Saturday, 22 June 2013

The Spread of Humanism


This week the Girl Guide movement in the UK decided to drop reference to God from their promise [1]; it is now sufficient for a guide to promise to “be true to myself and develop my beliefs”. The change was welcomed as a “progressive step” by the British Humanist Association, who have been long campaigning for this change, and were involved in the consultation process with the Girl Guides that led to this change [2]. This led me to wonder about the extent of the spread of humanism in the UK and whether it could be measured. I have modelled the growth and decline of churches, Islam, political parties, minority languages and rioting, among others, but could the spread of humanism be modelled?

What is Humanism?

Let’s start with a definition. The name humanism is applied to a number of movements in history notably during the Renaissance, but I wish to confine myself to the version that affects us now, so I will limit my definition to that of the British Humanist Association (BHA). In summary a humanist is someone [3]:

1.     Trust the scientific method and rejects supernatural explanations;
2.     Makes ethical decisions based on reason, empathy, and concern for human beings;
3.     Believes in the absence of an afterlife, that the universe has no discernable purpose, thus human beings give their own lives meaning by seeking happiness and helping others to do the same;

In addition the BHA say that a humanist looks to science instead of religion as the best way to understand the world.

Two things jump out: Humanism has an exalted view of science, and deems religion unnecessary. Indeed it is clear from the BHA’s campaigns against faith schools and bishops in House of Lords that humanism is opposed to religion. From the atheist bus campaign run by the BHA, a clear impression is given that humanists do not believe in God [4].

At its heart humanism is man-centred rather than God-centred. That comes out clearly in the revised Girl Guide promise, with “true” being defined by “self” and “my beliefs”, rather than reference to God. “Being true” is something the person can define rather than it being defined for them.

Is Humanism a “Religion”?

I ask this question as most of my modelling is in the context of churches and religion. So in order to understand how humanism is spreading it would help to see the similarities and contrasts with religion.

Humanism is a belief system; as such it does have some of the traits of a religion:
·      There is a set of beliefs that define orthodoxy. More fluid than those that define say evangelical Christianity, but sufficient to set boundaries so a person can know whether they are a humanist or not.
·      There are humanist ceremonies and celebrants for weddings, funerals and naming of children.
·      There is a missionary zeal to see others become humanists, as displayed on the BHA website. Dean Kelley sees missionary zeal as a trait of a strong religion [5].
·      There is an enemy to oppose – in this case religion, but also pseudoscience, anything that does not exclusively use the scientific method.
·      There are local groups for mutual encouragement. But these function more like local political party branches rather than a “congregation”. However note there is now an “atheist” gathering a bit like a church [6].
·      There is an external authority. Not a book like the Bible but science and its methods [7].
·      There is a certainty that the humanist view is correct and that they have the truth, as opposed to the poor misguided people who follow religion. This absolutism is similar to the trait of a strict religion [5].
·      There are campaigns of a moral nature. The BHA has campaigned vigorously for assisted dying and same-sex/equal marriage.
·      There are testimonies. The ones on the BHA website are mainly famous people and a significant number of intellectuals and scientists.
·      There are charismatic leaders to follow, such as Richard Dawkins and some of the others in the BHA. Unlike Dean Kelley’s trait of a strong religion [5] there is no requirement to follow these leaders un-questioningly. But among the humanists I know, there is an element of hero-worship, champions of the cause.

Clearly there some big differences between humanism and religion as well, most notably that of participation and organisation. It is this that will make it hard to model its spread

Measuring the Spread of Humanism

The spread of Christianity is relatively easy to quantify by measuring the number who participate. The two standard measures are membership, and if possible attendance at worship. Of course it is a feature of Christianity that regular attendance at worship is part of the defining characteristic of a Christian, more so than any other religion. Thus there is relatively good data for its growth in many countries, and its decline in Europe in the last 100 years can be easily measured.

This does not translate well to humanism, because apart from a few exceptions [6] there is no need to gather for anything similar to worship. Participation is limited to pressure groups like the BHA. They claim their membership has grown over the last few decades, but at a current value of over 28,000 members they are merely 10% of the number of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the UK, a fairly marginal religious group. The BHA is dwarfed by the participation in Christianity; indeed the recent Cwmbran Outpouring has had a larger attendance in 2 months than the BHA can boast in its entire membership [8]. Clearly the strength of humanism does not lie in its membership numbers, so alternatives need to be found.

Two possible sources of data are in weddings and funerals, both of which can now be taken by humanists, who provide celebrants. In a report in 2011 the Cooperative Society identified 12% of their funerals as humanist with no religious component, compared with 67% religious [9]. Also of significance was that 21% of funerals emphasised the celebration of the life of the person, very much a  humanist concept, as a funeral is really about what happens next! Looking forward rather than backward.

For weddings there are some telling statistics from Scotland. Here it is the person who licensed to marry, not the building. Humanists obtained this right in 2006 and conducted 434 weddings that year [10]. Since then the figures have risen 710 (2007), 1026 (2008), 1544 (2009), 2092 (2010) and 2486 (2011). Compare the 2011 figure with 5557 for the Church of Scotland and 1729 for the Catholic Church and humanists have the second largest “religious” weddings in Scotland. Civil weddings are still much larger, 15092, but humanism has made significant inroads into the marriage market in Scotland.

However the strength of humanism lies in its influence at high levels. The first 3 centuries of Christianity were very much a bottom-up movement, people on the ground associating and spreading their beliefs despite opposition from the state authorities and the majority of the population. It was only later that Christianity became top-down, with the state dictating to people what they should believe. Even when Christianity was established, revival movements were largely bottom-up. Leaders like Evan Roberts and Howell Harris were lay people, and ministers like John Wesley, David Morgan, Duncan Campbell and John Arnott, were very much on the margins of their church denominations.   

However humanism is very much top-down, influencing state and media to adopt its beliefs, something it has only been able to do because Christianity has become so weak. Thus it doesn’t require any mass participation. This lack of a bottom-up movement is particularly seen in the recent move for same-sex marriage in the UK, one of the central campaigns of the BHA.  Writer Brendan O’Neill, in his contribution to the House of Commons committee on the proposed legislation, remarked that same-sex marriage was an issue that “came out of thin air, and it is largely being pursued for the benefit of individual politicians and campaigners”, and that it “animates only people within the political and media classes”. He noted that it had no roots in social activism, and there had been no public protests demanding it, unlike previous gay rights issues.

I think this typifies the way humanism spreads from the top, changing institutions whose existence came about through a Christian worldview that has largely faded. If the church had been stronger, and had retained its participation levels of the 19th century, then humanism would have remained a marginal belief system for mainly intellectual people. Instead there is a “belief vacuum” in the UK with the vestiges of religion remaining. Thus humanism can exert an influence out of all proportion to its number of committed believers. This will make it very hard to model its spread, but when time permits I will give it a try.

Humanism in the Church

Perhaps even harder to model is the spread of humanist ideas within the church itself. Faced with falling numbers and decreasing influence in society, churches are very conscious of the need to be connected to society and to be relevant. Indeed seeker sensitive churches are a deliberate church growth strategy. “Look at us in church, we are just like you outside – come and join us!” The danger lies in confusing relevance with popularity. The need to be popular and liked is a basic human need and can easily drive churches to adopt aspects of the surrounding culture that diminishes its own beliefs. 

There is no space to develop these ideas for now, let alone work out how such changes within church could be measured and modelled. Sufficient to say that the biggest danger facing the church is not the spread of humanism outside, but the spread of humanism within it. As church strives harder and harder to be relevant to a humanistic society it risks becoming little more than “humanism with candles”.

References



[2] British Humanist Association.  

[3] British Humanist Association.   http://humanism.org.uk/humanism/

[4] The slogan in the buses was: “There’s probably no God”.  http://humanism.org.uk/about/atheist-bus-campaign/ . The word “probably” was inserted for legal reasons, and for scientific clarity as they admit no-one can be certain there is no God using a scientific method. “Probably” was interpreted as “almost certainly”.

[5] Dean Kelley, Why Conservative Churches are Growing, Rose edition, p 84 chart D, Mercer, 1986.

[6] The Sunday Assembly http://sundayassembly.com/

[7] As someone who has been a scientist for over 35 years I find the exaltation of science to be a sole authority in the search for truth a bit too optimistic and a type of fundamentalism. The issue is about increasing confidence in the truth of something. The different branches of science can play their part in that process, but it is only a part. Gaining confidence is an incredibly complicated process as it involves weighing different types of evidence, some quantitative, some qualitative and then trying to use it to convince many people. Science alone just does not have that power as the debates on climate change and genetically modified crops show. Managers of companies, politicians and policy makers cannot make decisions using science and rationality alone. Rationality is bounded, a fact which is central to the system dynamics modelling methodology (see: John Sterman, Business Dynamics, chapter 15, McGraw Hill, 2000; John Morecroft, Strategic Modelling and Business Dynamics, pp. 209-212, Wiley, 2008.)

[8] An estimated 40,000 have attended the Cwmbran Outporing since the middle of April 2013. Data given to me on my visit 20/6/13.

[9] The Ways We Say Goodbye: A study of 21st century funeral customs in the UK. Report of the Cooperative Funeral Care, 2011.

[10]  Scotland’s Population 2011, SG/2012/113, General Register Office for Scotland,      published  2 August 2012.

[11] Brendan O’Neill’s response to the House of Commons committee stage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill 2012-13 is reproduced on his own blog:

3 comments:

  1. Surely the key difference between a religious organisation and the BHA is that non-religious people feel much less compelled to join and take part in a non-religious organisation than religious individuals do. However that does not mean they don't support the aims and campaigns of that organisation. All of the BHA's policy positions have support of the majority of the population. Perhaps this is why they are successful, not because of some more sinister top-down infiltration.

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  2. Hi Anonymous. It is a nice theory that the majority of the population support the aims of humanism. I think there are writers in the press that assume this, and no doubt some politicians as well judging by some of the recent debates. However like all theories it needs evidence to support it. I have yet to see that compelling evidence. Most people do not practice religion, and from all the evidence I have seen they never have done, but it is not proof they are humanist or support their aims. Even if a poll or a census showed the majority do not believe there is a God, it still does not make them humanist. The latter is a more specific world view than the absence of something. I would suggest the majority of people do not have hard and fast beliefs on these issues, however they tick boxes. I wonder how many campaigns in history ever had "majority" support? More likely that the majority did not get in the way.

    There is nothing sinister about "infiltration" after all the influence of humanists is quite open. The number of people who set and influence opinion in a large group of people is always a minority, so that is inevitably going to be the case over religion and humanism or any other belief. I think history shows it is influential minorities that bring about change rather than majority opinion. However that is a theory that will require support :)

    The Christian faith never spread by majority support but by individuals, a small minority, who believed God has called them to convert the world, and has promised he will help them bring that about. I guess it is going to be difficult for anyone with a humanist perspective to get their head around that, I couldn't have done when I believed that system. But unless people see that is what we believe, and have that hope, church and what it does is going to be difficult for people outside it to understand.

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  3. I find humanism to be very sad and the fact that so many people accept it even sadder. At my uncle's humanist funeral it was basically "Well, that's it"--no comfort or hope for the future. Why did they gather? To talk about the fact that he was in a box and would be eaten by worms? Carl Sagan's autobiography was fascinating but, again, from a humanist point of view. His wife wrote the last chapter after he died, leaving a wife and teenage daughter with, again, no hope. I am thankful for the Hope I find in Jesus.
    Above, about humanism, you write ..."human beings give their own lives meaning by seeking happiness...." That sounds like life's all about selfishness and consumerism. In the US, a humanistic point of view is accepted and promoted by the media in all forms, openly and insidiously. Christians are subject to ridicule and jokes. Our pastor is always reminding us "It's not about you", which is not as palatable as being told that you can seek happiness to give your life meaning. The Girl Guides changing their motto is a sad decision to me and a sign of how acceptable it is to remove God from public life.

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