More to Humanism Than Meets The Eye @bobchurchill @conwayhall @LondonHumanists

Met and heard Bob Churchill of IHEU talk to the CLHG at Conway Hall last night, with an audience of 60-odd.

His provocative title “Your Humanism is a Thought Crime” left out the implied … in certain parts of the world where religious freedom is not recognised, or is actively suppressed whether by legal arrangements or by cultural taboo. His first and recurring clarification is to note that the expression Religious Freedom is a selective contraction of a much more comprehensive UN Human Rights declaration on:

Freedom of thought, expression and belief
including religious and non-religious belief.

His presentation was in two parts; Firstly, to describe and update us on the work of the many (hundreds of) international humanist groups under the IHEU umbrella, and the many examples of specific cases and countries where campaigns to help those individuals and groups subjected to discrimination and much greater lethal risks. The examples and statistics are mind-boggling in scope and variety, and the most comprehensive account of these forms the basis on the annually updated Free Thought Report (which Bob edits). The second was to focus specifically on the direct first-hand lobbying activities of IHEU and other humanist NGO’s in support of ongoing UN proposals for new and amended motions and declarations. (Be great to share the slides, Bob.)

The amount of work evident in these combined activities was and is immense – impressive and indeed inspiring. Even as an avid follower of such human rights issues and cases reported in the media, you couldn’t hope to appreciate the total scope without the IHEU work done to report them all under one umbrella. From the IHEU perspective, Humanism is as broad a church imaginable: “The global umbrella organisation embracing Humanist, atheist, secularist, skeptic, rationalist, lay, ethical, cultural, free-thought and similar organisations, worldwide since 1952.” To be whole-heartedly commended and supported.

In the Q&A, and ongoing discussions late into the evening, Bob responded to two lines of questioning amongst others:

Given the very general nature of the human rights freedoms, and the range of issues of nation, race, age, gender, sexual-orientation as well as religious and non-religious beliefs generally, how is the “Humanism” message made distinct compared to the many campaigning organisations in this broad libertarian, humanitarian sphere – such as Amnesty International it was suggested.

And secondly, given that the focus in sheer weight of example cases was religious – predominantly Moslem – suppression of freedoms, how is Humanism establishing and arguing for alternatives to the underlying fundamental tenets of specific religious beliefs.

Joining the dots between those two issues; Humanism, despite the impressively huge amount of campaigning and success against violation of general freedoms of belief and expression, it has done so largely under an anti-religion banner, often under the God vs Science wars” or, BHA specifically, secular moves to eliminate faith-based activity from any (UK) state organs. The focus has been to criticise, attack and ridicule the more “irrational” and dogmatic aspects of religious belief or otherwise exclude it from the domain. Other than some “scientific” & “democratic” forms of rationality, is Humanism doing enough to establish the nature and values of “good” Humanist beliefs, in the vacuum left behind where established religious-based moral law has withered or is otherwise being progressively swept away? The process of getting our own Humanist house in order, as it were.

Bob, from his perspective as both philosopher and campaigner, articulated a sophisticated and informed response. In summary: Firstly, we can’t be simplistic about the myriad interconnected issues. And even where we are able to propose appropriate responses, policies and values, there remain complexities in their communication. Even in the no-brainer clear cut cases, with an obvious wrong to be put right,  there remain many tactical subtleties of both communication and action depending on the short and long term risks to the individuals involved. But in general, many levels from particular campaign messages and actions to more general intellectual debate and conversations, mediated and un-mediated.

Hear, hear. And, in many ways, this represents the fear that drives the agenda here on Psybertron. In this world of ubiquitous communications, it’s all too easy to allow the focus on clear-headlines needed to pursue the clear-cut no-brainer campaigns, to crowd out the tougher, subtler conversations that are also necessary.  It’s a truism that real values are reflected in how individuals act and govern their actions in practice, and that policies and manifestos expressing aims and values, however carefully drafted, can remain theoretical. But, like The Free Thought Report, agreed and published policies and processes for addressing the real complexities of the issues, are a resource for justification and validation of action by all involved.

Impossible to be comprehensive and conclusive within the constraints of the evening, and a blogged report like this, but all in all a very encouraging conversation pointing in all the right directions.

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