At the World Humanist Congress, held every three years, the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) gives awards for outstanding service to Humanism. At the August 2011 Congress in Oslo, IHEU gave awards to activists and leaders from India, the Netherlands, the UK and the USA.

The Distinguished Service to Humanism Award recognizes exceptional contributions to the work of IHEU. This year, the Award was given to three individuals: Professor Nayendra Nayak, David Pollock, and V.B. Rawat.

The International Humanist Award recognizes individuals who have made an outstanding contribution to advancing Humanist principles in society. Past winners include Andrei Sakharov, Alexander Dubcek, Amartya Sen and Philip Pullman. This year the Award was given to two people: Sophie in’t Veld, MEP, and Professor P Z Myers.

The following citations were given to all the awardees by IHEU president Sonja Eggerickx:

VB Rawat

Our first awardee first came in contact with IHEU in 2002 in Noordwijkerhout, when he was sponsored to participate in the 50th Anniversary World Humanist Congress of the IHEU where he led a youth workshop on Conflict in Society. Since then, many in the IHEU had the opportunity to note the self-less passion in him to fight injustice in the society around him.

VB RawatWhy else would he lead a padayatra – a march on foot – of leaders of the Uttar Pradesh Land Alliance in the sweltering summer heat of North India in 2007 to villages on a 300 kilometre trip to conduct social audits, and to sensitize people to their right to food and to their land entitlement?

Earlier, he had carried a camera to record the woes of his fellow Indians, and brought to light the lives of the Mushahar tribes who are forced to eat rats and snails to ward off crippling hunger – these are no French delicacies. If they do not eat these, their wasting bodies will die.

He has also worked to bring together fishermen who have been deprived of their traditional fishing rights by a big industrial house– and helped the campaign till its legal victory in the Supreme Court of India.

He went to the tsunami hit areas of South India and alerted all to the fact that lower caste victims did not receive any substantial humanitarian aid!

Needless to say this kind of work is always dangerous, fraught with threats to his personal safety, both from the officials and private parties.

He has identified the ruthless and despicable caste system as the greatest danger to the modernization of Indian society and he has been battling the caste system’s ideological roots as well as its economic grip in the areas of his action. 

He was invited to join the anti-superstition campaign IHEU was building in South Asia, and is today the anchor for that initiative in North India working also with another star, Mr. Chandraiah. He helped with the International Conference on Untouchability in London in 2009.

Then, his organization the Social Development Foundation was chosen as IHEU strategic partner to set up the Global Alliance Against Untouchability, with a three year grant from IHEU.

His is a constructive approach to Human Rights that IHEU supports and is closely associated with. After all, at the heart of Human Rights is the sense of Human Dignity which is what V.B. Rawat’s work is restoring to victims.

It gives IHEU great pleasure to give VB Rawat the 2011 Distinguished Service to Humanism Award.

Professor Narendra Nayak

Our second awardee is a connoisseur of food, and a believer in the magical properties of beer. He is today India’s most active anti-superstition activist, fighting the magical conception of the world, and building a grassroots movement.

Narendra NayakHe speaks nine languages and can lecture in all of them, which is what he has been doing across the length and breadth of India for several years, and especially since he took voluntary retirement from his well paid job as a Professor of Bio Chemistry at a Medical College in Mangalore.

He resigned from his job because of the call of duty: the mantle of promoting Rationalism fell on him as the indomitable but ageing Premanand asked him to step in. And he has been true to Premanand’s vision and commitment: he has conducted at least 3000 miracle-exposure and science popularization shows, and trained several hundred activists. He addresses gatherings in villages and in town halls; he speaks at important high-level workshops on science.

He travels so much by train that his close collaborator Babu Gogineni has recommended that he should pay rent to the Indian railways rather than to his landlord in Mangalore where he is also quite well known as a consumer rights activist.

His public sessions are aimed at educating people of all ages, starting from children to professionals. The sessions are also entertaining and make spectacular visuals: National Geographic Channel, Discovery Channel and Australia’s Channel 9 have all showcased his work.

As a life-long teacher he has been sharing his knowledge with others: he is a national level resource person for the National Council for Science and Technology and played an important role in the Children’s Science Congresses in India.

Millions in India have seen him on TV performing psychic surgery, materializing objects from nowhere, and challenging Godmen in India and Nepal to demonstrate a miracle. He has offered a million rupees to anyone who can demonstrate a miracle. His million rupees seem to be safe!

He is President of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations which is now growing from strength to strength. He has been closely associated with IHEU in all the recent initiatives in the Indian subcontinent, participating and supporting.

It gives IHEU great pleasure to give Professor Narendra Nayak the 2011 Distinguished Service to Humanism Award.

David Pollock

2011 marks the next recipient’s fiftieth active year in the humanist movement since he first became involved with the Oxford University Humanists in 1961.

David PollockSince that time he has made an enormous contribution to Humanism both in Britain and internationally.

He has been President of the European Humanist Federation since 2006 and in those five years has been relentless in pursuing the humanist agenda of secularism, human rights and equality within European and international institutions: the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, the OSCE in Vienna, the EU institutions in Brussels.

He has been a director of the New Humanist magazine for over 30 years and a trustee of the British Humanist Association for 24 years, serving as its chair in the 1970s.

In more recent years he has chaired the BHA’s Parliamentary Working Group and worked tirelessly on its public policy and campaigning agenda.

He has been counted an invaluable colleague by the last two chief executives of the Association and a mentor and friend by its current one. He has contributed original thought to the movement as well as personal dynamism, most recently in relation to the question of conscientious objection, a most difficult issue.

When not to be found in his almost full time Humanism, he is cataloguing rare prints in the Museum of London, volunteering for the National Theatre, digging up Roman remains as an amateur archaeologist, or digging his garden. A civilized and dynamic human being in his private as well as his public life,

You will by now know that we are honouring David Pollock.

It gives IHEU great pleasure to award David Pollock the 2011 Distinguished Service to Humanism Award.

I now move on to the International Humanist Award. This award is given out every three years at our Congress. Again – this year we have more than one recipient.

Professor PZ Myers

PZ MyersThe first awardee’s blog Pharyngula is a global phenomenon and in 2006 was named by ‘Nature’ magazine as the top-ranked blog by a scientist. His deep commitment to science and science communication is embodied by his blog and his continuing work in encouraging other scientists to use the internet to spread reason and scientific understanding.

He is a controversialist by temperament and gained headlines in 2008 when he responded to outrageous Catholic harassment of one student by posting photographs to his blog of himself desecrating a communion wafer, a page of the Koran and a page of the God Delusion.

Known in the United States in particular as an atheist, skeptic and humanist, he was the American Humanist Association’s Humanist of the Year in 2009.

You will of course have realized that he is Professor PZ Myers.

It gives IHEU great pleasure to award Professor PZ Myers the 2011 International Humanist Award.

Sophie in’t Veld

The second award goes to a Parliamentarian who works tirelessly for the cause of secularism in Europe. A medievalist by training, a linguist with six languages to call on, a politician by accident (she says) after failing to get a job in the private sector, we have to admit she has other interests in life apart from Humanism.

Sophie in't VeldBut what interests! 

She is a champion of privacy and human rights and serves as vice-chair of the European Parliament Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs. Her questioning the EU’s readiness to transfer information about transatlantic passengers to the US government has got her onto a very select US immigration watch list.

She is a champion of women’s rights and serves on the European Parliament’s Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality. Her quick intervention earlier this year stopped the Hungarian government using EU money to finance an anti-abortion campaign.

She is a constant defender of LGBT rights. She demanded that the President of the European Commission condemn the Pope’s remarks when he said that gays were a bigger threat to mankind than the destruction of the rainforests. She said: “The European Commission cannot look the other way when a subject is sensitive or awkward”. It does, of course, but not without incurring her wrath.

But most of all she is a humanist and secularist, speaking at meetings and rallies, writing and campaigning. In her native Netherlands she is the chair of the Humanist Broadcasting Foundation. As soon as she got elected to the European Parliament in 2004 she started the Platform for Secularism in Politics (as it is now called). Its bi-monthly lunchtime meetings now regularly attract 80-100 people, some travelling across Europe to be there. Through it she successfully recruits liberal Christians as our allies in seeking separation of religion and politics. She gets significant speakers – most recently the President of the Parliament – and experts who go deeply into secularist issues in education, healthcare and justice, challenging discrimination and religious privilege. And the Platform has led to the creation of a valuable new network, the Alliance for a Secular Europe.

She is feisty and passionate, inventive and tenacious, constantly rushing from one engagement to another, a workaholic in defence of all the causes and values we hold dearest. She is!

It gives IHEU great pleasure to award Sophie in’t Veld the 2011 International Humanist Award.

–photos by Roar Johnsen.

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