By David Warden
David is Chairman of Dorset Humanists. In this article he presents the tentative thesis that humanism, understood as an alternative to religion, will inevitably decline as religion declines. This is because younger generations neither understand religion, nor any proposed alternative to it.
The demographic shift
The demographic balance in the UK has shifted significantly over the last 50 years, and it is expected to continue to do so. In general, the UK, like many developed countries, is experiencing an ageing population. More of us are reaching age 65, and those who do so are living longer post-65 lives. Many now remain active well into their 80s. According to the Office for National Statistics, it is projected that, by 2050, one in four people in the UK will be aged 65 or over. This, at least partly, explains the changing age structure of the humanist movement – there are more old people and fewer young people! There are also regional variations, with rural areas generally ageing faster than urban areas. Immigration has had some impact on balancing the age structure, as migrants are generally younger, but immigrants may be more religious and less familiar with the concepts of atheism and humanism.
The future of humanism - David Voas's talk at the Humanists UK Convention
Here at Humanistically Speaking we are very exercised by ‘the future of humanism’. I was excited, therefore, to watch a lecture by David Voas at the Humanists UK Convention 2023 in Liverpool entitled “Why humanism is the future”. David is professor of social sciences at University College London. I don’t know if David himself chose the title, but I was very disappointed to find that 99.9% of the lecture was devoted to the decline of religion and the only mention of the future of humanism was in a throwaway comment at the very end, where he said “the humanist worldview and humanist ceremonies have a promising future”.
David’s talk was very good in describing what he called “the secular transition” or “generational replacement”. He said that “Religion is in decline across the Western world, whether we measure it by belief, belonging, participation in services, or the importance people attach to it. Society is being transformed and the momentum appears to be unstoppable.” It’s not that people become less religious as they age. It’s that the older generations are the most religious, they die out, and they're replaced in the population by younger generations who are progressively less religious. This means that the secular transition is slow but, once lost, it’s very hard to bring religion back. People who have no religion find it much more difficult to acquire one than people who have been raised in a religion and contemporary culture isn't conducive to the kind of revival that would be necessary to bring it back. Most young people in the West these days grow up without the sort of contact with churches or mainstream organized religion that people of his generation will have known. As a result, for them, Christianity is just as alien as Hinduism. And although people are interested in alternative spirituality and so forth, these gains go nowhere near making up for the losses to secularization.
The explanation for this process is strongly correlated with the United Nations Human Development Index and modernisation in general. Some of the effects are to do with prosperity, choice and security, in addition to the corrosive impact of pluralism on specific belief systems.
David said that it’s “somewhat exciting news from our point of view” that the percentage of people identifying as Christian, according to the census, has finally dropped below 50 percent, although he added that, for those in the business of looking at religious statistics, this is old news. The British Social Attitudes Survey has for some time shown the Christian percentage below 50 percent. Around 2009 or so it dropped below the 50 percent mark. It's now down to about 38 percent and it's been overtaken by people who say they have no religion.
Looking at a few figures from the British Social Attitudes Survey, in 1983, 40% said they belonged to the Church of England. It's now down to 12%. If we look at that by age, in the 75-plus category in 2018, a third of people identified themselves as Anglican. In the young adult group, just one percent said that they belonged to the Church of England. So that’s the future of the Church of England, our established church. It’s becoming a minuscule part of the population – a minority sect. The issue for churches isn't that adults are leaving; it's that they never joined in the first place. It's a failure of “religious reproduction”.
The Vauxhall Victor generation
As I watched David’s talk, I was reminded of the fact that I belong to one of the older generations he was talking about. I was raised in the age of steam trains, trolley buses, Vauxhall Victors, corded telephones, black and white television, the Apollo space missions, The Beatles, Motown, and the Church of England. I was raised in a religion and, although I left it, the Amsterdam Declaration’s definition of humanism as 'an alternative to religion' made perfect sense to me. Humanism IS my religion. But as I continued to watch David’s talk, it struck me that if Generation X, Millennials, Generation Z, and now Generation Alpha have little or no experience of religion they will remain mystified by any talk of humanism being 'an alternative to religion'. If my hunch is true, then the end of religion could also spell the end of humanism. And this could explain why it is so difficult to get young people to join humanist organisations. Humanism, to them, is likely to be just as alien as Hinduism.
Of course it depends what you mean by humanism. If humanism simply means the absence of religion then, by default, most people without religion may be de facto humanists. But we all know that humanism means much more than simply the absence of religion. For me, it is a very strong personal, philosophical and moral identity – an identity which is nurtured through belonging to local, national and global humanist communities and networks. The connections we form with other humanists are like the connections between trees and their root systems, which are often facilitated through a symbiotic association with mycorrhizal fungi. These fungi form networks that link the roots of different trees, sometimes referred to as a “wood wide web”. Through this underground network, trees can exchange nutrients, water, and chemical signals with each other. Isolated trees are unable to take advantage of these benefits and some studies suggest that trees which are isolated can suffer from “social stress”. Isolation can also make reproduction more challenging.
“Isolated humanists” might be doing just fine. They might have strong social networks through their families, jobs, friendship groups, sports or hobbies although these groups are unlikely to be humanist as such and, therefore, they will do little to nurture a confident humanist identity. Others might be suffering from isolation and missing the company of “like-minded people”. Going to a Humanists UK Convention once a year is great. But the relative scarcity of local humanist groups and societies means that most humanists are, and will remain, socially and geographically isolated from other humanists. And millions of potential humanists – the unchurched non-religious – will remain completely unaware of the social capital and emotional wellbeing which can accrue from belonging to groups, networks and communities which affirm humanist values and which can help to stem the tide of irrationality, hopelessness, and loneliness.
Of course, we can hardly wish for the Church of England to produce a steady stream of disillusioned apostates to populate the humanist movement. That pipeline is beginning to run dry. But for my generation, who are often the people maintaining local humanist groups against the odds, it means that we will have to work even harder and smarter to ensure that the end of religion does not also spell the end of humanism.
Our talented virtual writer Andreas Isenberg has come up with 32 strategies this month to help us build the future of humanism. I hope that our readers will find some inspiration in what he has to say.
And here, for comparison, are some of the cultural reference points of later generations:
Generation X (Born 1965–1980)
Britpop (e.g., Oasis, Blur)
The Falklands War
Acid house and rave culture
"Absolutely Fabulous" and "Men Behaving Badly"
Channel 4's edgier programming
"Trainspotting" (book and film)
Football's resurgence, including the Premier League
The end of Thatcherism
Millennials (Born 1981–1996)
"Harry Potter" series by J.K. Rowling
"Skins" and "The Inbetweeners"
The Tony Blair years and New Labour
The explosion of reality TV (e.g., "Big Brother")
The London 2012 Olympics
The 2008 financial crisis
The rise of grime music (e.g., Stormzy, Skepta)
Tuition fee protests
Generation Z (Born 1997–2012)
Brexit and its political aftermath
The rise of TikTok and YouTube stars
Extinction Rebellion and climate change activism
"Fleabag" and the golden age of British TV
UK drill music (e.g., Headie One, Central Cee)
Student climate strikes
The COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on education
The Black Lives Matter movement in the UK
Please note that these are generalisations and not every individual from these generations will relate to these specific cultural reference points.
The thumbnail image is of Dr Graham Kings who was the Bishop of Sherborne (2009-2015).