Why Should We Brand Ourselves as Non-Believers? We Believe in Action.

The conference center at the Ghandi Peace Foundation was empty when we arrived at 9:55, five minutes before the scheduled start time of “A Seminar on Radical Humanism and its Relevance.” The program didn’t begin for another hour, a fact we attributed perhaps to Indian custom, the advanced age of the seminar’s moderators, or some combination of the two. A quick count of those in attendance yielded about 40 participants and guests – a number which swelled to around 60 by the afternoon. Among them were noted Humanist figures including keynote speaker Mr. Babu Gogineni, President of the International Humanist and Ethical Union.

Gogineni  began his remarks with a stark affirmation: “We do not have a movement anymore, we have a dying organization.” And yet, he claimed, “Humanism has never been more relevant.” He continued by outlining the key issues he sees Humanism facing, particularly in India, and the goals that it must accomplish. “Humanism is a life-affirming philosophy,” he said, “and in our globalized, economically integrated world, there’s an excess of corruption and a lack of common morals and individual initiative.”

Babu remarked that humans have shown the world what humans are capable of and that it is time to utilize knowledge through science instead of revelation. After a few weeks in this country, his words struck a particular chord with us; we have already encountered many stories of Indian law, politics, and medicine favoring superstition and religious belief as opposed to the rational basis of science and critical analysis. This reality is all the more a shame in a country where bills advertising MBA and Biotechnology degrees don street corners from Delhi to the far reaches of Rajasthan’s deserts and a massive generation of highly educated students return from their universities and technical programs with increasing numbers each year.

Instead of preaching for an unrealistic pace of social change, Babu’s challenge was simple: “identify superstition close to you, and squash it.” His is far from a purely philosophical approach to Humanism. In a conference filled with aging individuals, Babu addressed the problems that Humanism faces without hesitation: “can we do any of this as a community of 50, with magazines that hardly anyone reads? When will we join the marketplace of ideas?”

Babu’s answer unfolded in a story of his own actions, and those of various members of the Indian Humanist movement, to confront superstition head-on through a media awareness campaign. During recent lunar eclipses in India ­– important astrological events here in which Hindu religious believers maintain that leaving the house is dangerous, can cause blindness, and that babies born during the eclipse will soon die – Babu and others have hit the television airwaves to explain the science behind the eclipse and work to dispel rumors.

In a direct display of his efforts in the name of Humanism – something lacking from some of the speakers that followed him – Babu told of a pregnant woman who had gone into labor during an eclipse whose parents insisted that it was unsafe to transport her to the hospital. In a dramatic rebuttal of superstition, a family member who had seen Babu’s science-based television report on the eclipse held firm and maintained that neither the mother nor child would be harmed by such a common astronomical occurrence. The television report was enough to convince the family, who took her to the hospital for a successful delivery.

 How, in a country that has sent a satellite to the moon, can we be afraid of the moon’s shadow?”

–       Babu Gogineni 

Babu’s tale was inspiring and indicative of the progress that Humanist reasoning makes possible, but his humanist ideals didn’t stop with rational thinking. “Humanism is about the most fundamental right to think,” he said. And he did have an optimism that India was a fertile place for the movement to grow. “If humanists can make a difference, it will be here,” he asserted. “We have a wave of ideas, but we need more than that, we need organization and action.” 

But everyone seemed to have their own opinion about how the achieve these ends. One participant rose to ask whether education was really the route by which the transformation of Indian society will occur. With a population currently 66% literate, he wondered if a rise to the goal of 90% literacy would be enough to bring about much change.

Again, Babu’s answer was straightforward and optimistic; the strategy of Humanism must be to “rely on what people have already learned to rebut what they say.”

Interestingly, however, the seminar was conducted almost entirely in English. While we have no way of knowing for sure, the fact that moderators occasionally translated a question to Hindi and the lack of participation from a group of lower-class looking attendees sitting the back made us wonder whether everyone could understand exactly what was going on. One moderator kept beginning his remarks in Hindi, but was eventually persuaded to speak in English. “Everyone here speaks English,” Babu asserted, “we don’t practice language chauvinism.” He gestured to us when he spoke these words – nonverbally expressing that as the only non-Indians, we were the ones who couldn’t speak Hindi.

But the Radical Humanist magazine is printed in English. And even their banner and program lacked Hindi translations. There was talk of reaching out to the lower castes and the larger Indian population – but the talk was in a language that that very demographic most likely can’t understand.

What Babu said next surprised us: “humanism is about human rights.” And indeed, the seminar seemed to agree with this avowal. The discussion was broken down into sections under the heading “Crisis of Indian Democracy” and included sub-topics of: Terrorism, Communalism, the Maoist Movement, Corruption, Growing Poverty, Liberalization and Nuclear Weapons.” After Babu’s initial remarks, humanism seemed to almost disappear from the dialogue. Despite the occasional reference to secularity or non-theism, the seminar was by and large a political argument. It had the feel of a college seminar (with a minimum age of 50) – with everyone eager to share their views on India’s social, political and economic development. The final discussion category wasn’t started until  nearly 4:30 pm, a half hour before the seminar was over — its title: “The relevance of Radical Humanism in the present context.”

            We wanted more. Hearing well-educated and qualified Indians discuss their national issues was fascinating; however, we left wondering where exactly the humanism fit in. If humanism is just about human rights – what’s the need for the “middle man” so to speak. Students around the world seem empowered and excited around the human rights movement and if humanism wants to take off, the “relevance of humanism in the present context” needs more than a half hour. Why is secularization relevant to human rights and what will provide the president to draw this connection?

More and more it seemed like the key demographic addressed by the seminar were young people, a group entirely absent from the conference. Everyone seemed to agree that the future of the movement lies in mobilizing a new generation of non-theist activists.

We decided to pose a question in the closing minutes of the seminar on this very topic: why, excluding the two of us, were there no students or young people in attendance? It took a moment to determine whether or not our question had even registered on the majority of participants gathered around the tables at the front of the room. It would be a guest seated at the back of the room who rose to respond. The man said he had asked his son in fifth grade what percent of his classmates were non-believers. His answer – 70% — was a surprise, but seemingly unbelievable. Rekha Saraswat, one of the moderators (and the editor of the Radical Humanist’s magazine) responded almost defensively that the older demographic was due to the university holiday, causing an absence of students in New Delhi. However, when we spoke with her college-aged daughter in the lobby, she agreed that getting young people involved was a challenge.

At the conclusion of the day’s activities we hailed a rickshaw (or ‘tuk tuk’ as some refer to them, given the propensity of their small motors to emit precisely such a noise) for Old Delhi, noting the countless Hindu shrines and godly images scattered about the city, as well as inside the vehicle itself. Twenty minutes later we arrived at Asia’s largest mosque, the Jamu Masjid, immediately following evening prayer, and were at once surrounded by hundreds of young people in traditional white garments eager to snap our photograph. We had no choice but to question our question’s explanation. Was it really the summer school holiday that kept students from the conference but not the mosque?  Or was the answer a lack of enthusiasm (or effort to foster enthusiasm) in a new generation of Humanist Indians?

Over a week later, as we write from the Buddhist enclave of Dharamsala, we continue to hear from more and more Humanists across the country inviting us to this and that institution from Mumbai to Chennai to remote villages in between, but the answer still eludes us. More than anything, we’ve found India to be a visual country where the vibrant oranges of Hindu devotees, the fantastic blue skin of gods displayed at small roadside shrines or in towering monuments and the elaborate architecture of Sikh temples snatch our attention and constantly overwhelm our senses. Still in the beginning stages of our research, we eagerly await encountering Humanism among students, in the countryside, and on display wherever it may exist.


2 Responses to “Why Should We Brand Ourselves as Non-Believers? We Believe in Action.”

  1. July 16, 2010 at 6:08 pm

    I found this account interesting, especially the observation about the absence of young humanists in India, which mirrors the relatively small number of young humanists here in the U.S. Perhaps humanism is a practice, a way of life, born of maturity and experience in those who grow up with traditional religious exposure in their youth. This may simply be a predicatble transition until more people are raised within openly secular humanist families or communities.

  2. September 20, 2011 at 7:16 pm

    Humanism as a movement that celebrates self reliance and scientific rationalism has confronted religions based on revelations over many centuries. In my book “Hypatia’s Feud” (available from Amazon.com) I chronicled Hypatia’s feud with Christianity that started in Roman Alexandria at the fourth / fifth century of the CE and continued for one millenium after the Christian monks assassinated her!
    I fully support any moves to dicredit religious beliefs based on revelations but that is not enough, we humanists must support movements that celebrate life, and discredit those supporting wars and class conflicts. Ghandi was in many ways an exceptional leader because he never participated or supported regimes that ignored human rights.

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