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The Christian Parish – and how it might become an example to future secular parishes

By Simon Whipple

Simon is a solicitor and a committee member of Dorset Humanists. In this article he encourages us to belong to “secular parishes”.

I have two sons who were both brought up in the family tradition of agnosticism.  At the age of 18, when they started at university, both joined evangelical Christian groups.  They are both now aged in their mid-thirties and have both moved to different cities to follow their careers, pursue active and time-consuming hobbies, and have acquired their own girlfriends and, in one case, a wife. For both of them, membership of their Christian church has been a constant feature.


When my sons, with some trepidation, told their humanist father that they had become Christians, I expected (and hoped) that their renunciation of their agnostic heritage was an act of adolescent rebellion, and it would pass away in a year or two. I was wrong. It is hard for a humanist parent to understand what leads anyone to become a Christian – and harder still to understand what persuaded them to remain Christians after nearly 20 years. I think it is likely that their membership of religious communities played a major part.


Starting at university is exciting, but it is also likely to make most freshers apprehensive and lonely. A supportive Christian Union at university, led by a kindly and avuncular clergyman, can provide a comforting base for young men (and women) away from home for the first time. I recall speaking to one of my son’s youth leaders at his adult baptism, and being immensely reassured when the clergyman who led his group (who was perhaps aged in his 30s) told me he would ensure that my son would be supported emotionally if he felt it necessary.


When my children graduated and moved to different cities to start their first jobs, they needed to find rented flats and flatmates. There was no formal matching process, but both were put in touch with other young men who lived in their destination city and needed flatmates. And so, a process which I would have found quite scary – to find accommodation and flatmates in a strange city with like-minded people – was made easy. Needless to say, their flatmates were also evangelical Christians, and these flatmates introduced them to a new church in their destination city. 


Over the years I have met many of my sons’ fellow parishioners, usually at church social events. They have often seemed a bit wary of meeting a humanist, but once that anxiety has been overcome, they are usually very sociable, very welcoming, and often have similar views on politics and society as mine. In short, unless quizzed about their beliefs, they could be mistaken for humanists.


Young people are very often geographically removed from family support and advice, and this is particularly challenging in a world where employers have no loyalty to their staff. Young graduates often have no opportunity to find appropriate work near their family home or where they went to university. I am sure that the mental health statistics demonstrate that this rootless existence causes immense stress and suffering.


And the support provided by their parishes goes further. When one of my sons got married a few years ago, he and his fiancée were provided with a series of pre-marriage guidance counselling sessions. In an age when 50 per cent of marriages fail, any means to ensure that a young couple understand the obligations required in marriage and the likely evolution of their romantic feelings over time is to be applauded.


The parish will also provide support to my sons as they experience any of life’s many dramatic events.  

Whether the event is redundancy, hospitalisation, bereavement or becoming a parent, the church will advise how to cope with the situation and will provide practical support if needed.


The support my sons have received from membership of their Christian parishes has been really helpful, and possibly essential, for their success in making a place for themselves in the world. For those who are not attracted to religion, humanism could provide that support by developing a network of secular parishes.


Dorset Humanists is led by a man whose two brothers are Church of England priests. In a small way we have replicated a Church of England parish and built a secular parish which could be a model which other humanist local groups could adopt.


We have a core group of about 70 attending members, all of whom know each other quite well, plus another 120 or so on the books. As well as our regular guest speaker events, we have about two social events each month, including walks and pub nights. We do good works and raise money for charity. We provide both emotional and financial support to members who either ask for support, or appear to need it. We have spawned spin-off groups to discuss particular matters of common interest, such as an ethics discussion group. We have a committee, drawn from the members of the core group, which carries out the work of arranging events and managing the social programme. Two of our members are to marry next year, and we look forward to celebrating their humanist wedding.  

Above all else, we provide an emotional and social anchor for our members.  For many of them, it must feel like they are members of a secular parish.


But if Dorset Humanists wants to form a secular parish, which might be a model form of humanist organisation, then much more must be done. Potential new members may come to one or two events but often do not come back for more. Many of our members are white males aged 50+, and from educated backgrounds. Many potential members, however welcome we may make them, are unlikely to feel comfortable as a member unless they feel a sense of having things in common with the existing members. For the time-being, it may be a futile gesture to try to encourage recruits from different classes or races although we do have at least one ex-Muslim, one black female, and a few others who might identify as coming from a working class background. Probably, our efforts are best devoted to supplying a service to the large number of people whose background and interests are similar to those of our core members, but who currently lack any organisation which provides a secure emotional base for them.


I have discussed my ambitions to develop a secular parish with my son’s (Christian) girlfriend.  Her advice is that for a parish to succeed in bonding its members, they need to share a common ideal.  In a Christian parish that common ideal is described as “sharing the good news of Jesus’s love”. Humanism stands for many different ideals, and it does not have a common, simple, shared message. The principal messages I have noted as being promoted by humanism are:

  1. The strength of science as the source of all knowledge

  2. The importance of reasoned discussion

  3. The belief that humanist ethics are the only ethics which will enable a society to operate successfully

  4. Shared left-of-centre political views (by many but by no means all humanists)

  5. The celebration of nature, and

  6. A shared distaste for any religious practice and for the remnants of religious privilege


I hope that our leaders in Humanists UK will make an effort to develop a shared message which all humanists can support with enthusiasm, so that their enthusiasm will lead to the growth of our movement.  My tentative suggestion is that the shared message which we should seek to develop and promulgate is a new code of values. This code might provide an antidote to the self-centred materialism which is the predominant value of our post-religious society.

Thumbnail image is of Leicester Secular Society, one of very few humanist groups with its own premises.

Related reading

A humanist code of values, as suggested by ChatGPT

A humanist code of values emphasises the importance of human dignity, individual freedom, and ethical behaviour based on reason and compassion. Here is a suggested humanist code of values:

Humanist Code of Values

  1. Respect for Human Dignity

  • Recognise the inherent worth of every individual.

  • Treat everyone with respect and consideration, regardless of differences.

  1. Commitment to Ethical Living

  • Make decisions based on reason, empathy, and a commitment to the common good.

  • Strive to act with integrity and honesty in all interactions.

  1. Promotion of Freedom and Responsibility

  • Support individual freedom and autonomy while recognising the importance of social responsibility.

  • Encourage others to make informed choices and take responsibility for their actions.

  1. Advocacy for Justice and Fairness

  • Uphold principles of justice, fairness, and equality.

  • Work to eliminate discrimination and promote equal opportunities for all.

  1. Pursuit of Knowledge and Understanding

  • Value education, scientific inquiry, and intellectual development.

  • Remain open-minded and willing to revise beliefs in light of new evidence and perspectives.

  1. Compassion and Empathy

  • Foster empathy and compassion towards others.

  • Provide support and assistance to those in need, and work towards alleviating suffering.

  1. Environmental Stewardship

  • Recognise our responsibility to protect and preserve the natural world.

  • Promote sustainable practices that ensure the well-being of future generations.

  1. Commitment to Peace and Non-violence

  • Advocate for peaceful resolution of conflicts and the avoidance of violence.

  • Encourage dialogue and understanding as means to resolve differences.

  1. Support for Democratic Principles

  • Uphold the principles of democracy, including participation, transparency, and accountability.

  • Promote the importance of civic engagement and the protection of human rights.

  1. Celebration of Creativity and Innovation

  • Encourage creative expression and the pursuit of new ideas.

  • Support artistic, cultural, and technological innovation as ways to enrich human experience.

  1. Global Solidarity

  • Recognise the interconnectedness of all people and the importance of global cooperation.

  • Work towards solutions that benefit humanity as a whole, respecting diverse cultures and perspectives.

This code is designed to be adaptable and inclusive, reflecting the dynamic nature of human experience and the evolving understanding of ethical behaviour. It serves as a guide for individuals striving to live meaningful and compassionate lives.


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