Meet the humanists: ‘You don’t have to be Christian to think of yourself as a good person’

When Heidi Nicholl moved to Australia five years ago, she remembers thinking: “Where is it – where is humanism?”

The British-born Nicholl had been drawn to humanism, a secular, values-based movement, in her 20s. In her work as a hospital ethicist she was never far from considering questions about life, death, and the reality of being human.

“The types of decisions that hospital ethicists need to make are all about the reality of being human, without the admittedly comforting idea that some supernatural being would come in and fix everything,” says Nicholl, who now heads the recently formed Humanists Australia.

“Knowing that in the UK and America where I’d lived there are humanist communities and societies, I was looking around to see what my options were for getting involved in something and finding people who live an ethical life that is evidence-based and values driven. But I didn’t find anything.”

When she went looking for a like-minded community in Australia, she found it was more common to hear about atheism than humanism. The former, she says, is mainly “saying what you’re not” – a person who doesn’t believe in God – while the latter is “almost always presented as being something and for something”. Nicholl says that humanists are not “anti-religion and we’re not against religion, we’re actually pro-values, meaning and fulfilment”.

Nicholl herself grew up with religion. As a teenager she identified “very, very strongly with that charismatic evangelical message of Christianity”.

She had attended church until she realised that there were other ways to spend her spare time (and also found a non-religious boyfriend). She was 28 when she won a scholarship for a secular bioethics PhD, before working in a hospital. By then she knew she was a humanist.

As the head of the new Humanists Australia, Nicholl is hoping to breathe life into the movement in her adopted country. The organisation is a member of the global umbrella organisation for the movement that embraces democracy and ethics, reason and free inquiry, is not theistic and does not believe in the supernatural. The Melbourne-based charity launched last December.

It comes as the number of Australians who say that they have no faith increased to nearly one-third in the last 2016 census. A recent study found that seven in 10 (71%) Australians say religion is not personally important.

Humanism is not new to Australia, however. The Council of Australian Humanist Societies was founded in 1965. But Humanism Australia marks the first time that there has been a national humanist organisation for individuals to join, and which is focused on supporting them, says Nicholl.

Portrait of Heidi Nicholl
Heidi Nicholl, CEO of Humanists Australia. Photograph: Alana Holmberg/Oculi for The Guardian

In its early days the Humanist Society of NSW had 770 members and its public meetings attracted crowds of 200 people or more.

“A big driver for the large membership was the outrage over the Vietnam War,” recalls Victor Bien, who joined the Queensland branch in 1968 when he “de-converted from Anglican Christian evangelicalism”.

“Other issues which caused people to join were abortion and the cry for law reform, civil liberties, euthanasia, and religious indoctrination in public schools.”

Australian society was very conservative at the time, and the numerous activist associations for separate interests that we have today were yet to emerge, says Bien. Once they did, humanist membership numbers declined.

Nicholl hopes to provide a vehicle that can give representation to those who subscribe to secularism in Australia, to create a more inclusive space.

With another census coming up in August it wants to “build more humanist communities” by organising local meet-ups through which people can hold talks or debates, volunteer or take part in activism.

Although humanists have no rituals or rites of passage, they still mark major life changes such as weddings, births, and funerals.

“But we choose to do this by referencing the good in humans, and by sharing time with each other, not by celebrating some undiscovered force in the universe,” says Nicholl.

Former navy director-general of chaplaincy Collin Acton (left) with governor general David Hurley.
Former navy director-general of chaplaincy Collin Acton (left) with governor general David Hurley. Photograph: Irene Dowdy

Collin Acton didn’t grow up in a religious household, so had little understanding of faith when he joined the navy in 1979. A personal crisis in his 20s led him to a church. Being deployed to the Middle East in 2012 “led me away from any notion of a kind or loving God to seeing that as a human construction”, he says.

When the former navy director-general of chaplaincy tried to introduce the first non-religious “maritime spiritual wellbeing officers” he met with high level resistance from a government committee of civilian religious leaders and ADF chaplains. It further shaped his views.

“I went from being a mild humanist when I started in that role to becoming a thoroughly convinced and committed humanist at the end of my tenure,” says Acton.

The committee, he says, “fought tooth and nail” against the navy’s attempts to modernise. Acton was “absolutely gobsmacked” at the pushback from the religious advisory committee to the services and a number of religious chaplains.

“Navy was never seeking to remove religion from the ADF – it was always about giving the workforce a choice when seeking pastoral support,” he says, adding that more than half of navy personnel are no longer associated with religion.

As a humanist celebrant for the past 26 years, Sally Cant was inspired to seek out an alternative to faith by her atheist father and humanist grandmother four decades ago.

“I don’t know whether she would have been involved in any type of humanist movement, but I remember having a conversation with (my grandmother) saying that I found her to be the kindest person that I’d ever met, and she said ‘look it’s not hard’,” says Cant.

“She was definitely non-religious but had a very strong interest in the concern for human welfare and was very clear that you don’t have to be Christian to think of yourself as a good person.”

Cant, based in St Leonards on the Bellarine Peninsula in Victoria, has conducted about 2,500 wedding ceremonies, and set up The Celebrants Training College.

“I had seen so many church weddings where religion was just thrown down your throat, especially from the Catholic Church where they demand you do pre-marriage education and wanted to bring to society a humanist perspective in ceremony and make sure I listen very carefully to people’s values,” she says.

Humanist celebrant Sally Cant, from the Bellarine Peninsula.
Humanist celebrant Sally Cant, from Victoria’s Bellarine Peninsula. Photograph: Sally Cant

There has been a rise in the number of civil celebrants, including humanist officiants, from about 1200 in 1995 when Cant first started, to just under 10,000 today.

“People want choices – and they were over the religious dogma – and wanted to be true to themselves. They were looking for something that had substance, meaning and dignity,” she says.

Des Cahill, Emeritus Prof of intercultural studies at RMIT University and chair of Religions for Peace Australia, argues that these can be found in faith.

“This is not against the humanist point of view, but often I don’t think they appreciate the positive functions of religion,” he says.

Studies have also shown that religious people volunteer more than the non-religious, says Cahill.

“Religious communities inspire and sustain human dignity, offer – and we’ve definitely seen this during Covid-19 – partial comfort, hope and healing as well as moral wisdom,” he adds, noting that religious groups such as Hindu and Sikh groups have handed out thousands of free hot meals during the pandemic.

But some, like Nicholl, have been left “quite traumatised by having Jesus pushed on me so much, so hard, so often” by family, and society in general. It’s only recently that she realised the anguish that she’s endured.

“I just want to have my rights respected – for people to accept that I am a thoughtful, kind, smart person who doesn’t believe in a divine revelation and that I can make my own way thoughtfully in the world without believing in their God,” says Nicholl.

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