Reflections on World Humanist Congress #whc2014 @BHAhumanists @NewHumanist @_CFIUK

I Wasn’t There – Earlier this year I attended the IAI’s How the Light Gets In festival and The Rationalist Association’s AGM to mention a couple of events, but I didn’t make plans to attend the WHC2014 organised in Oxford this weekend by the BHA. You see, I’ve had a bit of a mixed relationship with the BHA, a little bit “who’s more humanist than who” and, following the God vs Science wars, BHA and their “mob” of social media commenters seemed to have become fixated on the entirely negative anti-religion agenda, typified by recent campaigns (and victories) in religious control and curricula in UK schools, but also by a very narrow “scientistic” critical take on what passes for rational argument.

A Theme In Our Time? – When they announced the “Freedom of Speech” theme for WHC2014 this weekend, whilst the real world is facing Israel vs Gaza (again), and the spectre of IS(IS) in Iraq and more, they appeared to have dropped the ball of any serious discussion on the fit between religion, rationality and humanism and gone for the ubiquitous underpinnings of any-old-libertarian agenda. Freedom of speech and thought? We agree already. Some people are never happy, not even me. I even said so on Friday as the WHC2014 agenda started to appear on social media.

Twitter Take-Aways – Anyway, having got myself hooked into a fair selection of the relevant #hashtags and @tweeters on the Friday, and with the “Biblical” rains of Bertha confining us indoors, I spent almost the entire weekend glued to #WHC2014 and associated sub-tags on twitter until close of business on Sunday. I’m glad I did, in fact I’m massively disappointed I wasn’t there. There was a huge range of international participation, and a wide selection of topics in the plenary and parallel sessions. Suffice to say the tweeting from the event by BHA volunteers was excellent. The take-aways for me are:

Fighting Talk (and Action) – In parts of the world where religion is oppressive, particularly of women and liberal education, as well as socially sectarian, militant and/or brutal in its enforcement, then surely a firm stand needs to be taken against it, vocally and where necessary physically. And furthermore, the courage of those making the stand locally needs to be recognised and supported by those who find ourselves safely remote from the front lines. Many more eloquent and courageous than I spoke and have written on these aspects of the WHC2014 event. Examples like Gulalai Ismail and Wole Soyinka honoured with awards and Taslima Nasreen honoured with a keynote speaking slot and the ovation to close any congress. All I can add is – Absolutely!

Feminism, really! – A corollary of the above proved to be recognising the true place and value of women. A bit like Dawkins own “Doh!” moment, I’ve personally not felt the need to express “feminism” for several decades. Like, obviously! This is news? In fact a large part of my own agenda – under the banner Vive la Difference – is not so much being gender-blind in treating women as fully-paid-up humans (that really is a given within humanism, surely), but in fact recognising special feminine strengths in many team and governance contexts. We human individuals are all different, and fortunately at least half of us are females of the species.

Tactical Aggression – A further corollary of the aggressive response to brutal and oppressive religion was the recognition that this is tactical aggression suited to the particular battle. Quite a bit of chatter about the old misguided idea that benign expressions of religion are merely cover for militant and inhuman kinds and therefore to be challenged as aggressively as any. To be aggressive – even vocally – is not a value or strategy of humanism. It’s a necessary tool we mustn’t shy away from using – but speak softly and carry a big stick would seem to be the ready-made default adage.

Freedom of Speech – On the freedom of speech agenda, the conclusions were in the end-of-conference declaration. For me the key statement had been tweeted several times over the course of the weekend, and I have no knowledge of the drafting process of the statement. I’m guessing a statement already existed, and probably had conference-theme-specific amendments drafted in advance, to be finalised during the congress? I have a long-standing caveat to the idea that freedom of speech includes the right to offend – infamously, to “blaspheme” in a religious context – the caveat being that this is not a humanist license to gratuitously insult those you don’t respect enough to understand. (I pointed to Dennett’s espousal of Rappaport’s rules for criticism for those who asked. Second block-quote.)  In these days of social media and comment-threads-with-everything, attack and criticism are the norm, and a side order of rhetorical insult – casual or vindictive – comes as standard. The key concluding statement is:

“There is no right not to be offended.”

The double negative from the side of the receiver is not entirely novel, but as a choice is about as good an expression of this value as any I’ve heard. Progress. Any statement is part of a conversation, a conversation which, if there is any point to it, leads to better working outcomes over some practical time-scales. Sure, I may expect that I may be offended, after all any change of mind hurts, but I can also expect that offence is not the point or intention of the dialogue.

[Post Note : The “final” version of the declaration is here. It was drafted and open for comment in advance, and comments are therefore now (technically) closed. Pity the clause on restraint ends with “only” rather than indicate positive value of restraint.]

Humour – In the same vein much humour evident in the congress as well as the twitter exchanges, including several messages that needing a sense of humour was absolutely essential. As with offence generally, “No-one has a right not to be ridiculed or be offended by a joke at their expense” is not the same as carte-blanche for everyone to ridicule anyone at any time. If you’re not the court jester (or the house cartoonist) humour should only be aimed at another in circumstances where the mutual respect and intentions are clear – social-media tongue-in-cheek straw-men wise-crackers take note. Anyone can do it, but the “right to offend” is a non-existent defence; it’s not how the value is framed.

Working Together – perhaps unsurprisingly the political thread converged on the idea that more working together with each other and with the prevailing political machinery is to be encouraged. Given topical news I was surprised not to hear any mention of say, either Baroness Warsi or Michael Cashman as supporters and collaborators from distinct perspectives. Quite a few comparing sizes of humanist organisations to religious and other lobby groups. Anyway, reassuringly, the idea that if so many disparate groups are going to work together in different political systems on myriad specific agenda priorities in the name of humanism, we’re going to need some overarching manifesto or constitution in which to capture the values we so far share only implicitly. Good news is that the BHA and other international humanist organisations clearly have drafting such a constitution on their agenda(s), and no doubt the declaration on Freedom of Speech (and Thought) is one piece of that jigsaw. I’m looking forward to hearing from and contributing to that development.

The Dawkins Backlash – One encouraging sign of the maturing humanist agenda was the recognition that those combative and “shrill” spokespeople, we’ve come to associate with the “science vs religion” voice of humanism, and indeed who have been instrumental in promoting humanism, may no longer be the figureheads we need to make progress, if they ever were. Richard Dawkins was the unfortunate representative of “the four horseman” whose feet were held to the fire in a keynote interview by Samira Ahmed. The applause for Dawkins was decidedly divided, and there were strong statements elsewhere that the dominant western scientific conception of rationality were part of the problem facing humanism; something that some of us have been warning for some time. Doubly significant that fellow spaghetti westerner PZ Myers felt moved to blog that his friend Dawkins was still missing the point – digging himself a bigger hole – in continuing to defend his recent logical argument using the relative merits of date-rape as his example.

Imperfect Makes Progress – my reflections reflect what I picked up from the twitter traffic and the interactions I chose to engage with, so no doubt my biased view missed other important points. Much has already been blogged elsewhere. However I came a away, like so many others reported, with a tremendous positive vibe and optimism for the future of humanism, and hence the future of humanity. I must repeat; well done to the organisers, the participants and the tweeters. Much appreciated. Roll on Sao Paolo WHC2017.


[12 links and counting. With acknowledgements to the many other humanists whose tweets I absorbed by osmosis and so far failed to link explicitly – ping me and I’m happy to amend @psybertron.]

[Post Note : Another collection of highlights at Blackwells Broad Conversation.]

[And here : Kenan Malik’s summary of his own talk – one I didn’t catch on twitter.]

[And here a retweeted tweet I noted during the conference, but in response to PZ Myers own posting of his link – mentioned in The Dawkins Backlash above – I was moved to ask where the #irony tag had gone. Still not sure of the context of this remark – on face value I agree with it:

And here another view from ex-pastor Catherine Dunphy:

… the privilege of seeing the values that I aspired to being lived and communicated, all the while staying cognizant of ideological baggage and being open to hearing divergent opinions.

– That’s all for now.]

4 thoughts on “Reflections on World Humanist Congress #whc2014 @BHAhumanists @NewHumanist @_CFIUK”

  1. Interesting round up. I may give a perspective as an attendee later. Small correction, the chair of the Dawkins interview was the journalist Samira Ahmed who did a superb job. Dawkins is not an easy interviewee! Namazie made a statement about Islamism rather than ask a question, and tore up an IS flag. She’d have made a terrible interviewer. Regards – @cheeseslices

  2. The BHA is your organisation as much as it is mine, so if you feel it’s drifting too much one way or another you should tell it directly. But since Humanists are such a varied bunch, you shouldn’t whine if you don’t always get your own way. Campaigns for equality and secularism are important, and characterising the BHA as anti-religious on account of them is Christine Odone territory. Having said that, many Humanists are anti-religious for good reason, and they should be accommodated as equal partners, not sniffed at.

    So of course you should’ve been there. It sounds like you bit off your nose to spite your face. The theme, which was decided upon many months ago, was important, and criticising it because of its supposed lack of relevance to current events is silly.

  3. Sure I should have been there, I was disappointed I wasn’t, that’s why I opened the post the way I did, so I wasn’t hiding anything. Not “whining” – just having my considered say. If you’re just referring to my comments on the chosen theme, that is history as you say, I was just being honest where I was coming from when starting following the twitter weekend. I had in fact corresponded about it with BHA itself before the weekend. In the end that actual agenda held my attention all weekend, which I hope was clear. A point in itself – I started sceptical / anti and ended up singing their praises.

    Glad to hear your words about BHA as “our” organisation – certainly what I say about “BHA” is referring to their formal voices, their leadership which is unfailingly on the “anti” bandwagons, but sure I am aware of fellow travellers with more balanced views. Be great to dialogue constructively on specific topics, as I try to do in plenty of other correspondence, with BHA and many others. Particularly be interested in evidence of where BHA (the organisation’s voice) is not specifically anti-religious – something to build on. (Did you see my response to Brown’s Guardian piece?)

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