Interview with Bob Churchill – Director of Communications at the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU)

Bob Churchill is the Communications Director for The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), Editor of The Free Thought Report.Bob Churchill is also a trustee of Conway Hall Ethical Society and a trustee of the Karen Woo Foundation.

How did you become involved in humanism and IHEU?

I have a habit of looking at any situation and saying “Ok, but what’s the wider context, what assumptions are underlying here, what is beyond this?” The habit was deeply entrenched enough in me that I decided to study philosophy at university. So I started as a kind of curious, Enlightenment humanist, and it became a circle: the humanist impulse took me to philosophy and that sort of formalised my humanism. But of course you don’t have to be a philosopher as such to have some or all of the attitudes and ideas of humanism. I think of humanism as something lying somewhere between the level of “being an environmentalist” and “having an ideology”. Because it’s not an ideology: there’s no foundational texts or dogmas etc. And like environmentalism it is a broad attitude to a bunch of questions, yet it’s a bit more all-encompassing than “being an environmentalist”.

And professionally, my first role in humanism was at the British Humanist Association. I got for a fairly technical job there, starting in 2008 but it quickly became a broader membership role. Head of Membership and Promotion was my final title. I left in mid-2011 and approached the IHEU and basically I developed a proposal with them to support a knowledge sharing program, and I went and worked for the best part of a year alongside various Ugandan humanist projects under the banner of the Uganda Humanist Association.

As that project was nearly concluded a role was coming up in IHEU and it was a great fit because now I had organised humanism experience on two continents, at two humanist organisations about as far apart as they come in terms of practice and circumstances, but sharing that common worldview.

You are the director of communications at the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU). What tasks and responsibilities come with this position?

It’s very wide-ranging. At the staff level the organisation is relatively small so it means that “communications” is a lot broader than it would be in a large NGO for example. I’m responsible for all external and internal communications of course, including web presence, also campaigns and press work, but even wider than that… this week for example we’ve launched the latest edition of the Freedom of Thought Report. This is the IHEU’s “flagship” publication examining the rights of non-religious people and discrimination against them, examining every country on the planet. I’m the Editor of the report and manage the whole project. So in recent months I’ve been managing the development of a new online platform for the report, as well as coordinating volunteers and our Member Organizations who make content contributions, and editing the final result. Right down to encoding my own footnotes into the webpages! And on Tuesday was the big launch at the European Parliament so I’d been planning the event with the parliamentary Intergroup on Freedom of Religion or Belief, and I went to Brussels and spoke on the panel there, telling everyone about the report, the findings this year, and introduced the new online system which we think sets a very high standard for civil society reports like this.

What is the overarching vision and mission of IHEU?

So, IHEU is an umbrella organisation — the “global representative body of the humanist movement, uniting a diversity of non-religious organisations and individuals.” And we want to see a world where human rights are respected and everyone is able to live a life of dignity. And of course lots of things are implied by that: we’d favour rational politics with an evidence base. I think it would be nice if humanity didn’t have to spend the next few millennia trying to geoengineer our way out of an apocalyptic feedback loop of global warming in a world where all the big animals are dead and it’s just us and the cockroaches.

Obviously those are very long-term goals though! So let me answer more practically in the near-term. IHEU works towards a rational, humanist world by building and representing the global Humanist movement here and now, supporting new and developing organisations. We promote human rights — we’re at the UN and other international bodies where as I see it very often our role is to be talking about things from a uniquely humanist perspective — there aren’t many organisations doing that in the international system which still has a lot of religious NGOs. We’re defending individual people and advancing human rights topics: LGBTI rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, against slavery, for freedom of thought, bioethical issues, religion or belief, and freedom of expression. Obviously in principle any ethical and human rights topic you can think of a humanist might care about, we do strategically focus often on issues that others are less keen to talk about: We call it out when religion is used to justify violence and human rights violations, we campaign against “witchcraft” accusations and abuse based on these beliefs, against child marriage, we promote secularism, and we defend the rights of the non-religious to be, to identify as, and to manifest non-religious views.

The Freedom of Thought Report looks into the discrimination against the non-religious. One pressing sentence says that “…there are laws that deny atheists’ right to identify, revoke their right to citizenship, restrict their right to marry, obstruct their access to or experience of public education, prohibit them from holding public office, prevent them from working for the state, or criminalize the expression of their views on and criticism of religion.” Of these, what seems like the greatest form of discrimination against the non-religious?

Interesting question! I think that one way or the other all of these things are human rights issues — remember any kind of discrimination like this is bound up in the human rights framework. So I’m reluctant really to prioritise between them, and this really isn’t just a cop-out. I think it’s a good rule of thumb for advocates of human rights that you shouldn’t be prioritising between them because in principle they’re all basic, and in the right context a denial of the right can be devastating. It would be tempting to say that something like the last one is most important because if you restrict free expression you can’t do anything else, that’s quite a common response and makes a kind of sense. But equally, what if you live in a state where you can’t legally say “I dissent from religion, I’m an atheist”, then you can’t even begin to speak. If the state says you’re second class by denying the right to attain certain offices or to register a certain way or marry who you want, then again there’s a sense in which you’re potentially deterred from even thinking about developing your thinking in certain directions.

In human rights language they are “indivisible” and “interdependent”. And I don’t think that’s some dogma. I think it really is the case, logically speaking, that when you deny one real human right you weaken other parts of the whole framework at the same time. I know a lot of people look at human rights and just think, “Well it’s all just a big convention, it’s not written in the sky or in our DNA that we have these rights,” and of course that’s right — but there’s nevertheless an objective component to them. They do map onto real human needs and desires (in that sense they kind of are written into our DNA!) inasmuch as the contravention of these rights must represent a frustration of our preferences, our aspirations, or our health or our very lives in some cases. So for anyone who thinks human rights do not, broadly speaking, map some realities of the human condition, I would say they should think about which human rights exactly they’d be prepared to just disown for themselves. (And of course, they can’t just reject their own rights because that’s what we mean by “inalienable!”)

The reports note the more somebody has more education and more income then their religiosity declines. What seems to be the reason for this link?

We point this out in the context of global secularisation and how it links to development trends, the point being to show that there are lots of non-religious people in the world and that the number is growing. Again, defending human rights isn’t a numbers game, it doesn’t matter in a sense if there’s only one atheist in a country or a million. Nevertheless, it’s worth explaining, especially to those in countries where there’s a kind of pretence that no one within their borders is a “non-believer”, that actually they’re wrong about that and that many people are just being efficiently silenced by a combination of social taboo and oppressive laws.

On the reason for the correlation: I’m sure you’d get ten different answers from ten anthropologists. But I’ll bite and speculate that individual security is a big part of it. I think most research that links higher religiosity to trends like education and wealth are ultimately about wealth inequality and social instability and the increased risk of early death and so on. It would be trite though to simply say that religion is “just a crutch” for people who are insecure in some sense. There’s always more going on than that, but personal security does seem to play a big role.

I do think we have to be careful with all research like this. and ask questions of it: Is it that education makes you smarter and therefore atheism is smart and religion is stupid? Or is it that education means you’re formally instructed in such a way that you’re more likely to acquire non-religious views? There’s also research that finds atheists aren’t as “happy” as theists — So, is that just because theists tend to have one more social network (based around their religion)? Or are religious people more likely to lie that they’re contented? Or is the atheist just more realistic about the world? To be clear, I’m not saying “We’ll never know!” and that all research like this is worthless, by the way. I’m just saying it’s complicated, we should be super cautious about reading too much into any social survey results like this, and most of all to avoid the temptation to homogenize huge groups of people, especially if there’s any chance it makes us feel superior in any way.

The violations against humanists comes in a black through green, grave through free and equal scale: Grave Violations, Severe Discriminations, Systemic Discrimination, Mostly Satisfactory, and Free and Equal. Why was this scale selected to describe discrimination against atheists?

The report works by looking at a whole list of boundary conditions (assessment statements really) and whether they apply to each country. Each condition has a “severity level” attached. So the terms you mention are really just labels on a scale of 1 to 5. It’s meant to give a general idea of how severe the problems are. At the level of what we call Systemic Discrimination we’re talking about things like tax exemptions for religious organisations if they’re not available to non-religious analogues, we’re talking about control of some public services by religious groups. At the level of Severe Discrimination we’re talking about things like if there’s a “blasphemy” law or similar on statute under which you could be sent to prison for criticising religion, we’re talking about serious controls on family law, like if you live in a country where as an atheist you couldn’t marry unless you lied about it — which might not at first glance seem as serious as the risk of going to prison but obviously it’s a serious impediment to living your life how you want to live it, potentially! And at Grave Violations we’re talking about for example if you can be put to death in principle for “apostasy” or “blasphemy”, if the constitution says that all laws must derive in some way from religious precepts, and of course if it’s an outright totalitarian state.

What continent is the most leaning towards Free and Equal? What continent is leaning most towards Grave Violations? Where is the global average now?

Europe, which is more secularised, certainly has a lot of good social conditions and the most “green” countries across the most thematic areas. Though it’s also got a surprising number of laws linked to old established churches and traditions that are problematic. There’s still a lot of legal discrimination that is inherent in privileging religion in general, or particular religious denominations. And there’s still a few European countries including Denmark and Germany with “blasphemy” or “defamation of religion” laws on statute punishable with a prison sentence, so they get a “Severe” rating in the free expression strand of our report.

The Middle East and North Africa clearly perform worst on our ratings and that’s because many Islamic states right now are most clearly associated with the most harsh suppression of non-religious worldviews, and are the most controlling of freedom of thought and belief generally. In fact, if you’re plotting worst countries against anything then it’s not the continent but “being an Islamic state” that is the most obvious correlating factor, I think it’s worth saying that clearly. This includes places outside of the MENA region, like Malaysia, Maldives, problems in Indonesia, and of course Southern Asia: Pakistan, Bangladesh… I’m not saying all Islamic states are as bad as each other, and I’m not saying it’s only Islamic states in the worst categories: North Korea is dominated by its own kind of enforced national cult, and China obviously is extremely restrictive and that’s the official atheist Communist party that’s doing it. But as a region, as a whole, definitely MENA; and really that’s because of so many countries where Sharia and hudud laws are enshrined under civil codes and practiced, reinforcing social taboos and threatening actual manifestations of non-religious worldviews with legal ramifications.

All the data by the way is available here, and all the individual country reports here.

Who is a personal hero for you?

A few years ago I was giving a talk about the philosophy of Karl Popper and someone said “Well he was in Europe during the war what did he do about the Nazis he just wrote books!” I have no idea why this person had come to a philosophy lecture given their attitude, by the way. And I replied “Well, as a young Jewish man he fled the Nazis and then he wrote one of the twentieth-century’s seminal works taking on fascist and totalitarian ideologies and promoting the alternative. That’s The Open Society and its Enemies. He’s always been a bit of an intellectual hero.

I’m allowed more than one hero, right? I would also say Avijit Roy. He was the first of the humanists to be killed in Bangladesh in the spate of murders of “atheist bloggers”, activists and authors in 2015. He wasn’t the first overall: there had been others previously, including the blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider in 2013. It was after the events of 2013 that Avijit Roy got in touch with IHEU and other human rights NGOs and secular groups. He was desperately concerned for his friends, his peers. Ahmed Rajib Haider had been killed and his friend Asif Mohiuddin and a number of other bloggers instead of being protected by the state, the state effectively put a bullseye on them, took them through the courts and sent them to prison for “hurting religious sentiments” in their blogs. Avijit Roy was one of the first to see the real long-term danger here and I worked with him through IHEU trying to raise awareness, trying to put pressure on the Bangladesh government and make them see that by giving into Islamist demands and arresting bloggers they were only going to spur them on and end up with more and more Islamist demands, and fewer and fewer people left to speak against them. Avijit Roy himself lived in America, but he was worried about all the death threats that his friends were getting — we knew they were serious because Ahmed Rajib Haider had been cut down with a machete and now the state was effectively joining with the Islamists in silencing all the bloggers. Always Roy’s main concern was what might happen to these other young men who were writing about science, defending human rights, writing about minority ethnic groups in Bangladesh, women’s rights — it’s the same humanism you see anywhere.

Then he started to get death threats himself. He was worried about them, but he lived in America, so proportionately he didn’t seem at risk in quite the same way, but it was real cause for concern and it would be absurd to be complacent based on your geography alone today. Anyway, early in 2015 he took a trip back to Bangladesh — very much under the radar for the most part of course — but he made an appearance at the famous book fair at the university in Dhaka and they murdered him there, also seriously injuring his wife Rafida Bonya Ahmed. This would become the first of several murders of non-religious writers in Bangaldesh in 2015. All attacks by groups of men on motorbikes carrying machetes — it’s extremely brutal.

Avijit Roy is a hero because not only was he an intellectual trying to put his message into society to change it for the better, but when that came under threat he worked as hard as he could behind the scenes, reaching out to NGOs, he became a kind of informal advisor to me at IHEU for a time, he was trying to protect the humanists and human rights defenders back in Bangladesh, and then Islamist radicals took his life.

He is a hero. And Bonya as well for standing up after that attack, overcoming that horror and injury and continuing to campaign — she’s been giving talks and writing and building up the blogging platform that Roy was working with. Incredible of her to be able to come back from that kind of attack and say “I will not be silenced!”

What do you consider your highest ideals?

Kindness and empathy. Reason and truth.

I could stop there because that’s pretty much all human life, but I’ll say one more thing, about reason and truth. Rationality is about having ideas and being open to criticism. It is about truth, but it’s not about establishing and certifying statements as true, we can’t do that. Rationality means attempting to isolate truths, by being bold in creativity in the hope that you might generate some truth ideas, and then being ruthless in intellectual criticism to get rid of the errors.

Any recommended authors and books?

For philosophy, read the vastly under-appreciated Critical Rationalism: A Restatement and Defence, and Out of Error by David Miller. They’re probably not easy to come by though.

What has been your greatest personal or professional emotional struggle?

Professionally, it must be the last few years, working with Bangladeshis under threat, in some cases seeking asylum elsewhere — in 2015 watching as one blogger after another was killed. And any time we’re able to work with someone who is a human rights defender under threat. It is gut-wrenching and a kind of torture even for those that survive. It can feel like there is nothing anyone can do, or that the things you can do are so small, but you have to try to focus on those small things, those actions you can attempt, to nurture hope, rather than despairing about what you cannot do.

Thank you for your time, Bob.

Original Publication in Humanist Voices.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen

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