GENEVA (Reuters) – Humanist and atheist groups around the world are looking to boost their profile in 2005 to counter religious fundamentalism and efforts by some Western leaders to relaunch faith as a keystone of national life.
Under pressure from the rise of militant Islam, Vatican activism in the European Union and the re-election of a “born-again” Christian to the White House, they feel they must resist to ensure the ideas of secularism survive and spread.
“In the face of the religious onslaught on Humanist values, we have to speak out and get our message over,” says Roy Brown, Swiss-based president of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) which links groups totaling millions of members.
Two central events will be a World Atheist Conference at Vijayawada in India in early January and the IHEU’s World Congress in July at the Paris headquarters of UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
“We must work hard to combat the encroachment of religion on public policy and on the rights of non-believers everywhere,” said IHEU executive director Babu Gogineni.
Atheists, who see no evidence for the existence of a deity, and Humanists, who are mainly atheists but include some believers, share that core concern: to keep religion out of politics and limit it to the private sphere.
They draw their inspiration from freethinkers down the ages, from ancient Greek and Indian philosophers through the 18th century Enlightenment that shaped much of modern political thinking in Europe and North America.
But they see key Humanist principles — respect for human rights and racial and sexual equality with morality based on reason rather than on the dictates of a supreme being through a holy book — as under assault, and not just in Muslim countries.
The re-election in November of George W. Bush, U.S. Humanists fear, strengthened the influence of Christian fundamentalists dedicated to restoring the Bible, “God’s word,” to a central role in public life and foreign policy.
Many of Bush’s supporters appear to see the war in Iraq in the same terms as the president, and Muslim fundamentalists, as one arena of a cosmic struggle between good and evil in which what Humanists would regard as crimes are permissible on both sides.
Bush’s triumph has also boosted opponents of abortion and homosexuality, as well as supporters of Intelligent Design (ID) which rejects evolution — the development of all life on Earth from lower forms through natural selection of the fittest — as elaborated by 19th century British naturalist Charles Darwin.
The ID movement emerged from the ranks of U.S. creationists, who believe the Bible is literally correct and that their God created the world and all in it. ID limits itself to arguing that an intelligence must have shaped life.
In many U.S. states, fundamentalists on school boards ensure that creationism — taught widely until the late 1960s — is still present in some form. ID supporters are now demanding that their beliefs be taught alongside evolution.
Last month British philosopher Anthony Flew, long a champion of unbelief, announced to the dismay of some fellow atheists that he was now convinced an intelligence must have provided the spark of life and perhaps even done some designing.
His “conversion” was greeted with delight on creationist and Catholic Web sites. But Flew hastened to clarify that he believed that the intelligence involved was not the Christian, Jewish or Muslim “personal” deity, and that there is no “afterlife.”
GOD OF THE GAPS
Atheist scientist-thinkers, like British biologist Richard Dawkins, said Flew had simply come to “the god of the gaps” — a view held by some philosophers but few scientists that some “force” must have been at play because science has not pinned down how life could have begun otherwise.
In Britain, many Humanists feel that Prime Minister Tony Blair — a strong religious believer — and members of his government are undermining secular traditions.
They point to his promotion of faith schools run by various religious communities, including two financed by a fundamentalist businessman where creationism is taught as science.
Blair’s push for a new law that would protect all believers from “incitement to hate” on the grounds of their faith — a key demand of Muslim activists — is bound to restrict criticism of religion as such, Humanists argue.
His readiness to bend government policies to the views of “faith” leaders, they say, has led religious hard-liners to demand ever more concessions on social and cultural issues such as limiting the right to stage plays that might offend religion.
In most Muslim countries, religion and politics are closely intertwined and apostasy or renunciation of the faith is often a criminal offense. Penalties include execution, but “apostates” are routinely treated as outcasts and harassed.
Secular and evangelical Christian groups launched a campaign at the United Nations last year to convince Islamic leaders to work to change this, but to little effect.
However Humanists see some advances over the past year in Europe, Asia and even in Africa where atheists have begun to organize.
In Europe, Vatican efforts to have the EU constitution include a reference to the continent’s Christian heritage were blocked. The European Parliament voted to bar a traditionalist Italian Catholic from becoming the new justice commissioner.
France’s ban on Muslim headscarves in state schools was imposed in September with few problems, despite warnings that it would unleash protests and alienate many in Europe’s largest Islamic minority.
In Spain, the Socialists replaced the Catholic-inspired Popular Party after its decade in power and began a series of secular reforms angering the Church hierarchy, including a move to allow gay marriage.
The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party lost power in India’s general elections to the firmly secular Congress Party.
Even at the United Nations there was good news from for Humanists.
Bangladeshi writer and medical doctor Taslima Nasrin, living in exile after criticizing Islam and an active campaigner for the rights of women and the non-religious, was awarded a UNESCO prize for promoting cultural tolerance.
But at the same time a Vatican campaign led to the world body adding “Christianophobia” to “Islamophobia” and anti-Semitism as issues its human rights bodies report — a sign for many that religious forces are reinforcing their grip.