*Interview conducted October 2, 2020*
Hari Parekh, has worked in the field of psychology for over four years. He obtained his BA (Hons) degree in Psychology and Criminology at the University of Northampton in 2015, and his MSc in Forensic and Criminological Psychology at the University of Nottingham in 2016. He has worked for the student sector of Humanists UK, holding roles of President and President Emeritus. Following this, he is the current European Chair/Volunteer Regional Coordinator for Young Humanists International, and the Volunteers Manager for Faith to Faithless. He is consistently invited to universities to talk about the psychological difficulties relating to apostasy. Here we catch up and reflect on Humanism in the UK and in Europe.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Okay, so, we have done an interview before. We have known each other for, at least, a couple of years or of each other for a few years now. We are both deeply involved in our own national humanist and skeptic communities and scene. There’s a lot of context and interwoven networks.
I thought I’d reach out and get a retrospective of Humanists International and Young Humanists International happening virtually this year due to the current pandemic. You are the European Working Chair or the Regional Committee Coordinator. What were some things that have stood out in the youth humanist scene in Europe?
Hari Parekh: So, Europe is very lucky in relation to activism within Humanism. In that, there are a lot of fabulous people doing a lot of great work from Germany to Norway to Italy to Spain to Lithuania, Poland, even parts of Russia are calming down.
There’s a lot of good work in relation to nationalistically highlighting injustices within one’s own nation and then being able to highlight it. The rights of people who are LGBTQ+ in Poland and Lithuania at the moment are quite stark at the moment.
There is a lot of good work happening by activists to highlight the issues that then causes. The reason why we’re lucky, though, within Europe, we are able to work or act, or demonstrate, or do things in activism, without the worry of being sentenced or killed, or abused, as a result of it.
The legal consequences are much lower than the ramifications in places like Africa, Asia, and the States to be fair. As a result, there are pockets in Europe and the UK who are doing formal good work. I think in a country like mine. The issue: How do you bring unity to people that aren’t able to come to together in that way?
A lot of activism done in Europe or singularly are the way things have been. What are we going to rally towards? Because it is a difficult question about purpose and the point of activism in Europe. If we’re not having the stresses of being killed, it creates a problem with people doing good work uniformly while creating a different question.
A lot of work is being done that’s good. It is doing more together; we have only just started.
Jacobsen: In regards to some of the political landscape and social landscape seen in different areas in Europe, they do stand out to someone coming from North America because the news sources continually report on issues around LGBTI equality in various areas, in other words regression.
We can think of Orban in Hungary with direct attacks on some of these fundamental tenets of not only human rights, but also Humanism. As well, the political instability around Brexit and the kind of impacts this has on young people’s futures, not only in the United Kingdom, but other countries impacted by the detachment of a major country connected to the European Union, previously.
Parekh: I think what we’re seeing from a bird’s eye view is a lot of the way things are or the politics of the way things are people becoming more and more jaded by the way establishments or organizations have acted when they are in power.
As a result, the growing sense of concern creates a growing sense of “What about me?” and this has filtered itself within the consciousness of European nations and people within it. You can see where that comes from in relation to the difficulties people have now, e.g., inequality is high.
People below the poverty line are increasing daily. What is going on about it? People need to understand why that might be, where that comes from, and how that becomes a thing. Interestingly, therefore, politics and the consensus of public opinion has moved to become a lot more individualistic and nationalistic to protect one’s own before looking after others.
I think that’s, technically, where the culture and the themes of this are going. Interestingly, on top, nationalism, itself, isn’t a bad thing; individuality, in itself, isn’t a bad thing. It has just been used by people of certain dispositions to inculcate hatred, annoyance, further hatred and violence against people of the other.
It has been usurped by people in that way. It creates a climate of unrule and unrest, and ultra-swarthiness within society. You only have to look at the way leaving the European Union from the UK’s perspective has marginalized people, marginalized families, marginalized people beyond its dreams and still continues to do so.
Again, the issue politically, socially is a very sad one, which is, basically, the argument. When we’re in that sensitive climate among people in that sense of frustration, the values of human nature or the values of human roles, or the values of anything like that, then also struggle in itself.
It’s like, “What is going to happen now? What are European nationals going to do in the UK now?” I think it is a very sad state of affairs for anybody involved. Interestingly, there used to be a rise with that.
You only have to look at Poland to reasonably see what’s going on. From a really specific perspective, it is going through a transition one can only lament.
Jacobsen: Now, how is Humanism in the United Kingdom managing this political unrest, internally? For the United Kingdom, internally rather than the region, how is British Humanism managing the political and social unrest in and of itself?
These are factors impacting people’s lives, impacting on the status of respect for science, respect for human rights, and trying to build a culture of scientifically and compassionately informed public policy.
These are a lot of issues that are being just ignored, basically, in public life or in the larger public life in the United Kingdom. I could imagine a lot of British Humanism is taken very seriously. Although, it has been a whirlwind.
Parekh: Even moving through Humanism, I think it provides non-religious people in itself, in the greatest respects, with the perspective of something to hone in on. I think it provides a lot of normal religious people with the perspective that there is an issue here relating very strongly to the values that we hold dear, whether scientifically, rationally, etc.
I think the concern, from an outsider looking in, is the bottleneck of the people that are involved in that at the moment. The diversity and the way that those groups function and run at the moment. There’s a certain type of non-religious person that goes to those local groups at the moment.
The older generation of, generally, white religious aren’t going to it. So, there’s still a lot of work for non-religion in relation to reaching out to a wider audience of people and being more involved to get those people’s views in, but the current climate has provided a greater opportunity for non-religion in the UK to be more understandable rather than being a bit hooey.
In that, rather than being seen as being on the circumference of society, for example, there has been a real good point of putting those values cherished of science and ethical standpoints at the heart of these debate to really understand what is going on.
Now, whether those views are taken as serious, whether those views are understood by others, whether the views are accepted by others, the point: as long as those values are represented in the conversations, then that’s half the battle there.
Strength through the Brexit debate; strength through the coronavirus pandemic. Those are the values coming through about a sense of community, support. That seems to be where I’d put it at the moment.
Does it give us a bigger role to play? Yes. Does it give us more scope to do more stuff? Yes. Are we in a position where we are doing all we can do with it? Slowly, we’re getting there. As you know, non-religion within nations has a very push-and-pull relationship.
As it peaks, we will take advantage of the peak. As it troughs, we build ourselves back up again. That is the peak when it comes to it. I think we’re in a good place for it. It’s not as invisible as it used to be. There are more and more people talking about these issues.
There are more and more people of a diverse nature talking about these issues as well. That always helps. We’re moving non-religion or Humanism from its stereotypical view of being a Westernized, white agenda, when it isn’t. It is hardly that.
Jacobsen: I should note. Humanism and Ethical Culture, and similar philosophical orientations, are much, much older in the United Kingdom than in other countries. It has a longer tradition there.
So, it has real roots in a lot of modern thought becoming a legitimate tradition in that sense. It has a lot more ability to catch in the culture because it has been around in the culture. It has steeped in the stew longer.
Do you think that has helped alongside some of these divisive figures and divisive ideologies coming forward, ethnic or otherwise, political, etc., in the United Kingdom? In terms of people looking at them, “I don’t want that,” and looking for more universalistic and naturalistic viewpoints with Humanism and the like.
Parekh: It does help. If a perspective is always able to intertwine itself in a culture, then it will always do better. You only have to look at the way an organized religion like Hinduism seeped itself into the culture to see it.
You can, therefore, see its popularity within that nation-state (India). Humanism here in the UK is a notion of people know it exists. People know that it is around. People know that a lot of the public figures these days are aligned to those values and ethical principles.
Those public figures do a good job, at times, of talking about those views to get them out there. What I think is still an issue is the threat response to non-religious people in general anyway, I don’t think that really changes.
Threat response to a non-religious person within Nigeria or within Lagos, or in the Philippines, to here. It may not be as extreme. However, the reaction and the threat is still not that different. That is something even with the longstanding traditions of British Humanism, and how long it has been there; I think that will sadly still be a part of its acceptance and judgment on it.
So, yes, does it help? Of course. Does it allow people to understand or allow public figures to talk about it freely and get the word out there? Yes, it does. Does it still have the issues the other nations have? Yes, it does, but just not as extreme.
It is still a stress response to be a None. I think what I am trying to say is being somewhat morphed into the traditions of a nation doesn’t make it accept you within the culture of the nation. I think there is still a long ways to still being accepted, perhaps.
Jacobsen: What about the 18-to-35-year-olds? The youth culture of Humanism. Because if you look at the old guard, who are no longer with us, in fact, people like Bertrand Russell. People like Albert Einstein in some respects.
Figures who are seen as towering philosophical or scientific, or political, figures really imbibe humanist principles without necessarily wearing that badge at all times and all places. For instance, Einstein is quoted as an agnostic, as an atheist, as a pantheist.
It depends on the person he is talking to and the point in his life. That is a very different Humanism, the old guard Humanism, compared to the newer brand of Humanism. There’s just a lot of different people from different types of backgrounds coming into the fray, which is showing its universalism in practice.
Now, that the principles have been more established and have more of a traditional stance. How do you see this playing out in the next few years for youth humanists?
Parekh: The 18-to-35s are an interesting bunch because we’re the ones pushing those boundaries. I think that really there is an argument there. I was talking to someone not too long ago. The discussion was, “Do they want a society in which religion is no longer a thing? It is just Humanism or non-religion, then it runs its course. The way the 18-to-35s are making it.”
As is shown, my research is showing non-religiosity is increasing. Is that the kind of trajectory that we’re going with religion? Religion not dying out per se, but becoming less of a feature, for example. I don’t think so.
I don’t think that’s the way Humanism or non-religion should be hoping for or expecting. It is a very personal view. My view: So long as non-religion or Humanism, or people leaving their faith, has acceptance (for that perspective), that’s all that one could ask for.
There are more and more and more religious people who are quite happy with the view or quite soothed or stable or alright with the view of people in relation to faith and non-faith, etc. I think it’s that acceptance that we should be working towards, not just domination of the landscape.
With the acceptance that we can engender, again, there’s no issue with being religious at the end of the day. It is an ideology the way non-religion or Humanism is. It’s what you do. If you have an ideology used for hate, that’s the issue.
If we can reduce the level of threat people find within religious communities, then there won’t be much of the same issue in relation to blasphemy. It won’t be seen as such a bad thing. Therefore, we’re progressing from the old guard of religious people threatened by people leaving.
That’s where my view is where things can go. For the 18-to-35s, more people are able within that age range, for example, to identify the way that they want to or share the way that they think their beliefs are.
To be fair, that’s a great thing. It is a very Nawaz-ian view of things, where religion needs to adapt itself as we go along rather than sticking to its guns. So, that’s the projection, I think. The more acceptance we get; the more likely we are to have a standing within society and to be okay with that.
That’s part of the battle at the moment: Are we represented? Are we not? Are we heading into a bottleneck? Are we not? The more we are accepted than we are at the moment. That’s when those discussions dissipate because we’re alright with it.
That’s where those religious people have gotten. Because we’re all waiting for acceptance. I think it’s exciting, definitely.
Jacobsen: I have a worked a bit in terms of having some dialogues, some interbelief dialogues, with individuals who work as ordinary theologians, moderate people, who take their ideological stances and belief structures in a serious way, but not in an externally imposing way.
The proselytizing, the fundamentalism, isn’t truly part of just the way that they act in the world and believe in regards to their religion. Those people and individuals in Canada and elsewhere are extremely important in combatting very serious issues of extremism, whether along political-ethnic lines such as white supremacism and neo-Nazism or in the forms of religious fundamentalism, as such, including more extreme versions of things like Jihadi terrorism.
These kinds of outgrowths of extreme ideologies that lead to bad behaviour. What do you think are some of the importance(s) of taking those middleground(s) of belief leaders – let’s say – of religious communities to build a network, a safety network, to kind of put up a wall and prevent young people, traditionally men, from entering into these toxic ideologies – ethnic, political, or religious?
Parekh: I think it’s really important for non-religious and humanist people to take part in those discussions. Not just for the soul reason of being included, but also for the opportunity to show: We’re still human.
I think at the grounding of all the faiths out there, all the religions out there, etc. The need for humanity and the need for that principle, usually, comes out and trumps a lot of stuff within the religious faiths as well.
We only have to look at the way communities have joined together during this pandemic to see humanistic values, from the Dawkins perspective, trump the differences of religion and non-religion.
If we take that perspective, then it’s imperative to involve all those groups in the discussion. It is not simply supporting and taking part, which are all good things. We are role modelling the fact that just because you’re non-religious or humanist; it doesn’t mean that you’re not a good person or a bad person.
We’re, basically, taking a step to argue that we don’t fit that narrative of what religious ideologies have idealized non-religious people to be like. The moment we’re able to do that. Then we’ll be able to work with those community leaders in how non-religious people are seen, treated, and shunned, and see how non-religious people are treated as a result.
So, if we can change the religious people to reach the level of threat of non-religious people, then we can, hopefully, support the community leaders when they talk with their communities and see how non-religious people are all bad.
Some people when they leave their religion take a lot of stuff with them. It is not as though they become the embodiment of Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens. With regard to extremism and things like that, again, it is one of those where humanity needs to prevail.
So, whatever perspective you hold, religious people, community leaders, and co., will be against anyone who wants to harm anyone else anyway. They do a lot of work now, anyway, to stamp that out.
From my perspective, it is reducing the level of perspective of the threat of non-religious people at the moment. It is getting to the point of non-religiosity as being quite acceptable. Once it is normalized, that’s part of the issue.
Jacobsen: What has been your experience with the youth humanist community, on an individual level, on a social, communal level?
Parekh: Lovely, there’s such a broad range of people with different experiences and different perspectives. You’ve got people who are going to university. You’ve got people brought up in the same way, who are passionate and driven to do amazing things and incredibly intellectually bright and fabulously driven.
Young humanists throughout Europe, for example, are all really dedicated, enthusiastic, and really interesting, lovely people to be around to be fair. They’re quite a bunch [Laughing].
Jacobsen: Will we be seeing more of you in the coming years?
Parekh: We’ve got the first conference. You’ll have seen me through that. I’ve got a campaign. I think with the research head and apostasy. I don’t think I’m going far.
Jacobsen: What should people keep in mind for this conference coming up? What happened at this inaugural European Humanist Month with the lovely, wonderful, and great, Young Humanists International?
Parekh: So, the issue with Europe, as I said at the start, with the activism is it’s very hard to get people together with “What do we do together as a whole?” There is a consensus of being in a good position of activists not getting killed. We are not in those positions.
Therefore, it creates a bit of apathy with respect to activism as a whole. When I started in Young Humanists International for the European sector, the problem was “What do you do?” I struggled for a year toying with this: “What is the point of activism in Europe as a whole when we don’t have these issues?”
When I released my research in January, 2020, I realized there are many nations in Europe still holding blasphemy laws. The problem with that is that’s seen as hypothetical when we challenge other nation-states, especially within the Middle East in relation to their blasphemy laws.
Because the response given often right away is, “What leg do you have to stand on when you still have them?” I think that’s a poignant point. People aren’t being killed. They are being fined. “It’s just a fine. What’s the big deal?”
The issue is it matters in principle. In Europe, we have talked about the traditionalism of Humanism. With all of that history, the fact that we had these outdated laws is a real principle issue. What I then did, I was talking to the UK branch of Humanism saying, “Guys,” when the pandemic started, “We don’t need to ruin it. Let’s just push it online.”
Every Wednesday in October, on the 7, 14, 21, and 28, we have a speaker on LGBTI+ issues, apostasy issues, and looking at blasphemy as a campaign, which we are running now. Hopefully, we can hand this onto the next nation of Humanism, e.g., Belgium and then Norway.
So, every nation-state annually holds an online conference with speakers that matter to them. It is really important that we do it and are sharing that young people doing good in these areas. So, we can get people excited about doing things that matter to us.
It is the first thing that we did in Europe as a whole for 5 or 6 years together. It makes it even more special.
Jacobsen: What helped bring these groups of individualists, as a culture, to an individual event for a month?
Parekh: “What helps is showing these are issues important to young people now, why wouldn’t you want to be a part of this?” It worked. The last event was on a campaign. On the first point, I realized that in Northern Ireland; they still have a blasphemy law.
Basically, the last event of the conference is informing our members that this is a campaign young people in Europe can support or run against. I think in 2008 Gordon Brown did it. Northern Ireland are still lagging in that.
My argument is if we can run a campaign this year, then there are other nations with these issues anyway. It gives Europe a purpose to stand behind. Whoever takes after me, at least, it gives them a standpoint and a purpose to do the job and to have a portfolio and template for Europe rather than being told, “Good luck.”
There is an annual conference. There is a campaign against blasphemy laws. It is enough for anyone taking this position within a year. I am very proud and happy with the support among Humanists UK for all of the work that they have done.
Hopefully, we have set a template. Basically, this is a 5-year plan for European Young Humanism, “How are we going to do it? How are we going to manage it? This is what the next person is going to do.”
When the next person of YHI comes in, then they can know what to do. It is a really good way to leave Europe rather than passing the buck.
*Associates and resources listing last updated May 31, 2020.*
Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, Centre for Inquiry Canada, Kelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.
Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du Québec, Atheist Freethinkers, Central Ontario Humanist Association, Comox Valley Humanists, Grey Bruce Humanists, Halton-Peel Humanist Community, Hamilton Humanists, Humanist Association of London, Humanist Association of Ottawa, Humanist Association of Toronto, Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba, Ontario Humanist Society, Secular Connextions Seculaire, Secular Humanists in Calgary, Society of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph), Thunder Bay Humanists, Toronto Oasis, Victoria Secular Humanist Association.
Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an Agnostiker, American Atheists, American Humanist Association, Associação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and Agnostics, Atheist Alliance International, Atheist Alliance of America, Atheist Centre, Atheist Foundation of Australia, The Brights Movement, Center for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist Ireland, Camp Quest, Inc., Council for Secular Humanism, De Vrije Gedachte, European Humanist Federation, Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, Foundation Beyond Belief, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist International, Humanist Association of Germany, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist Society of Scotland, Humanists UK, Humanisterna/Humanists Sweden, Internet Infidels, International League of Non-Religious and Atheists, James Randi Educational Foundation, League of Militant Atheists, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, National Secular Society, Rationalist International, Recovering From Religion, Religion News Service, Secular Coalition for America, Secular Student Alliance, The Clergy Project, The Rational Response Squad, The Satanic Temple, The Sunday Assembly, United Coalition of Reason, Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.
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Image Credit: Hari Parekh.