It is now Two and a half years since Australis2000 was held in Sydney and during most of this time there has been a note on this web saying that a report on this congress was coming soon.
It has now arrived! There were reasons for this sad delay but please accept my apologies. Actually only one person has pointed out this lapse and I thank him for sending me an email.
This report comes from Dr Bill Cooke, Editor of the New Zealand Rationalist and Humanist and was printed in Autumn 2001, Volume 74, No. 1. It is well informed, entertaining, accurate and independent. Humanists who were at this gathering will find interesting memories come to light as well as discussion on important humanist principles.
The NZ Rationalist and Humanist welcomes reprints from their journal and we are very pleased to acknowledge this excellent report as well as their financial contribution.
Southern regional congress of IHEU
Bill Cooke"Australis2000" was the name given to the first regional congress of the International Humanist Ethical Union (IHEU) to be held in the southern hemisphere. It attracted important Humanists from the United States, England, Norway and India, as well as a respectable contingent of New Zealanders. And the theme of the congress - 'ethics and values for this new century' was wisely chosen and allowed for a maximum of participation. But it has to be said that Australis2000 was something of a mixed bag.
Australis2000 was the brainchild of Ray Dahlitz and Rosslyn Ives, both leading Humanists from the Humanist Society of Victoria. Soon after taking over as chairman of the Council of Australian Humanist Societies (CAHS), the umbrella grouping of all the Humanist societies around the country, Dahlitz began putting this event together. The NZ Association of Rationalists and Humanists was an early sponsor of the congress, donating A$ 1000.
Planning for the congress ran into several difficulties, most notably timing, the IHEU itself and the byzantine complexity and feuding of Australian Humanism. Eventually all these problems found themselves solved or dealt with in one way or another; it was rescheduled to go back-to-back with the conference held by the Australian Skeptics and it was moved from Melbourne to Sydney. Control then passed from the Victorian Humanists to the New South Wales Humanists, in particular Ms Affie Adagio.
Humanism as a philosophy of lifeAmong the high points of the conference was the coming together of several of the world's most important Humanists such as Paul Kurtz, Levi Fragell, Babu Gogineni and Sanal Edamaruku. What was extraordinary was the way these people were underused. Paul Kurtz, a keynote speaker, had only twenty minutes of speaking time, with no time for questions while some local NSW Humanists were given other time slots with a full half hour to speak and a similar time for questions. It often seemed to work in this congress that those with the least to say had the most amount of time to say it. Kurtz was quite critical of the state of Humanism in Australia. He suggested that Australian Humanists are rebels without a cause - and let's not be under any illusions that he was confining his remarks to Australia. He then went on to outline that cause, particularly as articulated in the Humanist Manifesto 2000. Humanism, he said, is primarily an ethical stand, and one based on scientific naturalism. The ethics of Humanism involve recognition of human dignity and autonomy, seeking a good life here and now, and a commitment to humanity as a whole. And because our commitment is to humanity as a whole, our Humanism is a planetary humanism.
I spoke directly after Paul Kurtz, which was very fortuitous indeed, as my address followed on very neatly from his. My paper was on 'The Three Steps to Humanist Ethics'. 1 also took the Humanist Manifesto 2000 as the starting point, and noted the centrality of scientific naturalism to Humanism. From there I wanted to show how to acquire a sound Humanist ethics from this starting point. What are the three steps? Atheism, rationalism, science. This seems important because it avoids the pitfalls of being halfway-house Humanists. Missing any one of these three ingredients, our Humanism can be vacuous, mystical, irrationalist or even religious. This has long been a disadvantage with the term Humanism.
One of the more interesting speakers was the prominent Australian broadcaster Phillip Adams. He was pessimistic about the future of Humanism, and indeed, of a lot of other things as well. The demise of the mass media, he foresees, will result in a further atomising of western society, with groups stuck within their media loop and having little contact with other ideas and values. We are moving, Adams said, into 'ghettoes of choice', where we can stay comfortably within one channel of thought. The good aspect of this is that it will lessen the control of the elite of media barons who are currently in control of a significant percentage of the world's media. But the danger inherent in the demise of the mass media is the breakdown of the uniting themes in our society which those media are the principal vehicles for conveying. This can only lead to ignorance of what other sections of society are doing and thinking, which in turn quickly leads to intolerance. Adams noted that the word 'public' is becoming a dirty word, dirtier even than the word 'pubic', particularly among conservatives. This may well be a mission for Rationalists and Humanists in the next half-century: to defend the values of 'public' as vigorously as we do those of 'pubic'. This is closely related to the need 1 have stressed elsewhere to defend the secular nature of our society. Individuals can only make up a, 'public' where all are equal and respected if that public space is secular. Once the public domain falls into the hands of any non-secular faith, the public immediately fractures into 'us' and 'them'.
This theme was also canvassed by Eva Cox, an academic and Australian Humanist of the Year in 1997. Cox dislikes the term 'tolerance' because it has a condescending, downwards movement to it. She prefers the more openly positive notion of active respect for difference. The idea of social capital, the subject of her talk, involves building up networks of trust. There is nothing wrong, Cox argued, with conflict of ideas or with stirrers, for a society without such people would be a dismal bore. But it is important that the conflict of ideas takes place within a general framework of respect for difference. This, of course is the essence of what have come to be called the values of 'the Enlightenment. Among the more recent philosophers who have written about this include Ernest Gellner (Conditions of Liberty, 1994), and John Rawls (Political Liberalism , 1993). Gellner's book is much the more accessible of the two.
And just in case people think this is airy-fairy theorising, Associate Professor Peter Woolcock drew our attention to a move being made in Malaysia at the moment. The opposition party in that country, the Party Islam, is campaigning for a change to their laws on apostasy. Under Malaysian law, all Malays are deemed to be born Muslim, but there are no obvious penalties against seceding from that religious identification. But Party Islam want apostates to be required to undergo a year-long 'rehabilitation' process. What this rehabilitation process would entail is left to the imagination. This proposal is built on the vicious assumption that seceding from a religious allegiance, in this case a Muslim one, somehow endangers one's ability to operate as a civil person. So far the governing United Malay Party has rejected this proposal, but they might well find the pressure for this change hard to resist. Dr Woolcock was also strongly critical of postmodernism, seeing it as a 'rnassive self-obsession'.
Humanism as a programme of actionThe conference had two quite distinct sections: the first half dealt principally with Humanism as a philosophy of life while the second half was more concerned with Humanism as a programme of action. The highlights among the activists were Joe Nickell and Phillip Nitschke. Joe Nickell is a prominent paranormal-buster in the United States and a very capable speaker indeed. He told the congress about some of his recent sham-busting exercises. He gave examples of several recent cases of weeping icons. It came as no surprise to be told that virtually all cases of weeping icons happen where there is a culture of icons. It's like sightings of the Virgin Mary: these invariably occur in rural areas in heavily Catholic countries or regions, and not infrequently by girls on the onset of sexual maturity. Icons weep different substances depending on the church they are in, though. If the icon is held to be weeping myrrh. then you know you're in an Orthodox Church as opposed to a Catholic church. Nickell found in his most recent exposé of icon weeping (in Toronto) that the icon had been smeared with olive oil. which can stay fresh and tear-like for weeks. And it can shine differently, depending on the light that falls on it. in a way that is sure to delight its gasping onlookers. Soon after Nickell's visit. the Orthodox priest of the church concerned did a runner. It transpired he had a long history of fraud and crime behind him. He was nonetheless a bona fide Orthodox priest. Joe Nickell had slides to show the congress of his various exploits, but no slide projector was made available for him.
The other prominent speaker was the Australian campaigner for voluntary euthanasia, Dr Phillip Nitschke. He was pessimistic about the chances of new voluntary euthanasia legislation being passed in Australia in the foreseeable future. He also noted that it is quite likely that reactionary forces in several of the states in the USA will succeed in repealing the voluntary euthanasia legislation they have. Since then, of course, we have had the marvellous victory in the Netherlands to celebrate. But amid all this gloom came an idea which impressed him considerably. Someone suggested to Dr Nitschke that we should establish our own Humanist hospices. These hospices would run like any other hospice, with all effort being made to provide palliative care for the patients. But when the time comes, the patient's wishes would be taken seriously. This development may well prove the most significant thing to have come out of the Australis2000 congress. If that is the case, its place of honour will be assured. The NZARH has extended practical assistance to Dr Nitschke by offering space at Rationalist House where he may conduct clinics for clients.
Another interesting speaker on the voluntary euthanasia question was Mary Gallnor of the South Australian Voluntary Euthanasia Society, and immediate past president of the World Federation of Right to Die Societies. Gallnor agreed with Dr Nitschke that the political situation at the moment looks grim for voluntary euthanasia, but expressed a determination to continue the fight. She also outlined the current wording of the guidelines for someone being able to have the right to choose. They include:
One of the motions passed by the congress was to urge the governments of Australia and New Zealand to enact legislation permitting people the right to die.
Among the other issues given a hearing included Jan Loeb Eisler on Female Genital Mutilation. Her talk on this was passionate and informed. It is thought that 100 million women have undergone genital mutilation around the world, 13,000 of them in the United States. Most of the countries where genital mutilation goes on are Muslim, and the practice exists now as a sunna, or religious obligation, despite there being no specific sanction for it in the Qur'an. Jan Loeb Eisler reported on ten countries in Africa which have passed laws prohibiting this barbaric practice, but went on to say that in most cases the laws have been ineffective as they have forced the practice underground, thus worsening the risks posed to the young girls who are mutilated in this way. One country to stand out at present is Egypt, which is making a reasonably consistent effort in a programme called New Horizons to banish the practice and, more importantly, to educate the people among whom it is practised. Female genital mutilation is usually carried out by women for a variety of historical, religious and cultural reasons, often rather vaguely understood.
The solution here is simple and complicated at the same time. Education, education, education. Postmodernists here will shrug and say something about not presuming to tell another culture how to go about its business. But that is intellectual and moral cowardice. No progress could ever be made if people were not prepared to judge the practices of another culture, find them wanting, and seek to persuade them to change their ways. The crucial point, of course, is that there can be no compulsion; this struggle can only be won by better ideas. The struggle to outlaw and render obsolete female genital mutilation is a battle between Humanist principles of science, medicine, individual rights, gender equality over primitive religio-cultural superstitions and prejudices. Postmodernists and others who consider our world view old-fashioned should recognise that their 'sophistication' comes at the expense of a sickening lack of compassion for the suffering of others.
Several other issues were discussed intelligently at Australis2000, including drug addiction, problems with illiteracy, and sexuality. Vern Bullough, the veteran American scholar of sexuality criticised the popular work Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus for giving an altogether too simplistic account of gender differences. Division between genders is considerably more plastic than this book allows, he said.
And finally, there were some thoughtful addresses by Rationalist and Humanist activists. Ian Ellis-Jones, current president of the NSW Humanists and of CAHS is a valuable catch for Humanism in Australia. Intelligent and compassionate, he is keen to retrieve Humanism from the margins that it finds itself relegated to at present. He stressed that people like being irrational, and that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with being irrational. He disputes whether reason and logic will prevail. Humanists need to appeal to the heart as well as the head, and with this in mind, he lamented the lack of ritual in the movement.
This is all very well, but seems to me to be attacking straw men. No Rationalist or Humanist I have ever met wants reason and logic 'to prevail'. It misses the point to see the situation as a losing battle between cold logic and warm irrationality. It is not an either/or struggle. The point about Rationalism is that we value the process of reason and work to improving this feature of ourphysiological inheritance. We also want to allow our rationality its deserved place in determining matters which others leave to sentiment, tradition, prejudice, habit or authority. As 1 said to Ellis-Jones after his talk, 1 am a monarchist, and it's difficult to be more irrational than that. 1 make no attempt to justify my commitment to the monarchy on rational lines. It is a purely emotional attachment. 1 don't see this as in any way compromising my commitment to Rationalism. What my rationality does is to act as the golden mean, keeping my various irrationalisms in check, and thus making me a better person, a person more able to respond to others and to the world in a realistic and compassionate way.
And finally, it simply has to be recorded. Where but in Humanism could you find a dedicated activist who cheerfully talks over the speaker, distracts the audience by waving a tatty sign advertising the NSW Humanists behind the speaker, and has conversations on her cell-phone (which rings to the tune of Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries) while sessions are in progress? And then, in one of her two allotted speaking slots, has us blow up balloons? There is something endearing about a movement which can accommodate such eccentricity, although 1 admit that 'endearing' was not the word on my lips at the time. There's hope yet.
As is always the case, there were many other speakers at this congress and this article could be extended almost indefinitely to mention them all, but this summary helps gives a flavour of the event. On the one hand Australis2000 was not that well organised, made poor use of the big names, and permitted too many poor speakers. On the other hand a small group of people, who already have families and jobs, worked themselves into the ground in their own time and successfully brought some of the biggest names in international humanism to Sydney. No, not perfect, but human. It's now up to us to convert the talk into action.
Bill Cooke represented the NZ Association of Rationalists & Humanists at the Australis2000 southern regional congress of the IHEU.