By David Warden
David is the Chairman of Dorset Humanists, a Partner Group of Humanists UK. In this article, he challenges the humanist community to imagine a humanist movement fit for the future, with particular reference to the social and community needs of humans and humanists everywhere.
In his article in this edition of Humanistically Speaking, anthropologist Robin Dunbar explained that:
'...religion ticks most of the boxes needed to create a bonded community, even of strangers. It offers a cultural story/myth of why we all belong and what our grand programme is. And it exploits most of the other buttons in this array of bonding behaviours – singing, dancing, feasting together, sad-and-triumphant storytelling, and even occasionally some laughter (as in the infamous ‘Toronto blessing’)… all ramped up with ecstatic experience – a mysterious, heady (literally), mystical sense of being in direct communion with the mind of god (which seems to happen when you get a very high dose of endorphins, or morphine for that matter).'
Summing up, he wrote that 'the problem facing humanism is how to create that same sense of belonging and bonding that leads to the same sense of commitment and obligation without involving the religion bit. It’s not as easy as you might think.'
In making these remarks, Robin seems to be assuming that humanism is the kind of thing which wants to form itself into 'bonded communities'. The vast majority of non-religious people, including those who identify as humanists, do not go anywhere near their local humanist group, even if there is one. Why is this? I think there are a number of possible reasons.
The first reason why the vast majority of non-religious people do not go anywhere near their local humanist group might be because they understand non-religion and humanism as freedom from religion and they are mystified by any attempt to recreate a kind a pseudo-religion in the form of a humanist group.
A second reason might be because they have all the bonded communities they need in the form of families, friendship groups, the organisation they work for, and/or other clubs and societies.
A third reason might be because they do not want to belong to anything such as a political party or any group which might constrain their freedom of thought or action. The American political scientist Robert Putnam explored this phenomenon over twenty years ago in his bestselling book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000, revised edition 2020). The book observed how Americans had become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbours, and social structures such as churches, clubs, political parties, or bowling leagues. In the revised edition of the book, Putnam argues that this lack of community connection diminishes our 'social capital' and poses a serious threat to our civic and personal health. Since the original edition of the book, social media and the Covid pandemic have dramatically increased our ability and inclination to connect virtually with people all over the world from the comfort of our own homes. Whether this tech revolution is a net benefit for our social capital and our mental and emotional health is an interesting question for social scientists.
My own view is that if the worldwide humanist community sees itself as championing maximal unencumbered individualism, then humanism is part of the problem rather than part of the solution. If humanism is about humans, which of course it is by definition, then it must recognise that humans are a social species and that we need social connectedness for our happiness and to support good mental health. This does not mean going back to the kind of feudal society in which our ancestors were constrained by tradition, church, the patriarchal family, and the fact that most people, if they wanted to travel to another town, would have to go on foot. But if modern societies have lurched to the other extreme, then it's little wonder that we are facing epidemic levels of loneliness and depression.
Not all humanists will feel the need to join a humanist group. They may have strong friendship groups, an extended family, or fulfilling memberships of other organisations and clubs. They may simply prefer their books or their pets. But the unique benefit of joining a humanist group is meeting like-minded people. In his book on friendship, Robin Dunbar explained that this is one of the principal criteria for forming friendships in the first place. This is certainly true for me. A humanist group is really the only place where I can make friends with people who read the same kind of books as I do, and who have adopted the same kind of rational and ethical approach to life that I try to follow.
If, then, we can accept the minimal proposition that humanist groups might be a good thing for humanists and non-religious people to join and support, how do existing humanist groups measure up to the challenge posed by Robin Dunbar? He suggested that we might compare ourselves to religious groups which 'tick most of the boxes needed to create a bonded community'. They offer a cultural story or myth of why its members all belong and what the 'grand programme' is. They exploit most of the other buttons in an array of bonding behaviours such as singing, dancing, feasting together, sad-and-triumphant storytelling, laughter, and 'ecstatic experiences' which produce a 'very high dose of endorphins'.
The main activity for most humanist groups is a programme of guest speakers on an array of topics of interest to humanists such as science, philosophy, politics, religion, psychology, and so on. Each meeting, or event, is a discrete one-off occasion with a speaker and an audience sitting in a hired room in a pub, hotel, or community centre. At the end of the talk, there will be time for Q&A, and before people depart, there may be an opportunity to socialise over coffee or alcohol, depending on the nature of the premises. The demographic make-up of such a group is likely to be older, educated types with a high level of tolerance for death by PowerPoint and uncomfortable chairs. It seems likely that many people who attend such an event will not return, unless they are very highly motivated to do so. These events, whilst they may be very worthy and educational, simply may not be delivering enough of an endorphin high for the average punter.
At Dorset Humanists, we have tried to improve upon this basic template with some success. In addition to a programme of guest speakers as described above, we offer a monthly meeting in a pub which allows people to meet socially over a few drinks. This has been running successfully for many years. We also try to organise monthly walks, often along the Jurassic Coast which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For me, these walks supply ecstatic scenic experiences and a huge boost of endorphins in the company of humanist friends. Twice a year we feast together at our Darwin Day lunch and our Annual General Meeting. These are community lunches provided at low cost by our own volunteers. We also have a mini-choir which performs seasonal songs at our December event. For our 25th anniversary, we pushed the boat out and hired a fantastic ukulele band with dancing and more feasting. We do provide a cultural story of why we exist and what the 'grand programme' is: the story is the story of humanity and the 'grand programme' of humanism is the belief that humans can create a better world in which everyone has the opportunity to flourish.
There is so much more we could do if humanism truly believed in itself. If humanist organisations such as Humanists UK really got behind the social and community dimension of humanism and devoted more resources towards supporting it; if we had humanist colleges which trained humanist leaders; if wealthy humanists donated large amounts of money to create a capital base for local groups to build their own centres. If the Sikh community can do it, to mention just one belief community, why can't we?
There are several major impediments towards realising such a vision. Humanists tend to be individualists and many of us disparage anything that looks as if it is trying to recreating a religion. I think we need to get over this aversion and appreciate that humanists need to connect at the local level, and we need to get better at generating endorphin responses in our communal humanist activities. Another major impediment is simply a lack of vision. We need humanist intellectuals and visionaries to imagine what humanism could be in the decades and centuries ahead. And we need to have humanist conventions and conferences which generate excitement about visionary new ideas.
There has been much talk in the humanist community about Jaap van Praag's distinction between the 'little fight' and the 'great fight'. The 'little fight' is for the right of humanists to exist as equal citizens. This 'little fight' is extremely important and is by no means won in many parts of the globe. The 'great fight' is for the benefit of the whole of humanity, such as tackling threats to our very existence. I'd like to add a third fight which sits midway between the little fight and the great fight. But it's not really a 'fight' at all. It's simply the admission that humanism at the social and community level has been badly neglected by the humanist movement as a whole. Imagine a thriving humanist community centre in every town and architecturally impressive humanist centres in every city. Imagine humanist schools and colleges. Imagine a humanist political party committed to a politics of the common good. Imagine millions of people proudly identifying as humanists and doing good in their communities. Let's imagine more and build a humanist movement fit for the coming centuries.