It’s no secret that the term humanism (or secular humanism) have never really taken off. Simply ask a random sampling of people on the street and you’ll likely be met with blank stares.
Now regardless of the utility of a word, I think it’s important for organizations to choose language that will be widely understood. If a word has little cultural understanding, then it may be too difficult for any one organization to aim to reclaim it or to bring it to prominence.
Consider the following graph from Google’s Ngram viewer.
Thanks to Google’s book digitization project, we can search the frequency of certain words and phrases over the decades.
From this we can look at long-term historical trends and consider whether a word is hip or not.
Comparing “atheism” and “humanism” we can see that both have wobbled through the years. Atheism was surprisingly relevant in the 19th century (perhaps partially as a pejorative), while humanism reached a peak in the 1960s – likely when it was widely adopted in various academic literatures – and had a resurgence in the early 1990s (which roughly corresponds to the peak of “secular humanism”, coined by Paul Kurtz). We can even see the emergence of “New Atheism” after 2000, while humanism has been in free fall for the past twenty years.
For more contemporary usage, we can use Google Trends to track news mentions of both terms – though here I used “atheist” and “humanist” which were slightly more frequent – and again, we see a rise in atheism and a small decline in humanism.
Perhaps to illustrate my underlying concern, let’s look at two related other examples.
The Ethical Culture movement was founded at the end of the 19th century and start of the 20th. It had a quick rise with successful groups established in New York and the Eastern United States. A few decades earlier, freethinkers like Robert Ingersoll were lecturing across the USA and rallying for secular values. Both of these initial trends can be seen in the Ngram.
It’s interesting to note that the Ethical Culture movement gained the most attention right as Freethought reached its peak. Both fell just before 1900 but Ethical Culture found a renewed strength, despite the declining usage of “freethought.”
All good things come to an end though, and by the start of the cold war, both terms started to fall into disuse (note the scale and that neither of these achieved the success of atheism or humanism). We do see a slight growth in freethought in the 21st Century, following the New Atheist prominence, while ethical culture has flat-lined.
Language isn’t static and it’s useful, I think, to keep long-term trends in mine as we position our movements. There’s a reason that the Sunday Assembly does not market itself with terms like “humanism” or “ethical culture” – neither is particularly relevant anymore. Atheist, however, has renewed strength and was a useful choice (though not officially branded an “atheist church”, it was a useful term to get some initial press).
I’ll leave you with one more graph that might hint at perhaps the next wave of secular identities.