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The Indian Humanist Union

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.”


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.


The Social Development Foundation

Our on the ground research commenced today with a meeting with the Director of The Social Development Foundation, Mr. Vidya Bhushan Rawat. The foundation is a self proclaimed “Humanist organization” working to impart scientific education and eradicate superstition and myths regarding women and other vulnerable sections of society.

The headquarters were humble to say the least. We managed to navigate the New Delhi metro system and with the help of some locals and their cell phones, and found ourselves sipping hot chai in Mr. Rawat’s sweltering basement office. He was the only one there. He made the tea himself while we waited below – scanning the blanket covered desks and thick nineties-style PCs. Rawat is a Dalit, also known as an “untouchable”, and the work of his foundation focuses heavily on caste based inequality. His job is neither easy nor romantic, but he seems both cognizant and confident in the face of these realities: his pale blue T-shirt reads “Freedom from Fear.”

At first, the humanism was hard to find. Rawat was eager to divulge the details of his work with agrarian rights, women’s education and scavenging communities. However, the secular thread seemed to come second.

“Our approach is people centric,” he said. And it seemed to be. The Social Development Foundation primarily does social work. They work in a number of villages and communities as givers and builders, not as proselytizers. Rawat believes you have to meet people’s basic human needs before you start sprouting philosophies on them. However, even then, he doesn’t believe in “converting” people to humanism. “Humanism is freethinking,” he said. “If it becomes an authority, I don’t want it.”

But we kept probing; was their social work done in the name of Humanism? We explained that before we left we helped build a playground in Cambridge with a group of humanists who were happy and eager to advertize their “goodness without God.” Yet he found such publicity unnecessary. Rawat seemed to see Humanism as a personal philosophy – claiming later that Indian people tend to see “religion as private and not something to talk about.” The foundation doesn’t build schools and help women in the name of humanism, rather, they highlight religion’s detriments and use non-theism strategically.

Part of this work is eradicating harmful superstitions. Rawat told us the story of a foundation worker who helped expose false mysticism in a rural village. An authority figure had used a “mystical” procurement of a name on a piece of paper to blame an individual for stealing money, and the worker revealed the “supernatural” power as nothing more than a paper magic trick by using the same means to produce the name of accuser.

Yet the foundation’s humanism runs deeper than superstition eradication. The fundamental inequalities of the Dalit people are ultimately rooted in religion – what he calls the “cultural violence of Hinduism.” In this sense, humanism becomes a force against an unjust social system, and Rawat seems to believe lower caste Indians are ready to abandon religion and its role in their subjugation. (However, the verity of this statement is still unclear to us – as the lower caste Rajastani villages we visited were supposedly highly religious.) It’s hard to understand what individuals and populations are really believing when India’s official census demographics are still tied to caste – and interviewing Dalits personally in Hindi is nearly impossible for us.

When we walked off the metro in search of the Social Development Foundation’s office, we were dressed for a different meeting; tucked in shirts, pants, skirts and closed toed shoes. We expected the office to have a few staff members, air-conditioning and the presentation of a typical NGO. The foundation’s website writes of reports assessing government accountability, women’s empowerment centres, vocational programs and Dalit education. Perhaps naively, we expected more. Without traveling to the villages and seeing the work in action, we have no real way of knowing the capacity or efficacy of the organization. We’re certainly judging a book by its cover; classifying this fraction of the humanist movement as small because of a small office and a singular spokesman. But Mr. Rawat’s achievements seem to be well known and well praised. His presence at international conferences and United Nations assemblies speaks to this esteem. We’re learning that judging capacity on presentation won’t get you far in India – especially not in the Humanist world.

We’re starting to wonder if in some ways, Mr.Rawat is the embodiment of humanism. He believes passionately in human dignity and the right to life – and devotes himself and his organization to achieving such goodness. While he may do so with a personal atheism, his lack of religion does not seem to be a central tenant of his life or work. So too does the philosophy of humanism strive for a world where “God is irrelevant” – as Greg Epstein puts it. Humanism is clearly more than disbelief, and Rawat seems to understand that. Of course when he encounters harmful aspects of religion, he combats them with rationalism – but does so without advertisement or singularity of purpose.

Yet if this is the “embodiment” of the humanist philosophy, it does not seem sustainable. And herein lies humanism’s fundamental catch-22: how can one increase free thought without reneging its very philosophy in the act of promotion? This potential sterility of humanism is worrisome. The Social Development Foundation appears to be doing considerable work; though while it may be eradicating superstition, it doesn’t appear to be creating more humanists. Rationalists, maybe – or Hindus free from superstition – but not individuals taking up the humanist cause or young activists ready to teach the next generation to think for themselves.

When we left, Mr. Rawat handed us a book he wrote. It’s called “Land Rights are Human Rights” and is designed as a resource for “social activists on the ground who do not have access to information to fight their battle.” The book includes a history of land struggles in India, manuals for village mapping, report writing and bibliography making, and finally an amalgamation of declarations of rights, covenants and international laws. Not once is the word Humanism mentioned. But perhaps that doesn’t mean it’s not humanist. The word God is also omitted, and after all, the book teaches individuals to think freely, challenge established injustices and use scientific methods such as mapping and data collection as tools. The myriad Humanist journals, publications (and blogs) can hardly claim as much.