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What young people think about humanism: it’s not good news

By Maggie Hall

Maggie is a former Chair of Brighton Humanists, a member of the Humanists UK Dialogue Network, and a Humanists UK School Speaker. She is also a retired Teacher of Speech and Drama. In this article she shares some very frank and illuminating content on what two young people think about humanism.

“O wad some Power the giftie gie us, To see oursels as ithers see us!” From a poem by Robbie Burns, written in Scots dialect

Young people’s views – how do they see us?

Something that greatly exercises humanists is the age demographic of organised humanism. Most local humanist groups complain of the paucity of younger members. Certainly in my own local group I struggle to identify any members under fifty, and by far the greater majority are quite considerably older than that. This has been a topic of discussion in the group throughout the many years that I have been associated with it. In an area with many Further Education colleges and two universities, in a town identified in the national census as the most godless in the country, it is a very difficult conundrum to comprehend. Are young people just not interested? Does humanism not address the issues which most concern them? Or is it just a question of intergenerational miscommunication? Do young people actually know what organised humanism is, what it stands for and what it does? The best way to find out is, of course, to ask them.

“Young people don't know what the fuck humanism is, which is kind of a major stumbling block.” R, aged 17

I don’t know if any national survey of young people’s impressions of humanism has ever been done, but I do know of one that a humanist parent recently conducted with her own two young sons, aged 17 and 24. This is, of course, a very limited sample of just two young white men in a family where humanism is at least known about, but the responses are very interesting, and they supply a great deal of food for thought. The following is an only slightly edited version of their responses, as reported by the parent, to the question why, in spite of agreeing with humanist principles, they do not engage with organised humanism. I am very grateful to this family for allowing me to use this content. In the interests of authenticity I have retained most of the idiosyncrasies of language of the verbatim report. It makes for quite a long but enlightening read.

Responses from ‘R’ (aged 17) as reported, and with comments, by his humanist parent:

  • Young people don't know what the fuck humanism is, which is kind of a major stumbling block.

  • Basically, it's an unwillingness to engage in "scary debate" (i.e. a perception that humanism is scared of debate). R says his opinions are too radical to share and even if most humanists secretly agree and accept they will not want to discuss due to fear.

  • Humanism is not present online in a way that attracts young people. Lack of presence on various social media platforms such as TikTok and YouTube. It's not sufficient to just upload a Zoom meeting to YouTube.

  • Humanism lacks a TikTok and YouTube FACE. There is no PERSON they identify with on these platforms. No kind of Champion. There's Alice Roberts and Co. but, as R says, she is NOT KNOWN to young people. It doesn't matter how good she comes across on the BBC. Youngsters don't do BBC. BBC is obsolete in their minds.

  • Painful though the idea may be, humanism needs an 'influencer'. Gross as it may be, this seems to be the way a lot of young people work.

  • Maybe humanist groups could look into inviting these Social Media influencers to their meetings. I hate the idea of this of course being from another generation. It's a sad state of affairs, but if humanism is going to survive it has to embrace this.

  • Humanism's intellectual base is huge, but it's just not impinging on young people's minds.

  • There is a lack of exciting engagement on the channels and a lack of literal "Face" that is the problem. It's almost as if full-blown media engagement is somehow beneath humanism. Either that or humanists lack the IT skills or confidence to do it.

  • It's criminal that all the fabulous humanist geniuses are not known to most young people. Young people do not do BBC, or C4 or Sky, or GB. Where their news comes from is a complete mystery. Personalised YouTube and Instagram Channels probably. Despite R's great intelligence he could not cite a single source of original info other than influencers. Young people don't do news, they just do influencers.

  • We may scorn, but I suppose in our day we accepted the attitudes from news readers.

  • I asked R where he thought the 'influencers' got their information from but he couldn't say, which is very worrying.

Some additional comments from the humanist parent:

  • What topics would humanism need to cover to entice a young person to subscribe? It could be anything controversial or dividing such as the trans debate, or misinformation spread online and in classrooms about religion or diet such as the "food pyramid" (a graphical representation used to indicate the ideal number of servings of different types of food that should be consumed daily for a balanced diet).

  • The increase, and extreme tabooness, of anything deemed right-wing or 'far right'.

  • Young people don't know what their own friends know. They are all in their own bubbles.

  • The Culture War. Left vs Right socially and politically. R fears social totalitarianism especially with free speech. He says that socially we are fucked and being politically fucked is coming a close second.

  • Why is the average person not drawn to humanism? The real reason they don't join or support is because they don't KNOW about it.

  • Young people are becoming mentally ill. They are addicted to screens. The only thing there is, is to either be an activist OR be depressed on their devices because later on in life these young people will require better fulfilment (yes, it's still R talking), but the fulfilment is not there.

  • R says humanism needs personalities, AVATARS. A face for humanism, like atheism has modern faces on the debate scene.

  • I asked R, if you were going to subscribe to a Humanist YouTube Channel, what would they have to do to attract you? He said "read and refute" (The phrase "read and refute" in the context of social media typically refers to the practice of critically engaging with content by reading it and then challenging or debunking its claims, arguments, or assumptions. This is often done in the form of comments, replies, or even separate posts that provide counter-arguments, evidence, or perspectives that dispute the original content. The goal is to provide a more balanced view, correct misinformation, or foster a more nuanced discussion on the topic at hand.)

  • "YouTube shorts" are packed full of content. R says this is the modern way of outreach.

  • Humanist TikTok and Instagram: R said make sure your content is good, not reactionary (comments will be reactionary), and QUICK, not long and drawn-out but concise.

“Young people want to live before the world caves in.”
Humanism lacks a TikTok and YouTube FACE. There is no PERSON they identify with on these platforms.

Basically, when R says 'live before the world caves in' he says that he and his friends are faced with a choice of two options: either they become Batman and save the planet (which of course is impossible) or they do nothing. Young people have to either be 'activists or be depressed'. This, to me, conveys a sad hopelessness in young people. I have read that young people do have a sense of hopelessness and powerlessness in the world today.

I asked R why he and his friends were not climate change activists and he said he would have to devote his entire life and every minute of the day and have no life at all if he was going to make any difference to the planet. This, again, reflects a feeling in youngsters that they are powerless to save the planet or solve any world problem. Humanism must somehow offer young people a new dopamine hit with its YouTube shorts! Humanism must fill this void somehow. Religion did it for humanity in the past. Now there is nothing for young people. Humanism should somehow give young people a sense of power and that things are possible and everything is not futile.

I wanted to say to R "No man made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he thought he could only do a little" but I didn't want to make him feel guilty. I wanted him to just tell me what young people thought. I've forgotten where that quotation came from. (Editor's note: it's often attributed to Edmund Burke, the 18th-century Irish statesman and philosopher.)

"What would entice you, if anything, to join Humanists UK?" "72 virgins." J, aged 24

Now for the turn of J (aged 24). The questions were formulated in jest...

  • Why are you not a member of Humanists UK? Because I don't have the time and there are other things that I want to be doing. I'm not very interested in it. If religion affects people negatively then I care but it’s still not enough to make me join.

  • You generally support the principles of humanism? Yes.

  • What would entice you, if anything, to join? 72 virgins.

  • Do any of your friends subscribe to Humanists UK or similar group? No.

  • What concerns young people today? Uncertainty with money is the biggest thing. They do not even trust their own savings. The economy is a mess. Can't afford houses, some cannot afford food. That's no life.

  • If Humanists UK addressed these issues would you be more interested? No. Then J said it would have to be a MASSIVE UK-wide campaign...and then YES...Maybe. There's no escape from tax. You cannot live in a wood. You still have to be connected to the government. Young people are financially trapped.

  • Why is it that young people haven't heard of humanism or Humanists UK? J says a lot actually have.

  • How can humanism become more known? J says it needs GIGANTIC ONLINE PRESENCE. Humanism needs to be active DAILY on EVERY SINGLE ONLINE PLATFORM. Sorry for capitals but the advice/feeling was strong. Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube ALL DAILY. You can post en bloc to all these, you don't have to do it all individually.

  • How do you and your friends get news? I'm a wierdo. I don't really care anymore. I don't look at news anymore. I can't trust it. It has no validity. Only 50/50 chance it is reliable. News is too monetised and they just want you to click. I have to focus on positive change for myself. Can't take on the whole planet. I get most of my news from friends. They don’t trust many news sites, especially not BBC.

  • Any other comments? Young people are becoming miserable because of censorship and political correctness. Whether they realise it or not, they go along with it. Sometimes they don't even realise it's making them miserable. You are not allowed to have an opinion. You are not allowed to think. If I wanted to check the validity of every news item it would take me months before I could decide if it was true or not. Stories always emphasise something even if they don’t intend to. Tech news I trust more and niche hobby news. I can’t do anything about it. (Again, the sense of helplessness and powerlessness.)

  • Generally, young people are busy trying to SURVIVE. We can't afford houses...working people have no time to do their hobbies, see their children. We barely have time or energy to do hobbies so no time to get into climate change or go on rallies. Both partners have to work 40 plus hours a week each to afford a house. The most pressing issue for young people is financial insecurity.

  • Going back to online presence...humanists need to DAILY upload on most channels. Some weekly at minimum. Humanists UK at least, needs a LARGE DEDICATED PRODUCTION TEAM devoted to this. There are religious YouTubers and influencers KNOWN to young people. Humanists could interview these YouTubers. (Young people haven't heard of Archbishop Welby.) Unless they have a deep passion for something, young people don't want to make themselves any more miserable.

  • Old people must expect backlash. Humanists must prepare to be harassed online (and learn how to ignore or deal with it). Humanists must prepare themselves for nasty comments and not be shocked or hurt. Old people can't deal with it. They go OH MY GOD I must shut down the network. J says IT DOESN'T MATTER. There will always be nasty comments. Someone will post that you will die and the admin person will shut the chat down just because of a few comments. This must not happen. You cannot censor anybody. J says the only people who should be removed possibly are the ones making actual death threats but that's as far as it goes. No matter how horrible people are, you just leave them to it. J says he doesn't want humanists to fall into the trap of censoring everything and everybody. Don’t shut everything down just because of a few mean comments. That's how the internet works. Humanists need to NOT be afraid of starting a fire. Interesting content causes rows... that's good. Don’t stop people from asking questions.

It is interesting to get an insight into the way young people, or at least these two young people, are thinking. I do think that what J says about humanists being afraid of controversy is a misapprehension. Humanists UK does run campaigns against faith schools and for assisted dying that make them unpopular with those who oppose them. However, if they don’t follow the BBC or the Humanists UK YouTube channel they may not be aware of this. His attention might also be drawn to the recent energetic discussions on the Brighton Humanists Facebook page and some of the very outspoken articles in Humanistically Speaking, especially in September’s “Woke” issue. The main impression I get is that a major problem in trying to engage with young people is the brevity of their attention span, which I find rather worrying. If they genuinely want to examine serious issues in any depth then they need to be prepared to dedicate some time and effort to it. You can’t do it in two minutes on TikTok. Perhaps they need to be made to feel that this is not a waste of their time and that it is worth the effort.

The only way to know what young people think about humanism is to ask them. Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

Further Reading (Some Critiques of Humanism)

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Nov 06, 2023

It seems that many if not most young people come from the perspective that religion is false, and for them therefore, humanism has no purpose. I am optimistic that OUR task is to continue the fight against religious indoctrination of young people, to undermine intellectually the idea that organised religion has a role for young people, and provide a simple humanist philosophy that makes sense. The ideal outcome, I suggest, would then be for young people to be, by default, functionally humanist and for that to be such a natural attitude to life that it is rarely questioned or discussed.


Maggie Hall
Maggie Hall
Nov 01, 2023

Thank you for this. Yes I agree that a humanist youth organisation would be ideal. When talking to year 10s in secondary schools I have had sixteen-year-olds come up to me afterwards and ask how they go about joining Humanists UK or their local humanist group and, of course, I have to tell them that they have to wait two years, unless they can start one up themselves in their school or when they go on to sixth form or FE college. Brighton Humanists looked into it once but found a lot of obstacles. For one thing there are significant safeguarding issues for young people under eighteen. Humanists UK's insurance does not cover events involving under eighteens. Camp Quest is…

Maggie Hall
Maggie Hall
Nov 12, 2023
Replying to

Hi John. Yes I think I meant Switzerland rather then Sweden. I'm aware of David's recent contact with them. It's a shame there doesn't seem to be anything similar for UK youngsters at the moment. It needs someone a lot younger than me to run it, though.


Nov 01, 2023

The obvious caveat here is that these are solely the opinions of two young individuals.

It is not really something to extrapolate from to represent all young individuals.

We all know that the CofE is spending £millions on insinuating their beliefs into schools.

Maybe we should be matching them - not financially - but on getting ourselves into schools.

At a recent inter-faith event in a local girls grammar school, one student asked me if - based on what I said our beliefs were - I thought that all religions were nonsense?

When I replied "Yes", a broad smile spread across her face.

Only one person, of course, but seemingly young people are responsive to what we have to say.

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