Is Nonconformity Required to be Humanist in Our Modern Societies?

by | January 7, 2018


By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Is nonconformity required to be humanist in our current society?

Humanism is a philosophy of life that considers the welfare of humankind — rather than the welfare of a supposed God or gods — to be of paramount importance. (American Humanist Association, 2017).

As existing social, political practices draw largely on views that consider the welfare of a belief system to be of paramount importance, there is an intersection in the efforts of humanists and nonconformists. To be humanist is, and has been through time, to be a nonconformist.

Humanists are few. Where are they? They’re scattered. Some may not even know of their individual perspective on the world — as if the distant scent of love on the horizon. You know it’s there, but you can’t quite find it — and then it goes away.

But humanists are around. Why so few humanists, though? I think one variable or factor is time. It hasn’t had time to catch like wildfire as with the Abrahamic religions, for examples.

Also, as with the stated differences with atheists in the past and into the present, the transition is the explicit, open statement, “I am an atheist.” (Translation: ‘I don’t eat babies, give the ‘evil’ eye, or stand at the right side of the Satan in the Left hand path.’)

As a young explicit philosophy, maybe tacit in earlier times, humanism, as with ethical culture, is more open, in the countries which permit it, than probably ever. This openness may differentiate this time more than the eras in which prominent atheists lived such as Voltaire.

That means prior eras of atheists didn’t have the luxury of talking openly. The upcoming generations of atheists have an increasing platform. There are fewer heroes in the movement too, which is another outreach barrier.

The population, generally speaking, is more educated. More education will, statistically, translate into less religiosity (Pew Research Center, 2017). As with the more educated population — correlation is not causation but, the higher the birth rate then the higher the new number of children indoctrinated into the faith.

Richard Dawkins made this point, originally as far as I know. You do not have Muslim or Christian children. You have children of Christian or Muslim parents. That’s where the social and familial privilege of religion exists in another domain.

The ability to label and inculcate the children with the title prior to the child’s critical faculties have been built. That means, more or less, the religious family with this social and familial privilege having a higher birth rate will have more adherents in the long-term because the children of Christian or Muslim, and so on, will be labelled as the religion of their parents — out of tacitly abusive custom and norm, universally asserted as an implicit right.

There will be a decline in the number of global freethinkers, as in religious “none,” over time, as a percent of the global population of the religious grows, at least into 2050 (Pew Research Center, 2015).

The birth rate for the religious, simply even taking into account the Christianity and Islam examples, is higher than the nones. It seems tautological.

If a group’s collective birth rate is below replacement — 2.1 — and the other group’s birth rate is above replacement (and your group’s), then, in the long run, the group’s with the highest birth rate (above replacement rate) will be the ones to grow — with those having the highest birth rate having the highest new numbers per capita (Lipka & McClendon, 2017).

Pressures in nonconformity and being a “prudent” nonconformist involves outward and inward conformity. When reflecting on the outward conformity, there are the clothing someone wears. Their means of self-presentation is one form of conformity.

If in home life, in a place of worship, in the workplace, or in another country, the style of one’s hair, the coloring of the makeup and hair — if any, and the appropriateness of the clothing will be evaluated by others.

Conformity means fitting in; clothing is part of fitting in, or dress writ large, e.g. makeup, hair, and dress. Conformity can be in the spoken and written as well. Is this individual speaking, not necessarily the truths but, the ‘proper’ norms and attitudes as reflected by their speech and writing?

It could be as subtle as the introduction and send-off of an email, down to the specific vocabulary one uses in the aforementioned places, e.g. “in home life, in a place of worship, in the workplace, or in another country.”

Also, the partaking in the social practices of the culture for ease of interaction, security, prevent erroneous assumptions. Inward is a little different in style, but the same in content. One of the strongest forms of inward conformity may be the inculcation of the beliefs of the society in internal speech.

So if someone has completely imbibed the truisms of the culture, whether public, academic, or what have you, then things best not written or spoken may in fact best be unthought or not felt.

Then there are issues of media presence too. How many open atheists are there, for a sub-demographic example? If you take Reverend Gretta Vosper, she has been pilloried and praised in the media. She is an openly atheist reverend in the United Church of Canada, which may hold the title of the most progressive church in Canada.

The most prominent noted prejudice against non-believer comes from social life. So, it becomes harder to measure, but can affect future life success in a realistic sense, e.g. job prospects, social encounters, relationships.

This leaves a quandary for the non-believer, “Do I keep everything private or live honestly?” Tough choice. If the boss has a holy day, or day of observance, on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, then the employees may, more than chance, have to observe this, not in personal but, professional life.

That means the employee is, in a direct sense, engaging in parts of the observance with the employer. So, what does this mean for the limits of nonconformity? Should we accept a certain limit in our nonconformity?

No, but only if we are willing to accept every consequence that follows for the implication that this sacrifice will result in future progress. This is a lot to ask of most people.

During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die. (Nelson Mandela Foundation, 2017)

Yes, if our life is at risk, then personal safety and basic survival of loved ones are important because, at times, lives are at stake for nonconformity, especially for one international second class: the irreligious.

The irreligious are given the death penalty in many countries for rejecting the divinity of holy figures, the authoritativeness of religious authorities, the inerrancy of holy texts, the rightness of asserted morality, and superiority of those upholding the dominant mythological doctrines.

Keeping in mind, that nonconformist views, in a society that shares everything with everyone, that humanists must be ready to defend their sentiments at any point in the future, no matter when or how genuine the sentiment.

What can be done, practically speaking? You, yes you, can use outward conformity and inner nonconformity for activist purposes. In a way, this is a means of the direct and indirect articulation of humanist ideals, through your way of living while remaining practical about the reality of the obstacles set for the secular types.

So, I leave you with a question:

Do we have an obligation to use our privilege to draw attention to the promotion of humanism?


American Humanist Association, 2017). What is Humanism?. Retrieved from

Lipka, M. & McClendon, D. (2017, April 7). Why people with no religion are projected to decline as a share of the world’s population. Retrieved from

Nelson Mandela Foundation. (2017). “I am prepared to die.”. Retrieved from

Pew Research Center. (2017). Educational Distribution. Retrieved from

Pew Research Center. (2015, April 2). The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010–2050. Retrieved from

Original Publication in Humanist Voices.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen founded In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal.

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About Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere. You can contact Scott via email, his website, or Twitter.

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