Community matters: Planning for success

The community matters series uses my experience with a range of atheist, humanist, secularist and other community groups, to consider the challenges and opportunities facing AHS+ groups in a post-pandemic world.

What does success look like for your atheist, humanist, secularist or similar group? Do your group’s organisers and community have a shared idea of success? Is your atheist meetup happy to fill up your favourite table in the pub, or does your secular congregation need 100 bums on seats to justify its room hire? Does your skeptic group need to campaign to keep members engaged, or does your humanist meetup judge its success by how much fun people have? Do you want to convert the world to rationalism, or build a local secular community?

Whatever success looks like for your group, there are some simple tools and strategies you can use to help plan for it.

1. Plan your reach using local data

Using local data, can help you appreciate your groups’ potential reach – and how much bigger it could be than you think. When looking at demographic data, we often need to use “nonreligious” as a proxy, through it doesn’t over overlap perfectly with atheist, humanist, secularist and similar groups.

I touched on this in my article How many AHS+ groups do we need?, where using sources such as the British Social Attitudes Survey, I estimated that about one in 400 people could be in the core audience of an AHS+ group. The point there was to take extremely conservative figures to demonstrate how many more groups would be sustainable.

For local data, I recommend using the Census. I discuss the problems with this in Why does the Census undercount the nonreligious?, and the data is not as regularly updated as other sources, but it extremely comprehensive. If someone tells the Census that they are nonreligious, despite its biased question, then it more likely that their nonreligion is an at least somewhat important or active part of their identity.

In England and Wales you can easily drill down into the Census data. If you select the data for QS208EW (the question on religion) you can progressively drill down into extremely small areas. Add up the areas where your group will be covering, and see how many nonreligious people you could be reaching. Look at the stats for religions and how many Churches and other religious institutions they have to serve their needs.

If you want to have fun, try checking out QS210EW (the detailed religious breakdown) to see how many Jedi Knight’s or witches live in your area.

Another local data tool is Facebook advertising. Go through the process of setting up a local advert (you don’t actually need to publish a real one), set your local area and target people by interest. See how big it suggests your audience could be.

Facebook for example can give you an estimate of how many people within 5 miles of your postcode have interests including secular humanism, atheism or skepticism.

2. Plan for attendance using your key and base numbers

Your base number is a single and simple number you can keep track of. It isn’t the be all and end all, but keeping an eye on it will give you a broad indicator of how you are doing.

Potential base numbers could be: email subscribers, paid up members, people who open a typical email etc.

Key numbers are those you want to attend a group event (in addition to the core organisers) on a low, typical or brilliant turnout. For your group to be sustainable, how many people do you need to attract on a rainy January evening, a standard monthly meetup, or your biggest event of the year? What proportion of your base number does this represent, and does that sound reasonable?

If you’re group is only going to survive if 100% of the people who like your Facebook page come to every meeting, you are not going to do well. But if your group can do well with 1% of your subscribers turning up, then you want to make that 1% of as big a base number as possible.

The relationship between your base and key numbers will change over time. A new group is likely to have more engaged members so a higher proportion of your base number will attend events. Overtime, your base number will grow but that will include people less engaged. Try to use a base number that indicates more commitment than just liking a Facebook page or passing interest.

A number with some automatic self-correction would also be good. Alternatively, you might want to adjust your base number, for example if using an email list reduce the total by 20% each year to give a more accurate picture of your active subscribers.

Try setting up a simple spreadsheet and keep track of both your base number and attendance. This should not be an onerous task. If you set it up correctly, it should be a two minute job to check and update every month.

In the below example, I have imagined a small local group and used email subscribers as the base number. I imagine that the group has 200 subscribers:


In this second example, I have imagined the same group, but taken membership as a base number. I imagine that the group has 50 people who have been paid members in the last three years.


3. Adopt a growth mindset

There is nothing wrong with being a small group, and growth can be difficult. But time and again I have met atheist, humanist and secularist groups who make a virtue out of their small or insular nature. Some people get a sense of superiority or feel they are a part of an elite. These groups don’t help the stereotype of atheist and humanist groups being a bunch of grey haired people sitting around talking about how smart they are for not believing in a god.

This can lead to conservative attitudes and unwillingness to try and attract new members. Meaning those who could be part of the community if invited remain underserved. Growth doesn’t just mean numbers, it could mean personal growth. Try challenging your community to consider new ideas and ways of doing things.

4. Act on feedback genuinely and proportionally

Don’t just provide regular opportunities for your group’s community to feedback on how things are going, actively invite it. More importantly, give all feedback genuine consideration and make clear when you act on it. That should be tempered by proportionality, remember that atheists, humanists and secularists can be have strong opinions, but those most willing to share them may not be the most representative. Everyone can have great ideas, but avoid major changes based on small opinion samples. The better you are at inviting feedback, the more representative that feedback will be of your full community.

When you can’t act on feedback, also try to let people know why and encourage them to continue sharing their views. For example, if you can’t move the meetings earlier due to a room’s availability, let people unhappy with the time know this, and invite alternative suggestions for their concerns.

5. Give yourself a grade

School inspections in England use a four-point grading scale: outstanding, good, requires improvement and inadequate. Try giving yourself such a grade. If you’d prefer, why not give the four grades labels more tailored to your group, e.g. flourishing, succeeding, struggling and sinking.

The grading process should be simple. Agree a sentence or two to describe what each grade represents to your group. For example if your group was flourishing/outstanding what would that look like? If it was struggling/requires improvement, how would you know? A few times a year, discuss with your organising team, what you think your current grade is. If you visit another group or event (always a good idea) discuss what grade you would give them and why.

Your ambitions for what represents success may change over time, so feel free to review the statements. If you switch from a smaller to a bigger venue, or from fortnightly to monthly meetings, or decide to focus on different activities.

Thanks for reading

This is the 39th weekly article since the blog launched in 2021. Due to some personal changes this year, I’ve decided to take a break from weekly blogging following article #40. I’ve bought my planned break forward a little because of other circumstances, but will be taking the time to reflect on what’s worked well and to come back strong, with new articles in May 2022.

Photo information: Group Of People Studying Together, Ivan Samkov

Remove religious gatekeepers from school admissions

Faith-based selection forces families’ religiosity to be assessed, compels conformity, and undermines everyone’s freedom of belief, says Alastair Lichten.

Religious discrimination in school admissions is opposed by people right across the religious and political spectrum. It is often the number one objection to faith schools and regarded by many as their most egregious aspect.

The ‘NSS articles’ category contains links to my opinion pieces, written while a campaigns officer or head of education for the National Secular Society, before June 2022. You can read the full original of this article here >>>

Photo credit: Blog Blocks Wallpaper – Miguel Á. Padriñán

Writing about atheism, humanism, secularism and more in 2021

This blog launched in April, with a high minded mission to represent, inform, promote and challenge various ideas from across the atheist, humanist, secularist and related communities. Since then we’ve published 37 weekly articles, as well as a short experiment with daily roundups. So, here is my year in review, and top ten takeaway:

1. “We’re going to take over”

Beyond Atheism has been my favourite podcast of the year – despite their tendency to cover topics on my to do list so well that I don’t feel like getting round to them. A couple of months ago, one of the hosts said something that really crystalised a lot of the ideas I’ve been exploring: “We’re going to take over.” Societies are going to keep getting less religious and that brings profound changes that deserve serious discussion.

The article that most explicitly addressed this was How should faith groups engage with the post-religious majority?, but the implications of this societal shift, and the challenges and opportunities presented by a post-religious future have been recurring themes, which I hope I have something useful to say on.

2. Community matters

Community Matters is a three part and growing series considering the challenges and opportunities facing AHS+ groups in a post-pandemic world.

I was able to use some of my sociological research skills in How many AHS+ groups do we need?, and my marketing and group organising skills in Four exercises to define your group.

3. Activism matters

Activism Matters is an eight part and counting series, where I’ve spoken with a range of activists and leaders in different AHS+ groups, learning about their routes into activism, their perspectives on the movement and what motivates them.

All of the activists were extremely insightful and generous in contributing their time. My favourite interview was probably with Nathan Alexander and Todd Tavares from the Beyond Atheism podcast, or Paul Golin from the Society for Humanistic Judaism.

4. Revisiting new atheism

Over the last fifteen years, I have been a vociferous consumer of atheist and other AHS+-focussed media. But It has been a while since I read a major book exploring these issues. In starting a new chapter in my personal humanism I wanted to revisit and reflect on some of my earlier influences. This influenced a lot of the background to articles, and was most explicit in AHS reads: The God Delusion, a five part series.

5. Why counter-apologetics are not enough

In Atheism, religion, and the pitfalls of reasoning from first principles, I explained why atheistic first principle rationalism may be suitable for refuting theism, but building a personally fulfilling and socially just humanism takes more work. The need to move away from focusing on the former to the latter is a major theme of the blog.

Despite this, I played around with a bit of counter-apologetics in Halo Reach, Sisyphus and religious apologetics and How not to respond to atheists, if you care about conversation.

6. Our movement(s) must address transphobia

In my third article The transphobia problem in AHS+ (and still one of my most read) I addressed one of the social justice issues that most drove me to create this blog. I returned to the theme in my article for Pride – Stop gaslighting LGBT+ people about religion, and in Questions for ‘gender critical’ atheists, I tried to take an approach that could reach ‘gender critical’ and atheists sympathetic to transphobic arguments dressed up in pseudo-secular or pseudo-rationalist terms.

7. Defining AHS+

My first two articles (What is AHS Plus? – AHS+ Blog and AHS+ space in the UK) explained the catchall term for the related concepts of atheism, humanism, secularism and others, why I’ve found it useful, and how groups organised around these ideas relate to each other. AHS+ isn’t an attempt to replace or override other labels. I explored some of the problems in attempts to create or elevate other catchall identity labels in Were the ‘Brights’ really the worst idea?.

8. We need better research on atheists, humanists and secularists

In Why does the Census undercount the nonreligious? I was able to use some of my sociological and political research skills to consider this question and its implications. The need for better research is also a theme I revisited in Asking atheists: five social experiments and Why proportional representation is an AHS+ issue.

9. Christian Nationalism isn’t just an American problem

2021 started with an attempted insurrection by US Christian Nationalist seeking to overturn the election result. Hopefully 2021 will also be the year that wider liberal society starts taking these issues seriously.

In Cassandra characters and the looming threat of theocracy, I discussed how voices from marginalised communities within our movement have been most effective at calling out this threat. Similar themes were covered in Silence can be deafening, review of Vox.

However, it is important to recognise this not just as a US issue, but as an international movement particularly active in the UK and Europe. In Are UK Christians the most persecuted in Europe? Obviously not, I explored one example of this in how the Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians in Europe used links to US based hate groups and their tactics to promote their false persecution narrative.

10. My top article

I’m pleased to say my most read article of the year was Happy humans and atheist ‘A’s; the symbolism of AHS+. This article was a lot of fun to research and I’ve been happy with the feedback from a couple of groups whose logos were referenced. The article explored the history and meaning behind a range of common symbols and designs used by atheist and other AHS+ groups.


This is the 38th weekly article since the blog launched in 2021. Due to some personal changes this year, I’ve decided to take a break from weekly blogging following article #40. I’ve bought my planned break forward a little because of other circumstances, but will be taking the time to reflect on what’s worked well and to come back strong, with new articles in May 2022.

Photo information: AHS+ logo on nature scene

Activism matters: Annie Laurie Gaylor, Freedom From Religion Foundation

In activism matters we meet activists and leaders working in a variety of atheist, humanist, and secularist spaces. This week we spoke with Annie Laurie Gaylor, a co-founder and long term activist with the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

What was your first experience of activism?

At 14, picketing to “desexigrate” the want ads. The Supreme Court had declared “Male-Wanted/Female-Wanted” want ads in newspapers — the primary source of finding jobs in the 1960s — to be unconstitutional. But both daily newspapers in Madison, Wisconsin had refused to reform. So my mother, then working as an ad hoc activist with the National Organisation for Women local chapter, organised a picket. It was great fun, it was successful, and ever since I’ve always enjoyed a good picket. I also had started to staff as a volunteer managing tables on campus, again through my mother’s activism, with emphasis on reproductive rights, and abortion rights tables as she campaigned across our state to legalise abortion.

You co-founded FFRF as a college student did you think this would be your career?

No, I certainly did not. My mother was a full volunteer for 5 years before taking a salary. We started the group in 1976, and I became editor of the newspaper in January 1984, although I was associated with it as a volunteer from that point on, including writing a book for FFRF with proceeds donated, “Woe to the Women: The Bible Tells Me So.”

Both my mother, Anne, and I have said for years that we want to do ourselves out of a job. It was our expectation, in fact, when we started FFRF that it would only take a few years to remind our nation of its secular roots and underpinnings. Dan Barker (co-president with me now) and I still feel this way and we’ve imbibed this attitude (we hope) in our staff. However, given the current court situation, we also joke to our staff of about 27 full-timers that there is unfortunately “job security”.

Does being involved with an organisation for so long and in different stages of its development give you a unique perspective?

We have seen in the United States when hardly any public personae or celebrity would identify as a nonbeliever, to the point where it’s commonplace in many communities, and with many young people. We also know how hard it was to grow FFRF, when we thought 3,000 members was a lot and today are at 35,000. We know from this that every member counts. When I get to answer the phone and talk to a prospective member or take a new membership over the phone (which I still get to do after hours), that really means something to me. I literally value every membership knowing how much time and work and outlay of funds it has taken to grow FFRF. It also gives a perspective that someone young or new to the movement can’t really understand — although in the United States atheists and nonbelievers are still lowest on the totem pole with social acceptance, it’s become a lot easier and less controversial to “come out of the closet”.

How have the challenges facing atheist, humanist and secularist activists most changed in that time?

The main accusation, “How can you be moral if you don’t believe in God,” remains the same. It’s easy enough to answer but it’s just a perennial stigma, that somehow atheists are immoral, when in fact our morality is grounded in reality and consequences, not seeking some reward or to avoid punishment in an afterlife. That makes nontheistic morality much more “moral,” in my opinion.

In terms of legal challenges in the United States, they continue to grow worse and worse on the state/church front, now on abortion. The courts have been captured by the right, by Christian nationalists and by the Federalist Society, embraced by Republicans in office. It’s a bit confounding to me that the courts have been more welcoming to LGBTQ rights while taking away abortion rights, including blessing marriage equality at the Supreme Court level. But we are of course seeing LGBTQ individuals targeted in state after state for religious reasons, especially trans individuals. But society as a whole has become far more welcoming to LGBTQ people, and it’s our hope that society will also embrace secular Americans in the same way.

What do you think the biggest differences are between being an individual activist, and working with or for an organisation?

Individuals can be free agents, don’t have to get the ok of board members or staffers, or go through an editing process and everything required by an organisation to upload press releases, etc. Sometimes that lets individuals react a lot faster or be that “one voice” making a difference.

But the downside is not having a group ready to tap to join you in a picket or protest, to help defray costs, or speak with a more powerful voice. The idea behind FFRF is to collectively flex some muscle. Certainly at the congressional and lobbying level, the more people you represent, the more representation you can expect.

Being an activist can be draining at times, what keeps you motivated?

Making a difference and having a platform to dissent is the opposite of draining. It can be more depressing not to be part of the public debate and not to have a way to express yourself and the views of other nonbelievers, feminists, etc. As Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted: “The dissenter’s hope” is “that they are writing not for today, but for tomorrow.”

And of course we have hundreds of state/church victories every year at FFRF, thanks to our legal intake team, and that is a real high, not to mention winning lawsuits (still). We know we make a difference. FFRF’s motto is “Freedom depends on freethinkers.”

What qualities do you think are needed to be an effective leader in the atheist, humanist or secularist space?

Vision, the willingness to work hard as a group or team, and being honest, being grateful to have a job in a non-profit sphere or to be a volunteer in a movement that is really a part of the Enlightenment.

What do you think atheist groups can do to support the development of future leaders and activists, particularly among women and other underrepresented groups in the movement?

Women have always been disproportionately represented in freethought in terms of writing, starting or running groups. Right now there are three women who run secular groups in the United States: myself, Roblyn Blumner at CFI and Debbie Allen at Secular Coalition for America, with some smaller groups run by women, and people like Sarah Haider formerly president of Ex-Muslims of North America. The same is true in the UK and EU — many women are founders of secular groups or run them. So that needs to be remembered, and I think one reason that is true is that women have the most to lose when religion controls government, as we see in Poland and increasingly are witnessing in the United States.

In terms of development, keeping women visible by inviting them to address meetings, be on boards, is one very obvious way. Another is to acknowledge women’s issues that intersect with secularism, such as abortion and reproductive rights. We have done all these things at FFRF, which was founded and run by women from its inception till 2004 (then Dan and I have co-directed FFRF), and yet male membership still far surpasses female. However, our membership surveys show 98.8% support reproductive rights and women’s equality so our male members are clearly supportive and feminist-oriented. So that makes me proud.

FRF has been a good and visible friend to women’s rights, but we still don’t have equal numbers of women members. But clearly women, as polls still show, are more religious than men (at least in the United States) and we see that reflected in membership numbers. Regardless of membership figures, we are in part fighting for women’s rights in fighting against religious sway over our laws, and that will eventually be acknowledged and appreciated by women.

What advice would you give to someone who feels that what they have to contribute could make a career in or lead an organisation focusing in this space?

Be an activist, do what you can to make a difference, cultivate writing and communication skills in letters to editor, blogs, etc. But in terms of practical hiring, you have to have the skills any organisation is looking for, so all the “devotion” in the world to freethought won’t make a difference if you don’t possess the skills needed. Being a freethinker seems like the minimal needed when you apply to work at a freethought organisation but it won’t make up for qualifications. Just like other organisations, we hire a variety of persons to fulfil jobs in IT, communications, clerical/administrative, legal, etc.

Picture information: Person in Red Long Sleeve Shirt Wearing Silver Ring, Thirdman

Are UK Christians the most persecuted in Europe? Obviously not

A religious friend, knowing my interest in international religious freedom issues including the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in authoritarian regimes, recently sent me a copy of Under pressure: Human rights of Christians in Europe – Top 5 report 2019-2020 from the Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians in Europe (OIDAC). Not much information is available about the group online. Searches largely return uncritical coverages from generally religious news sources, often heavily invested in the same culture war anti-secular narratives.

Make no mistake, that is what this report is about. It is a US Christian Nationalist style attempt to weaponize and redefine ‘religious freedom’ into a ‘right’ for Christianity to be imposed on others without limit or consequences. It is a dishonest attempt to demonise secularism, human rights and equality. No Christian of good conscience should wish to be associated with this.

The report is so full of nonsense, that I’m going to restrict my comments to its definitions of “secular intolerance” and the detailed breakdown of the UK. The report argues that the UK, along with France, Germany, Spain, Sweden, are where “Christians face the most difficulties”. A genuine look at religious freedom issues in Europe would likely examine issues across the authoritarian belt, where right wing populists and Christian Nationalists sympathetic to this report’s agenda are seriously undermining such freedoms.

Secular intolerance

OIDAC claims that their aims are: “To contribute to a Europe where Christians may fully exercise their fundamental rights to freedom of religion, conscience, expression, and association, without fear of reprisals, censorship, threats, or violence.”

I’m certainly open to discussing intolerance or religious illiteracy within the AHS+ community, and the balancing of rights including freedom of belief is always open to debate. But not a single atheist, humanist or secularist group opposes those rights. What they do oppose is religion – Christian or otherwise – being imposed on or used to harm the rights of others.

OIDAC defines secularism as “political ideology that aims at a total separation of state and religion” which is true enough, until they add: “by relegating religion to the private sphere, banishing its influence from all other spheres of life”. What they mean by this is religion not being privileged in or dominating public life. Their strawman version of secularism is “anti-Christian” and “neo-Marxist”.

If you filter their case archive by “Anti-Religion or humanism groups“ you will find “incidents“ of such secular intolerance including groups suggesting Bishops shouldn’t have automatic seats in Parliament.

OIDAC is very concerned about online abuse or even simple disagreement and harsh rhetoric directed towards people on their side because of their (usually pretty abhorrent) views. Not only do they conflate any opposition to their views with abuse, but they are unconcerned with the balance of abuse or really any going the other way.

The United Kingdom cases study

The chapter begins by acknowledging the institutional religious privilege in the UK, including the head of state being the supreme governor of the state church, and unelected bishops in the legislature. It credits this state Christianity with the “more inclusive” liberal tradition of British secularism. I’d disagree, but that’s not a ludicrous argument and certainly a more nuanced conversation.

OIDAC frames the nation’s decreasing religiosity as inherently a negative, and seems to place the nonreligious and Muslims as being similar sized groups. That may just be clunky language, but is interesting in that they don’t acknowledge the nonreligious as a majority more than ten times the Muslim population. But they want to present the nonreligious and Islam as equal ‘threats’ to Christianity.

OIDAC asserts that “equality” and “hate speech” laws (their scare quotes) are undermining Christians’ rights. Though the hollowness of this narrative is exposed once we get into details.

OIDAC acknowledges that negative “attitudes between Britons and Islam, as well as those toward religion in general” have been shaped by Islamist terrorist attacks. Given that they are framing Islam as an instigator in their Christian persecution narrative, they should be credited for at least acknowledging this impact of anti-Muslim prejudice. The extent to which Islamist terror influences anti-religious attitudes is an interesting discussion. It is also interesting that OIDAC acknowledges how a negative manifestation of Islam may affect anti-religious attitudes, but not how negative manifestations of Christianity, such as the institutional discrimination they support, could do the same. The rest of the intro just repeats the claims that the UK’s declining interest in religion is a sign of intolerance or ignorance. Mainstream and reasonable interfaith groups should be wary of how the moral panic over ‘religious literacy’ which they help spread is used to support such narratives.

They bring up the amorphous problem of self-censorship at universities – part of a decades long moral panic driven by the religious and reactionary right. Unfortunately if you’re looking for a nuanced, balanced conversation about genuine issues of discourse on campus, look elsewhere. In what quickly becomes a pattern for OIDAC, their source for the claim (a lot of the hyperlinks have typos I’ve done my best to correct, or appear to be to dead pages) is a Christian nationalist US, anti-LGBT hate group, spending millions of dollars outside of the US in a campaign to redefine religious freedom into a right for Christians to impose, and discriminate based on, their faith, while hypocritically seeking to ‘cancel’ and ‘no-platform’ groups they disagree with.

Freedom of expression

OIDAC puts forward a bunch of cases they say are examples of Christians being silenced and persecuted. Maya Forstater, a transphobic tax consultant who has had extremely limited success in an employment tribunal case and is constantly given huge platforms to promote her views. Kristie Higgs, who a court found was fired as a school worker because of the perception that her social media posts attacking the school’s LGBTQ inclusive sex education lessons were homophobic, and not because she was a Christian. David Mackereth, a transphobic doctor fired from the Department for Work and Pensions for deliberately misgendering patients. Maureen Griffith, a school governor suspended for allegedly making homophobic comments about her school’s LGBTQ inclusive sex education policies. Keith Waters, a school care taker who resigned because people were mean to him about his homophobic tweet.

Turning to politicians, they raise two cases of prospective MPs deselected by their parties for their political views. Political parties have every right to select candidates to support their policies. Robert Flello was deselected by the Liberal Democrats because he opposed the party’s policy on marriage equality. Roger Godsiff was deselected by Labour because he opposed their policy on LGBTQ inclusive education. In a rare genuine example of a free speech issue Lisa Cameron received death threats after voting against protections for reproductive health clinics. Unfortunately MPs from all parties particularly women regularly receive unacceptable abuse and threats. It’s nothing to do with her being Christian.

They cite a report by the ‘free market’ Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) calling for a massive expansion in the right of employers and healthcare professionals to use “conscientious objection” to block others’ access to healthcare and to opt out of parts of their job tangentially related to healthcare they disagree with, no matter the impact on other staff or patient care. The IEA are so committed to freedom of expression that they lost a two year legal action against a journalist for calling them a politically motivated lobbying organisation funded by “dark money”.

They cite various university professors ‘persecuted’ by being accused of transphobia. One, Selina Todd, still appears to be a professor at the same university she was criticised by, and her social media timeline appears dominated by promoting transphobic groups. OIDAC also reports an event discussing LGBTQ inclusive education being cancelled because of protests against the transphobic views of some panellists.

They claim that ‘pro-life’ medical students and professionals are facing censorship. They quote the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Children – a virulent anti-abortion, and also anti-LGBTQ group. But if your views are incompatible with your job, or prevent or hinder you doing your job, that’s not censorship.

Their final examples of ‘censorship’ are all related to ‘buffer zones’ around reproductive health centres that provide abortions. There is legitimate debate around how broad Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs) should be, how they might be abused, and how the interests they represent need to be balanced against free speech. But PSPO buffer zones are necessary to prevent horrific abuse, harassment and intimidation of women and other pregnant people accessing health services, and health workers.

Education and parental rights

OIDAC’s biggest concern in this section is LGBTQ inclusive relationships and sex education (RSE) in schools, where parental opt-outs are limited. Of course they present this as persecution and a threat to children. They cite the work of Kate Godfrey Fausset, an anti LGBTQ, anti-RSE campaigner who advocates conversion therapy. They also support campaigns by reactionary religious groups to block inclusive comprehensive RSE in schools. This campaign of fearmongering, misinformation and intimidation by religious groups is so wide ranging that it deserves its own blog.

OIDAC claims that “Christian schools have been pressured to provide ‘atheist content’ for children who do not attend Christian ceremonies for religious reason.” Their misrepresentation of this story is interesting in a number of ways. It undermines their narrative of Christian persecution to draw attention to the fact that we have thousands of state funded Christian faith schools. But the particular school in question here wasn’t even a faith school, it was a community school controlled by a Christian academy trust (Christians are so persecuted they even get to control non-faith schools). It also draws attention to the law mandating Christian worship in schools, and how rare it is for a school to provide an inclusive alternative. And of course they record efforts to remove the imposition of Christian worship in their database of intolerance “incidents”.

Another case of Christian persecution cited is a school supporting a trans boy and allowing him to use the correct bathroom he’s legally entitled to. Even if you don’t believe a trans child’s gender, misgendering him eight times in four sentences requires a deliberate effort of arseholery.

The end of the section seems to be misplaced as they return to the theme of universities ‘censoring’ ‘pro-life’ groups. Again you can honestly debate and disagree with universities and student union actions, but they have a legitimate interest in preventing the harassment of pupils by such anti-abortion – usually also anti-LGBTQ – groups. You can disagree with university codes of conduct without crying persecution when they are equally applied to you.

The representation of Christians in the media

Given the sheer load of bullshit in just ten pages, I’m going to skip lightly over some of the less important sections. This one is basically just moaning that the media is insufficiently deferential to religion. Again some of the mainstream interfaith groups who promote this moral panic about supposed media hostility to religion might want to reflect on how groups like OIDAC use them for their own narrative. Also in this section OIDAC complainns that a BBC documentary on conversion therapy didn’t show any of the ‘positive’ sides of this abusive practice. Remember that each of these complaints counts as an “incident” in their database and contributes to their statistics on Christian persecution.

Businesses and Christian organisations

OIDAC provides three examples of Christian businesses being persecuted. Chick fil-A, an American fast food brand, tried expanding in to the UK with a six month lease on one store in Reading. According to OIDAC, “local activist groups protested over its donations to Christian groups such as the Salvation Army”. The restaurant chain has a long history of funding anti-LGBTQ hate groups, including supporting the so called “Kill the Gays” bill in Uganda. OIDAC objects to protesters using their free expression to criticise this, but don’t present any evidence that it was protestors, rather than a business decision, that led to the lease not being renewed.

Core Issues Trust and the International Federation for Therapeutic and Counselling Choice had their banking services withdrawn by Barclays because they support anti-LGBTQ conversion therapy. Protestors used their free expression to draw attention to this and a bank made a business decision not to be associated with such groups and abhorrent practices. By the way, Core Issues Trust is still a registered charity, so while it may need to look elsewhere to bank any donations it can still claim Gift Aid from the government to top them up.

OIDAC claims: “Christian adoption agencies are suppressed for providing their services according to their Christian values.” To support this they link to a Christian Institute article concerning Cornerstone Fostering and Adoption. Ofsted downgraded the adoption agency from “good” to “requires improvement” in 2019 because the charity requires carers “to refrain from homosexual conduct”, a decision Cornerstone appealed against. OIDAC doesn’t point out that Cornerstone lost their case, or that they are apparently still able to discriminate against non-Christian carers. The Christian Institute headline misrepresents Ofsted’s position as “saying Christian groups should keep out of the public square”, when they actually said that their discrimination did not belong in the “professional sphere”. OIDAC also cite the (also failed) legal case of Eunice and Owen Johns who were not accepted as foster parents because they wouldn’t be accepting of LGBTQ children who might be placed with them.

Religious freedom and Covid-19

This section is just moaning that religious services were shut down during the pandemic, and that the special treatment they received wasn’t quite special enough. OIDAC is upset that “churches were not treated as essential services, while other shops were allowed to open”. All of which they spin as Christian persecution. I’m acquainted with lots of atheist humanist and secularist groups, none of whom sought special exemptions from Covid measures, or ever claimed persecution for being asked to help keep people safe. But that’s Christian entitlement for you.

For a detailed – albeit US centric – discussion of how religious privilege and exemptions from Covid regulations have played a significant role in the spread of the disease and huge numbers of additional deaths, I recommend Outbreak: A Crisis of Faith: How Religion Ruined Our Global Pandemic.

The situation of Christian converts and Violence in prisons

This situation seems to make some ok points – assuming you take all the cases they cite at face value, or just can’t be bothered to fact check them given how occupied you are unravelling the other nonsense and misrepresentations in the other sections. Many fleeing religious persecution in minority Christian countries faced barriers in an unsympathetic asylum system – though this is also true of non-religious asylum seekers, without such well-funded pressure groups seeking to co-opt their cases to feed a Christian persecution narrative. Also there are religiously affiliated gangs in our terribly managed prison system… persecution?

Hotspots of Islamic oppression

This is a bit of a weird section with no obvious supporting evidence. There may be reactionary Muslim groups who use societal pressure to push their religious ideas and morality, but the threat of this and the idea of ‘no go areas’ is hyped up by anti-Muslim groups. Some Islamic bookshops sell problematic extremist literature, but is hard to spin as Christians being persecuted. If someone were to object to extremist literature in a Christian bookshop, you can bet OIDAC would spin the complaint as the  persecution “incident”, not the literature.

They claim “Christians are being forced to take part in non-Christian religious ceremonies, activities, events, customs and they have to be cautious about how they dress.” These could all be concerning, if there was any evidence. If they are referring to societal pressure, then it’s notable that they don’t care about societal pressure for Christian conformity. Given their sources, I believe that “forced to take part in non-Christian religious ceremonies” may refer to Oldham Council having Islamic Prayers as part of its meetings. If so OIDAC’s hypocrisy is on full display as in 2011 they recorded the National Secular Society’s legal case against councils making Christian prayer part of their official agenda as an incident of intolerance. Once again, they are happy for Christianity to be imposed, as it regularly is across local government in particular.

Anti-Christian hate crimes

Hate crimes are a serious business and, despite what OIDAC’s allies say elsewhere, well-functioning hate crime laws can be an effective tool in countering them. But OIDAC is more interested spinning their narrative of Christian persecution.

OIDAC starts with a misrepresented statistic, stripped of context. They claim that “most hate crimes in Scotland (42%) are perpetrated against Catholics”. Firstly, the statistic is actually that Catholics are the victims of 42% of religiously motivated hate crimes in Scotland. This is important because, by focusing only on one (relatively small and less diverse) constituent of the UK, and by excluding the far more common racial and anti-LGBTQ hate crimes, they are able to inflate the statistics. If they weren’t prioritising their false narrative of Christian persecution, OIDAC may be better able to draw attention to these terrible crimes.

Secondly, the use of the term “most” to refer to a plurality of 42% is interesting and reveals why the statistic doesn’t serve their narrative. If they add up the 42% of Catholic and 10% of Protestant victims, they do get to a majority (of one subset of hate crimes). But that would draw attention to the fact that the vast majority of hate crimes against Christians in Scotland are sectarian crimes by other Christian denominations.

The rest of the section conflates a few (though still terrible) genuine cases of hate crimes with the large number of crimes involving churches. For example, they claim that the Countryside Alliance found “20,000 crimes committed against Churches between 2017 and 2019”. The report actually found “20,000 crimes had been committed on or at churches and religious buildings”. Some of these are hate crimes, but the vast majority are petty thefts, and vandalism. People breaking into empty churches to steal collection boxes or bored teenagers smoking weed and spray painting in a graveyard may be problems, but they aren’t hate crimes.


At least I can strongly agree with OIDAC that “The UK is clearly undergoing a cultural process, in which Christian values are being replaced by secular values in society as well as in the legal landscape.” It’s what’s known as moral progress.

Photo information: Sad Clown Doll in Basket

Cassandra characters and the looming threat of theocracy

In Greek mythology, Cassandra of Troy was cursed by Apollo to give true prophesies but not to be believed. I’ve been thinking of this Chicken Little of antiquity and how many activists in the atheist, and wider AHS+ movement, have been in a similar position when it comes to various threats of theocracy and religious extremism.

The US Supreme Court is actively trying to turn the country into a Handmaid’s Tale style theocracy while the UK government and right wing parties are trying to import US style culture wars into our politics. Liberal and mainstream media coverage often present these things as coming out of nowhere, but these have been the aims of Christian Nationalists for decades, this is what activists have been warning us about.

The ‘Casandra Character’ or ‘Ignored Expert’ are popular tropes. Given our current circumstances, I’m most interested in how this archetype shows up in fictional explorations of near future theocracies, and what we can learn from them.

I’ve previously called this the canary character, as the groups most likely to be targeted by theocracy and religious reactionaries tend to be most sensitive to the dangers these represent. But think Cassandra makes better analogy.

The examples

Holly Maddox, the mother of June Osborne the viewpoint character in the Handmaid’s Tale, and a veteran political activist and feminist. See a secularist review.

Sanjay, the best friend of Greg the viewpoint character in Christian Nation, an activist and founder of Theocracy Watch. See my review.

Jackie, the best friend of Jean the viewpoint character in VOX, a left wing feminist and secularist activist. See my review

Common themes

Holly, Sanjay and Jackie are all outsiders. Each reject mainstream society and traditional employment, each are involved with some counterculture lifestyle, two are women, two are explicitly LGBT, Sanjay is from a religious and ethnic minority background. These are all groups perceived by religious reactionaries as threatening and subversive. All would be disproportionately threatened by theocracies. Many of these are identities that are over-represented in the atheist and wider AHS+ movement, though not always recognised as such.

Each of these characters are seen as hysterical, their concerns dismissed, and are accused of over reacting. Each of these characters have their relationships with others harmed, and their outsider status reinforced by not following societal taboos, particularly against criticising religion. Their concerns and particularly willingness to take them seriously frequently make those around them uncomfortable.

Each understand the threat of theocracy, because they listen to what theocrats and religious reactionaries want, and treat these both seriously and literally. Such characters often display a high degree of religious literacy, or quasi-spiritualism. They also don’t take the status quo as fixed. Because of their outsider status, they are better able to imagine ways the world can fundamentally change for better or worse.

Holly, Sanjay, and Jackie’s relationships to their respective work’s main characters are interesting. June, Greg and Jean represent the audience, each are broadly secularish liberals. They would oppose theocracy, but don’t see it as a real threat, they would support the aims of activists but are more concerned with their everyday lives. Each see the rights and freedoms they enjoy as pretty much the natural state of things and warnings or threats to take these away as unbelievable.

What we can learn

In the myth, Casandra is cursed by Apollo because she rejects his advances. He gives her the gift of prophecy in an attempt to woo her, but when this is unsuccessful he turns angry and curses her not to be believed. The parallels to ‘nice guys’ and gaslighting are obvious. I think back to the treatment of similar characters and moments in the history of the atheist and wider AHS+ movement. Incidents such as Elevatorgate and how many brilliant secular activists have left or disassociated with the movement after the backlash from calling out discrimination.

Troy fell because Casandra wasn’t listened to about the Trojan Horse. But many in the movement have warned of Trojan Horses being used to smuggle in bad ideas from racism to transphobia, and generalised ‘anti-wokeness’. Like Apollo, many in our community want to woo and extoll the analysis of Cassandras (particularly people of colour, women and LGBTQ folk) when they are giving our community what many of us want, but curse them when they turn their criticism or analysis on the movement itself.

We need to do better at heeding these Cassandras, and do more to elevate the voices of those who would be most harmed by theocracy and religious reactionaries. Those of us who identify with these Casandra characters in the context of secular (or other AHS+) activism, could also learn from these characters. When we are immersed in these topics that many others are not paying attention to, and are being gasslit for our concerns, it can be easy to lose perspective. We should remember to value and prioritise our own mental health, and understand why others don’t necessarily have the time to pay as much attention to these issues. Maybe then we’d be more successful at warning our secularish liberal friends and mobilising them when needed.


While in the process of finalising this article I found or remembered that YouTuber Steve Shives had a 2017 video using a Cassandra analogy when talking about similar issues within the atheist community.

Photo information: Woman Placing Her Finger Between Her Lips

Activism matters: Heidi Nicholl, Humanists Australia

In activism matters we meet activists and leaders working in a variety of atheist, humanist, and secularist spaces. This week we spoke with Heidi Nicholl, CEO of Humanists Australia, about routes into leadership, the day to day and challenges of leading a new organisation.

How did you become CEO of Humanists Australia?

My background is a mixture of ethics – which I have a PhD in – and small business. I did both things simultaneously for around ten years but when I met an Australian and moved here in 2016 I evaluated where my career was, and where I’d like it to be, and basically I decided to try and smash the ethics and small business skills together! I asked myself how I could combine the various skills from both and this took me into non-profit leadership.

My first non-profit CEO role was in an organisation working with patients who live with ME/CFS (myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome). These patients have been systemically harmed by a medical system that has traditionally side-lined and disbelieved them – instead of seeing it as an under-researched disease which affects huge numbers of people. I was able to bring my skillset to help the organisation grow and move forward. After three years I really wanted to do something more firmly centred around my strong ethics background. I’ve been interested in secularism and ethics for a really long time, and I was familiar with Humanists Australia, so when I saw the job come up I jumped at it. I got on with the board from the outset and I am really excited and grateful to have this opportunity.

What does your day-to-day job entail?

Well yesterday was a good example as I spent some time emailing and in meetings but the main things I focused on were – sending a heap of letters to MPs requesting a meeting to introduce the organisation and the work that we’re doing, finalising a submission in support of Voluntary Assisted Dying for the state of New South Wales and in the afternoon (until gone 8pm!) I focused on slides for a conference I’m presenting at soon.

The conference is a multi-faith perspective on palliative care and I will be the first humanist that has ever presented and been on the panel. Part of my preparation involved reading The Death of David Hume – letter from Adam Smith LL.D to William Strahan Esq. It’s in a book called Thinking about Death which was published about 20 years ago by the Humanist Philosophers’ Group and the British Humanist Association. It’s a tough subject (the existential problems of being a humanist in pandemic times) but it’s an absolute joy to be able to do this kind of reading, research and writing as part of my actual job.

Today I’ve had a meeting about next year’s board meetings, another catch up on my email, some conversations about our quarterly brand magazine and this afternoon I have a meeting about some marketing and advertising plans we have. Tomorrow I have a campaign meeting for a political campaign we’re working on with some other Australian secular organisations and I’ll be preparing for a focus group around our celebrants and ceremonies program. So, it’s very variable and very interesting. I have a lovely team that I work with – and I take three days off every third week to work on a book I’m writing about how to be a humanist! I feel very lucky.

Humanists Australia is itself a very new organisation, what are the biggest challenges and opportunities that come with that?

The best opportunity is that the team and I can really scope out what we want the organisation to be from the ground up – in twenty-first century Australia. The challenges are that every individual person has a perception of what they think it ought to be and what the focus areas should be. We kind of don’t have any baggage because we’re new but we simultaneously acquired lots of baggage from trying to bring the existing state based orgs along with us.

Does your background as an academic bring a unique perspective to your activism, or did activism bring a unique perspective to your academia?

I wouldn’t describe myself as either an academic or activist! I do have a PhD and I really enjoyed the process of working on that. Prior to my PhD I was involved in academic research as a scientist but I was always a technician, assistant or manager. Post PhD I did quite a bit of teaching and some ‘doing’ (e.g. being an ethicist in a hospital setting) but as I didn’t do research I wasn’t ever the lead academic at all.

I have also always said that I’m not an activist. I’m more the thoughtful one in the background trying to make sure that my own thinking is coherent. That’s important to me. I can support causes – I can strongly support causes (!) but I’m better at organising and managing across the finances, marketing, priority setting etc rather than being the one out in front holding a sign. I do very little of that – perhaps some occasional T shirt wearing! If there’s a protest happening for a cause I’m involved with I’m usually on the side talking to security or briefing politicians who are attending or recording a video. I’m only the one in front for a short period of time.

What do you think are the biggest differences between grassroots activism and professional lobbying/campaigning?

I think there’s really a place for both as they are different skillsets and appeal to people who are good at, and enjoy, different things. I’m much better at lobbying and campaigning. I’m good with politicians one to one – I can be efficient with getting someone across our message and I can be pragmatic about moving things forwards. I think activism requires a lot of tenacity and staying completely focused. I’m more of a multi-tasker and a ‘keep the wheels turning’ person.

What qualities do you think are needed to be an effective leader in the atheist, humanist or secularist space?

I think leadership skills are probably the same regardless of the space. The most important ones as a non-profit leader are probably the ability to take people with you by conveying your vision – showing people your ‘flag on the hill’ – and the ability to deliver a bit of a ‘Henry V’ speech – “come into battle with me!” The other big thing is that people need to be confident that you can deliver what you say you’ll deliver. You have to be reliable and, if at all possible, under-promise and over-deliver.

What advice would you give to someone who feels that what they have to contribute could make a career in or lead an organisation focusing in this space?

You can become a non-profit leader from many different routes whether its finance, marketing, HR, running programs etc. the key thing is to deliver your part with absolute excellence. There can be a perspective that there is a lower bar to entry in non-profits. I really don’t think there’s a huge difference – if you’re going to be the leader of a group that really makes a difference you have to be highly competent, reliable, committed and strategic. Knowing when to sweat the small stuff and when to focus on the big picture is a good ability to develop as well.

Picture information: Pattern composed of Humanists Australia’s logo

Community matters: Four exercises to define your group

There are a lot of groups operating in the atheist, humanist, secularist space, but a lot of the community is underserved. These simple exercises can help you decide what sort of group to start or refresh.

The community matters series uses my experience with a range of atheist, humanist, secularist and other community groups, to consider the challenges and opportunities facing AHS+ groups in a post-pandemic world.

These are all exercises that I’ve created with a focus on AHS+ activism, though could be adapted for any sort of community organising. They can be done by an individual or organising committee.

Compass points

There’s a risk in trying to be all things to all people and so failing to develop a clear purpose. This exercise uses four ‘compasses’ to help find your direction.

Focus compass: (From north going clockwise): atheist, secularist, plus, humanist

Activity compass: campaign, learn, philosophy, social

Style compass: fun, amateurs, serious, experts

Approach compass: conciliatory, challenging, principled, safe

These are easier to understand with the visualisation below. The idea is that the compasses force you to think about your approach and the need to pick a direction. You might want to be both an activist group that campaigns, and a philosophy group that discusses books, but those are pulling in two opposite directions.

Rather than, overly defining any of these terms, it is best to use them how you or the group think best.

Forcing yourself, or your organising committee, to decide on only one point per compass would give your group a lot of focus and direction. However, if this is too narrow it might limit appeal or be restricting.

If voting, one idea is to give each participant three votes per compass. They could spread them over a couple of points, or focus on a specific direction. But the odd number will force at least some decision making. You can use the votes to give a general sense of direction, or be very mathematical and average out the exact position on each compass decided by the group, whatever works for you.

Defining your range

For a group to succeed, the broader your location, the narrower your focus should be and vice versa. This can be illustrated with two extremes.

If I wanted to start a meetup group for left wing, atheist, comic book fans in my small town of twenty thousand people, there wouldn’t be enough of them to make a critically sustainable number. A humanist meetup group or secular community with a broad range of family friendly activities might fit well here.

If I wanted to start a group covering all sorts of atheist, humanist, secularist and similar issues across the whole of the UK, then I wouldn’t have anything unique to distinguish myself from larger established national groups, and it wouldn’t be clear what my group is for. A new national group would have to focus on a specific issue or approach.

If you want to do something that is broad both in location and focus, then a group or organisation may not be your best bet. You might want to think instead in terms of an online blog, or community, and your unique selling point.

The secular spectrum

I touched on this in my article on the importance of actively secular spaces. Think about the following spectrum, and where you would like your group to sit.

Actively religious > passively religious > passively nonreligious > actively nonreligious > passively irreligious > actively irreligious.

Depending on context, you might want to change nonreligious to secular, and irreligious to atheist, or antireligious.

See the linked article for more of a discussion on the spectrum and why we shouldn’t overlook the importance and inclusive potential of actively nonreligious, or secular, spaces.

If doing this as a group, set up a table with the different ends representing the spectrum, and allow everyone to place a token before discussing. This works better than marks on a piece of paper as tokens can be moved, and the hands on activity is more engaging. If detail is important to you, you can represent the range as 1-18, and have people vote.

Like this, but that

This exercise is a good one to get your group’s mission or identity to emerge, if you have a lot of different ideas or inspirations. It also helps think about your environment, relationships with different groups, and the type of help or relationship you may want from them.

It works by writing down statements about what you want your group to be, that follow a specific format:

Like [other group or project], but [different focus, location, style etc.]

If you’re doing this as a group, try to get a good range of statements up on a board or table, and arrange into themes before discussing in detail. Some examples might be:

  • Like Merseyside Skeptics, but in Newcastle
  • Like the National Secular Society, but local to Bournemouth
  • Like Humanists UK, but focussed on environmentalism
  • Like Sunday Assembly, but focussed on activism
  • Like Skeptics in the Pub, but more open to families
  • Like the local humanist group, but for younger people

Please join our community on Twitter and Facebook to help share the blog, and pass it along to anyone who may be interested.

Photo information: Blue and Yellow Board Game, Pixabay

How should faith groups engage with the post-religious majority?

On a recent episode of the Beyond Atheism podcast, one of the hosts said something of the nonreligious that really crystalised an issue I’ve been thinking about. “We’re going to take over”. By which they mean, not that a secret atheist cabal is about to seize power and make humanism the state religion of any Western country, but just that societies are going to keep getting less religious and that brings changes far more profound than simpley the number of people in Church on a Sunday, or who say they believe in a god on a survey.

We can debate different measurements of the breadth or depth of Britain’s emerging nonreligious majority. But few can argue that this is one of the most significant social and demographic changes in our history with huge implications for public policy and civil society. This shift raises questions we all have a stake in answering.

One aspect that atheists, humanists and secularists – at least those outside religious communities – may not have given enough attention is what happens to faith groups, and how they might relate or adapt to this shift. If these groups don’t engage with this shift, they will lose their chance to help shape that future.

This article focuses on the largest Christian denominations where the UK’s religious decline have been most evident, and which are most used to the trappings of majority privilege. So, what strategies could they adopt?

1. Ignore their decline

This week, the head of England’s established church insisted they are “not on the way out” despite figures next year expected to show a 70th consecutive year of declining attendance.

2. Reverse their decline

People tend to leave organised religion, or never become religious for three main reasons: (1) intellectual objections, (2) moral objection, or (3) finding religion irrelevant. Despite huge investment in evangelism and proselytisation, across many denominations, Christian groups have been almost totally unable to reverse this decline. The only groups growing are relatively small ones often simply feeding off the larger groups. The CofE have invested £240 million since 2017 in trying to “plant” new churches and attract younger worshippers, with very little impact and even their head of evangelism seems to acknowledge this is a doomed project.

3. Entrench their privilege

Along with just ignoring their decline, this seems to be the main strategy of the CofE and larger denominations. The CofE have received £750m in public money over the last five years, maintain a special position in Parliament, and control or influence thousands of state schools. They can’t attract young people to worship but can keep the mandate on worship in schools. The decline in religion has in many ways not affected religious influence in government. The problem for the churches is the same faced by political parties who decide to abandon appealing to the majority in favour of rigging the system to stay in power, once you go down that path it is hard to stop.

4. Embrace minority status

Britain’s faith groups may have little to fear from minority status. Secularism and the separation of church and state protect pluralism and minority beliefs. The nonreligious tend to be much more tolerant of minority groups. Humanists don’t get together to burn heretics. Even if religious people become a smaller and smaller minority in terms of population percentage, they will still be a large group. In my article on how many nonreligious groups we need, I point out that despite being less than a fifth the size of the nonreligious population, non-Christians support thousands of faith organisations. Our society has thriving communities organised around all sorts of niche pursuits and fringe interests.

5. Retreat from society

This would be the more negative flip side of the last strategy. If they realise their limited appeal to and declining influence on wider society, religious groups could embrace fringe status. They could become increasingly insular or cult like.

6. Secularise

Many Christian denominations adapt their beliefs to a modern understanding of the world, moving towards a secular more naturalistic or allegorical understanding of religion could just be one more evolution. Many people connected to faith communities already have a humanist worldview or secularist politics. Why not embrace that? Religions could adapt to secular society by losing the off-putting religious aspects and keeping the social structures. Imagine a Church of England run Sunday Assembly or secular Catholic congregation. Religious groups could become hugely influential civil society groups, using their organisational skills, experience and vast financial assets for genuine good.

7. Find a new role

From a business perspective, the problem facing churches is that they have a range of secondary products – community, charitable activities, interesting buildings to visit etc. – that are somewhat popular. But despite all their efforts they are increasingly unable to leverage this to promote their primary product, religion. If a coffee shop was selling more books than coffee, and their drinks were both ethically suspect and unpalatable, at some point they’d just become a bookshop. Rather than trying to use social service to bring people into religion, why not just do it for its own good?

8. Support institutionalised nonreligion

One way that the CofE have maintained their privileged position and power is by astutely sharing some of it with other religions, thereby reducing the tendency of minority religions to favour a more secularist approach. This is less successful for the nonreligious, who are by their nature less institutional. Getting a seat for humanists at the table of local committees discussing religious education for example. But if religious groups were to better involve institutional nonreligious or irreligious groups in interfaith networks and their influence on government, they could maintain legitimacy and potentially undermine nonreligious support for secularism.

9. Support nonreligious literacy

We hear a lot of talk about the importance of religious literacy, including from many nonreligious groups. In fact the nonreligious are often better versed in religious knowledge – at least with respect to the plurality religions. But I’m struck by how often and how extensively religious leaders and engaged followers are ignorant of nonreligious worldviews and outlooks. To engage positively with the post-religious society, faith communities may want to give equal focus to nonreligious literacy.

10. Become genuine moral leaders

The Catch 22 for religious morality today isn’t the Euthyphro dilemma, it’s their relationship to secular morality. If religions embrace secular moral progress – and all do to some extent – then they can claim credit for it but don’t really have anything distinctive to offer. If they reject secular moral progress they can be distinct, but are generally distinctly regressive. For all their focus on moral rules and claims of superiority religions aren’t a good self-correcting system for moral progress. But there’s no reason they couldn’t reinvent themselves.

Photo information: Photo of An Empty Church, RODNAE Productions

Why does the Census undercount the nonreligious?

The discourse over the use of, and problems with, “nonreligious” as a catchall term is extensive. However, it is the term most widely used in surveys, population studies and equality monitoring, so has a lot of uses despite its limitations.

The limits of nonreligious as a unit of analysis can be summarised as: (1) it counts too many people including the ‘spiritual but not religious’, religiously unconcerned and religiously undefined, or (2) it counts too few, because it doesn’t capture people who identify as part of a religious cultural group while holding a largely atheist, humanist, or secularist outlook.

Criticisms of the term’s negative connotations are more wide-ranging. Personally, I have few problems being counted under a catchall term which applies, just because it’s not the main way I’d describe my identity.

Accepting for the moment the use of nonreligious as a category, there are still problems with how we count this. This article takes the British Census as a case study and considers the implications for how society measures and serves the needs of the nonreligious. It will do this by considering six potential ways that the Census dramatically undercount the nonreligious compared to other surveys.

There are two major estimates of Britain’s nonreligious population. Population figures for Northern Ireland are treated quite differently. Since 2001 the British Census, run by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) every decade, has had a voluntary question on “What is your religion”. The British Social Attitudes survey (BSA), run annually by NatCen, asks “Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion?”

Between the 2001 and 2011 Census, those answering “no religion” rose from 14.8% to 25.1% and this trend is expected to continue when the 2021 results are published. Between 1983 and 2019 the BSA showed a steady rise in the nonreligious from 31% to 53%. There are plenty of surveys with different formulation of the question which show a lot of variances, but the BSA figure is a lot closer to the preponderance of these.

Why does the Census matter?

The Census 2021 website says that the question on religion “…helps your community by allowing local and central government to better plan services and set aside resources for your area…” The ONS also say that “To enable them to meet requirements of the Equality Act 2010 users stated a need for population data about religion to inform equality monitoring.”

The Census is a vital data source for public bodies, policy makers and businesses across the country. It also shapes a lot of our discourse around demographics and national identity. The Census is used to prop up the narrative that we are a ‘Christian nation’, justify faith based public schooling, and pastoral support being organised around religion.

This is an area where atheist and humanist groups in many countries have been actively campaigning. The language of the Humanists UK campaign “If you’re not religious, say so” has been particularly influential.

1. Framing

“What is your religion?” frames an assumption of religiosity. It prompts a religious answer, and given the social context of the Census, many recipients may assume they should answer with their ‘official’ or family religion. This is probably the biggest problem, because this framing is replicated in so many equality monitoring procedures. It adds to the perception that the nonreligious should not be a group of concern to equality policies, or that they are a subgroup of religion, rather than the actual protected characteristic of “religion or belief”.

The ONS have tried to address this problem by making “No Religion” the first option – potentially giving it a primacy bias boost. They also tested the question “What is your religion or belief?” but felt that this “changed how respondents thought about the religion aspect of the question leading them to provide answers related to religious belief, rather than affiliation.” And that “Religious affiliation was the concept that most closely aligned to the definition of religion in the equalities legislation.” This privileges only one dimension of religion or belief.

2. Voluntary and different importance

The religion question is one of only three voluntary questions on the Census, the others being sexual orientation and gender identity. When faced with a long survey, the option to skip a question would be appealing. One might reasonably assume that religious people would be more motivated to express a positive answer to the question. Further research however casts significant doubt on this hypothesis. In 2011, 94% of people completed the Census, of these 93% completed the voluntary question on religion. ONS testing ahead of the 2011 Census showed that the response rate was lower than the average for compulsory question, but comparable to questions such as those on employment and ethnicity. In most equality monitoring situations questions will be voluntary, and questions about religion or belief should not be treated as more or less important than any other aspect.

3. A singular question

The Census must be available in paper form, and the ONS say that space restraints mean they cannot include, and so have never tested, a filter or two stage question. The BSA by contrast does not have a paper version and makes use of a filter question “Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion?” before providing additional options for those identifying as belonging to a religion. This could have an affect of encouraging respondents to answer as not religious to get through the survey quicker, but this is likely minimal.

Belief has multiple dimensions. One may believe that a particular worldview is true, or that it is good to believe regardless of its truth. The same is true for identity; a person may have an internal or personal worldview, which differs from the external identity they perform. They may culturally affiliate to varying degrees with different (non)religious cultures. Different people place various levels of importance on their (non)religion, it may be central or peripheral to someone’s worldview. A (non)religious worldview may be consciously or subconsciously held.

Some sort of two-part question would probably be the best approach for surveys to adopt, providing the right balance between detail and ease of use. The two parts could either ask respondents about (1) their belief and (2) their identity or affiliation. Or (1) could differentiate between religious and not, and (2) provide more detailed options.

4. Families and children

When thinking of their ‘family religion’ people may be more likely to give a cultural or historic answer. Nonreligious people may not be comfortable or safe self-identifying, where one family member or ‘head of the household’ fills in the form. Younger people are more likely to be nonreligious. The BSA only covers adults 18+, but all respondents are answering for themselves rather than any parents on children’s behalf.

I would be very interested in comparing the (non)religious data from Census responses filled in online or through the corrections and mistakes process, with paper responses.

Any equality monitoring form should only ask about the identity of the individual responding. Where data needs to be gathered on the (non)religious identity of children too young to express a meaningful preference, it might be better to record their (non)religious background.

5. Timing and past responses

The Census is a big cultural event with huge news coverage and advertising. It is likely that people remember how they last answered a question. They may also be thinking about the question as it applies to the last ten years of their life. The nonreligious may be less likely to see this as a settled identity. I’m not sure how much of an impact this could all have, but it is good practice in any monitoring to stress that the question is about the respondent at the time of the question.

6. Ethnicity and culture

There is an anomaly created by some religious categories also being seen by many to be ethnicity categories, though how to resolve this conundrum is a bit beyond this article’s scope, and the impact on counting the nonreligious unclear. It certainly could be that nonreligious people who identify as culturally or ethnically Jewish, or Sikh could be under counted. Implication of this include the need to respect people’s self-described ethnic or cultural identity while avoiding conflating this with religion, and the need to differentiate between aspects of religion as discussed above.


These are all issues that the ONS have engaged with, and this article has drawn heavily on their question development reports for 2011 and 2021, as well as contemporary debate in AHS and religious focused media.

Britain’s emerging nonreligious majority is one of the biggest social and demographic changes in our history. We need to consider the impact of this change on almost every area of public policy. To do that, we need to better measure the size and diversity of this group, and those it overlaps with.

Photo information: Girl in Yellow Dress Playing With Abacus, Yan Krukov