Report by Dr Anthony Lewis who attended the Congress with his husband Rick Field.
The 2023 World Humanist Congress addressed the global issues of religious dominance in politics, risks faced by humanists worldwide, and the impact of the ongoing global culture wars. The importance of the core values of humanism in promoting reasoned discourse, tolerance, and evidence-based policies emerged as a key message from the congress.
There were more than 400 delegates from over 40 countries at this year's 2023 World Humanist Congress held in Copenhagen in Denmark. The theme of the Congress was Building Better Democracies Through Humanist Values, which re-affirms that democracy is at its core about freedom of expression but is also, importantly, about safeguarding the rights of minorities.
The congress was a wonderful opportunity to meet and listen to humanists from around the world. The Congress was opened by Sandi Toksvig, the Danish-British writer, comedian, and broadcaster, who gave a moving and humorous take on her life as a public humanist. The Norwegian Humanist Choir gave a rousing rendition of John Lennon's 'Imagine' and the song ‘This is Me’ from the film The Showman. The uncompromising UK resident artist for the Congress, Victoria Gugenheim, presented her incredible body art painted onto the naked torso of a brave lady from Norway to promote women's rights, in a very moving presentation during the Congress dinner. After this, a Danish trio sung some beautiful Ukrainian laments which ended with a rousing rendition of Bob Dylan's Blowing in the Wind. A particularly special memory for most delegates was the formal evening reception held in Copenhagen’s stunning medieval City Hall.
There were numerous parallel sessions dealing with a broad range of issues from different parts of the world. Far too many to report on in detail or even physically attend. My husband Rick and I also had lots of interesting conversations with many fellow delegates over coffee and cake during the day, and drank way too many beers in the evenings, where the discourse was perhaps at times less than erudite! It was an intensive but incredible weekend on many levels. Rather than give a blow by blow account of the individual talks and discussions I prefer instead to describe the three topics that made the biggest impression on us during our four days in Copenhagen.
Humanists are at risk
What struck me the most was that, in many parts of the world, religious faith still dominates politics and discourse. David Pineda of Humanistas Guatemala, described how evangelical megachurches now had parity with the traditional Catholic Church which, together with the added mix of ‘dark cartel’ drug money, made the coming elections particularly fraught. In India, Dr Sudesh Ghoderao described how the current BJP government was leading a resurgent and divisive Hindu nationalism with the imposition of new anti-conversion laws due in 2024. Wonderful Mkhutche, President of Humanists Malawi, described how 98% of the population there are still religious (80% Christian, 18% Muslim). He amusingly recounted how Malawi held a National Day of Prayer for rains every year just before the rainy season was due to start. He described how, as one of the few public voices for reason and evidence based policy, he has a growing impact in the media and on government policy in Malawi, despite the domination of religion in public life.
"I urge all of our readers to become active supporters of the work undertaken by Humanists International, to nurture free thinkers and support our fellow humanists at risk."
Humanists International recently produced their Freedom of Thought Report 2023, which provides an interactive summary of the discrimination and persecution that humanists, atheists and the non-religious face across the world. They also have an active programme of supporting Humanists at Risk and have managed to assist some 150 people across 35 countries in the last 12 months. Many humanists across the globe risk everything. Despite being small in number, they can all have a significant impact in their country just by being visible, as achieved by Wonderful Mkhutche from Malawi mentioned above. This was the biggest take away for me, about how important it is to support fellow humanists who are operating in countries where they are not safe. I urge all our readers to become active supporters of the work undertaken by Humanists International to nurture free thinkers and support our fellow humanists at risk (links are provided below). During the Congress there was an active campaign to show support for the Nigerian human rights activist and President of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, Mubarak Bala, who is currently serving a 24-year prison sentence for a small number of Facebook posts which were judged to be offensive to religious sensibilities.
War is hell
Oleksandra Romantsova from the Ukrainian Centre for Civil Liberties, who jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2022, described how the war in Ukraine started in 2014 as part of a wider geopolitical strategy by Vladimir Putin to create a ‘grey zone’ of unstable countries bordering the Russian Federation. She highlighted that, since the full-scale invasion in 2022, there are now over forty war crimes reported every day from the occupied Ukrainian territories, and over fourteen million refugees. She described how the organisation Tribunal for Putin (T4P) has documented over 47,000 war crimes. Based on this and other evidence, the International Criminal Court based in the Netherlands issued a warrant in 2023 for the arrest of Vladimir Putin.
The Romanian freelance journalist Remus Cernea, who writes regularly for Newsweek magazine, then gave a first hand account of what life is like on the front line in Ukraine. His powerful message was that ‘war is hell’. He demonstrated this with a series of shocking film clips of the impact of the Russian invasion on the citizens of Ukraine, which received a standing ovation. His very moving video of a young Ukrainian woman singing the Ukrainian national anthem in the ruins of the recently bombed UNESCO-listed Odessa cathedral was a particular poignant moment at the Congress.
"Where the rule of law ends war begins." Winston Churchill
This powerful act of individual resistance demonstrated clearly the importance of what Professor Sofia Näsström from Uppsala University in Sweden had called the ‘spirit of democracy’, in her talk in an earlier session about the need for democracy to be deeply embedded in civil society for it to endure. She argued that the burden of freedom required all citizens in a democracy to take individual responsibility to participate in the public square to prevent the rise of despotism. The former Prime Minister of Norway, Thorbjørn Jagland, in his keynote address also emphasised the primacy of individual rights and freedoms as enshrined in the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He argued that the rules-based world order that had endured since the Second World War was unravelling. He quoted Churchill ‘Where the rule of law ends war begins’. He observed that the devastation in Ukraine, and previously in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen, stood as testament to Churchill's brutal truism.
Democracy is about ‘diversity not uniformity, plurality not majoritarianism and, most importantly, compromise'. Abdul-Wadud Mohammed
Global culture wars
Nicole Carr, CEO of the American Humanist Association, and Nick Fish, President of American Atheists, described how there was an ongoing resurgence in ‘Christian nationalism’ underway in the USA, despite the non-religious increasing to 30% of the population. Well-funded religious and political groups on the right in the US are challenging democratic processes by using various judicial tactics termed ‘law-fare’. For example, Project Blitz has led to over 500 bills being pushed through State legislatures in the US. The situation there is worrying, especially given the old adage that ‘When America sneezes the world catches a cold’. This ‘US export process’ appears to be having an impact outside North America. We heard from various speakers about how well-funded US evangelical churches have exported their religious intolerance, as illustrated by the growth of evangelical churches in Brazil, Guatemala and elsewhere in South America, and the recent passing of draconian anti-gay laws in Uganda. Abdul-Wadud Mohammed (known as Mo) from Ghana lamented in one of the parallel sessions that Africa continues to be ‘the playground for global politics’. He also pointed out that the Western progressive language of ‘queer rights' means little to the average Ghanaian housewife struggling to make ends meet in the local market. Exporting such western terminology was perhaps not the best way to counter the growth of evangelicalism. Mo wisely concluded that democracy is about ‘diversity not uniformity, plurality not majoritarianism and, most importantly, compromise'.
‘The arc of the moral universe is long... but it bends toward justice.’ Martin Luther King Jr
During one of the breaks, I had the pleasure of talking about these trends to a retired journalist. He gave me an interesting perspective on the increasingly polarised ‘global culture wars’ being exported out of the US at the moment. He explained that most political organisations had now become equally effective at advocacy and campaigning, producing what he described as 'an accelerating global arms race of polarisation’. He observed that whether the groups were religious evangelicals, anti-abortion zealots, climate activists, the radical ‘woke’ left, the nationalist right, or even those of the political centre, all were now deploying the same modern techniques of advocacy. He listed a few of these tactics such as ‘othering’ opponents, using derogatory language to label other humans, exploiting the judiciary through ‘law-fare’, catastrophising every controversy, exploiting the mainstream media, and of course, using social media to further fuel the resulting partisan divisions.
We both agreed that when everyone is advocating, finding the necessary compromises on controversial issues where there is a need to balance conflicting rights, becomes increasingly difficult, if not impossible. This is because few people are listening to other points of view and perspectives. He pointed out that the long-term trends were actually positive and towards greater freedom and secularism, as recorded by the ‘World Values Survey’ which was updated earlier this year (links provided below). But he acknowledged that there was still a long way to go before many countries mirrored what Scandinavian countries have been able to achieve (top right in the map above). In her talk. Nicole Carr, CEO of the American Humanist Association, urged everyone not to despair, and she quoted the famous adage popularised by Martin Luther King Jr: ‘Let us realise the arc of the moral universe is long .. but it bends toward justice’. However, as we headed into another session of talks, Rick and I agreed that it is important for humanism, amidst this cacophony of advocacy, to be a voice for tolerance, balanced perspectives and rational discourse based on evidence and reason. We both felt that it is important for humanism not to become just another 'player' embroiled in the ongoing ‘advocacy arms race’.
In his talk at the opening session of the conference Andrew Copson, President of Humanists International and CEO of Humanists UK, reiterated that the building blocks of humanism are not passive endeavours but are based on the three core values of reason, compassion and human dignity, and that these are not exclusive to humanism. This means that there is wide scope for humanists to build a common democratic purpose through dialogue with others to develop evidence-based public policy and evolve our democracies for the benefit of the whole of humanity. However, in the final session of the conference, Nazila Ghanea, who is UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief and Professor of International Human Rights Law at the University of Oxford, cautioned about criminalising hate speech. She saw this as an example of ill-conceived new laws which can seem like progress in the short term, but end up being misused by bad faith actors in the future to criminalise normal civil society actions. This would inadvertently fuel the current ‘arms race of polarisation’. These wise words of warning about the need for well-reasoned policies was a great way to end the Congress on a realistic, but sobering note.
World Humanist Congress - https://whc2023.com/
Copenhagen Declaration on Democracy & Humanism - https://humanists.international/policy/copenhagen-declaration-on-democracy-a-humanist-value/
World Values Survey 2023 - https://www.worldvaluessurvey.org/WVSNewsShow.jsp?ID=467
Freedom of Thought Report Humanist International 2023 - https://fot.humanists.international/
Supporting Mubarak Bala - https://humanists.international/case-of-concern/mubarak-bala/
Tribunal for Putin T4P - https://t4pua.org/en/1084