While we may have woken up in an eight dollar hostel in Delhi’s backpackers’ ghetto, The Paharganj, we were dining high and dry in the elegant India International Centre by twelve sharp last Sunday. Our patrons were Mr. Vir Narain, president of the Indian Humanist Union, and his wife, Sheila Narain. It seemed we would never dress right. After overshooting the attire for the basement meeting with the Social Development Foundation, we decided to dress humbly in T-shirts and Tevas – clashing wonderfully with the pressed pale-blue of Mr. Narain’s sear sucker suit.
The Indian Humanist Union was established in 1960 by Narsingh Narain, the late Mr.Narain’s father. The organization evolved from the 1954 Society for the Promotion of Freedom of Thought and functions with the official object of A. “Diffusing knowledge concerning moral and social problems from the humanist viewpoint” and B. “Social Service.” (What exactly constitutes the aforementioned “humanist viewpoint” is described in refreshing detail on the Union’s website, and is one of the most comprehensive definitions of humanism we’ve seen so far. Read it here.)
The first part of their outline lists two basic principles behind Humanism: “love of fellow beings and solidarity of mankind without distinction of race, caste, creed or nationality” and a commitment to “intellectual integrity and scientific spirit.” Interestingly, much as Greg Epstein and other new American Humanists emphasize, the Union’s official documents posit that “Humanism can be yours regardless of metaphysical beliefs.”
After talking with Mr. Narain over delicious trays of thali, we came to understand fairly quickly why the Humanist Union was so concerned with the philosophy and ideology behind humanism. The reason: it’s mostly all they do. The Union publishes a quarterly journal called The Humanist Outlook and holds meetings every other Saturday in which members share ideas and viewpoints.
Narain was quick to point out that the Humanist Union is not a social work organization. “We simply don’t have the resources or the energy,” he said. But beyond their material inabilities, Narain doesn’t believe social work is the purpose of a humanist group. In contrast to what we’d heard from The Social Development Foundation and at the Radical Humanist Seminar, Narain stated boldly that “Humanism is not about human rights.” He continued by clarifying that the two are inseparable but distinct. The key, he said, “is not making human rights a central issue because it distracts from humanism’s original goals.”
We saw where he was coming from. It’s true that everyone seems to be “jumping on the human rights bandwagon,” as Narain puts it, and a shift too far in this direction distracts from the secular agenda of the movement. He was also wary of providing social services in the name of Humanism, as he believes this is inevitably a form of prosthelizing. Narain holds that the best strategy for the future of the movement is to return to its original purpose, clarify its message and, well, wait.
And that’s the thing about Mr. Narain; he doesn’t seem all that concerned with the future of humanism. But this complacency seems to stem more from a practical understanding of reality than unconcern. “These things will happen in time,” he said, “that is, unless we fail to deal with fundamental Islam.” Narain sees the world as tending naturally towards secularization, and views humanists as “gatherers, not hunters.” He doesn’t believe humanists should seek to convert others, but rather gather those who have reached humanist beliefs on their own.
In principle, we agree with this concept. The problem, however, is that people simply don’t know what humanism is. In our experiences in the US and in India, it seems that many people are culturally religious but skeptical and rational rather than devout. Can you be a humanist if you don’t know what humanism is? Probably. But the key seems to be spreading awareness about what humanism is so the “gathering” can happen effectively.
The Humanist Union isn’t completely unaware of this necessity. In sticking to humanism’s secular identity, its members often write editorials in newspapers arguing against religious education in schools, superstitions and the propagation of other anti-rational ideas. They also work to translate new scientific studies into Hindi and encourage their availability to India’s population. One example was an editorial Narain himself wrote only weeks ago in the Indian Express, speaking out against the outsourcing of education to religious organizations. (Read it here.)
Despite these efforts, however, Narain recognizes that his membership is dwindling. The problem is attrition, he says, as his demographic is mostly “retired academics and lawyers in their sixties and seventies.” The Humanist Union has 200 official life members but Narain suspects few actually read their magazine and stay involved: “humanists and atheists are notorious non-joiners,” he said, “which makes membership organizations a challenge.”
When the Thali bowls were cleared and Mrs. Narain had slipped out for her bridge game, Mr. Narain took us into the Centre’s library where he had reserved a stack of books and pamphlets for us to take. One thing seemed clear both from their titles and our meeting with Mr. Narain – it was all about humanism. There were no complex political debates or social service projects thrown in the mix. Unlike some of our other meetings, we didn’t need to dig to find the humanist thread. The Humanist Union understands what it stands for and recognizes the humility of its goals. The point: they have the right idea. The larger point: they seem to symbolize the fading energy of the Indian humanists to do anything about it. Mr. Narain smiled as he walked us outside and pointed us towards the delicately manicured Lodi Gardens, bidding us farewell before his afternoon T-time.
“These things will happen,” he said again. “We’re just a beautiful and ineffectual angel beating its humanist wings in vain.”