Entries from May 2011 ↓

Pursuing the Humanist Vision (Presentation)

This is the transcript of a presentation I gave to the Annual Humanist Convention in Australia.


Thank you for allowing me to present at the 46th Annual Humanist Convention. It’s certainly a great pleasure to be here.

I call myself a naturalist, who, like secular humanists, most other naturalists, and many atheists, share a common belief in the dignity of people to live self-determined and fulfilled lives, unencumbered by repressive superstitious traditions. All ideologies – both religious and political – should be open to criticism and, potentially, open to rejection. And, ultimately, I see a free secular society, especially with a strong publicly-funded non-religious education system, as being fundamental to achieving the humanist vision.

Humanist Scorecard

Let’s have a look at the humanist scorecard around the world. Some events can give us hope.  Three recent examples come to mind. Firstly, ordinary citizens throughout the Middle East and North Africa are risking their lives to challenge the authority of their brutal, repressive, and often theocratic, regimes. These are essentially secular – not religious – movements of all age groups, especially younger ones, who seem to be, ironically, inspired or energised by being part of the ‘Facebook’ generation, the social networking of the Internet. I say ‘ironical’ as the Internet exemplifies today’s post-modernist ethos often portrayed at odds with the universal values of humanism; a theme I’d like to return to shortly.

Secondly, Nigeria has a notorious history of sectarian and tribal violence between the Islamic north and the Christian south. Both religious groups have sought to dominate, convert, and kill one another. However Nigerians have just conducted peaceful and fair elections under international monitoring where, again, ordinary Nigerians queued for hours to express self-determination at the ballot-boxes. Many even stayed at those polling centres to ensure their votes were counted legitimately. Unfortunately there is a sad postscript to this story. That peace ended with riots in northern Nigeria after the election of southern Christian, Goodluck Jonathan. 200 people were killed as a result. Umar Marigar of the Red Cross told the BBC that “The violent protests turn from political into ethno-religious crisis. As such, people might like to engage in retaliatory attacks. This is what we are always afraid of.[1]

And, thirdly, praise them or condemn them. Wikileaks and Julian Assange, and other whistle-blowers valuably expose the often self-righteous secrecy of governments and organisations, as they try to implement anti-humanist values and actions in the name of the ‘greater-good’. I’m sure you are familiar with many examples – US and its allies secretly rendering detained suspects between countries to avoid legal restrictions on interrogations; the Roman Catholic Church covering up extensive child abuse by its office bearers; and, of course, extensive lying over the search for Iraq’s famous, and necessarily illusive, weapons of mass destruction. Truth, as always, is the first casualty with people being its actual victims. Whistle-blowers are one way, though perhaps not the best, of monitoring these organisations.

So, despite some positive stories, there is much work to be done by humanists. Conservative US state legislators are enacting laws to effectively restrict abortions, undermining the ‘Row v Wade’ (1973) Supreme Court decision.

Some states are making it exponentially more difficult, both financially and psychologically, for a woman to have an abortion. In South Dakota, a woman now has to wait at least 72 hours after seeking an abortion to have the actual procedure and is legally required to obtain counselling from a “crisis pregnancy center” — which are unregulated by the state and have the explicit goal of talking women out of abortions — before having the procedure.[2]


Just recently the Republicans attempted to cut US Federal funding for family planning programs as part of their rejection of budget funding. Ultimately President Obama held his ground on such a move. So conservative forces will use every opportunity to undermine or remove society’s humanist policies that conflict with their own particular sets of values. Humanists need to be vigilant in protecting and extending humanist values embedded in our secular society.

In Pakistan, five out of six men charged over the group rape of Mukhtaran Mai in 2002 were released by Pakistan’s Supreme Court. The sixth man was convicted and sentenced to death, later commuted to jail time. The rape was ordered by village elders after Mai’s brother was accused of having illicit relations with a woman from a rival clan.  Mai claimed that 14 men were actually involved. As the Guardian reports (21 Apr 2011):

The supreme court was heavily criticised by human rights groups for the verdict, which they said put the safety of all Pakistani women at risk. Rape, “honour killings” and other crimes against women in Pakistan are routinely poorly investigated by police and go unpunished by the courts.[3]

Finally, I’m sure you are all familiar with various attempts to introduce Sharia law for Muslims living within secular societies. The fear is that our emphasis on cultural pluralism offers an opening for Sharia law, even in limited ways, and thereby compromise hard-won human freedoms. According to Civitas (Institute for the Study of Civil Society in the UK), there are 85 Sharia courts operating in Britain, of which 12 operate within the British legal system. In the report “Sharia Law or ‘One Law For All?”[4], Civitas expressed three concerns: (1) voluntary arbitration seems impossible with the community intimidation of women; (2) Sharia law does not treat women equally; and (3) religious guidance depends on fear of God and desire to be in good standing within the community. However, we also need to be careful how we apply secular laws to insular communities so to protect the very people that concern us and not cause greater hardships. This is always a dilemma.

Humanist Future

Now let’s look ahead, and I’d like to mention two challenges to humanism. Firstly, we are experiencing an increase of religious faith world-wide and, more concerning, from fundamentalist, Pentecostal, and charismatic movements, which demand follower conformity and submission often conflicting with humanist values. According to sociologist, Peter Berger, ‘As one looks over the contemporary world, it’s not secularization that one sees, but an enormous explosion of passionate religious movements.’[5]

We can expect to see religious faiths playing a greater, not lesser, role in international affairs. In 1990 Islamic countries declared the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam as an alternative to the UN’s declaration of human rights. They sought to enshrine internationally Sharia law as the basis for Islamic human rights. Also, even though there is an increase in electoral democracies world-wide – a good thing – we see faith-dominated nations implementing public laws and administrative systems contrary to Western humanist values. The criminality of homosexuality and apostasy in Malaysia and selective application of women’s rights in Pakistan are some examples.

Another concern is the rise of those ‘passionate’ religious groups within Western societies, especially in the US and Europe. Through increased migration and higher birth rates sectarian groups seek legal exemptions or special treatment (such as Sharia courts, mentioned previously) while larger conservative groups seek public policy changes (such as restricting abortions and divorces and diluting science education that conflicts with religious faith). These trends are worrying as they potentially threaten the Enlightenment ideal of providing reason-based equality and fairness for all citizens.

The second challenge to humanism is the replacement of the rational certitudes of secularism with the pluralism and uncertainties of a post-secular world, a world where personal truths and realities dominate. Post-modernism may had its academic zenith in the late 20th century, when it was cool to quote incomprehensible Foucault, Derrida, or Lyotard, but its effects are strongly felt today with the blurring of right and wrong; truth and fiction; and past, present, and future times, especially in the virtual worlds of television, the Internet, and of course the arts. [As an aside, one of my pet peeves with the History Channel on FoxTel cable television is its indiscriminate mixing of historical analyses, retelling of myths (especially biblical ones), and wild speculations with little discussion of the historical support for these stories.] So for post-secularists, ‘observation’ has become ‘construction’ and ‘knowledge’ has become ‘interpretation’.

The rationale of humanism, like that of the sciences and most religions, is founded on the belief in a single truth with a capital ‘T’ and in a single reality with a capital ‘R’. And, as inheritors of the Enlightenment, humanists and scientists both hold reason as central to the quest for human understanding. Unfortunately, such claims are no longer as credible today and are often met with ‘that may be true for you, but…’. So humanists need to find new ways of presenting their messages in attractive rather than just logical ways in this post-secular reality.

So, finally, let me offer some gratuitous advice before discussion time. A.C. Grayling famously said that the only form of intolerance acceptable in a tolerant society is towards ‘intolerance’ itself. We recognise this contradiction as a necessary truth. Similarly surprising, I would argue that rational humanists need to evangelise – to proclaim the ‘good news’ of humanism – so to impassion today’s post-secularists against destructive religious and political polemics on one hand and misguided tolerance on the other. As David Hume said some 300 years ago, ‘Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them’[6], so humanists go out there and be very passionate.

Thank you.

[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/mobile/world-africa-13140762

[2] Huffington Post 14 Apr 2011 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/04/14/states-introducing-unprec_n_849251.html

[3] http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/apr/21/pakistan-gang-rape-mukhtaran-mai

[4] http://www.civitas.org.uk/pdf/ShariaLawOrOneLawForAll.pdf

[5] P. Berger & A. Zijderveld, In Praise of Doubt (New York: HarperCollins, 2009) p. 4.

[6] D. Hume, Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40)  II.iii.3/415