Oxford Humanists – Time for a change? Discussion paper at OxHums AGM March 2016

  • Successive, well respected, UK-based social surveys have, for the past 30 years, been telling us that the proportion of UK adults identifying themselves as having no religion has increased from about 30% to just over 50%.
  • The accuracy of the 50% figure was reinforced when (last December, 2015) the Woolf Institute – which studies relations between Christians, Muslims and Jews – published the results of its Church of England sponsored ‘Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life’. Their findings were consistent with today’s 50:50 equilibrium!
  • Between our 2006 and 2013 AGMs, Oxford Humanists’ (OxHums’) membership grew a lot faster than the national average: it rocketed from just below 20 to just over 100 – though our members’ annual subscriptions have remained unchanged, throughout.
  • During the first few of those years, we remained solvent mainly through Oxford City Council allowing us to hold our evening meetings for free in some of the town hall’s smaller rooms. By contrast, our substantially increased membership today, allows us to pay our subs to the two UK-wide organisations that best represent OxHums nationally (BHA, NSS and, more recently IHEU (International Humanist and Ethical Union). We also contribute to such worthy causes as the Uganda Schools’ Humanist Trust (see www.ugandahumanistschoolstrust.org) and the “One Law for All” organisation – which campaigns against the legalisation of religious law courts.
  • There are many reasons for our rapid growth, and one was certainly the increased publicity our members achieved through their support of our regular information stand in Cornmarket Street. Over the past 6+ years, this has enabled us to build up a contact-list of 6-700 local people’s e-addresses.
  • We are indebted, too, to The Oxford Times editors who have published the majority of our members’ humanist-focused letters.
  • We should note, however, that, though our membership continued to grow rapidly, participation in the various events we laid on declined progressively as a percentage of overall membership. I.e. more and more of our members were prepared to support a local humanist presence in Oxford even though they didn’t expect to participate in more than a minority of our meetings.
  • Further, although the number of members participating in our monthly public meetings went up marginally in most of the above years (until plateauing about 2010), we have practically never managed to elect a full committee, suggesting that it may be time to modify our collective persona – or substantially re-think it.
  • Meanwhile, a thoughtful colleague, aware of the changing balance between Religious and Non-Religious people in our country, has suggested that we humanists should stop defining ourselves as ‘atheists’ (an essentially negative identity within an overwhelmingly God-believing ‘world’) – and instead consider ourselves to be early members of southern Oxfordshire’s ‘post-theist’ world which must surely supersede it sometime during the next millenium?
  • Thus, within southern Oxfordshire, it already makes sense to consider a three-way split within local “post-theist” humanists: OxHums’ active members /OxHums not so active members / Some of the local people who have shared their e-addresses with us.
  • The last of these three categories is limited to those local people who generally agree with, and are supportive of, our activities and initiatives, but don’t have the time – or don’t feel the need – formally to join us. And detailed scrutiny of the information we’ve accumulated about them suggests that it’s probably reasonable to estimate the actual number of individuals in each group to be 40, 60, 150!

Possible Changes

OxHums are probably Oxford’s most-clearly-identified and most-committed ‘post-theist’ grouping.

So, as Chair for most of the past 10 years, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about ‘Why do I instinctively feel that we UK humanists, with our ethical ‘world view’, are now also part of the ‘post-theist’ world, rather than just a little known, and even less understood, appendage to the Other-odd-balls’ within today’s still powerful theist one?

Clearly (it seems to me), it must be time for us to make ourselves and our ideas better known and understood by Joe/Jane citizen. And, if possible, by gentle persuasion rather than by becoming openly confrontational!

In other words, I am confident that, within a few generations,Homo sapiens UK , will accept that many of today’s most thoughtful academics and high profile media personalities – including a majority of the UK’s leading scientists (and comedians?) – are already practicing their own form of ‘post-theist’ living – and are thus setting a desirable (and co-operative) way forward, for us all.

It’s surely time we/OxHums, stopped behaving like just another fringe group and started thinking of ourselves as some of the‘early adopters’ of the growing social trend towards a Post Theist future?!


John D White
14 March 2016