Humanist Community Workers: A project for Australian Humanism

Written by Lyndon Storey and Published Mon, 27/03/2017 - 00:00

Lyndon Storey will be presenting on this topic at the upcoming Australian Humanist Convention 2017. Purchase your tickets online today!


Many belief systems and social movements offer their supporters the option of a life dedicated to living out the values of that system.  Religions have priests and monks, trade unions have union organisers, Marxism has the cadre, Confucianism has the Junzi, and so on.  These roles may be paid or unpaid, depending on a range of circumstances.

The Humanist movement in Australia currently has no obvious equivalent.  The inspired Humanist who wants to dedicate his or her life to the cause through service to others may find many possible paths outside the Humanist movement, but few within it.

I propose developing a recognisable Humanist equivalent; provisionally called “Humanist community worker”: This would be someone inspired by humanism and trained and ready to engage in a range of educational and community-building roles such as chaplaincy and ethics education. Encouraging and training people to become humanist community workers will provide benefits to society as a whole and open a pathway to attract and engage idealistic humanists.

I wrote an article advocating a Humanist community worker program for the January 2017 edition of Australian Humanist magazine and will be talking about the concept at the 2017 Australian Humanist Convention in Melbourne. This article, mostly based on the "Australian Humanist" article, is published here in the hope of promoting further discussion of the idea both before and after the Convention. My main goal is to stimulate a discussion about how Australian Humanism can move forward in supporting Humanists to be more actively involved in the community as Humanists. So please feel free to use the comments section at the bottom of this article to add thoughts or reflections on how Australian Humanism can best do this.

Ideally Humanism in Australia should be able to offer and promote, for those who are interested, a path to a life more intensely devoted to living out Humanist ideals:  A path to becoming Humanist community workers.

I've divided the discussion into four parts:

  • Humanism as a rationale for community activity generally.
  • A starting model of what Humanist community workers might do.
  • Some reasons for developing a Humanist community worker program.
  • What are the next steps ?

Part 1: Humanism as a rationale for community activity generally

Humanism is an approach to life in its own right: It is not simply the rejection of religion.  Nor is it just the continuing on of religiously inspired values without an accompanying belief in God.  Humanism relies on exploring our human potential, including our potential for empathy, compassion and love, to find a path to a fulfilling and meaningful life.  Humanism is an essentially social set of beliefs with its emphasis on common humanity and it can inspire people to positive social action and compassion for others.

The social ideals of Humanism are clearly expressed in major documents and writings on Humanism.

The Amsterdam Declaration 2002 includes:

Humanists have a duty of care to all of humanity including future generations. (Article 1)

Humanism can be a way of life for everyone everywhere. (Article 7) (ref.1)

Richard Norman in On Humanism writes that.

A good human life includes both individual fulfilment and responsibilities to others. (ref.2)

Bette Chambers, a former President of the American Humanist association is quoted as saying that

Humanism is the light of my life and the fire in my soul. It is the deep felt conviction, in every fiber of my being that human love is a power far transcending the relent-less, onward rush of our largely deterministic cosmos. All human life must seek a reason for existence within the bounds of an uncaring physical world, and it is love coupled with empathy, democracy, and a commitment to selfless service which undergirds the faith of a humanist. (ref 3)

Humanism is a worldview capable of inspiring people to lead fulfilling lives, and lives dedicated to caring for and serving others.

If Australian Humanism does not offer some sort of pathway into community service it is at risk of appearing to not have anything significant to offer to the young (or not so young) idealist seeking a life based on Humanist values such as compassion and love.  Likewise those outside Humanism who criticise it for being more a critique of religion than an alternative approach to life, can cite the lack of a life path for dedicated Humanists as indicating there is no such thing as in inspired and idealistic Humanist life.

Humanism in Australia should be able to offer and promote, for those who are interested, a path to a life more intensely devoted to living out Humanist ideals. 

For now I am calling the role the ‘humanist community worker’ or HCW for short.  I don’t believe this is the perfect name, and am very happy to shift to another should one gain popularity with Australian Humanists.  But the idea needs a name.  So I have started with this as a sort of ‘version 101’ name as it focusses on the community related nature of the concept and does not involve simply putting the word ‘humanist’ in front of a term more usually associated with religion such as ‘humanist priest’.  Later in this essay I discuss some possible alternative names, but first I want to flesh out a bit more what the HCW role might involve.

Part 2: A starting model of what Humanist community workers might do.

As a start I suggest four areas of activity where a Humanist community worker might become involved. There are no doubt plenty of other possibilities. But the concept needs to have some detail to enable discussion so I suggest these four as a sort of first possible model. The four areas I suggest are selected for their connection to Humanist ideals and the fact that there are already some people doing some versions of HCW work in these areas.

1.  Education.  A Humanist community worker should be able to explain basic Humanist concepts, including approaches to ethics and moral dilemmas.  An HCW would be able to offer ethics education in schools and general talks in public forums about what Humanism is, and what it hopes to achieve.  Such a person should have a good basic knowledge of Humanism and some major Humanist writers.  Of course an idealistic person becoming an HCW would have a strong interest in Humanist thought and the education component would be a natural extension of this interest.

2.  Care and Compassion.  Humanism advocates human dignity and a compassionate and a supportive approach to others.  A Humanist community worker should have the ability to offer comfort and support, i.e. a friendly ear, to anyone who needs it.  A Humanist, or a non-humanist, receiving a comforting visit, or consoling conversation, from an HCW, should be no more remarkable than a Christian in emotional distress receiving a comforting visit from a priest.

There are already Humanist volunteers who have undertaken pastoral care training and serve as volunteers in various Institutions.  I volunteer as the Humanist Chaplain at Canberra Hospital and have found that to be a deeply fulfilling experience.  However I don’t think the ‘care and compassion’ component should limit people to merely providing Humanist versions of existing institutional roles as chaplains and pastoral carers.  Ideally Humanists can explore humanistic ways to express care and compassion for others and develop a Humanist vision of practicing this. 

An HCW should undertake some pastoral care training, and have the capacity to fill existing pastoral care roles.  But the HCW’s mandate would be broader, not just to provide a non-religious version of these roles, but to also explore a Humanist path to developing and expressing care and compassion for others in as broad a range of settings as possible, both inside and outside the traditional pastoral care framework, and extending beyond the traditional range of institutions where pastoral care is offered.

The practice of the ‘care and compassion’ component would also be informed by the learning developed under the ‘education’ component.  In this way a HCW would be able to bring heart and mind to bear.

3. Marking life events.  There are religious ceremonies to mark such events in life as marriage, birth, death and coming of age.  People are also increasingly seeking out Humanist or secular civil celebrants to help ceremonially acknowledge such events.  A Humanist community worker should ideally have the ability to offer a Humanist inspired ceremony/ritual to mark crucial life events.  Of course some events, such as wedding ceremonies, can only be performed legally by celebrants who are legally authorised to do so.  Many other ceremonies do not have special legal requirements to be performed.  I believe an HCW could perform an effective role in many life events other than weddings, even without the legal power to conduct a wedding ceremony.  But some may think HCWs should also be encouraged to become legally authorised civil celebrants.

It would be a natural consolidation and extension of the first two components of HCW work, bringing both their knowledge of Humanist thought and experience of Humanist care to inform (to whatever degree appropriate) the ceremonial marking of life events.

4.  Facilitating community Humanist groups.  A Humanist community worker should have some capacity to start, nurture and facilitate small Humanist community groups.  Humanism, as an approach to life, needs to be able to underpin a sense of community.  It would be unlikely that an HCW could build a community by him or herself.  But an HCW could provide some of the apparatus of community; for instance inviting people to join in small group sessions which may be book clubs, Humanist discussion groups or more socially oriented joint activities that provide some form of community where people can come and share parts of their lives and goals with like-minded people.

A Humanist community worker need not be required to try to develop a small community group, but it should be a part of the HCW’s skill set.  HCWs should have some basic skills in group facilitation, and, combined with their general knowledge of Humanism, be able to regularly conduct small group sessions focussed on Humanism or related topics.  It is a natural follow on from the first three components that there is some sort of community that the HCW both nurtures and represents.

These are the four core components of the Humanist community worker role that I would recommend exploring. They are interconnected and focus on both the rational side of Humanism and the caring compassionate and community oriented-side of Humanism.  Ideally each component would inform the others and provide the HCW with the chance to put him or herself forward as a Humanist keen to be involved in their local community, and with plenty to offer. Initially I envisage HCWs would be volunteers.

 I am sure readers could think of other desirable fields of activity for HCWs, or may disagree with some of those I have suggested.  My goal is more to promote a conversation amongst Humanists in Australia about the general idea rather than pick a precise model and argue for it no matter what.  As I noted earlier this also applies to the name ‘Humanist community worker’.  I have used the word ‘community’ to indicate the HCW will be involved principally in supportive forms of community engagement. But it could be called ‘outreach’ to indicate that it is Humanists reaching out to others or ‘care’ to indicate it is basically about caring for others.  Likewise any policy/ program for promoting, training and supporting HCW’s could be called Humanist Care, Humanist Outreach or something else.  Whatever name or title is used I see this as more about exploring a Humanist role that meets Humanist ideals than being a copy of existing roles such as priest.

Part 3: Some reasons for developing a Humanist community worker program

Here are some of the reasons I can see for developing a Humanist community worker program.

1.  Offering a Humanist life-path option.  People who want to live a life more idealistically focused on, and inspired by Humanist ideals of service to the community, do not have a well worked out path offered to them by organised Humanism at the moment.  This should not mean people cannot explore a different path of their own of choosing of course, but it would be better if such a path were consciously and deliberately offered to Humanists by organised Humanism.

2.  Offering a path to express Humanist care and compassion.  Human potentials such as love and empathy can be, and often are cited as Humanist motivations.  Regardless of whether Humanism offers a systematic worldview or a way of life, it should be able to at least offer a path to follow for people who, as Humanists, want to express their love and compassion for their fellow human beings.  Developing a concept such as HCWs is one way for organised Humanism to offer a path for people to realise these ideals in their life.

3.  Serving the community.  In fact there are many areas, in fields such as ethics education, pastoral care and others where we would be providing a community service by developing a cohort of people with some training and authorisation to offer their services.  The percentage of the population reporting as non-religious in Australia is significant and increasing.  Why leave voluntary social and community activity to religions, especially when they represent a decreasing proportion of the mainstream?

Developing a role such as HCW is part of organised Humanism exploring ways to be of service to the world.

4.  Developing a body of community representatives.  Often enough, when community or social forums are being held, or local community leaders are being sought out, people such as ministers of religion or Monks (Buddhist or Christian) are seen as obvious representatives of the local community, or a segment of it.  They are seen as involved in some way, and as representing their value system through being involved.  Humanists also need to be involved, and seen to be involved in such processes. 

Creating a role such as a HCW makes it easier for the actions and contributions of Humanists to be seen, and creates a larger pool of obvious Humanist candidates to be ‘community representatives’.

In jurisdictions where there is the option of ethics education in schools being provided by the representatives of different belief systems, and/or where there are ethical and community advice boards and committees that require representatives from different belief systems, in short, wherever there are roles for representatives from belief systems, Humanists have no obvious cohort, and no obvious pathway, for people to fill these roles.  Developing a cohort of HCW’s provides a pathway for people to develop their capacities in these types of roles.

5.  Demonstration effect for others.  One recurring experience I have as a Humanist Chaplain is the regularity with which people, both Humanists and non-humanists, have approached me to say they did not think Humanists were involved in pastoral work and care for the community.  Of the Humanists who have approached me, several have expressed interest in becoming involved in some sort of pastoral activity.  It seems that Humanists hold back from this type of volunteering, in part, because they are unaware of this possible role for Humanists.  Not only is it possible but it is a natural role for organised Humanism to develop and promote.

An increasing presence of HCWs would also send a message to non-humanists – namely, we are part of the community, we do care, and we are active in community work.  Developing an HCW path for Humanists helps demonstrate Humanism as an alternative worldview and approach to life, not just a rejection of other approaches.

6.  Building Humanist community through small groups.  The ability and willingness to set up and establish small community groups based on a Humanist outlook is crucial to the development of Humanism’s ability to offer community to people.

Traditionally the archetypal ‘alienated youth’ or alienated ‘misfit’ in society may be offered a sense of belonging, moral support and succour by such means as religiously motivated groups reaching out to them, and government sponsored social welfare programs.  But an equivalent path to supportive, social inclusion for the lost is generally not offered by Humanism.  HCW workers would have enough training and knowledge to at least attempt to set up a small community group wherever they found themselves. 

As well as thinking of the alienated, it is important to also offer some form of ethical/common outlook based community for the not so alienated.  The establishment of a cohort of HCWs with the willingness and capacity to run small, or larger, groups would be an important step in developing a capacity for humanism to support community building.

7.  Building membership in Humanist societies in Australia.  Membership in Australian humanist societies is, in general, both ageing and declining.  Developing a cohort of HCWs is one way of developing a broader range of interests and community activities which people can explore through organised Humanism, and could be one part of reviving organised humanism.

8.  Developing Humanism as a worldview or approach to life.  Developing a program for HCWs would, in practice, be furthering Humanism as a philosophy of life.  The questions and issues that would need to be addressed, the motivations and values that would need to be explored, would altogether contribute to a stronger development of Humanism as an approach to life.

Part 4: The next steps

Hopefully this article has made a clear and persuasive case for the development of some version of a Humanist community worker role.  The next steps should be for Humanists to discuss a name for the role (such as HCW), a name for the program (such as Humanist Care), what sort of components the concept should include, and what should be the first steps in setting it up.

I will give a talk about these issues at the Australian Humanist Convention to be held 7-9 April later this year.  My hope is to meet Humanists from other parts of Australia who are interested in the concept and we can try at the Convention to work out some next steps. Hopefully a group of people might develop who are willing to work as an informal committee with membership spread across several State Humanist societies to work together to support the development of some version of Humanist community worker programs.

Such programs could start in several ways: They could be initiated by CAHS, or each state Humanist society could start their own programs with a view to co-operating in training, and in mutual recognition of ‘humanist community workers’ qualified in other states with co-operation possibly facilitated by CAHS.  In this way the development of an HCW program could also contribute to a greater level of coordinated action amongst Australian Humanist societies.

In thinking about how to start a program it is important to remember there are already people acting as Humanist chaplains, pastoral care volunteers and celebrants, and there are Humanists who engage in ethics education in schools and offer courses about Humanism generally.  Some of these, such as Humanist pastoral carers and chaplains are very few in number, but there is knowledge and expertise to build upon.

Even if all that happened was a stronger attempt to support, train and promote existing roles as a part of a general category of ‘Humanist Care’ or something similar it would be progress in putting more emphasis on Humanist community work.(Ref.4)

But I believe we can do more than simply claim that the limited efforts that are occurring so far are good enough. I have been arguing for the development of a Humanist inspired concept of community service; the Humanist community worker, which can encompass existing activities, and more, and provide a Humanist inspired vision of community work, engagement and outreach, rather than just a Humanist version of existing religiously inspired roles.  We can develop a Humanist path to community engagement that can inspire and attract volunteers and become a key part of building Humanism in Australia.  



1. Amsterdam Declaration IHEU website at – See p.27

2. Norman, Richard On Humanism, 2012 Routledge, Oxon.  p. 135

3: Bette Chambers quote sourced from the American Humanist Association website accessed, on 29/12/2016, at:

4: This article is trying to make the conceptual case for HCWs so I don’t want to fill it up with details of possible training programs; that is for the next stage of the discussion when people are already supporting the basic idea. But for now it can be noted there are training programs in pastoral care, celebrancy etc. in Australia available outside of Humanist societies. In the early stages of an HCW program the training component provided by Humanist societies would be more focussed on knowledge of Humanism.

Likewise a survey of comparable existing Humanist society programs around the world would take up too much space. The ‘Humanist Care’ program of the British Humanist Association can be found at  For the USA see

I have little knowledge of the level of education and support offered to people who undertake comparable humanist activities in Australia except in the ACT where the ACT Humanist Society (ACTHS) is just starting to develop processes in this regard: A link to the ACTHS Humanist Community Worker Accreditation Criteria policy can be found on its website at the page:



Last updated Mon, 27/03/2017 - 13:22