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What motivates humanist campaigners?

Watch Humanists UK's Andrew Copson describe his and other humanists motivations
I remember very clearly the moment at which I realised, not just that I was a humanist and that the word humanism described my beliefs and values, but that being a humanist, understanding that this way of looking at the world that I had, had a word to describe it, was shared by other people, it was a coherent philosophy of life; realising that that fact made me want to do something about it and I realised that it wasn’t enough just for humanists - people with the beliefs that I had - to sit around, acknowledging their own beliefs, but really we had to translate those into action - the job of building a better world, a more humanist world where there would be more protection for human rights, where there’d be better treatment of people as individuals, where there’d be more dignity, more freedom - all of those humanist aspirations would only be achieved if we actually did some work to try and make it happen.
The moment I realised I wanted to work for a humanist organisation, I can remember very clearly. It was around 2002 and it was at the time that the UK Government announced that they were going to be increasing the number of state-funded religious schools in the UK. Now, up until that point, I’d been a humanist, I’d had a humanist upbringing and I’d sort of assumed that these beliefs and values that I had were common sense, that they were growing in prevalence, at least in Britain and that they constituted the future really - they were where the world was going.
And then suddenly, at what was quite a formative age for me - I was young, still I was at university - I realised that that couldn’t just be relied upon to happen without doing something about it and in fact, to the contrary, there were organisations and individuals and movements in this world and in my own society that were working against the achievement of the aims that I thought were inevitable. I decided I had to do something to try and help put what I saw as the progress of our society back on the right track.
I observe that people who’ve been moved to apply the word humanist to themselves,
often care deeply, very deeply about freedom: freedom of thought, freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, freedom of choice - the idea that human beings can only really be happy and fulfilled if they have that freedom. No one has total freedom, of course, we’re all constrained by our obligations to other people and by the laws of physics, but freedom to as large a measure as can be achievable in line with the rights of others and those other basic constraints. Freedom is a big motivator, I think, towards humanism for a lot of people and once having identified themselves as humanists often they’ll go on to promote that freedom for others.
And the second thing, I think is a sort of solidarity, a sort of human solidarity. To be a humanist is to consciously having put aside any hard and fast distinctions of culture, and of race, and of gender, and all the things that delineate and separate human beings into categories.
Now it’s not to deny the importance in all sorts of different contexts of those differences but it’s deliberately to have said there is something more than this, we’re not just citizens of one nation, we’re not just members of one tribe, there is an essential unity to humanity and we ought to try to recognise that, and I think that leads, certainly all the humanists that I’ve met, to quite an international mindset, quite a global mindset today, and that’s proved very distinctive in my experience of humanists as well.
I’m a humanist, so I think that we all, in life, make our own meaning. Meaning isn’t something out there in the universe, waiting to be discovered because it was all created by some other entity, meaning is something that we make ourselves in our lives, and for me, the work that I do for Humanists UK and all the other sort of activism I engage in other parts of my life that is motivated by my beliefs and values, is something that gives me a tremendous sense of meaning.
I acquire a sense of purpose from what I’m doing, I feel that it has significance, I think that I’m making a difference and all of that, for me at least, is a vital ingredient of my own sense of fulfillment in this life.

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

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