Indian Rationalist Association - Golden Jubilee - A report by Iain Middleton
President, New Zealand Humanist Society; Editor, The New Zealand Humanist
Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of the Indian state of Kerala, was the venue for the Second International Rationalist Conference from the 17th to the 21st January 2000 and the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Indian Rationalist Association.
Thiruvananthapuram, the City of the Sacred Serpent, formerly known as Trivandrum, is still referred to by that name by those who find the Malayalam pronunciation and spelling difficult. Land transport is used to reach this southern state capital, located some 1,560 kilometres south of Mumbai, by those with time on their hands. Road travel in Kerala averages less than 30 km/h on narrow and congested roads that seem to pass through endless villages, a result of ribbon development. Rail travel in the state is little faster and slower than on the northern Indian rail corridors where express trains exceed 100 km/h. Kerala is in many respects a remote and isolated part of India.
Approaching from the air, the traveller sees a narrow strip of land between the Arabian Sea and Western Gnats that form a barrier to its larger neighbour Tamil Nadu to the east. In some aspects like New Zealand’s South Island West coast it appears to be a land covered in trees with little sign of civilisation. Coconut palms dominate the lower areas, rubber trees are found on higher slopes eventually giving way to tea bushes in the cooler hills that reach above 1,000 metres. A fertile land, it also features rice, mangoes, cashew nut trees, sandalwood and innumerable spices. From the air the occasional church spire protruding above the trees is the only indication of a population of more than 30 million people hidden beneath the canopy.
On the ground we discover the people and villages beneath the coconut palms. The cities are smaller and more relaxed than many in India. The visitor who has glided on the tranquil lagoons or bathed at Kovalum beach may not be surprised to see a sign in Trivandrum that proclaims "Kerala, Gods own Country" or to learn that National Geographic has listed Kerala as one of the fifty must see locations in the world.
The natural riches of the area have attracted trade for most of the last 2,000 years. The coast was known to the Romans and the Phoenicians. The Arabs who controlled the trade of spices from the Moluccas to Europe traded along the coast and introduced the Syrian Orthodox church to Kerala before 190 CE. The Chinese followed – Chinese style fishing nets are still used in the lagoons. The Portuguese arrived 500 years ago, attempting to break the Arab control of the spice trade. They were surprised to find that not only had Christianity preceded them but the local Christians had never heard of the Pope! Local mythology holds that in 52 CE St Thomas the Apostle, doubting Thomas, arrived on the coast but this claim is very dubious. The English introduced the Anglican church. A small Jewish community is found in Kochi (Cochin). They are said to be the descendants of Jewish settlers who fled Palestine 2,000 years ago but have declined rapidly over the last 50 years and now number about 20 members. The present population of Kerala is roughly 60% Hindu with more Hindu in the south, 20% Muslim with more in the north and 20% Christian with the greatest concentration in the centre of the state.
Kerala was formed in 1956 by combining Travancore, Cochin, and Malabar into a Malayalam speaking state. The former princely states of Travancore and Cochin, ruled by maharajas, paid considerable attention to the provision of basic services and education and women were highly respected in these matriarchal societies. This history of social welfare resulted in Kerala becoming the most progressive, literate and highly educated state in India after independence. Kerala elected the first freely elected communist government in 1957 and the Marxists have been in and out of office since.
This early momentum has not been maintained. Kerala has not grown economically over the last 25 years. Again we are reminded of New Zealand’s West Coast where the geographical isolation has hindered economic development. Politics may now be hindering further increases in living standards and development in Kerala. Street marches and demonstrations are a regular feature in Trivandrum. Music students march to protest changes to their curriculum, school children march to mark Mahatma Gandhi day, unions to protesting their rates of pay and conditions, and priests and holy men to demonstrate their supposedly miraculous powers. Plastic shopping bags, a feature of modern life, litter some streets. The local zoo, featuring now rare Indian animals, has banned all plastic bags after an animal that ate one died.
With a long history of contact with the outside world the Keralans are a cosmopolitan people and many have migrated to other parts of India and the world including New Zealand. At the University in Trivandrum, bright young students with qualifications in computer skills, electrical engineering and other tradeable knowledge can be seen queuing to register on the internet for jobs on the world market.
This was my first visit to Trivandrum. The first excitement occurred shortly after landing. We got to the end of the runway and began to taxi. Suddenly the plane stopped and shut down all power while fire tenders surrounded the plane. One passenger began to panic. Believed to be just a hydraulic failure, we were towed to the terminal where we arrived thirty minutes later.
The venue for the conference was the recently refurbished Victoria Jubilee Town Hall in the centre of Trivandrum. There were more than 30 speakers from around the world including myself and Bill Cooke representing New Zealand. The organisers report that there were more than 400 registered participants from 22 countries – the majority from India. The language of the conference was English. The hosts were the Indian Rationalist Association. With more than 80,000 members this organisation is known for its publishing activities and for its strenuous efforts to expose miracles and godmen.
Monday 17 January
The conference opened at 3 pm with a flag hoisting ceremony – the flag was raised by Joseph Edamaruku, the current president of the Indian Rationalist Association – and a Chenda Melam (Kerala Drum performance). Sanal Edamaruku, Secretary General, Indian Rationalist Association and Founder President of Rationalist International, welcomed the delegates and outlined how the Indian Rationalist Association had been founded fifty years ago with a list of Indian members of the Rationalist Press Association. His own father Joseph Edamaruku being one of the early associates in the 1950's.'
The session chair Dr. Harry Stopes-Roe gave the Address of the Chair. He warned of the threat from the media – the very core and life blood of Rationalism could be undermined and destroyed, he said, by a confrontational approach to the media. "Rationality is characterised by applying reason to reason." The prime expression of Rationalism is found in science – the essence of science is to formulate and to make explicit and to test. It excludes value statements in its premises – it does not say that valuing this is good but it allows that people do make value judgements. Science has universality and applies everywhere but is not a complete body of knowledge. The suggestion that women have a different science is absurd. Rationality is broader than science. It considers questions such as the right places for emotions and values and where do values come from. We all accept a naturalistic view of the Universe. Values are created by natural beings. The important thing about a god is that god has purpose and creates values. Rationalists should present the importance of Rationality and hence science (applied rationality) – but this is not the whole of our human concern. There are values and the higher animals also have feelings. Our feelings are important and as humanists we recognise that, and are sensitive to other individuals. The importance of the media must be recognised and its worst influences countered by a strong and powerful organisation. From the audience Jean-Claude Pecker stressed the importance of teaching Rationalism at an elementary level. Some people are rational but ascribe the universality of science to god!
Paul Kurtz gave the Inaugural Address. He said that the Indian Rationalist Association was the best known of the Indian Humanist, Secularist, and Rationalist groups, each with different agendas and political viewpoints, in North America at least. It is known for exposing Sai Baba, the statues that weep milk, and many other questionable claims of god men. These exposures have received substantial coverage in the New York Times and on National television and radio. This is significant for during the last century Indian soothsayers and gurus have come to the West, claiming mystical and paranormal powers, and it is important that their claims be critically exposed. Too few people today are prepared to challenge religion.
Rationalism is the single most important contribution to human history. Rationalism refers to an epistemological criterion that seeks to test claims to truth by reference to reason and experience. The scientific method is the best example of this criterion. There is nothing mystical about science. With increasing literacy science is open to all. Any belief hypothesis should be supported by objective reason. If it can not then it should be rejected.
Joseph Edamaruku, president of the Indian Rationalist Association raises the flag.
Recently fundamentalist religions have come back very strongly. The Rationalists of India stand out as heroes because it is considered bad taste to criticise religion. A battleground exists in two areas, ethics and morals. It is a mistake to argue that you cannot apply rationality to the moral life. It is a great frontier to develop an alternative morality. This is why Rationalism is becoming aligned to Humanism – to maximise the highest we are capable of.
We need to see how far we can apply reason to society. The reality of the 21st century is that we are a global society – we need to work out the details for a new kind of global society – to apply the method of reason to social and political problems on a global scale. We need to reason together, not fight. Reason is most essential. We need the commitment of reason, to abandon the ideologies of the past. Now we are talking about global democracy.
The media is dominated by vulgarities and banalities. We need to battle against non-rational debate in the media. We need secular societies. We battle for freedom, for the free mind. We come to praise rationalism.
From the audience, Jean-Claude Pecker asked how communities, both thinking that they are rational, can sometimes come to opposite positions. Paul Kurtz replied that science is universal and ethics is also universal. It is generally necessary to find common ground to prevent the fragmentation of the global community.
The Indian cartoonist, Abu Abraham, spoke about how a well known Indian poet and personal friend of his had recently converted from Hinduism to Islam. "Why, why didn’t she join us. Perhaps we are not active enough in seeking out these people. To jump from one religion she found oppressive to one that is equally or more oppressive. You don’t need to have religion to follow a moral code. I told my daughter, you don’t need to become a Hindu to find out about the religion, you can read about it in my books."
"Religion is the tragedy of mankind, the root of much evil. It is much deadlier than opium. It does not send people to sleep but excites them to war. It appeals to all the loftiest of ideals but delivers suffering and pain. Religious people like this live in a world of their own, they are not concerned with the real problems of society. After 5,000 years of culture in India, 70% of our people are illiterate."
Joseph Edamaruku, president of the Indian Rationalist Association, giving the Jubilee Address, described how the Indian Rationalist Association had been founded at a meeting in Madras in 1949. It was a philosophy verifiable by experience. He spoke about the founders and outlined the history of Rationalism in India.
He was asked if an "Atheist Hindu" was possible given that the term Hindu was a name that had been applied to a collection of Indian sects. Joseph Edamaruku considered that it was not possible to be an Atheist Hindu but another Indian delegate in the audience disputed this and said that Hindu can cover everything from an Atheist to smallpox worship.
Levi Fragell brought greetings from the IHEU. He said that he had learnt more about Humanism in India during his twelve visits than in any other country. "I have learnt about Humanism in action". In Andhra Pradesh he had learnt about social reform. Raising people up and reforming people. In Chennai he had learnt about social justice and in Trivandrum he had met Joseph and Sanal Edamaruku fighting for the rational mind.
The highlight of the evening was a Miracle Exposure Programme conducted by Sanal Edamaruku. He described how on the day of the milk miracle – the day that statues of Ganesh would start to drink milk from a spoon – Rationalists all over India were ready and exposed the miracle the same day. If we hadn’t been ready, he said, somebody would have made political capital out of it. When the spoon is held to the statue, surface tension draws milk from the tilted spoon and it passes in a thin barely visible film to the base of the statue where it accumulates – no miracle here.
Incidentally, at the time the Wellington news paper, The Evening Post, published a front page photograph of a statue of Ganesh and described how the miracle was also occurring in the homes of New Zealand Hindus but failed to publish the explanation.
Sanal told us that students at Sai Baba’s college had been shown how to perform Sai Baba’s trademark trick of making holy ash appear from his hands and could now do it themselves.
He talked about the Kerala miracle of the divine light, gods descending from the sky on an auspicious day that is announced in advance, once a year. Television had made live broadcasts and there was live radio coverage. Crowds of pilgrims were attracted to see the miracle. Rationalist investigators found a group of people with a large pile of camphor that was burnt in a pot on a hill. This was held up and then tilted so that the fire could be seen descending as it was lowered. Rationalists were tortured and brutally beaten by police for their attempts to expose the hoax. The temple committee run and financed by the State government, including the Marxists, had appointed people to do this. In 1983 the Rationalists threatened a march of 10,000 people in protest and the Chief Minister was forced to admit that the state government had been responsible. Now Kerala people don’t believe in the miracle but people who still believe come from Tamil Nadu and elsewhere to see it. The state government is able to collect millions of Rupees with this small trick. A book in Malayalam, published by the Indian Rationalist Association, describing how the miracle is performed and naming the people involved has sold 78,000 copies.
Various "miracles" performed by god-men were described and demonstrated. A drawing was made to appear on a piece of paper when it became damp – drawn beforehand it appeared when wet. Instant fire erupted when ghee was poured on coconut fibre. It was produced using glycerine and potassium permanganate.
A coconut was broken open to reveal blood – a bad spirit or omen. The red colour was injected earlier through one of the three eyes of the coconut that was closed afterward. Another alternative is to put flowers in the day before they bloom. When the coconut is opened the following day the blooming flowers are revealed. Wine was turned into water just by shaking it slightly. Iodine in a solution looks and smells like wine and when it is shaken with a drop of hypo it becomes clear like water.
One holy man had specialised in burning coconut fibre in fire pots that became so hot that nobody could touch them without getting burnt. He would then pick two of them up and hold them in his hands. Sanal was watching this and suddenly realised how it was done. He stepped into the holy circle of fire pots, an act that was in itself supposed to have dire consequences, and had taken one of the pots from the holy man and holding it up in his own bare hands told the audience that anybody could do it, including Rationalists and non-believers. He challenged the holy man to pick up one of the pots that remained on the ground. The crowd joined in and urged the holy man to demonstrate his powers by doing it. The holy man became angry, threw the other fire pot he held at Sanal and then proceeded to pick up and throw others. A television company paid huge sums to the producers for a two-minute clip showing the holy man throwing the pots and then screaming in pain from his badly burnt hands. Holding up a special fire pot that was cool on the outside was demonstrated.
A Rationalist volunteer demonstrated how metal skewers could be passed through the tongue and cheeks without drawing blood – a common temple trick. There are no significant blood vessels in these areas to bleed.
Tuesday 18th January
The first speaker of the day was Professor M. A. Oomman, an economist at the Centre for Social Studies in Trivandrum. His address was titled: Towards a Rationalist Agenda – the Kerala model. He pointed out that Kerala with an area of only 1.2% of the total area of India had 3.2% of the population. With a population of some 30 million people it had a larger population than many countries, for instance Canada (29 million), Costa Rica (3.2m.), Sri Lanka (17 m.), Hong Kong (5.8 m.), and Singapore (3.2 m.). The per capita income of Kerala, expressed in US dollars was relatively low. Figures are: Kerala $298, USA $29,080, Costa Rica $2,650, Canada $26,650, Sri Lanka $800 [India $425, New Zealand $14,000]. The world bank recognises $360 as the poverty line. Despite the low per capita income Kerala has managed to achieve many characteristics of life comparable to the West. Kerala has good public health systems and life expectancy is 77 years compared with 78 years in the USA [75 in NZ]. The infant mortality rate is low.
Kerala now has near universal literacy. Some states have achieved only 2% womens literacy while Kerala has 87%. China has achieved only 68%. Kerala has 104 literate females for every 100 literate males and this compares very favourably with 93 to 100 for the Indian average and 94 to 100 in China. Kerala has abolished feudal systems and implemented land reforms. A low fertility rate of 1.6 has been achieved by consent. This compares with 1.7 in the United Kingdom and France by consent and 1.9 in China achieved by force. Kerala, over most of the last 50 years has had Marxist or socialist governments.
Kerala is now a primary focus of attention because of its achievements. Public action has been a force behind Kerala’s development. What are the models available for the world today? Market growth is the leading model now that communism has declined. This is the tadpole philosophy of the USA and Japan, etc. Grow like us even though many tadpoles will fail in the process.
Public action was social action. The Kerala model had been built on social demands involving a wide participatory approach and freedom. But the productive sectors had been on the decline since 1975. A growth rate of 3.2% compared with the average of 2.9% had now turned to a decline while the rest of India was growing even faster. Can the Kerala model be sustained with this decline? The political process of the state had undergone a metamorphosis from bad to worse. Education, health, and transport were suffering grievously. There are 206 University colleges in the state. Several Universities had been created without a real purpose regarding education.
The whole political process has declined. Egalitarianism has been replaced by Electioneering. Foreign resources had been bought in but what has happened to it? Kerala is not utilising its remarkable potentials. Kerala has more motorcars per capita than many states yet it had 8,889 suicides in a year, more than twice the number of Uttar Pradesh that has a population between 100 and 115 million. Why? Some social effect? There is a tremendous frustration. Egalitarianism has been replaced by self-aggrandisement. Kerala attracted the attention of the world because of its social attainment. Where is rationality? We need a rational model. In Kerala women are respected for the money they can bring in but for four consecutive terms there were no women representatives from Kerala in the Lok Sabha (national house of representatives).
A member of the audience from another Indian state suggested that Kerala had achieved egalitarianism but at the poverty level. He pointed out that despite the high level of education achieved by the women of Kerala there were a number of indicators that were not so positive. For example, intercaste marriage was almost non-existent and very low by Indian standards and society was still pushing the dowry system. Professor Oomman replied that social mobility in Kerala was low. Christians did not intermarry. Further investigation into this question was needed. Roy Brown asked about the savings rate and suggested that while Kerala had obtained a high level of social development economic development had not followed. Asked why the economy of Kerala was declining Professor Oomman said that there had been little capital investment in Kerala since 1975 and suggested that excessive union activity had been a major disincentive. People were afraid of the unions. Transactional and organised freedom does not exist when there is organised might. No new factories were being established in Kerala. Kerala is also suffering from ecological overkill.
The Hon. A Neelalohithadas, Cabinet Minister in the Government of Kerala, gave his Greetings to the Delegates. He said he was happy to be associated with the conference and considered himself a Rationalist.
Lavanam, Director of the Atheist Centre in Vijayawada and the son of Gora spoke about Gora and his cosmopolitan world view for the future. Gora was one of the founders of, and twice vice-president of, the Indian Rationalist Association. He said that the tragedy of India and world society is that we have become slaves to Institutions. During his life Gora had stressed the building of the individual from below.
Dr. Indumati Parikh, President of the Indian Radical Humanist Association, was introduced as one of the most outstanding women in the Humanist movement. She spoke about Radical Humanism and M. N. Roy’s vision about the future. She said that she had come to give her greetings to the Indian Radical Humanist Association. M. N. Roy had been one of the first to be associated with it. Humanists are supposed to be Rationalists also. When M. N. Roy had come out of jail, to our surprise he gave us guide lines on how to bring about social and cultural revolution. "Go to the people, find their problems and help them solve them. They will come out of their apathy and be motivated to solve their own problems and give up their fatalistic way of life." She said that she had thought about Kerala and its social stagnation. "I don’t see Keralan women coming out to make progress", she said.
Two members of the Rationalist Movement of Punjab (Tarksheel Society Punjab) asked to address the gathering. They outlined their movement’s activities. With long hair and beards and wearing turbans, some delegates had mistaken them for Sikhs. Asked to explain this they said that they considered the wearing of the turban to be a very long standing feature of the Punjabi culture and of other northern ethnic groups and said that it identified them as Punjabis rather than as members of a particular religion like the relatively recent Sikh religion.
Sanal Edamaruku discussed a Rationalist Agenda for the 21st Century. He made a strong appeal for a dynamic Rationalist movement able to meet the challenges of this century, able to counter religious influence and capable of leading humanity forward to new achievements. An abridged version of his paper follows:
"Moving forward the wheel of human progress has been the task of the Rationalist movement from its early beginnings at the dawn of history: meeting the challenges of nature and improving the conditions of human life, nurturing knowledge and spreading education, freedom and self-determination, growth and development of the individual, encouraging creativity, responsibility, compassion, fraternity, justice, equality, and human rights.
Rationalists have had to meet different challenges through the ages – from the Lokayatas, the first known rationalists in ancient Asia, to the present. I am happy that Paul Kurtz is here with us as he has brought the fruits of a long discussion process to us as "Humanist Manifesto 2000". It is in the true sense a Rationalist manifesto, for while not all Humanists, Atheists or Freethinkers are necessarily Rationalists, Rationalists do certainly subscribe to the ideals of Humanism and they are freethinkers, secularists and strong atheists.
Lavanam and Dr Indumati Parikh
Fear of conflict is a crippling weakness. Every single step forward has been made by men and women with the courage and strength to move against the prevailing tide – those who overcame power structures, traditions and taboos, who were ready to face obstacles and fight resistance to further freedom, and advance civilisation. Resistance, often brutal, came from those who enjoyed the fruits of the existing order – privileged minorities with authoritarian philosophies and military powers and accompanied by religion. Thousands of Rationalists have paid for their efforts in the torture chambers of the established order. But the heresies of yesterday often turn into the accepted world-view when they excite the imagination of the times and humankind makes another leap forward.
Modern Rationalism began at the turn of the last century when Thomas Paine, Robert Green Ingersoll and Charles Bradlaugh, inspired by the Renaissance and Enlightenment, broke open new avenues of thought. Religion was challenged, social systems and hierarchies were questioned, unheard of alternatives discussed, and anti-colonial movements emerged.
Resistance against old social orders, the domination of religion over politics, and oppression based on racial discrimination or caste provided fertile ground for the growth of humanity. Science emerged as a great force of liberation. New technology and improved communication made information accessible to all. The world of gods, ghosts, churches and empires, shrank. The great leap forward shook the power structures and threatened to break them but the cracking forces of reaction answered and have been partially successful.
Pope Pious XII recognised the fascist states and used his authority to give them political and moral backing. In return the Vatican was given special status by Mussolini in the Lateran treaty while the Hitler Concord offered unprecedented privileges in the German Reich. In return Pope Pius XII not only looked the other way while millions of people were slaughtered, he blessed and rewarded the slaughterers for their services to Christianity – after all, the Jewish and the Orthodox had the wrong religion. Fascism did not last but it was devastating for Europe. The forces of progress suffered, with some merging with other resistance movements while countless others paid for their convictions with their lives. The fascists lost the war but the Pope did not. The Vatican was never held responsible for its crimes.
The rationalist movement began to flourish again but it had lost much of its determination and strength. Fear of conflict took its toll. Armchair humanism developed in some parts of the movement, satisfying itself with sweeping statements or just enjoying playing cards on a Sunday. They were happy with hermitages for feel good, members only, happy humanists. The idea of building a new humanist religion caught the imagination. The "ethical baby" should not be thrown out with the bath water they warned, forgetting that the "ethical baby" was a product of the secular world from where organised religion had tried to steal it. They asked for equal status with religion. Some were proud to be recognised by real bishops! Some became trapped by accepting a share of the tax money previously reserved for religious communities. But such payments are dependent on co-operative behaviour and may limit their freedom to attack either the paymasters or the churches. Attacks on the established churches became taboo or hopeless so they joined forces with the established churches to attack the sprouting neo-religious movements – the sects. Sailing in less controversial waters they could appeal to a wider membership. But this leaves the established churches in a position where they can exert political influence without challenge.
Despite the still powerful position of the Vatican and attempts by organized Christian churches to recover lost ground, the situation is not hopeless. More and more people see religion as irrelevant and the influence of the bishops and religious leaders is declining [except for the USA perhaps. Ed.] The Rationalist movement, despite its clipped wings, is growing and broadening its base as Rationalist ideas are taken up by wider forums. An indication of this is that the Rationalist Press Association practically went out of business because mainstream publishing took over its work showing the acceptance of views once banned in the poison-chest of history.
The weakening of traditional religion has produced orphans – those religious people no longer able to find relief in the old religions. Some end up in rigid and dogmatic offspring of the old religions with dogmatic and intolerant leadership. Fundamentalism is seen in Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism – seeking to bring back the old glory, if necessary by force. Others just want to close their eyes and find solace in one of the new mystic religions, faith healing, charismatic prayers or submission to a guru. But this does not indicate that religion is making a comeback. The power blocks of established religions are crumbling and giving way to a colourful exotic multitude of neo-religions – a quasi Indian scenario. Competition keeps the newcomers in control and weakens the traditional religions. Threatened, the traditional religions have a vital interest in stopping the newcomers and some religious leaders have attempted to garner Rationalist support. Our fight against the new exotic religions is only one aspect of our fight against the greatest evil that has blocked the progress of humankind. The agenda of the Rationalist movement has to be based on a determination to help more and more people to come out to freedom. We will not build a new prison for those who come out. Let them be free and learn to live without religion. We will not create a new religion, a new prison for them, so that coming generations of Rationalists will need to take up their cudgels against the humanist bishops. We will have no right to survive if we emerge as a new religion. All religions have asked for submission, demanded surrender and tried to control our views.
Losing their grip in Europe the Christian churches have turned East. On a recent visit to India, Pope John Paul II signed the document "Ecclesia in Asia", a blueprint for the activities of the new millennia. It says: "Just as in the first millennium the Cross was planted in the soil of Europe, and in the second in that of the Americas and Africa, we can pray that in the third Christian millennium a great harvest of faith will be reaped in this vast and vital continent". The evangelisation of Asia had to be an "absolute priority" and the Asian Synod "an ardent affirmation of faith", a "call to conversion". Protestants, the Evangelical church, Baptists, Pentecostals, and others are all in the race for a piece of the Indian cake. "Joshua 2000", an united Protestant "Prayer Mobilisation Network" announced "Hindu Heartland Penetration Strategies" and unleashed thousands of newly trained missionaries on the country. The hope that these christianisers share is founded on the experience that poverty is an ideal base for religion. "The poor have a natural capacity to put their trust in almost everything… That has always been the entry point in the structure of any society", speaks a representative of the Evangelical church. Overpopulation, poverty, ignorance, illiteracy, and superstition are the religious monster’s most reliable brother in arms.
This invasion of the East is operated from the safety and comfort of the West where it seems that nobody will disturb them, where they have survived in sheep’s clothing, their voices softened with chalk, and have crept into the states systems as respected "social partners" and advisers. They have loosened their grip but also consolidated their positions and are sitting at all the round tables. The Vatican sits in on the policy-setting conferences of the UN and WHO and tries to block all programmes to check overpopulation without being challenged by anybody (except, recently, by a progressive group of Catholics).
If there is an iota of sincerity about changing the situation in the Third World, … the base of the religious monster has to be attacked with moral authority where it has firmly placed its foot. The comfortable forts must be stormed. To develop a Rationalist movement, strong and decisive enough to lead the fight against the multinational religious and social monsters, has to be our agenda for the time to come. It has to overcome fear of conflict, force of habit and the tendency to corruption. It has to beware of the apologists, who insult the victims of religion by praising its "ethical qualities", and budding bishops who dream of a new prison house. It has to free its wings.
It has to overcome pseudo-international structures and grow into an integrated world movement. Parasitism is banned: no clip-winger should decorate himself with feathers from far-off countries, bought for baksheesh. No small-time Vasco da Gama is tolerated. No begging bowl should be raised any more, no pseudo-project business for money’s sake should flourish, and no mailbox clubs should be "created" to fill up address lists.
We need a world movement of equal partners in East and West, committed and sincere, each of them facing up to the situation and the needs of their own society and inspiring by their example of successful work in their own country, united in the spirit of co-operation and solidarity.
This world rationalist movement has to identify fearless and uncompromising leaders, considerate and responsible and with wisdom and vision. Under their guidance and watchful eyes, it has to cut-off its degeneration, cure its illnesses, overcome its weakness, put-off its childish ways, and grow to become the avant-garde of human progress, the guardian of the wheel.
Let us finally set course again for an Age of Reason."
Paul Kurtz receiving the International Rationalist Award from Joseph Edamaruku. Sanal Edamaruku on the left and Levi Fragell seated at right.
Jim Herrick, Director of the Rationalist Press Association, UK, and Editor of New Humanist, brought greetings from the Rationalist Press Association and outlined links between the RPA and Indian Rationalists going back more than 70 years. He spoke about Rationalism: Reason and Emotion saying that Rationalism may be defined as the supremacy of reason … independent of all assumptions, but that it is better to talk of the primacy of reason as supremacy ignores the part played by the emotions. There is a need to realise a partnership with emotions. We should wake up in the morning and say that we are a feeling as well as a thinking person and realise that our mind or personality can lead us to a cynical or person-less personality. He mentioned Bertrand Russell and his search for knowledge and an unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. He cautioned that the emotions can be treacherous and referred to Hume and Kant and the limitations of reason. Hume said that Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions while Kant spoke of the starry ceiling above and the moral law within. He didn’t agree with much of Freud’s analysis, particularly the relationship of the infant with the parent. Human behaviour, including that of Rationalists, is often bizarre. Humanists can not ignore the strength of the emotions. Reason gives us an analysis of what to do while emotion gives us the drive to do it. We cannot ignore the need to change hearts. Religion can be seen as an entirely emotional and irrational activity. Humans do feel small and vulnerable but they also have a strong model of Humans as self-sufficient. Religion uses the power of symbols. Nehru left instructions that when he died most of his ashes were to be scattered over the fields to mingle with the poor. Even science and the scientific method is influenced by emotion – the emotional desire for truth and understanding, the desire to succeed, and the sense of wonder. Carl Sagan often expressed this. Art, Herrick continued, is at the heart of our feelings – our essential experiences. We tend to be specialists unable to recognise the feelings of others. We can argue a great deal about the feelings of animals. "It is central to my feelings that we must respect the earth". He disagreed with the stereotype of the rational man and the emotional woman. "In the next phase of Rationalism there is a need to take account of the emotions as well".
Jean-Claude Pecker, professor of Theoretical Astro Physics, College de France and president, Association Française pour l’ Scientifique, Union Rationaliste, spoke of A Rationalist Approach for the Years to Come. He spoke of the evolution of Rationalism from the past to the present day, the difficulty of defining reason, the difference between being reasonable and being rational and common sense. He mentioned the discovery of fire and the wheel but said that building a sundial required a lot more than casual observation. He mentioned the great French Encyclopaedists, Diderot and D’Alembert, and the French mathematicians, how the French essayists had been condemned to death and how one can still meet Positivists in Brazil. In science, he said, there are some absolutes such as the mass of the proton being 1.836 times the mass of the electron – "It stops there". He noted that the words Rationalism and reason did not have a good press in France. He considered that there were three fields where we should concentrate our efforts in the future.
Teaching was basic, it had to start everywhere, to teach tolerance, the need to understand everyone else. To teach children to use their reason, and not to have blind faith in their parents. It is not just children, we need to recognise that parents are also badly educated.
We should not only see the beauty of the world but understand it. He mentioned new-age philosophy and said that the postmodernists are less popular in France than they are in the USA. Country to country, he said, we have the same ideas and the same enemies. There is a need for Rationalists from all over the world to exchange ideas.
From the floor Jim Herrick suggested that Postmodernism was just a tiny pimple on the history of art and literature and that in England it was already something that had largely passed.
In conclusion Jean-Claude Pecker noted that all his examples had been from the French culture and said that "while France had a long Rationalist tradition it also had a long Catholic tradition – and that is why we don’t spend money on family planning".
Levi Fragell, president of the International Humanist and Ethical Union and former president of the Norwegian Humanist Association, spoke on The Four Dangers of Irrationalism. He said that the usual image of Rationalism was that we fight to expose and mock religion. Is this true? Yes and no. To be taken seriously we should try to clarify specifically what we are for. Are we against books and stories? Not necessarily. Are we against the music and art of religion? Not necessarily. Are we against religious charity? Well try and remove them and see what will happen to our society. Are we against people coming together in churches and temples? No. What are we against? We are against the irrationality of religion. Irrationality does not mean emotion, art, or music. By irrationality I mean claims to reason and knowledge that do not have a basis in fact or knowledge. All religions have misled society.
Religions are dysfunctional. If we are striving for social change it is dysfunctional to spread the word of karma and rebirth as this causes people to adapt to their position rather than strive for improvement.
Irrationalism is harmful. When drinking water is poisoned and you get a priest to pray or say mantras over the water you may die. The most harmful effect is the violent conflicts that result from irrational religious belief. Something that upsets me as a former charismatic Christian and charismatic preacher, as I once was, is the conversions that follow fake miracles. I once met a woman who sold all her belongings because she claimed to have seen Sai Baba create a large meeting house from thin air.
Irrationalism is evil. Sometimes political and religious ideas merge. Evil cults designed to ferment bigotry, hatred and aggression still exist in some areas and some of these are founded on religious texts.
Irrationalism is ridiculous. Claims of revelation and miracles are often ridiculous. In the USA a man who claimed to be receiving messages from god was receiving them from his wife by radio. I have a framed photograph of Sai Baba in my office. It says "Don’t worry, I am here". This has given me and my friends a big laugh. I bought it myself in Puttaparthi. There was a meeting of religious leaders from all over the world in Cape Town. A ridiculous event. All the problems of the world drowned in ridiculous religious practices. That is harmful and not based on honesty and truth".
He concluded by saying: "Do we fight against religion? No and Yes".
Jane Wynne Wilson, Vice-President of the IHEU and Vice Chair of the Rationalist Press Association spoke on A Rational View of Death. She said it was a rather strange subject but she chose it because she had never heard anyone talk about death in a simple way. She had produced a book that is now used by many religious celebrants.
Death is the one certainty in life and feelings are often worse when a life has ended prematurely. Who wants to live to be 98? Someone who is 97. "When I come to join you, if I don’t find you in the non-smoking section, look out for trouble." – a ministers wife, after he died at the age of 67 of chronic bronchitis after a life of cigarette smoking. Delaying cellular ageing could have catastrophic effects for mankind. "I was not. I have been. I am not. I do not mind". An Epicurean inscription found around the Mediterranean. Voluntary euthanasia is the morally right course. In the future medical science will eliminate most of the worlds diseases allowing most people to live a good life span.
Concluding the session Levi Fragell stated that "I have never in my life met anybody who has honestly been cured by a miracle. Please show me just once a person who has had a leg cut off that has grown again".
At the conclusion of the afternoon session Paul Kurtz was awarded the International Rationalist Award.
Cultural Evening. On Tuesday evening we were treated to cultural entertainment featuring traditional Indian dance. This included Kathakali dance that originated in Kerala and is danced exclusively by men wearing elaborate make-up and costumes. It is an elaborate and dynamic dance form that tells of epic battles of gods and demons. An amusing incident occurred at the end of the dance when the principal dancer, face painted green to symbolise the virtuous hero, suddenly removed his headgear and donned a motorcycle helmet. Newspapers had just announced that a new state law had been enacted requiring all motor cyclists, but not their pillion passengers, to wear helmets.
By the third day of the conference most of the delegates staying at the central Residency Tower Hotel were familiar with the route to the venue at the Victoria Jubilee Town Hall and the obstacles along the way. Those walking the 700 metres now recognised the beggars along the way, each with their own established position. Despite being winter local woman carried parasols to keep the sun off - as far away as it is from Norway, Sweden, or Canada in the summer. Temperatures that cooled to a comfortable 25 degrees at night rose to the high twenties or low thirties during the day. The relatively high humidity made it less comfortable for those unaccustomed to the climate and the electric fans in the hall were very welcome to all, including the locals.
Wednesday 19 January
The first speaker of the day, Dr. Bill Cooke, Lecturer at the School of Visual Arts, Manakau Institute of Technology, presented a paper titled What Indian Rationalists can teach the West? He discussed Secularism, Postmodernism, Rationalism, and the Unity of Knowledge, and concluded with a quotation from Joseph McCabe. In discussion afterwards Jim Herrick said that he believed that post modernism was a fad that had already passed its peak and was in decline in England. Bill Cooke thought that it was still on the ascendancy in New Zealand and continued to be something to be concerned about.
Dr K. N. Raj, Founder Director of the centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum, spoke on Rationalism - the driving force of Kerala's development. Asking what rational thought has done for the development of Kerala, Dr. Raj said that he believed social thought had developed further in Kerala than in any other state except West Bengal. He considered that the BJP will persist for no more than five years - "thank god that this is a developing country where democracy has come to stay." Kerala was one of the most advanced societies in India. Why? Universal education with higher education levels for women than for men. The Punjab had an earlier social revolution under Sikhism while Kerala was a backward place. I come from the most backward place - where Mahatma Gandhi landed. The people of the country have more common sense than all the political leaders of this country. In Kerala, female literacy is higher than male literacy, and Kerala has the highest standards of health. There are health centres in every village and nobody lives more than two kilometres from a health centre. Children are well looked after and infant mortality is lower than many countries of Western Europe.
A very high percentage of Kerala's population is Christian. St. Thomas the disciple of Christ landed here before going on to Madras where he was murdered. [This story is very dubious. Ed.] The Arab spice traders came here and then Vasco da Gama came to conquer. Trouble happens when one civilization thinks that it knows everything - this now applies to Western Civilisation. The idea that any civilisation knows everything is repulsive. Kerala was primarily tribal and was never contaminated by the Indo-Gangetic valley. Mahatma Gandhi said, "The man who refrains from criticising me is my enemy - the man who tells me my mistakes is my friend". Do not generalise about India. When the Moslems conquered India, all the positive ideas of India were turned into Moslem ideas. The present president of India came from one of the lowest communities in India.
A member of the audience commented that people might talk about either the "Kerala cult" or the "Kerala model".
Roy Brown, Board Member of the World Population Foundation, Netherlands, and Foundation for Population and Development, Switzerland, spoke about the World Population in the 21st century.
Population growth, he said, is a set of regional problems - where growth continues it is a problem. One hundred years ago, India had a population of 200 million and population growth was slow. By 1981 it was 680 millions. Now it is 1000 million and continues to grow at over 2% a year. India's contribution to global warming is just 25 percent of the USA but India's greenhouse gases continue to grow at over five per cent per year. India's population growth is important for India. A. M. Datta has said that despite growth many have been left behind. There are still 300 million illiterate people in India - the same as before. Just to stand still, India needs to build four new major hospitals every year! Per capita food production is now falling. There are water shortages and social problems. Compulsory family planning has been advocated but is it necessary and will it work? China, under Mao Zedong, until 1970, had four children per woman. Population grew by 250 million. Suddenly it was realised that disaster was ahead so they introduced polices including one child per woman. In some ways, it has been successful. The birth rate has now fallen to 1.1 children per woman. Social progress is greater in China than India. There are fewer beggars but more human rights problems. Kerala shows what can be done without coercion. The infant mortality is 12 per thousand and the birth rate 1.7 children per woman. The population growth rate is less than 1 percent per annum. About 80 percent of available water in India is used for agriculture but 30 percent is wasted. The rich get free water while the poor pay for water. There are pollution problems - sixty percent of air pollution comes from vehicles. Policies and management must all be improved. Another 500 million people are expected in India in the next fifty years. This will require a 50% increase in food supply and to grow this food will require a corresponding increase in water supply - water is likely to be the limiting factor. Over the next fifty years population growth will account for only one-third of the impact on the planet. Suffice it to say that modern neo-classical economic theory takes no account of ecological degradation. Quality of life in the West is too often equated to the consumption of energy. An American will not walk more than two hundred yards. India and China represent 40 percent of the world's population. Kerala needs to develop information technology while conserving as much as possible of its natural resources. The future of the world may be in India's hands.
In response to a question Roy Brown said that it is possible to have a higher living standard and lower energy consumption. Paul Kurtz called for science, technology, education, information, and a rigorous debate on the population problem. Lavanam said that the Indian Family Planning Ministry had been changed to the Health and Family Welfare Ministry. Roman Catholics and Muslims don't accept family planning. Harry Stopes-Roe called for fairness between the developed and the developing world. The West should reduce its consumption - problems with transport etc. Harry Leggat mentioned that Thomas Jefferson said, "All men are born equal", but he had one hundred slaves.
Jan Loeb Eisler, Editor - Family Matters, Centre for Enquiry International and Vice-President of the International Humanist and Ethical Union spoke about Supporting the Rationalist/Humanist family today. Discussing family life she said that Humanist movements had tended to neglect the family. It had been a movement of the elderly. Some Humanists had returned to religion to get a moral education for their children. We have launched the Humanist Family Network. Most members are in the USA. 90% of Americans believe in god so Humanists are often isolated. We have a circulation list of 5,000 and both parents and children are contributors. There is an international pen-pal service for children and teenagers; a children's enrichment programme for children from 5-14; and a course in applied ethics. I live in Florida and we play the E game: Eupraxophy, Equality, Ethics, Ecology, etc. etc. We hold a children's camp. A plane ride for those who do their maths and physics. The College Free Thought Alliance has 80 chapters. We are on the Web.
Jean Claude Pecker thought that their model was best suited to the United States. Lavanam said that for their events and conferences, a single man pays full price, with his wife he paid 50%, and children are free. For children's camps the children were made to pay. Paul Kurtz said that we have concentrated on the elderly but the first priority should be the young. Schools are not sufficient. Humanism needs to be nourished in the family. In the USA we have 23 High School groups. How to transmit Humanism to the young ought to be our number one priority.
Prof. Salim Balakrishnan, professor of History at Kerala University, gave a paper titled Rationalist Evaluation of the Indian Caste System. Rationalism he said was in a state of crisis. The British had tried to understand Hindu law as Brahmin pundits traditionally interpreted it. The Mogul empire from central Asia had persisted for 800 years but caste had survived. Caste is undoubtedly an Indian phenomenon devised to support Brahmin superiority.
In discussion Paul Kurtz warned against overrating Huntington's thesis. Globalisation pace has increased. Lavanam said that Buddhism was a Rationalist enlightenment in India. In reply to Harry Stopes Roe, Professor Balakrishnan said that in the future the Western Paradigm must include influences from the East. Harry Stopes Roe commented that Chinese science had been ahead of the West until the crossing point when the West realised that symbolic interpretation was not sufficient.
Perumpadavam Sreedharan, a novelist, spoke on Art, Science, and Rationalism in Malayalam. In English he said, "We have seen science and technology but in the future we should open our ideas to dreams".
Prof. Paul Kurtz spoke about Humanist Manifesto 2000. This manifesto, he said, looks for the common ground that transcends race, culture, etc. etc. It has been endorsed by Humanists worldwide - in 38 countries. The world is very much in need of guidelines. This is the first major manifesto that is the product of the Internet. 18,000 words long, it has been translated into Russian, German, Spanish, Telegu, and many other languages. It was published in full in Free Inquiry magazine in October 1999. Copies can be obtained through the Internet from Amazon.com for US $6. It consists of ten parts; the first is the Preamble, the second, Prospects for a Better Future, part 3 is, Scientific Naturalism, and part 4, The Benefits of Technology.
There is a need for new planetary humanism. Jim Herrick thinks that the manifesto is too optimistic but Humanism can draw an optimistic ideal for the future. What is happening today is truly revolutionary. The information revolution is as revolutionary as the Gutenberg or the industrial revolution. In the West, only 2% of the population is needed to till the soil while manufacturing requires only 10%. What do the other 78% do? Services etc. We are in a post-post-modernist age. People who live for a mere flicker of time don't see this tremendous progress but it is continuous and rapid.
Part 5 covers, Ethics and Reason. Ethics should be based on reason. Part 6 is titled, A Universal Commitment to Humanity as a Whole and part 7, A Planetary Bill of Rights and Responsibilities. It goes beyond the "Declaration of Human Rights". We need to strive to provide an equitable income for everybody on the planet. Individuals should have rights. Part 8 is, A New Global Agenda. There is a need for a world income tax. The world body should tax international conglomerates, as many do not pay any tax at the moment. Part 9 outlines, The Need for New Planetary Institutions. A world parliament is needed. The United Nations is, at the moment, a collection of nations, not people. The veto power should be abolished. There is a need for a planetary environmental monitoring policy. There is a need to monitor large corporations that are at present beyond regulation. The people of the world need access to the media. Part 10 is titled Optimism about the Human Prospect. We need to nurture optimism about the human future.
Lavanam said that he would translate Humanist Manifesto 2000 into Telegu and distribute it. He added that he had travelled the world and never been made to feel an alien when he was amongst Humanists. Let people have a local and a universal citizenship.
Dr Tove Beate Pedersen, psychologist, former director of the Secretariat for Women and Research in the Research Council of Norway and former Director of the Norwegian Gender Equality Council spoke on The Next Millennium is ours: No Humanism Without Feminism. She referred first, to the United Nations conference in China that was attended by people, mostly women, from all over the world. Despite the difference in different countries, the mechanisms of suppression are almost the same worldwide. Scandinavian countries are world leaders in gender equality but do Western problems compare with female circumcision? In 1950, Periyar, Tamil Nadu's great humanist and social reformer, in an article titled "Suppressed Womankind", asked if women are born only for kitchen work when some women are engaged in professions such as medicine and law? It is a rule framed by men out of their own self-interest. I was born in 1950, the first in my family. I belong to a generation that did every thing at once. In Norway, women, even those in high positions, do not have housemaids, which is common in other countries. It is a fact that in Norway women spend almost twice as much time on housework as men (4.5 hours compared to 2.5 hours per day). Men's contribution has increased by only 10 percent in twenty years, or twenty minutes in the last 10 years - so it's easy to see why woman have little time for other activities.
A positive attitude to equality may also be a barrier to equality. Having the first female prime minister can be taken as an excuse for not doing anything. Sixty percent of the members of the Humanist movement in Norway are women but seventy-five percent of its county leaders are men. This is still a young movement and still in its pioneering phase. My message is that we must seriously integrate feminism into everything that we do. Most religions defend the status quo. Be aware that inequality can be introduced even when we want equality. We must take the principle that equality must be both inside and outside the home. Norwegian women are capable financially of divorce if they feel dissatisfied with the division of work - and they do so.
Norway also has some negative examples. It is an extremely gender-segregated country - even in a European context - and there is no major positive change in the foreseeable future. Authorities have tried to change traditional patterns. Women who go into male dominated areas are better paid and vice versa. It worked OK for men but not women. Seventy-five percent of women in our labour force are in female dominated areas while eighty percent of men are in male dominated areas. Women in male workplaces wanted more female colleagues to counter male domination. Women tend to move into the least conspicuous areas. The gates are open today but we know that more than qualifications are required. When a woman succeeds she represents herself but when she fails she represents her sex - men represent themselves and only rarely their sex. Women feel they must be very careful when in minority situations - you are damned if you do and damned if you don't. Women are often excluded from places where men exchange information about the job. Some men, like some civil engineers, are like dinosaurs. Their attitude to women is related to their own position and is independent of age. Should we choose women because they are women? The answer is yes. No movement or society can be democratic without gender balance. Only women can represent women. We must have more women to get more women. We can recruit women from groups that organise feminists. Open the eyes to even more women. Qualified women often underestimate their own abilities. We have all been brought up to underestimate woman. We humanists have a particular responsibility for letting this become the women's millennium - No Humanism Without Feminism.
Harry Stopes Roe commented that he didn't have a maid, but no humanist would have a maid. As humanists we shouldn't be dominated by old-fashioned ideas of language. Dr Pederson replied that she did not believe in servants, that we had to force our men into doing housework, and that she thought all people should work part time. Bill Cooke said that he was frightened by the idea that men cannot represent women. He did not agree as this leads to ideas like whites cannot represent blacks. Dr Pederson replied that only a person who has had the experience can represent that experience. Paul Kurtz said that he had reservations about a quota system. Dr Pederson replied that she was willing to be tyrannical to achieve the objective of equality. Jane Wynne Wilson said that she thought Tove's outlook was utopian. She asked if an eye surgeon who came home from a hard days work should be expected to then do half the house work while his partner was home all day? Tove replied that one of her best friend's husband was an eye surgeon while she was a psychologist and they share the housework equally. [This reply avoids the question. Jane Wynne Wilson's question implied that it was more important for a couple to make equal contributions in the number of hours worked, in employment or at home, than to simply insist that the housework be divided equally. Ed.] Lavanam said that he did not represent his wife and daughters, as he did not understand his wife's agony. He speculated on the possibility of persons changing their sex and felt that there was a need for more consciousness experiments.
The Conference Dinner took place on Wednesday Evening in Sanal Edamaruku's house, 8 kilometres from the conference venue. Getting there however was a bit of an expedition. The house was on top of a local hill of historic significance. The bus stopped at the bottom of the hill and it was necessary to climb the hill through the rubber trees. Some had rides in a Land Rover but many walked. The two-storied house was built in a traditional Keralan style, open in the centre so that the rain could fall through to the lower floor where it is collected and evaporates to cool the house. After an Indian meal we were invited to try our hands, or rather our feet, in the fire walking event - any Rationalist or Humanist can do it!
Thursday 20 January
Professor Sudheesh, Professor of English Language, Kerala University, spoke on Marketism, Fascism, and Religion. He mentioned that he had at one time been suspended from the university. He described how Marketism had its own philosophy. He talked about the origins of religion and power structures on earth. Religion he said, is a private affair - don't bring it into the public arena. He described how there had been conflict between the religious and the political in the past for dominance. People are the greatest historical force - not the super-human being. He spoke of how in the 1920s power became an issue between races leading to theories of racial purity; an issue between superman and common man leading to racial apartheid. Imperial capitalism he said was in deep crisis. Technology defeats man at the level of production - now technology is the master.
Jean Claude Pecker pointed out that fascism, Hitler and Mussolini, started with very small groups. Why, he asked, do we have a sign with Mein Kampf on the opposite side of the road? (It was advertising a book fair at the University). "We are tolerant but surely there are some limits." Lavanam said that the process of fascism started with religion, moved to the political sphere and then to the economic (market).
Alec Leggat, of the British Humanist Association, presented a paper titled: Are there lessons to be learned from religion: Would they be part of the Rationalist agenda? Legate, he said, means an ambassador of the pope. I was religious but now I'm a born again atheist. Instead of dismissing religion as mere opium of the people, it is necessary to recognize that religion is the product of human thought. Man created God, not God man. Gods were made and created to fulfil fundamental human needs. I have here a list of things that religion and rationalism provide. Now that I am a Rationalist and Humanist I feel completely free to say what I like and not be criticised. Art and music were religious but are now largely secular. I used to enjoy the warm fellowship of other parishioners in church, not the intellectual stimulation. Religions now teach a great deal about what is humanist. Churches are down-playing the miraculous and concentrating on the humanism. Divorce amongst atheists is substantially lower than among religious people (from America).
The future will see the integrating influence of the Internet. We are all different, and we will always be all different - this enriches the world. I think the Internet will favour humanism - integrity. Diversity will favour religion. Humanism can and must succeed.
Harry Stopes-Roe commented on the meaning of life: the power of the human mind is a substitute for the protection of a super brain. Levi Fragell told of how when the pope came to Europe all the small people went to see him - Pentecostalism will one day be as large as the Catholic Church. Lavanam said, "I believe in life between birth and death", while to those who were Christian he says: "You as a Christian believe in life before birth and after death." Jane Wynne-Wilson said that the most miserable aspect of Christianity is the overwhelming sense of guilt and the labelling of many people as sinners. Alec Leggat added that while some people, like bishops, might enjoy the power of religion, he thought that most intelligent religious people participate because they enjoy the comradeship of other people. Roy Brown said that the Church of England was losing 2000 members a week. I'm sorry, he said, but he would recommend to people visiting England to go and sit in on a service. We should also inculcate a sense of magic and not just leave it to the religious.
Harry Stopes-Roe, Philosopher, and former vice-chairperson of the British Humanist Association spoke on The Moral Animal - Making Progress Possible. Progress, he said, is positive change. The idea of naturalism - it is not just that we believe that women are equal to men - we need to provide well-founded values. Darwinian evolution has given us some power to find moral values. Darwin shows us how. Nature, red in tooth and claw is not in fact the outcome. Altruistic behaviour from evolution is not the way to go from evolution to morality. What kind of an animal is the human animal and how to get there? We, unlike animals, have feelings of good and bad. We have feelings and we developed the capacity to understand - we acquired the capacity for rationality and understanding. This has led to the erosion of instinct. In comparison, ants, like this ant here on my paper, are purely instinctual.
Understanding has led to the erosion of instinct - to the development of intuitive psychology. We can see into the mind of another being. Language, salient in my mind and yours, has led to quite a big development - to the transmission of knowledge and understanding. The next stage is to care for what is going on in your mind. This led to the division of labour and concern for others. They, these qualities, evolved for survival reasons. None of that had anything at all to do with morality, social mores, not morality, enlightened self-interest, or religious leaders etc. Things worked well or better for everybody when they followed the rules - getting at something that transcended the immediacy of the situation. Present day social reformers recognize the needs of others. They are all based on concern for others - all are in different ways intuitions. What we need now is an effective morality.
Here this account of history must end and we must look forward to the future. Even the Pope is a human being! Social reformers had an intuitive sense of transcending the immediate. We have on the one hand the joys and on the other the suffering of human beings. We have morality because we have rationality and understanding. Moral judgements are judgements that extend morality for all and impartially. Jesus never realised that "thy neighbour" meant the entire world. If a judgement expresses concern for other people then that is a moral judgement. Given the account of human nature - why are they morally sensible and insensible? The happiness of individuals and working together cooperatively with other people. The definition of a moral act does not mean moral satisfaction including simple pleasures. A few moments of technical philosophy - I believe I have found a way of trumping G. E. Moore's philosophy.
Lavanam asked: Are we animals? We should not say that we are moral animals - we are humans. Good and bad, and morality, are only for humans. Fear is an instinct that we have derived from animals. Harry Stopes-Roe replied: Fear or enlightened self-interest is a pseudo morality.
Alec Leggat, saying that he would not have killed the ant, asked if animals had morals? He thought the only difference was our huge brain - those two pigeons up there are looking after one another. Harry Stopes-Roe replied, "I was wrong to kill that ant." We are advanced in the respect that we have moral responsibility - animals do not have this responsibility - the pigeons are not an example of moral behaviour. I reject enlightened self-interest - to do things because you get to heaven or for enlightened self-interest is not morality.
Professor Robert Buitenweg, Lecturer of Human Rights, University of Humanist Studies, Utrecht, Netherlands; Chairman, European Humanist Professionals; Member of the Editorial Board, Asia Law Review, spoke on Rationalism, Libertarianism, and Social Justice.
Rationalism, he said, applies to all fields of human life. Rationalism sees it as its task to question all beliefs, including political beliefs like Libertarianism. We are still witnessing extremes of poverty and other social problems. The so-called social and economic Right are driving this misery. One of the reasons for the neglect of rights is that Libertarianism is underpinning free-market philosophy. We also value freedom in company with Libertarianism but are we in good or bad company? Libertarianism opposes the rights of individuals.
Libertarians say that people are entitled to their goods if they are legitimately acquired - but how far do we have to go back to find out if the initial transfer of unearned goods was legitimate. We are the owners of our talents and the products of them. Who first took the land? Long ago we were hunters - before that, we were prey ourselves. Someone took the land and Libertarians' say that they are now the legitimate owners. I say that the current ownership often resulted from violent conflicts in the past.
Libertarians' value freedom - but why is this freedom valuable? People should try to live a full life and should be able to do so but due to social and economic circumstances many people have very limited freedom. Social and economic freedom or material freedom? This depends on the presence of circumstances that enable people to live as they want to - enabling freedom. The elimination of poverty: the Libertarians' object - they don't want taxes for social justice. Another illusion - they say it is regrettable but that it cannot be considered unjust. My view is that it is an optical illusion.
These confrontations between people continue up to the present - the weak are pushed aside. Is poverty the intended result of human action? In many cases the results of someone’s actions are not intended but are foreseeable. Say that a cab driver is involved in an accident but is not responsible for it - if the driver then runs and does not help the victim then they are responsible. The most powerful are preventing the poor from taking what they took in the first instance. Poverty has and is being created by the most powerful. Their policies prevent the poor from providing themselves with the resources that they need to stay alive. I hope that during this century Rationalism continues to unmask religion, fascism, etc. and Libertarianism.
Paul Kurtz said "I'm very grateful to you for raising this point. We should concentrate on all illusions. Believe in economic liberty - but now we have large corporations bigger than some countries! The premises do not deal with the reality. We do need a free-market but we also need to consider the needs of the poor.
Bill Cooke commented that younger members are often Libertarians while older members are on the left. Replying, Robert said, "I'm not against emotions, Rationalism has everything to do with religion - it is not just there to go between two points. I hope Libertarians can be converted to liberals. They are quite different but sometimes hard to distinguish."
Harry Stopes-Roe said that we should stick to our principles - nice phrases that sound good. He referred to the tragedy of the commons - each tries to put more animals onto the common - to "beggar thy neighbour". You need rules or constraints - you cannot have a free market - you must introduce constraints.
Roy Brown said that this was a very important paper. The free market has dominated in the last twenty years but there are two limits. First; the free market plays absolutely no heed to the limits of growth - but you cannot replace water. Secondly; if you invest poorly in a free-market economy the average rises but the poor do not benefit unless you invest in social development. Robert agreed that the trickle down theory did not work. Roy Brown commented that Libertarianism is in denial - denial of world problems such as over population, global warming, poverty, etc., etc. We should be against the irrationality of Libertarianism, not Libertarianism itself.
Jean Claude Pecker said that it was important to stress the growing gap between the rich and poor both inside and between nations.
Roberto La Ferla, Secretary of the Union of Atheists, Agnostics, and Rationalists, and the Bruno Society, Italy spoke on The Defence of Human Rights and the Promotion of Humanist Values: the dual challenge of free thought organizations. He started with a brief account of Bruno's life. First, he became a Dominican monk. He read forbidden books and had to start wandering. He never became anything but in his latest years wanted to be a Catholic again. The biggest error of his life was to return to Italy. Instead of being executed immediately, he was imprisoned and tortured for seven years.
He spoke about the defence of human rights and the promotion of humanistic values. The dual challenge facing organizations; on one side secularism and on the other to represent the community.
Friday 21 January
Iain Middleton. On the final day of the conference I spoke on Developments in Evolution and the Function of the Human Brain - Implications for Rationalists. This paper covered the perception of reality, instinct and learning, belief, freewill and determinism, consciousness, personality and ethics, reason and rational thought, and artificial intelligence, from an evolutionary and often personal perspective. I discussed how some ideas, often anthropocentric in nature, have dominated intellectual thought for long periods of time and effectively prevented the discussion of alternatives. An early example was the Aristotle-Ptolemy earth-centred model of the universe that took l,400 years to shake and more recent examples are in the understanding of the human brain. I discussed how some of the ideas relating to an understanding of the brain have altered over the last 50 years and how we are now making some progress but still have to contend with ideas that will not be viable in the long term. Some of this material has been covered in articles previous published in New Zealand Humanist.
Some delegates passed on favourable comments on the paper afterward but it also produced a rather strong adverse reaction from a delegate who objecting to the quoting of a comment by researchers into gender differences in the artwork of five-year-old children in a TV documentary screened about 25 years ago. They suggested that differences that appeared to be universal and independent of culture or other learning, that they had been unable to explain, might have a genetic origin! It seems that this conflicted with her personal beliefs and she therefore considered that such ideas should not be mentioned.
Considering that no brain of the complexity of the human brain, be it artificial or human, could be expected to work without a degree of pre-programming, that is instinct, the real question should be how much preprogramming is there and what is its influence on human behaviour. Good arguments have now been presented that indicate that neural networks perform at optimum learning rates if they are about 50% pre-programmed. In 1987, G. E. Hinton and S. J. Nolan published an article "How Learning can guide evolution" Complex systems, 1, pp 495-502. Using computer simulations they were able to show that neural networks with a level of preprogramming learnt faster and thus allowed an animal to move into the reproductive phase sooner giving an evolutionary advantage. The advantage increases as the level of preprogramming increases up to a level of 50%. If the degree of preprogramming increases further the evolutionary advantage falls off due to a reduced ability to adapt to the local environment resulting in a stable point at about 50%. This suggests that our actions may be 50% determined by instinct and 50% by learning. The nature versus nurture debate may well end in a draw. With this work Hinton and Nolan had unknowingly confirmed a hypothesis proposed by the psychologist Mark Baldwin about a hundred years earlier.
After the conference a number of very well worthwhile tours were arranged and delegates rode in traditional boats on the inland lagoons of Kerala, travelled to Kanyakumari (Cape Comorin) in Tamil Nadu, and to Periyar wildlife sanctuary in the Western Ghats.
(Courtesy: The New Zealand Humanist)