Skip main navigation

What motivates humanist campaigners?

Watch Humanists UK's Andrew Copson describe his and other humanists motivations

Andrew Copson is Chief Executive of Humanists UK. He became Chief Executive in 2010 after five years coordinating Humanists UK’s education and public affairs work. Andrew is also the current President of Humanists International. Together with AC Grayling, he edited the Wiley Blackwell Handbook of Humanism and he is the author of Secularism: Politics, Religion, and Freedom.

The landscape of religion and belief in the UK

Today over 50% of the population of the UK describe themselves as non-religious. This has grown from around 30% in the mid-1980s. While the country has become less religious, it has also become more religiously diverse. The portion of the country describing themselves as Church of England has fallen from 40% to 15% over the last thirty years, while the number of Muslims and people belonging to other Christian denominations has risen.

Why might humanists believe it is important to adopt the label?

‘It is essential to nail one’s colours to the mast as a humanist.’
Stephen Fry, Patron of Humanists UK
While around 5% of the UK population use the word ‘humanist’ to describe themselves, many more (around 20%) hold humanist beliefs but do not identify with the label. Often this is because they are unaware of the term or do not know what it means. When people who hold humanist beliefs discover the word ‘humanism’, and its meaning is explained to them, many will choose to apply the label to themselves.
However, some choose not to, preferring not to use a label. Many humanists sympathise with this – labels can be problematic. On one hand, it doesn’t really matter how people describe themselves – what matters is how they behave. On the other hand, some humanists will argue that there is value in adopting the label. It can be useful to those who have had difficult journeys to humanism, perhaps from a strict religious upbringing, to know that other people share their beliefs and the contribution those beliefs have made to human history. Some humanists also believe that the more that people openly use the label, the stronger the humanist voice becomes. In places where religious privilege still exists, adopting the label can help add weight to the case for challenging such inequalities.

The need for freedom

In a plural society we need to acknowledge, and be tolerant of, different approaches to life so that we can all live well together. Humanists believe this requires us to maximise people’s individual freedom to choose what they believe and how they want to live their lives.
The philosopher John Stuart Mill proposed the harm principle in On Liberty:
‘The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.’

Although not necessarily the final word on the matter, many humanists believe this principle provides a good starting point for conversations about restrictions on freedom.

Two causes that support individual freedom lie behind most humanist campaigning: human rights and secularism. It will be important to understand what these mean, and we will explore each over the next two steps.

Question: Do you think the harm principle is enough? Should there be other reasons why we might restrict people’s freedoms?

This article is from the free online

Humanist Lives, with Alice Roberts

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now