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While secularism is a distant dream in some parts of Europe, the broader Humanist movement is now “mainstream” in several western European countries, a conference in Romania heard this weekend.

Representatives from Humanist organisations around the world met in Bucharest (24-26 May) for meetings held in conjunction with the Romanian Humanist AssociationAsociația Umanistă Română  (RHA). Keynote speakers included American science and atheism blogger PZ Myers and British psychologist Richard Wiseman.

The conference on “Education, Science and Human Values” hosted by the RHA at the enormous Palace of the Parliament, Saturday, was opened by RHA president Cezar Maroti, explaining the urgent need for secularism in Romania. At present the Romanian Orthodox Church is funded at the discretion of MPs with a colossal amount of taxpayers’ money; confessional religious education remains compulsory in all schools; and the number of ‘out’ non-religious people remains very low; and sexual minorities are subject to high levels of social discrimination and derogatory attacks even by political leaders.

Religion in schools

Emil Moise told the conference that despite compulsion in religion being against the constitution, confessional religious education is in effect compulsory in all schools in Romania. Opt-outs are nearly impossible to attain in practice and some children who did apply to opt out had been beaten by teachers. In addition, harsh conservative moralism can have a devastating effect on individuals caught in its glare. Moise relayed the case of a girl aged 10 who was the victim of rape by a family member; when it became clear she was pregnant she was expelled by her school and denied abortion.

Attila Nyerges explained how humanists were working for reform in the sector and what they hoped to offer in the future in the way of alternatives in religious education.

Catherine le Fur waded in for the International Association of Free Thought (IAFT) and the UK’s National Secular Society, with a survey of the pervasive influence of religion in schools, including backdoor funding methods such as voucher systems in countries such as the United Sates, which effectively are used to subsidise private religious institutions.

The church and state are very cosy in Romania. Oleg Brega from neighbouring Moldova gave a talk on the similarly pernicious anti-secular tendencies in his own country, and how a recent political meeting was called off simply because one political leader objected to sitting down with others who had shaken hands with gay rights campaigners.

PZ Myers spoke eloquently on the need for an open education system which did not focus solely on vocational training. There is a disproportionately high drop-out rate for ethnic minorities in American universities, Myers said, and it's not that academics are racist, but some students "are screwed over by the system, every step of the way."  Equal access to education and a knowledge-based society is always about more than stuffing people full of raw facts, he argued.

Science, Humanism and human rights

In a personal story about using "PZ" to distance himself from his grandfather, Paul, PZ Myers also explained that at a certain point he came to realise his grandfather's "grouchy" persona and bigoted views were a product of "poverty, ignorance and war", and while not justifying his actions, Myers came to understand that his own personality might have been very different, his whole life may have been blighted by a different situation, and this recognition of our vulnerability to circumstance is a gateway to empathy and humanism.

Representing the Sophie Lancaster Foundation in the UK, Sylvia Lancaster spoke about the death of her daughter in 2007, for whom the foundation is named. Sophie, a creative and amiable woman in her early twenties, was viciously attacked along with her boyfriend in what the courts recognised as a hate crime after the victims were “kicked to death” purely because of their goth style clothing. Sylvia discussed how the Sophie Lancaster Foundation is working to educate young people against bullying or attacking those who associate with alternative sub-cultures, a growing form of discrimination in many countries. As a result of their work with police, several forces in the UK now have special training and record attacks against goths, emos, punks and moshes as hate crimes. The foundation has inspired a similar organisation, the Black Cat Campaign, in Romania, where many regard goth and related styles as perverse or “Satanic”.

Boris van der Ham, new president of the Dutch Humanist AssociationHumanistisch Verbond, gave a survey of the range of challenges to Humanism across Europe, and noted that in some countries such as the Netherlands, Humanist organisations were now in the process of adapting to being in the moral majority or “mainstream” of social views.

Psychologist Richard Wiseman bewitched delegates with a well-crafted demonstration of how our own minds can betray us, noting that cognitive defects, like optical illusions and the tricks which magician’s use to fool us, also have their role to play in forming and sustaining religious and superstitious beliefs.

Romanian media reports from “gay conference”

The global debate on opening up marriage to same-sex couples has already reached Romanian, where it faces particularly widespread misinformation and condemnation from religious and political leaders. The conference’s opening talk by IHEU’s first vice president and British Humanist Association chief executive Andrew Copson rebutted the arguments against marriage equality for same-sex couples.

Reflecting negative attitudes to sexual minorities in the country, some national media then described the whole event as a “gay conference”. Long-time humanist activist Josh Kutchinsky noted on Twitter that this was “déjà vu [for] Uganda Humanists”, whose conference in 2004 was given a similar slant by a national media unable to see past the discussion on gay rights and resulting in the harassment of some delegates. (The footage below from Romanian television includes various interviews with speakers and delegates, some slightly skewed by decontexualisation!)

Humanist highlights

Around the RHA conference IHEU held its annual General Assembly, as did the European Humanist Federation (EHF) and our youth wing the International Humanist and Ethical Youth Organisation (IHEYO). IHEYO delegates heard an enthusiastic presentation on the upcoming European Humanist Youth Day in Belgium this August, and looked forward to the first Asia Humanism Conference to be held next month hosted by the Philippine Atheist and Agnostic Society (PATAS) and IHEYO.

At the IHEU General Assembly, president Sonja Eggerickx thanked Roger Lepeix for ten years service on the Executive Committee. With his stepping down from the EC and Andrew Copson's three-year term coming to an end, two places on the Committee were up for election. The GA re-elected Andrew Copson and elected the immediate past president of the Dutch Humanist Association, Rein Zunderdorp to the EC for a three-year term.

In addition to the GA’s formal business, Sonja welcomed the inaugural Freedom of Thought Report 2012, as the highlight of last year’s work, both as a unique and valuable resource in its own right, and in particular because it grew out of work by the American Humanist Association and others and remains a deeply collaborative project which even in 2012 involved several Member Organisations, and will receive input from an even wider field in 2013.

The GA also workshopped an upcoming online communications network for all IHEU Member Organisations and volunteers, which will form part of infrastructure for collaboration on next year’s report as well as networking humanist professionals, volunteers and others more widely.

The IHEU Distinguished Services to Humanism award was granted to Josh Kutchinsky. As a former trustee of the British Humanist Association, and current secretary of the Central London Humanists (despite moving to France), Josh has been involved in Humanist organisations for many years. The online humanist news and alerts system he runs has been a valuable tool of information between Humanist groups and individuals since 2004 and whether in person or through tireless online activism, Josh was thanked for his warm-hearted and generous, ongoing work for Humanism.

Romania is “a battleground”

Immediate past president of the Romanian Humanist Association and now Member of Parliament for the Green Party, Remus Cernea, closed the IHEU General Assembly on Sunday saying that “Romania is a battleground” in the progress of secular and liberal views and hosting the international Humanist community in Bucharest was “like a dream” and a huge positive step for Humanism in Eastern Europe. He thanked IHEU and all the Member Organisation representatives present for their support of Humanism in Romania.

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