Lim Say Liang
On 24 March 2012, the Reason Rally was held in Washington DC. The event, billed as “the largest gathering of the secular movement in world history”, attracted over 20,000 attendees. Shortly after, from 13 to 15 April 2012, the Global Atheist Convention was held in Melbourne. This attracted over 4,000 attendees. Not to be outdone, similar events are being organised in Philippines, Canada and Germany. For non-believers, this level of visibility on the global stage is unprecedented and, for some, long overdue.
Keen for local representation, members of the Humanist Society of Singapore (HSS) attended the event in Melbourne. There, it caught up with Roar Johnsen, Vice-President of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), to find out how independent-minded non-believers in Singapore too can come together and do good for society. The full text of the conversation follows.
HSS: Why is it important for organisations like the IHEU to be present at the Global Atheist Convention?
Johnsen: There’s always something new to learn from others and get inspiration from. Hopefully, we also get to make new connections, get to know new people and maybe in the future, support and bring them together. These are exciting times: there has been a huge breakthrough in the United States and secular groups are springing up in universities across the country. Humanists are coming together in places like India, Africa, Philippines, Indonesia, and of course, Singapore.
HSS: How can this phenomenon be a force for good?
Johnsen: Many people experience problems in society, whether it is at their workplace or with their family. Just to have someone to talk to is very important, to not feel that you are a strange person for not believing. To be able to have these discussions is a very good first step. And as atheists we don’t believe god or gods exist so we have to take responsibility for ourselves to bring about positive changes in the world.
HSS: Such as?
Johnsen: In Africa, there are about 20 new organisations over the last 10 years and some of those organisations are engaged in social activities such as helping the unemployed or the poor and providing alternative education for children where the only religious education is available. It is not just atheists. We need everybody to chip in. We need the skeptics to criticise superstition. We need the atheists to criticise religion. We need humanists to take care of ethical issues.
HSS: How about the New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, who adopt a more aggressive posture towards religion?
Johnsen: [Laughs] I think it is a great way to gain attention but sometimes I think they go too far, like when they think all other enterprises like humanism are a waste of time. That said, people like Dawkins and Harris come up with very good and very instructive books which help many people around the world to better articulate their thoughts and concerns. I would say that there is a balance between criticising religion and getting organised and doing good for society.
HSS: Sometimes non-believers can be too pessimistic, apathetic or independent about getting organised even though they are also concerned about the same issues as humanists are. They think, ‘What’s the point? Why should I bother?’ How can these people be moved?
Johnsen: I will tell them change does not happen overnight. Sometimes I joke about humanists having three types of meetings. You have the regular board meetings where you are planning the next gathering, the next activity. Everything is difficult; you don’t have enough resources, you don’t have enough volunteers and so on. Then once a year, you have the strategy meeting where you discuss and plan for the next few years and what you will like to achieve. This is a little more positive. Then you have the 10-year anniversary and review and you look back and go, Wow we have achieved so much.
HSS: Isn’t the success of the Norwegian Humanist Association (NHA) evidence that this is not a pipedream?
Johnsen: Absolutely. I have also been a volunteer with the NHA for more than 30 years, and in the very beginning it had only a few hundred members and it grew very slowly. In the late 60s we had around one thousand members and we realised that as the non-religious, we were fairly recognized as a lifestance organisation, however to have more political impact we needed more members, so we embarked on a new strategy of active recruitment and outreach. Today, it is probably one of the largest humanist organisations in the world. We have around 80,000 members in a country with about five million inhabitants.
HSS: Given the significance of Humanism in Norway today, why is it still important for you to promote it actively?
Johnsen: Even if the NHA is relatively large, there are still many Norwegians who sympathize but who are not members. And as long as the state church has privileges in society, we have a battle to fight. The Norwegian humanists have also been supporters of IHEU since the beginning. We feel that it is fair that we offer some of our resources back to the international community so that we can help other organisations develop themselves, whether they call themselves humanists, atheists, freethinkers or rationalists. Solidarity is not only at home, it is global!
Photo courtesy of Crouchy69, Flickr Commons.