Community matters is a new series where using my experience with a range of atheist, humanist, secularist and other community groups, I will be considering the challenges and opportunities facing AHS+ groups in a post-pandemic world. The series will feature practical advice and strategic analysis for anyone who wants to run, revive, reform, or start a new, AHS+ group. Other groups in this space may offer specific advice for local groups following their own approach. If you want an atheist activist group, a humanist community, a secularist campaign or a skeptics in the pup meetup, you may find additional advice. I’ll be using the umbrella term AHS+, or nonreligious where appropriate, for any community group organised around an atheist, humanist, secularist or similar (e.g., freethought or skeptic) belief or identity.
The collapse of religious adherence and broad secularisation represent perhaps the biggest demographic and social change in the UK’s recent history. It is also a change that government, public services, and our community sector has largely failed to respond to. The only comparable demographic change is our post-war transition to an undeniably multicultural nation.
Meeting the needs of the nonreligious (when looking at demographic data, I am forced to use nonreligious as a proxy for AHS+ identities), and indeed of all communities, in an increasingly secularised society, experiencing a loneliness epidemic, and where many institutions of shared culture and belonging have declined, is a challenge we all should grapple with.
Most nonreligious communities are passively rather than actively secular: a political party, knitting group, book club or park run fulfils many of our social needs. We have no shortage of online groups for people wishing to explore and connect with AHS+ ideas, but how many real-world communities do we need?
According to the National Churches Trust, there are around 40,300 Churches in the UK, where slightly under half of us are religious and Christianity merely the largest minority. That’s not to suggest we should be aiming for tens of thousands of atheist churches. That high number is largely a result of our more religious history, meaning these were once de-facto community centres and continue to be used for a range of secular purposes.
One may look around at the number of Sunday Assemblies, humanist groups and skeptics in the pubs meetup, and wonder if we have the need or space for more. I believe that our communities would be stronger, and better served with quite a bit more. Let’s start with population and some very conservative figures:
The British Social Attitudes Survey (18+ doesn’t cover Northern Ireland) consistently says that around or just over half of the population are nonreligious, around three quarters of the population are 20 or older, the UK population is about 66.8 million. So, call it 25,000,000 nonreligious adults
For many their non-religion will simple be a default. Let’s say it is only a somewhat active or important part of their identity for one in four. That would be 6,250,000 people.
How many of these people would be interested in being part of some sort of AHS+ community? By that I don’t mean one time contacting the National Secular Society if they have a problem with proselytising in their school, or Humanists UK when they need a nonreligious funeral. I also don’t mean attending every single possible meeting of a group. Let’s say 2.5% would be interested in attending a Sunday Assembly, a Skeptics in the Pub, or Humanist Group a few times a year. (Bear in mind that 11% of British Christians claim to attend church once a week.) That would be 156,250 people.
How many groups would that support? Some people will be part of multiple groups, a regular humanist meeting in a pub may only need 50 members to get a regular turn out of a dozen or so, a Sunday Assembly may need 1,000 members to sustain a regular attendance of 100 or so. Let’s say on average we need one group per 300 people. That would equate to 521 groups. So, there is certainly a lot of room for growth.
The UK’s non-Christian faith communities represent a population less than a fifth that of the nonreligious. Yet our Jewish citizens support 454 synagogues (56% of Jewish households are members), our Muslim neighbours support 1,500 mosques (around 20% may attend weekly), our Sikh friends support 300 gurdwaras (39% claim to go weekly) and, our Hindu communities support around 400 temples and faith organisations.
That’s just looking at the general population, there are other specific subgroups that man support more groups. For example there are 600 student unions across the UK, how many could have a student AHS+ group?
I believe these figures are conservative, but play around with your own:
(Nonreligious population) * (active identity %) * (willing to be part of a community %) / (average people per community) = sustainable number of groups.
One might say it is easier to maintain an AHS+ or any community group in a more densely populated area, with more connections and potential meeting places, than say a disperse rural community where the only meeting spaces are a church hall or conservative pub. Another way to look at it is that there are 203 urban areas in the UK with populations over 50,000, 356 with over 30,000 and 531 over 20,000. Many of the largest population areas already sustain multiple groups in the AHS+ space. That makes my estimate of 521 sustainable groups look pretty reasonable.
Thanks for reading
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