By Dr Anthony Lewis
Anthony is Chair of Windsor Humanists and Chair of the South Central England Humanists Network. In this article, he reflects on the fact that humanism is struggling to appeal to a broader demographic outside its core base of mainly retired, educated professionals. How can it appeal to David Goodhart's “Somewhere” tribe, which is locally-rooted and less politically inclined? Anthony believes that broadening our appeal is crucial to harness the potential of the growing non-religious population in the UK, which now equates to 25-35 million people in the UK. Where are these missing millions?
My story – from isolation to connection
My story is, I think, a typical one for humanists. I came to humanism later in life through attending the World Humanist Congress in Oxford in 2014, having been an atheist most of my life. I was fortunate to have been able to retire early after a global career as a geoscientist exploring for hydrocarbons. I found my semi-retirement in Windsor isolating. I quickly realised that I was not really part of my local community, having spent a good part of my career travelling extensively overseas. So, after the Oxford Congress, my husband and I linked up with Humanists UK and some other local humanists to set up Windsor Humanists in 2015. The experience has been a success story for us personally. We have made new friends in the local area, through speaking in schools, being involved with local Interfaith groups, and connecting with nearby humanist groups via the South Central England Humanists Network. I feel much more connected to where I live and to humanism nationally, in ways I could never have envisaged when I started this new journey.
The humanist "pipeline"
I probably represent the "average" humanist demographic, in that I am a retired professional with time on my hands to dedicate to volunteering and becoming an active humanist. It is a well-worn path, which is travelled by many who, typically, come to humanism later in life. This pipeline of retired professionals represents a key strength of humanism, as it means the activist base is constantly replenished with committed and experienced "newcomers". Given the ageing demographic predicted for the UK, the numbers from this group are likely to keep increasing for the foreseeable future. It represents a solid base for humanism, both locally and nationally. Most religions, I suspect, have a very different membership profile to humanism. They "home grow" their adherents through church attendance and faith schools, thus ensuring that their children are inducted into the religion of their parents. It is a very effective ‘grooming' process honed over millennia. However, this approach means that their numbers decline with age as people move away from the indoctrination they received as children. Both Humanists UK and the National Secular Society are actively campaigning against faith schools and, just as importantly, campaigning for all children to be taught comparative religious education as a way of breaking this "harvesting" of children into specific faiths. It will be a tough fight given what an effective strategy it is for the established religions!
The "Anywhere" tribe
So, unlike religion, humanism is a belief system that does not seek to convert, evangelise, or indoctrinate the young. Instead, people find their own way to humanism in their own time. These "self-attracted" supporters, activists and "converts" form the bedrock of humanism in the UK. However, the result of all this is that humanists are not a particularly diverse bunch. Humanists are predominantly drawn from David Goodhart’s "Anywhere" tribe as described in his 2018 book The Road to Somewhere: The New Tribes Shaping British Politics. Humanists in the UK tend to be male, pale, university-educated, retired white-collar professionals who have had careers mainly in academia or in the public sector and mostly live in one of the UK’s larger urban centres. This is a constituency that makes up about 25 per cent of the UK population and humanism clearly appeals powerfully to this demographic.
However, there are obvious risks for any movement that relies on such a narrow constituency for its membership base. How can humanism broaden its appeal beyond its current, rather narrow, socio-academic demography? How would humanism attract more of Goodhart’s "Somewhere" tribe who are typically younger, blue collar, self-employed tradesmen running small commercial businesses, or carers, all of whom are very much rooted in their local areas and rarely have enough wealth to retire early? This constituency represents over 50 per cent of the UK population. The decline in religious faith in the UK has been driven mainly by this demographic becoming more non-religious. What does humanism offer this non-religious "Somewhere" tribe, given that they are locally-based and unlikely to be reached by national campaigns? What would "blue collar" humanism look like? What does humanism offer a non-religious "Somewhere" person?
“Can humanism be a place for bricklayers and plumbers as well as retired professors?”
We've struggled in Windsor Humanists to broaden our appeal to attract local blue-collar members. It's a classic chicken and egg dilemma. Is it possible for "Anywhere Humanists" like myself to even know where to start, given that we have limited interaction with this demographic outside of our immediate families? For many of us, they represent “a foreign country; they do things differently there”. As Humanists UK increasingly achieves its political objectives, does it need to refocus towards becoming a social movement? Should it aim to consolidate and secure these successes by broadening its appeal to these "Somewhere" communities? Additionally, should it shift its focus to become more locally rather than nationally based, and less political? If Humanism does not embrace this blue-collar, non-religious constituency, could darker, more populist elements grab them instead, to undermine and erode our recent progress? In my opinion, this represents both an historic opportunity but also an existential threat to humanism. The challenge is this: can humanism be a place for bricklayers and plumbers as well as retired professors?
The missing millions
The non-religious represent from 37% to 52% of the UK population, based on the UK 2021 Census, the UK British Social Attitudes Survey and the World Values Survey (links provided below). This "unfaithful diaspora" is now larger than any single religious affiliation in the UK. These figures mean that the non-religious now equate to between 25 to 35 million people in the UK. Humanists UK is an impressive and effective lobbying and political campaigning organisation, but it has not been able to capitalise on this huge societal change towards atheism, with a national membership reported as being around 100,000. Where are the missing millions? Despite being a proven powerful campaigning organisation, Humanists UK is clearly not appealing to this latent potential diaspora. Although I am fairly new to humanism, it seems to me there may be two main reasons for this:
First, the "Somewhere" tribe, of all ages, representing some 12-17 million of the non-religious, according to Goodhart, are locally-based, focused on their families, and rooted In their local communities. They also tend not to be that interested in politics, especially at the national level. The only way to reach the "Somewheres" is to organise locally and have activities that are community-based and have broad appeal. The Sunday Assembly Networks are aimed at younger, non-religious families, and they provide the sort of secular fellowship and sense of community at a local level that previously would have been delivered by local churches or by mosques. Sunday Assembly, combined with local humanist groups, appear to be the only "humanist" initiatives undertaken to date that make any attempt to appeal to the "Somewhere" tribe, but with mixed or little success so far. Could it be that humanism will never appeal to this diaspora or that the "Somewheres" have other concerns and will never be attracted to humanism? Perhaps nowadays there is just too much competition for people's time and attention, driven by social media and other attractions.
Secondly, the "Anywhere" tribe during their working lives tend to be focused on their careers and professional life, and as a result quite often move around a lot. I suspect the majority of Humanist UK’s current membership is from this mobile "Anywhere" tribe. They support Humanist UK through their passive membership when they are younger and do not have the time to get actively involved. These "Anywhere" supporters only "convert" to being "activists" when they have more time on their hands towards the end of their careers. The current focus of Humanist UK on national campaigning clearly appeals powerfully to the "Anywheres", but they do not have the time to get involved when younger.
For me personally, getting involved in humanism in the Windsor area has transformed my life and helped me connect in wonderfully unexpected ways in my local area and community. I am completely aware that I am part of the retired "Anywhere" tribe and represent part of Humanists UK’s current core "professional gay" demographic! I just wish humanism could find a way to appeal to a much broader constituency. I think there needs to be more open debate about how best to connect with these "missing millions" and have a discussion about whether that is what humanism wants to do? What is clear to me, as someone relatively new to humanism, is that the current centralised and politically-focused approach does not seem to appeal to most of the non-religious around the UK. But what should be done about this is not easy to work out, otherwise we would be doing it already.
Note: Our talented young writer Andreas Isenberg has written an article for this edition of Humanistically Speaking suggesting strategies for reaching blue-collar 'Somewhere' people.
David Goodhart The Road to Somewhere - https://www.amazon.co.uk/Road-Somewhere-Populist-Revolt-Politics/dp/1849047995
British Social Attitudes Survey Number 36 2019 -https://natcen.ac.uk/publications/british-social-attitudes-36
World Values Survey 2023 - https://www.worldvaluessurvey.org/WVSNewsShow.jsp?ID=467 and UK focus in https://www.kcl.ac.uk/policy-institute/assets/lost-faith-the-uk's-changing-attitudes-to-religion.pdf
National Secular Society - Secular Education Campaign - https://www.secularism.org.uk/education/
Humanists UK Education Campaigns - https://humanists.uk/campaigns/schools-and-education/
Sunday Assembly Network - https://www.sundayassembly.org/