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Opening speech by IHEU President, Roy Brown
Submitted by admin on 5 July, 2005 - 09:10
Ladies and Gentlemen, distinguished guests, free-thinkers, fellow Humanists.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the French law of separation of Church and State. It is therefore both timely and appropriate that this, the 16th World Humanist Congress be held here in Paris.
It is also appropriate that we are holding the opening session here in UNESCO. As many of you know, IHEU maintains operational relations with UNESCO, and the two organisations go back a long way together. The first Director General of UNESCO, Julian Huxley, chaired the first IHEU Congress in Amsterdam in 1952.
But more importantly, both organisations share their dedication to education, science and, dare I say it? Humanist values.
France, the cradle of the Enlightenment, has for over two hundred years been at the forefront in the struggle for human rights, freedom of conscience, and freedom of expression. These rights are now enshrined in many national constitutions as well as in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international conventions. But these rights, to which virtually every state pays lip service, are nowhere fully observed, and world-wide, they are coming under increasing attack.
The key question for civilised society is this: How best can we safeguard the basic rights of the individual?
Everywhere we look today we see powerful forces seeking to limit individual rights in the name of some group, or some supposedly "higher" purpose. And, almost invariably, that "higher" purpose is submission to the will of some god.
Above all, we must remember that human rights are individual rights. No group, however powerful, has the right to subvert the rights of the individual. Yet they do, and sadly, politicians listen. As just as one example, how do we know that Muslims are willing members of the group - when to leave Islam, or even to question Islam, is to risk death?
While as Humanists we defend the right of everyone to freedom of conscience and freedom of expression, we must oppose the increasing tendency of religious leaders to speak not only for their own followers, but for the whole of society, attempting to impose their own particular world-views on the whole of humanity.
We are engaged in a world-wide struggle against the forces of fundamentalism - in India, in the Islamic world, in the United States, in Africa, in the former Soviet Union and now, once again, in Europe. The battle for the Enlightenment we though was won must now be fought again.
In the United States, we have the spectacle of a president whose gut feelings carry more weight than hard evidence, and who believes that he was obeying the will of God by leading his country into an illegal war. And what more chilling demonstration could there be of the power of the media and Christian fundamentalism in America, than that having led his country into war, against the wrong enemy, and without any credible justification, this man was re-elected for a second term.
In Russia, the dreams of an open society following the fall of Communism are fading, with an increasingly authoritarian president giving increasing power to the Russian Church.
Attempts to turn India into a Hindu theocracy, denying rights, including full protection under the law to Muslims and other minorities, have for the moment at least been averted, but the sectarian pressures are still there and could bubble over into violence at any time.
In Africa we see the old animist beliefs being overlaid by radical Islam and charismatic Christianity: new religions which have actually reinforced belief in witchcraft and miracles.
In Europe, the new pope, in almost the first acts of his papacy, has interfered in national politics in Spain and Italy, and has declared war on "secularism". But what does he mean by secularism? And what do we mean by the term?
- Secularism is not the same thing as militant atheism.
- Secularism is non-religious, not anti-religious.
- A secular state is neutral in matters of religion.
- A secular society favours no religion and discriminates against none.
Aristide Briand, in presenting his report to the French National Assembly in 1905, said that separation of Church and State is the only system that can preserve and safeguard the rights of all. We are here this week to reaffirm that truth. The French struggle for separation has become a world-wide struggle.
The struggle for secularism and separation is a struggle that we cannot afford to lose. At stake is nothing less that the future of civilisation itself.
I wish you all every success in your deliberations this week. I hope that by the end of the Congress every one of you will feel newly inspired and newly committed to the cause of Humanism and Secularism. We all have a role to play, and every one of us must play their part.