Conversation with Gary McLelland – Chief Executive, International Humanist and Ethical Union

by | September 19, 2017


Scott Douglas Jacobsen: How does IHEU fight for the rights of the religious and the non-religious?

Gary McLelland: The IHEU is the only global democratic membership body for the range of non-religious organisations in the world. We are a network of atheist, humanist, laique, skeptic, ethical cultural and other groups.

IHEU does a range of activity to promote the rights of non-religious people. We primarily do this through the lense of ‘freedom of religion or belief’ or “FoRB” as it’s known to many. This is the idea that people should be treated equally regardless of their religious or other beliefs, such as humanism, atheism and so on.

The power of this approach is that it’s grounded in international human rights laws (Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights). This means that we can use global and regional institutions to highlight and challenge states who violate, or fail to protect, atheists and other non-religious people.

We do this by speaking out at the United Nations on the danger of so-called ‘blasphemy laws’, calling for the protection of dissenters and apostates within Islam, but because the ‘FoRB’ agenda also calls for the protection of religious groups – it means that we can work with religious leaders to call for secularism and freedom of expression.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t also criticize religion and religious organisations. Recently we published a video interview with Armin Navabi, who founded the world’s most popular online platform for atheists – Atheist Republic.

Jacobsen: If a state has any position on faith that isn’t neutral, it favours one faith over others as well no faith.  What countries are leading the way for fairness and justice at the level of the law and public institutions?

McLelland: I’ll refer here to the IHEU Freedom of Thought Report. This looks at discrimination against the non-religious in every country, and therefore looks at public institutions and the attitude of the state to religion. States that fare best in our rating system in the report are countries like Belgium, Netherlands, also Taiwan. Iceland and Japan also do pretty well. France, which of course is renowned for its laïcité secularism, believe it or not only has a nearly clean sweep: some local exceptions and exemptions for overseas territories are problematic.

Interestingly, both Netherlands and Belgium, which get clean-sweep ratings in our report, both use a kind of “pillar model” of secular neutrality, as opposed to a strict separation model. It means for example that they might fund certain religious groups in some way, but would also do the same for comparable secular groups. Now that’s not to every secularist’s tastes, but it does exhibit neutrality and non-discrimination.

Jacobsen: What countries simply aren’t doing the aforementioned?

McLelland: Most countries have some degree of religious privilege in how the state treats some religious groups. It can take the form of subsidies that are open only to religious groups, or probably more often in fact these subsidies just exist solely for the purpose of propping up some particular denominational church with historic significance to the state. That’s common in Europe and Latin America for example. There’s state funding for religious schools in many countries. A lot of predominantly or historically Catholic countries have very problematic arrangement with the Catholic Church. And in so many countries there’s a kind of deference or official recognition to certain religious groups that sets them apart and elevates their beliefs above those of their neighbours. There’s really too much to mention here: all countries except those I mentioned above are going to be contravening secularism in some way. And of course across much of the Islamic world the word ‘privilege’ doesn’t even begin to cover it anymore: in states like Iran, Saudi, Pakistan, and increasingly even in places like Indonesia, Maldives and so on with resurgent Islamist influence, you see the massive repression of  freedom of thought, and the unapologetic alignment of the state with a particular set of really fundamentalist religious values, imprisoning people for blasphemy, even threatening ‘apostates’ with death in some cases.

Jacobsen: Who seems to be the most reasonable and reasoned irreligious person you’ve ever met? Why this person? How do they penetrate to the core of the issues around faith and secularism, and society?

McLelland: That’s a tough question! Different writers and thinkers place emphasis on different things depending on their experiences and interests.

I think one of the most interesting and stimulating thinkers for me is AC Graying. I find his sober, engaging and optimistic analysis very interesting. He is able to analyse situations and formulate ideas which are, in my view, of great value to those of us working in campaigning or advocacy.

I would recommend any of his books, and there are lots of videos available on Youtube.

Jacobsen: What book is a good primer on humanism? Where can folks get it?

McLelland: I think a good overview of humanism is Peter Cave’s book “Humanism: A Beginner’s Guide”, you can get it very easily online. There’s also a very good book on the history of the IHEU called “International Humanist and Ethical Union 1952-2002” by Bert Gasenbeek and Babu Gogineni.

I also think it’s important that we recognise that while for many humanism is an intellectual position, there is a growing number of people around the world for whom it is a lived experience. I think we need to be more open to that, and avoid intimidating people who might not be as interested in the intellectual side.

For instance another great way to get involved in humanism can be through attending event and conferences, b getting to meet and speak to like minded people. I often find these kind of personal engagements some of the most rewarding.

Jacobsen: Does humanism align closely with internationalist principles and values enshrined in various documents such as the UN Charter?

McLelland: Yes, very much so. The post-war developments in human rights law and internationalism were heavily influenced by humanist thinkers. As an example, Julian Huxley who presided over the opening Congress of the IHEU was also responsible for setting-up UNESCO.

It’s not a huge surprise that humanist thinking was a leading inspiration for the development of human rights. When we think about it, human rights are based on the self-evident goal that we all share for the enjoyment of the greatest amount of happiness and well-being which is possible. There is no divine motive, or reference to authority – it’s quite simply humanist thinking in practice.

This is way even today one of the most important parts of IHEU’s work is to maintain delegations at the major international institutions, such as the United Nations, Council of Europe, African Commission on Human and People’s Rights and many others.

However, there is a risk to these hard-fought battles. As we see the reemergence of nationalism and populism across much of the world, we see a tendency from radicals of different political perspectives to want to break the principle of universality which has guided our work for decades. Instead they want to insert narrow differences, divide and seek to foster disagreements for their own cynical means.

Our challenge is to be able to communicate the success of international cooperation and universal human rights in a way which makes sense in people’s lives.

Jacobsen: Thank you for your time, Gary.

5 thoughts on “Conversation with Gary McLelland – Chief Executive, International Humanist and Ethical Union

  1. Tim Underwood

    “the principle of universality”

    ‘Diversity’ is the cry of the current democratic spokespersons. I prefer ‘universality’ to ‘diversity’ because of the emphasise on our common existence on this planet and in this solar system. Old customs and myths are interesting to study, universally. This Archaic Revival we foist onto the indigenous population is all about domination, not inclusion. As atheists we should greet indigenous people, along with the rest of humanity, as people living in today’s world and forgive them their superstitious foibles.

  2. Vir Narain

    The International Humanist Movement came into being with the express aim of providing an alternative to “traditional religions which claim to be based on revelation on the one hand and totalitarian systems on the other.” Religion was not seen as an unmitigated evil, but perhaps as a necessary stage in the evolution of human society which now had to be outgrown. Over the last few years it has become increasingly clear that the objective of providing an alternative to traditional religions has lost its salience for the Humanist Movement. Other issues and causes, undoubtedly worthy in themselves, have caused attention to be diverted from the main aim. These causes, such as the promotion/protection of Human Rights, already have numerous bodies taking them up. The aims and objectives of the Amsterdam Declarations of 1952 and 2002 should be on our main agenda.

    1. Tim Underwood

      The whole study of religion is done from a humanist perspective. There is no other way to evaluate a religion’s worthiness. When we research the compilation of religious texts, this is essentially humanism. The practice of religion is what deviates from the practice of humanism. I do agree with you.

  3. Russell Crew-Gee

    It is a shame, like so many human institution, the IHEU also has a hierarchy which also is incapable of exploring, listening or even responding to new research and concepts which could help them in the field of education to spread the message of Humanism as a Philosophy of Life. What chance is there of spreading Humanism when on a day to day and human to human level the hierarchy does not act in a courteous humane manner. Practising the most destructive emotional forms of human interaction, “silence” and “ignore”. I sincerely hope the new CEO and his team have a more openminded approach. If IHEU wishes to influence hearts and minds it needs to have educational material in the classrooms which provides young human minds with the knowledge about the interaction of Language, Emotion,and Reality, a Mind Aid for Life.

    1. Gary McLelland

      Dear Russell,

      I try in all my interactions to be courteous. I see my position as CEO as an incredible honour and privilege, and I want to be as open and accessible as possible

      You can always email me at



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