Since becoming the new President of the Humanist Society of South Australia late in 2016, I have endeavoured to discover how best to help the Society achieve its aims of creating a more just society for all people.
One of the first things I did was look at our membership numbers. Frankly, it is pitiful, and the HSSA of today is very different from the dynamic, progressive social movement of it’s heyday in the 1960s and 1970s. I was surprised at how low the membership numbers were, especially considering that the views of humanism are quite in line with the views of the general public on many important social issues. These issues include voluntary euthanasia, marriage equality, and human rights, and are not limited to the reduction of religious influence on policy that many of our fellow Humanist Societies are focussing on. Obviously, a problem needed solving in SA. However, when I looked at the membership numbers and trends over the years in all states it seemed that SA was not alone in not having as many members as the humanistic ethical stance would be thought to attract.,
To try to discover what the problem was, I have, over the past few months, spoken with many people about humanism and the Humanist Society. I firstly wanted to know the general public’s opinion regarding these two things and then I asked Humanists about their own perceptions of themselves and their organisations.
The vast majority of the general public I spoke with were not aware of ‘humanist values’ or ‘humanism’, but when the ethical stance was explained to them, they knew exactly what it was. However, they had never associated the name ‘humanism’ with that ethical stance. They had never associated the values they agreed with, such as marriage equality and voluntary euthanasia, with the term ‘humanism’. Most people that I asked were not aware that Humanist Societies existed in Australia. The few who had heard of them were either of the opinion that Humanists Societies were old, irrelevant, boring or ‘stuffy’ or they believed that the Humanist Society was an organisation a bit like the Freemasons, full of age old traditions and possibly some secret handshakes. I found the age demographic telling. The people who were not aware of Humanist Societies mainly fell into the under 30-year-old category.
Of the people I spoke with who were aware of humanism there was a prevalent perception that the movement and the Society was simply an ‘Atheist Club’ or even anti-theistic. Many people I spoke with said that deterred them from identifying as ‘humanist’ or wanting to join an organisation that had such an image. Both atheism and anti-theism were perceived as negative stances by those I spoke with.
I continued my questioning at the 2017 Australian Humanist Convention in Melbourne. I wanted to know what people who already knew about Humanism and the Humanist Societies thought about their own image, and how they thought Humanism and the Humanist Societies could be promoted or evolved to become more relevant in Australia today, especially to the nation’s younger generation.
Most people I spoke to at the convention realised there was a problem and that membership numbers were far too low. The reasons they suggested for this were as diverse as the people themselves, however, some main themes did occur.
There is a perception that Humanist messages are made in negative terms, rather than in positive terms. The most cited example of this was a perception that there was a tendency to criticise ‘religion’ as causing a social harm in relation to many social issues, rather than positively proposing solutions to these harms based on humanistic values and ethics.
As a religious person myself, I fail to see how simply criticising a religion’s stance is of any benefit to anyone. To be honest, I hesitated to accept the presidency due to my perception that religious people were not very welcome in the Humanist Society. What Humanism needs is positivity and positive solutions to problems. Religion is correctly identified as being used - by some - to justify promoting many issues that are contrary to humanist ideals; but is religion itself really to blame? Should we instead be dealing with the issues that have created these religious doctrines that seek to take away people’s universal human rights? In other words, maybe it is not the religion or the religious that creates opposition towards universal human rights, but rather it is a distrust or fear of certain members of the human race which creates these religious ideals to justify these feelings. If you remove religion, these feelings will still exist, and the people who hold these beliefs will just find another way to justify them. We already see this occurring in many countries around the world with the current rise in ‘Nationalism’.
We are also perhaps excluding a large amount of potential new members by Humanisms present image of having a negative view towards religion and the religious as a whole. While certain religions do contain doctrines against, or have an official stance against, marriage equality, a large contingent of their flock must also support marriage equality in spite of this. According to the latest 2016 Census data, 52% of Australians identified as Christian; but according Galaxy Research polling 64% of Australians support marriage equality and 53% of Australian Christians support marriage equality. To attack the religion these people follow, while they themselves do not personally support the doctrines these religions express, is potentially putting them off joining our Society. If we let these people know that we accept their choice of belief, as long as it does not go to the extent of prejudice against certain members of the human race, they will realise what ‘humanism’ actually means and that their ideals are aligned with ours.
In addition, some Humanists identified a need to have a solid, consistent set of policies on different social issues. It is fine to say humanism believes in common sense approaches to solving problems, but it is better to be able to point directly how a particular problem might be solved. The suggested solution to this was to publish policies that could be easily accessed by the public to maintain a consistency of purpose. This project is currently underway and we hope to have a complete set of social policies published on our website.
Some thought that often, general meetings were, in fact, a bit boring. To address this we will be reducing our monthly Adelaide meetings to a quarterly schedule, and we will embark on having less formal, more social meetings at café’s and eateries in the suburbs. We have decided to call these social meetings ‘Food for Thought’ and plan to have a general topic of conversation around a current social issue over a meal in a casual setting. Our new quarterly Adelaide meetings will focus more on having an interesting speaker or presentation. All decisions on the day-to-day running of the Society that do not require a membership input or vote will be dealt with in separate Committee meetings.
Others noted that there was a great need for the Humanist Society to be more active in the general community. If we wish to create a society for the betterment of all members of the community, we need to be more actively seen as having a voice and relevance in today’s society. If we are involved in more charitable causes, this will give the wider community an awareness of our presence and also demonstrate the ideals and inclusiveness we stand for. As such, we will endeavour to make public statements on issues of social importance, have a greater dialogue and input on proposed social policies, as well as investigate how we can become more actively involved in charitable causes.
All of the issues that were raised are important issues. Many of the proposed solutions are reasonably achievable. What is very clear is the Humanist Society must evolve and adapt, or, as with natural selection, it will become extinct in the not too distant future. I hope that everyone will get behind our bold new vision for the future of the Humanist Society of South Australia and join us on this exciting journey.