Activism matters: Heidi Nicholl, Humanists Australia

In activism matters we meet activists and leaders working in a variety of atheist, humanist, and secularist spaces. This week we spoke with Heidi Nicholl, CEO of Humanists Australia, about routes into leadership, the day to day and challenges of leading a new organisation.

How did you become CEO of Humanists Australia?

My background is a mixture of ethics – which I have a PhD in – and small business. I did both things simultaneously for around ten years but when I met an Australian and moved here in 2016 I evaluated where my career was, and where I’d like it to be, and basically I decided to try and smash the ethics and small business skills together! I asked myself how I could combine the various skills from both and this took me into non-profit leadership.

My first non-profit CEO role was in an organisation working with patients who live with ME/CFS (myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome). These patients have been systemically harmed by a medical system that has traditionally side-lined and disbelieved them – instead of seeing it as an under-researched disease which affects huge numbers of people. I was able to bring my skillset to help the organisation grow and move forward. After three years I really wanted to do something more firmly centred around my strong ethics background. I’ve been interested in secularism and ethics for a really long time, and I was familiar with Humanists Australia, so when I saw the job come up I jumped at it. I got on with the board from the outset and I am really excited and grateful to have this opportunity.

What does your day-to-day job entail?

Well yesterday was a good example as I spent some time emailing and in meetings but the main things I focused on were – sending a heap of letters to MPs requesting a meeting to introduce the organisation and the work that we’re doing, finalising a submission in support of Voluntary Assisted Dying for the state of New South Wales and in the afternoon (until gone 8pm!) I focused on slides for a conference I’m presenting at soon.

The conference is a multi-faith perspective on palliative care and I will be the first humanist that has ever presented and been on the panel. Part of my preparation involved reading The Death of David Hume – letter from Adam Smith LL.D to William Strahan Esq. It’s in a book called Thinking about Death which was published about 20 years ago by the Humanist Philosophers’ Group and the British Humanist Association. It’s a tough subject (the existential problems of being a humanist in pandemic times) but it’s an absolute joy to be able to do this kind of reading, research and writing as part of my actual job.

Today I’ve had a meeting about next year’s board meetings, another catch up on my email, some conversations about our quarterly brand magazine and this afternoon I have a meeting about some marketing and advertising plans we have. Tomorrow I have a campaign meeting for a political campaign we’re working on with some other Australian secular organisations and I’ll be preparing for a focus group around our celebrants and ceremonies program. So, it’s very variable and very interesting. I have a lovely team that I work with – and I take three days off every third week to work on a book I’m writing about how to be a humanist! I feel very lucky.

Humanists Australia is itself a very new organisation, what are the biggest challenges and opportunities that come with that?

The best opportunity is that the team and I can really scope out what we want the organisation to be from the ground up – in twenty-first century Australia. The challenges are that every individual person has a perception of what they think it ought to be and what the focus areas should be. We kind of don’t have any baggage because we’re new but we simultaneously acquired lots of baggage from trying to bring the existing state based orgs along with us.

Does your background as an academic bring a unique perspective to your activism, or did activism bring a unique perspective to your academia?

I wouldn’t describe myself as either an academic or activist! I do have a PhD and I really enjoyed the process of working on that. Prior to my PhD I was involved in academic research as a scientist but I was always a technician, assistant or manager. Post PhD I did quite a bit of teaching and some ‘doing’ (e.g. being an ethicist in a hospital setting) but as I didn’t do research I wasn’t ever the lead academic at all.

I have also always said that I’m not an activist. I’m more the thoughtful one in the background trying to make sure that my own thinking is coherent. That’s important to me. I can support causes – I can strongly support causes (!) but I’m better at organising and managing across the finances, marketing, priority setting etc rather than being the one out in front holding a sign. I do very little of that – perhaps some occasional T shirt wearing! If there’s a protest happening for a cause I’m involved with I’m usually on the side talking to security or briefing politicians who are attending or recording a video. I’m only the one in front for a short period of time.

What do you think are the biggest differences between grassroots activism and professional lobbying/campaigning?

I think there’s really a place for both as they are different skillsets and appeal to people who are good at, and enjoy, different things. I’m much better at lobbying and campaigning. I’m good with politicians one to one – I can be efficient with getting someone across our message and I can be pragmatic about moving things forwards. I think activism requires a lot of tenacity and staying completely focused. I’m more of a multi-tasker and a ‘keep the wheels turning’ person.

What qualities do you think are needed to be an effective leader in the atheist, humanist or secularist space?

I think leadership skills are probably the same regardless of the space. The most important ones as a non-profit leader are probably the ability to take people with you by conveying your vision – showing people your ‘flag on the hill’ – and the ability to deliver a bit of a ‘Henry V’ speech – “come into battle with me!” The other big thing is that people need to be confident that you can deliver what you say you’ll deliver. You have to be reliable and, if at all possible, under-promise and over-deliver.

What advice would you give to someone who feels that what they have to contribute could make a career in or lead an organisation focusing in this space?

You can become a non-profit leader from many different routes whether its finance, marketing, HR, running programs etc. the key thing is to deliver your part with absolute excellence. There can be a perspective that there is a lower bar to entry in non-profits. I really don’t think there’s a huge difference – if you’re going to be the leader of a group that really makes a difference you have to be highly competent, reliable, committed and strategic. Knowing when to sweat the small stuff and when to focus on the big picture is a good ability to develop as well.

Thanks for reading

Let me know what you thought of this article and if you want to hear more. If you value this content and are able to financially support it, that would be great. Just £2 a month would help with hosting and other costs, help improve our content.

If you are, or can recommend, an activist or leader in the AHS+ space who would like to be featured in a future interview in this series, please get in touch.

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Picture information: Pattern composed of Humanists Australia’s logo

Community matters: Four exercises to define your group

There are a lot of groups operating in the atheist, humanist, secularist space, but a lot of the community is underserved. These simple exercises can help you decide what sort of group to start or refresh.

The community matters series uses my experience with a range of atheist, humanist, secularist and other community groups, to consider the challenges and opportunities facing AHS+ groups in a post-pandemic world.

These are all exercises that I’ve created with a focus on AHS+ activism, though could be adapted for any sort of community organising. They can be done by an individual or organising committee.

Compass points

There’s a risk in trying to be all things to all people and so failing to develop a clear purpose. This exercise uses four ‘compasses’ to help find your direction.

Focus compass: (From north going clockwise): atheist, secularist, plus, humanist

Activity compass: campaign, learn, philosophy, social

Style compass: fun, amateurs, serious, experts

Approach compass: conciliatory, challenging, principled, safe

These are easier to understand with the visualisation below. The idea is that the compasses force you to think about your approach and the need to pick a direction. You might want to be both an activist group that campaigns, and a philosophy group that discusses books, but those are pulling in two opposite directions.

Rather than, overly defining any of these terms, it is best to use them how you or the group think best.

Forcing yourself, or your organising committee, to decide on only one point per compass would give your group a lot of focus and direction. However, if this is too narrow it might limit appeal or be restricting.

If voting, one idea is to give each participant three votes per compass. They could spread them over a couple of points, or focus on a specific direction. But the odd number will force at least some decision making. You can use the votes to give a general sense of direction, or be very mathematical and average out the exact position on each compass decided by the group, whatever works for you.

Defining your range

For a group to succeed, the broader your location, the narrower your focus should be and vice versa. This can be illustrated with two extremes.

If I wanted to start a meetup group for left wing, atheist, comic book fans in my small town of twenty thousand people, there wouldn’t be enough of them to make a critically sustainable number. A humanist meetup group or secular community with a broad range of family friendly activities might fit well here.

If I wanted to start a group covering all sorts of atheist, humanist, secularist and similar issues across the whole of the UK, then I wouldn’t have anything unique to distinguish myself from larger established national groups, and it wouldn’t be clear what my group is for. A new national group would have to focus on a specific issue or approach.

If you want to do something that is broad both in location and focus, then a group or organisation may not be your best bet. You might want to think instead in terms of an online blog, or community, and your unique selling point.

The secular spectrum

I touched on this in my article on the importance of actively secular spaces. Think about the following spectrum, and where you would like your group to sit.

Actively religious > passively religious > passively nonreligious > actively nonreligious > passively irreligious > actively irreligious.

Depending on context, you might want to change nonreligious to secular, and irreligious to atheist, or antireligious.

See the linked article for more of a discussion on the spectrum and why we shouldn’t overlook the importance and inclusive potential of actively nonreligious, or secular, spaces.

If doing this as a group, set up a table with the different ends representing the spectrum, and allow everyone to place a token before discussing. This works better than marks on a piece of paper as tokens can be moved, and the hands on activity is more engaging. If detail is important to you, you can represent the range as 1-18, and have people vote.

Like this, but that

This exercise is a good one to get your group’s mission or identity to emerge, if you have a lot of different ideas or inspirations. It also helps think about your environment, relationships with different groups, and the type of help or relationship you may want from them.

It works by writing down statements about what you want your group to be, that follow a specific format:

Like [other group or project], but [different focus, location, style etc.]

If you’re doing this as a group, try to get a good range of statements up on a board or on the table and arrange into themes before discussing in detail. Some examples might be:

  • Like Merseyside Skeptics, but in Newcastle
  • Like the National Secular Society, but local to Newcastle
  • Like Humanists UK, but focussed on environmentalism
  • Like Sunday Assembly, but focussed on activism
  • Like Skeptics in the Pub, but more open to families
  • Like the local humanist group, but for younger people

Thanks for reading

Let me know what you thought of this article and if you want to hear more. If you value this content and are able to financially support it, that would be great. Just £2 a month would help with hosting and other costs, help improve our content.

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How should faith groups engage with the post-religious majority?

On a recent episode of the Beyond Atheism podcast, one of the hosts said something of the nonreligious that really crystalised an issue I’ve been thinking about. “We’re going to take over”. By which they mean, not that a secret atheist cabal is about to seize power and make humanism the state religion of any Western country, but just that societies are going to keep getting less religious and that brings changes far more profound than simple the number of people in Church on a Sunday, or who say they believe in a god on a survey.

We can debate different measurements of the breadth or depth of Britain’s emerging nonreligious majority. But few can argue that this is one of the most significant social and demographic changes in our history with huge implications for public policy and civil society. This shift raises questions we all have a stake in answering.

One aspect that atheists, humanists and secularists – at least those outside religious communities – may not have given enough attention is what happens to faith groups, and how they might relate or adapt to this shift. If these groups don’t engage with this shift, they will lose their chance to help shape that future.

This article focuses on the largest Christian denominations where the UK’s religious decline have been most evident, and which are most used to the trappings of majority privilege. So, what strategies could they adopt?

1. Ignore their decline

This week, the head of England’s established church insisted they are “not on the way out” despite figures next year expected to show a 70th consecutive year of declining attendance.

2. Reverse their decline

People tend to leave organised religion, or never become religious for three main reasons: (1) intellectual objections, (2) moral objection, or (3) finding religion irrelevant. Despite huge investment in evangelism and proselytisation, across many denominations, Christian groups have been almost totally unable to reverse this decline. The only groups growing are relatively small ones often mealy feeding off the larger groups. The CofE have invested £240 million since 2017 in trying to “plant” new churches and attract younger worshippers, with very little impact and even their head of evangelism seems to acknowledge this is a doomed project.

3. Entrench their privilege

Along with just ignoring their decline, this seems to be the main strategy of the CofE and larger denominations. The CofE have received £750m in public money over the last five years, maintain a special position in Parliament, and control or influence thousands of state schools. They can’t attract young people to worship but can keep the mandate on worship in schools. The decline in religion has in many ways not affected religious influence in government. The problem for the churches is the same faced by political parties who decide to abandon appealing to the majority in favour of rigging the system to stay in power, once you go down that path it is hard to stop.

4. Embrace minority status

Britain’s faith groups may have little to fear from majority status. Secularism and the separation of church and state protect pluralism and minority beliefs. The nonreligious tend to be much more tolerant of minority groups. Humanists don’t get together to burn heretics. Even if religious people become a smaller and smaller minority in terms of population percentage, they will still be a large group. In my article on how many nonreligious groups we need, I point out that despite being less than a fifth the size of the nonreligious population, non-Christians support thousands of faith organisations. Our society has thriving communities organised around all sorts of niche pursuits and fringe interests.

5. Retreat from society

This would be the more negative flip side of the last strategy. If they realise their limited appeal to and declining influence on wider society, religious groups could embrace fringe status. They could become increasingly insular or cult like.

6. Secularise

Many Christian denominations adapt their beliefs to a modern understanding of the world, moving towards a more naturalistic or allegorical understanding of religion could just be one more evolution. Many people connected to faith communities already have a humanist worldview or secularist politics. Why not embrace that? Religions could adapt to secular society by losing the off-putting religious aspects and keeping the social structures. Imagine a Church of England run Sunday Assembly or secular Catholic congregation. Religious groups could become hugely influential civil society groups, using their organisational skills, experience and vast financial assets for genuine good.

7. Find a new role

From a business perspective, the problem facing churches is that they have a range of secondary products – community, charitable activities, interesting buildings to visit etc. – that are somewhat popular. But despite all their efforts they are increasingly unable to leverage this to promote their primary product, religion. If a coffee shop was selling more books than coffee, and their drinks were both was ethically suspect and unpalatable, at some point they’d just become a bookshop. Rather than trying to use social service to bring people into religion, why not just do it for its own good?

8. Support institutionalised nonreligion

One way that the CofE have maintained their privileged position and power is by astutely sharing some of it with other religions, thereby reducing the tendency of minority religions to favour a more secularist approach. This is less successful for the nonreligious, who are by their nature less institutional. Getting a seat for humanists at the table of local committees discussing religious education for example. But if religious groups were to better involve institutional nonreligious or irreligious groups in interfaith networks and their influence on government, they could maintain legitimacy and potentially undermine nonreligious support for secularism.

9. Support nonreligious literacy

We hear a lot of talk about the importance of religious literacy, including from many nonreligious groups. In fact the nonreligious are often better versed in religious knowledge – at least with respect to the plurality religions. But I’m struck by how often and how extensively religious leaders and engaged followers are ignorant of nonreligious worldviews and outlooks. To engage positively with the post-religious society, faith communities may want to give equal focus to nonreligious literacy.

10. Become genuine moral leaders

The catch 22 for religious morality today isn’t the Euthyphro dilemma, it’s their relationship to secular morality. If religions embrace secular moral progress – and all do to some extent – then they can claim credit for it but don’t really have anything distinctive to offer. If they reject secular moral progress they can be distinct, but are generally distinctly regressive. For all their focus on moral rules and claims of superiority religions aren’t a good self-correcting system for moral progress. But there’s no reason they couldn’t reinvent themselves.

Thanks for reading

Let me know what you thought of this article and if you want to hear more. If you value this content and are able to financially support it, that would be great. Just £2 a month would help with hosting and other costs, help improve our content.

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Photo information: Photo of An Empty Church, RODNAE Productions

Why does the Census undercount the nonreligious?

The discourse over the use of and problems with nonreligious as a catchall term is extensive. However, it is the term most widely used in surveys, population studies and equality monitoring, so has a lot of uses despite its limitations.

The limits of nonreligious as a unit of analysis can be summarised as: (1) it counts to many people including the ‘spiritual but not religious’, religiously unconcerned and religiously undefined, or (2) it counts too few, because it doesn’t capture people who identify as part of a religious cultural group while holding a largely atheist, humanist, or secularist outlook.

Criticisms of the term’s negative connotations are more wide-ranging. Personally, I have few problems being counted under a catchall term which applies, just because it’s not the main way I’d describe my identity.

Accepting for the moment the use of nonreligious as a category, there are still problems with how we count this. This article takes the British Census as a case study and considers the implications for how society measures and serves the needs of the nonreligious. It will do this by considering six potential ways that the Census dramatically undercount the nonreligious compared to other surveys.

There are two major estimates of Britain’s nonreligious population. Population figures for Northern Ireland are treated quite differently. Since 2001 the British Census, run by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) every decade, has had a voluntary question on “What is your religion”. The British Social Attitudes survey (BSA), run annually by NatCen, asks “Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion?”

Between the 2001 and 2011 Census, those answering “no religion” rose from 14.8% to 25.1% and this trend is expected to continue when the 2021 results are published. Between 1983 and 2019 the BSA showed a steady rise in the nonreligious from 31% to 53%. There are plenty of surveys with different formulation of the question which show a lot of variances, but the BSA figure is a lot closer to the preponderance of these.

Why does the Census matter?

The Census 2021 website says that the question on religion “…helps your community by allowing local and central government to better plan services and set aside resources for your area…” The ONS also say that “To enable them to meet requirements of the Equality Act 2010 users stated a need for population data about religion to inform equality monitoring.”

The Census is a vital data source for public bodies, policy makers and businesses across the country. It also shapes a lot of our discourse around demographics and national identity. The Census is used to prop up the narrative that we are a ‘Christian nation’, justify faith based public schooling, and pastoral support being organised around religion.

This is an area where atheist and humanist groups in many countries have been actively campaigning. The language of the UK Humanist campaign “If you’re not religious, say so” has been particularly influential.

1. Framing

“What is your religion?” frames an assumption of religiosity. It prompts a religious answer, and given the social context of the Census, many recipients may assume they should answer with their ‘official’ or family religion. This is probably the biggest problem, because this framing is replicated in so many equality monitoring procedures. It adds to the perception that the nonreligious should not be a group of concern to equality policies, or that they are a subgroup of religion, rather than the actual protected characteristic of “religion or belief”.

The ONS have tried to address this problem by making “No Religion” the first option – potentially giving it a primacy bias boost. They also tested the question “What is your religion or belief?” but felt that this “changed how respondents thought about the religion aspect of the question leading them to provide answers related to religious belief, rather than affiliation.” And that “Religious affiliation was the concept that most closely aligned to the definition of religion in the equalities legislation.” This privileges only one dimension of (non)religion.

2. Voluntary and different importance

The religion question is one of only three voluntary questions on the Census, the others being sexual orientation and gender identity. When faced with a long survey, the option to skip a question would be appealing. One might reasonably assume that religious people would be more motivated to express a positive answer to the question. Further research however casts significant doubt on this hypothesis. In 2011, 94% of people completed the Census, of these 93% completed the voluntary question on religion. ONS testing ahead of the 2011 Census showed that the response rate was lower than the average for compulsory question, but comparable to questions such as those on employment and ethnicity. In most equality monitoring situations questions will be voluntary, but questions about religion or belief should not be treated as more or less important than any other aspect.

3. A singular question

The Census must be available in paper form, and the ONS say that space restraints mean they cannot include, and so have never tested, a filter or two stage question. The BSA by contrast does not have a paper version and makes use of a filter question “Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion?” before providing additional options for those identifying as belonging to a religion. This could have an affect of encouraging respondents to answer as not religious to get through the survey quicker, but this is likely minimal.

Belief has multiple dimensions. One may believe that a particular worldview is true, or that it is good to believe regardless of its truth. The same is true for identity; a person may have an internal or personal worldview identity, which differs from the external identity they perform. They may culturally affiliate to varying degrees with different (non)religious cultures. Different people place various levels of importance on their (non)religion, it may be central or peripheral to someone’s worldview. A (non)religious worldview may be consciously or subconsciously held.

Some sort of two-part question would probably be the best approach for surveys to adopt, providing the right balance between detail and ease of use. The two parts could either ask respondents about (1) their belief and (2) their identity or affiliation. Or (1) could differentiate between religious and not, and (2) provide more detailed options.

4. Families and children

When thinking of their ‘family religion’ people may be more likely to give a cultural or historic answer. Nonreligious people may not be comfortable or safe self-identifying, where one family member or ‘head of the household’ fills in the form. Younger people are more likely to be nonreligious. The BSA only covers adults 18+, but all respondents are answering for themselves rather than any parents on children’s behalf.

I would be very interested in comparing the (non)religious data from Census responses filled in online or through the corrections and mistakes process, with paper responses.

Any equality monitoring form should only ask about the identity of the individual responding. Where data needs to be gathered on the (non)religious identity of children too young to express a meaningful preference, it might be better to record their (non)religious background.

5. Timing and past responses

The Census is a big cultural event with huge news coverage and advertising. It is likely that people remember how they last answered a question. They may also be thinking about the question as it applies to the last ten years of their life. The nonreligious may be less likely to see this as a settled identity. I’m not sure how much of an impact this could all have, but it is good practice in any monitoring to stress that the question is about the respondent at the time of the question.

6. Ethnicity and culture

There is an anomaly created by some religious categories also being seen by many to be ethnicity categories, though how to resolve this conundrum is a bit beyond this article’s scope and the impact on counting the nonreligious unclear. It certainly could be that nonreligious people who identify as culturally or ethnically Jewish, or Sikh could be under counted. Implication of this include the need to respect people’s self-described ethnic or cultural identity while avoiding conflating this with religion, and the need to differentiate between aspects of religion as discussed above.

Conclusion

These are all issues that the ONS have engaged with, and this article has drawn heavily on their question development reports for 2011 and 2021, as well as contemporary debate in AHS and religious focused media.

Britain’s emerging nonreligious majority is one of the biggest social and demographic changes in our history. We need to consider the impact of this change on almost every area of public policy. To do that, we need to better measure the size and diversity of this group, and those it overlaps with.

Thanks for reading

Let me know what you thought of this article and if you want to hear more. If you value this content and are able to financially support it, that would be great. Just £2 a month would help with hosting and other costs, help improve our content.

Please join our community on Twitter and Facebook to help share the blog, and pass it along to anyone who may be interested.

Photo information: Girl in Yellow Dress Playing With Abacus, Yan Krukov

Questions for ‘gender critical’ atheists

Over the last few years concerns have rightly been raised over anti-trans views in in atheism. A big part of this problem is that atheists – and by implication the wider AHS+ movement of atheists, humanists, secularists, skeptics and freethinkers – are still largely defined by a few prominent figures with wanning influence, and the stereotype of the toxic online atheist, rather than our diverse communities and experiences.

There are a lot of outspoken ‘gender criticals’ in our community, and they claim that their views are based on the rationality, logic or science, which should underpin any AHS+ worldview.

A lot of people in our movement, even well-intentioned people, believe that this is an ‘important debate’ and that ‘gender criticals’ have some reasonable points or ‘legitimate concerns’, or that taking up the cause of trans rights is a form of mission creep or distraction. Many believe that trans activism, or inclusion, is a threat to the values of free speech and freethought which we hold dear.

In the spirit of freethought, these are questions, not the strongest or most comprehensive arguments for trans inclusivity. These are the questions that led me to a firmer and better informed trans-allyship. Whatever your position, and whether or not you come to the same answers as me, I hope you will consider them.

If trans activists are ruining atheism, then ask yourself:

  1. When, and how did you start caring about this?
  2. Why were transgender rights not controversial a few years ago?
  3. What has been the biggest achievement of the atheist movement over the last twenty years?
  4. Why are US Christian Nationalists funding the gender critical movement in the UK?
  5. Why is opposing trans rights a key aim for Christian Nationalists and the reactionary religious right across the globe?

One of the big divides in the movement over the last decade has been between those who favour anti-theism, and those favouring a more humanist focussed social justice. The former group are disproportionately influenced by online trolling culture, with its focus on attacking anything derided as ‘woke’ and a fetishization of shallow pseudo-rationality.

As we have seen with anti-Muslim bigotry, and generalised ant-woke sentiments, reactionary religious groups – often heavily influenced by US culture wars – have made inroads in some parts of the atheist movement. Witness how conspiracist, pseudo-mystic, buffoon Jorden Peterson and religious extremist Ben Shapiro have been cast as brave rationalists in some sections of the movement.

I won’t pretend that five years ago the atheist or wider AHS+ movement was a nirvana of trans inclusion, or that trans rights activism was a top priority. Trans rights issues were rarely specifically addressed but fell under the broad umbrella of LGBT-rights that were a priority for the movement. The advancement of LGBT rights made possible by the concerted challenge of religious authoritarianism, was one of the tangible achievements of that movement. A legacy, certain figures seem determined to tarnish.

If trans activists are a religion, then ask yourself

  • Why do the vast majority of atheist humanist and secularist groups with a position support trans rights?
  • Under what definition is ‘transgenderism’ a religion?
  • If trans allies believe in ‘gendered’ souls, why is this a claim almost exclusively made by gender critical groups?
  • What about trans people who categorically do not believe in souls?

Of course, these groups with a generally skeptical outlook could all be wrong, they could have all accidently become religious overnight, or been infiltrated and led astray by the tiny percentage of trans people in the population. Or they could have the institutional memory to recognise and understand how the modern transphobic movement is just repackaged homophobia, and the policy view to understand how it is being use as a wedge by the reactionary religious right. If you’re going to call everything you don’t like or disagree with a religion, then how are you going to have a useful definition of religion, or challenge someone calling any of your beliefs they happen to disagree with a religion?

If trans activists are a threat to women’s safety, then ask yourself

  1. Why do the vast majority of feminist groups support trans rights?
  2. Why do most women support trans rights?
  3. Why are women more likely than men to support trans rights?
  4. Why are the figures in the atheist movement most vocally critical of transgender inclusion, the same figures that have been so critical of efforts to tackle sexism in the movement?
  5. Besides opposing trans rights, what are they and you doing to make the atheist movement more inclusive and welcoming for women and other underrepresented groups?

The discussion of trans rights inevitably focusses on trans women – with trans men and non-binary folk often ignored. We live in a patriarchal, sexist society and need to take threats to women’s rights seriously – particularly that posed by reactionary religious groups. If trans rights, were a big threat to (cis)women’s rights, it seems weird that most mainstream feminist groups would be supportive, we’d surely expect gender critical views to be widespread rather than concentrated in dedicated fringe groups.

If trans activists are homophobic, then ask yourself

  1. Why do the vast majority of LGBT groups support trans rights?
  2. If the gender critical movement is about supporting LGB rights, why is it so dominated by homophobia?
  3. Why do trans-rights activists have a long history of supporting gay rights?
  4. Are there any groups that are actually homophobic, but not transphobic?
  5. Why is the campaign against LGB and T inclusive RSE in schools, dominated by religious reactionaries?
  6. If trans-affirming RSE is anti-LGB, then why are the groups opposing it also anti-LGB?

One conspiracy theory is that homophobic parents are treating gay children as trans in order to make them straight. How many people are there that are so homophobic that they would go to such an extreme, but aren’t transphobic?

There is plenty to criticise about establishment LGBT groups and the compromises they make for that establishment status. But virtually every mainstream LGB group is pro trans rights, the only LGB groups that are anti-trans are fringe groups set up for that specific purpose, who don’t do anything to actually support LGB people.

Of course, you can point to examples of homophobia from individual trans activist – homophobia is deeply engrained in our society – and many genders critical activists have a long history of supporting LGB rights, but are led into homophobia via transphobia.

If trans activists are anti-science, then ask yourself

  • Why is the gender critical movement so dominated by anti-medial and anti-science conspiracists?
  • Why do the vast majority of medical and psychological bodies support trans affirming healthcare?
  • Besides the chromosome defined sex, is there any other topic where scientific and medical understanding reaches its pinnacle and gets no more complicated at high school science level?

AHS+ worldviews place a great emphasis on science and evidence bases understandings. The leading scientific and medical understandings of sex and gender may be more complicated than what some of us grew up with or learned in school. A scientific consensus, such as sex and gender being a non-binary spectrum influenced by many factors, or a medical consensus, such as trans-affirming healthcare being the best option for many people, may turn out to be wrong or in need of further revision.

If trans activists are a threat to free speech, then ask yourself

  • Why does the gender critical movement make such extensive use of gagging orders, and legal threats?
  • If gender critical voices are being silenced, why is there so much anti-trans media coverage?
  • If gender critical voices are being silenced, why do they have such big media platforms, while trans people are almost never quoted in articles about them?
  • If you are concerned about ‘invented’ or ‘constructed’ language, what do you think of the use of the term ‘gender critical’?

Free speech is a fundamental value in most atheist, humanist, secularist, and similar worldviews. But some parts of our movement (and this is a massive topic that deserves its own article) have taken a warped toxic understanding of free speech that so concerned with the rights of people to spread certain views, and so opposed to free speech being used to challenge them.

If trans activists make you uncomfortable, then ask yourself

  • Do you think being trans, a trans ally or gender critical is a bigger threat to your employment prospects?
  • If individual trans people being aresholes online invalidates the movement for trans rights, where does that leave the atheist movement?
  • Have you educated yourself on this topic?

I have sympathy for anyone concerned about getting things wrong, or who feel left behind by a changing conversation about sex and gender. But you don’t need to sit there trying to work everything out yourself there are free accessible resources everywhere.

One more question

  • What do you think is going to happen next?

Do you think that the mainstream atheist, wider AHS+, feminist, LGBT rights movements, healthcare professionals etc. are all going to suddenly reverse course on trans rights? Based on what? Here’s my predication, and hope, in a decade or two, the flirtation with transphobia in some parts of our movement will be seen as an embarrassing history we’d rather ignore, trans rights will be seen as so widely supported, that transphobia will only be able to survive within religion.

Thanks for reading

Let me know what you thought of this article and if you want to hear more. If you value this content and are able to financially support it, that would be great. Just a couple of pounds a month would help with hosting and other costs, and one day help expand our operations.

Please join our community on Twitter and Facebook to help share the blog, and pass it along to anyone who may be interested.

Photo information: Person with Body Painting, Sharon McCutcheon

Activism matters: Humanists New Zealand

In activism matters we meet activists and leaders working in a variety of atheist, humanist, and secularist spaces. This week we spoke with Tim Wright New Zealand Humanists’ relatively new president, and longstanding member Gaylene Middleton.

“The NZ Humanists are a national charity that promotes humanism, secularism, reason, and science. We work on behalf of the millions of New Zealanders who are not religious, ensuring their voices are heard in public policy and debate.”

What was your first experience of activism?

Tim: Back at university I got involved in student politics on a whim. I got involved in organising the “probably no god” signs on busses in New Zealand, a fair while ago now. So that was really the first experience. I found it interesting the pushback we got from religious people. And enjoyed the feeling of working toward a common cause.

Gaylene: I had great angst as a teenager about the purpose of life and did what many do, fell into religion-I converted to Catholicism. I have a bent towards ‘event planning’ and was ‘activist’ in a religious sense until my growth trajectory took me out of religion and into humanism. My partner Iain is a long time humanist and was with Humanist NZ as president for a number of terms. I learnt from Iain. It was 2018 when Humanists International had their General Assembly in New Zealand and we had difficulty with getting visas for humanists from non-visa waiver countries that this issue became a profound moment for me.

How did you become the president of Humanists NZ?

Tim: More by accident than planning. I have ADHD (undiagnosed) and tend to say “yes” to things without thinking (this is a common behaviour for people with ADHD), so when Jolene announced she was retiring as president, someone said, “Tim could do it” and I said yes. A very similar story to how I got on the board.

On saying that, I’m really proud to be president of Humanists NZ. It’s a great group of people who are involved and have been doing amazing work for a long, long time.

Gaylene: I became secretary in 2000. Just because I was asked, A big feature of the tasks was the regular monthly newsletter. This task has sharpened my thought, with the help of Iain and other committee contributions.

What advice would you give Tim in his new role?

Gaylene: I see a ‘president’, or I prefer ‘chairperson’ as a person who facilitates the skills of others. I like a horizontal structure rather than the older vertical concept. We can use individual skills to the full. A charismatic spokesperson may not be the best at the nuts and bolts of organising. I think that the traditional roles of a committee have blurred with the advent of the internet and global communication. The pace of life has increased, and I think the demands on people have increased so we need new efficiencies.

What advice would you give to a young humanist who wanted to be future activist or leader in this space?

Tim: Join your local society, talk to people, and find part of the movement that you’re passionate about. That might be writing submissions, giving talks, demonstrating, or other things. Also, leading volunteers is quite different to other forms of leadership, so learning about the differences can be really good.

What do you think makes an effective humanist leader?

Tim: I think that approaching leadership from a “supporting passionate people” perspective is more important than “leading passionate people”. We all become humanists and then get involved in activism for different reasons. Supporting our volunteers and guiding them to help understand what is important is more important than leading or managing them.

Gaylene: Having respect for all the foibles we have as personalities. I agree absolutely with Tim’s comment “approaching leadership from a “supporting passionate people” perspective”. I think it is essential for new leaders to make themselves aware of group history- to stand on the side-line for a time. All new members can do this. Everybody makes efforts and often it is forward and back again.

Being an activist or leader can be draining at times, what keeps you motivated?

Tim: The fact that the people involved in Humanists NZ are a fantastic bunch of diverse folks who need very little leadership.

Gaylene: The friendship within the group. Members having time for me.

What challenges does the humanist movement in New Zealand face today, and how can activists best help address them?

Tim: I think our primary challenge is lack of visibility. The media is supposed to present all sides of an argument, but as they often don’t know about the humanist movement, they often don’t present a humanist perspective.

Tim, you recently launched a Humanist radio programme, could you tell us how that came about, and what you hope it will achieve?

Tim: See note above about impulsively saying yes to commitments without thinking them through. I wanted to start a music-based show and was talking to the station manager (a community station) about funding. He mentioned that they get funding for providing airtime to religious groups. I asked if an atheist/humanist show would get the funding as well. He said it would and asked me if I wanted to do one.

I’m always interested in how humanist groups adapt the humanist symbol for their own identity, could you tell us about the meaning behind your own version?

Gaylene: We wanted to acknowledge the Tangata whenua of our land. The koru symbol- the unfolding fern leaf is a symbol of new life, growth, strength, and peace. The green base and blue upper of the ‘happy humanist’ is a little nod towards the Maori creation myth of Rangi and Papa– the earth and sky. Our previous logo was the ‘happy humanist’ astride the map of New Zealand.

Thanks for reading

Let me know what you thought of this article and if you want to hear more. If you value this content and are able to financially support it, that would be great. Just a couple of pounds a month would help with hosting and other costs, and one day help expand our operations. If you are, or can recommend, an activist or leader in the AHS+ space who would like to be featured in a future interview in this series, please get in touch. Please join our community on Twitter and Facebook to help share the blog, and pass it along to anyone who may be interested.

Picture information: Pattern composed of Humanists New Zealand’s logo

Activism matters: Nathan Alexander and Todd Tavares

Activism matters is a series where we meet activists and leaders working in a variety of atheist, humanist, and secularist spaces. This week I spoke with Nathan Alexander and Todd Tavares, hosts of the Beyond Atheism podcast.

What was your first experience of activism?

Todd Tavares (Todd)

Todd: I first came into activism as a student in the wake of the World Trade Organization protests in late 1999. The protests terrified some people, but for a lot of us we saw there was something happening, people pushing back against everything that was wrong in the world. It was inspiring.

Although the movement at the time was called anti-globalization, it was really an umbrella of wildly divergent interests learning to work in solidarity. My main interest was the political and economic decision-making process, but activism in one sphere spilled over into a lot of other areas like labour struggles, environmental action, and anti-racism actions. At the time actions and protests were very spontaneous and the movement was just starting to build. Some friends and I were dissatisfied with existing student groups, so we founded our own. We built networks with groups at other schools and in the community and worked with unions and local non-profits. That would have been the introduction

Nathan Alexander (Nathan):

Nathan: I think I got a late start to activism and certainly considered myself more a joiner than an activist. After I became an atheist in the early 2010s, I started to seek out like-minded groups wherever I happened to be. (In this case, it was in Seoul, South Korea – and this is where Todd and I met.) I always thought I would make some kind of contribution to activism in the sphere of academia.

This was definitely in my mind when I started my PhD in Scotland in 2013. I feel like, at least from my own experience, doing academic research on atheism was itself a kind of activism. In my research, I was recovering forgotten arguments from historical atheists and hopefully making them known to people today.

Your show “Beyond Atheism” has a very reflective quality. Is this something the movement needs more of?

Todd: Nathan and I have talked about reflection and open-minded thinking and wondering a lot. I am not sure if it was during a podcast or offline though. What we noticed is that every atheist who was raised with a faith needed to think their way out of it. I was raised Catholic. I was confirmed in the church, but even by that point I had moved from doubting to full on disbelief and was just going through the motions. My personal journey to atheism was only possible because I thought about and questioned what I had been told and came to different conclusions. This is a pretty common story among atheists, so in a lot of ways being reflective is a descriptive quality of a lot of atheists to begin with.

One thing we definitely do talk about on the show is what a “true atheist” can and cannot do. It’s tongue-in-cheek and open-ended, and basically there is never a right or wrong answer. Atheism isn’t very prescriptive; you really only have to reject the existence of divine beings. However, for a modern, secular, democratic society to function it is going to require people to be more open-minded and able to think about complex matters in a sensible way and admit to being wrong when they are. It is difficult and higher education might be necessary to teach appropriate methodology, something the social sciences spend a lot of time on. Consider flat-Earthers, 9/11 truthers and Covid vaccine “researchers”. They all question the answers we have been given but do a very, very poor job of analysis.

Nathan: I think one of the central points in the podcast is that it is an exploration. We don’t know the answers yet and we are refining our thinking as we discuss between ourselves and with guests. Already I feel like we have learned a lot and our thinking on certain issues has been clarified.

I think studying history is helpful in many ways for this reflective approach, since it makes one humbler about their own knowledge. History is full of people claiming to have finally figured everything out. The era I study most, the nineteenth century, sees a number of people claiming to have arrived at a science of everything (like Auguste Comte) and that it was just a matter of filling in some of the few remaining gaps in the theory. Obviously, we now know this is wrong. So, I think that should make everyone a bit more hesitant about confidently stating that they have got it all figured out, when there is a good chance that in a few decades or less, they will be shown to be mistaken.

How do you think lessons from the history of atheism could help the movement deal with current issues?

Nathan: I feel like a key lesson is that many of the current issues in the movement are not new. One present issue is whether the movement should be narrowly focused on atheist/secular activism or whether it should broaden its goals to other social or political issues that are not directly related to religion. This was a debate in the nineteenth century too. Access to birth control information was hugely controversial and divided the movement then in both Britain and the United States, with some arguing that it was, at best, an inappropriate distraction to the movement’s true goals, and others arguing that it was a matter of fundamental rights (of speech, and of bodily autonomy).

One of the things I’ve learned from the history and from doing the podcast is that there are many ways to be an atheist or secular person, and we should try to have a broad tent. Some people will prefer to work more on social issues while others will want to focus more narrowly. All are valuable. That said, I think Todd and I both have a view of activism as being focused on a wider range of goals that go beyond just the usual atheist arguments.

Todd: That’s definitely true. One of the important things we have seen is how multi-faceted activism has been historically. Atheists have been active socially, economically, and politically and have achieved real results. They have been in the streets and in the halls of power. It is important to develop that institutional memory, so you aren’t fighting the same battles over and over again. Studying history helps build an atheist culture, too. The one concern I would have is becoming pedantic. It’s interesting to learn that “in God we trust” on US money is a Cold War relic, or that statues of the ten commandments started as a promotion for a movie, but there isn’t anything meaningful beyond that. History is a great tool to inform us about what worked in the past and how to improve in the future.

Being an activist or leader can be draining at times, what keeps you motivated?

Todd: Being an activist can definitely feel draining. My motivation has definitely waxed and waned over time. When I was most active it was probably the personal connections that kept motivation high. In the past, the groups I ran would try to alternate between social events and action events to keep people engaged and avoid burnout. Of course, food and alcohol are always a good way to motivate people too.

Nathan: With regard to the podcast, I feel like probably for both of us, we just enjoy doing it in general. It’s fun to talk about these issues and a great chance to talk to cool people. And so, I feel like the fact that we enjoy it at a basic level is what keeps us motivated. More generally, I feel like for writing, one thing that keeps me motivated is the thought that I have something to say – and if I don’t say it, it’s possible that no one else will.

What qualities do you think are needed to be an effective leader in the atheist, humanist, secularist space?

Nathan: One specific, practical thing I want to mention via way of a story. When I was doing my PhD in St Andrews (Scotland) in the mid-2010s, there was this “Big Questions” week sponsored by some campus Christian group. The main draw for me was that there was a free lunch and that they had some speakers talking about theological views of something like the origins of life (I don’t remember the exact thing). I went in the spirit of anthropology (and for the free lunch!) and when I went in by myself, someone from the group immediately came to welcome me and offer to sit with me and introduce me to others, etc. They were all very friendly – even when I told them I was an atheist!

The point is that this kind of friendliness and welcoming of new people is a fairly basic thing but from my experience attending atheist events, it’s usually lacking! This is a relatively minor point, but I do feel like people in the movement could stand to learn from this example of religious people’s success at creating community (with the caveat about how exclusionary many religions are).

Todd: Nathan’s point is excellent. The one thing I would add to it is that for many atheists the act of coming out is very costly. I have met people who have lost friends and family because of it. And not just getting unfriended on Facebook. These were people who had literal fights with their family members, lost custody of children, or been effectively excommunicated from their hometown. A lot of atheists who join up are primarily looking to rebuild social capital and commiserate with people who have had similar experiences, not necessarily agitate for greater secularism. Leaders need to be able to accommodate both of those aspects, to address the social needs before moving on to political desires. Sometimes you need to accept that the planning meeting is going to turn into a therapy session, but everyone will be better for it.

How can academics better engage with the nonreligious or atheists as a category?

Nathan: Hmmm that’s a good question. I feel like there is not nearly enough attention paid to the topic by academics in general, and this is surprising since it is one of the most important changes happening across western society in my view. So, the first step is to engage – period – with this issue! I think another thing is to recognize that nonreligious people exist. In history, I sometimes feel like people studying, say, the nineteenth century forget that countries like Britain and the US were not uniformly Christian. Recognizing this diversity is important and, in my own research on the racial thought of atheists, really interesting since I found many surprising views that were far outside the mainstream by looking at atheists and other nonreligious people.

Another thing I have been thinking about is this category of “nonreligious.” On the podcast and even in some writing, Todd and I have used this phrase, but I wonder whether we should be trying to do more to disaggregate it. When you separate out atheists and agnostics from the “no religion” people, there are often big differences. In politics, atheists and agnostics lean much farther left. Even on the issue of getting vaccinated from Covid, atheists and agnostics lead the way while the non-affiliated are some of the most hesitant. So, I think exploring the diversity within the nonreligious population and even being as specific as possible are important steps moving forward.

Todd: Recently on the podcast I learned that the first secular studies program is only 10 years old! We need more of that. Just hearing “secular studies” is a good reminder that all human societies have developed religions, but only rarely do they become secular. Focusing on secularism as a process and outcome is going to be a rich source for ground-breaking social research for those bold enough to get there early.

The tendency of the non-religious and atheists to lean left on a variety of issues seems pretty well documented. What’s your pet theory to explain this, and how would you like to see it better researched?

Todd: I have a lot of trouble articulating this. Nathan thinks the best way to describe it is in the phrase “No gods, no masters” which he lifted from far-left anarchists. I agree and we have discussed forms of political legitimacy on the podcast and how atheism informs appropriate behaviour, the need to obey authorities and the right to rebel. That episode has a longer answer.

In short, when we talk about the issues where atheists lean left, they are better understood as individual freedoms that religious authorities are trying to demolish or obstruct, or wedge issues used by the religious right. Atheists support gay marriage, abortion, evolution, and environmental issues pretty strongly. These are all issues that religious groups have made controversial.

I can give two reasons for why atheists take these positions. One is pretty easy to establish, the other is the pet theory that I enjoy most. The first answer is that these are bland, consensus issues that only become politicized when churches make them policy fights. These are issues that never come up for atheists because they don’t go to church. The nonreligious are free from the messaging of religious authorities and don’t take those positions, typically right-wing, because they never hear them in the first place. In Washington state there was a ballot initiative on eliminating sex ed in schools. It was initiated by religious conservatives who used religious resources to get out the vote: flyering in church parking lots, meeting in churches, that sort of thing. Washington is strongly secular, and the initiative failed overall and sex ed remained, but the ballot initiative to kill it did better where there were fewer atheists. The religious right can mobilize churchgoers and move them rightward, but they can’t affect atheists, so the result is that atheists at the very least look left-leaning. 

The second reason, which is much more difficult to establish clearly, is that atheists reject any political ruling that comes from phony authorities like God. Many atheists see the monotheistic God as a tyrant – he makes arbitrary laws, punishes randomly, and demands obedience. Famously, this is why the 19th anarchist Mikhail Bakunin reversed Voltaire and proclaimed that if God were real, it would be necessary to abolish him. Similarly, part of becoming atheist is the rejection of tradition, custom and religious authority. For an individual leaving a faith, abolishing God’s authority to achieve freedom, autonomy and a life without masters is a radical act of liberation. This rejection of religious domination may explain why atheists vote not for Democrats but against Republicans so strongly. Rather than embrace Democrats per se, we may instead be witnessing the rejection of an authoritarian party aligned with the interests of the religious right. This also predicts that more conservative atheists would tend to be Libertarian, which seems true anecdotally. The result is that there is a secular drive motivating political philosophy, something that is oddly absent in the larger discourse. I suspect that there is a deeper anti-authoritarian position there too, but that is mostly projection and speculation.

Nathan, you’re an historian of racism and atheism. How could the wider atheist movement better engage with anti-racist issues?

Nathan: Research shows that atheists (at least in the US anyway) are some of the most racially tolerant relative to other religious demographics, and in my book I made the case that there is a tradition of anti-racism among atheists. But we shouldn’t rest on our laurels. I feel like listening to the experiences of people of colour is a good first step, although of course there is a great diversity of opinion among people of colour on these issues. There are those like Sikivu Hutchinson who have made the case that anti-racism is an essential part of a humanist worldview. I’m definitely sympathetic to those views, although there is also a part of me that is always hesitant to say, “you’re not a true humanist/atheist if you do or don’t do X!” (We have a segment about this on the recent episodes of our podcast!) My own view is for a more expansive view of atheist activism which also focuses on politics, including anti-racism, though I realize not all atheists would agree with that, nor with the political views I might hold.

What do you think the main divisions in the atheist movement are likely to be in the years to come? Generational divides, political, organisational?

Nathan: This is an interesting question. I feel like it relates to an earlier answer. There are simply many ways to be an atheist, and these are reflected in political, generational, and organisational divisions. I do feel like politics will continue to be the main fault-line, and it will probably continue along with secularisation. As more people become atheists, it stands to reason there will be more diversity in every way, including in political positions. As I said above, I think the key issue of division will be whether the goals of the atheist movement should be narrow or broad. But I think that there is also room for both approaches working hand-in-hand.

Todd: The divide I have seen most often is between raised atheists and converted atheists. There is a huge gulf in the understanding of how religion is lived, and I don’t think most atheists raised without religion ever come to understand what it is like. I remember a few discussions where the raised atheists would focus on technology and the converts would talk about beliefs. This division seems to impact worldviews. It is really difficult to predict how this will play out in the future since a.) more people are leaving religion and b.) they are raising children without a religion. We know that being irreligious is “sticky” in that people who leave a faith stay that way and people raised irreligious don’t generally become religious, so at some point the number of raised atheists will be much larger.

What advice would you give to someone seeking to get involved in atheist activism from an academic perspective?

Nathan:  I think that there is a lot of willingness among atheist groups to hear from academics. I was fortunate to connect with a number of different atheist/secular/humanist groups and talk to them about my research as I was working on my PhD and after my book came out. I found that they were very receptive to it, and so any other academics who feel their work would be interesting to the atheist community should definitely get in touch with any groups nearby or, even better now, virtually.

Todd: Here’s my advice. First, listen to Beyond Atheism. Second, hit us up on Twitter at NathGAlexander because we would love to talk about your work. Third, join a group on Meetup or make your own!

Thanks for reading

Let me know what you thought of this article and if you want to hear more. If you value this content and are able to financially support it, that would be great. Just a couple of pounds a month would help with hosting and other costs, and one day help expand our operations. If you are, or can recommend, an activist or leader in the AHS+ space who would like to be featured in a future interview in this series, please get in touch. Please join our community on Twitter and Facebook to help share the blog, and pass it along to anyone who may be interested.

Photo information: Two Gray Condenser Microphones, by Pixabay

Community matters: How many AHS+ groups do we need?

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

Let me know what you thought of this article and if you want to hear more. If you value this content and are able to financially support it, that would be great. Just a couple of pounds a month would help with hosting and other costs, and one day help expand our operations.

Please join our community on Twitter and Facebook to help share the blog, and pass it along to anyone who may be interested.

Photo information: Silhouette Photography of Group of People Jumping during Golden Time, Belle Co

It’s all ‘real religion’

Selectively labelling particular positive or negative manifestations of religion as ‘real’, however well intentioned, undermines pluralism, privileges particular unevidenced beliefs and bolsters both religious supremacism and anti-religious bigotry.

All religion is ‘real religion’. That may seem a counterintuitive position from an atheist perspective. However, such a statement makes no claim about truth. There are uncountable supernatural creation myths, each are real religious beliefs regardless of their factual content. This blog also comes from a secularist perspective, challenge the privileging of any one or set of religious perspectives, and a humanist understanding of the roots and evolution of religions.

Somewhere round the world right now:

A Christian, based on their religion, is persecuting a gay person, and another, also based on their religion, is volunteering at a foodbank. They are both ‘real’ Christians.

A Muslim, based on their religion, is calling for the death of a cartoonist, and another, also based on their religion, is struggling to make zakat. They are both ‘real’ Muslims.

A Hindu, based on their religion, is oppressing a ‘lower caste’, and another, also based on their religion, is delivering dana. They are both ‘real’ Hindus.

A Sikh, based on their religion, is punishing a relative for ‘marrying out’, and another, also based on their religion, is working tirelessly to house the homeless. They are both ‘real’ Sikhs.

A humanist can argue that any positive manifestation of religion can be achieved through humanistic means, but that the negative manifestations rely on religion. An anti-theist can argue that negative manifestations of religion have sounder scriptural and traditional grounding. A religious scholar can argue that either the positive or negative manifestation is more representative.

In the UK, research shows that most RE teachers view it as their job to promote a positive view of religion and to frame negative manifestations as false or twisted versions of religion – a trend that most politicians and the media follow. There is also a tendency among some atheists to malign more rational, tolerant or progressive manifestations of religion as not being ‘real’

Tied to this is the old apologist platitude that the perpetrators of religious violence or bigotry are ‘just using religion as an excuse’. Notably, we rarely hear of charitable endeavours by people of faith that they are ‘just using religion as an excuse’. This is despite the latter possibly being more accurate. Many ex-Christians leave homophobia behind, very few abandon concern for the poor.

Much of this is well intentioned. In December 2015 during an Islamist terrorist attack. John, a good upstanding citizen, security guard and apparently armature religious scholar gained fame for shouting at the attacker “You ain’t no Muslim, bruv”. We can all understand what motivated John and his desire not to see ordinary British Muslims maligned by or subject to bigotry by being unfairly associated with this arsehole. John went on to say “Isis should be wiped out, because they’re not Muslims, because Muslims don’t do that.”

Well intentioned this may be and with the greatest respect to John’s deep knowledge of theology, religious history and foreign affairs, it just isn’t true. After every Islamist attack specifically motivated by religious beliefs, we hear that Islamism has ‘nothing to do with Islam’. As well as being insultingly obviously false, it gaslights the victims of Islamist violence, does nothing to challenge anti-Muslim bigotry and upholds the idea that there are true or false versions of a religion. An honest conversation about how unrepresentative or extreme Islamist interpretations of the religion are, may be more productive.

Mainstream apologists continue to push this line with little care for honesty, or the victims of Islamism. The most charitable thing you can say is that this is a misguided attempt to challenge anti-Muslim bigotry by shielding Islam from criticism. The followers of a religion are not stained with the sin of everything bad done in the name of that religion, but framing such manifestation as not ‘real’, absolves the religion of any responsibility. It upholds supremacist ideas about certain religions being all good, and encourages reactive prejudices.

Because of the extent of Christian privilege in the West, we often see Christianity or ‘real Christianity’ used as a substitute for good, in a way that white once was. Well intentioned Christians hearing of an atheist’s charitable work or opposition to discrimination, may say something like “you’re a better Christian than many Christians I know”, many atheists even use such language. But this reveals a subconscious Christian supremacy and anti-atheist bigotry. Calling an atheist Christian as a compliment reveals that you can’t easily reconcile atheism with positive characteristics. I think that Chrissy Stroop is one of the best authors on this topic.

Conflating ‘real Christianity’ with goodness or virtues many Christians may hold, is an attempt to appropriate such virtues and avoid responsibility for vices. Victims of Christian homophobia are frequently gaslit, their lived experiences invalidated, and their abuse perpetuated by claims that this is not ‘real Christianity’. Those Christians working to rid their faith of homophobia, may be edging closer to the mainstream in many places, but they aren’t any more or less ‘real’.

We can’t differentiate between ‘real’ and not real religion based on specific beliefs as this inevitably privileges certain interpretations, when in reality all religions are subjected to a vast array of interpretations. When Christians abandon creationism in favour of a scientific (or at least more naturalistic) understanding of the world, do they become any more or less ‘real’? Are Muslims more or less ‘real’ if they favour one set of contradictory religious obligations more seriously than another? Are cultural Jews who abandon any form of supernatural belief less real? Modifiers and descriptions to differentiate between different manifestations of religion and given their narrower definition, allow us to more fairly differentiate between ‘real’ or accurate uses of the label. But we should be careful to avoid such labels replicating the essentialism of the ‘real religion is good/bad religion’ framing.

All manifestations of religion, liberal or authoritarian, faith based or allegorical, good or bad cherry pick. Unless a religion is consciously created in a specific narrow way, then there is no such thing as scriptural literalism. The difference with humanism and other secular belief systems, is that there consensus beliefs are not claimed to be discovered by scripture or faith, but acknowledged as human and naturalistic.

Pointing out the hypocrisy of religious fundamentalist, that their claims to religious literalism are false, that that too cherry pick, and their ignorance of more liberal traditions within their own religion, are all powerful tools in the hands of religious liberals and humanist. There’s a scene in the West Wing, beloved by religious liberals. Even if you’ve not seen the show, you may be familiar with it. President Bartlet exposes the hypocrisy of a right-wing anti-gay bigot’s use of the bible to justify her homophobia, by eloquently pointing all the other biblical laws from slavery to stoning people for working on the sabbath, that she ignores. The writers were apparently unaware how much it exposes his own hypocrisy in turn.

It is fair, and important, to point out where a form of religion is so far removed from the mainstream of that religion that we are tempted to say it is not ‘really’ that religion. Unfortunately, this is manifestly not the case with either Christian Nationalism or Islamism. And even if we were to take that as a standard, how would it be applied. There was a time when Christian support for African slavery was completely mainstream, and anti-slavery positions a progressive fringe, at what point did one become, or cease to be, ‘real’ Christianity?

Thanks for reading

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Asking atheists: five social experiments

Are atheists less prone to pareidolia? What drives partisanship among non-religious voters? What’s the link between tolerance, religiosity, and religious literacy? Thinking about the social research of atheists I’d be most interested in.

1. Are atheists less prone to pareidolia?

Pareidolia is the tendency to familiar objects, for example see faces or patterns in otherwise random or unrelated objects or patterns. It plays a big role in evolutionary explanations for theistic belief. We are evolved to be agency detectors but have a tendency to see agency where it doesn’t necessarily exist. The same tendency to attribute the results of natural or complex social systems to the conscious actions of powerful agents, may be a strong driver of conspiracist thinking as well.

There are various online pareidolia test, and I found a research article from 2012 entitled: “Paranormal and Religious Believers Are More Prone to Illusory Face Perception than Skeptics and Non-believers”. But I’d be interested in a large-scale study specifically testing the link.

The way I’d set this up would be to ask three opening questions, participants would be given three statements and asked to rank on a score from 1 to 5, how strongly they agree. These would be used as a measure of religious, theistic and conspiracist thinking.

Each participant would be given 7 pictures of natural environments, 2 would contain hidden figures and 5 would contain natural objects that could appear to be a hidden face. They could be shown the pictures quickly and either click a button if they saw a face, or be asked to describe the image.

My assumption would be there would be little correlation between the worldview questions and the likelihood of spotting the two genuine examples of hidden figures. But that there would be a strong correlation between religious, theistic, conspiracist and pareidolic thinking. I’d also predict that the correlation would be that theistic, rather than generally religious thinking would be most highly correlated.

To be fair, theists may argue that the problem is not them seeing agency where it doesn’t exist, but atheists failing to recognise agency where it does exist. If the test could measure both we could see if atheists had an anti-agency bias.

2. How does existential dread influence atheism?

I believe that existential dread provides fascinating insights into theistic and atheistic thinking, specifically the aspect of existential dread caused by the realisation that we are the ones controlling our actions. For me this is an inversion of the idea of there being no atheists in foxholes. On some level, I believe that we all understand that we are in control of our actions, and that we have no cosmic parent looking over our shoulder. An atheist or a theist standing atop a cliff both understand that that no god will stop them throwing themselves off.

This may partially explain why casually religious people tend to become more strongly religious around the time where they have children or when their own parents mortality becomes more immediate. Before this stage, most of us have real world parental figure above us in the hierarchy of responsibility and experience, lessening the need for a heavenly parental figure.

I wonder if there could be some way of testing how atheists and theists respond differently to this form of existential dread. Might atheists experience less such dread because they have come to terms with the lack of a supernatural overseer, or more because they feel that absence more keenly?

What would be the best way to test this, comparing self-evaluation questions designed to measure such dread directly, or coupling this with taking participants though scenarios, perhaps using videos of different situations and asking them to assess their own feelings of dread?

3. Does societal progress lead to secularisation or vice versa?

Many in atheist and wider AHS+ communities tend to be resistant to sociological explanations for their beliefs. We tend to paint atheism and humanism as arrived at through reason, and contrast this with religion as ‘just’ being something you are born into. Pointing out that atheism and humanism are also worldviews people can be socialised into, is seen by some as undermining this distinction. It would be flattering to our movement if secularisation was shown to be the driving force, and societal progress the outcome, rather than vice versa. In reality, the relationship is likely to be more complicated. I’m not sure what the beset way of teasing out the correlation and causation would be.

4. How does atheism influence partisanship?

This is a larger project that I’d like to undertake and I hinted at in my piece on why the atheist and wider AHS+ movement should support proportional representation. There is clear evidence that atheist and other non-religious voters tend towards socially and economically left-wing partisanship. But different studies and settings show the trend to be more ore less pronounced. What is the driver, do atheists tend to be more left wing, or is there something about left wing politics that encourages atheism? Is an atheist tendency towards left wing politics driven by or a driver of religious conservatism? Should we expect the trend to be stronger in more religious countries or in countries where religious conservatism is more politically powerful? Would the link be stronger in countries with a background of high partisanship? Could we use MPR polling or other demographic data to see where atheist and non-religious voters have the most impact, or what the impact would be of different parties better appealing to them?

5. More about religious literacy?

A supposed lack of religious literacy is a regular topic of moral panic in the UK. Atheists are often accused of religious ignorance, though repeated research shows atheists tend to know more about a majority religion than those religions’ average followers, perhaps as atheism tends to be a result of a more active process of considering the issues. Anti-religious views which may be a product of either prejudice or consideration, are often presumed to be the former. Religious literacy is often conflated with a positive view of religion. Indeed, most religious education teachers in British schools view it as their job to promote a positive view of religion.

I’d like to know if positive or negative views of religion are more likely to be either products of ignorance or knowledge, and more or less driven by personal religiosity. Does religiosity drive deference to, and a positivity bias in the assessment of, religion, or is this unrelated?

In my imagined experiment I would set up two screening questions: participants on a 5-point scale from strongly agree to strongly disagree whether they are personally religious and whether religion is a force for good. They would then be asked to rate a set of 24 or more statements about religion as being true of false.

The statements would be in twelve groups:

 Shows morally positive aspect of religion.Shows morally neutral aspect of religion.Shows morally negative aspect of religion.
Unambiguously true statement.   
Ambiguous, but generally agreed to be true statement.   
Ambiguous, but generally agreed to be false statement.   
Unambiguously false statement.   

Based on their answers, participant’s religious literacy would be classified in one of six ways:

Well informed: Tends to correctly identify whether statements about religion are true or false, across all sets of statements.

Poorly informed: Vice versa.

Negative view, poorly informed: Bias towards believing negative statements (and disbelieving positive statements) about religion, coupled with poor identification of true/false statements when they give neutral view of religion. Suggests that negative view of religion is influenced by poor religious knowledge.

Positive view, poorly informed: Vice versa.

Negative view, motivated: Bias towards believing negative statements (and disbelieving positive statements) about religion, coupled with good identification of true/false statements when they give neutral view of religion. Suggests that negative view of religion is result of motivated bias, not poor religious knowledge.

Positive view, motivated: Vice versa.

I’m not sure I could predict what the results would be. Of course, you would get a higher degree of detail if you could ask more questions, and it would be interesting if there were differences between views of different religions.

Thanks for reading

Has anyone already done this research? Could you think of a better way to test these ideas? Do you agree with my predictions? What social experiments would you like to explore the impact of atheist beliefs further?

Let me know what you thought of this article and if you want to hear more. If you value this content and are able to financially support it, that would be great. Just a couple of pounds a month would help with hosting and other costs, and one day help expand our operations.

Please join our community on Twitter and Facebook to help share the blog, and pass it along to anyone who may be interested.

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