Building the second wave of Humanism

Article by Lyndon Storey (CAHS President) first published in Australian Humanist no. 127 (Aug.-Oct. 2017)

Reviving Humanism for the 21st Century - Building a second wave of Humanism in Australia


The first major wave of Humanist activity in Australia started in the 1960s with a primary focus on removing religiously inspired restrictions on people’s freedoms, such as laws restricting homosexuality, abortion, and the right to divorce.  It is time to build on (but not abandon) that first wave with a second wave of activity: promoting Humanism as a path to developing answers to existential questions about meaning, ethics and community in life.  Building the second wave will make Australian Humanism more focussed on the issues of today, and help revive the Humanist movement.

As religion, especially Christianity, continues its decline, more and more people find themselves asking the question: ‘in the absence of religion what is the most credible path to meaning and community in life?’  Humanism has the best answer: it offers a platform for developing a path to meaning based on respect for human dignity, care and compassion for others, and fulfilling our own best individual potential, including our potential for love and compassion.  The Humanist answer, that love and compassion come from the human heart, is of course also a better answer than the religious answer to the question of meaning: that love and compassion depend on surrender to (an imaginary) God.

            This does not mean that as religion declines Humanist values will automatically come to the fore.  The world offers many alternatives to religion, including a long history of appalling alternatives through ideologies that have occasionally filled in for religion: such as nationalism, fascism and Marxism.  Some of these have matched the worst effects of religion in supporting social systems based on domination, exploitation and cruelty.  Especially in times of rising economic inequality and hardship, there is a risk of such ideologies rushing into the space left by the retreat of religion. 

The decline of religion will not signal the end of the battle for human dignity and our planet’s future.  Instead it opens the space for a new battle of ideas.  In this struggle the Humanist movement has a vital role to play as the bearer of a Humanist flame that can light a path to meaning, fulfilment and community that is available for all.  It is vital for us to build a second wave of Humanist activity to meet the issues of today.  Part 1 outlines the case for building a second wave of Humanism, in Part 2 I address the crucial question of what activities a second-wave Humanist movement would focus on.




Highs of first-wave Humanism followed by decline

The first-wave of organised Humanist activity in Australia, in the 1960s and ’70s, saw the Humanist movement at the forefront of a number of campaigns, such as those mentioned in the opening paragraph, to free society from the shackles of religiously inspired values.  Membership numbers reached historic highs during this period.  There were many successes, but some projects, such as the campaign around ‘dying with dignity’, remain incomplete and need to be, and are being, continued by the Australian Humanist movement.

However, the sense of Humanism as at the forefront of social change has faded since the first-wave heyday.  Single-issue groups now often lead the relevant campaigns.  At the same time movements such as the ‘new atheism’ have emerged, attracting younger people to the cause of reducing religion’s role, and appearing more vibrant and engaged.

As these developments have occurred, membership in Humanist Societies has declined.  The Humanist Society of New South Wales membership, for instance, is down from a high of around 900 to about 125 members today.  The combined membership of all Council of Australian Humanist Societies (CAHS) affiliated societies at the end of last year was down to less than 500! 1.  As well as declining, the membership is also ageing.  This is occurring at different rates in different states, but the overall trend is unmistakenable.  If this does not change the survival of the Australian Humanist movement will be threatened.


Social situation today

Australia’s social situation has changed since the first-wave started.  The 1971 Census reported 6.7 per cent of Australians as having no religion; by the 2016 census the percentage had climbed to 30.1 per cent.  The two biggest subsets of Australian Christians, Catholics at 22.6 per cent and Anglicans at 13.3 per cent, in the 2016 Census are now each individually smaller groups than the no religion group.2

People still need a sense of meaning and fundamental grounding of the values in their lives.  As the decline of traditional religion in Australia accelerates there are more and more people seeking an alternative foundation for values and community.  They are more likely to ask what Humanism has to offer in this area than to ask for reasons to reject religion; they have already done that. 

Instead of expanding with a second wave to fill the gap left by religion the Humanist movement remains too focussed on a first-wave outlook; and is actually shrinking in tandem with religion.  As religion retreats we face a crucial existential question: what will be the new foundation for values, Humanism or something else?  Providing a strong case for the Humanist answer is something we must focus on, for the benefit of society, and to keep the Humanist movement relevant to the 21st century.

This is not just an abstract issue of finding answers for people who happen to be interested in non-religious foundations for values.  Finding meaning is a vital need in a person’s life. In the absence of religion any number of ideologies, not to mention nihilism and pure selfishness, can put themselves forward as the framework for people’s lives.  Ideologies such as Marxism, Fascism and nationalism have underpinned cruel and exploitative political systems in the past.  There is no guarantee that they, or something new and even worse, might not step in to offer an alternative path to meaning.  The stirrings of hyper-nationalism associated with recent political events such as ‘Brexit’ and the quest to ‘make America great again’ are signposts of this risk.  We need to be building a Humanist alternative now, as part of forestalling such risks.

Society needs a better foundation than religion to develop answers to existential questions.  Humanism is that better foundation.  

The second wave, focussed more on Humanism as a path to developing answers to existential questions about meaning, ethics and community in life, is something we need to start now.


Summary of main reasons for advocating second-wave humanism

(1) Address contemporary issues: Focussing on meaning and ethics generally will help refocus Humanism on a broad range of contemporary issues, not just the problems caused by religion.

(2) Answering people’s existential needs: People still need to explore paths to meaning in life, and Humanism has the best paths to explore.  Especially as religion’s decline accelerates, Humanist Societies should focus on offering and promoting Humanist paths to meaning, and on offering people advice and support to explore those paths.

(3) Forestalling social risk: The decline of religion does not mean that a perfect society will automatically come into existence.  There are plenty of potentially dangerous ideologies ready to step in. We need to offer as coherently, as publicly, and as persuasively as possible, a humanist alternative to prepare against this risk.

(4) Arrest decline of Humanist Societies: The current sense of mostly continuing with a first-wave approach has correlated with declining membership numbers and influence for Australian Humanism.  The decline of religion requires a different emphasis for Humanist Societies to regain social relevance.

Both the needs of society and the issue of dealing with Australian Humanism’s own declining numbers dovetail into the same solution: building the second wave of Humanism.

This does not mean abandoning uncompleted first-wave tasks.  The waves are connected.  There have been efforts at ethics teaching, at building community, at community volunteering and so forth already within Australia’s Humanist movement.  The seeds of the second wave are already there in the efforts that have gone on during the first wave.  It is more for analytical clarity that I have used the two-wave model.  In practice elements of both waves should be present.

But the focus now needs to be so much more on the second-wave.  We owe it to ourselves, to Australia and the world, to start building this now.  But how do we do this? What sort of activities would a second-wave Humanist movement engage in?




There are four interconnected fields: advocacy of Humanism, community, community engagement, and policy development, where I think we can start taking actions to build a second wave of Humanism.  I do not say these are the only areas, but offer them as a starting point.  It will take many people, working in different areas, to build the second wave.


Field 1: Advocacy of Humanism

When advocating for Humanism in general we need to focus more on how Humanism, through its goal of acknowledging and cultivating the best of the human potential, provides a platform for developing answers to existential questions about meaning, ethics and community.  Human fulfilment or self-realisation does not just mean hyper-individualism.  It means building on our potential for love, compassion and sympathy as much as anything else.

Humanism’s emphasis on cultivating such human potentials as love and compassion, as well as its use of evidence and reason, provides a foundation not just for developing the ethics of how we relate to each other with care and respect, but to non-human animals, and our overall environment as well.  For instance, the extension of our potential for empathy and compassion to an awareness of the suffering and needs of non-human animals has, and hopefully should in the future, lead to changing approaches to our relations with them.  Humanism should be advocated as an approach to ethics that offers a seamless connection between the foundations of respect for both human dignity and the needs of our planet, including its other occupants, rather than pitting the one against the other. 

Building on the best of the human potential as a path to meaning is an approach that has been advocated by many different thinkers.  The Confucian movement argued that compassion, justice and wisdom were among potentials that were part of the human endowment, and needed to be cultivated to build a better life and society3.  Aristotle also argued that the meaning of life, eudaimonia, or human flourishing, came from developing the capacities that were inherent within us4.  In the 20th century the humanist school of psychotherapy, led by figures such as Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow, argued that self-actualisation can provide a path in life.  There are many other similar approaches.  I don’t advocate adopting any one such thought system.  I simply note there is plenty of material already present to help develop the ideas of second-wave Humanism.

The corollary of this is a change in emphasis on what Humanism critiques.  Our advocacy of Humanism needs to be accompanied by a critique pointing out flaws and dangers, not just in religion, but in other ideologies, e.g. nationalism and economic rationalism, which might offer themselves as frameworks of meaning.  For instance Humanism’s support for recognition and cultivation of the best potential of human beings makes it intrinsically opposed to a narrow view of human nature (such as economic rationalism) which sees us as no more than material wealth maximisers.


Field 2: Community

It is a commonplace that people feel more isolated and cut off from a sense of community today.  Humanism offers a natural foundation for building community based on respect for human dignity.  Second-wave Humanist Societies should put a greater emphasis on developing meetings and gatherings which offer people a sense of community based on shared values.

Of course this has already happened, to a degree.  But there needs to be a greater focus on this.  We need to develop a regular community gathering option so that people can join a Humanist Society just for the sake of joining a community of like-minded people if they want to.  Such a community can offer opportunities for friendship, social activities, and also social support in times of trouble.  Different State Humanist Societies may wish to experiment with different approaches to this as we explore the best way to do it.

The development of the Sunday Assembly movement in recent years is both an example and an embarrassment.  It clearly identified a need.  Why didn’t the Humanist movement try something like this?  Certainly our version of a community gathering need not be as closely copied on a church gathering as Sunday Assembly appears to be.  But we should be trying something.

Building community will also dovetail with the proposed advocacy approach outlined above.  Humanist community groups will be a demonstration of Humanism as a foundation for community.  Such groups may also attract a new pool of people who might consider joining Humanist Societies. 


Field 3: Community engagement

It also follows that, if Humanism is seen as a pathway to meaning, there will be some people who want to live out their vision of humanism more fully.  For some Humanists this will mean forms of community volunteering such as pastoral care, support for the homeless and offering education.

Of course Humanists could do this by joining existing charitable groups.  But second-wave Humanist Societies should at least feel an incentive to help train and organise those Humanists who want to be involved in volunteering and comparable charitable works.  I discussed ways of developing this, under the heading of ‘humanist community workers’ in an article in AH 125 (a version of which is also on the CAHS website) and in a talk I gave at the last Australian Humanist Convention.

Various forms of community involvement are for many people paths to meaningful interactions with others.  Second-wave Humanism should try to facilitate this.  The development of ‘community’ (Field 2) could help provide a pool of likely volunteers.  Likewise the volunteer’s experiences could be both a demonstration of Humanism as a path to meaning, and a way to attract more socially minded people to Humanism.


Field 4: Policy advocacy

What sort of policies (i.e. in relation to politics, the law etc.) would a second-wave Humanist movement advocate?  In essence these would be connected to issues of protecting people’s freedom and their ability to live as fully as possible.  This of course has great continuity with first-wave Humanism which focussed on freeing people from mainly religiously inspired restrictions on what they could do.

Second-wave Humanism would add on a strong interest in empowering people economically and socially, and through access to education, to lead fulfilling lives.  It would also be ready to challenge policies inspired by ideologies such as nationalism and economic rationalism.  Second-wave Humanist Societies would be ideally positioned to campaign for greater access to education and economic justice, and for cosmopolitan political causes such as global human rights, the rights of refugees, and the building of more just international systems that move beyond the system of nation states.

As well, in accordance with what I wrote under ‘advocacy’, second-wave Humanism should be more aware of humans as part of a broader world, and place greater emphasis on developing and supporting policies to address climate change and improve humanity’s relationship with both other creatures and the planet.

As an approach competing with a range of ideologies rather than just religion, second-wave Humanism should develop a broader range of policy positions and interests.



A Humanist movement which started exploring these four fields would be one which was addressing the issues of today.  It would be offering an answer to the existential concerns of the age (Field 1) and be offering community and social volunteering opportunities (Fields 2 and 3), which would add credibility and depth to the existential answers.  The broader range of policy issues addressed (Field 4) would be part of developing a broad range of responses to the issues facing the world today based on a developing Humanist philosophy (Field 1).

Both the answer to people’s need for meaning and community, and the answer to the declining membership of Australia’s Humanist societies, can be found by developing a second wave of Humanist activity in Australia.  Of course, in a short article, such as this, a lot has been left out.  I encourage all Humanists reading this to think about the issues raised and consider whether you want to propose or contribute something to helping your local Humanist Society build a second wave of Humanism.  It is time to start building the second wave of Humanism now.




1. Humanist society membership information from consultation with relevant senior Australian humanists.

2. Census information:  2011 and earlier –

2016 –

3. For Confucian thought see: Sources of Chinese Tradition, 2nd Edn. Vol. 1, compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

4. For Aristotle see the entry under his name in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy available at