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Rejuvenating the Humanist Movement


Matt CherryThis article originally appeared as part of SSA eNews No. 11 - The SSA Around the World

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Matt Cherry is executive director of the Institute for Humanist Studies. He previously worked for the British Humanist Association, the International Humanist and Ethical Union, and the Council for Secular Humanism.

More than half the world's population is under the age of 25. Yet you would never guess it from the average humanist group. The humanist movement has long had a problem attracting and keeping younger people. Starting youth groups is one way to tackle humanism's age problem, but it cannot be the only approach.

Maybe my approach to this is shaped by my own experience. I got involved in the humanist youth movement after I got involved in the adult humanist movement. I started work for the British Humanist Association in 1990, at the age of 23. It was a year later that I started a youth publication and organized a world congress in London for the International Humanist and Ethical Youth Organization (IHEYO).

I am delighted to see that IHEYO is still going strong today and working alongside the Secular Student Alliance. But I have always been concerned that humanist groups sometimes relegate bright young leaders to their youth wing. Youth groups can be a great way to attract and engage young activists, but we must beware of making them into ghettoes where we consign any talented leader under the age of 30. Talented young leaders should be involved in leading national groups, not just youth wings.

Younger people have different concerns and interests than older generations and they organize and communicate in different ways. I think that one reason most humanist groups were very backward in making use of the Internet was that these groups were run by senior citizens who didn't understand the Internet or see its potential (not that all seniors think this way!). It still pains me to think of the many opportunities that were missed at the height of the Internet revolution in the 1990s because of "old thinking" in the humanist movement.

I am proud that the Institute for Humanist Studies (IHS) has put such a focus on youth. IHS has made funding youth initiatives a major priority of its grant giving program. Of the more than $800,000 that IHS has given to other groups since 2000, close to half has gone to projects for or by young people. Not only have SSA and IHEYO been major recipients, but we have also given funds to start Camp Quest - the summer camp for secular kids - across North America. Several grants have funded the creation of humanist materials for schools, ranging from humanist Sunday schools in California to public schools in Slovakia. We even gave seed money to the first humanist charter school, in Tampa, Florida.

But more than that, IHS has focused on new technologies that will engage younger activists and help them organize. We publish a free weekly ezine, Humanist Network News, instead of a paper journal. We host almost 200 websites for other freethought groups. We provide free educational courses online. We do a monthly podcast. And young people feature prominently in all this work - not as tokens, but as equal members. I think our April podcast interview with Stephanie Kirmer , at 21 an alumna of SSA and new board member of IHS, was a great example of this.

Not only are these programs more in touch with how young people communicate, but they also make it cheaper and easier for people to find out about humanism and get actively involved. In fact, I doubt that there would be a secular student movement without the Internet.

"Rejuvenating" literally means "putting youth into." To rejuvenate the humanist movement, we need to put youth into our message, into our media, into our campaigns, and, above all, we need to put youth into more leadership positions. Youthful leadership can help make humanism relevant to the majority of the world's population: young people.

This article originally appeared as part of SSA eNews No. 11 - The SSA Around the World

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