The 21st century, even more so than in the previous century, has seen a rapid rise in the number of people who reject religion and see human beings as capable of making positive change based solely on reason and empathy. The growth in popularity of the Internet has also meant that this change has been truly international, happening all over the world.
Rational, evidence-based policy
Scientific research has continued apace, too, with discoveries about the nature of the universe firmly ruling out religious creation stories as implausible, and many new cures for diseases were discovered. Even when these new remedies have been opposed on principle by religious groups, for example when churches rallied to prevent the legalisation of a life-saving technique called mitochondrial donation, their lobby was defeated by a greater number of politicians who viewed the issue not through a religious prism, but through a rational and compassionate one.
In stark contrast from the 20th century, in which many countries for the first time adopted explicitly anti-gay laws, the 21st century saw a spate of countries one after the other legalise marriage for same-sex couples: a triumph of equality and empathy over religious opposition. European countries continued a programme of greater integration, and this led to the coordination of strategies to improve women’s access to reproductive healthcare, including abortions, in the continent as well as in lower-income countries in other continents.
The UK also passed new equalities legislation early in the 20th century, to reaffirm the equal rights of people from all walks of life, of every race or religion, sexuality, gender identity, or degree of disability, in practical terms. However, this triumph came with significant exceptions in the law for religious organisations to continue to discriminate, a compromise reached due to religious opposition to the new laws.
Other positive victories for rational argument over superstition include a 2015 change in Welsh law to switch from opting in to be an organ donor to opting out; this recognises that most people do not feel superstitious about what happens to their organs after they die, and would want their death to mean that someone else has a greater chance of life.
Another major victory for humanists in Britain was the abolition of blasphemy laws. England and Wales did away with its blasphemy laws in 2008 following years of campaigning from the BHA. And following a wave of violence targeting the non-religious, a campaign in 2014 has succeeded in drawing international attention to the violence, oppression, and inequality propagated by these laws. By 2015, it succeeded in inspiring repeals like England’s in Iceland and Norway.
In the UK, the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group grew to a record 150 members during the 2010-2015 Parliament.
Humanist groups also benefited form a wave of interest in writers like Richard Dawkins, A C Grayling, and Christopher Hitchens, who came to international prominence for their honest, book-length assessments of the case against believing in gods and for believing in people. This tapped into a huge public appetite for non-religious approaches to morality and ethics, and a new willingness in the population at large to criticise religious privilege in society.
This interest chimed with drastic changes in people’s views on religion. Church attendances have continued to decline, and when asked in surveys around half the population do not identify with any particular religion. There was a great outpouring of support for the ‘Atheist Bus Campaign’ in 2009. In response to hellfire-and-damnation adverts by a Christian organisation around that same time, the slogan offered a comical but reassuring message: ‘There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’ An online fundraiser for this initiative broke crowdfunding records at the time.
Various polls and surveys have also indicated that more people than ever identify as non-religious. The 2014 Social Attitudes Survey estimates that half the population has no religion, which is consistent with the results of other polls which ask the question ‘Do you consider yourself to have a religion?’ Vast swathes of these people will live their lives according to humanist principles without realising they are humanists.
Within Britain, Scotland in particular has seen an increased public consciousness of Humanism due to the legalisation of humanist marriage there in 2005. In 2015, 50 years on from the Happy Human symbol which gave an identity to Humanism around the world, humanist marriages are set to become more popular than those of the national church, meaning that humanist marriages will become the most popular form of belief-based marriage in Scotland. They have also flourished with legal recognition across other European countries. A campaign to legalise these marriages in England and Wales is still ongoing.
Although society has made record progress in a number of areas, the institutional power of religion is still strong and holds back the law in Britain in a number of areas. For example, attempts to legalise humanist marriage in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland have been continually thwarted by the religious lobby, while a third of British schools are ‘faith’ schools which can discriminate against children on religious grounds and have special dispensations made for their curriculum. This often means that children from non-religious families do not have equal access to local schools.
The UK is still formally religious in other senses; the Queen is Defender of the [Christian] Faith and 26 Church of England bishops have a statutory right to reserved seats in Parliament, giving religion an undemocratic influence over the passing of our laws. While public support is behind reform to make the UK constitutionally and educationally more egalitarian, politicians are much more split between those who support the Church and religions to have special privileges, and those who want a level playing field.
In other parts of the world, the rise of religious populism is a constant threat to progress achieved in the 20th and 21st centuries, and religious-inspired violence against the non-religious is on the rise in many places too. The BHA, along with international humanist groups, continues to fight for a better world and to secure a fairer society for everyone.