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REFLECTIONS AT THE TURN OF THE MILLENIU

Towards a Humanist Strategy for the year 2000

(by :Alexander Rehak - Deputy Chairman of IHEU's Associate Member Prometheus Society, Slovakia,

article published in INTERNATIONAL HUMANIST NEWS 7: 1-2. 1999.)

IN THE wake of the recent IHEU's World Humanist Congress in India, and the issues raised therein, many humanists necessarily ask: 'Are we really prepared to meet the challenges of the next millennium?' Humanist groups, especially those in regions opened just recently to organised humanism are apprehensive of the prospects for the balance between religions and humanism - whether organised or not organised. · First of all, secular movements are still split into a multitude of distinct views and activities, because of different priori6es.

· Secondly, the legal status of these movements is one of the factors preventing secular thinking and action from being embraced by a decisive proportion of humankind.

Humanism is not mere NGO activity

On the international scene, a new notion of Non-State Actors has emerged in recent years. Though there is wide-spread disagreement, according to some experts, multinational corporations, transnational political parties, religious institutions, and internationally active ethnic groups belong to this group. Nevertheless, among the aforesaid institutions there is a great difference as to their international status and influence.

Traditional religion has already achieved the status of a Non-State Actor: it is not subsumed under any NGO, but is considered a public corporation within each national community, with definite links across borders. Religions generally enjoy a very close partnership with state administration, as they are considered automatically representa6ves of groups of people nominally registered as adherents. In the case of the Roman Catholic Church, a direct intervention of the Holy See as a sovereign State into affairs of other sovereign States and their ci6zens is tolerated or even legally substantiated by varied Treaties and Concordats. Organised religions due to history and traditions thus have a much higher status, than any NGO, including humanist organisations at all levels.

In contrast to religion, humanist organisations and others which can be likened to them operate only as NGOs. Consequently, the position and impact of humanist organisations is incomparably lower than that of organised religions. Humanism needs to transcend the limitations of a simple NGO structure and prepare to operate as a non-state actor.

By establishing the typology of NGOs, the following categories can be distinguished:

a) grass-roots organisations focusing on self-help (or leisure time interests?) of members.

b) operational organisations and intermediary organisations which support the grass-roots organisations by counselling, funding, capacity building

c) advocacy NGOs focused generally on policy research and advocacy around specific issues.

If we consider this classification, humanist organisations on national level belong to category a.); IHEU belongs to category b).; and Amnesty International or Green peace would belong to category c).

In transcending its present structure, the Humanist movement has to provide, now and in the future, spiritual guidance to all who do not rely any more on religious tenets as a basis for progress of society. I use the word 'spiritual' advisedly, as this notion is not the exclusive domain of religions and cults, as many "afterlife-mongers" try to affirm. It follows that humanism as a Non-State Actor cannot remain an 'ideology' of a closed community of organised members. It should be open to all who are ready to accept the secular basis, and are prepared to take in their own hands the future of mankind without relying on supernatural powers.

A Bill of Rights for Non-religious People

Considering the fact of our lower status, it is imperative for the humanist movement to continuously campaign at international institutions to legalise the equality of organised religions and non-religious movements by special documents and by complementary "Bills of rights for non-religious people" , putting unequivocally non-religious convictions and organisations on a par with religious beliefs and organisations. Some attempts to this end done in the past have been abandoned.

One could object that existing legal documents - especially Articles 9 and 14 of ECHR and Article 18 of ICCPR are satisfactory guarantees to this end. The reality in many parts of the world refutes such a contention. Even in nations which claim separation of Church and State or at least neutrality, the principle of equality before law is too often violated. Dominant religious organisations enjoy privileges and subsidies, while other organisations in the same circumstances, including secularist groups, are not granted the same.

The current international legal system has left still enough room to ruling bodies for arbitrary decisions as regards equal treatment for groups claiming a religious identity and those that profess a non.-religious philosophy of life. I feel that without an explicit international document protecting the rights of non-believers, the unequal status of secularists and humanists vis-a-vis organised religions will persist for long, and organised religions will keep having a higher status and influence by fiat of tradition.

Ecumeny of Humanists

Another line to be followed in order to overcome the lack of balance in the current legal status of organised religions and humanist movement could be unifying our ranks.

Expanding our ranks by joining hands with humanist-minded people whether organised or not organised should become another of our priorities. Starting of new humanist organisations in regions where the movement does not yet have a presence is a useful means to recruit new adherents. But there is also a great pool of possible new grassroots in the multitude of varied movements, which operate as independent associations having very similar aims like humanists. Unifying all these groups under an alliance or a special umbrella institution (not necessarily IHEU) could be a great challenge for IHEU for the next millennium. Slight or more substantial differences which exist between them and the ideas of humanists should not deter us from creating or at least contributing to create a Central body of associations which although pluralist in their nature, are ready to join forces in issues which are common to all of them. I call this idea ironically: an Ecumeny of humanists!

Such a central body could become an internationally recognised Non-State Actor responsible for co-ordination of its national branches. The national branches on the other hand have to gain a legal status of "Public Corporations", not as NGOs but on an equal footing with religions. Expanding the Scope of Humanist Activities

Finally I want to touch on the scope of our activities which I feel to be somewhat neglected. It is the field of social problems of contemporary humankind. Poverty and ignorance are some of the most dangerous stumbling blocks impeding an optimistic outlook of strengthening humanism in the next millennium One cannot imagine genuine humanism without a deep concern for these phenomena. They are the source of many additional problems. Certainly the part to be played by humanists is one of the most ambitious tasks and for the time being the strategies to be applied are still rather vague. Besides compassion as one of basic principles of humanism, reason is the second principle, which is inviting humanist movements to be more active in these fields. Poverty and ignorance lead to apathy and reliance only on divine powers and supernatural miracles as help to its victims, which is at variance with ideals we cherish.

It is in these broad directions that the humanist movement must move in the coming years

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