Scott Douglas Jacobsen: You’ve spoken on humanism in Europe. My common assumption is Europe is more non-believing than other areas of the world. Is it more humanistic as well? I would assert the fact, but want to make sure.
Yvan Dheur: Yes and no. Non-believers, humanists, atheists, secularists, freethinkers and rationalists are the fastest growing life stance or ‘religious group’ — except that we define ourselves by its opposite: — the absence of religion. We use the denomination philosophical community or a non-confessional life stance.
In terms of our community in Europe, if you ask a Chinese official there is no religion in China. If you ask for an atheist or humanist youth group in China, you are referred to the Communist Youth organisation.
From that perspective, Europe is certainly not the region where there are more non-believers. It is quite hard to measure; most religious people in the world tend to be cultural believers, they celebrate transition rites like marrying and do funerals within their religious spaces but do not really believe in the existence of an invisible person above the clouds that rules over everything and initiated life. They sometimes define god as the origin of life but still have consideration for the big bang theory and Darwinian evolution theory even though they consider themselves as religious.
Most believers are born into a religious community and therefore stay attached to it without living out their beliefs in a strong and literal way. It is also true that every religious community has its own die hard, radical, fundamentalist “far right religious” members that live out their beliefs in a very extreme and literate way and often have little or no tolerance for other beliefs.
Many Europeans are culturally religious and if asked about the origin of life or the universe, or life after death, they tend to understand the value of science and are convinced of those basic principles taught to us in the spirit of rationality, free inquiry and humanism.
There are only two countries in the world where non-believers are officially recognized in the exact same way as “religious” life stances are: Norway and Belgium. In these countries humanists, atheists, freethinkers and non-believers have exactly the same rights as religious communities do, they are state funded, housed and allowed to organize themselves and offer services to their community in the same way religious communities are. Other countries in Europe function differently. They have organizations (sometimes huge ones) but funded as “cultural organisation” or “youth organisation” (like in the Netherlands) or by membership fees and gifts from the local humanist community in response to campaigns and fundraising (like in UK). It is undeniable that there are many non-believers in Europe. It is complex to define precisely how many because of all the people born in a religious community who do not believe but also people changing religion because of marriage or conversion. The vast majority of religious people do not believe firmly in everything that is written in the holy books but they agree with most scientific discoveries on the origin of life, afterlife, evolution of humanity and so long and so forth.
On the other hand, Europe has always been the epicentre of humanism and humanist knowledge creation, science and non-theistic thinking. The enlightenment and the strong evolution of science enhanced this humanist identity. From the ancient Greek philosophers to the post-modern scientists, we do have had a great deal of responsibility for the advancement of science, reason and non-believers in the world.
Jacobsen: By wanting to increase humanism in Europe, we’ve define a problem and posed a solution. How severe is the problem? How does activism and advocacy for humanism in Europe solve the tacitly proposed problem?
Dheur: I would not have phrased it in terms of us wanting “to increase humanism in Europe”. We do not believe in god or any magical/supernatural higher force defined as origin of life, morals, living creatures or what so ever. We observe that more human beings cease to believe in this magical concept and are happy with that; their atheistic life stance tends to be dominant or very fast growing at least. It is not the belief in god as such that seems to be problematic, but rather the consequences of that belief in terms of behavior, coexistence, values and directions that civilizations are taking. Religious communities have certain values that are often rather positive if they concern basic moral issues, like “do not kill”, “respect thy family, neighbour, friend or enemy”, be honest, help each other, do not steal, and so on.
What tends to be more problematic is that every religion claims to be ‘The’ only truth and that most holy books tend to suggest that people who do not adhere to that particular book, should be tortured in cruel ways or stoned or slaughtered or exterminated. In the history of humankind, religion has certainly not been the only tool to invite civilizations to engage in wars, but the study of conflict has taught us that every war and conflict where religion is involved, ‘miraculously’ tend to be more violent, more bloody and lasted longer. So yes, religion can be, and often is, a catalyst for conflict, since by definition it claims to be the only truth and claims other beliefs to be fraudulent.
We also observe that in situations where religions want to define rules for society and mingle with state structures that many problems emerge in terms of the coexistence with other religious communities. Separation of religion and state is a value that is important to our community but from a theological point of view we observe that this concept tends to be problematic for most of the major religions. Be it through the sharia (together with riba and fikh), the canonic law (used for instance to protect the many pedophile priests when they are molesting children), the halakha (Jewish religious law), or any other “legal” religious interpretation, these system do not adhere to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and are often in contradiction with secular, modern legal systems at all.
In the history of mankind and its relationship to the sacred currents, trends and (d)evolutions emerged. In the sixties we saw a rather strong expansion of secularism worldwide, as a consequence of the evolution of education and the economic boom. In the seventies, in reaction to that, we observed the emergence of rather radical fundamentalist “anti-evolution” religiosity very opposed to secularism and the advancement of liberties and freedom movements. The radical Islamic trends but also the strengthening of far-right Christian and Jewish movements re-emerged and grew rapidly. These emergences and regressions have occurred cyclically since then.
Today at the EU level we observe radical Christian groups working together with radical Islamic fundamentalists on common agendas — like the ‘pro-life’ one, (for which read anti-choice, anti-abortion, anti-family planning and anti-stem cell research).
Most Humanists in the world were raised with critical thinking and free inquiry as mental tools of intelligence gathering. They often have the feeling that there is no need for humanist activism because you cannot fight or engage against something that does not exist. I myself was also a bit sceptical as an adolescent, thinking most people on earth where not believer anymore and those who did clearly lacked of understanding and education, or at least the necessary critical thinking. When I discovered how strong religious lobbies were and how strongly they where intending to promote their religious values all over the world (often in unethical and disgusting ways), I realised it was extremely important to engage in the fight against bigotry, religious extremism and dogmatic ideologies. When I look at the situation of the world in regard with humanitarian issues, conflicts, international politics, the rights of women and gender equality, and so long and so forth, I am more then ever convinced there is a lot of work to do and it is crucial for as many individuals as possible to join the fight for freedom and against intellectual constriction caused by religious worldviews, the rise of political populism together with religious radicalism.
As if collective intelligence could not evolve on a constant and steady base but needed to evolve as a string made of patterns of evolutions and devolutions.
Jacobsen: What are the common examples of restrictions on the open practice and lifestyle of the ethical and philosophical worldview of humanism?
Dheur: Donald Trump, making the availability of abortion services not mandatory throughout the US and turning down US funding to women’s rights project (purely from a religious extremism point of view). Erdogan, in collusion with the far right religious lobbies behind him, suggesting women should make as many kids as possible and that abortion is wrong because the Turks should multiply. Putin giving basically all power to the orthodox church and censoring the LGBT community, almost legalising the beating up of gay people. Blasphemy laws existing in too many countries in the world. The Vatican protecting pedophiles very openly and actively all over the world. Saudi Arabia voting an “anti-terrorism” act with the first sentence of that act saying atheism is the worst form of terrorism and should be punished by death. Shall I go on?
Every day all over the world, our values are being neglected, reprimanded, censored. Atheists, Humanists, Freethinkers, and Secularists are being threatened, molested, arrested, tortured and murdered…
Shall I go on?
Jacobsen: Who have been unlikely allies in the spread of humanism, in your experience?
Dheur: Intelligent people, scientists, independent woman, LGBTQI-community, journalists, enlightened intellectuals, academics, progressive forces, young persons (due to their strong capacity to rebel and evolve), freedom fighters, whistleblowers, democrats and enlightened liberals (who understand the philosophy of liberalism and are not blunt followers of what their rich environment told them to do), sometimes progressive religious people have adhered our values of freedom, and many others, anonymous freethinkers, freemasons (non-regular). But also in a contradictory way, the far-right religious extremists… Sometimes I even think they are our best allies, like the previous pope or these silly youngsters that explode themselves in the name of the invisible magical power in which they believe. The more religious idiots gain visibility the more the rest of the world is turning towards our values, our freedom our liberty and is gaining respect for other beliefs, other ways to interpret life.
Religion is doomed to disappear where intelligence is evolving, so the more narrow-minded religious entities become, the more the people will want to evolve in peace and to coexist with their fellow human being, whatever their colour, religion or wherever
they come from.
Jacobsen: How can people get involved and donate to the movement for humanism in Europe?
Dheur: There are many ways to get involved. First of all, by becoming a member of our community through media and social media, becoming a member of the mailing lists and following our groups on social media. Come to our events, meet other fellow freedom fighters and become a part of our network. Write texts for our media. Specialise in topics that interest you. Read books and reports related to values and topics that are of interest. Never turn to a constructive discussion with like minded but even more with religious people, ‘from discussion come the light’ said Voltaire. Learn about the relationship between religion and state, about religious values, religious conflicts and about the positive and negative impact of religions in the world. Learn about humanist values and learn to be critical towards them, -critical thinking and free inquiry form the core of our mindset.
Talk with friends and family about your vision. Never fight but always accompany people with a different mindset to learn to understand ours. Show genuine interest in religious people there they often use mental concepts that may seem weird to a non-believer but a great percentage of mankind is thinking in those patterns and it is crucial for a non-believer to understand why and how religious people think if you want to help them “see the light” or at least be critical towards their own “almighty truth”.
If you are young, engage in a youth section or movement. If you are an adult, then try to engage in an adult section or organisation but always be careful for your own safety and that of your family. Study science, and actually try to study as many possible topics for as long as possible in your life: knowledge is power.
Jacobsen: Thank you for your time, Yvan.
*Views expressed are not necessarily those on IHEYO.*
Original Publication in Humanist Voices.