement is not a million miles away from the Happy Human. I’ll leave it up to readers to reflect on whether this took its inspiration from Christianity or Leonardo da Vinci’s famous "Vitruvian Man". I’d like to think it was the latter.
Jaap van Praag [1911-1981] played a major role in the founding of Humanists International. His "Little Fight" refers to the legitimate but limited interests of humanists themselves, such as campaigning for a secular society; his "Great Fight" refers to the universal challenges that humanists believe they should grapple with for the benefit of everyone (not just the non-religious) — and that includes future generations.
The Atheist Bus Campaign aimed to place "peaceful and upbeat" messages about atheism on transport media in Britain, in response to evangelical Christian advertising. It was created by Ariane Sherine and launched in Oct 2008, with official support from the BHA and Richard Dawkins. The campaign received a number of complaints but was cleared of any unethical advertising by the Advertising Standards Authority.