Humanists seek platform to halt religious advance

Geneva, Switzerland - Humanists and atheists from East and West meet in Paris next week to forge a common platform against what they see as a growing threat from religions and religious politicians to secular states across the globe.

Their gathering, the World Humanist Congress, is timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the French Law on the Separation of Religion and State, a key document which set France alongside the United States as a bulwark of secularism.

"With U.S. society sliding towards theocracy, and religious belief -- even fundamentalism -- on the rise in every continent we have to take a stand," says Roy Brown, President of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU).

The IHEU, which is organising the Congress together with the French freethinkers' body Libre Pensee, is a global umbrella organisation for humanists, secularists and atheists and has 95 member organisations in 35 countries.

Its Executive Director Babu Gogineni of India told Reuters the values of the 18th century Enlightenment embodied by French philosophers Voltaire and Diderot and Britons Tom Paine and David Hume were increasingly under assault.

"Separation of religion from the state, the theme of the Congress, is a crucial issue for freedom of conscience everywhere," Gogineni said.

"Yet over the past decades we have seen the slow intrusion of religion into public life in dozens of countries, in India and Nigeria, in Russia and Slovakia, in Pakistan and Bangladesh, in Britain as well as in the United States."


European humanists, delighted at success in their campaign to keep any reference to a deity out of the troubled European Union constitution, were shaken at what many call the "media madness" over the death of Pope John Paul II.

In protests to newspapers and broadcasting bodies, they argued that the saturation coverage of his funeral -- and the inauguration of his successor -- amounted to free advertising for Catholicism at the expense of rational thought.

Humanists note that his successor, Pope Benedict, has declared the Enlightenment "one of the greatest evils to have befallen mankind" and vowed to fight secularism.

Across the Atlantic, U.S. humanists and atheists see Christian fundamentalists backing "born-again" President George W. Bush extending their influence into the schools, science laboratories and even into famed museums.

They argue this is a threat to social harmony, setting the religious not only against non-believers but also against each other. "Surely we are on the brink of religious factionalism," wrote Paul Kurtz, editor of the journal Free Inquiry.

In largely sceptical Britain, humanists say, Bush's Iraq War ally Tony Blair -- the most overtly religious prime minister for a century -- promotes "faith" schools, allowing some to teach that Charles Darwin's theory of evolution is wrong and that the universe and everything in it was created by an all-powerful god.

In Africa, humanism is relatively new although some of the continent's leading thinkers and writers -- like Nigeria's Wole Soyinka and Kenya's Ngugi Wa Thiong'o -- are adherents.

But Leo Igwe, Executive Secretary of the Humanist Movement in Nigeria says non-believers there "face systematic exclusion, discrimination and abuse of human rights ... as Islamic and Christian fanatics battle for power and influence.

"The secular foundation of Nigeria has been virtually eroded and the entire country has been thrown into social, political, intellectual and moral darkness," he told Reuters.


Across much of Africa, according to the London quarterly "Focus on Africa", U.S.-sponsored evangelical Christian movements are edging out Catholic and Episcopalian churches -- as they are doing in Latin America.

"This is not so much colonising of land as it is colonising of the mind," Kwame Okonor, Ghanaian-born head of the New York-based African Development Institute, told the magazine, published by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

In formally secular India with its often warring Hindu and Muslim communities, says Innaiah Narisetti of the Radical Humanist Association, government leaders play up to religious figures, involving them in state ceremonies.

Even Communist administrations in power in some states -- like Kerala -- financially support religious ceremonies, arguing that this helps promote tourism, says Narisetti.

In Russia, which under communist rule in the old Soviet Union kept religion under strict control, the Orthodox Church has been coopted into the new system, humanists say.

Patriarch Alexy, head of the Church, often appears alongside President Vladimir Putin who himself often praises the country's Christian heritage. Classes on principles of Orthodoxy, including prayers, are now taught in state schools.

Valery Kuvakin, President of the Russian Humanist Society and a professor of philosophy at Moscow University, says his organisation is campaigning to get humanism introduced as an alternative choice, but so far without success.


In some Islamic countries, non-believers are shunned as apostates and in many places can face official persecution and even death, says Ibn Warraq, raised as a Muslim in India and a writer on religion in the Middle East and Asia.

As a result, humanists have to keep their views secret or -- like Bangladeshi doctor and novelist Taslima Nasrin -- find themselves targeted for "blasphemy" and end up in jail, or have to flee abroad as did Nasrin.

In Iraq under former president Saddam Hussein and his immediate predecessors in the Baath Party, the state was largely secular, allowing little room for Muslim religious leaders to exert influence in contrast to many of its neighbours.

Two years after the U.S-led invasion to overthrow Saddam, a Shi'ite-led administration is in place in Baghdad, while in Iran next door an Islamic hardliner has just won the presidency.

All these issues will be on the agenda at the Paris conference from July 4-7, with sessions at the headquarters of the U.N. education, social and cultural agency UNESCO and the Sorbonne university.

"Whatever emerges, we expect humanists around the globe to gain strength from the knowledge that their are many millions of us united in the struggle in the defence of rationalism and the secular ideal," says Gogineni.