What attracts people to become members of humanist organisations? I have interviewed 80 humanists and atheists in Scotland, England, France, Estonia, Canada and the United States. Not all I interviewed were members of humanist organisations; some were members of atheist and secularist organisations only, not an organisation with ‘humanist’ in the title, and a small number (four) were past members of humanist organisations. Even then, a proportion of those people still responded positively to the term ‘humanist’.
People who join humanist organisations come from a variety of backgrounds. The majority seem to join a humanist organisation in middle age or later – say after 40 years of age, and many of them very much later on retirement between their late 50s and mid 60s; this makes them distinctly older than those who join Skeptic or Atheist groups. They come with “identity baggage”, with identities that had defined them in their childhood, youth and young adulthood. Those identities varied from the religious – being members of churches and sometimes clergy of churches – and other identities in terms of ethical and political positions. There is no simple formula for discerning the biography of humanists, and there are often multiple complex identities. But there are patterns which I want to explore briefly.
I found Humanists in the UK with conservative, liberal, socialist and communist backgrounds; in the USA I found people with republican, democratic and liberal backgrounds, and in Canada people with Conservative, New Democratic, Green and Liberal Party backgrounds (I didn’t interview any Bloc Quebecois humanists). In short there was a breadth of political belonging.
In the main, joining a humanist organisation did not represent a change of political allegiance. In some respects there was an acceptance that there was no overlap between humanism and politics, but in many there was distinctly an overlap.
Let me take the role of right-wing members. These were clearly much more influential in the USA than anywhere else I interviewed. For one thing, much of the American humanist and atheist movement has as its central aim what they see as upholding the First Amendment to the American Constitution – namely, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”. This division of church and state remains at the centre of American humanist leaders’ policies and members’ minds.
To give a flavour of this, here is extract from my interview with the leader of the Bay Area Atheists in San Francisco. Larry Hicok was born in 1949 in Oregon, that most liberal and least religious of American states. Yet he perceived his non-religious nature from youth onwards as engrossed within the freedom and constitutional issue. He told me of his upbringing in Albany, Oregon in the 1950s and early 1960s:
Well it was a very, very redneck, very intellectually and socially conservative place. I became — growing up in the middle of the Vietnam War. I very much opposed it. That wasn’t very popular in my small town. When I was a junior in high school I became fed up with the chaplain which we elected every year from the student body to say prayers at student body events like assemblies and games. And I contacted the ACLU in Portland and they said ‘we’ve been looking for someone like you.’ And I went to my principal and said you know ‘I’m willing to sue and the ACLU is willing to follow through on this so you really need to stop this practice. It’s illegal.’
And they stopped it. Larry is very proud of this moment of activism. He said: “Oh I, when I went to the principal I said ‘I’m an atheist.’ Yeah. I became an atheist around twelve or thirteen.” From there on, he clearly became set on a career of activism, going first into business, and then on taking over the Bay Area Atheists and turning them into a hard core campaigning organisation with some characteristics that might be found in Christian evangelicalism, and saw himself as crusading for the cause of freedom from religion in terms of local government, local education authorities, and so on. And though he had been opposed to the Vietnam war in his youth, there seemed to be a transfer of core freedom principles from economics and business to atheist campaigning.
This leads to a wider point about the links between humanism and patriotism. There is no obvious linkage in Britain to such a link, nor indeed amongst the other Europeans I have interviewed. There is a general sense of pride amongst some concerning the religious polices of their home nation, ranging across the Swiss, French, Belgian, Swedish and Estonian. But it is with the Americans that you get a strong sense that patriotism rests in their humanism and atheism. I interviewed several members of the Boston Ethical Society, and there was a strong feeling of pride in their belonging to an organisation with such a central place in the history of freedom from religion in the USA. In relation to Scotland, nationalism was little discussed with me. Interestingly, a lot of the members of the Humanist Society of Scotland I interviewed were not born in Scotland; almost half were born in England or Northern Ireland, with a sprinkling from Europe.
Many of my interviewees came from a left-wing background, and these tended to be in the easy majority amongst UK humanists. Indeed, so much so, that right-wing British humanists acknowledge that they keep their heads down. This came over in relation to gay rights. I interviewed two UK humanists who were opposed to gay rights, either in part or in toto. One man told me:
Things like homosexuality I feel that’s not an immoral thing, whether it’s one of the loathing and disgust or non-understanding, and my attitude towards feminine and masculine homosexuality is quite different, very negative with masculine. Why? I don’t know, you know. I am saying that just so you know that, but I couldn’t explain it, I couldn’t rationalise it.
Notwithstanding this breadth, I found that amongst left and liberal members there was something of a mythology that the humanist movement was a liberal one, with liberal and left-leaning credentials exemplified in things like support of a woman’s right to choose on abortion, on gay rights, on health care and the National Health Service, and similar issues. The mythology applied amongst liberal-left Humanists on both sides of the Atlantic. There is a strong core sense that humanism stands for a caring philosophy which finds political expression in welfarism in Canada and Europe. This was undoubtedly strongest in Britain.
It is difficult, therefore, to see political alignment as a main reason for joining humanist organisations, except in the USA, because of this diversity of political ideology. Perhaps it is possible to conceive of two or more ideological myths as co-existing side-by-side, and each helping recruitment to organised Humanism.
The majority of my interviewees were men. This applied almost everywhere. Humanist and Atheist organisations I spoke to have a majority of men, mostly middle-aged or older, as members and organisers. The youngest age group I found was in San Francisco, where there were 8 women in a hall of 49 people. The one group with a majority of women was the Ethical Society of Boston. I attended their Sunday morning meeting, and two-thirds of the 40 people there were female. But everywhere else, men dominated.
About 40 per cent of members of humanist organisations were heterosexual couples. This was a most significant demographic phenomenon. Of these, my impression of those I met and interviewed is that the instigator of the joining was the man, though in a handful of cases it was 50-50 – such as an elderly academic couple who had been instigators for the founding of the Montreal Humanist Group in the 1960s, and one Scottish couple, both of whom had been very active in the Humanist Society of Scotland. Of the members who were not in a couple, almost all were male and married. Of the women not in a couple, everyone was single, widowed or divorced. Of the gay members, none I met were members with a partner.
The 20 per cent of members who were female partners of a male humanist formed an important group at meetings. They tended to socialise together, to make, arrange or serve the tea and food, and they were the least likely to speak. It appeared that they were the most passive of members, and were there to accompany their husbands. But I interviewed quite a number of them, and their story was quite distinctive. They were there for the fellowship, a word that kept cropping up. They had often been members of churches before, and they wanted a replication of the fellowship they had experienced in a religious (usually Christian) congregation. In the USA and Canada, many had been in Unitarian Universalist congregations, and some were still combining both; those who had left had only done so because of the advent of a stronger ‘religious’ dimension to their meeting.
These women felt that Humanist organisations were poorly organised, being too devoted to male speakers philosophising on yet more reasons for saying that God did not exist. They understood these arguments, saw the need for them, but were a little tired of hearing it reiterated weekly. They were the least interested in campaigning, but they wanted to meet and discuss, and for many to do some form of charitable work. They tended to want to socialise much more than the men. They were stalwarts of Humanist groups. Despite their quietness, they were the social glue that held these groups together. They organised social meetings outside the group, often dinners at each others’ homes, or outings for picnics or visits to museums or zoos. Little acknowledged, their silent presence was vital to humanist organisations. And they felt that more should be done to cater for their desires and needs.
Many of the older Humanists I interviewed, those over 40 years of age, came with what I call ‘religious baggage’. The over 40s were almost invariably raised in a religion and a church. Some came with a very strong sense of religion as a background trauma in their lives. A few had belonged to religious sects which were very closed communities, and had great difficulty in leaving and were pestered long afterwards. I interviewed 4 Jehovah’s witnesses in this regard, one of them a JW overseer and district organiser. I interviewed a total of 4 clergy, including 2 Episcopalians and a Catholic priest. One was a prominent Islamist speaker, and his leaving seemed to be most dangerous. He feared for his safety continually. He lost everything in coming out. He came out as gay and atheist, losing his wife and child, and also lost his job for separate reasons. He later found humanism:
Well, I wanted my comment to be part of the recording if it’s possible. I am keen for my journey to be shared, and for that to be to, to add insight. There are two elements that make me apprehensive, the amount of taboos that I have breached, both in Middle Eastern culture, Islamic religion, societal norms as far as sexual practice, that are all mentioned in the interview. When I am dealing with culture, that doesn’t just deal intellectually disapprovingly with those matters but can often deal physically, and violently with those issues. That can be a disincentive for any one person to identify themselves. … There is no sense of shame about my journey. Actually I am very proud of myself for having been willing to, at each time I have moved from the comfort and protection of one set of thinking and beliefs with its accompanying friends and networks, I have been proud of the fact that I have been able to, well, run the risk of losing relationships and infrastructure, and move into new territory where I might have to rebuild new network of friends and co-believers, if, that’s a laden term, but people who share my views.
Another gay man was also prominent, as an Episcopalian priest. His name is Dick Hewetson. But rather than being afraid he was joyous on coming out in his late 20s as a gay atheist, almost on the same day.
I got a job with the state employment service in St. Paul, Minnesota and went to work there which was, which was a very smart move. But I still helped out in churches on Sundays, like when priests were on vacation. And from ’67 to ’72, that was 5 more years, I, in one way or another, was involved with the church and in 1972 something was going on and I was having a terrible time, particularly coming up with sermon material, you know, I could go through the motions of the [Laughs] the service but really trying to preach was difficult because I realised that I really didn’t — I didn’t buy into any of this and it’s kind of interesting ‘cos I sort of went full circle from not, you know — well I didn’t have any belief because nobody gave me any belief as a kid but — and in August of 1972, I remember it so vividly, I went to mass at the church in St. Paul that I went to when I wasn’t helping out somewhere and I could not wait for that service to end and as soon as it ended I, I think I literally ran down the aisle [Laughs] and out of the church and somehow knew that I was never going to go to church again in my life.
For perhaps a quarter of my respondents, there was trauma in losing religion. Annette Horton was raised in the Catholic Church in Devon, and she grew up with tales of abuse to women, and was herself abused by a priest, and then later in life by university lecturers in London, becoming a psychologist who helped female abuse victims.
But my mother, as I was saying, she came from a very very large family of Roman Catholic. So there were seventeen live births in the family that I know of anyway and so my grandmother was pregnant almost non-stop from the age of sixteen to forty-nine. And I never met her husband but they they tended to be on the borderland of criminal element. Often — Because they were really poor and so I know my grandfather was in and out of jail and he was an alcoholic and my grandmother was an alcoholic and my mother was. And so all I heard from my mother was about the Catholic Church. I mean she’d go on and on as a she had been physically abused by one of the priests and so had a couple of her sisters, and that it was absolutely terrible being born right in the middle of this huge family, and she’s often said she’s never forgiven her mother for what she saw as the incongruities between having multiple fathers to her children yet never using birth control so that was a really strong influence in my growing up years. And there’d be — She’d often tell me you know of her sisters having to do their — do abortions you know and so that was a huge strong influence. It was very negative against the Catholic Church.
For others still, trauma in personal lives triggered doubts about faith and the church, and fostered need for alternative narratives about the world. There was a strong negative attitude towards churches, and for some towards the clergy. But amongst others, there was an attitude that their journey to non-religion was something personal to them, a personal decision to seek alternatives to religious ways of thinking and doing things. This was sometimes sad and traumatic, sometimes exhilarating. The most interesting, perhaps, was a young woman from Cambridge, a student, who had participated in evangelising work with the Scripture Union in China, and on her return was involved in a spectacular car accident that involved no serious injuries to anybody. The car took off in a collision, and the woman, Valerie Raoul, recalled:
… as we were flying through the air (laughter) I can remember thinking I don’t believe in life after death and imagining this policeman announcing to my mother that we were all dead (still laughing). And I think, I do think that from that moment on I felt I was living a hypocritical life by still going to church.
There is a sense amongst those who are leaving a religion or church that they want a life-stance label. For some, this is to find fellowship. Here’s the reaction of Ken Matthews from East Kilbride in Scotland:
Christopher Brookmeyer [a novelist], he is one of the leading Humanists. He was on [the stage] and it was being broadcast, and I think it was Kirsty Wark’s, and she actually said, ‘Before we start this meeting, people who believe in God put their hands up’. It was only about six, and this was in the main library reading room, there must have been around four-five hundred at it, and only six out their hands up. And you know, at that point there and then I suddenly felt I am in church. I was in a church for atheists, and I suddenly felt as if I wasn’t the only one and again it is a bit less of work when you come in and you say I am not worthy, then you realise, give me a minute, so I got this realisation in this hall at that point. And I wasn’t all that much aware of the Humanist Society at that time, must have been four or five years ago and somebody said, ‘that is like going to a church for atheists’, that’s was fabulous, that’s what the Humanists are, a church for atheists.
Now, not all share that view. As we shall see. But for some of those leaving a church, there is a need to be able to say – “that’s what I am”.
2. Adoption of humanism
The approach to Humanism for many is a search. They will speak about looking through various means for something to make their lives feel whole.
First the religious seekers who keep looking for a religion but find humanism. This is quite a large group, and, perhaps surprisingly, I found them to be mostly male. My first example is Peter Barton, born in 1921 in London, of “vaguely religious” parents (Church of England). During his youth and twenties and thirties, he kept searching in religions through reading. He was the classic intellectualiser of religion, and in the 1950s read widely in Greek philosophy and in eastern mystics including the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi before he became famous in the west. He read Socrates and Plato and a long list of gurus. He came to the conclusion that religion was believed by what he called ‘simple folk wishing to find some sense to it all’. But he didn’t go around telling people they are wrong. But he told me he is dismayed by otherwise intelligent people who hold to such beliefs, particularly later in their lives. In one respect he doesn’t like labels that separate people, and, if forced to, he says he would self-label as “sentient animalist“. In the end he says it was his wife’s certainty about good and bad in life that led him to accept that charitable work was important to the work of humans, and humanist described this for him. And it was Plato and Socrates on an intellectual level who confirmed him of this, supplemented by Wittgenstein, Sartre, Jung, Dawkins and Robert Pirsig.
This kind of intellectual journey is cited by perhaps 10 per cent of those I interviewed. But then, joining a humanist organisation is sometimes regarded as unnecessary by the intellectuals. Very large numbers of my interviewees cite reading as part of their sense of belonging to a community. Richard Dawkins is by far the most mentioned individual: he is cited 107 times in my compendium of 80 testimonies. He is mentioned in different ways. Some say he provides a scientific reasoning for why they hold their position. Some cite him as a great speaker, as a firm opponent of church influence and the absence of reason. A minority regard him as more the atheist than the humanist, and see him as too argumentative and even rude. Engineers and scientists mention him the most in a positive light. But he is often mentioned along with Christopher Hitchins and Sam Harris as a triumvirate of reason collectively providing a sense of belonging to the atheist diaspora. Very many of those I spoke with I interviewed in their homes, and they several fetched their copies of books by these three authors as some kind of proof of their having become fully paid-up members of this identity.
Many Humanists speak of a journey which came to an end in the 1990s or 2000s when they accidentally found humanism. A few found it earlier in life. Here is Ivan Middleton’s account.
I was a bit looking to rebel I guess. It wasn’t making too much sense to me the whole church thing at all, but I thought well, I hadn’t quite rejected Christianity, I remember going to, in a search, I went to a Catholic mass which I couldn’t understand a word cause it was in Latin and the most, then one of the most frightening experience in my life I think was I went to an evangelical meeting, and because I hadn’t had a hand at the evangelical bit, you know about you need to be saved and hell and damnation, we didn’t have any of that s**t. So suddenly here are these people standing up and claiming to be alcoholics and beating their wives, they’ve gambled their money away and this guy, but they’re all going but he found Jesus and praise be to God. And so I was thinking that was pretty frightening and then the next guy gets up and he drank twice as much as the previous guy, beat both his wives up and then gambled everybody’s money away. And then I just I started looking for the exit at this point thinking that these, these blokes should be locked up really, they are crazy. So I possibly, I think maybe tried Methodist but I was you know, nothing was sort of clicking with me and then I think, I think, it must have been the Belfast Telegraph an ad or something saying Humanist meeting and I thought I am not sure what this is, on my search on the journey I thought well that’s worth going along to.
Ivan was one of only two of those who were over 40 who said that they had found humanism in their youth. It was very unusual in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, but has now in the last 10 years, especially the last 5 years, become very common amongst university students to explore atheism and humanism. The searching has definitely got shorter, and indeed for many now it is a product of growing up in a family without religion and finding humanism as a ready explanation of their existing worldview.
Which leads me on to my final category of belonging to Humanist organisations. Discovery is something that happens in two major ways. Firstly, those who have become already lost a religion and who live their adult lives mostly without any life stance. They come upon humanism classically late in life, often at retirement, and find in it a moral universe that provides them with not merely explanation but also activity. Those who are active in the Humanist movement have been classically late arrivals. Larry Hicok in Oregon was unusual. The classic humanist is born in his or her 60s.
This group is the very backbone of British, Canadian and much of American humanism, ethical societies and atheism. They devote much time and energy to their cause, and often find particular aspects of the cause to pioneer in campaigning. When they did join, they generally ad not counted themselves specifically as ‘humanist’ before hand. They held a world view which had no name. This discovery of ‘humanism’ as a label which described themselves is very common amongst both old and young. In this regard, joining the movement tends not to change their attitudes; it affirms them.
The last category is those how join for the simple reason of wanting to try the organisation, or to get married., This is a very large statistical group in some countires, perhaps even as much as 70 per cent of the membership of the Humanist Society of Scotland with its large-scale state-recognised marriages. Some join to get married and then stay on. One such couple I met were the Bulmers in Leith in Edinburgh, who were married by Ivan Middleton in their living room overlooking the Firth of Forth. Others joined because they liked the wedding and the vows they are allowed to draw up themselves. Another couple I met who got an English humanist wedding, Ian and Sheralee Hays-Fry, had very clear principles of human behaviour which they felt were met by joining just for the wedding:
We had been together 10 years when we got married and that starting to make the decision that we might get married, if we could do this and if we could do that and, we both said “well we’d like a sense of ceremony and meaning and we would like to say things to each other that mean something to us but not just swearing in front of God” basically. And that’s when we found the [British] Humanist Association, and looked at that and thought “That’s it, that’s exactly what we are looking for, we are looking for a way of having some ceremony and meaning to what we are doing without it being false.” And it was fantastic. I looked at how they handled funerals and christenings and just thought this is, this is for me, the beliefs that were written down. I mean I got leaflets from them that sort of thing, just seemed massive common sense really.
There is a suspicion that many get Humanist weddings without really buying into Humanism. I think that argument may be taken too far. There was real understanding of principle, and pride in what it stood for, involved in those I met with who had married in a Humanist format.
Humanists have at their core a series of principles of human behaviour and interaction which they find best expressed by the Humanist organisations they join. They don’t as I far as I can tell experience a significant change to their outlook as a result of joining. It is the glove that fits. And it fits when they find a broad church – an expression used more than once to me – which they feel provides a degree of freedom for diverse views.
The diversity issue is one that needs to be recognised, I feel. I came across people holding views that might not meet the agreement of all. One area was in the use of the word ‘spirituality’. This word was used 149 times in my interviews. Here it is explained by a woman from Fife who I interviewed:
I think it’s some time since I’ve left the term Agnostic behind. I’m an Athe — I don’t believe in God, I do not believe there is a God, although, you know, at one of the meetings recently we also — some of us were having a debate, we also said “define God”. And I think there is this whole different thing around there and it’s that line that was on the screen too, the sort of spirituality in Humanism. I would describe myself as an Atheist, I don’t believe in God (pause). But I’m not convinced there isn’t another, not Being (pause) I don’t know, I can’t find a word for it, whether it’s another force, another dimension which we don’t, as yet, properly understand. I’m not convinced there isn’t something. I’m not convinced that, you know. I don’t believe in a hereafter, I don’t believe in “in my father’s house there are many mansions” and all the rest of it; it’s not about that (pause) but I think there may be something we have yet to fully understand and I don’t know if “utilise” is the best word but at the moment that dimension and the understanding of that dimension still currently escapes us. Where that sits with Humanism, I’m not sure. But I don’t see that dimension as being a controlling one, so I can’t put it up to the level of God
CB : Ok
Ok? I don’t see that, even if I was trying to define God in that way, I wouldn’t because I don’t think it’s, I don’t think it’s a dimension which controls our — world in any way.
This type of conversation, full of unfinished clauses, hesitations, grasping for a word to fit, was quite common in my interviews, almost entirely from women. It’s a discussion that represents an important position within organised Humanism. It’s one which I know some feel they have to conceal because they feel it’s not the ‘party line’ within organised humanism. They feel guilt and are withdrawn about their “secret”. It would certainly cut Humanist numbers to lose such supporters.
The membership of Humanist organisations are there for many reasons. One that strikes me as least recognised and most in need to attention is the search for fellowship. This is the biggest stumbling block to a satisfied membership that I have come across in England, Scotland, Canada and USA. If nothing else, it will make the movement appear more female friendly.
This was a talk given by Callum Brown to the Royal Society of Edinburgh funded Humanist Research Workshop at the University of Glasgow, on 7 March 2014.