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Morality Secularism

#WHC2014 – the IHEU World Humanist Congress, 2014

iheu-logo-2013Attending the previous World Humanist Congress in Oslo, weeks after the Breivik killings, gave me the sense that of all the events organised in the loose (and contested) collection of areas captured by terms like humanism, atheism, skepticism and so forth, humanist gatherings might well be my preferred option.

This is not to say that I haven’t greatly enjoyed many atheist conferences, and many skeptic conferences. However, both of those suffer from a tendency on the part of some of the audience, and frequently also speakers, to focus on how right they are, and how wrong someone else is.

There’s no getting around the fact that it is a problem to be wrong, especially when your false beliefs can harm others. But I’ve grown weary of the smugness that can accompany pointing out those false beliefs, and the occasional blindness to our own false beliefs that this smugness can contribute to.

The humanist gatherings, by contrast – well, at least the two World Humanist Congresses I’ve been to – have by and large dealt with positive accounts of how people are changing the bits of the world that surround them, and helping others do the same, rather than with negative sentiment around people who are getting in our way.

It’s thus a pity – and perhaps a little unsurprising – that the lowlights of WHC2014 were two more “atheisty” contributions, namely those of Richard Dawkins and David Silverman. It’s not entirely Dawkins fault that his discussion with Samira Ahmed ended up devoting significant time to his Twitter trolling, seeing as it was a current issue (when is it not, with Dawkins), but it did result in another opportunity for him to sneer at his critics while casually dismissing their criticisms, which didn’t quite fit the sentiment of the rest of the congress.

Silverman was in discussion with PZ Myers, and it ended up being one of those very rare occasions where Myers ends up looking like a moderate, sensible fellow. Silverman was arguing that we all need to be “firebrand” atheists, and he pointed at things like mentions of the word “atheism” in popular media as evidence of the success of their (American Atheists, I mean) firebrand-y campaigns.

Well, a little sentiment analysis is perhaps necessary here. It’s no good if media outlets are saying “atheists keep getting more and more obnoxious” – you don’t get to count that as a success story. Second, I really don’t think “atheists” are the group we need to develop more of, because – in my experience, at least – they seem the most interested in being right, and least interested in helping others develop the resources for bettering their lives.

As I’ve said many a time, atheism is for me a by-product of rational, critical thinking. People will get to start doubting the existence of god(s), or treating the question of god(s) as irrelevant to policy/law, once you convince them of the values of concepts like secularism and liberalism.

And they are arguably more likely to listen to your attempts to persuade them of that if you aren’t telling them how stupid they are.

Which is why many of my favourite sessions involved people unpicking the nuances of topics and ideas that are so prone to hyperbole and prejudice, like Islam and Islamophobia. It was great to meet and spend good time in discussion with Kenan Malik, who is a wonderful example of someone who spends the necessary time to bring clarity to the surface of complex debates.

South African readers would know how obsessed our country is with race, and I’d encourage them to read his Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides are Wrong in the Race Debate for both a fascinating history of racial thinking, but also for some provocative ideas on how to move forward in the race debate. Those interested in morality will appreciate The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics, in which Malik provides an overview of the history of moral thought – it’s comprehensive, to put it lightly.

Anyway – he was in discussion with Alom Shaha (another whom it was great to finally meet, after years of “knowing” each other), Maryam Namazie, Maajid Nawaz, and Jim Al-Khalili, in a session that I’d strongly encourage you to keep an eye out for, once videos start appearing.

In summary, much of this conversation did a great job of illustrating the occasional myopia of secular liberalism, where our eagerness to undermine the worst sort of abuses of authority (for example, Isis) can lead us to false representations of entire (but heterogenous) categories of people, like “Muslims”.

There was much besides this to commend to you, but I’ll close with thanks to Andrew Copson, the British Humanist Association and the IHEU for arranging such a stimulating event. It was great to see so many old friends there, and to make many new ones, and I look forward to hopefully seeing you all again in Brazil for the 2017 World Humanist Congress.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.