Interview with Roar Johnsen — Treasurer of International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) and Past President of the Norwegian Humanist Association

by | January 9, 2018


By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was your family background — geography, culture, language, religion/irreligion, and education?

Roar Johnsen: I am living in Oslo, the capital of Norway, with a population of more than half a million people. I have a degree in marketing and administration, but have worked as a consultant in IT for the last 35 years.

Norway has had a Christian state church system, which only recently separated from the state, so Christianity is dominating in school education and cultural tradition. However, the majority of Norwegians are not really believers, but stay on as church members out of tradition and ceremonial services. My parents were passive church members and freethinkers.

I realized while in college that I was an atheist, and left the church as soon as I could, and my parents followed shortly after. I joined the Norwegian Humanist Association ten years later, and has been an active volunteer since 1979.

Jacobsen: You are board member for IHEU. How does the position work? Why do you pursue this line of work?

Johnsen: The Board of IHEU are responsible for IHEU strategy development and its operation between the annual General Assemblies. Over time, the workload of the Board change quite much.

When we have a very small office staff, or none at all, the Board has to be very active and operational, while when we have an Chief Executive and other staff, as now, the Board can be more strategic and leave most of the operational issues to the staff.

The Board meet in person four times a year, and have four Board meetings by Skype. Some Board members are also participating in working groups or sub-committees.

Jacobsen: What personal fulfillment comes from it?

Johnsen: Apart from the satisfaction of seeing the organization operating successfully and growing over time, it is very stimulating to meet with local activists all over the world.

When we meet at a world Humanist congress, a general assembly or a national event, it is always a positive exchange of experiences, viewpoints and challenges. Even if the conditions are very different from country to country, we share many of the same issues, and can use many of the same strategies to work on those issues.

When we hear that we have been able to help a local organization grow, or someone has been motivated to continue their effort for a Humanist group, that is a very good motivation for me as well.

Jacobsen: How does the general global public view the humanist and ethical culture movements compared to other worldviews and movements?

Johnsen: That is a difficult question! I am not sure that we have something we can call “the general global public view” on these matters. The situation is very different in various places and contexts.

Some non-religious organizations focus on their own members and keeps a non-confrontational style in public. Such organizations are often well respected in society, but does not get big headlines in media and grow slowly.

Other organizations are more confrontational, and create more headlines in media, but may have problems achieving a good working relationship with the authorities and other religious and life stance groups. Overall, I think that non-religious groups are, slowly but surely, gaining more understanding and respect worldwide.

Jacobsen: What are the main areas of need regarding the irreligious in the world?

Johnsen: We must focus on respect for human rights, which is the topic of the Freedom of Thought report that IHEU publish every year. In too many countries the non-religious are discriminated against, partly by governments and partly by extremists not being stopped by governments.

Other issues are religious education in public schools, which should be only in history classes, and promotion of scepticism and the scientific method, which can help people avoid the worst problems of traditional thinking, superstition and new age prophets.

Jacobsen: What has been one of the most touching stories you’ve ever personally witnessed or heard of through IHEU?

Johnsen: Over the years, I have met many activists and many people who have been helped out of situations where they were victims of discrimination based on religion. They all have a story to tell! The Atheist Centre in Vijayawada in India has helped many people, and one of their major projects has been the rehabilitation of an entire village “of thieves” called Stuartpuram.

When they started that work, they realized that they would have to carry on for at least two generations, but started anyway. When we visited the village, they could look back on many years of dedicated and successful work. A touching story, indeed!

Jacobsen: Also, you are an IT consultant, and IT service management project manager. You volunteer for the Norwegian Humanist Association too — and have been its president too. How have these positions helped prepare you for the current and ongoing IHEU work — since 2006?

Johnsen: All people who volunteer for organizations bring with them good practices from their professions, whether they are lawyers, teachers, business people or project managers.

My background has helped me guide organizations in developing their organizational structures, their finances and their work programs. Volunteer organizations need good management too! Having been internationally active since my first World Humanist Congress in Hannover in 1982, it was natural to volunteer for the IHEU Board at the end of my tenure as president for the Norwegian Humanist Association.

Jacobsen: What is your main concern for humanism moving forward into 2017–2020? How about into the next decades?

Johnsen: Humanism will continue to grow, there is no doubt about that. However, not all Humanists or other non-religious people feel the need to be organized in one of our many groups, so organized Humanism will always be smaller than our wider community.

Many of our organizations are having much more to do than their resources will allow, so for many years ahead we will have to focus on the core issues for the non-religious that only we will do.

Jacobsen: What are the biggest threats to irreligious types in the world today?

Johnsen: In most countries, the non-religious does not face any serious personal threats, the problems are more of a systemic kind. However, in some countries, intolerant religious groups and even the authorities themselves, are threatening, intimidating and even hurting people for their lack of religion.

All Humanist groups must participate in helping our less fortunate fellow humanists, as well as taking care of their own local business.

Jacobsen: What are perennial threats to humanism and ethical culture?

Johnsen: Political instability and continued poverty are the main problems in many societies today, and often affects cultural minorities even more than the majority. It is interesting to see that many studies show that when a population grows from poverty through education to a more secure society, the need for religion is reduced.

And we find that regardless of which religion you come from, when you leave it and find a secular life stance, most people ends up with Humanism.

Jacobsen: Any feelings or thoughts in conclusion?

Johnsen: It is very nice to see the way IHEYO has developed over the last few years, and it is important that we continuously manage to engage with new generations of youth. The sooner they become engaged in Humanist activism, the faster the world will improve!

Jacobsen: Thank you for your time, Roar, that was interesting.

Original Publication in Humanist Voices.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen founded In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal.

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About Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere. You can contact Scott via email, his website, or Twitter.

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