Religion Secularism

Humanity before religion

Originally published in the Mail&Guardian.

Religion matters as much today as it ever did. It matters to a slowly but steadily increasing proportion of the world’s population, even though it is in decline in Japan, the United States, Vietnam, Germany, France and the United Kingdom. Everywhere else, religious adherence is increasing, with Pew Research data identifying Islam as the fastest-growing religion, expected to catch up with Christianity in 2050.

Free Speech Morality Secularism

The @IHEU Freedom of Thought Report 2014

iheu-logo-2013-w300Published today [10 December] by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), the third annual Freedom of Thought Report offers a survey of persecution of and discrimination against non-religious people, with an entry for every country across the world.

In 2014, in addition to laws such as those targeting “apostasy” and “blasphemy”, the report shows a marked increase in specific targeting of “atheists” and “humanism” as such, using these terms in a broadly correct way (the users know what they are saying) but with intent clearly borne of ignorance or intolerance toward these groups.

To put it more plainly, nonreligious people are being targeted as a distinct minority group in various countries around the world. The report also indicates that hateful speech against atheists does not come exclusively from reactionary or radical religious leaders, but increasingly from political leaders, including heads of state.

Cases covered in the report include the Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak, who this year labelled “humanism and secularism as well as liberalism” as “deviant” and a threat to Islam and the state itself, in a speech where he also denied that Malaysians had any right to “apostasy” (leaving Islam).

Saudi Arabia is criticised for a new law equating “atheism” with “terrorism”. The very first article of the kingdom’s new terror regulations banned “Calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion”.

Even the supposedly secular regime of Egypt’s president Sisi was found to target atheists directly, through what the report calls “an organized backlash against young atheists”. Beginning in June, Nuamat Sati of the Ministry of Youth announced a campaign to spread awareness of “the dangers of atheism” and why it is “a threat to society”, so that young atheists in particular, who are increasingly vocal on social media would be given “a chance to reconsider their decisions and go back to their religion.”

In the past few months, Egyptian authorities have detained young atheists who appeared on TV media and Youtube videos talking about their right to express atheist views, and in a worrying an unusual development in November, Christian churches actually “joined forces” with Egypt’s AlAzhar in another anti-atheism campaign, saying that “Society should resist this phenomenon [of atheism]”.

Previous editions of the Freedom of Thought Report, which considers and rates every country in the world for anti-atheist persecution, found that almost all countries discriminate against the nonreligious, in some cases through religious privilege or legal exemption, with the worst countries refusing to issue identity cards to the nonreligious, taking children from atheist parents, or sentencing “apostates” to death.

The 2014 edition of the report notes: “This year will be marked by a surge in this phenomenon of state officials and political leaders agitating specifically against nonreligious people, just because they have no religious beliefs, in terms that would normally be associated with hate speech or social persecution against ethnic or religious minorities.”

Fortunately, the situation in South Africa is nowhere near as serious as the examples given above. However, this does not give South Africans cause for complacency. Our schools routinely violate the National Policy on Religion and Education, to the extent that the organisation OGOD has recently instituted court proceedings against six public schools who assert their “Christian character”, despite our public schools having an obligation to be secular.

It is not only school principals and governing boards who privilege one religion over others, rather than supporting religious freedom through remaining neutral and encouraging a secular approach to religion, whereby religious education is welcome but religious indoctrination precluded.

The MEC for Education in Gauteng, Panyaza Lefusi, boasts of having distributed 50 000 Bibles to schools in his first 100 days in office – with no mention of also having distributed Korans, or books on Humanist ethics and thought. This constitutes not only a violation of the Policy, but if the Bibles were paid for with public funds, also a clear abuse of those funds in that revenue from the taxpayer cannot be used to support what amounts to State-sanctioned religion.

The Freedom of Thought Report is published by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) with contributions from independent researchers and IHEU Member Organisations around the world. The South African Member Organisation is the Free Society Institute.

Websites: and; (South Africa)

For further information, interview or comment please email:
[email protected]; (Free Society Institute, for South Africa-specific issues) or the IHEU ([email protected]; +44 207 490 8468.

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.

Morality Politics Religion

Atheism + some mission-creep and potential confusion

So, the battle lines are now being drawn – at least according to some. Yesterday, Richard Carrier posted this:

In the meantime, I call everyone now to pick sides (not in comments here, but publicly, via Facebook or other social media): are you with us, or with them; are you now a part of the Atheism+ movement, or are you going to stick with Atheism Less? Then at least we’ll know who to work with. And who to avoid.

There’s much more to his post, and much of it is very good, very thoughtful and not at all disagreeable to me. So I’d encourage you to read it, and not to read this post as a rejection of what Carrier said. But I do want to reject his conclusion, and try to explain why it’s important that we all should reject it. The reason for this rejection is not simply the logical fallacy it seems to contain – namely asking us to embrace a false dichotomy – but more because it’s premature to ask for us to choose between poorly-defined (and potentially undefinable) alternatives.

But first, a backwards step, seeing as many of you might not know what I’m talking about. On August 18, Jen McCreight published a post that called for a new wave of atheism. Three posts since that one have sought to define what Atheism+ is (or should be), and have repeatedly emphasised the communitarian aspect of this definitional process – we are all encouraged to chip in with our ideas and suggestions. There’s plenty to love about all those posts, and I heartily endorse the sentiment of Atheism+.

What is that sentiment? As the name implies, it’s atheism, plus a focus on other things. To quote McCreight’s second post in the series:

We are…
Atheists plus we care about social justice,
Atheists plus we support women’s rights,
Atheists plus we protest racism,
Atheists plus we fight homophobia and transphobia,
Atheists plus we use critical thinking and skepticism.

That’s a good list, as I’d imagine that most readers of this blog would agree. But we wouldn’t necessarily agree on how to care, support or protest those things. We wouldn’t even agree on how to define the things we’re supposed to care about, protest or support. We’d agree about being decent people, in other words, but not necessarily agree on how to do that. And while reaching agreement on how to do that might be an important task, it’s not clear that it’s atheism’s task. To put it more clearly, I’m not sure that all of those (and other) worthy goals can best be accomplished under the banner of “atheism”. Especially not on Carrier’s terms, because – as someone who cares about social justice, for example, I’ll be damned if I’ll let him tell me that I can’t collaborate with a Methodist (not an A+ person, so someone “to avoid”) to address some issue of gender discrimination in a community.

Carrier might of course simply be indulging in a little hyperbole, which is understandable given the battle-ground I recently alluded to. I doubt that he’d have a problem with my collaborating with a Methodist – he’s rather asking us to take a stand against people who are unsympathetic to those goals. Certainly, at least those people described by Jean Kazez as

people who are seized by a desire to attack women when there’s the least hint of a question about male behavior at blogs and conferences. The notion of codes being imposed on their behavior sends them into a rage. These are the people whose existence you have to find surprising … and very disturbing. At the very least, they’re seriously lacking in empathy. Some of them even seem to feel an awful lot of hatred. I don’t know how numerous they are, but too numerous–and their ranks seem to be growing too.

But others also, like the “subtle trolls” I spoke about in my previous post on this topic area. And, those who enable or support the people Kazez describes above, or those who don’t denounce them. There’s a range of people who could be included in those who should be ostracised. But the problem is that it’s not always easy to identify them. One commenter on Stephanie Zvan’s site seems convinced that I’m one of the enemy camp, and I’m of course certain that I’m not. How will these decisions be made? A tribunal, or a democratic vote perhaps? And how does one repent after being exiled, and who gets to do the forgiving?

That’s somewhat facetious, I know. But the terms that this debate is quickly taking on lends itself to that. People are working towards what will quickly become an orthodoxy, and it’s going to happen too rapidly to be carefully thought out. Or, it’s simply going to be forgotten in a few months, as Notung argues here. As mentioned above, I’d have to agree with the 3rd point he makes – that it’s unclear exactly which issues should follow the ‘plus’. As for then deciding how to define those issues, I don’t think we can be complacent or confident (as some commenters at McCreight’s posts seem) about how difficult that might prove to be.

For social justice projects or strategy, we’d need to agree on an economic policy. As polarised as this issue is in an election year in the US, just after/during a global financial meltdown, while #Occupy rhetoric is still fresh in our minds… what chance is there of agreement on this? If we’re going to include a concern for the environment, can we simply throw climate sceptics out of our “circle of trust”, or do they get a chance to make their arguments? For feminism, what about people like me, who support it only as a contingent, necessary evil, because I hope to one day live in a world where race, gender, sex and so forth make absolutely no difference, so am loath to emphasise any such features, even in the short term?

My concern, in short, is that if we’re going to reach agreement on any of these issues, we might only get there through ruling certain question as out of bounds – perhaps even bullying them off the table, a phrase I think I owe to Jean Kazez. And if we’re forced to choose sides, a consequence might well be that all we succeed in doing is to institutionalise the current disagreements in the freethought community, rather than to get closer to solving them. In the meanwhile, there are groups already in existence that support those “plus” goals, or at least most of them, and who can probably be persuaded to support a larger list if a case was made.

I think, for example, of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, or the Council for Secular Humanism. They’ve been working hard for quite some time on a closely overlapping set of goals to those of the “Atheism +” movement. The question I’d urge the A+ supporters to consider is whether they’re not reinventing the wheel to some extent here, and also making life significantly more difficult for organisations like these – who often already struggle for support and funding. Just the sort of organisations, then, which could do with the ideas, energy and insight of all those who are currently enthusiastically talking about starting something new.